Lord of the Rings: War in the North Review

There are so many games available at the click of a button and the authorization of a credit card these days that critic ratings, meta scores and top notch marketing generally differentiate the games that people are even willing to try to the games that never get a chance. Frequently buying a game, especially on PC or Console is an all or nothing proposition — a leap of faith. You might spend $60.00 on a game you play for 2 hours and $3.99 on a game you play to completion multiple times. Aside from rare demos, having a friend who already owns it or the occasional beta, there is usually no way to know if a game will be something you will like or even if it is any good. Generally, this leads gamers to lean heavily on meta score, marketing campaigns and general hype. When it comes to even trying a game that requires co-op play and multiple people to own the same title trying the game is nearly an impossibility. So how did Lord of The Rings: War in the North sneak through this barrier for me? War in the North has a meta score of 66, a bevy of so-so reviews, and requires multiple licences (one per player) to play cooperatively online.

Where it went right for me personally was showing up in a Humble Indy Bundle and the familiar LotR franchise name. I recall the bundle was not enticing to me at all, but, thanks to a theme I enjoy and a set of mechanics I usually like (RPG, Co-op) I decided to attempt to get someone else on board to play with me. I managed to talk my brother into getting the game and it appears as if one of my other friends also got the bundle, perhaps for this game or perhaps for another. Either way, I know three people who own this game — so let’s play right?

Well, truth be told, I have not played every game I own. I don’t know how many I have played and how many I haven’t but, I’d go out on a limb and say I have played only 65 or 70 percent of the games I own. This is a growing issue for many people who game via steam. Thanks mainly to bundles and holiday sales we now face an overflowing wealth of available games that we already own but haven’t touched yet! The 10 year old me with an super nintendo with 6 games is baffled by that last sentence. Compile that weird problem with my advanced age (I’m 27), a job, 2 kids and other responsibilities I am facing more potential gaming than possible gaming — that is the place where sale items and bundled games go to die.

So now Lord of the Rings: War in the North has to grapple and wrestle with the 157 other games in my steam library and attempt to eventually emerge as the game that is going to get played at a particular moment. Months went by and there were a few times when my brother and I almost got a chance to play together and then… it didn’t work out. Other games came and went and War in the North waited. That is until this weekend when my daughters were napping (one on my lap) and my 13 year old nephew was hanging out for the afternoon. We had, what turned out to be, two whole hours with nothing to do and two computers to do it on. Thanks to fast internet and two steam accounts with the game in the collection waiting to be downloaded we were off and running in 15 minutes. War in the North was getting its shot to impress us.

What it is

Lord of the Rings, War in the North is a 1-3 player, co-operative, action rpg. In some ways it brings games like diablo to  mind. Baddie killing, loot hunting action from the 3rd person. On the other hand, the 3rd person camera is tighter, and the combat is a little less clicky in ways that draw comparison to playing skyrim in 3rd person view. Characters have stats like Diablo 2 that grow as you level: Strength, Stamina, Dexterity, Wisdom, etc. Characters also have a skill tree like some of the MMO’s and RPG’s of old (and one of my favorite newer RPG’s: Torchlight). Combat is mostly clicking (or button mashing on a controller) to swing your weapon with a nice addition of toggling to a ranged weapon which requires first-person shooter like aiming via cross-hairs. Your character also has a few special abilities that can be used via an energy meter and skills generally augment those abilities. As I mentioned I played this game with my 13 year old nephew who, when asked, claims his favorite game is Skyrim. This game fits into that general fantasy theme, features skills and magic and at times did have a very skyrim type feel to it. I personally wont claim a favorite game but will admit: I like the genre, I like Lord of the Rings and a game that features cooperative fighting really lands in my wheelhouse. We were both a little confused up front, but stumbled our way through the controls and the early story. Essentially we were a group of heroes fighting orcs and goblins doing something for Aarogon (who I assume is King of Gondor at this point). What exactly the point of our mission was, well, we weren’t sure. We also didn’t mind not knowing because the game starts out with a bunch of enemies running at you and before you know it you are elbow deep in orc blood just trying to stay on your feet.

Here are my quick takes:

The good

  • Combat was fun, rewarding and challenging for us even on the normal setting. It’s not complicated but with just a few general moves you can have a lot of fun. There is a block, dodge, two weapon swings, arrow shooting, and 3 special moves for each character. Enemies can be weak and numerous, large and boss-like, have spells or can be rigged with explosives. Missions can be hold out in an area, kill all the enemies, attack a position or defend an NPC. All of that just in the first couple hours of gameplay. What’s more, the combat has a very rewarding feeling to it. When you hit an enemy they are knocked back and you can press the attack and pummel them into the corner or dodge away and manage a few foes at once.
  • Coop was mandatory but fun. Even if you play this game solo, your get two allies that fight with you. We chose the fighters while the 3rd healer character was an AI. The AI was actually not too bad, generally helpful, got into fights that it shouldn’t have here or there but overall wasn’t a problem. Playing with a friend or two (in my case 1) was a blast though. We could double team difficult foes, call eachother over for help or when one of us was “down” (meaning we were at 0hp) we could call the other over for healing (a mechanic similar to Left4dead where a teammate needs to help you up).
  • Loot was exciting and not overdone. A lot of time the problem with and RPG like diablo is that you spend half your day managing all the junk you pick up along the way. This game gave us items that were more or less useful without making us spend too much time managing them. We traded some items back and forth and sold some of our stuff 1 time while playing (and we could have opted not to). The combat was pretty non-stop and we, so far, hadn’t felt the need to spend time buying and selling items to progress in the story.

The bad

  •  As much as I wanted to be playing this game with a controller, the xbox controller implementation was lackluster. Maybe it was just me, but, having to control the camera with the other joystick and having to aim with the 2nd joystick is a major turnoff for a fast paced action game like this. Also the special abilities wound up being odd key combinations and just felt unnatural. I like that the support is there, but I just didn’t prefer it. Your mileage may vary.
  • The story was ‘meh’ and the game felt arcade like in it’s railroaded plot. I suppose this is a matter of opinion, but, it didn’t feel like anything that we did mattered to the story (I don’t think it did). There were times when the character had to talk and you got to choose the speaking lines… but, I don’t think the choices mattered at all. I also feel like there was no strategy level to level. You pretty much just kill everything as fast as you can… and that’s it. Not bad per sey, but, if you wanted a more meaningful experience this is not the game for you.
  • Forced 3-player co-op. I think the game is fine with 2, I’m sure it’d be better with 3… and that’s sort of the downside. You have a game that probably wont play well single player because there really is no true single player. There is single player with two AI team-mates you have no control over… eh. Even knowing that I like the game, I’d probably pass on it single player. And honestly with a $20.00 price tag and your friends needing to also drop $20.00 if they want to play on their own machine via steam… yeah, that gets to be a bit of an issue.

Final Thoughts

It’s not perfect — likely not for everyone and there are some serious barriers to getting this game played. Those barriers aside, it is a better game than its meta scores and reviews would lead one to believe. I personally am always on the lookout for a meaningful co-op experience; if you combine that with good combat and entertaining RPG elements you end up with a very limited scope of games to choose from. Lord of the Rings: War in the North is well done for what it is and despite its pitfalls is an overall fun experience. I can’t say I’d reccomend the game for $20.00 a piece but if you have 2 friends who want to play a co-op with better than average combat, a great theme and RPG elements I don’t know that you could much worse than Lord of the Rings: War in the North at your next available Steam or other platform game sale. Even at a measly 30% off I’d recommend it.

 

My Grandfather, Erwin Mickelberg

I’m not quite sure how to write about the passing of my grandfather from this life to whatever it is that awaits us after the death of or bodies. My instinct is to pontificate on the circumstances and the meaning, the cause, the moments near the end and all sorts of other things. That’s just the way my brain works. Find something to take away, find a lesson, search for a meaning. That meaning, that lesson probably really has already come.

My Grandfather, Erwin Mickelberg, by all accounts lived a pretty good life for 87 years. In the end he was not himself. His last few years have been a constant battle with the worsening symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. What can I try to teach anyone about that? It’s a horrible disease and an end unfitting to any human. There is no lesson to be learned at the end of this process. Something comes to end us all in or time, this was his. I can’t pretend I understand, I can’t pretend I see any light or positive in the circumstances around Alzheimer’s disease, yet, the end was unavoidable in one way or another.

What I can do? And where should my thoughts should dwell at the sad end of a wonderful story? After some consideration, my second instinct is to consider the things he has left behind.

Erwin Mickelberg, who my siblings and I call Pakki, leaves behind a loving, devoted wife of 65 years, my Grandmother Carolyn Mickelberg. Together they had 2 daughters, one of which is my mother and they must have done something right in raising her because I think she is a pretty great lady. He leaves behind me, and six other grandchildren, we all carry a little part of him physically, and a variety of memories which I’ll get into later. The chain goes on, what he gave to his daughters, what they gave to their children, we continued on. Pakki will leave behind 6 great grandchildren with 2 more on the way. A lot things had to happen to make all of these people part of his and my life, but we all have to give him part of that thanks.

I only know a fraction of what my mother and her sister know. Of even the grandchildren, I know less than some but, what I do know is enough to at least get a good picture of the life he lived.

Erwin was born and raised near enough to Lacrosse, Wisconsin it doesn’t matter. As a boy he was too clever by half and didn’t have to work real hard at school so he made a bit of trouble. I can imagine it wasn’t too much but, he did have a good sense of humor and made plenty of jokes. He was, as far as I ever heard an all around fun, relaxed guy. He enjoyed duck hunting with his dad and uncle’s and caught the eye of my grandmother at a young age. Who was more enthralled with the other? I couldn’t tell you.

Then the war came. My grandpa enlisted in the navy at 17, which required parental permission. World War Two claimed a lot of lives and I’m sure my grandpa used a bit of his wit to stay off the front lines. He first used his voice to become a singer in the navy choir. To this day I’ll never forget his impossibly melodious rendition of happy birthday and the constant, pitch perfect whistling, a habit I certainly picked up from him (the whisteling anyhow, not sure on the pitch perfect stuff). Later when the war was coming to a close, Erwin was in the South Pacific doing what he would do for a career later on life; he was teaching. He taught soon-to-be vets about their post war benefits. He loved to teach, next to his family I am not sure he loved many other things more than he loved teaching.

The war ended. Erwin came home and married my grandmother, Carolyn Ryan. I’m not sure what transpired other than he wanted to go to school and some of the military benefits helped to finance college education. So the two of them moved to Minneapolis. From there my mother was born and my Grandfather finished school and began teaching biology at the college where he earned his degree. I heard stories of how poor they were at the time, how they lived at least one summer mostly in tents so my Grandfather could do field research. I’ve heard how their family and neighbors banded together to get dinner on the table. I know somewhere in there my Aunt was born and Paki began a 39 year career as an Augsburg College Biology Professor. I am sure there are stories that are escaping me now, but, we’re working 100% on stories I have heard about the old days at this point and second hand knowledge can only do so much.

Eventually Grandchildren started to come along. My older brother Jeff (who is 12 years older than me), the first grandchild had the honor of creating names for my Grandparents. Pakki was his early attempts at asking for his Grandpa to Rock him. Bagga, my grandmother was just grandma I believe. Pakki and Bagga became an iconic set of names that is total nonsense to anyone who isn’t in my direct family, but, sort of nice that those names hung around.

We lived just a couple of blocks down from my grandparents from the time I was 3 to the time I was maybe 10. I believe Pakki was still working at the time, either that or he was working with the church. He had worked with the church most of his life, serving as president of the congregation for some amount of time. I remember hearing about a time their church burned down and how he not only took a leadership role in rebuilding the church, but also ran into the burning building to save the member logs and other important documents.

After he retired, an occasion for which there was a party (which I remember vaguely), he began working with the elderly members of the church. Never ceasing his relentless desire to stay busy he visited elderly members of the congregation and talked to them, read with them and generally helped them get their church in when they could not make it on Sundays. Somewhere in there he dealt with a multi-vessel bypass surgery and prostate cancer. None of that seemed to slow his work with the church much. Around that time my mother brought me and my younger brother to visit somewhat frequently in our teenage years. We would just visit them at their appartment, talk, laugh and tell them about the mundane details of our lives that grandparents love to hear about. That was before his later years when Alzheimers began to set in.

I’ve mentioned Alzheimer’s being a terrible, terrible thing. It is. But there is some good to find in any situation. I was in college when the disease began rearing its ugly head. I spent some time searching myself as any college student is like to do and I think there was a lot of me to discover from looking back and my family history. I made films all through college and began digging into the rich history with the college to which I had recently transferred. Augsburg college holds a lot of family history, staff remembered both my older brother’s career as a student and  my grandfather’s career as a teacher. One of those teachers was Dale Pederson, a former student of my Grandfather, and current chair of the biology department. I spent some time digging into the history of my grandparents and part of that research brought me collaborate with Dale to set up a meeting of old students and colleagues. At that point Pakki had been losing some short term memory but still remembered the old days and the meeting with everyone still sticks out as one of the better things I have done in my life. I filmed it all and made a couple of projects on that and other material. Either way, the old friends were happy to see each other. Pakki was back in his element and I had a chance to see a little bit of what that was like.

It all slips away. Eventually you forget everything with that disease. The confusion heightens, the fear and stress heightens. Through it all he would always rise to visitors, he faked knowing what was happening really well. Even when he was totally lost he was all smiles and jokes. My eldest daughter Hannah had a chance to see him, to sit on his lap, to share her special little-girlness with him. I’ll never forget how excited he was for me and my growing family. He had nothing but compliments for my wife Lauren. He frequently joked about how he had no idea how I had ever got her to marry me. He knew, to the last couple of weeks when we saw him awake and alert for the last time, that my little family was going to be a great and wonderful thing, and I know he was thinking of how special it was when he had his kids and grandchildren. He loved family through it all. Even when he could hardly put together a sentence, he told me how special it will be to see my kids grow up. When we left I asked my shy little Hannah to give him a hug before we went, she cuddled right up on his chest and hugged in. I wont forget that image for all my life.

I am sad to see him go, but, until the last few years it seems like you could hardly ask for a better life. I do wish my kids could have known him better, Hannah would have loved him. He would have loved to hold Madeline who will be born this summer but, Great Grandparents don’t often hang around real long and he has been one for 13 or more years already (my oldest nephew got to know him pretty well). I can’t do any more than thank God for such good grandparents. He and my Grandma have done nothing but show me love and support and praise all the things I have done. I believe with what I know about him I will continue to do him proud. After-all I am following in his footsteps a little more with 2 girls of my own here. I will miss him. I will think of him at every happy birthday, every visit with my grandma, every Christmas, Thanksgiving, or whenever one of his Norwegian phrases or little jokes slip past my lips. That’s good stuff maynard.

So, rest easy, be with God, be in peace, share that smile and laughter and witty charm with your parents, with whomever, however, or whatever it is that comes after life. I believe we will stay connected because I will always have a bit of you as part of me in my blood, in my thoughts, in my heart. I think we will stay connected, but, my goodness will I hope to feel your life and light again when I get to the end of my journey. I wont hurry though, you have written a good story — a great one even and I have work to do there before I can hang up my hat and see you again.

I love you, I will miss you, I will remember you,

David

P.S. I wrote most of this sitting at his bedside over the last week. I won’t lie, I shed some tears listening to the declining breathing while I worked through those last couple of paragraphs. It is now after 10am on Saturday, May 3rd, 2014. He has gone on as of a few minutes ago. My younger brother called me from his room. I had been editing this document as he passed. As he breathed his last, his wife, my two brothers, father, mother and sister were there beside him. I am happy for that and that he no longer has to suffer his final hours. Rest in Peace.

Mission: Space Exploration

Last night, after some recommendations from David and James I finally started up a game of Kerbal Space Program. The game is a sandbox rocket-ship simulator. As it is new and still in development the game is a little rough, the tutorials are not all there and there is a propensity to just be dropped into a world of rocket building of which you have very little understanding. That said, I had a rare moment of pure elation and excitement I rarely experience from a video game  and I wanted to write about it quickly.

I started the game and jumped right into sandbox mode. I didn’t understand the controls but I fumbled my way through and combined some number of parts into what I imagined would be a functional rocket. I was very wrong. This thing tipped over on the launch pad and exploded just before I ejected the pod with the astronauts who rolled away lamely. I tried this a few more times before I sighed and decided I needed to use the tutorial. I did two of the tutorials: Flight and Construction. I passed on space controls because I didn’t really expect plan A to work, so, I figured I’d sort that when I got that far.

After the tutorials I had a couple more rockets explode on the ground before I finally built a small rocket that managed to climb somewhere around 12k meters before running out of fuel and dropping like a rock. The tutorials were okay over-all but, they didn’t explain how to do anything better than a single engine rocket. I then built what I will call the mach 1. My first multi-engine rocket that worked. This thing was not pretty but, it got me up somewhere around 10k meters before the inevitable death of my pilots (we lost so many good astronauts last night).

Now it is about 11:30, I knew I had to be up at 6am for work but dang-it, I was determined and I have learned when a game makes you determined it is doing something right — go with that experience. So, I revamped my rocket, more fuel, more fins for control — better, stronger, faster. The mach 2 was ready for flight. I launched the rocket and everything looked great, great stability, plenty of fuel and finally I broke into earths atmosphere. I was doing it! At the moment where you cross the threshold from atmosphere to low orbit your view shifts. The stars come into view in bright focus, soft music begins to grow, the noise of the engines is gone and it was a moment of emotional happiness I look for in every game. I crave those moments where a game makes me really feel something, comradery, friendship, joy or even the bad emotions are okay because nothing is worse than walking away from a game saying “It was okay” and feeling like the last hour was just ‘blah.’

I was in space, I saw the stars before me, a universe of exploration — never-mind I was totally out of gas — the music had rolled in and I shivered with delight. It came from figuring something out, it came from my imagination of what people feel when they really make it into orbit it came from my human desire to achieve something through hard work that takes you somewhere unknown; and all of this in a simulation.

A real emotional experience. I was elated.

And then my rocket fell back to the earth because apparently you don’t just hang out in low orbit. Oh well, more work to do and you better believe I will do it and you should too. Go get Kerbal Space Program, have that moment and enjoy it. They are hard to come by.

My Criteria for backing board games on Kickstarter

I have become a pretty big fan of kickstarter. Being a fan of a service that is a way for game designers to get their games financed is a great thing to support, but can also be a problem for the wallet. The core problem being that there are a lot of great looking projects being made; each vying for your precious dollar and the attention of the masses. I would like to give my money in so many different places, help so many awesome people get so many great games made, but I just can not, and frankly I should not. Not every game is worth the investment, but how can anyone possibly know where the dollar is best spent on a site where unproven games, indy games, known developers and popular remakes all stand shoulder to shoulder? I have come up with some basic rules I follow.

Proven games don’t need to work too hard

Often times there are kickstarter project that are either remakes or reprints of a game that already has a track record Usually these are good track records hence the project to get a reprint or make of the already beloved game. This is ultimately a higher tier of kickstarter for me. It is a lot easier to put a games like this up against a game I might buy at my FLGS or online. The games tend to have reviews, fans and atleast someone on /r/boardgames who will say it is their absolute favorite game ever (for whatever that is worth) — but I digress. Say you like the game, watched the review are excited for the game and are ready to spend your money – however, there is still one catch. The difference between paying for shipping or taking the time to go down and get the game is the wait required by a kickstarter project. Most projects you will be waiting for at least a few months, maybe more. There are production runs that need to be approved, previewed, finalized and produced and this usually applies to cards, boxes, tokens and many other details. This waiting time can be worth it for getting a discount (below msrp prices) or, if the game attracts a big enough following, by offering stretch or earlybird rewards – but more on these later.

Proven games I have backed: Odins Raven’s, Werewolf, Coup

Indy games need to play the crowd or bring the price down

Now, what I am saying is based on nothing more than my history as a kickstarter backer. I have not run a campaign, I have not done in depth research on the subject of kickstarter effectiveness or crowd funding. I have read and considered almost every board and card game kickstarter for the last 6 or 8 months and I have voted with my dollars.

What I have seen is that the indy game maker (and I love you guys) needs to work harder to make their kickstarter work. Just throwing a game out that has nothing but a description a rule book and a video of play-through does not do enough for me. I am buying into a game that hasn’t been printed yet, hasn’t won any fans or awards and I have very little insight into the testing process or really anything about the company behind the game. So we start on shaky ground. Investment into art is nice to see, a play-through of the game, especially one where people are having fun playing the game, is also great. But more importantly if I am going to back you on your project that may be the next big hit, and may be the next big flop, I want a few things.

  1. I want to be getting a deal. Listen, I know I am going to be one of the first! I could even have my name in the rule book. I don’t care. You are getting to hold on to my money for as long as it takes to get the game made right? I want a deal on it. It doesn’t have to be big, and I know margins are tight, but I want a deal, you knock 5 dollars off what you will sell it for later and I am already starting to get interested.
  2. I want rewards. I know rewards are typically given as prizes for having a good campaign, and that is fine. I need the game to be gathering steam as you go (yes, I will tell friends and co-workers to help out). If you are gathering steam and rewarding people while you pick up more and more sales, yes, get those rewards out make them fun, make them cool. You don’t need to reinvent the game, get sleeves for the cards, get new art, more art, better art. Give away 1 more role card, better meeples, bigger meeples. Little things like that that make you feel like you are getting something extra for my support go along way.
  3. I want an experience. I know you are busy and you have things to do. So do I, and while I’m at work, it is pretty cool to get an email every couple of days updating the project, where you are, what strech goals have unlocked, what ones are coming up. Even remind me to tell my friends or like it on facebook. I have stuff going on and I can’t watch your project all the time. But email detailing the experience you and hopefully your supporters are having is critical to make me continue to support (and maybe even add more funding) to your project.

Are my criteria for backing a game sharp and strict? Possibly. I have a lot of things I could be doing with my money and even a lot of other games I have yet to play or add to my collection. Kickstarting can be a really fun experience for everyone and if there is enough of an incentive and your game looks fun (don’t forget my previous statements are predicated on if I think the game looks fun) I will back your project wait out the production of the game and hopefully you will make some money for your hard work. I want you to be successful, I just have to be a consumer, not a charity.

Indy games I have backed: Dungeon Roll, Compounded: Better Gaming Through Chemistry, Dragon’s Hoard.

Ticket to Ride: Game Review

2013-02-20 18.33.09I have to start this review with a little bit of my history with this game. Ticket to ride has been one of my wife’s favorite games since the moment we opened the box and played it the first time. I have been reserved. At first, believe it or not, I was confused by this simple game. It was so straight forward I couldn’t figure out how I was supposed to have a meaningful strategy that would effect my chances to win. Eventually I figured out how to build routes together and when to draft cards vs. playing trains etc. Ultimately I still felt the game was still won and lost on random chance. Getting the right routes led to winning the game and getting the right routes was all a chance. I love figuring out strategy and I had hit a wall with ticket to ride. I was still firmly against that wall when I got my wife Ticket to Ride: Europe (selfless I know, but she liked the game so much I thought she would like another version) and after playing a few games, I was pleasantly surprised with how much the game had been improved.

The Europe installment solved all of my issues I was having with the game with new routes, new mechanics and the addition of  train stations. I now find that Ticket to Ride: Europe is one of my favorite games. The original has some good points but, also some bad points. I’m getting ahead of myself, let me break down the game before I go any further.

Premise

In Ticket to Ride you are placing a trains along routes on a map of some part of the world (Base game is United States, Europe is the other base game and there are others). Cities have tracks between them and are different colors and cards that same color need to be played in runs to occupy the path. The cards can be taken in pairs from the 5 face up train cards or randomly from the draw pile on you turn. Wild cards are also available but taking a face up wild card is the only card you can take on that turn. On your turn you need to decide if you take cards or take trains. The last piece of scoring are the route cards. At the end of the game you either gain  or loose points based on if you have or have not completed the route. Routes are accomplished by creating a path connecting the two cities indicated on the route card. These can be drawn on a turn during the game in addition to the 3 each player gets at the beginning of the game. Finally the player with the longest continuous path gets an additional 10 points, which surprisingly can be pretty important.

Critical Review

Once again here is what I am looking at in each category. Scored out of 10.

  • Point of entry – The ability for new players to get involved. This also will take into account the rate at which a new and experienced player will become competitive.
  • Mechanics – The stuff that makes the game work. The way the game flows, the turns pass and how the board or structure is organized all factor in.
  • Replay-ability – The ability to play the game many times with enough variety of play and competition to ensure many more enjoyable plays.
  • What comes in the box – The tactile game pieces, the box organization and the way which they compliment the game.
  • Aesthetics – The design elements including colors fonts, white-space, etc.
  • Fun factor – Is this game fun to play? What makes it fun, who will most enjoy it and when it is best played.

Point of entry  – I think with little knowledge of the gaming community most people who attempt to dive into games to any extent have heard that Ticket to Ride is a game for beginners. Rightly so. I almost thought the game was too easy for beginners. Needless to say, anyone, and I mean anyone should be able to sit down and play a game of TtR at any time. Grandparents, kids probably 6 or 8 and up, anyone. 10/10

Mechanics – I still think TtR, the original north american edition, can be broken by getting the right routes. It isn’t so much getting overlapping routes, it is the amount of longer routes in the west, north and south vs. the shorter midwest and east coast routes. This allows for playing trains in some parts of the map to just not be equal to playing trains in others. When two players who have both played their share of games can each complete 4 or 5 routes, the competition is not who did so most efficiently or who completed them with the most trains or creating the longest route — no, the win will typically go to who got more routes in the right parts of the map to earn bonus points for 5 and 6 train routes. I think TtR: Europe fixes this problem quite well by not really having many 5 or 6 train routes. Rather, all parts of the map are evenly dispersed with short and long paths, and the winner ends up being the one who can strategically build a path that entails their routes and block others from achieving the same thing. I, at this point, would recommend going right to Europe and not messing with the original.  That is, unless you are a newer gamer, then I would stay start simple and work your way up. Other than what I see as problems with the map on the original TtR, the mechanics are sound and fun and one of the few games that makes me sweat to finish my routes by the end of the game. 6/10.

Replay-ability – I think a lot of  ”gamers” can get sick of this game pretty easily because they favor the longer more immersive games. That is all well and good, but, even when some people feel above the game they get surprisingly engaged when they sit through a game. I think the game is endlessly replayable (my wife has played over 200 games on the iPad for instance), but, be wary. If you are used to more complicated games, this one might get dull for you quickly. 7/10.

What comes in the box – The sheer numbers of trains makes it mandatory that they are little plastic pieces and not wood ones (wooden trains would be nice though). The original version I got came with the miniature travel size cards and I just can’t understand why. TtR: Europe came with  normal Euro size cards and that is considerably better. 7/10.

Aesthetics – Train cards look much nicer when they are not tiny travel size cards. Overall, the colors are clear, the map looks nice and I really like the box and map art style. That little hint of old-timey, late 1800′s train station fare is quite nice. 8/10.

Fun factor – This game is still a fun one, there is no doubt there. I think especially for newer gamers and non-gamers, this is one to get into and have a ton of fun with and really get into playing more games. I still think there is more fun to be had with TtR: Europe, but I do believe there is a right crowd for the original TtR as well. Overall this game should keep you having fun for some time, and when it stops being fun, get the sequel and I think that one should keep you playing even longer. Despite some lack of ability to make any like number of route cards win, I believe the game is a  blast and I always look forward to playing it. 8/10.

To sum up this sort of 2 game review I want to just make my notes about which game is stronger where. Ticket to Ride is a really strong game for families, non or limited experience gamer friends and just generally having a fun time. That said, it is one I would skip for gamer crowds and heavy thinking strategy people in general. For those gamer crowds and people who want to play a more strategic game I would say Ticket to Ride: Europe is a major improvement over the first game. I even think people who have played TtR for a while and are getting a little sick of it, find the game breaking problem I have found or just want to advance to something a little more difficult would benefit greatly from picking up the sequel –  I highly recommend it. I give the original Ticket to Ride a 7/10 while I give Ticket to Ride Europe a 8/10.

If you ever have a kid, get one of these

I don’t have too much to say here other than the fact that as a parent of a small child being able to have the kid in a position where they are comfortable and being able to use both your hands comes primarily at nap time or when your partner is doing the holding. Kids like to be close and feel secure but you still need to make dinner or do other normal household chores.

Hannah in her carrier

When it comes to all of that, I highly recommend you get yourself one of
these baby carriers. You can put it on your front or back, and carry the kid facing you or facing out. Hannah is a big fan and it lets me cook, clean and play games all the while she can look around or tuck in and snuggle– whatever makes sense at the moment. I also took this thing for a spin at the Mall of America a couple weeks ago. I think aside from Hannah’s mind being blown on the spectacle of the thing, she was pretty happy to ride along and see the sights from the safety of her carrier.

Point being, if you have a kid get this on the registry, you’ll thank me later.

Becoming a game designer

I wanted to take a little bit of time to chronicle my current project work, but, first I should explain how I got started with game design.

I have been working on my first game design project this last month. I am attempting to create a card game which I am calling “Healers & Tanks,” until I think of a better title anyway.

Deciding to take this stab into game design has been a long time coming. I work with a company (loose usage of the word “company”) of game designers who primarily focus on mobile games. mediaCrab. That’s what we call ourselves. Despite my interest I have been all but useless when it comes to helping design a game. For one thing, I haven’t had a ton of ideas for what a mobile game should be. Part of that problem is that mobile gaming hasn’t every really appealed to me. I will play a mobile game from time to time, in fact, I get in on reviewing a new one about once a month. So, as far as the company goes I have been sort of sitting on the sidelines. No game ideas, nothing to contribute at all. I don’t really want to come up with an idea for a mobile game, I probably wouldn’t want to even test my own game, I just… don’t care that much about mobile games. There, I said it. I don’t like sitting by myself playing a game on a tiny screen, I don’t find them fun or well designed very often.

I keep coming to the realization that beyond all other things, I am a social gamer. It shouldn’t surprise me, I am a social person, I always have been. When I am having fun I like to be in a group. Now, don’t get me wrong, I am not the life of the party type, I am not even really the party type. I like small groups, I like 1 on 1 time with people up to maybe a group of 5 or 6. That said, when I started playing board games I noticed I was sitting at a table, eating, drinking and playing with people. Gaming socially and enjoying the hell out of it. Not to mention, board games have a wonderful simplicity to them. Forget about 1-tap touch screen mechanics, try placing tiles, moving wooden cubes, the simplicity is wonderful.

That enjoyment got me thinking. If I am going to be part of a group of game designers, why not design something I really enjoy playing. I have been working towards becoming proficient in the world of board and card games ever since. Yes, I realize I haven’t played that many games. So far my experience is pretty minimal. However, I am quickly attempting to expand all of my tabletop horizons by playing games, reviewing the games I play with consideration based on what makes them successful. I have been reaching out to other game designers to start understanding how the world of game design works. I have also been reading blogs and books on the subject just to get my head in the game as quickly as I can. It’s a big task to undertake and I realize there are people who have been doing this for a long time, or at least playing board games for a long time. So, who do I think I am for thinking I can be a game designer?

Game design where it relates to me as web designer

I am a web designer/developer in my usual day to day life. That requires me to take an amount of information and organize it into a website. I need to consider the user and how they might experience the content and how I can get them to the sites goals. I need to consider look and feel, keeping things feeling like the brand. I also need to consider where the site needs to be able to grow to contain new features and updates. A lot of this is User Experience Design, something I have studied heavily in relationship to the web. The other part is strict documentation and considering all parts that make the site work. In web design I tend to over organize the code, in game design I am taking those skills to over organizing the mechanics, features and card or piece types. I also am no stranger to doing math to make a site work and games are no different. The math is more related to probability, but, working math in is no surprise to me after years of building websites.

Game design where it related to me as a creative writer/film maker

I have spent a lot of my professional life trying to explain how a creative writing/film/art major from a liberal arts college in Minneapolis got into web design/development. I had been doing a little web design throughout most of my life. There are plenty of similarities for a creative person who wants to create experiences for people; be it through watching videos, exploring a website or reading a short story. Game design follows right along. Games are another creative medium meant to engage people. They require interaction and have rules and ultimately provide an experience — a feeling. I have been writing, making videos and websites from a pretty young age, and rather than feel daunted that game design is a completely new medium to me, I feel my experience in these other areas is only going to benefit what I can do working on a new medium — one I am coming to love very rapidly.

That’s all for now. I will give an update on my progress on Healers & Tanks. For the time being I will say this much. I have been inspired here by MMO’s I have played and based a lot of the mechanics I am imagining on a combination of things from D&D to Small World to Bang! It is going to be a very simple game to start and I am excited to start prototyping soon. Stay tuned for more updates.

Alhambra: Game Review

Players: 2-6
Ages: 8 and up
Play time: 60 minutes

AlhambraIt was a couple weeks ago when I spent the afternoon drinking beer samples with one of my good friends and fellow gamer at the Winter Beer Dabbler. After a long day of drinking in the cold and being in a good proximity to our FLGS (Friendly Local Gaming Store) we decided to make a visit. I more or less knew I was going to get a game, but, my decision came down to Tsuro or Alhambra. I had seen both of these games on Wil Wheaton’s Tabletop, both looked like fun, but, ultimately I went with Alhambra.

I have now played Alhambra ten or so times with my wife, my regular gaming group, my brother and some family friends. So far the games have been competitive, new players have been quick to pick it up with a little help, and the games have all been an hour or less of unsolicited fun and some mild name calling.

Premise

Alhambra drops you into ancient Granada, Spain where the  sultans and other royal Moorish people built lavish Palisades known there as an Alhambra. Players race each other on who can build the most lavish Alhambra with the most Towers, Arcades, Seraglios, and Gardens, Pavilions and Chambers  as well as the longest exterior walls. Tiles, such as gardens and towers are added to each players Alhambra by buying them from the market. The market sells one tile for each currency. There are four currencies represented by four different colored cards. Players can draw these cards from the available money off the top of the deck on money cards.  Players can then use their currencies to buy from the four different markets selling the different tiles. These tiles are then added to the players Alhambra’s and scored in one of three different scoring rounds.

Instead of getting points for each tile, players score points for who has the most of each type of building on the first round of scoring. The second round of scoring scores the top two players and the final round of scoring scores the top three players for each type of building. This sounds rather complex but, the score cards do a nice job of walking you through it and it turns out to be sort of fun to randomly have to stop the game to count the points.

If you want some more in depth info here are the official rules, and if you are so inclined here is the boardgamegeek page for more info.

Critical Review

Once again here is what I am looking at in each category. Scored out of 10.

  • Point of entry – The ability for new players to get involved. This also will take into account the rate at which a new and experienced player will become competitive.
  • Mechanics – The stuff that makes the game work. The way the game flows, the turns pass and how the board or structure is organized all factor in.
  • Replay-ability – The ability to play the game many times with enough variety of play and competition to ensure many more enjoyable plays.
  • What comes in the box – The tactile game pieces, the box organization and the way which they compliment the game.
  • Aesthetics – The design elements including colors fonts, white-space, etc.
  • Fun factor – Is this game fun to play? What makes it fun, who will most enjoy it and when it is best played.

Alhambra.Point of entry. Alhambra is not the hardest game to get started on, nor is it the easiest. Some of the rules are pretty straight forward while others can be hard to explain at best to a newcomer. Some of the nuances of how buildings are placed can be a little hard to explain. I personally enjoy the puzzle aspect of that game within a game that is actually building your Alhambra. However to new players, especially non-boardgamers, these tile placement rules can be difficult to understand on a first playthrough. The scoring and when it happens is also a little difficult to get used to for a new player and can leave the first couple rounds of scoring feeling a little stange at best. The plus side is, if you are will to play 2 games, by the second game everyone will understand the flow and have a blast with it. Score 6/10.

Mechanics. Alhambra offers quite a few nice mechanics in each part of the game. For instance scoring rounds are triggered when scoring cards, planted in the deck are drawn. This makes scoring come up at random and as a player you are always waiting for the score cards to come up, planning when you should place or buy tiles based on when you think scoring cards will be drawn. Buying tiles is pretty straight-forward but the game adds the stipulation that if you buy with exact change you get to go again. This makes tile buying very interesting, do you wait for exact change or do you overpay to get what you need now? Constructing an Alhambra would be an easy job if there weren’t rules around how walls can and can not be used together, sometimes there are tiles that you can buy that wont fit in your Alhambra. The game would be pretty bland if it weren’t for the mechanics that give players a lot of choices to make along the way. Score 9/10.

Replay-ability. I don’t think I have played enough games at this point to know from personal experience if I will be playing this game for years to come. I do know there is plenty of excitement and different scenarios in every game. The smart mechanics make the game interesting and there is enough strategy to keep things interesting. I believe this is one I will hang on to and teach the kids some day. Score 7/10.

What comes in the box. The tiles, like in Carcassonne, are solid, think compressed cardboard. The cards are thick and good quality. The storage the box offers, though not incredibly well organized, is plentiful and the tiles come with their own bag to be drawn from and stored in. The one place I am disappointed with the base game compared to the ‘big box‘ is the scoring board is not well setup. The score spaces are printed in a twisted back and forth pattern and I can’t say how many times I have accidentally moved a player piece the wrong way subtracting instead of adding points. The Alhambra Big Box, instead of having 2 boards, a board for the tiles and a board for the score, has the board all as one piece and the players are scored around the outside avoiding the problem. Score 6/10.

Aesthetics. Everything is visually similar and really gives the feel for time period and the type of climate/region that is represented. The one knock here is on color use. At times it can be confusing with green money and garden tiles which are also represented with the color green. It is hard to not see a green garden tile and want to pay for it with green money even if the tile currently sitting on the blue currency market space. Other than that little nick the game looks wonderful. Score 6/10.

Fun Factor. This game is fun there is no way around that. There is plenty of good strategy to be used thanks to the good mechanics. The slight confusion on first play-through quickly drops off and leaves you with a game where you are racing to build the best Alhambra and usually having a blast yelling at people who steal “the piece I needed” just when you have exact change. Everyone I have played with has enjoyed the game and I will continue to bring it along on game nights as an option for the foreseeable future.  Score 9/10.

Final Thoughts

It might not be heralded as one of the great gateway games of our time or anything, but I believe it is one any new gamer should add to their collection and share liberally with friends and family.
Average/Final Score: 7/10.

Odin’s Ravens Kickstarter

I just wanted to put a line out on a game I hope to be playing within the year. However, I wont be if the Kickstarter doesn’t get funded. The game is Odin’s Ravens 2nd Edition. Odin’s Ravens is a 2 player card/board game that has had earlier editions – last published in 2002.

Thorsten Gimmler, Odin's Ravens, Second Edition.

The game looks like a great way to spend time with a friend or significant other and previous editions have been very well received. There is also a great video on their Kickstarter page that explains the game and it’s mechanics.

What got me to contribute via Kickstarter was the simplicity of the game. I find the best strategy games open a player up to find strategy among simple mechanics. This is a simple, “know when to play the hand you’ve been dealt” type game that looks like an absolute blast. The goal is to fly your raven across the twisted random path before you all the while attempting to hinder your opponent from following the same path in reverse.

If the Kickstarter Campaing for Odin’s Ravens is successful I am sure I will be updating everyone when I get a chance to play through it. Check it out on Kickstarter, or read more about the game on Boardgamegeek.

 

Welcome back

It has been a long while since davidsiegfried.com was maintained regularly. A loooong while.

The good news is, I am back in business with some new topics and a new WordPress theme.

Just to give a little credit where credit is due; I started this theme with underscores for WordPress. These guys did a great job getting the basic styles and files all together so I didn’t have to. I got to jump right into organizing the styles they had, adding in LESSCSS and making the site Responsive. I then did my little bit of designing using Sublime Text 2 and Winless.

Thanks as always to WordPress and Dreamhost for the platform and the server respectively.

Looking forward to writing more here. There is also more work to do on the theme but, we will see when I get to that.