Sunday, October 23, 2005

14-month old board gamer

I'm as pleased as can be. As I href=>mentioned earlier,
we've been doing "Baby Signs" with our daughter. A week or two
ago, she learned a new sign: She holds her hand flat, and with the
other hand makes a tapping/poking motion on the surface of her hand.
It means "board game". Can you see me beaming from here?

She loves playing her board games. Of course, as a 14-month-old,
"playing" means examining the bits, moving them around the board
fairly randomly and occasionally scattering them about. So far, we
play a lot of Chutes and Ladders (Sesam Street edition) where she
moves the pieces around the board (not even uniformly occupying
squares) and spins the spinner in whatever order she deems
appropriate. She has gotten down the notion that you move the pieces
a space at a time, even if her sense of "space" is any point roughly
an inch and a half from where it was before.

We also play a lot of Enchanted Forest and the last time we played was
quite a success. I put all the trees face down and asked her,
"Where's the wolf?" (The bottoms of the trees have pictures from fairy
tales) I then picked one up, looked at it and showed her, saying
"That's not a wolf, those are 7-league boots?" From then on she
picked up the trees one at a time, and I asked her if it was the wolf,
until she found it.

We've also tried Frechdachs (her first Reiner Knizia game) though she
doesn't seem to enjoy that one as much. She takes the bits in and out
of the "suitcases", but it doesn't hold her attention as long.

Cathedral has also been fun, though she's more interested in
scattering the pieces than putting them on the board, but that may
have just been a product of her mood.

Finally, Face-it has been a big success. Face-it has plastic pieces
that rest on a lattice grid. The other day, I put out the board,
grabbed the bag and took a piece out, placing it on the board. I then
handed her the bag. She drew a piece out, and put it on the board.
We proceeded to take turns, drawing and placing until the board was

She'll be getting a few more good ones for Christmas.

Okay, so by most people's standards these aren't really "playing a
game", but as a father it's pretty exciting, especially that she'll
frequently be playing with a toy and she'll scoot over to me and sign, "Board game?"

(Also, see the href=>GeekList
version of this post for links to the games)

Essen 2005 Games

Yesterday, I got the chance to play a bunch of Essen 2005 games. Most notably I did not play Caylus, largely because the first game of it took well over 3 hours and I wasn't in the mood for that kind of duration. I'm sure with experience it gets shorter, but I'm a bit averse to games that start at 3.5 hours.
Here are my 1 or 2 play quick comments on each, in the order I played them:

Beautiful artwork, interesting if not especially amazing game, and it's desperately in need of a reference card. Without it, it was common to get confused about the various card placement limitations. I'm also not so sure there's much plan ahead, but it's cute and small.
Sushi Express
Super random, super light, quite fast, not bad.
Techno Witches
Surprisingly engaging pre-programmed measured movement race game. The components are nice and the mechanics are clever. My only wish is they had components for more than 4 players. It cries out for a Harry Potter brand licensing.
Odd Adlung game about collecing spherical objects. Not awful, but nothing too inspired and definitely an odd theme. I bet if you translated it to English and named it "Balls!", you'd get sales on the name alone. Gameplay has an interesting bit or two but ends up feeling mundane.
Simple slap-jack style speed recognition games with attractively illustrated little elemental men. If you like that sort of thing, it's pretty good.
Much better than Candamir. It doesn't feel that innovative, but it is a well crafted combination of familiar mechanics along with a few clever bits. If you like Catan-style development games, this is definitely worth a try.
Disappointing. Very luck of the draw/draft driven and even when I felt I had control I didn't enjoy it much. It has some serious similarities to Taj Mahal, but I think I'd rather play that anyday. It might be better with fewer (we played with 6).
Nice exploration/development/pick-up-and-deliver game. The actions cards are a bit more variable in power level than I'd like ideally (ie, some are very good, some are quite poor) but it's still nice. The exploration element here is very light, but I like it. Plays reasonably quickly too.
King Solomon's Mine
Very cool, but in the end I didn't actually like it that much. Very nice components, though the levels of the stacks are often a bit difficult to read, which is crucial to gameplay. There's also a fair amount of downtime with minimal if any ability to plan ahead. I feel like something's there, but I'm not quite sure.

(See also the GeekList version of this)

Sunday, October 16, 2005

"Hot" Games

People, including me, come up with all sorts of measures for
enumerating and ranking the "best" games. I personally am a big fan
of Joe Huber's "Happiness" metric, but find it not quite complete.
Briefly, the Huber Happiness of a game is: (rating-baseline)*(game
length * number of plays) where the rating and baseline are on a 0-10
scale (baseline of 4.5 is recommended) and game length is in minutes.
It's a good metric, especially for "best games of all time" and that
kind of thing. However, it misses two qualities I often want included in such a ranking: novelty and "replayability".

Actually, it partially encompasses replayability, in that it includes
number of plays, but this can be canceled out by game length. That
is, 9 plays of a 20 minute game (total, 3 hours) seems likely a
stronger indicator of replayability than 1 play of a 3 hour game or 2
plays of a 90 minute game. So, times played needs to get some more
weight. Of course, "novelty" only applies when looking at a time
window. When you're talking about "all time" there's no such thing.
But, when making something like a "game of the year" or "hot games
this month" list, older games should at least be penalized somewhat.

To this end, I've got a "hot games" metric I've been using for a few
years which I find does a great job of matching my subjective
perception. Having an objective measure of my subjective perception
has an advantage because I can look at my games lot and say "what was
the hot game for me in fall of 2003?" or the like without having to
have recorded it then.

So, my "hot games" metric is as follows:

P = plays of game during interval
T = plays of game, ever
H = Huber happiness from game during interval
S = 1 + (P/T)
X = S*S*sqrt(P)*H

where X is the final score. The "S" term gives a substantial (but not
overwhelming) bonus for novelty and the sqrt(P) term gives a bonus for

What this yields is that my current hot game (looking over the past year) is Fiese Freunde Fette Feten. A year ago today, it was San Juan. A year before that, Electronic Catchphrase. A year before that, Puerto Rico. At some later point, I'll have to generate my (retroactive to 2000) "Matthew's Game of the Year" list or perhaps even "Hot Game of the Quarter".

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Big Games: TI3e, Battlestations and American Megafauna

I don't tend to play a lot of long games. I play a lot of games that
take an hour or less. I play several that take an hour to two hours.
I occasionaly play a two to three hour game. I play games longer than
three hours very infrequently.

Despite this trend, I've played 3 games recently that exceeded this limit though.

First, over the summer I got to play American Megafauna multi-player
for the first time. American Megafauna is a brilliantly detailed evolution simulation game. I'd played it with the solitaire rules before and
found it very interesting, but I don't tend to like solitaire, so I
hoped this would yield an even more interesting multi-player game. I
was wrong. It's not awful, but the randomness that is interesting and
challenging in solitaire is dominating and annoying in the
multi-player game. If I recall correctly, this clocked in at just
over three hours, but it's not likely to be something I'll repeat
multi-player any time soon. Maybe I'll pull it out solitaire someday
when I feel like a good evolutionary romp.

Most recently, I played Twilight Imperium, 3rd edition. This was
good, but wow was it long. Including rules explanation, all four
players having never played before, and a dinner break, it took over
six hours, and we only played to 8 VP. There's a lot going on here,
and I expect to play it again, but it's a shame it is so demanding.
Certainly, with experienced players it would go much more quickly, but
the time required to get experienced would be substantial.

Finally, in late summer, I played href=>Battlestations. This
is almost an RPG rather than a board game, but it's close enough.
It's a game of tactical space combat and boarding action. This was a
blast. Absolutely wonderful, with few qualifications. We played one
fairly elaborate scenario and it took about 5 hours, maybe a bit more
including rules. But, compared to a traditional RPG, this time
included teaching the rules, creating characters, playing the entire
"adventure" and wrap-up. It's been a while since I played a real RPG,
but a five hour session was never enough. Battlestations manages to
really successfully capture the feel of high-action space opera
science fiction. The rules are straightforward, if large. We played
where I acted as a GM, but you could clearly play in a more
traditional player-vs-player mode and have it work well. I really
look forward to trying this one again.

In summary:

  • American Megafauna: C- (works better solitaire)
  • Twilight Imperium, 3rd edition: B- (loses most of it's points for being really long)
  • Battlestations: A+ (very fun experience game)

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

More obscure hobbies

My original Obscure-Hobbies post got some good replies and I've thought of a few new ones:

  • Geocaching - I can't believe I forgot this one. It's gaining in popularity, but for now it's sufficiently obscure.
  • LEGO building - This is sort of borderline. I guess most people don't realize there are adults who have this as a serious hobby, so that qualifies it as obscure.
  • Underwater Hockey - This is a great one. I'd never heard of it or even imagined it. Rather neat.
  • Power Kites - Jeph Stahl mentioned this. I actually had the opportunity to try this out, years ago, in grad school, and it had quite an impact, literally. These are kites that are shaped like airfoils which mean they produce a huge amount of lift. My one experience with this, it dragged me across the beach and actually knocked me out. It also caused temporary amnesia of the preceding 6 hours. The kites are pretty cool, and for that matter, temporary memory loss is a sort of cool, if a bit disturbing experience to have. Once.
  • Chess Boxing - I saw a link to this, which was the actual inspirating for me posting this additional list. I like the idea of alternating rounds of boxing and chess, but it's a slight shame there is no interaction in the two events, other than the fact that I assume it's harder to concentrate on chess after being hit in the head repeatedly.
  • Contradancing - Again, I'm not quite sure if this qualifies. There are a wide range of forms of obscure dance. Most people are aware of square dancing or folk dancing in general, but Contradancing (while very similar to square dancing) seems to qualify to me. Plus, I have many fond memories of contradancing in the late 80s.

So, the total list is now up to 11: German Board Games, Disc Golf, Fly Ball, Change Ringing, Puzzle hunting, Geocaching, LEGO building, Underwater Hockey, Power Kites, Chess Boxing and Contradancing. What else?

Wednesday, October 5, 2005

Baby Signs

Signs is a very cool idea. I had heard about it before my
daughter was born, and we decided to give it a try when she got the
appropriate age. The basic idea is that many babies reach a point where they have the cognitive capacity for language, but lack the vocal control necassary for spoken language. They do, however, have sufficient motor control to make some sophisticated hand gestures.

I was optimistic, but a bit skeptical about the whole notion. My
primary rationale for being skeptical was that if this really works so
well (allegedly helping prevent tantrums because of improved
communication, increasing early communication with the child, etc.)
why isn't everybody doing it. But, we decided to give it a try.

We probably started signing to her around 6 months, and she seemed
pretty oblivious to it. Then, almost exactly on her first birthday,
she figured her first one out. In the two months since then, her
signing vocabulary has exploded. She has a bunch of spoken words too,
but her signs tend to be much clearer. Sometimes it's not clear if
she's saying "bye-bye" or "buh" (book) twice. When she signs, the
difference between flower (sniffing dramatically), apple (fist to
cheek, with motion), banana ("peeling" your finger), eat (fingers to
mouth), and others is quite apparent.

The fact that she can scoot over to us and sign for "eat" when she's
hungry or tell us at snack time what she wants specifically is
amazing. Without the signs, I'm sure she'd eventually figure out a
word or we'd figure out what she wants just by her general agitation,
but this short circuits all that nicely. Currently, she probably is
picking up a new sign less than a day after we start using it.

So, if you've got a pre-verbal baby, I can't endorse this enough. The
only remaining question is why isn't everybody doing this with
their babies?