The Tao of Gaming

Boardgames and lesser pursuits

2020 (Gaming) Year in Review

leave a comment »

I didn’t play many board games this year, obviously.

Quarters — Bridge, 1862

Dimes — The Crew, Mottanai, Jump Drive, 1846, Res Arcana

There were no nickels. (Mage Knight got 4 plays, partially due to burnout but mainly because my gaming table is now my work table and its a pain to move everything). All told I played 30 different titles.

Written by taogaming

January 4, 2021 at 12:13 am

Posted in Summary

Tagged with

Another new, yet very old auction

leave a comment »

(The second in a not-really-series).

Playing online, I pick up a typical (weak) 1NT opening:

S:xx H:AKx D:Axxx C:xxxx (ish)

So I open 1NT. And partner wheels out an unexpected bid — 3 Hearts.

What is that? In the olden days, that was a five card suit and choice of games or slammish. Nowadays Jacoby transfers handle the choice of games … although I had been thinking that making 3H mean “5 card suit slammish” is likely better than most systems.

In fact, which playing with new partners, I don’t normally bother filling out what 1N-3x means (with the exception that 3C should be Puppet Stayman). I haven’t heard this auction in a while, and I don’t know what it means. If I’ve discussed it, its so long that I can’t remember. Partner is in DC, and so may play some variant of Washington Standard, which I think makes this a 3=1=(54) forcing bid. But since I’m not sure and I don’t think its just hearts, I’m going to punt and bid 3NT. This gets doubled by my LHO.

Partner bids 4 Hearts. If he’s doing that with a stiff heart I think I’m going to make him play it as punishment for torturing me with an undiscussed auction. I pass and LHO doubles again. Partner doesn’t pull, so I guess he really has hearts. I pass and while he plays it he shows up with:

S: Axxxx H: Jxxxxx D: x C: x

I still don’t know what’s going on. Only hours later do I realize …. early on I learned (and still play with most people) that 3 Hearts is 5-5 in the majors, invitational. But its been probably a decade since I’ve seen that, even though I play it with most partners. The good news (from my perspective) is that four hearts doubled is that good place to be.

But A near-year of not even looking at a convention card is showing, I think.

Written by taogaming

December 23, 2020 at 5:02 pm

Posted in Bridge

What new computer games are you playing?

with 20 comments

I’ve done ~100 runs of Hades and its now where I make a run every other day or so, and slowing down. Polygon named it game of the year, and I can’t argue with that… for my computer game of the decade I think Slay the Spire edges out Factorio, just because its more of a Pringles game (“one more run”) and has a natural stopping point. Factorio needs more flow than I have right now … whenever I stop for a day I don’t really want to reload the factory and continue. Hades could be a third, but its a distant third. (But it edges out games like Civ IV and many others).

So — as I have some vacation — any other games worth trying/playing?

Written by taogaming

December 19, 2020 at 10:01 am

Goodbye 2020 — Don’t let the links hit you on the way out

I play a fairly complicated bidding system in Bridge, but I’ve never been able to wrap my head around relay systems and control scanning bids, where one hand takes control and asks a question, with the answers encoded into steps. (Control scanning bids have you bid out number of Aces and Kings and then use bids to pinpoint where they are). Even if I understood said systems, I wouldn’t play them. I’ve been known to give the wrong answer to Blackwood (or the simply shortness-encoding splinters I play) more often than I care to admit. But I did like seeing Kit Woolsey and Bart Bramley use relays and scans to get an OK but touchy grand slam and then find a nice line to make it.

Here are 50 written languages. Can you spot the fakes?

The Great (Lego) Wave off Kanagawa (inspired by the famous woodprint).

The go-to guide for not getting murdered in a quaint English village.

When commissioned to paint a Soviet-style Cookie Monster on a building in Peoria, how many questions do you ask? Was one of them “Hey, do you actually own this building?” Me neither.

For your “How its done” pleasure — A video of traditional Japanese Wood Joinery

I’ve seen some strange dance pieces by Yoann Bourgeois, but the fragments of this dance (set to Mozart’s Requiem) astounded me –the set design and lighting made this surreal, as though people were floating from the sky to the ground. I wasn’t sure what was going on until they showed the practice…and here’s his instagram page …. “Sometimes my work consists of catching dancers who want to fall into the orchestra pit.”

(H/T to for several of these)

Written by taogaming

December 16, 2020 at 8:37 pm

Posted in Linky Love

Followups to recent posts

Played another unexciting game of Beyond the Sun. On the trade pile.

Hades further thoughts:

I “finished” the base game (got the end credits) although there are still many quests to go on. (It took about 60 runs, but again — easy mode was turned on after 20). I did not mention before, excellent music. Eurydice’s song (“Good Riddance”) and the end credit music (“In the Blood“) are haunting. I will be checking out further music by Ashley Barrett. My offhand comment about the economics working does appear to have broken down — at this point some currencies are basically worthless. (Literally the next run after I wrote this, a new way to spend said currency appears).

Written by taogaming

November 21, 2020 at 9:06 pm

Posted in Ramblings

Tagged with ,

Easy Mode in Games — Video, Board, and Bored

Iain’s comment on my Hades review had a line that jumped out at me: “I haven’t yet resorted to God mode.” (God mode, in Hades, means “Easy”). I’ve long since made my peace with playing video games on — if not easy mode, then at least a difficulty I enjoy. For Slay the Spire, after beating the maximum difficulty (Ascension 20) on three of the four characters, I decided to just play at Ascension 15. I have a win rate around 15-20%, so its still quite difficult, but whenever I won Asc 20 I felt like I’d lucked into a super combo (and often got the easiest bosses with that combination).

A few days ago I managed to pull off four wins in a row at Asc 15 (one with each character). Exciting!

For me, that’s my level of interest in Slay the Spire. For Hades, Easy mode is my level of interest. (For Iain, it is not). Board games also have this as well. Many people play chess (or bridge, or Scrabble, or Gloomhaven…) well, at vastly different levels. But they still enjoy it. The Golfer fated to never break 100 (or 120) fundamentally enjoys the game, possibly more than the player struggling to break 80. Or they give it up, as I mostly did, although the urge is growing).

I gave up (tournament) Chess after realizing that making expert would take me years of wearisome grinding. I didn’t give up Bridge after making the same realization. In both cases, I made my pick and enjoyed the result.

In board games, I often do play in hard mode. I picked up 18xx after bankrupting my first few games and losing the next dozen or two. That made me want to see what I was doing wrong. It was exciting.

The first difference between a world class musician and the palooka is that the master probably enjoys the thousands of hours practice. It makes putting in the time possible. I enjoy ‘putting in the time’ in games to differing levels. I don’t count my time reading hundreds of bridge books (and magazines) as a waste. Even if I didn’t achieve world class talent.

But the tone-deaf guitarist may still enjoy the instrument, even if his fingers and ears don’t let him play well.

No real point, just reminding myself (one again) that we are here for our shared enjoyment of the game, and for board games we’re likely on the extreme end of spectrum of enjoyment. So let’s not scoff at others who may just play pickup chess games without any study, or who look at us askew if we play the same game 100s of times after they’ve “fully explored it” in two.

And, as you would be kind to others, play on easy mode if you want. Or embrace hard mode. Whatever you enjoy.

Written by taogaming

November 16, 2020 at 8:00 pm

Posted in Ramblings

Tagged with ,


Based on the recommendation of Iain Cheyne (and others). I picked up Hades on steam last weekend. It’s quite good. Nor Slay the Spire good, but still decent in its own way. (Note — the opening video/anime is not game play, but it gives a good idea of the story).

Both games are basically a “rogue-like” game with a very limited choice of which floor to go to to complete an Act. StS shows you a map so you can plot your path, Hades simply shows you possible rooms after you clear each level. But the big difference is combat. StS uses a dominion-like card game and Hades is (sigh) a button masher. Run around the screen and hit, shoot, ask for help from the Gods, reload (double-sigh), etc.

I’m sure if you are good enough there’s a lot of skill there. I’m not.

But Hades makes up for this with several clever ideas:

  1. When you slay the spire (or not), your game is done. There are some meta-levels (as you learn the game more cards and artifacts will be available for you next run, but its a new game. In Hades, when you die not only do you now know a bit more, you often get a little stronger. You can keep some of the loot you got and spend it to become tougher. If you are a wimp like me, you can play with “God mode” where the mere act of dying also makes you tougher (damage resistance). (I turned on God Mode after 20 runs of not getting through the first act …. it then took me about 20 more runs to actually get through a run).
  2. The story reveals itself across multiple deaths. As you get more into the run you’ll meet new people and slowly discover their stories. Its an admittedly minor part of the game, and the twists are not necessarily huge shocks, but its incredibly well done. There’s lots of voice acting and comments. When you die Hypnos (the “greeter”) will make a relevant comment about the opponent, and you (Zagreus) will often make a snide reply. You bicker with your father (Hades), pet Cerebrus, load up for the next run and go again. The voice acting is good …. Mrs. Tao loves the voice of Zagreus a bit too much
  3. The humor works. There are a lot of jokes so far that made me chuckle and sometimes even laugh.
  4. As I mentioned I ‘beat’ the game after about 40 runs (probably 30-40 hours), but there’s still (judging from what I can see) a ton of content. One nice thing (especially compared to slay the spire) is that as you get further the opening act starts introducing new elements, so it stays fresher than I expected. (Once you beat the game you also have the option of voluntarily upping difficult for faster advancement, which I don’t think I’ll do yet).
  5. There are several nice pieces of music in the game, and I suspect at least some of them matter for the story. (Orpheus is a character).
  6. While it is a button masher, there’s a fair amount of decision making. Often you can pick which reward you want, and many of the big ones are “boons from the gods” and you’ll try to get a good synergy going. In fact, good players can win a fresh game on the first run (on hard mode!) because they know which synergy to pick and mash buttons much better than your humble narrator.
  7. Thematically? Excellent. You are trying to escape Hades, so if you fail, well, back you go to Tartarus and try again. The Greek setting works well (sometimes you are literally forced to pick which God you will side with, angering the other god for a bit). In The House of Hades (between ‘runs’ of trying to escape) you’ll talk to characters, but they also talk to each other realistically …. well, at least not as clunky as most games (and some major movies). For only having a few sentences every few runs, you get a good feeling for who is who. This is a huge game to download, no doubt mostly due to graphics, but I suspect those audio files take up a good chunk.

Anyway, even after having “won” I expect I’ll be playing (on easy mode) for a while, just to see how the story plays out (and yes, unlock achievements). Will I get to 1500 hours like Slay the Spire? Doubtful. But before I started I figured I likely wouldn’t get to 100 and now I think that over the Holidays I may wind up playing a run or two a day. (Even my ‘winning’ run took a touch under an hour. My earlier runs were obviously much faster, as I died in act I).

Other notes:

  • There are a few places where I missed a useful control, but sometimes the characters will point them out in game. The tutorial is nicely integrated (and delivers points in small doses). The game will does define terms (so if a Boon “causes you to Chill after you Cast”, both ‘Chill’ and ‘Cast’ will have small popups as well, showing the relevant controls to mash and effects.
  • There are a lot of options. Six weapons (I think), lots of gods each with their own boons (and punishments!), dozens of monsters. As you defeat more acts, you get more and more stuff to decide how to spend. Which weapon to improve? Where to spend your power accumulated from the run? Damage reduction, or perhaps more money that can be spent during the run? Who will you give the nectar to, in order to befriend them? (Eventually you’ll get enough power/nectar etc, but then you discover more goods you need).

Rating Suggest

Written by taogaming

November 15, 2020 at 12:48 am

The Giorgio Duboin Bridge Cheating Scandal

BridgeWinners has posted a summary of the evidence against Giorgio Duboin in recent online play. There are also links to the full hand records and analysis by several world class players. (The full report is here).

The one nice thing about online bridge is that it facilitates these kind of analysis into “Suspicious” and “Anti-suspicious” deals. (A suspicious deal is one where you make an abnormal decision that works out much better than suspected, whereas an anti-suspicious deal is one where the abnormal decision’s punishment works out even more poorly than normal). The methodology was to look at G.D.’s play when kibitzers were allowed (and he therefore may have been able to login with a second ID to see the layout or have an accomplice do that and relay the info) and when no kibitzers were allowed.

I haven’t read the full report, but even the summary seems damning with solid methodology and reporting, but perhaps gamers with more experience in this field will have a different opinion.

Written by taogaming

November 7, 2020 at 5:33 pm

Posted in Bridge

Tagged with

Beyond the Sun

My quest to find my next minor addiction — enough to last a month or two of pandemic time — advanced with the arrival of Beyond the Sun. Pre-release buzz had been … well, I don’t know. I don’t follow buzz much. It had reached people who I do talk with, and those people thought this game was “in the sphere” so I ordered a copy and awaited its arrival.

As of now I’ve played two 2p games.

It’s traditional to narrow a game down to an elevator pitch. “<New game> is <Old Game X> + <Old Game Y>.” Good enough for movie pitches, easy to understand. Right now I can’t quite put together a pitch. My first thought was “This is like Caylus but instead of having the houses owner get a bonus when other people use it, you have apartment buildings and you can’t even use an action until you rent an apartment.”

Not helpful. I guess for my elevator pitch other half reminds me of Through the Ages in that you have a resource mat of discs that track how many resources (cubes) you can generate per turn. As you spend discs (either through automation technologies or putting them on systems) you can gather more cubes (or ore) with a single production action. The cubes are actually dice, but they aren’t rolled. You change their face to indicate if they are in supply, a person, or a ship of value 1-4.

So I guess my BTS elevator pitch is “It’s Caylus meets Through the Ages” (because of cube management) or “It’s Caylus meets Eclipse” (because of tech trees and space ships colonizing systems).

BTS (The game, not the K-Pop band) is vaguely worker placement, but you only have one worker. He moves around, but workers block each other, limited action spaces, etc etc. There is also a tech tree, those are the Caylus apartments. The base actions let you get people/ore/ships and move your ships to nearby systems. One action lets you research a new tech, which costs you a person for the rest of the game, and that may:

  • Open up more efficient actions
  • Provide an immediate bonus (people/ships/ore)
  • Let you bend a rule for the rest of the game

Or some combination.

A separate board has a small map of systems (each system is a card). Once a player has ships in a system they claim it (and get a bonus) until another player gets more force. This isn’t war, ships never destroy each other. Just area control.

One of the level 1 technologies also lets you colonize a system assuming you have the minimum number of ships (normally 3-5). Those ships are placed back into your supply, excess ships (from any player) are moved to deep space where they can move to another system. Colonizing a system gives you a bigger claiming bonus and a fair chunk of VPs.

The four “Level 1” techs are the same. A player can research the next level (there are 4) when they have all of they prerequisites (on the directed graph of a board). The player researching an unknown technology chooses the type of the technology (military/economic/commercial/scientific) and gets two possible technology cards of that type, and then selects one that is discovered. A new technology (for Levels II and III) also flips up a random event, with some of the event being the same in each game (unlocking new base action spaces) and some being from a deck.

So this means that for any given game the tech tree will look very different. The initial dealing of the four base technologies (one of each type) lead to a different places. For example, one of the Level I boxes has a direct connection to Level III (which still requires the research a level three action, so it will take a while).

A turn is simple: take an action, produce (either people, ore, or take a trading production, which lets you convert at various ratios) and possibly claim an achievement. There are four achievement cards in each game, and two of them are the same (Colonize four systems, claim your first Level IV technology).

When 4 achievements in total (3 in a 2p game) are claimed, you finish the round and have one more round and score.

After two games, my primary thought is that BtS does a great job hiding what the game is about. You have this main board that’s a complicated tech tree, and one achievement is “Get a Level IV tech” … if you are the first person to do that you get four points for the tech + four for being the first to achieve it.

An average colony gives you four points, uses two discs, and gets you the colonization bonus. Four colonies gets you the colony achievement, so four colonies is 24-ish VP. The average score appears to be around the high forties.

So — you win this game by colonizing systems. That’s fine, but it certainly appears to be the sub-game of the tech-tree, and not vice versa. Nothing wrong with that, but unexpected. In two games we’ve had a single Level IV tech researched, and it was in the final action of a game, so had no impact other than points. The strategy guide mentions colonies as a focus, but spends a few bullet points on “each game will be different based on which technologies show up and their configuration.”

Frankly, the technologies don’t differ much. They are mostly “gain resources” or “convert resources.” The level IVs do have more game changing rules, but are basically just special VP scoring things.

The gameplay differences are because one game may see many military techs and few commercial techs (or some variant) which would change the relative cost of various actions. This is because when a tech has two prerequisites, it may take the color of either prerequisite. So, the player unlocking a new tech square controls which type of tech gets the box, as well as any decisions the random event may have.

So, to summarize: Worker Placement. Limited resources (cubes and ores) that need to be managed. Getting a tech unlocks an action but locks a cube. Most techs just handle how you convert ore to cubes and move around an area control map. Winning the area control map gives VP and provides some help for … cube production

So …. BTS would not be out of place in a setting of medieval merchants. The card titles do give a sci-fi flavor. “Android technologies” makes getting people cubes easier, but after three hours of gameplay I realized that if I called this “the best disguised JASE I’d seen in a while” I’d only be mildly unfair.

That’s not to say its bad. I’ll certainly play again, but I’ll be sure to warn new players about the fact that the game will end while the tech tree is only 70% done(ish) and to focus on the area control points (when in doubt).

If there are great depths to be explored in this game, they are well hidden to me. I’m sure optimizing the various conversions based on the techs (and fighting to control tech-unlocking to be able to influence them) is a fine, subtle game.

But I’m pretty sure I don’t care. It could certainly be that BTS shines with four players. In a worker placement game that would make sense. But it is also clearly a fixed-fun game. Caylus was worker placement and management, but it also had the cool “walking the road” bailiff mechanism. Through the Ages has tech and claiming and production, but there’s no game changing cards here. Nothing in BTS just gives me that “ooh, shiny!” feeling. The elevator pitch is correct, but its not pitching a mega-hit, its pitching a movie that will make back its money, do fine in the box office, but will never win an Oscar or even be a cult classic. I knew after two plays of Caylus (or Eclipse, or TtA) that there was a great game I wanted to explore.

Rating Indifferent-plus for a few more plays, but I suspect that will be falling down to indifferent. There is also an advanced game (that gives more differentiation between players) and an expert game that means that you have a bit more insight into which techs are going to appear.

Production Values — The game looks fine, and the player mats are pre-assembled thick cardboard with notches to hold disks & dice in place against minor jostling. You can see for yourself in the one minute boxing video. (A great idea …. most videos spend a minute on begging for likes/subscriptions/virtual whuffie).

I did have a bit of trouble telling the blue and green apart at a distance (I’m not colorblind) but it was 9pm in a not-greatly lit room. The rules were mostly fine, with one exception on “how to unlock some of the basic action spaces (covered by ‘guild tiles’)” It turns out that the events that show up in each game do that, but it wasn’t clear at all during our first play.

Update — The advanced play mats differentiate the players a bit more than the basic game (here each player gets an A/B condition which — when they fulfill — gives them a benefit, in the base game each player gets a mild difference. An extra ore/ship/etc). My 3rd game with expert rules and advanced mats did not feel noticeably different, just more ‘stuff’.

Written by taogaming

November 7, 2020 at 10:42 am

Posted in Reviews

Tagged with

Geeklinks for November 2, 2020

Wait, Senator Leahy has been in 5 Batman movies?

Who wants a multimedia story involving the weird future of football as seen from deep space probes, who are generally wondering what is up with humanity? You? Great! (Give it a few chapters). There’s a sequel (which is why I got alerted to the original a few weeks ago, but haven’t finished the sequel … but it does include the line following line…)

Now, the most common misconception about the Sun is that it’s a jolly goblin who helpfully pours raisins into your cereal. This is FALSE!….cereal boxes are responsible for a host of misconceptions but that one might be the most fundamentally wrong


A video on how bridges were built 500 years ago.

AI based robotic TV camera keeps focusing on bald lineman instead of soccer ball. (Video)

Fortnite’s anti-Apple ad based on 1984 (“Nineteen Eighty Fortnite“).

I don’t think this is the best headline ever … but “Escaped Cloned Female Mutant Crayfish Take Over Belgian Cemetery” certainly deserves to be in the conversation.

Why Pipe Organs Sound So Scary is an interesting video with sadly repetitive visuals mainly focusing on organs in movies. But I did learn that Bach’s Tocatta and Fugue in D-minor may not have been written by Bach.

I’ve been trying (and watching) many new video games, but honestly nothing has drawn me in, but I must admit I’m fairly burned out of Factorio and even Slay the Spire. (Among Us isn’t the sort of thing you can play by yourself). Any suggestions? (So I guess this is an open thread as well).

I read this blog on how to build a perfect connect 4 player, although not with enough effort to actually understand all the details. You can play against it.

Related — Human level performance in No-press Diplomacy via Equilibrium Search. Found thanks to Gwern)

And we have a late-breaking best headline entry! Russia’s ‘Sausage King’ killed with crossbow in surprise sauna attack. (The articles headline doesn’t quite match the picture on the front page).

Written by taogaming

November 2, 2020 at 5:48 pm

Posted in Linky Love

Tagged with