Giving Thanks With Gaming

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A week from now, Americans will be sitting down at Thanksgiving and joining with friends and family around tables in shared gratitude. Actually, Thanksgiving put this way sounds like what I do every week with dice, cards and game pieces instead of turkey and side dishes.

The time after Thanksgiving dinner was traditionally a time for games at my grandparents house when I was a kid. After the dishes were cleared, some of my uncles would sack out on the couch in front of a football game on TV but I always lingered at the table where the real games were happening. My grandmother, great aunts, aunts and mom would hold court at one end of the room-length table with a few rounds of Bridge and family gossip. At the far end, some other aunts and uncles hauled out a well worn Scrabble board and played a steady game of vocabulary one-upmanship. Some of my cousins would spread around on the hallway floor for games of War, Parcheesi and Hi Ho! Cherry-O. As the eldest of my many cousins, I always sat at the big table for dinner and there I mostly remained watching the adults play their games.

This year I’m particularly grateful to be hosting my brother and his family for our holiday shared meal. My brother is my oldest gaming partner dating back to the 70s and 80s when we first discovered oddly-shaped dice and little metal miniatures to paint. We are both fortunate to have wonderfully understanding wives who who have partnered with us in raising a second generation of tabletop gamers, and all of us will be present in Brooklyn for Thanksgiving this year.

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After dinner games

Our tastes in games range wider than the traditional board and card games favored by the older generations in my family. Even so, getting four adults and five kids (boys and girls ranging in ages 10 to 16) all engaged in the same game today remains a challenge. Our interests and commitments vary, but here are few which have worked for our family’s diverse audience over holidays past.

  • Dixit makes for a light but engaging game right after dinner with the various family members pairing off into story-telling and story-deciphering teams. This is a great multi-generational game to play since the kids can just as easily out-baffle the adults by using the key game component they always carry — their imaginations.
  • Guillotine switches the tone and ratchets up the humor for the Francophiles and budding historians with a twisted sense of humor. Nothing says family time at our dinner table like the beheading of aristocratic one-percenters during the French Revolution, all played with goofy cards. It might be a bit too off-color for some families, but all our kids dig this one.
  • For the classically-romantic, multiple hands of Love Letter makes for a royal crowd pleaser as cards are quickly played in a quest to win the heart of the fair princess. Lest that sound overly mushy, there’s a ton of game wrapped up in just a few cards which easily play anywhere. The Batman version will also make a first appearance this year, switching up courtiers with DC Comics heroes and super villains.
  • One Night: Ultimate Werewolf seems to fit the natural progression from dinner into evening. My extended family can be a bit on the boisterous side, so squaring off as villagers versus a werewolf threat in tense 10-minute games. I’ve heard from a lot of people who love playing this one with family around the holidays, since it inevitably brings out the liars and agendas in the crowd.
  • As the evening rolls on well past dessert, a couple pots of coffee and a few drinks, some of the kids and adults will inevitably drift away from the table. For those of us who remain, a rowdy round of our favorite Letters From Whitechapel makes for a grand late night hunt for Jack The Ripper. Set on the dark streets of Victorian London prowled by cops, prostitutes and a famed serial killer, a group of players team up to hunt for Jack as he secretly makes his way home. If the theme doesn’t seem to fit the holiday spirit for you, think of it as a way for you and your family and friends to work together in one of the better cat-and-mouse games I’ve ever played.

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Black Friday games

The Friday after Thanksgiving is a day off for many, and hoards of Americans are up early, out the door and racking-up credit card debt with overly-publicized Black Friday shopping. Since I do everything I can to avoid the masses over the holiday weekend, the Friday after our family feast presents a rare full day to be filled with gaming. This year it’s also my visiting brother’s birthday, and celebrating the day is a great opportunity to pull a few a few of the larger board games off my shelf. I usually max out at about 2-3 players in these games, so having up to five players around the table will be a treat.

  • Civilization: The Boardgame is one of the granddaddys of civilization-building games. The game built on the innovations of the original Civilization games with a progressive “tech-tree” mechanic where technologies build within a historical timeline over thousands of years. Players march toward victory through different paths of warfare, culture and technology, allowing each player to work to their strengths and interact with human history along the way. With the Fame and Fortune and Wisdom and Warfare expansions, more possibilities and a fifth player are added into a game which stretches across the eons and a few hours of play.
  • Slaughtering the undead through an apocalyptic wasteland again doesn’t sound very holiday-like, Zombicide is a great collaborative game of survivors versus mobs of zombies. Like my formative dungeon-crawling adventures with Dungeons & Dragons in the 1970s, Zombicide follows a party as they collect weapons and other survival items, level up in ability and accomplish missions. The game quickly goes from bad to worse over a couple hours, and working together as a group is the only way of surviving.
  • One of my favorite multi-hour games is Arkham Horror, based on the Cthulhu Mythos of H.P. Lovecraft. This is a big, beautiful game set in a sleepy New England Town inexplicably invaded by netherworld beasts. Adventurers team up, acquire weapons and magical items and seek to destroy the beasts who threaten the world with dominating insanity and destruction. Events, monsters and player characters all come with a deep narrative that unfolds throughout the game, taking this game off the board into a terrifically eerie role-playing experience.
  • While not a long time commitment, the card-driven Marvel Superheroes Legendary is best played in a big group of superhero players teaming up to foil the evil plans of an arch nemesis. Another collaborative game, Legendary really “feels” like a comic book to me with various hero characters growing in power and skills which play off the other characters on their team, whether it be the X-Men, Avengers or Fantastic Four. My brother and I have been huge Marvel Comics fans for decades, so getting into a game which has characters leaping from the page to the table is still as much of a thrill for us in our late 40s as it is for our kids.

Every family has their holiday traditions, and each generation builds on these and creates their own new traditions. Games remain a constant thread for my extended family through the holiday run from Thanksgiving through Christmas. The themes, mechanics and mechanics may have changed over the years, but at the root of our gaming is the chance to spend a few hours playing with those closest to us. This Thanksgiving, step away from the screens, clear the table and find your own gaming tradition with your family and friends.

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New Game Weekend: Arkham Horror

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Released in 1987 and then vastly revised in 2005 and 2007 by Fantasy Flight Games, Arkham Horror is one of the modern classics in horror-fantasy boardgames. This past weekend, the creatures of Arkham Horror invaded our home in Brooklyn, and my sons and I have a new favorite.

Based on the writings of H.P. Lovecraft and his Cthulhu Mythos, the game casts 2-8 players in the roles of investigators in the fictional town of Arkham, Massachusetts during the interwar period of the 1920s. The New England town has been beset by the terror of strange rumblings of monsters invading the streets accompanied by weird magic, supernatural beings and strange goings-on. The mission of the investigators is to travel through portals to Other Worlds and seal them before a great Ancient One emerges in the town. Along the way, investigators accumulate clues, arcane items, spells and skills by visiting various locations in the town. If the portals are not closed in time, the horrific Ancient One rises and squares off in a final epic battle with the investigators in a last-ditch effort to save Arkham and the world as we know it.

wtcoversIssues of Weird Tales magazine featuring the work of H.P. Lovecraft from 1927 to 1937

H.P. Lovecraft is a darling of gamers and science-fiction/horror fans, and his influence resonates throughout today’s pop culture of movies, comic books, fantasy literature and gaming. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Lovecraft published a series of short stories broadly placed in the weird fiction category combining elements of horror, science fiction, fantasy and crime genres. With its troubling themes of peril and unknown, weird fiction was perfectly suited for a broad mindset of American society just emerging from World War I, living through the Great Depression and watching the storm clouds of World War II gather on the horizon.

Weird fiction found a home with the cheap pulp-paper magazines popular in the first half of the 20th-century including dozens of titles such as Argosy Magazine, Amazing Stories, Western Story Magazine and Weird Tales. Within their wondrous and often racy covers, pulp magazines featured everything from western adventures, jungle stories, Victorian detective tales, sword and sorcery plots and science-fiction wonders. Authors such as Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert E. Howard, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Lovecraft could all be found side-by-side within these magazines. The stories from pulp magazines were of profound influence on countless later 20th-century writers and directors, perhaps most famously with Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. As kids in the 1970s and 80s, reprints of many of these pulp tales filled the heads of my circle of friends and informed our lifelong interests in all things weird and fantastic.

CsketchA 1934 sketch of Cthulhu by H.P. Lovecraft

One of Lovecraft’s most enduring stories, The Call of Cthulhu, was first published in Weird Tales in February 1928. The story recounts a mystery of an ancient cult of a mythic tentacled beast known as Cthulhu and the worldwide quest to uncover its origins and its new rise to plague the modern world. Through subsequent stories by Lovecraft and other writers, the world of the Cthulhu stories grew to be dizzyingly expansive in it depth of detail and plot. Today, Lovecraft’s Cthulhu universe serves as an insidery geek shorthand that stretches from stories, games, comic books and compendium reference books to clothing, statuettes, cupcakes, tattoos, jewelry and countless other collectibles.

10649826_10203907450141018_1116891535581886976_nArkham Horror from Fantasy Flight Games gets unboxed at our house

My older son recently scored a free copy of Arkham Horror after serving as a counselor in training during the summer day camp program at Brooklyn Game Lab, and we jumped into a full weekend of playing this wonderful game. People familiar with products from Fantasy Flight Games will find a box of incredibly well-designed pieces, with a richly-illustrated game board and hundreds of cards, playing pieces and reference sheets. The rules are daunting and require several plays to wrap one’s head around, but eventually Arkham Horror moves along briskly in a couple hours of gaming.

The game is basically a race against time until the Ancient One awakens to destroy the town. Much like an adventuring party in role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons, players choose to play as one or two of sixteen roles such as a researcher, magician, gangster, nun, archaeologist or drifter. Each character begins with set standard and specialized equipment, money, spells, skills and allies laid out on a card depicting base abilities. The abilities — speed, sneak, luck, lore, will and fight — are each measured on a track that allows a player to boost or lesson their effectiveness at the beginning of each turn. Players move to various locations within Arkham where they find clues, engage in encounters or perform other actions like healing at the hospital, hiring allies at the boarding house or shopping for items at the general store or curiosity shop. Armed with items, skills and spells, characters either engage in combat with revealed monsters or attempt to slip by them. Taking damage from monsters or other encounters reduces an investigator’s Stamina (ie, health or hit points) or Sanity, driving the player closer and closer to death or madness.

At the end of each player round, a Mythos card is revealed opening a new portal to the Other Worlds, spawning new monsters and moving monsters already in the town. A character moving to a portal spends two turns journeying in one of eight Other Worlds where they may encounter more monsters or find objects. Upon emerging from the Other World, a character attempts to close or even seal the portal at the location. Each turn, the Ancient One moves on step closer to awakening. Players must either close or seal a set number of portals before the Ancient One arises for a final battle with all the players.

10639448_10203907820550278_4188666163549777050_nArkham Horror laid out for our first games this past weekend

 Like Lovecraft’s written work, there is an enormous amount of story in Arkham Horror. The game plays like a rich role-playing game with backstories on the investigator characters and detailed information on the various cards and monster pieces. Since the game is collaborative, everyone either wins or loses, making collective planning and playing to each character’s evolving set of equipment and abilities a must. For instance, certain characters may be more adept at moving quickly and acquiring valuable items while other characters may be better suited to go to battle with physical or magical beasts. In a battle with the Ancient One, the collective strengths of the entire group will combine to have any hope against defeating the creature and saving Arkham.

My sons — ages 14 and 9 — played three games of Arkham Horror with me this past weekend, and it’s a big hit at our house. We’re all fairly experienced gamers and we’ve logged many hours with some pretty heavy boardgames like Civilization, also from Fantasy Flight Games. Arkham Horror is suggested for ages 12 and up, and the flavor text on the game cards and mechanics were a bit on the challenging side for my younger son. With that said, with a little help on the heftier vocabulary words, he enjoyed the story, collecting items and using various combinations of gear, spells and skills to destroy some monsters and seal portals to the Other World. By the end of the weekend, my older son and I also started getting a handle on using characters in combination to effectively work through the rising tide of beasts and terror in the town. No matter the age, Arkham Horror is going to push any gamer’s skill and sanity to the limit.

New Game Weekend: Civilization & Advanced Civilization

CivAdvCivBoxesEarlier in the week I posted about the elegantly quick board game Eight-Minute Empire: Legends I first had a chance to play last weekend at Metropolitan Wargamers in Brooklyn, NY. After a brief, engaging 20 minutes with Legends, I joined four other players in another game that was also new to me and a completely different experience — Advanced Civilization.

CivMapCivilization game board with Western expansion map to the left

Civilization by UK game designer Francis Tresham was published by Avalon Hill in 1981 and introduced a number of now-standard gaming elements found in many board and video games today. Ten years later, Advanced Civilization offered some refinements, additions and simplifications to the game. Playing with 2-8 players and running to 8, 10, 12 or more rivetingly-complex hours, Civilization has become one of the signature games of the past 40 years.

CivASTAdvanced Civilization’s innovative  Archaeological Succession Table (AST)

At its core, Civilization is an area control game played in the Mediterranean region in an 8000-year period spanning the Stone Age through the Iron Age. Each player picks a civilization and places a single population marker in a territory in their color-coded beginning edge of the board. Territories each support varying numbers of population, indicated in each area. Population doubles each turn, so one marker grows to two. If the space cannot sustain more than the noted number of population markers, players must move and expand their population to new territories or “starve” population down to the maximum load for the territory. A population census grid on the Archaeology Succession Track (AST) notes population growth of each civilization and determines the order of play the following turn.

Moving six population markers to a space with a black square allows the settlement of a city, and twelve may settle a city in a blank space. Establishing cities allows the harvesting of goods the likes of Hides & Ochre, Salt & Timber or Gems & Dye. Drawn in turn order, the stacks of commodities cards also hide calamity cards which have adverse effect on a civilization through such things as Famine, Civil War, Flood or Volcano. Each round includes trading where players must keep certain untradeable calamities while trading away certain goods and other calamities in the quest to collect sets of cards which may then be turned into technologies. The technologies build upon each other through the building of a Technology Tree (“Tech Tree”) which advances with additional abilities and protections for the civilization. Simple beginning  technologies like Pottery, Mythology and Music aid early societies but lose importance over time. Philosophy, Democracy, Law, Trade Empire, Advanced Military and Golden Age technologies score the greatest points and advance a society through the  Stone, Bronze and Iron Ages to eventual victory.

IMG_2859Advanced Civilization at Metropolitan Wargamers

The AST and Tech Tree become the major machines in propelling the game forward, and evolutions of these elements have been incorporated into countless board and video games since their introduction with Civilization. These two innovations make Civilization and other subsequent games like Clash of Cultures focused more largely on elements of managing resources and cultural advancement than traditional combat-focused area control games like Risk. Resource management and building based on collection of resources shows up in so many games, prominently so in the widely-popular  Settlers of Catan. Somewhat controversially, the video and board game versions of the Sid Meir’s Civilization franchise owes a great deal both in its mechanics to the Avalon Hill game which preceded it in theme and name.

Civilization is incredibly compelling and eerily historic in how it plays and forces the hand of history. Players who begin with small civilizations are forced into territorial expansion through population growth or risk starvation of their people. Once cities thrive, feeding those cities becomes another concern and reason for more expansion. Soon, players find themselves in a loop where development begets expansion begets development. Isolated societies have to begin moving farther afield over land of through developing shipbuilding and sailing technologies. Resources become important to build technologies to further enhance and protect their civilization. By building more cities, more valuable goods are obtained and more advanced technologies may be developed. With all players expanding their societies by mid-game, civilizations eventually must compete for room in the region. War becomes somewhat inevitable, but diplomacy and mutual-beneficial trade also gain special importance as the game moves on and civilization begin to settle into specific paths to winning the game.

Of the hundreds of games I’ve played, I now understand why Civilization holds a special place in the hearts of gamers. Committing to hours upon hours of play becomes a game mechanic unto itself as players of Civilization must maintain focused attention on mentally-exhausting detail. Yes, Civilization is a game, but a marvelously intriguing one to play in the context of our own world where population, space, resources and technologies play out with increasingly dire importance as human civilization marches toward our own eventual historical endgame.

New Game Weekend: Dixit Journey

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I play a lot of games with my kids. I started them at an early age, so they have a pretty healthy knowledge and love for hefty wargaming miniatures games like Flames of War and elaborate strategy games like Settlers of Catan, Village, Canterbury and Civilization. Even with a big stack of boardgames crowding our shelves, we regularly run into new games that capture our imagination in new ways. After several rounds of of Dixit Journey with three generations of my family over the Thanksgiving weekend, we have a new favorite in our constantly-growing list of favorites.

journeycontentsDixit Journey is a variation on the family of games and expansions from Asmodee , an award-winning French Eurogame publisher. In essence, Dixit is a storytelling game with the only real skill needed is your imagination. Each round a storyteller player secretly selects an illustrated card from their hand of six cards and announces a clue somehow referenced by the picture on the card. Anything can be used for a clue — song lyrics, characters from a book, famous quotes, historical figures, TV shows, sounds, news stories, etc. — provided it somehow references something depicted on the card. After the clue is announced, the other players then likewise secretly select a card from their hands which they think may also depict the clue in some way.

Cards are then revealed and laid out along the edge of the board. All players except the storyteller then place their guesses on the card they think is the storyteller’s card. Player guesses are then revealed with points going to the storytller if their card is selected and to other players whose cards were also guessed on. Choosing an overly-obvious card and clue combination everyone guesses correctly results in no points for the storyteller, so balancing a clue and card pairing that is both guessable but not too literal is key to the winning the game.

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Like many Eurogames, Dixit is simple on the surface with minimal rules and reading but creatively open in how it plays out. In our games, one clue was given as an interpretive dance of sorts. Other clues included movie references, literary allusions and just flat-out odd phrases inspired almost wholly by the cards themselves. Part of the fun of the game is to see how it plays out with different people’s minds interpretting the same clue in multiple cards.

For a taste of how a game of Dixit plays, check out  the episode below of Wil Weaton’s always entertaining Tabletop web series.

Dixit is a gorgeous game with trippy, weird and abstract cards that may be reused over and over again. The many expansions available add more storytelling possibilities to the game, and the Journey edition makes some improvements on the scoring and game board included in the first edition box. Playing in about a half hour and with multiple players or even teams, Dixit makes for a great nighttime game with family or friends of all ages after the dinner plates are cleared.

New Game Weekend: Canterbury

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This past week I arrived home from work one evening to find a package in the mail containing the first game I’ve received from backing a Kickstarter campaign. Canterbury from Quixotic Games was successfully funded at just over $58,000, a relatively small game when compared to recent runaway Kickstarter hits like Zombicide: Season 2 at $2.2 million, All Quite On The Martian Front with just over $300,000 in funding and the current it-game Mars Attacks which looks to be cruising to a finish over a half-million dollars.

As promised in the steady stream of updates from the game makers, Canterbury is an exceedingly well-manufactured board game with tons of sturdy cardboard playing pieces and typical colorful wooden markers. The game presents a board containing 25 districts, each with six building lots. Each lot contains spaces to indicate water, food, religion, defense, commerce, and culture services which are provided as players build out the board.

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Beginning with a simple well providing water to the central district, players take turns performing one of three actions. A full build action allows 1-2 buildings to be constructed, depending on size and moneies available. Levying taxes gains a full monetrary collection based on the current economic strength of the entire kingdom, and a player using a levy play must perform on full build of 1-2 structures on their following turn. A third option allows a player to collect half the avilable taxes and build a single structure.

Building and placing structures provide services to the board. A small, single-lot building gives that distruct the available service while a medium-sized two-lot building provides the service to that district plus the districts surrounding at right angles. The five largest structures are built at a high cost, cover four building lots and provide their service to the local district plus any five other districts on the board. Planning comes into play as buildings may only be built when previous services are available in a district. For example, religious structures may only be placed when the prerequisite water and food services are already present in the district. Previously-constructed buildings may be demolished to upgrade existing services or expand on already-provided services.

There are lots of points to keep track of in Canterbury, adding up to many strategies toward winning at the game’s end. Erecting a structure gains points for the player as well as the kingdom, and players receive bonus points when breaking ground and building in empty districts. Once the kingdom passes the 100-point mark, players score “district favor” points based on the prominence of providing services to each district. Providing services also moves each player up an additional scoring track with those points scored at the end of the game. Points are again counted at the 200-point mark. Once the kingdom’s wealth takes three laps around the edge of the board to 300 points, the game ends with a final tally of points.

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The game is a bit lighter and faster than other civilization-building games I’ve played like Settlers of Catan, Civilization, Clash of Cultures and Village. That said, even with the brisk pace of the game, there’s a lot of strategy to be had. Players must always balance their own plays for points with the riches and services they are providing the kingdom (and other players) as a whole. Racing to provide services, build structures and gain an early lead on district favor points looked to be the key path to victory in the first game I played with my sons. Collecting and spending money at a balanced rate was also important since sitting on a pile of coins at the end of the game doesn’t provide much in the way of points.

Like any civilization-building game, Canterbury strikes a great balance of real-world competitive and collaborative construction play. My older son thought injecting the game with random events like floods or droughts might spice up the straightforward play a bit, but overall the three of us really liked the quick, well-structured play and progressive organization on the board. As a Kickstarter supporter, I’m really pleased with the results of Canterbury and I’m glad to have been there to see the kingdom’s development from that lone well in the wilderness.

Games Take A Vacation

I’m currently midway through my family’s annual summer vacation week on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and as always, games are on my mind. Renting a vacation house often gives an odd insiderish view to other people’s lives. The weird assortment of kitchen gadgets (who needs three waffle makers?), the hodgepodge of furniture, the collection of beachy knickknacks and bookshelves of worn bestsellers all seem to exist in various forms in the homes we’ve rented over the years. I always wonder how much this conglomeration of stuff reveals about the unseen owners who cash our rental checks each year and how much it tells me about my fellow vacationers.

Piles of games also usually inhabit vacation rental homes. Cottage owners probably provide a few games to start. Over the years families may pick up a game at a local gift shop and then leave it at the house for the next renter. For rainy days away from the beach or late nights after the sand has been rinsed off sunburned bodies, games hold a pretty consistent presence in the vacation home experience. I would hazard to guess that families who hardly ever find themselves playing board or card games together at home do so as part of their sacred vacation ritual.

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Games found in vacation rentals usually fall into a few broad categories. First, there are standard playing cards. Adults and kids alike can find many games for cards, from a calm game of Go Fish with a toddler to a game of Poker on the screened porch for the grown-ups after the children are tucked into bed. The house this summer has no less than ten decks of cards, including two unopened packs and a sailboat-decorated double set like the ones my grandmother and aunts used to use to play Bridge. Cribbage boards are also pretty commonly found along with cards, although I personally know few people who know how to play the game these days. Poking around in drawers and shelves this year revealed five cribbage boards, including two folding portable ones and a folksy handmade version with holes drilled into a slab of age-darkened wood cut into the shape of a whale (pic below). Tucked in a desk drawer I also found a set of five standard six-sided dice still sealed in their dusty package. Like so many items in a vacation home, I wondered at the story behind these dice. Why were they purchased? Why have they been left abandoned for so many years without use?

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The second class of vacation games fall into what I call “American Classics.” These are family-friendly board games like Life, Monopoly, Chutes and Ladders, Checkers and Clue. To these I’d also add word games like Boggle and Scrabble, the dice game Yahtzee and Dominoes, all  of which were with us in this year’s house. Nostalgia and tradition resonate with these games, each offering a familiarity to vacationers year after year. These classics also give the flexibility for  games to be played among family members of all ages and the chance to introduce a new generation to an old favorite.

This year we also found a copy of Mastermind at the house, a classic board game outlier I’d never encountered in a rental cottage before. I hadn’t played in probably 30 years but was glad to find my eight-year-old son was an old hand at the game from playing a school. While not very challenging for me at this point, I was more than happy to pass an hour with this classic deductive code-solving game as part of a rainy day of indoor activity.

Finally, there’s the modern adult party games like Trivial Pursuit, Pictionary, Scattergories, Balderdash and Outburst which grew out of the boom in adult board games in the 80s and 90s.  These games are light on rules and big on group participation, making them the perfect thing to fill rowdy late nights for adults well into their gin and tonics or local summer brews. A copy of 1967’s trivia game Facts In Five was in the pile at the house this year, perhaps the result of a local yard sale find in the past.

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Along with packing the car with luggage, beach gear and bikes, we usually stow some games for our annual week away. This year, we hauled along several games from home, including Small World, Civilization (pic above), Settlers of Catan and the horse racing game Winner’s Circle. My kids and wife have developed a liking toward well-designed strategy games and can even be found delivering sneers and eye-rolls at the mere mention of a game like Monopoly. A simple deck of cards or a heap of Parker Brothers classics just don’t make the grade when there are grand civilization-building strategies to be played, even while on vacation.

Like many vacation home renters, I often fantasize about owning my own funky little cottage on the Cape. Part of this fantasy is how I’d decorate it with only the most thoughtful and interesting collection of furniture, useful yet surprising books and top-of-the-line kitchenware. Added to this list would be a set of well-curated games, short on too many classics and filled out with the best Eurogames there are to offer. Maybe a couple basic Dungeons & Dragons books and a bag of polyhedral dice sitting on a shelf would inspire some vacation role-playing. I’d be sure to throw in the occasional retro game for irony, but my hope would be be that my renters would be pleasantly surprised by having their minds expanded while on vacation.

But then, I wake up from my real estate dream and realize most people probably don’t want a challenge on vacation. A deck of cards or a familiar board game is what most folks will ever want on those few precious days away from home each year. For me though, gaming never takes a holiday.

New Game Weekend: Innovation

Humans at one of our most basic levels are builders, and gaming offers a wide variety of opportunities to experience the push of civilization building over time. It’s no surprise then that one of the big genres a lot of board, card and even video games fall into is civilization development. The combination of historical facts and the linear nature of societal advancement through the ages lends the subject to a wide variety of games. Gamers return again and again to the chance to play out the evolution of technology, philosophy, warfare, religion, agriculture and art. Sid Meir’s Civilization, Small World, Settlers of Catan, Clash of Cultures and Tzolk’in are just a few of the games I’ve played that fall into this broad category, both historically-based or set in a fantasy realm.

This past weekend at Metropolitan Wargamers, a few of us played through Innovation, the 2010 award-winning card game from Asmadi Games. Retailing at $20, the game consists of 105 unique and text-heavy cards played against a simple set of rules but with a lot complexity in keeping track of your own civilization’s innovation track.

Like most civilization building games, Innovation proceeds along a linear timeline from the Stone Age to the Modern Era. After starting with four cards laid out in front of them, each player chooses two actions in each turn: Draw, Meld, Dogma or Achieve. Cards are drawn from chronological eras numbered 1-10 with cards depicting progressively-advanced innovations. A meld action allows a player to play a like-colored card on top of a card already laid out in front of them. Melded cards supercede the innovation on the cards previously played underneath.

The dogma action is where the meat of the game takes place. Each dogma allows a variety of single or multiple actions that can affect not just the one player but other players displaying equal or greater numbers of symbols such as crowns, factories, lightbulbs, castles, leaves, etc. Dogma actions can result in additional drawn or discarded cards, taking cards from other players or fanning the pile of cards to the right, left, up or down.  As cards are collected and scored, players can take an achieve action to score a level of era achievement for their civilization. Some dogma actions allow a combination of cards to be used to score special achievment cards such as Monument, Empire or Wonder. The first player with five achievements wins the game.

As with most civilization development games, Innovation involves a lot of balance between charting your own progress while keeping an eye on the advancement of other players. Certain dogmas are extremely valuable in moving your civilization forward, but they may also assist the other players, too. This combination of collaborative and competitive play allows Innovation to mirror the arc of human societal development as the ebb and flow of alliances and strength can shift from turn to turn.

Innovation is deceptively easy out of the box, and it’s only through a play through a game or two that the true complexity is felt. Unlike other civilization games which can often  involve managing hundreds of pieces, charts and cards, Innovation’s simple card mechanic is one of its strongest points. The devleopment of human civilization has been a complex road for sure, but with Innovation the road doesn’t get bogged down in a big box of stuff and all the strategy you need is right there in the cards.