Thursday, April 26, 2007

Now The Trumpet Summons Us Again

Within the board game community, Twilight Struggle was one of the biggest hits of last year, winning not only a Charles S. Roberts award, but also the International Gamers Award and BoardGameGeek Golden Geek Award trophies for both Best Wargame and Best Two Player game. Clearly this game had something going for it, and yet I’d managed to miss playing it several times. Fortunately, Ted and Christina own it, and Gwen was interested in trying it out, so we finally borrowed their copy and gave it a try last night. We started a little on the late side, and we were both a bit tired, so we only made it through the first three out of ten turns, completing the Early War phase. However, only an extremely lucky roll on my part kept Gwen from achieving automatic victory on that turn, so I consider it a fairly complete play.

As a fan of GMT’s card-driven series, I was inclined to like Twilight Struggle, and the relative simplicity of the rules certainly helped draw me in. Knowledge of the card list is a very important part of successful play, which is really my only knock against card-driven games in general. Much as in Magic: The Gathering, the basic rules are extremely light, but you’ve got to know how the cards are going to change them in order to play well. I was also a bit surprised how hard of a time the US player has it at the beginning of the game, but in hindsight I shouldn’t have been. I knew that my role was simply to weather the Soviet storm until the mid-to-late game, but I didn’t really how much of an onslaught it was going to be. I’m going to be playing this one again. While Gwen did enjoy it, the time factor may keep the two of us from playing it much. Fortunately, I’m heading up the GMT Weekend on tomorrow for much wargaming, so I may be able to sit down with this one again very soon.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

You Can't Always Get What You Want

I think, after five episodes of Primetime Adventures, that we’re finally figuring things out. Before Tuesday’s game, we reviewed the section on conflict (specifically, on what conflicts are in this system), and I know that helped me. One thing I finally got clear on is that conflicts in PTA are about Protagonist wants. That means my job as the Producer is to know what people want and to put interesting obstacles in front of them. (Yes, this seems obvious in hindsight, but it’s not the case for all games.) This, combined with the fact that we’re far enough into the season that people seem to have a good idea of what their characters want, meant that last night’s game was full of interesting conflict. And even better (from my point of view at least), I finally managed to drain some of that pesky Fan Mail away from the players. Of course, I didn’t win a single conflict during that process, but that’s fine with me.

Overall, I felt like the session built on the groundwork we’d laid in previous episodes and established a momentum that will carry us through the rest of the season. And next week is Roy’s spotlight episode. Woot.

Monday, April 23, 2007

I Need More Power!

There are some games that I'm not very good at and that I don't enjoy losing (e.g. Reef Encounter). On Saturday, I played one that I'm not very good at and don't mind losing: Power Grid. Power Grid is one of our circle's favorite light-heavyweight games, and it comes to the table quite often. I usually end up playing something else that I have a better chance at winning, but this time, as it was the only thing being played, I joined in a five-player game. I wouldn't say that we were tremendously hardcore, but when Mike bought a particular powerplant, we all knew the game well enough to know that he had won. Despiting finishing last, I felt good about my play. I don't feel like I made any particularly grave mistakes, and I enjoyed myself. I think the key difference between Power Grid and Reef Encounter that allows me to enjoy the former is that Power Grid has very little player downtime. With Reef Encounter, I feel like after my turn I can leave the table for thirty minutes, but in a game of Power Grid, because of the turn structure I'm involved the whole time. That, as it turns out, it important to me.

Amazingly, this was the first time I'd played the Germany board. All of my other plays had been on the US side.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Goes Down Smooth

This week’s Primetime Adventures episode had what I like to call “that laid-back awesome feeling.” There weren’t tons of conflicts, and the action was relatively low-key. The show was mostly about people talking to each other. And yet, it rocked. We had Roy enjoying his momentary successes but setting himself up for a fall. We had Christina finding out more about what had happened to her and what is really going on, but not yet making strong decisions about what’s going to happen. And we had Ted feeling out possible avenues for the plot to go but not charging hard down any of them yet. We were definitely feeling the flow of the season and using it to our advantage.

One thing that we’ve all noticed about the game is that I keep having Budget left over. My initial comment was that this meant the players needed to be going harder after conflicts. I’m now thinking that the problem may be that I’m too accepting of what the players suggest. I’m tempted to say that this is an overreaction to my improv classes. That might be true, but I want to make sure that I don’t accidentally block by saying yes when someone wants me to say no. There’s a great example of this in Carol Hazenfield’s Acting On Impulse.

Alice is preparing to undergo a medical procedure performed by Bob.
Alice: (worried) Is this going to hurt?
Bob: Yes.
Alice: (even more concerned) Have you done this before?

The correct thing for Bob to say is no. Alice is making the offer that the scene be about Alice’s fear of the procedure. If Bob says yes, he’s denying that. Sometimes, yes means no.

What I need to do a better job of is being clear on what opposition the players want and playing it hard. I’ve got a pretty good idea for Roy (as he made things very clear at the end of the last episode), but I need to think further about the other two.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Beach Con 2: Electric Boogaloo

This weekend, in a tradition we started last year, Ryan and Sarah invited a group of like-minded gamers down to “the beach house” in Huntington Beach. Much gaming ensued. I had to miss most Saturday because of a longform improv workshop (at which we played Werewolf, interestingly enough), but I did manage to get in a few games. On the RPG side of things, I ran a single-episode game of Hero’s Banner, which I’ve wanted to try since GenCon last year. Despite some initial missteps, it ended up working out well. Our primary mistake was in not realizing the potential danger of putting all of the characters together. The result was that Ted’s character didn’t really have a story to tell, as he soon discovered that his Influences didn’t match up with what was going on in everyone else’s action. This sort of danger exists in any game, but because of Hero’s Banner’s mechanics, it was particularly problematic. We also had a few pacing difficulties, but that’s par for the course in games with pre-set endgame mechanics (cf. My Life with Master, Polaris). Still, it was a fun time. I’ll be talking more about it on the next episode of the Voice of the Revolution.

On Sunday morning, Gwen and I played a few games of Hive while we were waiting for everyone else to wake up. Gwen must have still been asleep, as I actually won the first two games. By the time we finished a seven-race game of Odin’s Ravens, a few folks were up and moving around, but before the games got started in earnest, I had time to teach three people R-Eco. I enjoyed all three of these, and I think they all have excellent strategy-to-time ratios.

A good chunk of my Sunday was taken up with finishing the Hero’s Banner game we’d started the night before, but I did get to play a game of The Pillars of the Earth with the copy I’d picked up at Endgame the previous weekend. I liked this game when I played (in German) at BGG.CON last fall, and I was pleased to discover that I still enjoy it. Despite being the only player not to fall victim to “the tyranny of the bag,” I finished a distant last. I had a good time though, and I want to get this to the table a lot more now. We finished the weekend with a game of Alhambra, which I played for the first time only two months ago. I understood the game much better this time around, and I ended up running away with the game. I’m curious to see how well I actually understand the strategy, so hopefully I’ll find some excuse to bring this out again soon.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Letting The Awesome Flow Like Wine

In the aftermath of our successful pilot, our Primetime Adventures show, Terroir, got picked up for a first season of nine episodes. Last night was the second these (the first was two weeks ago, which I somehow forgot to write about), and it’s already really cooking. One of my weaknesses as a gamemaster has been my inability to do what I call “medium-term” games. I have plenty of experience running one-shots, and I’ve run a number of successful games that have gone 16+ sessions. However, I have trouble with games that fall in between those extremes. One of my resolutions for this gaming year (the gamer year begins at GenCon) was to work on games in the five to nine session length. Thus far I’ve been moderately successful, and the PTA game is showing that progress. One of the things I’ve learned is that if I come up with something cool, I should do it right way. I shouldn’t put cool things off until “the right time” just because I don’t know what will happen afterward. As a result, I’m starting to make the transition from aggressive scene framing to aggressive pacing. Last night was a great example of that, as at least three cool plot threads came out of scenes near the beginning of the episode that ordinarily I would have held until later in the session. These then provided fuel for even cooler scenes later in the episode. (For reference, those were Julian’s confrontation with Steve, leading to his initiation; Andy’s job offer from the Dodgers, leading to his tentative reconciliation with Claire; and Lena’s encounter with Bacchus, leading to her tentative breakup with Nick.)

After the last two sessions, we’ve talked about how quickly everyone has “brought the awesome” to this game. I’m realizing that one of the tricks to running games of this length is not waiting for the awesome to emerge. The players and I all need to be pushing for conflicts and character changes early on, as the results of those shakeups make the game more exciting earlier. We don’t have to know what the game is eventually going to be about; we just have to do stuff now and see what happens.

Monday, April 02, 2007

The Nerdliest Place On Earth

This weekend was the first Nerdly Beach Party, a gathering of like-minded gamers at San Simeon State Park, just north of Cambria, CA. This may be the only organized gaming event I attend this year were I traveled less far than the majority of the participants. There ended up being fourteen of us: three from the Bay Area, two from Sacramento, three from Santa Barbara, and six from Los Angeles. We mostly each other, so it was much more a social gathering than a convention. Still, games were played, and that’s what I’m here to talk about.

On Friday night, four of us started a Polaris game. Two of us had played Polaris before, and I had played with each of the other players in other games, but this was the first time any of the other players had gamed with each other. It’s a testament to the ritual power of Polaris that even though it had been a year since I last played and I hadn’t reviewed any of the rules that I still remembered all of the key phrases (and most of the mechanics). We played for several hours (I have no idea how many exactly), stopping for the night after three of our number had made Veteran. We actually got to that point fairly quickly, due to aggressive Experience checks and some good rolling. We picked up the game again the following evening and finished it off reasonably quickly, with three characters dying (one of them at Weariness four), and the remaining character becoming a demon, symbolically unseating the Solaris Knight in the process. (There was incest too. Ben would be proud.)

In general, the first night’s episode was very over the top, due no doubt to a general lack of sleep and the presence of alcohol. We mostly reined things on the second night (with the exception of Ryan, who went hell-bent for leather to demonhood), with what I felt was a corresponding increase in thematic focus. One of the problems I have with short games of Polaris is that the pacing often feels weird. In our case, we had a ridiculous amount of corruption going on before the characters made Veteran, and then it slowed down considerable afterward. It did lead to an interesting conclusion though, as the Remnant had essentially fallen to the Mistaken long before the end of the game, and the final conflict involved the last of Knights leading an army of demons to claim the city from the other demons who had already subverted it. This game also made me appreciate how much the shared Fate of the characters can influence play. In this instance, it was Idea: Children, and we all hit the familial aspects of our character’s stories hard. It ended up being very different from my previous experiences with the game, which only increases my desire to play it again.

Between the two halves of the game, I played in a one-shot of Full Light, Full Steam, Josh’s game of steam-driven Victorian action. Despite its apparent complexity, it’s actually pretty simple. Once I figured out how the scrip system worked (which is FLFS’s mechanic for know when you can end a scene), I had a great time with it. Thematic Batteries are yet another excellent variation on the Spiritual Attributes/BITs/Muses/Keys/Aspects concept, and I liked how they drove play. Much as Spirit of the Century is all about Aspects, FLFS is all about Thematic Batteries. I’ll go into this in greater detail when I talk about it on the show, but the more I think about it, the more I’m coming to believe that FLFS might work better for my style of pulp than SotC. (Let the flames begin.)

So, I didn’t get to play anywhere near as many games as I had hoped, but I had a ton of fun hanging out with the folks there. We’re already talking about doing it again in six months.