Session Report – GameStorm 2003

I had the pleasure of attending the GameStorm
convention in Portland
, OR last weekend. I had business travel on Friday and a
Cub Scout Pinewood Derby to run most of Saturday, but managed to spend time at
the con Saturday evening and most of Sunday. I went by myself Saturday, but
brought the whole family on Sunday. KC Humphrey ran an excellent “Intro to
Euros” session on Sunday that I thought would be perfect for my wife Julie,
son Jacob (age 8), and Matthew (age 6). I had originally planned to just take
Jacob, but Matthew became pretty distraught at being excluded and I decided to
take a chance and bring him. He has played Carcassonne, Settlers, and a few
other similar games.

Saturday Evening – Solo

Settlers of Catan – Cities and Knights

I have played Settlers of Catan as well as the 2 player card game, but never
this expansion. It took a while to understand the mechanics, and I found
myself trailing most of the game (we played 5 players on the 4 player board).
I really enjoyed the added complexity of this expansion – there are more
choices to make and more tension created by the raids. I enjoyed this so much
I bought the expansion from a retailer at the convention. I ended up finishing
in the middle of the pack with 8 victory points but only got that close when
an opponent interrupted one of the two leaders’ longest road with a knight,
giving me the new longest road.

Carcassonne

I managed to get in two casual games of Carcassonne in the open playing area.
I played against two opponents that were just learning, and there was some
initial confusion on the scoring, particularly for the farmers. I won the
first game and finished second in the second game.

Sunday – with the Family

Our morning was spent with KC Humphrey and Jay Schindler who were running the
Intro to Euros track, designed primarily to introduce families to German-style
games. We hit it off – KC and Jay were just fabulous with the kids; they made
the day worthwhile.

Liar’s Dice

Believe it or not, I had never played this game, and it was the biggest hit of
the day with the kids. Probably because it was the first time they were able
to repeatedly call their mother a liar! This is a keeper and I’ll be looking
for this at a thrift store soon. Matthew, Jacob, and Jay won with 5 dice (we
stopped when the first player ran out of dice).

Viva Pamplona

The theme was a blast – running with the bulls in Pamplona and accumlating
bravery points. We raced along trying to stay close to the bull, and KC ended
up accumulating the most points.

Wildlife Adventure

I loved the cards and theme for this game – traveling the world trying to
locate endagered species. We played very cooperatively, and Julie was the
first to go out and accumulated the most animals.

6 Tage Rennen

I’ve heard that this game about bicycle racing is fairly rare (it was
published in 1988). It was moderately enjoyable, but I don’t see much replay
value. This is a game where a random factor would actually help. Coming from
behind seems almost impossible. Toni, a young girl that joined us for a while,
pulled ahead at the end for the victory.

Aquarius

After finishing the Intro to Euros session and having some lunch, we spent
about two hours at a Looney Labs demo. I’ve
played Fluxx and
several of the Icehouse games,
so was eager to try a few more Looney games. We first tried Aquarius, a card
game similar to dominos. Very light but enjoyable, but given a choice between
this and Fluxx I think we’d usually choose Fluxx. Matthew won this one.

Martian Chess

Jacob and I gave the Icehouse game of Martian Chess a try next – even though
we have several Icehouse stashes we had yet to try this one. We both found
ourselves making bonehead moves – it is hard to get used to controlling the
pieces by location, not color. I sneaked by and won 15-12.

Chrononauts

Jacob and I sat down with two others to try this. It looked a bit daunting for
Jacob given the historical context for the game, but we both loved it.
Definitely a heavier game than Fluxx (in fact, the heaviest Looney game that
I’ve played). Jacob sneaked up and won this one.

Carabande

I’ve always wanted to play this – our family has enjoyed carom boards (we have
one and several of our Indian friends do as well), so the combination of a
flicking game with racing was a sure hit for the boys. They spent 90 minutes
here and we had to drag them away. Not sure I want to fork over the $ for my
own copy, but I’ll give it serious consideration.

InfoPath and CAB Files

As Scott mentioned
yesterday, we’ve been playing with InfoPath and we were sufficiently
impressed. We had some great meetings with Microsoft today, and took some time
to demo the tools for some Microsofties that hadn’t had the time yet to see
the environment. We did the same demo – building a simple front-end for adding
new weblog entries to ChrisAn’s BlogX. Demo
worked great – went from nothing to spell-checking front-end in less than 3
minutes.

Someone then mentioned how cool it would be if the .xsn specification file was
completely transparent as well (read: XML), but we were disappointed to learn
(after opening in Notepad) that it is clearly a binary format. How could they
stoop so low?

So what do I learn after arriving in my hotel room and pulling down my feeds
in NewsGator? Clemens points out that it
is just a CAB file.
And inside you can find tidy little (OK, so not all of them are quite so
little) XML, XSLT, XSD, JS file. Pleasant surprise.

Review: Alpha Playing Cards

Tim Schutz was kind enough to send me a free deck of his Alpha Playing
Cards
for review. Tim has done some
great work, and his focus on gaming systems rather than just games is very
appealing.

An Alpha deck consists of 74 cards – 42 consonant cards, 30 vowel cards (each
vowel card has two vowels printed on it), and 2 wild cards. You can purchase
a deck
from
tjgames, or print one out for
yourself. There is a similar mass-market game called
Quiddler that is
similar, but I find the card distribution and extensibility better in Alpha.

I have played several different games with Alpha with adults and kids. It has
already become a staple filler game for our family. My 2 sons (ages 6 and 8)
enjoy some of the simpler games, and we’ve found interesting variations of the
games that allow us to handicap the adults to let the kids be more
competitive. Let’s discuss a few of the games.

makeAword

This is a great, open-ended game for kids where the victory conditions can be tuned and tweaked to suit the audience. 7-10 cards (more cards make the game easier) are dealt to the middle of the playing area, and players alternate making the best word possible from the inventory. The cards are refreshed after each player makes a word. The winner can be determined by points, funniest word, word with most consonants, etc. This one is Matthew’s (6) favorite.

6×6

A solitaire game in which you try and use up all of the cards in a 6×6 grid.
This solitaire game is the better of the two – I found there were more choices
to make and strategic elements than in WordSolitaire.

Alpha War

This is modeled on the game War played with standard playing cards. The deck is split in two, and players alternate dropping cards in the center of the table. Once three cards are on the table, a player can either make a word or pass. When a player makes a word, she gets to keep the cards. The goal is to capture all of the cards. Matthew enjoys this one as well.

WordSnake

This is an unusual game and one I expect to play more. There are no turns –
play happens in real-time – it reminds me of some of the
Icehouse games. Each player is
dealt 13 cards, and a central pool of 9 cards is placed in the center of the
table. The dealer calls “1,2,3, GO!” and players proceed to try and build a
word snake – words with at least 3 letters, where each successive word begins
with the last letter of the previous word. Play ends when a player uses all of
their cards and calls “Stop!”, or when all players pass. Players score points
for letters in words, and lose points for leftover letters. The game is tense,
frenetic, and fun.

AlphaRummy 500

This is rummy for Alpha cards. Melds are made by making words of 4 letters or more, with bonus multipliers for longer words. You can also play cards on existing words to make new words. My wife Julie and I played this one and had a blast – we expect to play it again.

Summary

If you would like a “portable Scrabble” that can be played quickly and is easier to teach kids, get this game! I strongly recommend it for educators and home schoolers. The price is right and you might even enjoy designing your own games.

Review: Laser Squad Nemesis

Odds are, you haven’t heard of this game. You won’t find it on the shelves of
your local retailer and you won’t see see 16 year olds lugging it to LAN
parties for death matches. Laser Squad
Nemesis
is a turn-based, tactical, squad-
oriented game played via email. It has a real-time feel to it though – this
isn’t like most hex-oriented turn-based war games.

The game is very light weight and approachable. The client is free to download
and you can get started quickly with the tutorials. In a LSN game you are
pitted against a single opponent – each can play one of four races (Marines,
Machina, Spawn, or Greys). There are a variety of maps to choose from and a
flexible map editor is included with the game.

Once you have tried the tutorials, you can play up to three games against a
real opponent before paying for a subscription, though you are limited to
playing the Marines on just a few maps. This try before you buy philosophy is
very attractive, and subscriptions are low-risk if you want to get your feet
wet playing the full game ($7 for 1 month, $15 for 3 months).

A Laser Squad game begins with force deployment – each player has a number of
force points and an area on the map on which they can deploy their forces.
This is a key strategic element to the game – which units to use, where to
deploy them – decision based on both the map and the race of your opponent.

Gameplay involves controlling individual units in an attempt to either wipe
out the opponents units or destroy the opponent’s headquarters. The central
LSN server resolves each turn and emails the turn results to each player. I
won’t go into strategy here (you wouldn’t to follow my advice any way – I’m
still a rank amateur), but there are great guides
published and a continuous stream of community participation. The masterpiece
of strategy guides is the Grenadier’s
Bible
.

I’ve had no problems finding random opponents and recruiting friends – this
community has critical mass and the game is here to stay. If you are a fan of
X-COM, Squad Leader,
or would just like a break from the frenetic pace of RTS or FPS, try this
game.