Tuesday, July 31, 2007

9 Favorite Games To Play With My Daughter

My four year old daughter loves playing board games. Actually, she'll play pretty much any kind of game you put in front of her: video games, bowling, badminton, board games, card games, and any kind of made up game she can conjure up. In fact, she often insists on playing Caylus, Settlers, Carcassonne, or whatever adult game she happens to see on the shelf. I don't blame her, all those games that we never play together must be awfully good, right? I do break out Carcassonne with her on occasion since she gets the matching terrain aspect, although not so much the meeple placement/scoring aspect.

Personally I like board and card games the best, so that's what I try to steer her towards when she wants to play a game. There are numerous games we own that the Girl (this sounds odd, but somehow having one boy and one girl leads the Mrs. & I to refer to them by their sex on occasion rather than by name) likes playing that I don't care for. These tend to be the basic draw a card and move (Candyland), or spin and move (Chutes & Ladders), or even flip over one card after another (War). None of these games have decision making aspects and thus I will not place them on the list despite the fact that the Girl does enjoy them. Since this is a list of games we enjoy together, I suppose I'm allowed to nix those games that I don't enjoy. Not that playing a dull game with her is altogether bad: I still enjoy playing those games on occasion since it is a shared activity with my daughter. I have fun not because the game is good but rather despite the fact that it is bad. I suppose what I'm trying to say is that the list is games that we both enjoy playing frequently. We have fun with everything on this list, and it's in no particular order:

  • I Spy Bingo (2-6 players, age 4+) Each bingo card consists of a 4x4 grid, each box in the grid containing about ten pictures, each beginning with the same letter of the alphabet. The player whose turn it is flips over the top card of a deck to reveal four random pictures. She then calls out one of the pictures on the card and places a bingo token over the box on her card that contains that picture (if there is one). Sometimes its easy to find a given picture on your card since it is grouped by first letter. However, much more often the 'I Spy' aspect of the game comes into play because it is not immediately obvious which letter the picture starts with. For instance, what appears to be a snake may actually be under 'V' for viper. Also the green apple isn't under 'A,' it's under 'G' (either for Green or for Granny Smith...I guess both work!) A simple little game but it always seems to be a fun time for us.

  • Memory (essentially any number of players, age 3+) The old standby. We actually have three separate copies of this game: original, Finding Nemo, and one with pictures painted on wooden blocks rather than cardboard cutouts. The Girl loves this game, which makes it fun. The remarkable thing is that young children seem to be on a fairly level playing field with adults at this one. I think I win slightly more often than she does, but I never throw games with her and she certainly wins her fair share.

  • Flea Circus (2-6 players, age 6+) This is the most recent addition to our kids' board game collection. Designed by Reiner Knizia, this is a card game that the Girl fully grasps and enjoys despite the higher age suggestion. The game consists of a deck of cards, a pile of blue dog pieces, and a pile of white cat pieces. The basis of the game is that the players each run their own flea circus and they are vying for the attention of a common pool of spectators. Spectators come in two denominations: cats are worth one spectator, dogs are worth two, and they are fully interchangeable. If you play a card that nets you four spectators you may claim any combination of animals that adds up to four. This was the Girl's first experience counting by twos and she loved the challenge of counting to three or four using both ones and twos instead of just ones. It may be difficult for some young children to grasp that 'one' dog is actually 'two' spectators. Each player maintains a hand of five cards, drawing back up to that number at the end of each turn. Each player has a pile of their previously played cards in front of them called the 'show stack.' Each flea card has a different effect when played (some take spectators from the common pool, others steal them from opponents, some can be played in multiples, some have varying values depending on what is on top of other players' show stacks. Flea Circus gives young children lots to consider since individual card values greatly vary depending on what other cards are in their hand and which cards are showing on the table. You should listen to the Girl trying to explain this game to people when we sit down to show it to new players. Her excitement about the game is amazing, but she probably comes off a lot like I would if I were to try to explain Puerto Rico to my grandmother. One last note about Flea Circus: although the game is way over my two year old's head, it is quite easy to keep him entertained by the very fun rubber cats & dogs. This is a good thing! Highly recommended.

  • Junior Labyrinth (2-4 players, age 5+) This is essentially identical to the adult version of the game except instead of the board being a 7x7 maze it is 5x5 and there are fewer treasures to find within its twists and turns. Players are dealt treasure pieces face down that they are to seek during the game by moving their ghost character through the maze. Most of the maze tiles on the board can be moved, which is accomplished by pushing the one extra maze tile against one row of tiles on the board and pushing a tile out the other side. This changes the layout of the board slightly, opening up some corridors that were closed off and closing off others that were open. Each turn a player moves one row of the labyrinth, then moves his ghost along the tunnel either to the current treasure she is seeking or as close to it as possible in order to set up a future move to actually acquire it. The Girl and I enjoy this game but she does have difficulty visualizing how any given maze shift will effect the layout of the board. Usually I let her push a maze piece and see how that changes the labyrinth, then push it back and try another spot if it doesn't help her towards her goal. The winner is the first to find all of their treasures then return to their starting space. Not as much fun as some other games on this list, but not bad.

  • Mancala This is a classic game that I've owned for years but just never thought to play with the Girl until recently. I learned the game from my aunt when I was a child and used to enjoy it then as I do now. Players move stones on their side of the board and try to get as many as possible in their 'bank' at their end of the board. By choosing the best pile of stones to move and landing the final stone of the sequence in your bank you earn another consecutive move and thus can rack up a high score through thoughtful and precise decisions. After a few plays the Girl really started to grasp the strategy and she now loves this game. You can't go wrong with Mancala.

  • Zingo (2-8 players, age 4+) We've had this game for quite a while and had a lot of fun with it. Zingo is really quite straightforward, it's simply bingo with a little red tower that shoots out two bingo tiles at a time. The tiles each depict one picture and the picture's name written beneath it. Each bingo board has nine different pictures on it arranged 3x3. As two new tiles are revealed a player will call out 'I need a house!' if they see a house tile that matches their board. Depending on how you play, either the first person to call a tile or the first person to grab it gets to place the new tile on his board. The first player to fill their entire board is declared the winner! Usually we have the first winner, then we keep playing to determine the second winner, then the third, etc. The Girl likes this game a lot but for the most part has moved on to other games we've been playing more recently. The Boy actually understands Zingo very well and usually plays with us too, and he is only two years old. Definitely a good game for a family with young children.

  • Guess Who? (2 players, age 6+) This is a game I remember from my childhood, although I don't think I was crazy about it: Guess Who? was more of a novelty to me, but the Girl really enjoys it. It is a very simple game but is short, entertaining, and functions very differently than other games in our collection so it is a good change of pace. Yet another game listed at 6+ that the Girl has no problems with whatsoever. Some of the conceptual subtleties took her a few plays to figure out (such as asking about characters' having 'facial hair' rather than just 'a beard'), but she enjoys the game and is great at it as well. A word of caution, however: the plastic framework of the boards are very breakable and you should probably not allow your two year old to play with them. Yes, I'm speaking from experience here. Overall a fun little game to play with your child, or for two kids to easily play together.

  • Dominoes Another game that I've had for a long time but just never thought to give it a try with the Girl. Not too much to be said here besides the fact she enjoys it. We really haven't tried playing any complicated games yet, just the basic matching your piece to those already on the table and trying to run out your dominoes.

  • Blink (2 players, age 7+) It is quite surprising to me that the listed age on this game is so high, since the Girl has no problem with it and has considered it her favorite game for a while. Blink is comprised of a deck of cards with symbols on the face that vary along three different characteristics: color, shape, and number. Each player is given a draw pile of half the cards, then draws three cards for her hand and flips over one additional card onto the playing surface. Players then try to play the cards in their hand by matching them by any of the three characteristics to the two cards already face up on the table. New cards are drawn for each one played and the first player to play all of their cards is declared the winner. Blink bills itself as the world's fastest game, usually played within two minutes. Conceptually there is nothing here that a four or five year can't grasp, you simply have to adjust how many cards each player is given in their draw pile to compensate for ability. For instance, I might give the Girl 1/3 of the deck while I take the remainder. Thus even though I'm much quicker at the game we should still finish at close to the same time and have an enjoyable and competitive game. Blink is great fun for all ages and I'd think would make a good learning tool for preschoolers or kindergartners.

Just a few ideas that have worked for me and my daughter. It really is never too early to get kids started on board games!

Monday, July 30, 2007

I'm Ottawa Bound!

I am deliriously excited about an upcoming trip I'm taking with the Mrs. to Ottawa, Ontario. I've been living in the Canton/Potsdam, NY area now for almost four years and have yet to make the measly two hour trip to the major city right in my backyard. I've always wanted to go, but the trip has been another of those things that gets put on the back burner of a busy life. Like many of those things that get set aside (keeping in touch with old friends, finding enough quality time with the family, etc.), this is an unfortunate oversight that will soon be remedied. We decided fairly quickly to go with the cheaper one night at the hotel instead of the full weekend, so we have a very limited amount of time to work with, certainly not nearly enough time to do everything we'd like.

Wait, what does this have to do with Settlers of Catan?

So now I've leaped into board game 'maximization mode.' I need to figure out exactly how to spend my limited resources (time & money) on activities in Ottawa to maximize our total benefit over the weekend (turn)! Of course the Mrs. would say that this is best put in economic terms, being an economist and all, but not for me! In my mind I've got a massive handful of resource cards and I'm trying to figure out exactly what I need to exchange and then build to get those last two victory points and win this one for the good guys! Is this guy for real? You bet I am! Now where was I?

The Task at Hand

Right, Ottawa! Now first things first: I need to define the basic parameters of our trip. My mom has graciously offered to watch the kids for the weekend. (Thanks mom!) She should be arriving on the Friday of our excursion at about noon. Half an hour to get the kids settled, two hours on the road, half an hour to get checked into the hotel and we're off to see the city by 3:00ish. We're staying one night so the task at hand is to plan activities from 3:00 Friday until Saturday about 10:00ish (late enough to have as much fun as possible, early enough to still feel very comfortable driving home). Am I putting way too much thought into this? Yes, almost certainly I am! Will my best laid plans be scattered like so many leaves in an autumn storm? Why are you asking so many negative questions? Admit it, you're one of those glass half empty people aren't you! Here's the plan thus far:

  • Friday 2:30pm Check into Inn on Somerset, the B&B where we decided to spend our night. It seemed to be the best combination of location and price.
  • Friday 3:00-6:00pm Begin some initial exploration of the tourist attractions in Ottawa, hopefully by foot. Interesting spots can be more thoroughly visited on Saturday.

  • Friday 6:30pm Dinner. Now I am a cook and love good food. This makes me a bit of a restaurant snob--I am very picky about where I eat, which makes choosing a restaurant a fairly difficult task. Here's my list so far with pros & cons:
  1. Anna's Thai Restaurant. Pros: Excellent customer reviews on RestaurantThing.com Cons: Location isn't all that close to Absolute Comedy Club (next on our agenda). Do we want to eat Thai?

  2. Bento Sushi. Pros: Good reviews on RT.com, closer to where we are staying than other recommended sushi places, I haven't had sushi for years. Cons: Not nearly as close to Absolute Comedy as the next two on my list.

  3. Leonardo's Ristorante. Pros: In Little Italy right next to Absolute Comedy, least expensive of the lot. Cons: Menu doesn't look as extensive or as appealing as Trattoria Caffe Italia.

  4. Trattoria Caffe Italia. Pros: Excellent reviews on RT.com, great menu, very close to comedy club. Cons: Much more expensive than Leonardo's. So many decisions to make, no clear answer!
  • Friday 8:30pm Absolute Comedy in Little Italy. I've always wanted to go to a comedy club, and this one seems good and moderately priced. I'm not familiar with the comedians performing, but I'm excited about this nonetheless. Plus they serve drinks, so I'm sure we'll have fun!
  • Friday 11:00pm ByWard Market nightlife. There are lots of bars and clubs in Ottawa's ByWard Market from Irish pubs to blues bars to trendy clubs with a DJ. I think we'll just have a bunch of places in mind and wander the Market looking for what feels right.
  • Saturday 1:00am Pass out back at the Inn. On the map our hotel seems like it is very reasonable walking distance from the Market, which is a big feature.
  • Saturday 9:00am Eat a big breakfast at the Inn or wander a little and find a nice spot to spend a leisurely weekend morning.

  • Saturday 10:30am See the sights! Walk the city, check out a museum or two, see what fun things we can find. The better we get to know where things are in the city, the more fun we'll have next time we scrape up the money for a trip!

  • Saturday 7:00pm Grab a bite to eat, something cheap like a slice of pizza, a sandwich, or a burger. Find another fun spot to have a couple drinks and have some fun, either at the Market or somewhere else we've found in our travels.

  • Saturday 9:00 or 10:00pm Wrap things up and head for home--hopefully very satisfied!

What didn't make the cut:

  • Ottawa Lynx baseball. The triple A affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles will be out of town for the weekend. Also, there is little use getting attached to this team since they've been sold and will be relocating to Pennsylvania next year. I love baseball, but I'll have to wait for another time.
  • Casino du Lac-Leamy. This nearby casino would be a real blast, but several considerations will prevent us from going: 1. The Mrs. would be bored. 2. It would eat up lots of time. 3. I live an hour from a casino anyway. 4. It would put a real damper on our trip if I lost lots of money on top of spending lots of money on the weekend already. "Come on, honey, what's another $100?"
  • Ottawa's vibrant strip club scene. For some reason the Mrs. doesn't really want to go. Women! Maybe next time I'm in town for a business trip... Apparently the city has lots of escort services as well. This really is the big time, huh?

Are we there yet?

If anyone out there has any recommendations for our trip, please don't hesitate to let me know. I'd like our weekend to be the most fun possible. On a side note, are you sufficiently bored yet? No? Well, I suppose you could go read a dictionary until I manage another post.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

A Most Personal Impersonal Game

In reality I seldom play board games at this point in my life. I've been in this location for four years now, but have only very gradually begun to develop friendships locally, and no one that I would consider a friend or close acquaintance has much of a propensity for board games. This represents a radical departure for me since the vast majority of my friends from the past have been game aficionados. All my best friends from high school, dorm mates from college, two younger brothers, uncles on both sides of my family, cousins, dad, mom & aunt (on very limited occasions), and my lovely wife, have all indulged my predilection for board games.

Real game, imaginary friends

Just recently I've realized that this state of affairs desperately needs to end. I have the suspicion that the quantity and quality of my gaming experiences have a direct impact on my happiness in life. My primary objective to remedy this sorry situation is to begin a gaming group in the Potsdam/Canton area. As I begin to plan my opening moves towards this lofty goal, I will keep you posted. Although I do feel severely board game deprived, I do have three outlets for my passion: I play two player games with my wife on occasion, kid's games with my four year old daughter every day, and online board games on the site AsoBrain games. The first two points on this list I would love to elaborate upon, but those are topics for another day. Playing on AsoBrain games (mostly their version of Settlers of Catan, called Xplorers) has been a revelation, albeit a bit of a puzzling one. True, being able to play board games on a daily basis if I so choose is a fabulous opportunity indeed, and one of which I've taken particular advantage the last couple of weeks. I love that I play this very personal, familiar game with opponents I've never met from all over the world. Indeed this is a typical representation of our modern situation: I am at once experiencing much more connectivity with people I would have never had known in the past yet simultaneously experiencing much less immediate relationships with those I meet in this way.

Is it really possible to play board games on a computer?

Though I love playing at this site I am quite aware that the experience is missing much of what I love about board games, namely the immediacy of an experience shared with friends and the aesthetic appeal of handling game components and performing the basic rituals of play. Internet play with strangers is almost completely a matter of strategy in that although there may be a little chat amongst players, such games are devoid of that natural comfortable chat between friends and the (usually) playful banter that arises from games played in person. The interface for the online game is cold. Even when players chat, there is only so much of their feelings, reactions, frustrations, moments of elation, and the like that can be gleaned from watching the game unfold. Essentially all you get from the experience is the moves on the board. From a narrow strategy sense this could be a good thing, since there are few distractions from one's concentration on the game and the moves to be made. If the point of playing is to develop or hone one's game strategies then this is an ideal environment. However I would assert that the distractions, reactions and the like are at least as important to a gaming session as the strategy involved in the actual game mechanics.

For me, games are like food...really

As I've written previously, the presence of physical components that are held, slid, shuffled, stolen, flipped, rolled, slapped, and generally manhandled throughout game play, for me, results in a great deal of enjoyment. I would liken this in a way to most any simple pleasure in life. Anything that one is passionate about, even broken down into its simplest components or steps can bring great enjoyment and satisfaction to an experience. For instance, I am passionate about cooking & working with food. Sometimes this can be a job or a chore, or just another action that I perform. When I stop to think about it and allow myself a little immediacy as I prepare a meal I derive much satisfaction from the simplest actions, from the motion of peeling a potato, to the explosive pop & sizzle of a steak hitting a hot pan, to the slide of a knife separating whole vegetables into the small accessible pieces that become the components to be transformed into finished dishes. Just as there are thousands of tiny pleasures found in the preparation of a meal from start to finish, tiny actions, motions, and rituals throughout a favorite game each provide startling pleasure in and of themselves far beyond even the bigger context of the game. In my mind this is one primary reason why I have a stronger attachment to board games than to video games: the only tactile experience in video games is the controller since they are almost entirely visual experiences. Although I love many video games, especially those on the NES and SNES systems from years past, they fall short of board games precisely because of those weaknesses I highlighted in the case of video board games on the Internet: shared experience and ritual pleasures. Playing Settlers of Catan on AsoBrain games ends up having much more in common with video games than it does board games despite the fact that the game rules are essentially identical to the tabletop version of the game.

Looking for a few good opponents

All this being said, my new found Internet board game fascination was thrown for a loop several days ago when I played online for the first time with people I know in real life. My brother Christopher, one of his friends, my cousin Jennie, and I got together for a game of Xplorers on AsoBrain games. This promised to be a lot of fun because both Jennie and Christopher have been real life gaming opponents for essentially all my days of board gaming. We played countless board games as kids along with my brother Ben and my cousin Katie, and almost always play games when we get together although this usually only ever happens when we are all able to gather at my uncles' farm during the annual family gathering at Thanksgiving. This has become fairly difficult since each of us has become far separated from one another. The farm is in Vermont, while I reside in New York, Jennie in South Carolina, and Christopher in Kansas. My fingers are crossed that we will have the opportunity for a session this November. Yes, I truly miss mopping the floor with the old gang and would love to do so this holiday season! Now, if any of them ever actually read my blog, this should get them all riled up, which is a good thing...they'll almost certainly play angry and be way off their game.

Great time playing a painful game

Back to our session on Thursday. The experience was incredible. I had a great time chatting with Toph & Jennie and actually getting to play a game with them was a rare treat. That being said, the game certainly was brutal in a couple of ways. First, although I have played quite a few games on this site the other three players were Xplorers virgins: they all knew how to play the board game, but since they had never used this particular interface, the entire game was spent familiarizing themselves with how to actually get things done. Trading especially takes a little practice since players need to know how to ask for cards from other players, counter-offer, trade with the bank, and reject an opponent's offer. Familiarizing oneself with this system makes for excruciatingly long turns. A few more plays down the road a game of Xplorers will probably take between 30-45 minutes for us to complete. Unfortunately this one lasted twice that long. The other problem for me in this particular session is that I made poor choices for opening settlement positions (as did Jennie, although she does have the excuse that she's only played Settlers twice...I can't make such a claim). The result is that Jennie and I were almost mathematically eliminated from contention after two or three turns. Neither of us had access to the proper resources or the room to expand our territory sufficiently to win the game. What this means is that I spent the final 1:15 minutes of the game waiting for the misery to end.

Final Score: Ugly

Results: Toph obliterated all of us because of good opening placement, a bit of experience, and a little luck; I will admit it here and now that I was thoroughly outwitted. He may have one the battle, but mark my words: I will win...the next battle! It really was a lot of fun, and future games will certainly be even better since everyone will be more familiar with the interface, turns will progress much more quickly, and hopefully I'll preform more like the most experienced player of the group rather than the least. Was this experience even close to as much fun as playing with the same group in person? No, I don't think so, but it is the only way I can frequently play games with these people I love, and there is certainly much to be said for that. My life is richer because we've started to play these games, perhaps not so much as it would be if I were playing regular board games with friends face to face in this area, but a great development nonetheless. I await our next game with much anticipation.

Additional reading

One additional note: There are several sites on the internet that allow you to play board games online. Settlers of Catan seems to be the most available for online play, although I know Carcassonne and Ticket to Ride are also available (Carc on AsoBrain, even), and legions of Euro style board games can be played on BrettSpielWelt, a german boardgaming site. I urge anyone looking for a little more boardgaming time than their immediate surroundings allow to check out some of these resources. http://www.games.asobrain.com/ in particular is very accessible and I highly recommend giving it a shot if you enjoy Settlers of Catan or Carcassonne. BSW is definitely worth a look too, but I have yet to play there since it is a bit more intimidating and complicated. Get online and give it a shot!

Friday, July 27, 2007

Looking Past the Game of Life

So you played board games as a kid. You wonder why most of the games you see at Walmart are either the same old games you've been playing all your life or new gimicky ones that couldn't possibly be worth wasting time playing, much less actually purchasing. Maybe it's because the best games have already been developed and there just aren't any good ideas left. False. There are hundreds of new boardgames that have been released in the last couple of decades that blow away the so called classic games that crowd Walmart shelves around the world. In a way I'm a little bitter about this. Many times I've seen articles written by those who loved boardgames in their formative years but have no idea of the wealth of great games now on the market. I just want to scream: "Try Settlers of Catan, IT WILL CHANGE YOUR LIFE!!" Just because you're old now (and I am!) doesn't mean you can't play boardgames! If you're like me you may just find you love boardgames even more now than you did then. Problem is, these incredible new games don't just come to you--they're not quite as mainstream as the monopoly and risk games of years past--to find them you need to look a little beyond the Walmart shelves. Now this isn't to say most of these games are obscure, quite the contrary: many are unqualified successes, hovering just below the surface of the mainstream.

It saddens me that so many people who really do love games at heart never do discover this new world of boardgames. However, it is also undeniably rewarding to be part of the minority that has access to these gems. It feels good to be special, but sometimes you still wish everyone else could be special too! Don't you want to be special? I thought so. Now, by the way I'm rattling on here you'd think that I'm an expert on the subject. By no means is this true. I have merely begun my exploration of this new world. Due to a lack of gaming group to play with in this area I still have yet to try many new games. Here are three I have played and why you need to give them a shot:

1. Settlers of Catan
Released in 1995, this undeniable classic really set the ball rolling in the modern game industry. Settlers wasn't the first game of this modern era (I don't even know when you'd say the 'modern era' began!), but it was the first to really make a big splash. There are hundreds of reviews on this game on the internet, especially at www.boardgamegeek.com/ so by all means look around and read up on it. Here are some of the reasons I love the game:

The 'board' consists of many cardboard hexagons that represent different terrain types on an unpopulated island. Each game starts by randomly constructing the island, resulting in a unique distribution of terrain hexes for each play. This ensures that players will need to be flexible and adapt to different opening conditions each game. Also, it makes for a unique experience every time the game is played. Prime real estate is an important limiting factor in the game as players vie for the best positions on the board that will produce the best resources, which in turn allow them to build settlements and populate the island. Almost every move you make effectively limits what each other player can do. It is also important to maximize the benefit of the resources you acquire by managing your hand through smart building and timely exchanges with other players. A great strategy game that has plenty of luck as well to keep even novice players in the hunt. One last thing: Settlers isn't just a game, it's a franchise. A host of games have been released under the Catan umbrella, the two most notable (Seafarers of Catan, Cities & Knights of Catan) both expand the base game by adding extra terrain and rules.

2. Carcassonne
Carcassonne is a tile laying game depicting the countryside around the southern French city of the same name. The basic mechanic of the game is very similar to that of dominoes: each tile is played alongside at least one tile already on the table. Each side that touches another tile must match terrain features along the adjacent side(s). For instance to place a new tile next to a side that depicts a city, the new tile must have a city side as well. As you play tiles and construct cities, roads, cloisters, and fields, you place your pieces (followers) on tiles, then score points for completed features when you have more followers than the other players. The components are beautiful and there is lots of strategy to consider as you play. Carcassonne is easy to learn and definitely worth a try.

3. Puerto Rico
Puerto Rico is probably the best game amoungst these three, and that's saying a lot. Players act as plantation owners in Puerto Rico during colonial times. During game play, players produce five types of commodities, construct buildings, manage resources, & ship goods back to the old world. Instead of having a set order for each action in the game, Puerto Rico uses a mechanism that allows each player to choose a 'role' or particular action. Each player then performs that action, with the choosing player getting a bonus. Thus much of the game is determining which roles will be the most advantageous to you at any given time. Puerto Rico involves almost no luck, so those looking for a deep strategy game should love this one. PR is rated the number one boardgame on boardgamegeek, and is generally considered the best or one of the best boardgames of all time. Play it and find out why!

So, children, here's the moral of our story today: go out and find some new games! Do some research online and pick a game you'd like to try. Find a friend who has it, ask about demoing a copy at a local game store, or just get out there and buy a copy! Boardgames are better than ever, so you owe it to yourself to revisit the long lost friendship that is boardgaming... One final note: You may ask "So what do you think of The Game of Life?" No comment.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

What I Love (and Hate) About the Board Game Experience

By no means am I an expert in the field, but I do love board games. Is this reason enough for you to listen to my ramblings on the subject? Absolutely, it is! Board games are a great way to spend quality time with family and friends. The good ones are fairly simple to learn, force players to us their brains to excel, have immense replay value for a reasonable purchase price, and, best of all, serve as a means for friends to interact and converse rather than as a distraction from those activities that movies or video games often are. Don't get me wrong--I enjoy video games, especially classic ones, but there's just something engaging about playing a great board game. Well designed board games with quality components provide me great pleasure, in both a visual and tactile sense. Shuffling cards, moving pieces, placement of tiles, rolling of dice, and then the sight of the game unfolding one move at a time before you, to me, is a rewarding experience indeed. This is not even touching one of the most engaging aspects of the pastime: the competition!

Everything I know about board games I learned from my uncles

Of course, the best thing about board games is when your uncle gets that glint in his eye that says "Nathan is exactly 7 spaces from Park Place and 9 from Boardwalk, sounds like it's time to mortgage my utilities to finally build those hotels I've been planning!" Yes, I was schooled in board games early in life by my uncles up at my grandparent's farm in Vermont. Sure, it is only a game, but what good is a game if you don't try your best to win? Sure, this might come across as cutthroat, especially if you yell "HA! Take that!" at that moment you crush your hapless opponent, but some things in life just can't be helped.

Dude, it's just a game!

I take board games very seriously. I also believe that the point is to have fun. Some people may think that these two stances are contradictory, but that is certainly not true. Being serious about a game simply means that I respect the rules and the systems that have been put into place by the game designer(s). I very rarely use house rules since I feel that the game as published is nearly the best possible version in almost all cases. Certainly house rules can spice up a tired game in some instances, but in general they sabotage a designer's well thought out plan and ultimately make a game less fun to play. For instance, take the house rule in monopoly used by almost everyone who plays the game: Placing extra money from taxes and fines into the middle of the board which is then awarded to a player who lands on free parking. This adds playing time onto an already long game, and increases the amount of luck involved in an already heavily luck dependant one. So when someone says "let's put money on free parking, that'll be more fun!" what that ends up meaning in reality is that the winner will much more likely be determined by luck and the game will probably last an additional hour, all of which leads to a less interesting and more agonizing session.

Boardgame S&M anyone?

Of course, if you prefer your board games to be boring and agonizing, enjoy pounding your forehead against the table out of frustration, and love subjecting your friends to the same, go right ahead and throw that money into free parking! I mean, that is the way the game is played, right? Now, don't get me wrong, I didn't always feel this way. I too have spent many years playing house rules, especially in monopoly, because it always seemed like a good idea as a kid. Ah, my years as a misguided youth! [I'm a misguided adult now, thank you very much!] We're grown-ups now, it truly is time to take on something that actually rewards good play instead of the whim of the dice.

A code beyond the rules

Taking games seriously, to me, also means playing in a way that is consistent with the point and spirit of the game. I believe each player should play to win to the best of his ability. If all players do that I feel that overall you will have the best possible game, spirited and fun for all. I especially hate what I would call intentional kingmaking, where one player has decided (s)he has little to no chance of winning and therefore gives an undue advantage to another player and thereby throws off the natural course of the game. For instance, in monopoly it is perfectly legal to give some or all of your property to another player for free. If you decide you will not be able to win, you could give a monopoly and all of your cash to another player so that a third player, who is the current leader, can't send you into bankruptcy and take all of your property on a subsequent turn. In such a case the hard work and smart moves that the 3rd player has made to get to such a strong position is wiped out simply because you decide to throw the game. Nothing to me is as disappointing or infuriating as a move such as this. Although not against the rules, such play undermines the spirit of the game and makes it feel pointless and the results arbitrary.

I leave you with two points that really dredge up the worst of board game players:

  1. Cheating--If you don't care about the process of the game and the challenge of winning honestly, but only about the results, how about not subjecting your friends to your psychopathic tendencies? Simply set up the game on your own, declare yourself the wiener and move on.
  2. Complaining incessantly or blaming the dice/other players/poor circumstances for your own inability to play well. If you seem to lose a lot but would be really awesome at the game if it wasn't for bad dice rolls and your obnoxious friends always ganging up on you and making your game sessions miserable, see my suggestion for cheaters above. If you can't peacefully play with others, just go play with yourself!

Thank you for reading, and good day.

Friday, July 13, 2007

So, I'll admit it, I have a gambling problem.

Well, it's probably not quite what you'd think but it is a problem nonetheless. I'm not (yet) a compulsive gambler since I don't spend an inordinate amount of time or money on the pastime. In fact over the almost four years since I've been living close to a casino I've only been there three times. The unsettling fact about my recent gambling forays is that I just can't seem to win. Now some quite rational folks might interrupt me here to offer a reminder that this is, in fact, the point. (At least from the perspective of the casino, that is!) Well, for better or worse I'll have none of that. I'll add, as a brief side note, that my most recent gambling session resulted in a loss of a mere $50. Good news, right? Considering the last time I went I somehow managed to drop $250 at the tables, there's really no other way to look at this more recent trip than as a major victory! Okay, now to return to reality.

Once you go Blackjack you never go back

To me gambling is almost always either blackjack or poker. I'll play poker against human opponents, but when I'm playing against the house I prefer blackjack. Now, this game has a reputation of being the only casino game that can actually be beaten. Fortunately for the casino the vast majority of blackjack players seem to interpret this rep as meaning blackjack 'can be beaten by any idiot with a lot of cash who's willing to bet big.' Now you might want to stop me here to ask if these players actually call themselves idiots in their own thoughts like that. Of course they don't but really, a few thoughts in the hands of such people can be very dangerous indeed. So I think we're all better off if I just do the thinking for them.

Back to my point: what this reputation really means is that under certain player friendly rules a player who has the ability to count cards, a proper sized bankroll, mastery of the game's basic strategy, and the discipline to walk away from the table when ahead is theoretically able to beat the game long term. As you may be able to guess, the percentage of blackjack players that fall into this second category is a fraction of a percent, and they certainly win much less money than the first category of players generously donates to the casino.

It pays to be Progressive

Now, as a blackjack player I fall somewhere between these two extremes. I subscribe to a hypothesis presented by Walter Thomason in his book Twenty-first Century Blackjack. Thomason argues that card counting isn't necessary to win consistently at blackjack. He champions a system based on positive progressive betting paired with proper execution of game fundamentals. Positive Progressive betting is simply raising your bet after every winning hand along a predetermined progression. For example, I may follow a 10, 15, 20, 25, 30 betting progression. My first bet would be $10, I would increase it to $15 following a win, and continue to move along the scale until I topped out at $30 or I lost a hand. After any losing hand I would return to my initial $10 bet. Now most mathematicians who have studied the game of blackjack have discarded (no pun intended, really!) this system without much consideration because since each hand is completely independent of the previous one there is no reason for you to believe that the hand following a winner would have any greater chance of being a winner than if it had followed a losing hand. Despite this, Thomason demonstrates such a system's effectiveness through thousands of hands of simulated play.

Streaking for Fun & Profit

Thomason's best explanation for why this system seems to work is that blackjack is a game of streaks. Many times during a playing session a player will experience several (or more) consecutive wins or losses. During such streaks, the positive progressive player will tend to have much more money on the table during winning streaks and much less money on the table during losing streaks. Unfortunately for me during my last trip to the casino, I had more losing streaks than winning streaks. Using this system in such a case can still be beneficial since it minimizes the amount of money lost during such rough sessions. Of course, it's little consolation that I could have lost a lot more!

Perhaps next time I'll be a little more fortunate and end up with some of the casino's money instead of it ending up with mine. Of course, at this point my wife is simply convinced that I'm just plain unlucky and should quit now while I'm only a little in the hole. My philosophy is this: I've been lucky so far in life in lots of ways. Somehow I ended up with a great wife, two healthy kids, and a job I don't hate. Also, I'm still alive. Even more amazing, the Red Sox finally won the world series in 2004. If that isn't being fortunate I don't know what is. From where I'm sitting it feels like only a matter of time until some of that good mojo rubs off on my gambling sessions and sends me home a winner. Finally.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Welcome To My Blog!

And So It Begins...

I start writing here with lots of unresolved questions about this new venture. Will I actually ever post anything here? Do I really have anything at all to say, much less anything interesting? Will people visit my blog even if by complete accident I say something interesting or relevant or funny? Can a blog survive without having any theme or direction? Who am I anyway? And most importantly (and I think Douglas Adams would agree): When is lunch?

I guess my primary objective in starting a blog is to have a chance to write a bit and hopefully along the way find a primary objective for my blog. I suppose I'll probably write a little about my family, a little about food &/or wine, lots about gambling, board games, classic video games, and the Boston Red Sox, maybe a thing or two about my friends (if I ever get any), some commentary on politics (if I ever learn anything about it), share my musical interests, and generally babble on incessantly until someone tells me that I really should just shut up and spare the world the aggravation of reading such inane drivel. If I really get on a roll I might even grace you with a 'that's what she said' line or even practice the time honored tradition of sexual innuendo. It is probably to the benefit of any hapless soul that happens upon this blog that I never get on a roll. Now where was I? Ah, yes, wandering aimlessly.

If you are familiar with the novels by Douglas Adams or the films by Monty Python you may suspect from my writing style and sense of humor that I am obsessed with both. Of course if you are such a person you would also be stunned at how I could be influenced by such sources and yet not be the slightest bit funny. This is a conundrum even I cannot answer.

Anyway, my name is Nathaniel and I have a blog. Please give me your feedback or simply shout profanities in my general direction. I can take it. In fact, it would probably make me feel pretty special to know that somebody hates me.