Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Arkham Horror

This post should be titled "Game Night", but when one huge game oozes in, gets comfortable, and won't leave, I have to make an exception. Tonight, I broke out my brand new copy of Arkham Horror to test drive with a friend. It was the monster that I expected.

I had read through the entire 24-page rulebook twice before buying, and the FAQ, and the clarifications, and the FFG and BGG forums, so I knew what I was getting into. I was somewhat prepared for the evening and didn't expect we'd finish our first game in 4 hours.

We did not. The first hour was just setting things up. I expect this to be more like 10 minutes next time. The second hour was playing through the first turn. I expect this to be more like 2 minutes next time. When we called it, we had played through maybe 10-12 turns.

The problem is not the game; it's the rules. They read like a "Choose Your Own Adventure" book. Not only do cards break the rules, the rules break the rules. I think Arkham Horror is not anywhere near as complicated as the rules make it out to be. In typical FFG fashion, they do not organize their design before putting it on paper. So when a card directs you, for example, to move your Investigator to a location that has a gate and a monster, you find yourself having to consult sections of the rulebook that have nothing to do with the Encounter Phase to try to guess how you are supposed to resolve the situation.

It's sad, because the game is a lot better than the rules. I'm just not sure I'll ever play it as intended, because the answers to the endless stream of questions over the years are mostly specific clarifications rather than an overall cleanup of the system (which would in no way change the game itself). For a really good and well-researched synopsis of the entire system, check out UniversalHead's incredible Arkham Horror Rules Summary.

We drew everything randomly. We got Amanda and Mandy versus Hastur. In a 2-player game, there can be only 5 monsters in Arkham at any given time, and only 6 in the Outskirts before the Terror Level increases.

A gate appeared in The Woods. We started on our mad rush for Clue Tokens, basically ignoring what the various locations offered. A second gate appeared on Unvisited Isle. Then we drew a card that put 5 extra monsters on the board that would keep building up every turn until we defeated them all. That got our attention. Fortunately (?) the next Mythos card was Unvisited Isle again. This caused a monster surge, but opened no gates and caused no Doom increase...

There are so many options available to you, it was hard for me to decide what to do. I got caught up so much just playing out my current turn that I wasn't really paying attention to the big picture. I know this will change with experience. For example, Mandy got sucked into a gate, survived her 3 turns (one of those exceptions) in the Other Worlds, but returned with only a single Clue Token remaining. I was looking for way to get to a location with a Unique Item symbol so I could perhaps rush her an Elder Sign if I was lucky enough to get one. Was this even a good idea? So much to do. So little time...

The physical design is pretty good. The board is very functional, although a little busy when full. I think I can even make the insert work, but it's not perfect.

Overall, I would have enjoyed playing out the 2-4 more hours that it seemed we would need to finish the game. I like the gradual, and sometimes sudden, buildup of monsters and gates. I like that you can go to locations with specific plans or wants. I like that you can tweak your skill levels each turn. And I like that you get to use a lot of cool items, spells, and skills even though some may go away after one use. There's plenty more where those came from...if the shops are still open.

I think this was a good choice for a nice long immersive solo game. For a comparison of Arkham Horror and 5 other cooperative games, check out this post.

Arkham Horror image by Nodens77

Saturday, October 20, 2007

New Games!

My 1960-triggered game order has finally arrived. I am happy to report that I have no crushed or dented boxes nor any missing pieces. The full rules to 7 of the 8 games were available online, and the 8th was a no-brainer from the images and reviews. All I've done so far is open the boxes, punch the sheets, and drool.

1960: The Making of the President: My god! I was expecting a 4-section board. This baby has 6 sections! It's enormous! 26x30" (66x72cm). The only issue is the insert. There's really not enough room for everything. I am reluctant to flip it over, like some have, because I want to support the board on the ends. Maybe I'll just stick the bags of counters underneath.

Arkham Horror: After reading the complaints about this box, I was expecting a Mission: Red Planet disaster--a pile of punched tokens overflowing the open box. I was able to bag everything and get it back in the box without much fuss. I do wish the insert was a little deeper, though, so the cards would not extend above the top.

Il Principe: I agree with all the complaints about this one. It's the same size box as 1960. The board is 1/6th the size, and there's only a single handful of parts. Fold the board in half and you could fit the entire game into a Citadels box. The components are just ok.

Khronos: It seems they went to a lot of trouble to design the insert for this game. It's really sturdy, printed with the various game colors to organize the tiles...and completely inappropriate. The smallest tiles are about 1cm square. The compartments in the insert are not sealed, meaning that small bits can get stuck/lost between compartments. This is not good especially since the component counts are fixed in this game. The detailed plastic miniatures are only 1" tall. I'd prefer wooden cylinders to these clumsy things. In general, any game with wood and cardboard and plastic bits has been improperly designed.

Lord of the Rings: Battlefields Expansion: I'm surprised the rules aren't available online. Is this a choice by FFG or simply an oversight?

Portobello Market: I hate when games restrict your color choice by number of players, but I guess it did save them from having to put an extra 24 large wooden market stalls into the box.

Shazamm!: I've been enjoying this quite a bit online. I haven't won a game yet, which says a lot for a game that may seem at first like every choice you have is completely random. The mana track is a little small. I'm worried that we'll loss track of the values during play.

Vikings: I've been back and forth on this one. There were never any red flags, just a worry that it would be blah.

Lessons to learn. Think not only about how the game must be packed for shipping, but also how people are going to be packing them away after playing. Allow extra depth for unknown card thickness and for pieces being stored in bags.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Game Nights

The respective game nights of the past 2 days have been a great way to distract myself from real world memories. Lots of new stuff getting to the table. I'm trying to be more of a "type A gamer", as coined by Valerie Putman.

Lord of the Rings: Friends and Foes: I played this solo (2 Hobbits) 2 weeks ago and died in Isengard. I played it last week with 2 players, and we died in Helm's Deep. Last night we played a 3-player game, and died in Shelob's Lair. This expansion is really kicking my ass. I've won the base game more than lost playing solo with Sauron at 12. I think we need to start Sauron at 15 until we get a better feeling for how to change tactics with this expansion. Very cool though.

Sleuth: I love deduction games. I've owned Sleuth for years, but didn't get it to the table until tonight. The 3-dimensional nature of the information does make for a more interesting and complex game than Black Vienna. The choice of cards and who to play them on is really nice. You can play a card with a single attribute and get a public count, or you can play a card with 2 attributes and get a public count but also see the actual cards secretly for yourself. In our 3-player game, I was able to deduce the hidden gems with only about 6 questions per player. I'm certain I could have done it sooner, but I was learning how to record the information and changing my mind on the fly. Another hit.

RoboRally: Another game I've owned forever and never played. What a shame. This was a real blast. I laughed at myself even when I made mistakes. The one unexpected thing was that players with severely damaged bots might have only 1 card to play. This means they are starting the timer immediately. If you are in a complex situation, you really don't have time to think, much less factor in what the other players might do. But it's really ok in this game, and makes it even more fun!

Lifeboat: A couple more players showed up. Now we had 6. Fortunately I had thought to throw Lifeboat in the game bag. It was the first time for everyone, including myself. My description of the rules did not seem to impart as much understanding as normal. It took almost the whole game before people were getting into the flow. There were a couple of very interesting fights. The final scores were 20-20-16-15-14-13, with no one dying. I think the next game will be a little more nasty. I have quite a few questions on game play for BGG, if I can just remember them all.

RoboRally image by kilroy_locke

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Rest In Peace, Sassafras

Late Sunday night, Mary Ann and I made the very difficult choice to have our kitty Sassafras put to sleep. She was 19 years old, and had been dealing with minor health issues on and off for over a year.

Last week she stopped eating and drinking, and developed more severe problems. It was unclear if she was in pain, but she was certainly distressed and not herself. The vet had only theories, which would have potentially required weeks of hospitalization just to keep her alive long enough for a diagnosis and subsequent treatment.

Sass was a very sensitive cat. She preferred to remain hidden in her favorite nooks and crannies unless she wanted something. Dropping her into a clinical environment with other animals and IV's, and getting poked and prodded by strangers day after day would have been a torment for her.

I must say that despite my intellectual, practical, and reasoned outlook on life, I was quite unexpectedly shattered by the experience. It's been 2 days, and I can barely go 5 minutes without thinking of her. Sometimes I used to think how nice it would be not to have a cat. Now I would give anything to have her back.

She had lots of favorite spots to hide, to sleep, and to be near us when it suited her. In fact, the entire house was basically hers. When she wasn't using it, she allowed us to sit in her chair. If she wanted food, she never let sleep get in the way...mine that is. The smaller the box the better. Books were for sitting on. Paper was for shredding.

It's amazing how many little things she was a part of. Her presence could be seen in every room. Now everything seems a little more lonely, a little more empty. We will miss you.

Rest in peace, Sassafras.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

BGG Ratings

The master game ratings list on BGG is the target of quite a bit of fuss from time to time. Why is this game rated so high? Why is that game rated so low? How can these 2 games be rated the same? As usual, I have several thoughts on the matter.

E Pluribus Unum

BGG is a melting pot of gamers with different tastes in game genres, themes, mechanics, play times, components, and weights. The image above is meant to show the various groups in varying degrees of overlap. It is not intended to represent reality, nor to imply that any given person is only in a single group. The number of ratings and the values of those ratings depends on how active that group is on BGG.

Just look at the kinds of disparate games that all appear in the top 50: Puerto Rico, Battlelore, Die Macher, Go, Tichu, Crokinole, Ticket to Ride, ASL, Dune, and Blood Bowl. Where else are you going to find these 10 games together? It's unlikely that many people rate them all highly. Yet they all share the status of being loved by--at least--the fans of their respective kinds of games.


As with political elections, BGG's rating system allows anyone to "vote" regardless of how "informed" they are. In saying this, I don't mean to criticize. But it is certainly true that a person's gaming experience is going to affect their perspective.

Settlers of Catan is rated by over 11,000 people. I would be very interested to see a graph of the number of ratings given by these 11,000. I would say that the "core users" of BGG (those who login every day, play many different games, etc) numbers well under 1,000. I could be wrong.

My point is that I think that, in many cases, the ratings by the core users is a small fraction of the data, the largest being "drive by" input. This, in addition to the melting pot effect, further complicates any sort of meaningful information.


One particularly bad effect of ratings is the need for people to validate their tastes. You hate Puerto Rico, yet it's ranked #1. So now it's your job to attack it at every opportunity. You love Monopoly, but it's ranked #3921. You must defend every post made against it.

Many games I like quite a bit are ranked 500 or worse. I couldn't really care less what others think of them as long as I can find opponents.


This is a tough one. I suppose the ratings could be one factor of many when looking for games. I would not count it very high, but I supposed viewing the game list from #1 on down until you find something that appeals to you for other reasons is not a bad way to go.

A much better way to find games is to use the GeekBuddy system, or to read GeekLists with topics that interest you.


The one positive thing to be gained from game ratings, other than pure entertainment, is discussion. When two people on opposite sides of the fence are discussing a game's merits and failings, a lot of useful information might be conveyed to others reading the thread.

It may also be discovered that a person who disliked the game may have been playing it incorrectly, and that this very mistake was the cause of the dislike.


Some say, "Either I like it, or I don't." Some use a slightly wider scale. Some use 1 to 10 with decimals. I use 2 different scales depending on the context.

On BGG, I rate games from 1 to 10, but then differentiate game on the same level using increments of 0.25. This granularity is useless in a practical sense; there's no real difference between 8.25 and 8.5. But when I consider the two games in question, I still feel that one is slightly better than the other.

In my head, I use a 4-tiered system:
A: Games I will suggest and play almost any time.

B: Games I won't suggest, but will play if they are suggested.

C: Games I will argue against if suggested, but will play if out-voted.

D: Games I simply will not play.
You would think that the D games should be a non-factor, but there are enough popular ones in that category for me that I still run into them quite often.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Random Is Random

Has this ever happened to you? You are playing some game which requires every player to draw a card from a shuffled deck. You accidentally draw before your right-hand opponent, and they exclaim, "Hey! That's my card!" I only tolerate this sort of irrational behavior if the player is less than, say, 10 years old.

Let's ignore mathematical definitions of true randomness for this discussion and say that any reasonably-well-shuffled deck of cards/tiles, and any rolled dice are random enough for game purposes.

In college, I had a friend who claimed that if no one knew the order of cards in a shuffled deck, then all the cards changed when you touched them. In his facetious way, he quite nicely summed up the "quantum" nature of the unknown. It doesn't matter if you draw the top card, the bottom card, or any card in the middle.

In games like Die Macher, some cards are drawn and placed face-down to be revealed at some point in the future. Does this give players the false sense of some eventuality set in stone? It's no different from waiting to draw the cards until the point that they would be revealed. Unless this changes the distributions in the deck for intervening actions (I've only played once), but you get the point.

In Arkham Horror, there's a plethora of decks. Among these are the 9 decks of Location Cards, 7 per deck. When you need one, you draw the top card from the appropriate deck. When a card is "discarded", it is returned to the deck which is then shuffled. 9 decks take a lot of space! It's much easier to simply put all the Location Cards together in a single deck, and shuffle them all. When you need a card from a specific "deck", just fan the cards out and draw an appropriate card. When you return a card to the pile, slip it in the middle and give the whole stack a quick shuffle.

Some games require the rolling of varying numbers of dice. Some people are very sensitive to the "rules of conduct" when there are abnormalities (cocked dice, wrong number rolled, rolled off the table, etc), or when the intention of the roll was incorrect ("I wasn't rolling for attack! I get to re-roll!"). The bottom line is that it doesn't matter, as long as everyone agrees how to resolve all situations. My preferences:
  • If you roll too many dice, always re-roll all of them regardless of the outcome.
  • If you roll too few dice, only roll the extras needed.
  • Re-roll only cocked/off-table dice.
  • In all cases, previously-rolled dice may not be "bumped".
Many games "suggest" tiles should be shuffled and formed into a specific number of stacks. In most cases, this is only meant to facilitate laying them out in groups during play (eg Puerto Rico, Santiago, Alhambra). However, the tiles could be in a single stack, or even drawn from a bag as needed.