I got a cool opportunity recently to work with a couple of friends on a creative project.
Here is our short film:
I got a cool opportunity recently to work with a couple of friends on a creative project.
Here is our short film:
I have a song stuck in my head.
Round and round on a loop, I hear it.
Getting a song stuck in your head is a common enough occurrence, but I am one of only a handful of people capable of having this particular song in there.
Once, on a cold night in Maine, I sat playing cards with The Empress of Whisky, her father, and her uncle. It may have been snowing; I can’t recall. It was definitely cold, though, and when I say that, I mean the Mainers were saying it was cold. So, you know, death to anyone born south of the 43rd Parallel.
Anyway as we sat playing cards and drinking*, my father-in-law began to sing.
*(I should make a note about the drinking. I don’t recall everything exactly — not because we drank that much, but just because it’s been some time — but I suspect The Empress of Whisky was living up to her name, while I may have had a strong beer or whisky, and her uncle was drinking something vodka-based, likely a gimlet. My father-in-law, however, almost certainly had a glass of Grand Marnier. He occasionally indulged in a Heineken, and he would gamely try anything — oh, the fun we had taking him on brewery tours! — but, for preference, it was always either that beer or his favorite orange liqueur. On this cold night, I’m certain it was the latter.)
There’s a phrase about people who play card games: “Winners tell funny stories; losers yell, ‘Shut up and deal!'”
My father-in-law always told funny stories, win, lose, or draw.
He also told stories during dinner, on car rides, while watching sports … the man was full of stories.
He was also full of life. Big, bold, life. Gregarious is the word that keeps coming to mind — so apt for him.
He would sometimes sing.
The whole family is musical, mind. They all play instruments, and they all sing on pitch, in time, and with harmony. It is not uncommon for one to break into song, with the others then joining in. It’s rather beautiful.
On this particular night, my father-in-law began to sing, his big, booming voice bringing forth an unfamiliar tune.
Despite the unfamiliarity, The Empress and her uncle were quickly harmonizing to the lines, and eventually I even found myself humming along in tune. (I do not, generally, sing.)
It’s a happy song, and it’s a perfect song for a cold Maine night, and we’re all smiling along as my father-in-law deals the cards, making up lines as he goes, everyone following along … when the song turns unexpectedly bawdy.
At which point we all cracked up and both song and game had to be put on hold while we composed ourselves.
For the rest of the night, usually upon some significant play in the game, one of us would sing or hum the melody, and that’s all it took to crack us all up again.
So that’s what’s in my head. A song that originated with four people and is now known to a handful more (all family) through a bit of judicious sharing, generally during another night of drinks and games.
It’s in my head, and it won’t go away; it just temporarily fades only to pop back up, much like it did the night he composed it.
And every time it does, I smile a little.
But then, he was always making me smile; why would that stop from beyond the grave?
Had I realized I was breaking up a three-day weekend, I might have kept going on that last post. As it turned out, the post was getting long, and I was getting tired, so here we are, still on January 19, with games still to go. Can we get through the rest of January? Let’s find out.
Details: Designed by Alan R. Moon for Days of Wonder, 2006. 2-5 players. Medium.
Source: I bought it for The Empress of Whisky at Christmas, way back in 2006.
Overview: Märklin, if you’re not aware, is a German toy company, in business since the mid-1800s, that is best known for its model trains. This edition of Ticket to Ride, aside from having a German map, features a photo of a different Märklin model train car on each card. It’s quite impressive.
As for game play, this edition of Ticket to Ride has some rules variations that set it apart from other editions. (This is common in Ticket to Ride games; I have yet to see two that share exactly the same ruleset.)
This time around, the major rule variation is Passengers. Each player starts the game with three passenger tokens, which can be placed at any city during a move in which a rail segment is connected to that city. On a later turn, the player may move the passenger along their entire rail network, collecting points tokens from cities as the passenger moves through them.
Naturally, this mechanic throws the game in a whole new direction. Quickly building a short network connecting nearby cities can prove really profitable, once you have passengers running around grabbing those point tokens.
Aside from passengers, which are unique to this edition, this edition features both Short and Long Route Cards. Each player chooses what mix of these to pursue. The game also features +4 Locomotives, which are only usable on routes 4 train cars long or longer. These wild cards, unlike regular Locomotives, do not count as 2 when drawing.
Thoughts: This is a great version of Ticket to Ride. We love it for game play and sentimental reasons.
Result: On January 19, I squeaked out a win, 161-139.
Verdict: Keep. Mind you, if we ever get really hard up, this out-of-print edition goes for high prices on the secondary market.
Monday rolled around, and here’s how we spent MLK Day.
Details: Designed by Uwe Rosenberg for AMIGO Games,* 2016. 2 Players. Short.
*(Distributed in the States by Rio Grande Games.)
Source: I found this one in a discount bin at a game store in downtown Madison, Wisconsin and saved it until Christmas to stuff in the stocking of The Empress of Whisky.
(Yes, I buy games on trips. No, you are not surprised. Yes, I am excellent at Luggage Tetris. No, I am not as organized about anything as I am about planning out The Empress’ stocking gifts way in advance.)
Overview: It’s a spin-off of the popular game Bohnanza, which is for 2-7 players and is loads of fun. It’s also, I just realized, the first game published by Uwe Rosenberg, way back in 1997, so that’s cool.
The Duel plays somewhat like the original, but this isn’t just a cheap re-boxing for two players. The rules here take some major diversions from the original.
First, let’s get through the basics. You have a hand of cards humorously illustrated with varieties of beans. The beans have value based on their scarcity in the the game; rare red beans are worth more than super-common blue beans.
Your goal is to plant them in one of three “fields” — rows of cards kept in front of you — and then harvest them for profit. Easy. (Speaking of easy, the card backs are coins, meaning to keep score you just turn over cards as you harvest them. Nice, efficient piece of game design, that.)
The wrench of the game is that you may not change the order of cards in your hand. This forces you to deal with having the wrong type of bean up at any given time. (Say you’re collecting soy beans and your next card is a green bean. Trouble, that.)
So far we’re on par with the original. Here’s where the major change comes.
In the original, you manipulate your hand by trading cards with other players around the table, trying to ensure that the next bean up is something you want to plant.
In The Duel, there is only a limited form of trading each turn. Otherwise, you are stuck with the beans that come up in your hand. However, to mitigate this you may — unlike in the original game — plant a less valuable bean on top of any more valuable bean. Thus, your overall stack value may decrease, but at least you’re not forced to harvest your hard work too soon.
The game also includes a set of bonus cards. Each player has three of these at any time, and each offers a payment for achieving a certain sequence of beans in a field — for example: two of a kind, plus one, plus three of a kind (in that order exactly).
Thoughts: This is great fun, thematically true to the original, but different enough to clearly be its own game. We rather enjoy it.
Result: On January 20, The Empress sold $42.40 worth of beans to my measly $35.60.
Verdict: Keep. I can’t believe I found it in a discount bin.
Repeated Game: Carcassonne, with The River Expansion
What’s Different: The River is one of a bazillion expansions available for Carcassonne, but it has the distinction of being the first. When I bought my copy way back at the dawn of the millennium, The River was included as a freebie.
Instead of using the starting tile, you can use The River. It consists of 13 tiles. After placing the spring, players alternate placing pieces of the river, each of which must connect and cannot form a loop. The pieces have the usual segments of road, castle, and field, and players may place meeples on them as normal. Once The River is all placed, play proceeds as usual.
The main playing difference is how widely spaced the game is once it gets going.
Result: The Empress started having a day here, beating me in successive games, 141-110 and 195-170.
Details: It’s a really old card game. Ask your grandparents.
Source: I bought this particular lovely cribbage board from Drueke, the grand and, sadly, now defunct U.S. maker of classic wooden board game sets: cribbage, chess, checkers, backgammon, and so forth. It was a Christmas gift to The Empress.
Overview: I will not attempt to describe cribbage in detail because there are surely a googol of such descriptions already available online.
Suffice to say it’s a mathy card game traditionally for two players. There are rules for 3 or 4 players, which this lovely board will accommodate, and I’ve seen rules for more, though finding those boards must be tricky.
Basically, you count points each hand, trying to win a race around the board.
Thoughts: I came to cribbage late in life, which is maybe why it still feels vaguely unnatural to me. The counting rules alone — 15-2, 15-4, a run of 8, etc. — just seem weird. Then again, I majored in English.
Result: On January 20, as usual, The Empress beat me at cribbage. This time she skunked me, 121-78. (If you don’t know what “skunked” means in this context, ask an old person.)
Verdict: Keep. I don’t even know how many cribbage boards we have, and if I somehow got them all out of the house, The Empress would still talk me into playing and just keep score on paper.
The following weekend, we hosted friends — oh, how I miss hosting friends — for another Torg: Day One adventure, this time in Tharkhold. It was great, especially as My Second Oldest Friend, with whom I used to play Torg back in the ’90s, was able to join. Good times.
The next day, The Empress and I were back to the game table, starting with an old favorite.
Repeated Game: Castles of Mad King Ludwig
Result: Somehow, to the surprise of both of us, I beat The Empress 95-55. Unwilling to let it go at that, we played a second game, and I was again victorious, though by a lesser margin, 96-71.
Time for something else.
Details: Designed by Alan R. Moon for Days of Wonder, 2005. 2-5 players. Medium.
Expansion: Designed by Alan R. Moon for Days of Wonder, 2009. This does not add significant time to the game, but it can add some significant complications, if you use all the options.
Source: Someone gave us the Europe version, I think. Back when it was newish. The expansion I bought as a stocking stuffer — yes, her stocking is mostly small games — when it came out in 2009.
Overview: The game itself is mostly classic Ticket to Ride, with which by now you must be familiar. (If you are somehow not, or you need a refresher, you can find the other Ticket to Ride entries in the Games We Play index.)
It’s the basic rules, but it adds Tunnels and Ferries. Ferries simply require a Locomotive (or two) to complete, while Tunnels are something of a gamble. When placing one, to represent the uncertainty of building a railroad line through a mountain, the player must flip the top three cards of the train deck. If any of these match the color of the route, the player must add a card of that color for each match flipped. If the player can’t afford this, the entire turn is forfeit.
The expansion adds a lot. First, it has an entirely new set of Route Cards to play with, including sub-sets of Big Cities of Europe and Mega Europe. Variants on variants, buddy.
The set also includes an entirely new rules add-on: Depots and Warehouses. The Depots can be placed on any city, and they link to the Warehouses, which slowly accumulate extra cards over the course of the game. When a player connects to a city with a Depot, that player receives all cards in the associated Warehouse. It’s a bit much, honestly. These rules can be played with any other Ticket to Ride set.
Thoughts: I like the Europe version, with or without the expansion. The board is broad, but it’s still deceptively easy to get locked out of cities and end up forced to take the long way round.
Result: On January 25, The Empress beat me like a dusty rug, 198 to *cough*70*cough*.
Verdict: Keep. Europe is nice to visit.
Details: Designed by Thomas Lehmann for Rio Grande Games, 2007. 2-4 players. Short.
Source: I think this was another item fulfilled from The Empress’ wish list, many years ago.
Overview: This is an engine-building game with only tangential player interaction. Each player is attempting to hit a victory point total, by drawing cards and building a set of colonies across multiple worlds, sometimes with point-enhancing additions like troops, science stations, robotics, and so forth.
Thoughts: This one had been sitting on the shelf for a long time, and we did not think we’d played it before, but as we got into we realized we had. It is a game that takes some learning, but once you get over that hump, it’s relatively easy.
Result: On January 20, we played twice, to make sure we had a grasp on it. I won both, but narrowly each time.
Verdict: Keep? It’s not a bad game, but it is probably going to be sitting on the shelf for another long spell before we come back to it.
Details: Designed by Klaus-Jürgen Wrede for Hans im Glück, 2002.* 2-5 players. Short.
*(The German original. This version was distributed by Rio Grande Games in the United States. The U.S. license has since been purchased by Z-Man Games with, I might add, an uglier cover.)
Source: I received it as gift one Christmas. I’m pretty sure it was on my wish list because I’d read a nice review somewhere.
Overview: The money’s in the sequels, right? Carcassonne has had a few, along with the aforementioned bazillion expansions. This is no simple re-skin, however; Carcassonne: Hunters and Gatherers manages to take the same mechanics and come out with a game that’s strategically different that the original.
The essential rules — draw a tile, place a meeple — remain, but the terrain features you’re after are totally different. Fields are still a thing, but instead of trying to connect them to castles, you want them to contain tasty critters — deer and such — while avoiding tigers. Tigers are fun because they allow a bit of devious placement between players.
Rivers are sort of like roads in the original game, except you worry about not just the number of segments in the river but also the number of fish in the lakes at each end. You also have one additional meeple type (fishing huts), with each player able to place up to two of these. For huts, only the number of fish count, but you can count all the fish in an entire river system.
Finally, you can complete forests, which are a bit like castles in the original, at least as far as scoring goes. One twist, however: forests may contain gold nuggets, and a player (owner or not) who completes a forest containing a gold nugget gets to draw from a special 12-tile bonus deck, which includes some nifty unique tiles.
Thoughts: I rather enjoy this version. It’s a nice refresher from time to time over the original.
Result: On January 27, I beat The Empress 181-169.
Verdict: Keep. We’re not going Paleo any time soon, but it’s still nice to hunt and gather now and then.
I’m not chronicling, in detail, role-playing games in this experiment, but I did play a lot of Torg throughout January. Like a madman, I am GMing the full set of Torg Eternity’s Day One Adventures. There are seven of those, and I am running each with 5-7 different characters, played by a pool of about 15 players. It’s like my own little Torg repertory company, and I am loving it.
The fun started with two games during the month’s first full weekend; we played Aysle on Saturday, January 4, and Cyberpapacy on Sunday, January 5. I enjoyed the hell of both games, and the players seemed to have a good time, as well.
Following the conclusion of the Sunday game, a friend — let’s call him My Friend Who Likes To Punch People For Recreation — was still up for games when Torg ended, so he, The Empress of Whisky, and I played a game of Downfall of Pompeii.
Oh, wait, I already discussed Downfall of Pompeii.
Repeated Game: Downfall of Pompeii
Result: The Empress and My Friend Who Likes To Punch People For Recreation tied at 6, while I managed 11. Hooray for the fast runners! Pour one out for those claimed by lava.
A week later, on Saturday, The Empress and I sat down together to try a couple of specifically two-player games we had not played recently.
Details: Designed by Sébastien Pauchon, Game Works, 2009.* 2 players. Relatively quick.
*(Our version. These days Asmodee has the license.)
Source: I think The Empress found this one on a “good games for two” list or somesuch, added it to her wish list, and received it for Christmas. Or a birthday. Several years ago. Probably.
Overview: This market-themed game is set in the bustling Indian city of Jaipur. The players represent traders who are each trying to go home with the most profit. It’s a card game with a lot of tokens. The cards and tokens represent various goods: rugs, jewels, precious metals, etc. Each player has a hand of cards. Five community cards sit between the players. Each turn a player may take one card from the table and replace it from the deck; alternately, the player may trade any number of cards from their hand for an equal number of cards on the table. As a third option, the player may take (without compensation!) all of the camels.
Upon reaching a set (3-5 cards), the player may (instead of acquiring new cards) exchange the set for a token. Tokens are worth victory points. Bonus points for larger sets. Bonus point for most camels. Game ends when a majority of goods are exhausted or the cards run out.
Thoughts: It’s one of those sneakily challenging games. Knowing the right time to trade, knowing how many cards (3-5) to go for in a set, working against the hand limit, trying to get rid of excess camels … it makes for a fun mental puzzle. The game plays fast, like 10-15 minutes a round, and it’s traditional to play best out of three rounds.
Result: On January 11, I beat The Empress, 2-1, by the narrowest of margins in each win.
Verdict: Keep. We don’t play it often, but we do enjoy it every time.
Details: Designed by Reiner Knizia for Kosmos,* 1999. 2 players. Relatively quick.
*(Distributed by Rio Grande Games in the States.)
Source: The Empress got it? From somebody? A long while ago?
Overview: The theme of the game is archaeological exploration, but the game play is less Indiana Jones and more Marcus Brody.
Five suits of cards, representing five digs sites, each contain values from 1-10, along with three “investment” cards. Each player holds a hand of eight cards. Each turn each player must either “advance their claim” by playing a card on one of the dig sites, or pass by discarding a card next to a dig site they are not pursuing. The player then draws a replacement from the deck or any discard pile. The game ends when the last card is drawn.
Cards must be played on a dig site in ascending numerical order, no backsies. Prior to playing a number card, a player may raise the stakes by playing one or more investment cards.
The trick is, starting to play on any dig site puts you immediately in “debt” by 20 points. You must therefore be confident you will be able to place at least 20 points worth of cards down in order to clear positive points. But you can’t be confident, at least not at first, because most of the cards are still in the deck … maddening. Investment cards double, triple, or quadruple gains or losses.
Over three rounds, a cumulative score is kept to determine the winner.
Thoughts: This game can be irritating. So much depends on the order the cards turn up, and betting big on the wrong dig site can totally wreck your day. Being good at calculating probabilities helps, but it can still feel quite a bit random. Mind you, that sentence could describe many traditional cards games, couldn’t it?
Result: On January 11, I beat The Empress, 84-22. That looks like a lot, but one of the things about this game is the winner of each round tends to score bunches of points whilst the loser scores few or none, so big victory margins are common.
Verdict: Keep. We like it, now and then.
The next day, Sunday, we played Torg again, this time in the Living Land. Let’s just say dinosaurs rampaging New York can ruin anyone’s day.
A week later, The Empress and I again pulled out some games, this time games not meant specifically for two players.
Details: Designed by Christopher Chung for Foxtrot Games / Renegade Games Studio, 2015. 2-4 players. Relatively quick.
Source: The Empress received as a Secret Santa gift at work. (Some Secret Santa did her homework.)
Overview: It’s a tile-laying game. Each tile features four colors. After any player places a tile, all players receive a matching color card corresponding to the color facing that player. The player placing the tile can also receive bonus cards for matching colors on the placed tile to tiles already in play. Cards are then used to purchase victory points, by collecting sets of four-of-a-kind, three pairs, or one-of-every-seven-of-the-colors.
Thoughts: This is fun, for a few reasons. First, you always have a hand of three tiles, which means you have options for your placement. This gives a lot more strategic options than your typical draw-and-place tile-laying game. Also? The theme is nice. You slowly create a board of beautiful floating lanterns.
It plays well with two players — usually with very tight competition — but we have yet to try it with three or four.
Result: On January 18, I beat The Empress, 46-39.
Details: Designed by Ed Marriott for Tasty Minstrel Games, 2014. 2-6 players. Long.
Source: I picked this one up during its original Kickstarter campaign. It was my first purchase from Tasty Minstrel Games, and I’ve since become pretty fond of the company’s offerings. I appreciate their tendency to go in for high-quality, fun components.
Overview: It’s a pepper festival! And you’d better know your color wheel! Players slowly build a field of peppers by planting — adorable, wooden — pepper pieces. As peppers are planted, players then move their farmer tokens around the field, cross-breeding different colors to create new peppers. (Yellow and blue make green, etc.)
Throughout the two days — each broken into morning and afternoon — players compete to be the first to cross-breed certain peppers, farm enough peppers to fulfill customer orders and recipes, and sell their excess at market.
Thoughts: This game is fun, but it sits right on that balance of going on too long for the amount of fun involved. It really isn’t great for two players because it’s pretty easy to predict and directly interact with each other. We’ve played with four, and that’s much more interesting, what with the extra variables extra players bring.
Side-note: I really want to play this with My Sister The Artist.
Result: On January 18, The Empress beat me, 69-65.
Verdict: Keep. It’s worth it just for the tactile sensation of playing with the wooden pepper tokens.
New day, more games.
Details: Designed by Reiner Knizia for Fantasy Flight Games, 2005. 2 players. Short.
Source: The Empress, for reasons she can’t recall, put this one her wish list about a decade ago, and it was more or less immediately gifted to her. It then sat, glowering at us, on the game shelf until January 19.
Overview: Have you ever played Stratego? This will be very familiar then. Each player takes either the side of the Fellowship of the Ring or the followers of Sauron. The Fellowship’s goal is to get Frodo to Mt. Doom. Sauron’s baddies can win by either killing Frodo or getting four of their pieces into the Shire. Each piece has special rules regarding how it moves and how (or sometimes whether) it can attack. Each player also has a limited deck of spell cards that can be used to throw a wrench into how the pieces work.
Thoughts: This was fun enough, but it comes off heavily as a re-skinning of Stratego with more complex rules. Thematically it’s cool, I guess, but it’s a bit more “fans will buy this because it’s pretty” than “gamers will enjoy this because it’s fun.”
Result: On January 19, we played two games and The Empress won both, proving she is equally versatile as a member of the Fellowship or a follower of Sauron.
Verdict: Out. It was fun, but we just don’t see ourselves coming back to this one. However, we will probably hang on to it until the next time we see a particular friend, My Friend Who Really Loves Stratego, just to see what he thinks. If he digs it, he’ll go home with it.
Well, that was a month, wasn’t it?
I didn’t mean to let so long go from one post to the next — stop me, if you’ve heard this before — but, well, the world.
Life in the time of COVID-19 is all sorts of things, but stressful is foremost among them.
It’s a weird kind of stress, too: ebbing and flowing as the days go by, sometimes — as in a grocery store run — surging up to a pulse-pounding near-madness, while at other times — at home, on the couch, content with Best Cat and The Empress of Whisky — lying quietly as just a mild tingling at the back of the mind that something is … not … quite … right.
And there goes a month.
Like Buffalo Bill shooting — “onetwothreefourfive, pigeonsjustlikethat.”
And, also, like the slow, steady cadence of the 21-gun salute.
Like the turn of Earth, gradually, day into night, while simultaneously orbiting the sun at 67,000 miles per hour.
These are the days of COVID-19.
Days of anger and rage, at incompetent leaders who first dawdled while we died, then rushed to put us back to work to save their portfolios while we keep dying.
And those same days, embracing all the love we have in life, finding new ways to live, to laugh, to stay close to family and friends, video conferencing becoming part of everyone’s digital toolkits, yes, even your parents’.
A month ago we learned to slow down, to hear the previously unknown midday birds, to dig deep in our libraries to find the forgotten books, to dig deep in our pantries to make the purple cookies, to dig deep in our hearts to make the best connections.
A month ago I started writing this, then let it lie fallow, the words needing time to soak nitrogen from the loam.
A month ago I started crying again, in the quiet corners of my mind, tears of sadness, pain, rage, regret, all the tears, all the days.
A month ago, the world.