Welcome to Memoirs of a Board Gamer  Friday, July 31 2015 @ 07:23 PM EDT

Dos Rios Is A Time Capsule

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Late in 2005, I bought a copy of Dos Rios and in the summer of 2006, my daughter, twelve at the time, was ready to give it a shot. We set up the game on the hardwood floor in our family room, the sun shining in the side door, the ceiling fan blowing cool air on our heads, and both of us lying on our stomachs taking our lumps as the desperados attacked us along both rivers.

On one move, my daughter sat up and began pondering her next move. I grabbed my camera and took a couple quick shots. Later that week I unloaded the compact flash card (remember those big & clunky cards!) and after a couple of tweaks to the image, I uploaded a black and white image to the Dos Rios game on BGG.

The game was just okay, and I ended up trading it away a few days later. But the image began to get some attention and within a couple of weeks it had gathered quite a few thumbs and some tips.

After a few months I began to think about retaking the image but I knew I wanted to wait a year or two. Since I'd traded away the game, I quickly obtained another copy back in a second trade and put in on the shelf for safe-keeping.

Fast-forward three years (2009) and I pulled the game out and my daughter, fifteen at the time, help me set it up in much the same way and we recreated the shot. Again I uploaded it to the Dos Rios gallery and the image was immediately a big hit gathering almost 1000 "thumbs" and lots of tips.

Three years again passed, and I started receiving emails and comments on previous images that it was almost time for another image upload. So, in 2012, we again set up the game and recreated the shot.

In 2014, my daughter moved out to live with friends and to attend college. She lives here in town so we still get to see her often but finding time in her busy, adult life is much tougher than it used to be. She was recently visiting for her twenty-first birthday celebration and I twisted her arm, just a bit, to recreate the shot in 2015. Who knows if that will be the last one but, as a parent, it's sure been great seeing her mature over the years.

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Don't Quit Your Day Job

I've recently changed jobs and the change, although within the same industry, feels like Iíve changed careers. For the last seventeen years, Iíve been operating my own software consulting company hiring myself out to firms around the metro-Columbus area designing and implementing Java-based applications under long-term contract. However, in May, I took my first full-time gig since 1998 and now Iím working for ďthe manĒ as a Senior Enterprise Architect for one of the financial firms in the region. Itís a big change for me and Iím still adjusting.

My last contract was for a company here in Columbus that focuses on highly-specialized software for patent-discovery and patent-protection for the world-wide scientific community. The firm wrote the book on online chemical patent research. I was an employee there for nine years before I started my company and Iíve worked off and on for them over the years as a consultant. My last stint lasted over three and a half years and Iíll be the first to admit that the projects I worked on required some of the most intense, heads-down, computer science-based effort of my entire career. They wrote a lot of code to implement these niche scientific products and it really stretched your brain to wrap your head around some of the concepts.

As I wrapped up my project work before leaving, I managed to get in a few games with some of my colleagues and the table-talk gravitated to topics like ďweíre sure going to miss youĒ but one particular one caught my attention and has really stuck with me. One of my coworkers complimented me on my ability to organize complex topics, numerous data points, and a multitude of options, and my ability to boil it all down, decide on an architectural direction, and fluidly communicate that in non-technical terms to the business and in the same breath, in technical terms to developers.

My last week ended and although Iíve switched into my new role in a completely different domain (science to financial), I havenít stopped thinking about that comment. How have I been able to hone those skills without overtly trying? Iím not the type to spend my evenings working, catching up on the latest trends and software, testing the sharpness of the bleeding edge and all. Iíve chosen the work to live rather than the live to work lifestyle. However, There had to be something I do on a regular basis to strengthen those skills. You donít build muscle, albeit mental muscle, from sitting on the couch.

After some thought, Iím convinced my ability stems from years of playing board games. If you take a step back, and read through a run-of-the-mill rule book, say twelve pages of images, text, charts, and flavor text youíve pretty much describing what a set of requirements for a software project looks like. There are descriptions of scenarios the software must satisfy, interaction diagrams, charts of outcomes, performance requirements, and behavioral characteristics. Screenshots of user interfaces and minute details concerning data and timing of flow, and the order of operations all working towards a successful product goal.

As a software developer youíve got to be able to consume all of that data, organize it in such a way to discover the hidden patterns, tease out common behaviors in seemingly disparate concepts, design the order of operations, the timing of certain behaviors for success, etc. and youíve got to be able to quickly consume it and to be comfortable communicating your thoughts, desires, corrections, and challenges to incongruous information and scenarios.

As a gamer and teacher of games, these same skills translate directly into how I approach learning and teaching a new game. Youíve got new rules pouring over you like a waterfall and you need to quickly match patterns and categorize common themes to other games youíve played. You need to recognize inconsistencies in your beliefs of how the rules are holding together and question them to gain a complete understanding of the goal and the steps and their order to get there in the most efficiently means possible. As a teacher youíve got to consume lots of information and be able to reorder and regurgitate them in ways that your audience can consume them, making adjustments on the fly to how your students are absorbing the information.

I not sure what to make of this realization other than my hobby is helping me in my career in ways Iíve not readily been aware of in the past. Maybe itís helping me in other ways Iím unaware of too. Iím sure this is not particularly isolated to the computer science industry but it felt particularly apropos.

Have any of you had epiphanies of how gaming has helped or hurt your career?

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Review - Patchwork

As most of you already know, Iím always on the lookout for good two-player games. Patchwork has been on my list for a few months and Lisa was a champ working behind the scenes to pick up a copy for my birthday last month.

Patchwork is a strictly two-player game that feels like it belongs in the Kosmos suite of twoóplayer games. Designed in 2014 by Uwe Rosenberg (Agricola, At the Gates of Loyang, Bohnanza, Caverna, Le Havre, Merkator, Ora et Labora just to name a few), players compete to purchase patches of fabric to make the most valuable patchwork quilt. After only 15-30 minutes, the player who has earned the most buttons (victory points) is the winner.

Play begins with a central board where players track time. Surrounding that board is a ring of randomized Tetris-like pieces that represent the patches available for purchase. Cardboard chits depicting buttons represent both victory points and the currency in the game. Iíve replaced the chits with actual buttons though so donít get thrown off by that.

Taking a closer look at the time track, each player marks their position with a wooden disk and as the game progresses, players move their marker along the track. The game features a time-based mechanic so as players take turns they spend time (and money) to add patches to their quilt and like other games, the player that is the furthest back on the time track (Glen More) represents the player that takes the next turn. When a marker moves beyond a button, players earn money (score buttons) for their in-progress quilt. A small number of single-tile patches are up for grabs for the first player to pass them on the time track.

When a player takes a turn, they must choose one of two options: jump immediately ahead of the other player on the time track and earn buttons (money/VPs) -or- purchase a patchwork tile from the market. Within the ring of patches is a large wooden pawn representing the start of the market and players can purchase any of the next three patches. Unlike Morels, thereís no way to pay anything to reach farther ahead than those first three patches, so if you want to purchase one of them, you simply pay the cost and move the large pawn to the position of the patch establishing the new start of the market.

The purchased patch depicts a cost (in buttons) and a time cost (an hourglass) so players must evaluate both cost and time and how that relates to their movement on the track relative to the other player. In addition, players need to consider where the market is positioned when their turn ends.

Purchased patches (players pay in buttons) are placed on personal player board in whatever position is desired but once placed, they cannot be moved. Players then move their time marker forward on the time track the number of spaces depicted on the patch and if a single-tile patch is crossed, the player earns the patch (taking it from the time track and placing it immediately on their board) or if a button is passed, the player earns the number of buttons depicted on the patches on their in-progress quilt (in the image above the player would earn 5 buttons from the bank since there are 5 blue buttons sewn into the patchwork quilt so far).

The game ends when both playerís time marker reaches the center of the board. Players count their remaining buttons (the real ones not the ones on their quilt) and subtract two (!) for every empty spot on their quilt. The player with the highest number of remaining buttons wins the game. Iíll warn you, though, that those negative two points for each empty/uncovered spot really add up (or rather, really take away)!

Patchwork is an innovative game but very simple to teach and learn and the theme really resonates with gamers and non-gamers. Lisa and I will certainly be including it in our standard short-list of go-to two-player games. At 30 minutes, you can hardly go wrong. Patchwork provides just enough depth for a light evening of gaming and the small package is a great addition to a small stash of games to take on vacation. Pick up a copy and give it a try!

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Classic Blessings

I grew up in northern Indiana. My parents werenít gamers by any stretch of the imagination and still wonít even consider playing one. They did, however, buy an occasional Parker Brothers title as a Christmas present for me in the 70ís but it was always difficult to find anyone to play with. I have a sister but because sheís seven years older than I am, I think at the time, I was just playing the role of the younger brother and crimping her style.

There was one game, however, that my parents would play, and like most Midwesterner's, Euchre was king. I have fond memories of piling in the car and travelling the few hours south to my auntís and uncleís house for the weekend watching the four of them stay up late, drinking, talking, and playing cards at the kitchen table. Even today, a whiff of beer sometimes triggers strong memories of my uncle.

Most everyone in my high school knew how to play Euchre and it was definitely the go-to game people would play during study hall, at swim-meets waiting for your event, and at the overnight movie my school hosted. It was the game kids learned, or maybe more accurately, absorbed from their parents; we taught our kids long ago and weíve played a lot of rounds on vacations over the years. A deck of cards is something you just never left out of your travel bag and they most certainly wouldnít have been left behind on backpacking trips. It makes me feel good that even though my son enjoys Pathfinder, Arkham Horror, Magic, etc., he still enjoys playing Euchre with his friends.

Those timeless, classic games have an interesting way of weaving themselves into the fabric of our lives that itís difficult to remember who or how we learned them. You just donít see people picking Euchre off the shelf, grabbing a ďTeacher NeededĒ or ďPlayers WantedĒ flag and sitting down at a table to read the rules. You just know how to play or you donít and with so many new games flying off the shelves these days, grabbing an old classic card game and sitting down to learn it from the rules isnít something most people ever consider doing.

Learning a classic game is a much different experience than learning the most recent Essen release or the latest Kickstarter arrival. When someone sits down to teach you one of these games itís a much more intimate experience, a sharing of years of knowledge, a passing of information much like ancient cultures convey their history through story and parable. If you watch closely, you can even hear it in the way they speak in semi-hushed tones and see it in the shuffling of the cards, a muscle memory-driven activity, a welcoming and unlocking of years of shared and sometimes private memories and deeply held connections.

At my last Great Lakes Games convention, I had a transformative experiences while learning Cribbage. It was late and many people had already left the gaming room but I still wanted to keep going. Weíve all been there, knowing weíre sacrificing tomorrow for the hope of more today. I asked a friend if he could teach me Cribbage. I knew heíd grown up playing the game and he happily agreed but we needed to find a board and a deck of cards. Within minutes weíd located another friend whose face completely lit up when we mentioned what we were looking for. He immediately ran off to get his personal board which heíd had for years and when he returned he told us all about its history, where heíd gotten the pegs, etc. The physical components of the game immediately set the stage for this social connection between the three of us but more broadly, between all of our pasts, that connection to shared memories of uncles drinking beer, smoke curling up from a parentís cigarette, a rattling kitchen window fan struggling to cool the house on a hot summer night, hearing your mother laughing at a joke your father told - the both of them younger than you are now, an old friend pretending to be W.C. Fields using a pretzel rod as a substitute for a stogie, the sound of playing cards sliding against each other during an expertly-executed riffle & bridge.

At my last game night, after everyone left, I asked the host if we could play a round of Cribbage. He was my teacher four months ago and after rushing off to find his board, the first thing he did after setting up the board was to tell me its history, how it was his grandmotherís, how he just used finishing nails as pegs, and the story of how he was taught by a Korean War Hero who lived up the street from him when he was a kid. Those are the stories and experiences that define why I love this hobby. Teach your children and friends, pass on those stories and experiences. Weíll all be richer for it.

Review: Imperial Settlers - Solo Play

Iím always on the lookout for good two-player games and Imperial Settlers sits in an elevated position on my list. It plays well with higher numbers but for those inclined to AP or generally slow play, the down-time can really pull the life out of the game making it run two-three times longer than anticipated for a game like this. But when playing with two, you chop out most of the down-time, condensing the fun into a much tighter time-frame. In addition, the direct conflict features of the game become much more ďin your faceĒ as players only have one other player to attack. Take that!

I never paid much attention to solo variant (official or unofficial) but as the years go by, I find myself asking about solo variants more. At times, itís nice to pull out a game and play through a few sessions as a nice alternative to getting sucked into another night of mindless YouTube-ing or bad movies on Netflix.

Imperial Settlers is a card-drafting, resource management game where players take on the role of one of the variable power factions. At the beginning of each round players go through a drafting phase increasing the number of cards in hand.

Then players gather resources (e.g. wood, stone, people, swords, cards, apples and gold) and then, in turn, each player attempts to spend all their resources as efficiently as possible to attack other player's buildings (cards) and to build their own buildings. Buildings come in two flavors (common and faction) earning players 1 and 2 points respectively if remaining at the end of the game (not razed/attacked by other players).

In addition each common or faction building affords the builder addition goods each round, benefits for taking other actions, or the ability to activate them to generate other items, points, goods, etc.

Finally, each player has free access to a market to swap people for goods. Each faction comes with a special ability (e.g. keep as much gold as you want from round to round) and its own faction deck of building cards. Without special abilities afforded by built buildings, players must discard all unspent goods at the end of each round.

In the solo game, the player plays against a virtual player that attacks at the end of each round by flipping up two cards from an attack deck. The symbols on the deck determine which building the virtual player is attacking each round. The solo player cannot prevent the success of the attack.

Your goal as a solo player is to try to build more faction cards in your settlement tableau than the virtual player (he gets two every round during the card drafting phase and gets to keep those unless the solo player attacks and razes them). Thatís not terribly difficult so the solo play is really more about seeing how many points you can earn in the 5 rounds of the game.

The solo game flies by and you can churn through the 5 rounds in 15-20 fun-filled minutes. Iíve played solo roughly a dozen times and still find fun in the experience. Each faction plays a little differently but in my experience, even with the same faction, scores can vary wildly from one game to the next depending on which cards you draft. If you have a copy, give the solo game a try. I donít think Iíd go out of my way to pick up a copy strictly for solo play but if itís sitting there on the shelf, why not?

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Review: The Great Heartland Hauling Co.

Last November, a member of my game group, picked up a copy of The Great Heartland Hauling Co. from the prize table of a convention we were attending. On the way back from the table, he had several people mention to him that although nobody had taken the game up to that point in the prize giveaway, that it really was a great little game. After the convention he took it home and played a couple times and brought it to game night to share and Iíve got to completely agree.

Heartland Hauling packs a huge amount of game in the little VHS tape-sized box. Players take on the role of a trucking company in this pick up and deliver, set collection game. Each player starts with some money (marked by the position of a cube on a personal card) and each turn you first must move your truck from one card (a city) in the common tableau (map) to another card. You perform this action by either playing ďgasĒ cards from your hand *or* paying money from your personal card (move your cube back). Once you arrive at your location, you can either pick up goods (load your truck) or deliver goods (unload your truck), or discard cards for $1. There are four types of goods available, beans & corn, and pigs & cows. There are less pig & cow cards in the deck but theyíre worth more (usually) when you deliver so it can be a bit of gamble to focus on them too much.

Cubes are loaded by paying matching cards from your hand and you pick up cubes setting on the card and put them into your truck (placing them on your personal "truck" card). Cubes are delivered in much the same way, by discarding matching cards from your hand. After performing your action, you refill your hand back up to five cards from blind draws and/or from a face-up tableau of three cards. Delivering cubes pays out money (move up your money cube) based on the values shown on the card. Cities (cards) produce specific kinds of good and only accept two kinds of goods at various prices so youíll want to find the most efficient way to travel around on the map to pick up and deliver goods to the cities that pay the most for your goods.

The first player to earn a specific amount of money (based on the number of players) triggers the end game and then all other players get one more turn. Players receive negative points for ending the game with undelivered goods still in their truck and the player with the largest amount of money at game end wins.

Iíve played with the entire range of players (2-4) and it scales really well. Lisa and I have been having a blast playing it with two. For us, it scratches about the same itch as Morels does but itís a bit more gamey. It's a fast-paced race to earn points (money), but as players get near the end-game trigger, there can be a lot of finagling with spending money rather than playing fuel cards in a mad dash to unload remaining goods without triggering the end game until one is really ready to. A lot of that ability depends on the cards. So, donít expect to be able to be in complete control of your destiny as getting lucky on card draws can be *very* nice or *very* painful!

All in all, Heartland Hauling is a great little game and itís firmly taken a strong position in our go-to 2-player line-up.

Cabin Con 2015

My favorite ďconĒ, Cabin Con 2015, is over and the long wait until 2016 has begun. We purposefully schedule the con to coincide with the Martin Luther King holiday giving some attendees more freedom to stay through Monday morning. The cabins are only about 90 minutes from Columbus so itís a short drive. We usually carpool down, talking about gaming, family, kids, who brought what food, etc. and in general, we're winding down from the day but building up the excitement to get in some relaxation time. The people in my gaming group are really what make this event great. We've done it enough times now that with the core group, we've got it down to a science. Everybody knows the drill, how to sign up for a meal, what extra clothes to bring in case the power goes out again, or an ice storm hits, etc. We used to cover three meals a day but found with snacks, nobody was very hungry so we dropped back to just brunch and dinner and it works much better.

Three days of cinnamon rolls, egg casserole, bbq chicken, breakfast tacos, spaghetti and meatballs, corn casserole, pork enchiladas, peanut M&Ms, beer, wine, White Russians, Bourbon, cookies, spiced-fruit, salads, Funions, gallons of coffee, etc. well, letís just say, my health is glad it only lasts three and half days :-)

We rented the exact same cabin as last year so we knew exactly how to move the furniture around to get the room we needed for the long table and after setting it up and getting in a few short games (Port Royal and Yard Master) before dinner, we sat down for a 6-player game of 7-Wonders with Leaders and Cities.

After dinner, a few of us got in a game of Heartland Hauling and then we grouped back up to close the night with a big game of Las Vegas with the expansion.

The next morning, after breakfast, we split up and played Lewis & Clark on one end of the table and Navegador on the other. After that we broke up a bit to get some fresh air hiking around the woods and hills of the state park (Lake Hope really is a pretty area). Later, some of us met back up to get in a game of Royals while others start working on preparing dinner.

After dinner, we played Brew Crafters and then we finished out the night with Dead of Winter. The Zombies killed us off but the betrayer didn't help us any either!

Sunday got started pretty late after our 2:30am closing time the night (morning!) before but after we cleaned up from breakfast we split up to play Steam Park and Warfighter. While the Warfighter group finished up their game, my end of the table got in games of Red 7 and Machi Koro.

By this time, a few of the guys packed up their stuff to head back to Columbus but three of us stuck it out for the rest of the day and night with two games of Castles of Mad King Ludwig, another of Heartland Hauling with an expansion (great little game!) and I introduced Aquasphere (I like it but the other two...mmmm, not so much).

The day we leave is usually just a rush of cleaning, packing, and getting the cabin furniture back to normal before the 11am checkout but since weíve got a well-worn pattern, we had time to play one last game of Port Royal and it ended up one of the funnest times Iíve ever played. What a great way to end the con. Guys, I can't wait until next year.

Review: Odin's Ravens

About five years ago I ran across one of the Kosmos two-player games called Odinís Ravens and was intrigued by its high rank and passionate following. At 6.7 on BGG, it seemed like a solid game worth tracking down. Iím always looking for strong two-player games so I started looking but had trouble finding a copy. Published in 2002 by Thorsten Gimmler, there just werenít that many copies available and those that were out there were being held onto strongly.

Iíd never obtained a copy but still had it on my wantlist. The prices started rising and I figured Iíd not see a copy any time soon. Fast-forward to Great Lakes Games earlier this month and when my name was called a second time for the prize table, there was a nearly pristine copy sitting there and I rushed the table and grabbed it. Prices are all over the map from $40-$150 for a copy but I wanted it to play!

This weekend Lisa and I opened it up and played several games and I have to admit, it lives up to its rating. The game is light enough that you can talk and sip tea while playing but thereís enough strategic and tactical options available to keep gamers engaged.

The game is composed of several mini-games (races) ending when one player reaches at least 12 points. Each race is a complete mini-game and only the points are carried forward to the next race. At the begin of each race, nine landscape cards are dealt out in a line establishing the terrains over which players will attempt to advance their ravens.

Each player has a hand or five cards drawn from a personal deck (each player starts with the same cards in their deck). Each card depicts a single terrain type and players attempt to play cards from their hand and from an auxiliary deck (built from previous turns). Terrain cards that match the terrain card in front of their raven, advance the raven. The personal deck also contains Odin cards which have some rule-breaker text on them that allows players to swap terrain tiles, rotate them, move ravens forward or back, or otherwise mess with the other player. Players also, during the race, have a chance to extend the length of the race by adding cards to the end of the track.

In addition to the ravens flight, players can play cards to another area of the table (the Magic Way) depicting two valid terrain types (or the Odin card) and at the end of the race (triggered by the first player to advance their raven to the end of the track) players earn points for having played the most cards to the Magic Way and for the distance (in terrain cards) between the two ravens.

Odinís Ravens is a great game for us. Itís small, packaged in the standard two-player Kosmos square/flat box, light, and easy packs for road trips. And most of all, it packs a lot of game in just a few cards. If you get a chance, try to pick up a copy or at least play it a few times. Youíll not regret it.

CABS - After Turkey Day 2014

Lisa and I meet up once a year with a friend and her son at the Columbus Area Boardgaming Societyís After Turkey Data gaming festivities. This year we arrived around 10am and played straight through until about 9:30pm breaking only for a quick lunch and a light dinner from one of the food trucks that sat outside the gaming area.

Itís normally a well-attended celebration, 125-150 gamers playing shoulder to shoulder. This year, however, there was a noticeably smaller number of gamers. CABS has been going through some transitional changes to their organizational structure, increased yearly fees, etc. that I suspect are contributing factors. However, itís most likely an over-simplification to attribute the drop to any one specific cause.

We did, however, play the following games:

  • Port Royal
  • Takenoko
  • 7-Wonders
  • Istanbul
  • Viva Java: The Coffee Game
  • Five Tribes
  • El Grande

This was Lisaís first play of Istanbul and she liked it. Our friend really liked it commenting that there felt like many way to earn points (gems), there was always a Plan B or Plan C, and that it played so fast it always felt like it was your turn. All good points you want in a game!

We got the whole group together and played Viva Java: The Coffee Game for 6 but it felt like there weíre enough blend tiles in the box. The game felt much shorter than what it had felt like in the past but maybe Iím just getting used to how to play it without such a long ramp up time for explanation.

I taught Lisa and our friend Five Tribes and they both really like that (Lisa especially since she won handily!). I had never read the rules and only played after being taught the game once at Great Lakes Games. I can think of about three rules we played wrong at GLG and playing correctly, I think itís a better game :-)

We finished the night off with a classic, El Grande. We started with five for the rules explanation but we lost one before we could start but itís still good with four. I think it ran a little long as the AP started kicking in near the end. All in all, itís a really good game to return to once in a while.

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Images from BGG.CON 2014

I've already posted about my experience as a lone attendee but I figured I'd throw in a post with some images.

The registration line wrapped around three times and then outside the building.

Fun little shoot-em-up western. Cute boxcars do add something to it.

Die Macher for noobs teaching moment. It's not my kind of game but I did have fun playing with the people I was playing with. Three simultaneous tables of Die Macher...now that's something!

The last three minutes of the flea market. Chaos!

Just a wee bit of the game library.

The big room.

My favorite game of the con. The designer, Peter Hawes taught us the game and sat beside me the whole game. We had a great chat about the design and different decisions where made during the process. Very enjoyable game!

I traveled very lightly checking no bags and bringing an extra messenger back to carry back the prize table games. I had just enough clothes without feeling creepy :-) It's probably a good idea I was traveling light because that flea market was oh so tempting!

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