Category Archives: boardgames

Heisting Dice

Wednesday night is, when possible, boardgame night at our house. It’s a high point of the week, and while we have a stable of favorites that we like to rotate through, it’s also an opportunity to try out new games.

One of thise week’s new games was a Pax Unplugged acquisition; Dice Heist from AEG (who have been putting out some really fun stuff lately). I picked this up because it was small and cheap, promised a quick playtime, and was a theme I dig. It paid off on all fronts.

Gameplay is simple. You have a single black d6 representing your thief, a pool of white d6s representing potential crewmembers, a deck of carts with various pieces of art on them, and 4 museums with different security ratings (2-5). Every turn a card is revealed and put “on display” in a museum. On your turn, you either recruit crew (which is to say, grab a white d6), or attempt to rob the museum. To rob a museum you roll your thief die and any number of your recruited dice and hope your best die is better than the security rating. If so, take all the cards at that location, and return your crew to the pool. If not, keep your crew and your turn is over. Game is over when everything is stolen, and there’s a scoring mechanic on all the stuff you’ve stolen which is definitely a scoring mechanic.

This is fairly familiar press your luck play, but it goes quickly and smoothly enough that that would be fine, but actual play proved more nuanced than I expected. I had kind of expected the cadence to be “build up a crew, then use them once it’s worthwhile” but three things messed with that (in a good way). First, with no crew but your thief, you have a 2/3rd chance of successfully robbing the least secure museum, and a 50% chance of robbing the second. Second, the only penalty for failure is the wasted turn. These things combined to make players more willing to take a risk because the benefit of gaining another crew member had to be weighted agains the fact that somebody would probably succeed before the turn came around.

Third, because you could choose how much crew you used, crew acquisition was a bit more calculated. Often, the choice to grab crew was made because the rewards weren’t tempting enough to try for, but the crew would then be stockpiled for future rather than immediate use. It made the decision more interesting than a simple rubric, and that delighted me.

The upshot was that play was just fast and fun. It did not reward the conservatism that sometimes turns into a game of stockpile chicken, but it still rewarded thinking ahead and sometimes passing up immediate reward for future gains. I’m not going to say it was super deep, but it’s definitely fun. The game hits all the necessary notes (fast, simple, fun, quick) that earn it a place in my go bag of games.

I also am filing it away for minigame purposes. The core mechanic is simple, but complimentary to games like Blades in the Dark or Don’t Rest Your Head, and I may yet find a way to squeeze it into downtime or otherwise jazz up a game with it, especially because it would not be hard to replicate the game with a deck of playing cards and a stack of D6s.

Holiday Boardgames

Ars Technica has published a boardgame buyers guide which is pretty darn good.  If you’re looking for some boardgames as gifts this season, it’s a really good place to start, as it’s long and pretty comprehensive.


Going to add my own two bits with some of the boardgames (new, newish and not *too* old) that have been staples at my table.  I’ll provide links, and I’ll mention that if they’re Amazon links, I totally get a cut. 🙂

Greedy Dragons – So, yes, this is a little shameless as it’s an Evil Hat game, but there’s a bit more to it.  I like all of our board and cardgames (obviously) but this one particularly hits my sweet spot because it’s small, fast and different enough each time that we can play it multiple times in a row.    I have a small bag of fast, portable games (which also has things like Coup, Love Letter and Jumpdrive in it) which this has a place of pride in.  Yes, commercially I wish this was a big hit, but emotionally I’m sad it’s not because it really is a great game. 

Space Base – We have played a LOT of this one. The spaceship theme is all well and good, but the thing that really makes it for us is that it has a lot in common with Machi Koro (a perennial favorite) but with some tweaks that improve play.  If you’re familiar with MK, the big difference is that you start with a full tableau (2-12) of things that trigger on your turn, but you can only have one card in each “slot”.  When you replace a card, it flips, and now has a (lesser) effect that triggers on other people’s turns.  So you get this very nice upgrade mechanic, but never have the dead turns that can sometimes ruin a game of Machi Koro. My sole complaint is that the card stacking is sometimes cumbersome at the table, and I feel like a slightly different board design would have helped with that. But all in all, that is a very small blight on a really excellent game. 

Shards of Infinity – So, the guys who made Ascension saw the small, fast games like Star Realms and decided to make a game in that model.  It shares enough DNA with Ascension that if you’re at all familiar with it, this is easy to pick up.  However, it also has enough differences (most notably that it’s fast and small, but also in gameplay) that it doesn’t make you wonder why you’re not just playing Ascension.   Also, the expansion for this just dropped, and it adds a little bit of variety to the factions without fattening the game too much, which is welcome. 

 Dice Throne – If I could I would recommend starting with the Season 2 box (gameplay is similar, but the components are upgraded), but they just fulfilled the kickstarter, and its availability is uneven.  Thankfully, the season 1 box is awesome.  It’s a dice battle game, where 6 characters each have a unique board, deck and set of custom dice which are used to drive their attacks. They then…well, fight each other.  It is probably strongest at 1 on 1 play, but can scale up to 6 people.  This is one that I tried at Pax Unplugged last year, promptly bought, and made multiple subsequent sales as people tried it out.  Just fun. 

Santorini – I’ve talked before about how much I like this game, and it lead to a bunch of blog posts, so it would be very silly if I did not at least give it a nod.  Easy to learn, fast to play, vastly, vastly replayable.  There’s a lot to love here. I think this edition has a little less cardboard in it (to reduce cost) but that comes at no penalty to gameplay, which is simple and robust (and the tower bits are the actual fun components)

Sentinels of the Multiverse – Yes, there are a ton of expansions and they’re all great, but the core game is all you need to have a fantastic time in what is my favorite co-op AND favorite supers game.  If you just kind of dig it, all is well, but if you REALLY dig it, then the expansions are waiting for you.   When I first picked this up many years ago, the thing that grabbed me was how much playing The Wraith (one of the hero decks) *felt* superheroic, but also felt differently superheroic than the other decks.  

Addendum for parents – My son is 9, and probably better than average at learning games, but not some kind of alien super genius or anything.  All of these games are ones I have played extensively with him (because that is where a lot of my gameplay happens), and not only does he love them all, he will absolutely kick my ass at many of these.

The Santorini Experience

Picture of the boardgame box for Santorini I Was in the position of entertaining a tween the other day, so I busted out Santorini. If you’re unfamiliar with it, Santorini is a delightful boardgame of tower building and Greek gods. It’s a favorite around our household.

But what made it very useful in this context was something else. While it is a very deep, flexible and replayable game, its core is incredibly simple: move a builder, then place a tower piece, plus some win conditions. It literally took more time for us to open up the box and set up than it took for me to teach everything he needed to know to play.

Now, if this was all there was to the game, it would be fun but shallow(but, critically, it’s still fun in its simplest form), but the game has space for additional layers of complexity. Once you know the rules, each player can take on the role of one of the gods, which allows them to add one special move to the game (Hermes can move his units farther, for example). There are varying levels of complexity to the gods, and the game unfolds uniquely based on the interplay between the gods chosen (all to say nothing of other expansions, like heroes).

So the result is something that is trivial to learn, immediately rewarding to play, but scales up in complexity and depth with player interest. That’s pretty awesome.

Ok, so with that in mind, I want to bring up another conversation that threaded through Metatopia.

PAX unplugged is coming up in about two weeks, and a lot of people are going to be curious how it goes. Last year it was a whole new thing, and no one knew quite what to expect, and some of our guesses were just wrong.

Most tellingly, the reports from people in the dealer’s hall were wildly varied – some booths sold like mad, while others had very little traction at all. This is a little bit weird, but I have a theory about it based on my own observations. See, the PAX unplugged crowd was not the usual gaming convention crowd – they were the PAX crowd – and they brought in a different culture. This showed up in a lot of ways (they are WAY more line tolerant, for one thing) but was maybe most interesting in relation to games.

What I observed was that it was a crowd with a deep enthusiasm for games and play, but not necessarily a lot of patience. There’s a cynical interpretation of that, but I largely took it as a result of them not having bought into the various things we think about how games “should” be. Most specifically, this meant they wanted games that they could buy, walk over to a table, and play.

That makes sense when you say it out loud, but when I stop an think about most “gamer” games, especially RPGs, the disconnect becomes apparent. Most RPG purchases follow more of a pattern of “One person buys it, spends time reading it, then spends time prepping, then gathers a group to try this thing out”. I don’t tend to think much of it because that’s just how it’s done, but to a newcomer that has got to just seem stupid.

Presuming this is a market we want to reach out to (I know I do), it raises the question of what needs to change. “Quick Start” sets have been around in RPGs forever, but they are usually more like marketing promos or GM aids than anything to actually help play start quickly.[1]. Tech tricks like putting choose your own adventures in the game book have helped shorten the ramp-up for prospective GMs, but that only produces marginal results.

We’ve seen decent success with semi-RPG boardgames (Gloomhaven being the current hotness) that hit many RPG notes but use boardgame style setup. This is interesting and educational to me, but it’s not a line I wish to pursue because it solves different problems than the ones that intrigue me. That it, removing the parts that make RPGs hard also removes the parts that make them most interesting to me.

To this end I am intrigued by the rising “Larp in a Box” category, which you can see in Ghost Court and which I expect is going to EXPLODE on the scene when the new release of Fiasco comes out. Unsurprising, since the Bully Pulpit folks are crazy clever. There’s also some really neat emergent play tech happening in things like Alex Roberts’ For The Queen.

So I’m watching these things and taking notes, because the thing I realized while playing with that tween is that what I ultimately want is to be able to deliver that Santorini experience with an RPG. Get playing immediately and enjoyably, but be able to expand complexity with mastery and interest.

It should be doable. I can see the pieces of it in my head. But getting them to gel is going to be the trick.

1 – Eternal exception for the Exalted QuickStart, which was not much of a pointer for Exalted as written, but in its own terms was one of the best games I’ve ever read.

Mechanizing Reincorporation

I am a great fan of the boardgame Pandemic. It’s a tense, cooperative game that really brought things up to the next level with the recent expansion. There are a lot of mechanically neat things about it – for example it makes cooperation incredibly valuable (necessary, even) but also makes it very difficult, which really helps the tension. One mechanic in particular really stands out as something that might be reusable in other games.

The Pandemic board is a map of the world with a number of cities marked. As cities get infected, tokens are put on them to represent the diseases being fought. There is an “Infection Deck” which has one card for each city. This deck is drawn from to determine where the initial infections occur and is drawn from each turn to determine where subsequent infections spring up.

All well and good so far, but where this gets interesting is when an “epidemic” card is pulled – a new card is pulled from the bottom of the deck, that city gets infected, the card is discarded, then the entire discard pile is shuffled and put on top of the draw pile.

The impact of this on the game seems subtle at first, but it’s the engine that makes the game work. It means that your problem areas are going to keep being problem areas, which keeps the tension ratcheted up. That’s good for Pandemic, but possibly even better for other games. This is a great mechanic for systemizing reincorporation.

For those unfamiliar, reincorporation is a technique in fiction used when something brought up early in the fiction comes back in later on. The classic example of this is that a gun introduced in the first act of a story which is guaranteed to be fired by the end of the story. This can take any number of forms from the blatant to the very subtle and is a useful technique for gaming for many of the same reasons it works in fiction. Notably, it means there are fewer things to keep track of (so you don’t introduce another gun when the time comes to shoot someone) and by giving those earlier elements meaning later on, everythign ends up feeling more cohesive and planned, even if it’s not. This means that, as a technique, it makes things easier for the GM and her players and it makes the GM look smart – what’s not to love?

These ideas come together once you start keeping track of the elements that have come up int oyr game. The easiest approach is to use one of the many inspirational decks out there like Story Cards or the Harrow Deck. Draw from it as you normally would for inspiration until you reach a turning point in your game – a big showdown or the like – and shuffle the cards you’ve already drawn and start again[1]. When you draw a card you’ve already drawn, you don’t need to literally use exactly the same elements you used the first time, but the simple act of hitting the same theme again can make everything hang together in a way that will feel like you planned it all along.

Even if you’re not using cards, the idea still holds up well so long as you keep track of things. If you use a 5×5 grid or a similar system, don’t cross things off as you use them, just put a checkmark by them. When the time comes, you know you can come back to those. The same thinking applies if you use element lists, or anything else you can keep track of. Whatever mechanic you use, that reminder to reincorporate previous elements can combine powerfully with inspirational randomness to make even the most impromptu game really hang together.

Bottom line: Track the element you introduce, however you introduce them, and find some way to make it likely that you’ll go back to the things you have already introduced rather than constantly generate new elements. This will allow you to reincorporate themes and elements and give your game a more cohesive feel.

1- This works equally well if you are drawing cards over the course of the game, or if you are drawing them over the course of a campaign. The only trick to it is that if you are drawing for planning rather than play, you need to store the cards carefully between sessions so you don’t lose the order.