What Did You Play This Week: Pains, Trains, and Something Else Clever

superbrothers-sword-sworcery-ep-ipad-1302707723-007

Tap?

This week has been a fairly light one as my access to a computer has been pretty limited.  So things are going to have to revolve around basically two days out of a full week.  I had intended to break out some more portable games – Android, Unity Webplayer-based games, and my Nintendo DS.  As far as Android goes, in spite of several Humble Android Bundles, Amazon Free Apps of the Day, and even sales and specials, nothing’s quite managed to get their hooks in.  I’ve gotten close with Swords & Sworcery, but the headphones seem to slow me down on that front.

Harder than Super Meat Boy.

Harder than Super Meat Boy.

They Bleed Pixels. This game is hard. Seriously hard.  I think I made it through 3 worlds of Super Meat Boy before getting in to any sort of trouble but this hybrid of  ultra-tough-platformer and arcade-style-beat-’em-up is just too much for my reflexes at the moment.  I think I’ve only made it maybe 2-3 levels, and I’ve completely abandoned any sorts of bonus challenges scattered through the levels.  When I get the chance to play more I think I’ll begin to internalize the physics, which I usually do, as well as the moves list, which I’ve never quite been able to manage. It’s a fun game and far less frustrating for me than most people seem to think, as it’s something I know I’m not good at, and I’m trying to develop some more finesse-driven combat skills.

More like Ticket to Not Winning.

More like Ticket to  Losertown.

Probably the most punishing game on my list this week is actually Ticket to Ride. After picking it up in a fairly sweet Amazon Deal and having previously seen the game played both in physical form and on the Wil Wheaton-hosted Youtube series TableTop, I thought to myself, how hard can this be?  Boy I was wrong.  Without difficulty settings, the computer was completely happy to cut my  connecting routes and rip off 11-car trains over the course of two turns.  During the 3-4 game I played, I started to pick up a little bit – discard one of your three routes at the beginning, but pick up a third if you complete the other two early enough – that now I’m pulling off a consistent second place.  This game does frustrate me, and limits my play time, because “The rules are so simple, so why can’t I win!?”

Right before things started to go very very bad for Wilson.

Right before things started to go very very bad for Wilson.

A friend asked me what I thought about Don’t Starve and should he buy it during the Steam Summer Sale for $9. This prompted me to load one of my old save games, and I said, absolutely!  Playing through several days on my pre-latest update  copy reminded me how great the game was and how there was always some progress to be made or something new to discover.  So after dying and starting the next world my mind was blown by all the additional content that was included by the most recent patch. My friend wound up buying the game and began binge playing it – 32 hours in 5 days. Aside from the fact he’s apparently enjoying that he took my advice, we spent a lot of time discussing zero-spoiler strategy: base placement, things noticed, etc This resulted in a lot of new ideas, on topics ranging from resource management, the fact that I basically don’t have any skill when it comes to building bases, and the “hurry-up offence” for the early game.  I can’t wait until I get my hands on something that can actually run it… wait maybe this has Linux support… and doesn’t require much in the way of hard disk space… It runs! Guess I’ll see you guys here next week, feel free to drop me a note in the comments to let me know what games you’re playing.

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Journal Club: Action Button’s Four God Hands

This week we’re discussing:

I’ll kick things off:


Apparently Punching through someone's face is frowned upon.

Apparently punching through someone’s face is frowned upon.

I really enjoyed God Hand having first heard about it on X-play in 2006. From the soul-crushing difficulty and lack of hand holding tutorializing to the controversy surrounding the cover being censored.  The fixed camera and movie set level design or the fact that there’s a boss who’s a man in a gorilla suit and a lucha libre mask. As far as the game’s pedigree, it was the last game released by Okami and Viewtiful Joe’s studio Clover.  It was headed up by Shinji Mikami of Resident Evil, Killer 7, etc fame.  It was created due to his dissatisfaction with fighting games, much like his dissatisfaction with zombie movies spawned Resident Evil.

Not one.  Not the other. Both.

Not one. Not the other. Both.

The reason I like these four reviews are they’re a good example of people being brought together, in a positive way, by (in this case imaginary) traumatic experiences.  Games that manage to walk this “tough-but-fair” line have a special place in my heart, failure letting them dig their way in with just a little bit of scar tissue in their wake.  Despite getting screwed by Capcom (surprise) and largely being panned by the public in spite of critical acclaim, God Hand has managed a bit of a resurgence when it was re-released on PSN in 2011.


That’s it for this week – a little more review-y, but interesting in its own right. Feel free to share your thoughts and comments below.  Feel free to suggest something interesting you’ve read and we can discuss it next week.

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The Weekly: Collateral Mathematics

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If I did my math right, there are 3^6 * 7! possible permutations.(3674160)

During my vacation, my mother in law gave me a Homer Simpson 2×2 Rubik’s Cube as a gag gift, which is the apex of absurd gift giving. So needless to say that she was surprised when I popped it out of its packaging and began clacking away. With a few minor inconveniences, Homer’s nose tends to catch and the top half is vastly larger than the bottom (really aurocorrect? Boron?), this is an awesome gift. Off and on I’ve always putzed around with the math behind Rubik’s Cubes, but I never got around to actually solving one. I’d examine it from the stance of group theory, then figuring out the number of various positions, then I’d start in on determining transformations that let you move various blocks around the cube. And that’s great, for a time.

Kids_Web_Use_2010

I got everything but the penny in the heads up orientation.

But as I’ve alluded to previously, it’s a really slippery slope for me. It’s one thing to appreciate and understand the math behind a Rubik’s Cube, but when you start extending it to n-dimensions, or explore optimal block shuffling strategies, and the like it can get bad in a hurry. This isn’t to say that if you enjoy this sort of thing that you’re a bad person, it’s just that I don’t, not at that level of depth. And this has happened to me a lot. I mentioned my sordid World of Warcraft, Rawr-optimization experiences. On a previous vacation I played with a Find-It puzzle game for over two hours straight, muttering about packing fractions and plastic density and trying to characterize the effects of various motions on the column. When I did that board game write-up on the fourth of July, I cut a solid 3 paragraphs of mathematical analysis on the game Tsuro, which resulted in some moderately unclear reasoning as to why I didn’t care for it. Most of the time delving into topology and how many possible moves are available to you at any point of the game, does give you a strategic advantage, but certainly doesn’t make the game any more enjoyable.  Then there was the time my brother and I more or less broke the game Black Box, by coming up with a configuration of pieces that gave the seeking player a 1 in 5 chance of winning.  Aside from ruining that game for both of us, it also illustrates what this sort of analysis can do to game at its most extreme.

There are 135 separate ways of pairing 8 objects - not counting rotationally identical tiles.

There are 135 separate ways of pairing 8 objects – not counting rotationally identical tiles.

Some games have a probability space way too large for analysis, while others collapse down into more general rules as your understanding increases. Both of these are enjoyable, but the purely mathematical games just have that capability to warp my brain into this bizarre obsessive mode. This gives me advantages in analyzing and optimizing systems, but the real trick is providing the right analysis on the right system, and knowing when to stop. The real issue is that this extracts the fun out of things – sometimes it’s not the case, I enjoy zero-knowledge games where careful experimentation and observation are the only way to win.

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What Did You Play This Week: The Voxel Spacedive Effect

We're on a mission from god. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bluesmobile

We’re on a mission from g- …Martin Sheen?
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bluesmobile

I played three games this past week.  First off a quick Mass Effect 2 update.  After last week’s interactive tutorials, we all piled in to our latest Bluesmobile and headed to Mos Eisley to begin our quest to get the band back together.  After some absolutely ridiculous vaulting segments (glares at Gears of War), we finally managed to recruit Archangel.  The fact that the various weapons: Sniper Rifle, Pistol, Shotgun, etc. feel like distinct weapons suited to different combat scenarios is a welcome change from the first game.  There were a few battles where I switched weapons 3 times or more as I engaged enemies at various distances.  The combat really is a lot more engaging and dynamic – as long as you don’t have to run hurdles in the middle of it.  We then went in to the quarantine sector, where Kristin made some “Renegade” decisions, where her choices and the writing that followed really surprised me.  As a long-term gamer who associates the “down-red-surly” option as not being on the “heroic” path, I was absolutely shocked when Kristin’s decision to “affix her mask, before helping the person next to her”, rather than “be a giant tool and have both of you suffocate” was rewarded as the better answer.  It absolutely floored me – both the decision being made as well as the maturity of the game’s response.

I call this next move: The Sky Crane. http://goo.gl/eFGLC

I call this next move: The Sky Crane.
http://goo.gl/eFGLC

The second game I’ve already written a little bit about in Monday’s post – Edge of Space.  Not much in the way of progress has been made since by last play session.  I walled off a bit of a base and built a defense drone that floats along behind me and gives me a passive bonus to my defense.  I also upgraded my mining laser, my rifle, and built an aluminum helmet.  You should absolutely wait until the last-minute to refine any of your materials, as each stack you refine, doesn’t necessarily have the same name, which fills your backpack up in a hurry. Refined items can’t really be used in very many starting tier items. You will quit the game if you try to craft an Aluminum Jetpack (yes you have a jetpack) when your backpack is full – it just disappears. I did manage to locate a spinning vortex thing in the middle of one of the islands which was surrounded by plaster a new kind of “natural” matter, but I don’t know what to do with it. The dreaded rocket drone guys have started dropping P1 chips, which makes the 3 minutes you spend pounding them a little more worthwhile, but It’s going to be a bit of an uphill battle to gather 10+ of them to make a piece of top-tier equipment.  Probably the most frustrating part of the game is if you turn to the internet for help, the name “Edge of Space” is so ubiquitous that any search returns results from Felix Baumgartner’s world record skydiving jump to aerospace engineering blogs. The fragmentation of the community into 3 or 4 different barely completed wikis doesn’t help new players find their feet either, but that might be due to gameplay tweaks that gives wiki editing a sense of futility – I know that one firsthand. So yeah, it’s getting better, but it’s fun for about 20 minutes before something happens that makes me step away from the computer.

I looked, and there before me was a pale sheep. Its rider was named Longbranch.

I looked, and there before me was a pale sheep. Its rider was named Longbranch.

The third game I’ve been playing a lot of is Cube World.  It’s been in development for two years by a husband and wife team.  They’ve had a bit of a spotty alpha launch, with a few initial problems followed by a fairly massive DDoS attack being directed at their site. But if you put your VSync on and just stop complaining about an alpha game crashing (who’d have thunk?) you can actually have a pretty good time.  So far I’ve had a blast trying out both the Wizard and Warrior classes – It’s taken a few minutes to learn what I can and can’t beat in a fight and just generally get my bearings, but after that it’s been a blast.  I’ve been exploring the voxel countryside finding dungeons and catacombs, mesas and ziggurats.  I’ve really been enjoying taming all the various pets that you can get by waving assorted desserts in front of them – I think I’m up to 7-8 of them at the moment.  Nothing strikes fear into the hearts of your opponents like when you ride into battle on your attack sheep!  I just figured out how to name your pets this evening, so I expect to spend a little time doing that on my next play session.

That club makes for a flat Ranger https://picroma.com/

That club = flat Ranger
https://picroma.com/

I’ve had reasonable success working my way through most dungeons if I bring a good amount of food and healing potions, but the one thing that I’ve found to be damn near impossible are the final bosses of a dungeon. So far if the guy is melee-based he flattens me quickly in one or two hits.  The only one I’ve managed to beat so far was a roguish skeleton who makes copies of himself to attack you so he can stab you from the side. That victory gave me a “fire spirit” voxel, that when attached to a weapon, will add fire effects. Two things I have yet to try are you the hang gliding and sailing skills, as I put most of my skill points into my deadly menagerie. One minor criticism, some creatures will drop items called “leftovers”, which to my mind looked like magical meatloaf instead of the unidentified “left over” magical item that dropped as loot. Even though the game is early in development, you can see the core mechanics, and can extrapolate the glimpse of potential the alpha shows into a fully realized game.


That’s it for this week, feel free to drop me a note in the comments to let me know what games you’re playing. Also, there’s still time to suggest a paper in the comments here.  I hope to have my suggestion up a little later tonight.

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Journal Club: Indie Game Design Do-s and Don’t-s

Today we’re discussing:

  • Edmund McMillen’s Indie Game Design Do-s and Don’t-s: A Manifesto (link)

As always, I’ll kick things off.


edmundmEdmund McMillen’s 2009 paper discussing his experiences through 10 years of independent art and game design resonated with me. It’s a fairly succinct list of how to be successful at game design, while managing to be a human being. I find they apply to work in general and even just for navigating life. I’ve been putting a lot of thought into numbers 12, 13, 18, and 23 as of late.


That’s it for this week – short, sweet, and a little less arcane. Feel free to share your thoughts and comments below.

Also feel free to suggest something interesting you’ve read – I’d like to have suggestions in by Friday, to give everybody a chance to read them.  I’ll update here and maybe in Friday’s post as well.

Next week’s paper: TBA

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The Weekly: Boredom is the Conviction

http://kck.st/IKaOMq

Existential dread, thy name is Lasershark
http://kck.st/IKaOMq

I spend a lot of time thinking, talking, writing, designing, and playing video games. And one of the inevitable concerns that people have is what benefit do they individually or as part of a collective get from video games.  Don’t worry, I still think pitchforks are for moving hay, and I’m certainly not turning your monitor off and telling you to go outside and play – where you would either play something video game inspired or just go over to a friend’s house. But it’s an honest question.  There have been a lot of games where I’ve finished them and not been enriched, either by the journey or the destination.

Pretty much every housing layout I've had ever http://goo.gl/McsHU

The standard housing configuration.
http://goo.gl/McsHU

I happen to be in the beta test for Edge of Space, which one of the second generation 2-dimensional games inspired by Minecraft.  Terraria was the original game where Minecraft’s voxels, the 3D equivalent of pixels, were smushed back down into tiles. Terraria went into decline, as the lead designer wanted to spend more time with his newly expanded family (good man) and from what I observed, the community gradually became more entitled/dissatisfied.  So with the king going out on top, the second generation of games went in to development. One of the most highly anticipated is Starbound by Chucklefish Ltd.  Chucklefish was started by Terraria’s graphics designer Finn “Tiy” Bryce after development ceased.  It’s a second bite at the apple with a larger team and over $1.5 million in pre-orders so far.  Probably the second most anticipated is… well… it’s Terraria.  After licensing out the title to separate companies for porting to both PS3 and XBox360, Andrew “Redigit” Spinks decided to resume development on the game.  Expanding the world, adding creatures & biomes, and soliciting more feedback from the community.

This has been most of my experience.

This has been most of my experience.

But ok, enough game genealogy and back to Edge of Space.  They’re the plucky upstart in the number three slot, and they even have Redigit’s blessing.  Without any big names they’ve had to grind their way up through traditional channels – Kickstarter, Direct Sales, Desura, Steam Greenlight, and now Steam Early Access.  The game has a lot of really cool and interesting ideas. The crafting system is interesting in that any tile you excavate is useful in crafting – from uranium to dirt.  Each one has 3+ adjectives associated with it (such as Non-Organic, Mineral, Ore, or Radioactive) that allow it to be used in a variety of different recipes, depending on the matter you have available.  This feeling of always making progress, even when you’re don’t making much vastly reduces the sense of futility encountered in other games this style. Until in the case of Edge of Space it doesn’t.  I recently had a world, where I could excavate biomass out my ears, but couldn’t seem to find more than 2-3 bundles of aluminum ore (metal).

Oh. It's you again. http://goo.gl/DbgQR

Unless it’s this.
http://goo.gl/DbgQR

That’s when these questions like “How am I using my time?” or “What am I getting out of this?” start to creep in.  When you’re facing that one rocket droid with the bugged AI – it takes 50 shots from the rifle you managed to craft and he doesn’t even drop anything.  When you have to kill 83 space jellyfish to build the 50 under-powered lamps, to light the shaft where there might be – oh wait, no minerals here either.  Many games fall prey to this love affair with procedurally generated content, as it’s a fast and cheap way to generate a lot of content.  But that same enthusiasm is nowhere to be found when it’s time to fine tune it, to figure out how the game actually plays.  I went online to try to figure out what I’m doing wrong and aside from a few small tweaks here and there basically the game is in a really early state from a systems standpoint.

This is an example of "Not bullshit" http://goo.gl/DbgQR

This is an extreme example of “Not bullshit”
http://goo.gl/DbgQR

One of the things that makes Terraria so great is that it cuts out a lot of the bullshit that’s such a barrier to entry to games such as Minecraft.  Gone is moving blocks around in a grid to make an item – most people consult a wiki anyway.  Gone is the total lack of external guidance.  Added are crafting substations, that keep the number of choices from being overwhelming. And all of these small design decisions give the player a sense of progress as well as a sense of accomplishment.  Edge of Space on the other hand is in the “Let’s develop this game together!” phase of beta testing, which isn’t bad but I think it put some undue stress on the dev team as it got a front page Steam banner a little while ago, which gives many people a different impression as to its playability.

The bards will sing of this day. http://goo.gl/BFEoM

The bards will sing of this day.
http://goo.gl/BFEoM

As of now I’ve spent 180 hours of game time playing Terraria and it’s a game that’s given me a lot.  I’ve spent time with friends in graduate school, figuring out how to kill Skeletron while we worried about our futures.  I’ve played with my brother from the very beginning, getting the chance to play co-op with someone who might not always consider video games his thing – Portal 2 was the gateway drug, and we even have played some Borderlands 2 since then.  I’ve weathered Goblin Armies, Snow biomes, and that one time when two Eyes of Cthulu showed up at the same time.  There was my first time playing it where I didn’t understand that you had to work with the natural features of the land, and couldn’t just dig straight down to achieve any sort of meaningful progress.  I feel like there’s a life lesson there, if I think about it a little bit.

Just to make my stance on this game completely clear, I think Edge of Space is incredible.  I think the creative talent both in quality and quality is impressive and the focus on their community is mind-boggling.  This is my personal experience with one particular world seed and a lack of understanding on how to play effectively – I will ding Handyman Games for that last one.   But when you’re in the midst of something so epic and vast, without being able to accomplish your limited  self-generated goals, the mind  does begin to wander.  As a result, I experienced something uncomfortable, isolating, alienating, and beautiful.  I’m enormously hopeful that as the game progresses through beta, some of the systems will begin to tighten up, I get better at playing, and a more progressive experience will appear.

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What Did You Play This Week?

Tastes like freedom.

Chipotle-blueberry sauce – tastes like freedom.

This edition of “What Did You Play This Week?” is going to be an extra inclusive, extra long edition.  So everybody stretch, get some iced tea from the fridge and let’s do this.

On Independence Day my brother came over for some delicious chipotle-blueberry barbecue tofu and brought along a whole mess of board games. As they’re things that can be played, their verb qualifies them for this column. One frustrating part was that the replacement charger for the digital camera didn’t arrive in time to get pictures of the all the games, so I’m stealing a bunch of images from other reviews and linking to their blogs below. So if any of these games pique your interest, follow the links below the images to get much better reviews.

The story goes hard, but someone should tell them how space works. http://goo.gl/vUIgA

The story goes hard, but someone should tell them how space works.
http://goo.gl/vUIgA

Mass Effect 2

There was no charger, but what did arrive? Mass Effect 2. Taking it out of its packaging, Kristin got ready to… wait patiently as I installed several gigs of data. But then we were ready to go… after we waited a bit longer as I made an Origin account and activated the Cerberus Network bonus content. Finally, we waited as all the DLC downloaded and installed. But then we were ready to play.

One thing that strikes you almost immediately is the vast visual improvement over the original Mass Effect. The new emphasis on keeping the player immersed smooths out a lot of the painful tutorial moments from the first game, but certain elements from the character generation process venture into the laughable. The combat has become some sort of console FPS mash-up, with an emphasis of cover based combat, reminiscent of Gears of War combined with the radially menued guns and abilities so integral to Bioshock – equipment even seems to be managed through functionally similar lockers (ME2) and weapon upgrade stations (Bioshock). The controls have gotten more complex, with most buttons having different actions associated with “press ” and “press and hold”. Guns are more in line with conventional firearms, which Kristin found to be ridiculous, but it bothered me less as I found both firearm systems equally ridiculous.

There's always a man and a lighthouse. http://goo.gl/Z2H73

There’s always a man, a lighthouse, and an assault rifle.
http://goo.gl/Z2H73

That being said, it’s not all bad, combat begins to take on a more realistic feel. The usefulness of your squad lets you tailor their strengths to the mission at hand and the ease that you can control them via the D-pad massively reduces the frustration experienced in the first game. One button enter/exit cover is well implemented and cuts out a lot of the pointless cyber-paintball mechanics from Gears of War. We wrapped up playing, when we stumbled into the plot of Blues Brothers: Cosmic Edition.

Could my math describing this game be called String Theory?http://goo.gl/qcU0Y

Could my math describing this game be called String Theory?http://goo.gl/qcU0Y

Tsuro

This tile-based game involves players starting on one edge of the board and taking turns to build a path in the front of their piece, trying to keep it from colliding with other players or falling off the board. It’s about planning, adaptability, and a game takes maybe 15-20 minutes long. The game is a lot of fun, with move and counter move, trap and evasion, victory and defeat. I started in on the math for how the game works, hoping to develop some sort of  potential strategies and the like, but frankly after starting in on all the probabilities, I really don’t think that there are any. I think it’s you have to give your token the maximum possible number of moves and just play accordingly in a luck-driven shrinking probability space.  It was a short, well fought game, but eventually Tom was able to run me off the board, while he simultaneously skated away to freedom.

Villages and Cellars, always Villages and Cellars http://goo.gl/NV9Cn

Villages and Cellars, always Villages and Cellars
http://goo.gl/NV9Cn

Dominion

The next game we played was Dominion, this one is a deck building game, where you and your opponent buy cards into your decks from the same starting point. There’s about 50 billion expansion sets, but considering it was my first time we just played the most boring vanilla version.  I really enjoyed this one as it taps in to the same part of your brain as MOBA type games such as League of Legends or Dota 2.  Basically the idea is this, you have pulses of resources that come in one turn at a time and the more lucky and skilled player, manages to turn that pulse into some additional resources or advantage.  As the game picks up, the influx of cards and resources picks up and you’re eventually trying to “steamroll” to victory.  I managed to get some cards early that let me basically sort through my deck until I found the cards I wanted, then I managed to buy some cards that gave me additional resources and actions during my turn.  I was quite successful in turning a typical action phase (which is usually one card) into a chain 5 or 6 cards long.  Tom took a different approach, focusing on keeping his deck tight, replacing lower value cards with a more advanced version of the same card, increasing the chances he’d pull the cards he needed, without the need to cycle through his deck.  It was a well fought battle but Tom managed to squeak out a 1 point win at the last second.

http://goo.gl/XhAni

The middle three were our chosen gladiators.
http://goo.gl/XhAni

King of Tokyo

Kristin then joined in the fun as the tofu baked in the oven and we played a round of King of Tokyo. This game has a Rampage-esque feel where you play as giant Japanese monsters seeking to destroy the other monsters and become the King of Tokyo. Kristin played as The Kraken, I stepped into the shoes of The Cyber Bunny and Tom chose the Meka Dragon.  Where the last two games were about strategy and planning, this one was a down and dirty street fight.  During the first game, I was overly aggressive and would up with far to little health to limp to any sort of victory.  Kristin and Tom brawled for a little while with Tom ultimately coming out ahead.  It was another short game, that had a lot of fun of a game of King of The Hill – changing alliances and strategies until one creature is hopefully left standing.  I successfully wiped the bitter taste of defeat out of my mouth with mashed potatoes, sautéed beet greens, and the afore-mentioned BBQ tofu. Let me just say, it made all that losing go down a whole lot easier.

http://goo.gl/XhAni

The scene of the carnage.
http://goo.gl/XhAni

We decided to go with a second round of King of Tokyo, with Kristin and myself having a bit of an unspoken understanding between Kristin and myself that we had to stomp Tom into the ground at any cost.  This round was a lot more fun, as not only did Kristin and myself have a better understanding of the rules, but also a lot of the “power-up” cards came in to play that changed the rules of the game.  Tom grew an extra head, Kristin was wailing on us with an ankylosaur-style spiked tail, and my parasitic tendrils let me steal power-ups from other characters.  Nevertheless, Tom managed to run out the game clock, occupying Tokyo until he had over 20 fame points, making him the de facto ruler of Tokyo.  For those of you keeping track at home, this brings the score to: Tom 4 – Everybody else 0.  This would have to change in the near future.

http://goo.gl/1VSRC

This box contains pure witchcraft.
http://goo.gl/1VSRC

Dixit Journey

This game is weird.  I knew going in to it that I was going to have a really hard time.  All of the cards used in this game have some fairly abstract, well painted pictures on them. The player whose turn it is selects a card from their hand, places it face down and then names a word or phrase that is the clue for selecting that image.  Then each of the other players select additional cards that approximate that theme.  All the cards are placed face up and then the other players register their guesses as to which was the original card.  If everybody gets it, then the clue was too specific and the player gets no points.  If nobody guesses the right card, the clue was to vague and nobody gets it, also no points.  If the player and only a portion of the mob achieve some sort of mental connection and guess the right card, then both parties share the points.  So it’s a game of being specific without being to specific, which is that vast grey area that I’m not particularly good at exploring.

http://goo.gl/1VSRC

Dark majicks are practiced on this occult board.
http://goo.gl/1VSRC

The game went along, Kristin and Tom trading points back and forth, me well bringing up the rear. Every clue I gave seemed to either be way to specific (everybody guessed, no points), what I thought was obtuse (everybody guessed, no points), or secretly encoded information that I knew only one other party knew (other person guessed, no points).  I understand that this game is about art and beauty and abstract connection, but for me it was swirly stuff on paper that I apparently blurted out.  Things were pretty close, but Kristin’s ability to pick the winning card almost every time gave her the slight edge to overthrow the previous board game despot. Scorecard: Tom 4, Kristin 1, Me 0.

http://goo.gl/mxd5O

Cartagena – Italian for trickiest hallway ever. http://goo.gl/mxd5O

Cartagena

So still smarting from exercising things like empathy and connection, we moved on to Cartagena, which is a game inspired by an actual jailbreak that occurred in 1672.  That being said, the game doesn’t quite seem to capture the same mood as a pirate jailbreak, but strikes the feeling of the worlds deadliest party game/free climbing the side of a cliff face.  The point of the game is to navigate your team of 6 guys through a winding tunnel to the boat at the end.  Players play a card with a symbol, and move their player to the next unoccupied symbol. This allows strategy to form as occupying or not occupying various symbols lets you slow your opponent and accelerate your own guys.  The only way to draw more cards is to have a unit drop back, which combined with the previous mechanic creates a good bit of push-pull between resources available and ground covered.  All that being said, I didn’t much care for this one.  Where all the other games gave you a better sense of controlling your own destiny, this one just encouraged you to play the best you could and hopefully you might just get the cards you’d need to pull off a win.  That being said Tom won this one putting our loss counter to Me: 6, Kristin 2, Tom 1.  I was the clear favorite.

Pandemic

The final game we wound up playing was Pandemic. Earlier, I compared Dominion to a MOBA style game.  And while I’m sure it’s been done to death, I’m going to be 4,012th person to compare this game to Left 4 Dead.  Rather than playing against each other, you and your friends play together against the game.  Whereas L4D has the Director AI, figuring out what and when to throw things at you, the game uses the somewhat random nature of the Player and Infection decks to generate conflict and drama.  One thing I’d say the game does much better than Left 4 Dead is that it offers each of the characters a special ability that helps define a subset of priorities that keeps them from butting into their teammates and makes them feel special, rather than only giving choice of gun as differentiation.  You and your crack squad of disease fighters start off in Atlanta, Georgia then run around the world trying to keep various disease flare-ups from taking over.  Tom was the Dispatcher, who focuses on moving the right people to the right place, Kristin was the Scientist who is the best at generating cures, and I was the Operations Expert.

http://goo.gl/wyABU

He’s so bad they revised him in the second printing. http://goo.gl/wyABU

A few word about the Operations Expert.  His special power consists of building research stations, something that most players can do, provided they have the right card.  That’s it.  The other four characters can zip characters across the map willy-nilly, cure all disease in a city in one go, generate cures 25% faster, etc.  I was a disease fighting carpenter.  So we did our best to drag Nextel Benny across the finish line, and we wound up falling short one or two cards before the end.  In spite of the handicap and playing on easy, we cleared three out of four diseases, then promptly lost.  It’s a fantastic game, but based on my experiences I think I would probably just take the Operations Expert out of the deck, even if I was playing the second edition of the the game.

I feel like there's some vague racism here. http://goo.gl/eYx5T

I feel like there’s some vague racism here.
http://goo.gl/eYx5T

So for those of you keeping track, that brought me to a grand total of 7 games lost.  In spite of that, I had a really great time playing all of these games.  My least favorite were Cartagena and Tsuro as they had a little too much randomness and not enough skill to their gameplay.  My favorite two were Dominion and Pandemic, maybe because of their close correlation with video game mechanics and that they did a better job with them than their electronic counterparts.  Dixit.  Well, Dixit is something really great, but I’m almost completely certain that it isn’t for me.  It was Kristin’s favorite game by far, but to me it was completely alien. King of Tokyo felt to me to be on the edge of greatness.  The lack of differentiation between the monsters and the lack of a guarantee that the power-ups would enter the game left it just shy of great.  Tom told me that there’s an expansion pack that fixes some of these problems, giving monster specific powers that activate on certain rolls and giving themes to the powers of each monster. But we’ll have to see.

That’s it for, “What Have You Played This Week” so comment down below to let me know what you’ve been playing and any thoughts you might have.

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