Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Dave Reviews: The Process By Which Green Plants Use Sunlight To Synthesize Foods From Carbon Dioxide And Water


Bob Ross would be so proud of this game.

Photosynthesis is a, uh... mm... it's not worker placement... 'strategy', I mean, everything is a strategy game... it's a game about growing trees, really. That's what you do. You plant trees and watch them grow, as long as they're getting sufficient sunlight.

That's it! It's a sunlight absorption game!


Here's how it works. You start the game with a small collection of trees and seeds to plant in the forest. As you plant more trees and the sun revolves around the forest (I know, I know, just go with it), your trees gather light, which gives you points to spend on more trees and seeds. Seeds lead to small trees, and trees can grow from small to medium to large; the bigger the tree, the more light points you get when the sun hits them. However, they need to be positioned to catch the sun, which means being either taller than the trees in front or beyond the reach of their shadows.

Once large trees are on the board, the owners of those large trees can spend light points to remove them for a scoring token. The closer you are to the middle of the forest, the better the soil, and thus the more points you get for scoring a tree there. Trees in the middle often have a harder time gathering light when they're smaller, but that's ok; all of your light points go into one pool, so the trees routinely gathering light on the outside can fund the growth of trees on the inside. It's like a hippie commune that met its final destiny and actually became the trees they love so much.

The game has a very interesting way of balancing itself out. There are no catch-up mechanics per se, and a player who pulls in a bunch more light points than their opponents can look like they'll snowball out of control with the number of trees they can grow or embiggen (it's a word). And, if completely allowed to do so, they will. But the sun goes through three rotations, sitting on six different positions on each one, and it's almost impossible to not be in a favorable position with regards to blocking your opponents and getting more light at least some of the time unless you're completely botching the game.

It could happen if a particularly experienced player and someone who doesn't know the game but tries to be too clever match up, but most likely a snowball occurs when two players target each other and a third grows, mostly unmolested. There are enough turns in the game, though, that the third player can then be targeted for getting too far out front. So there are no self-correcting functions for a game that might get out of hand, but there are ample opportunities for players to deal with the problem.

The art is lovely, and having bundles of actual tree figures to put together and place on the board feels fantastic. Lay a seed, pop a tree down, replace a tree with a bigger one, chop down the giants... it's all viscerally solid. It's one of a number of recent releases that is simply beautiful to look at, the sign of a designer trying to take one of the things unique to board games—actual physical pieces to play with—and turn them into a major plus.

As with many games which have that lovely aesthetic, however, there's a sense that the art is top-quality to make up for the gameplay. The first time you play it, it's like you've been handed a familiar but still noticeably different type of puzzle to solve. The second time, with experience in hand, you build a strategy around how to get your big trees out and score some points, because in most games players won't be able to do that too many times. The third time, all the ways your opponents messed with you in the first two games come to mind and filter more fully into your strategy. Those games are fun.

The ones after it...

There are going to be people who could play this game again and again and again and adore the hell out of it. Some of them will be relatively casual gamers who particularly enjoy the theme and art, and to be fair, that's probably the main audience for this game. I think that a lot of what will drive people through multiple playthroughs, however, is having the right opponent or opponents to turn the game into a proxy for trying to soul-read each other's strategies, which is not the same as the game itself offering tremendous replayability.

A strong and important market exists for games that are better designed than the buy-at-Target classics, yet appeal to casual gamers and would go well on their shelves or the shelves of those who often find themselves introducing casual gamers to the hobby. It's for people who don't play many games but are very curious and ready to throw themselves into the medium depth of the pool, or those who have played the real entry-level stuff like Catan and want something that doesn't rely on any luck whatsoever. Photosynthesis fits that niche. Consider this a strong recommendation if that's the type of game you're looking for, and a 'play someone else's copy' recommendation if it's not.

Score: Eight happy little trees out of the eleven we have enough paint for on the palette.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Laundry Shenanigans

I don't generally post about the things that happen in my life on social media. When I talk about these things in person, I can use gestures and inflection points to improve the telling, but here the stories largely have to rely on their own merits to be worth people's time. Rarely does a story worth the effort to write it out come along.


Today I decided to do laundry. Wash my jeans, specifically, all six pairs. A bit before 9 am, I took them to the laundry room at my apartment complex. There was a hamper and some scattered clothes, so someone else was in the middle of laundry as well, but the washing machine wasn't in use. I put the pants in along with the requisite soap and money, started the machine, and went back into my apartment.

A little after 10, I went out to check on them. The washing machine was still running. I was puzzled, because the machine doesn't normally take that long, but I left it alone. Twenty minutes later I went out again. It had stopped, but in the washing machine window there appeared to be a white towel. I opened the door and found an assortment of women's clothes.

The hamper from before was gone and the dryer was running. I wondered if someone had decided to dry my clothes on their dime. Odd as that might be, it was the only thing I could think of. I went back in and mentioned this to Malone, who taught me something I hadn't learned in three and a half years of living here: you can open the dryer mid-cycle and not lose your money. The clothes in the dryer appeared to be of the same batch as the ones in the washer.

About a week ago, we received an e-mail from Atwood that said items were being stolen from laundry rooms. Atwood runs quite a number of complexes, however, some of them substantially sketchier than ours, and there was nothing to indicate it was a problem here. Needless to say, in an instant that e-mail rang entirely too true.

I paced in the hallway for several minutes, unwisely smacking the wall at one point, deciding how to proceed. If you know me, you've probably seen how raggedy some of my jeans are, and I tried to spin it in my head as an excuse to finally replace them, but fuck all that. Someone stole my shit. Someone needed to get found out. E-mailing Atwood wouldn't do anything. I could knock on doors, but a thief isn't going to make it so easy to figure them out. It still seemed the best option.

First, however, I went inside to think. I mentioned this, broadly, to Malone, who suggested that perhaps a good (if misguided) soul had taken my clothes into their apartment in light of the laundry room thefts and had the intention of returning them. After all, the clothes had disappeared in less than an hour, which almost surely pointed the finger at someone on our floor. If the thief was that stupid, they probably would have been caught by now.

With this idea in tow, I headed across the hall to Apartment #1 and knocked. I've never spoken to them, but I know it's an apartment of college-age women, so they seemed most likely to own the clothes currently in the laundry room. No one answered.

I readied myself to knock again when I thought, well, before I go banging on everyone's doors, maybe I should check upstairs. The original idea, that someone was drying my clothes with their money, still seemed highly unlikely, but at this point everything seemed unlikely and the idea someone would take my clothes upstairs for that purpose didn't strike me as weirder than anything else.

Upon entering the second floor laundry room, I beheld my sopping wet pile of jeans resting on top of the washing machine. Immediately my building stress melted away. I would have put them in the dryer there, but that was also in use, so I carried them back downstairs, into my apartment. With the stress evaporating, however, the fullness of the morning's proceedings settled in.

  • I went to do laundry. 
  • My laundry was removed from the washing machine by someone else, presumably the person who used it immediately afterwards. 
  • This has happened before; normally the clothes being removed are put on top of the washer or dryer, wherever there's room. That did not happen.
  • In light of reported thievery, it did not seem impossible a person would take the clothes into their own homes for temporary safekeeping, regardless of the obvious flaws in that plan. That did not happen.
  • Instead, the individual took my clothes TO A DIFFERENT FLOOR and left them for whoever to find. The tops of the washer and dryer on our floor were empty, so there was a place to put them. I did not take anyone else's clothes out of the washer in order to do my own, so there was no reason for this person to enact some sort of petty vengeance on me for inconveniencing them.

I am so goddamned confused right now. It's almost impossible to find out who it was unless I directly bump into them doing their laundry, but I so desperately want to ask them why. I'm not even mad anymore. I feel like, if I can understand the thought process behind that action, I could make a completely new character out of it for a story.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Dave Reviews: Roman Entertainment Without Obvious Blood


The Roman, arbiters of basically everything in the ancient world, except the Greeks but they don't really count here because they fought each other too much and didn't take over most of the known world. The Romans did shows! You do them too, in this game!

Colosseum is a game about owning Roman arenas, various performing assets, and putting on shows with those assets in your arena. Your ultimate goal, as any good theater owner will understand and which any good theater major will deny as being important, is to play for the largest possible crowd. Every turn you invest in your operations, buy more assets in market auctions, and trade with other players as necessary to ensure the largest possible crowds for your productions. You earn money each turn equal to the number of spectators who see your show, but your score is only the largest number of spectators that have seen one of your shows over the game's five turns. Thus the person with the single largest crowd at any point during the game will be declared the winner.

Investing can take a few different routes, and you can choose one per turn. You can buy season tickets, which get handed out to the people and add five spectators to any performances; increase your arena's size, which allows you to put on more complex productions and also gives a better chance of nobility landing in your arena, bringing extra spectators with them; construct an Emperor's Loge, which allows you to roll two dice to move nobles instead of one (you can move one noble with both dice or two separate nobles with one die each); or purchase a new event program, which allows you to put on a bigger performance than the two with which you start the game.

Market lots consist of three assets randomly drawn from the asset bag. The starting player may initiate a bid for a minimum of eight gold on the lot of their choice; bidding continues until someone wins. If the bid initiator wins, the lot is refilled and the next player has the chance to initiate bidding. If someone else wins, the same player may initiate another bid. Once a player has won a bid during this round, they may not bid on anything else. This makes it relatively easy to pick up a lot for cheap, but getting one you particularly want can become expensive. IMPORTANT: there is a variant in the original version of the game (on which this review is based) where players who win a bid can start bidding again once someone else becomes the initiator. The new version (Emperor's Edition, box art pictured above) apparently uses the variant as the new core rule.

Productions have a list of assets required to pull off the full performance and receive maximum spectator points. Productions also have a list of alternative point values you can earn if you don't have the full array of necessary assets (though there is a limit to how much can be missing). The points are penalized in such a way as to create no strategic advantage in cutting corners on a performance; if you can get the requisite assets, it is in your interest to do so. More spectators equal more money, and more money ensures you can make another investment and splash the market on the next round. Previously finished productions offer a +5 bonus to spectators on the new production; you can redo old productions, but they don't offer the spectator bonus to themselves. At the end of a performance, you remove one asset used in that performance from the game. Finally, a podium worth three spectators in the future is given to the player in the lead, the player in last takes a 'donation' of their choice from the leader, and the next round commences.

The way the game starts looks like it can be problematic. In a game where almost everything is under your control (investment choices, market lots you bid on, productions you do), you begin with a random assortment of assets and two random event programs from a batch of starters. It's not that bad, in that the assets are limited in types available and the programs don't require much to go on. But a person can get particularly lucky, or particularly screwed, and while a good draw doesn't necessarily lead to a win, a bad draw can lead to less money coming in early, which can become the worst type of snowball. This is a relatively unusual problem, however, worth noting but otherwise not worth worrying about too much.

The core game is pretty fun. Shuffling around your assets, trying to swing net-positive trades, planning for future shows while deciding what assets you won't need and can be discarded this round, figuring out if you can get a star performer (holding three or more assets of particular types, +4 spectators for any performance using that asset type) and what that's worth, the general strategy of throwing all your money into a round because it'll get you more money out of the round and create the best kind of capitalist cycle... all of that is highly engaging. You look at your arena as a source of pride and commerce, not a mere game mechanic. That's what you want in a game.

However, there's one serious problem with the game design, and that's the imbalance in the investments. Season tickets are god mode compared to everything else. This creates two problems: one, if you realize this and your opponents don't, you can get the jump and buy four season tickets (the max). If you have four, you probably aren't losing unless someone else also has four. Nothing else creates an advantage as immediate or as rewarding, and it's not close.

An arena expansion gives you one extra square to catch a noble and lets you put on bigger performances. Because players choose what nobles to move, you have to roll the right number to get a noble into your arena, and someone else can move them right out, that only helps at the margins. Also, because only the biggest show matters, expanding your arena at the end of the game is enough to get the performance you need. Even if getting a double expansion for the biggest shows isn't possible because of all the season tickets you bought, the season ticket bonus can easily outweigh the larger spectator count for the bigger performance, and the smaller performance is easier to put on because it requires fewer assets.

The Emperor's Loge is theoretically nice because you can move multiple nobles, or whisk one very far in an effort to put them in your arena. However, in addition to other players still being able to move the nobles away from your show, they're not worth enough spectators to make it worth the effort. Senators bring three spectators, consuls five, and the emperor seven. If only the emperor brings more than a season ticket, and it's unlikely anyone will let him stay at your arena for long, why put money into this investment over a season ticket?

Likewise, buying new event programs let you not only get more spectators for the larger shows, but earn you five extra spectators for the previous shows. However, every program you can buy requires an arena expansion. If you try and do this early, you have to forgo a season ticket for the expansion and another one for the new program, all for the ability to balance out one of those missing season tickets (by not having to redo an old performance) and the need to pile up more assets for that bigger performance.

The unfortunate thing is that this is really just a numbers problem. Make the nobles worth more spectators. Make old shows worth more spectators. Make new programs worth more spectators. Any of these things could work to make season tickets an option with profit that's more stable with less top-end potential. Instead they're more stable and just as good at the high end. If you don't buy season tickets every chance you get until they're gone (there's a limited supply, making where you start in the player order enormously important), you're doing it wrong. That puts new players who want to experiment at a nearly insurmountable disadvantage, and if everyone playing already knows this, it forces the first three rounds into a rut that allows no creativity. The only part of the game that has any play after the investment phase is dealing with assets; how well your performance goes off is determined by what you do in those first two phases. Thus, about half the game is played by rote or played wrong, and that's a shitty way for any game to work.

As I said, the core game is fun. If you find a house rule to balance out the season tickets, or come up with one yourself, you could get a lot of play out of Colosseum. After all, even with this problem, it was popular enough for a new company to pick up its rights and put out a fresh Kickstarted version. As it stands, that one issue--one which was not addressed in the new addition, an oversight of the highest order--dramatically reduces what this game could be.

Obviously it's not a dealbreaker for a lot of people. I'm just not sure why.

Score: Thirteen gladiators getting play-stabbed out of eighteen.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Dave Reviews: More Than Three Sizable Pig Subcontractors

The Grimm Forest

When considering the history of the Brothers Grimm, one might think that someone who hears the line, "Little pig, little pig, let me in," and thinks of Negan from The Walking Dead would like something situated in the Grimm universe.

Nothing quite so bloody to find here. Just a good little game with some of the best aesthetic choices in recent board gaming history.

The concept behind The Grimm Forest is that the king needs an architect, and goes to the Three Little Pigs of yore for help. But they're old and senile now, so it's up to their extended family to compete for the king's favor and the contract to become the kingdom's new building maestro. The pigs need to go to the straw fields, forest, and brickyard for material (a market with an assortment of resources is available in a four-player game), and build houses to prove their worth. The first to build three houses is the winner; if more than one pig finishes three houses in the same round, the one with the sturdiest houses (brick > wood > straw) wins based on their efficiency.

Gonna say this up front, even though it has nothing to do with the gameplay: whoever designed the inserts for this game deserves a raise. Or a bigger cut of the profits. Something. Massive Darkness was a game with fantastic minis, with a set of inserts that handled almost all the minis, cards, and other pieces, but still managed to fail spectacularly enough to make the game not worth pulling off the shelf unless we really wanted to play it. Grimm Forest has zero of these issues. Each insert is given a precise spot in the box, shaped perfectly for the pieces it's designed to hold, and doesn't rely on most of the items going into slots carved out of one piece of plastic that serves as the main insert. Even the boards you punch the pieces out of are designed not to be thrown away, but to be slipped into the bottom of the box so that the inserts sit flush with the box top and nothing moves around. You can put the box sideways without worrying that everything will tumble free. If there's anything they could have done better, it's mark which of the four player pigs go in which of their slots, because it's not entirely obvious, but that's a minor quibble about something seriously impressive.

And the minis are fantastic. Returning to the above comparison, Grimm has only a dozen or so minis, but they're on the quality level of Massive Darkness. It allows the game to boast high quality miniatures while maintaining a $50 MSRP (we assumed it was $70 before seeing the price). The other art (player boards and resource locations) is gorgeous as well. Everything about how the game is aesthetically designed and put together is great.

That sounds like a lead-in to talking about how the game is seriously underwhelming. Not here! In fairness, the aesthetics are the best part, but that's more a compliment to the design than a mark against the gameplay. The game itself is... well, let's discuss how it works.

Each turn, players place a gather card (and, optionally, a Fable card with a special effect) face down for the location they want to get resources from. This card goes back to your hand; there's no need to rotate locations if you don't want to. Pigs go to the chosen resource, unless some ability prevents or changes that; all pigs in the same location share resources equally, with remainders left for the next round. Pigs in a location by themselves get everything there (so you want to pull that off as much as possible, generally speaking). Once resources are gathered, players perform two actions from the following: collect one resource of their choice from the general supply, draw a Fable card, or use collected resources to build a piece of a house. Then more resources are piled on to the locations and the process begins again.

Houses consist of a floor, walls, and roof; these cost two, four, and six of the appropriate resource, respectively. Building the walls lets you draw a Friend card; you can have one Friend at any given time, and if you don't want the one you draw, you have to give it to someone else. In that case, they have to accept the new Friend and get rid of any they already have, which is the only way to remove powerful Friends from your opponents' boards. It's also a good way to piss people off and make them target you, which means the requirement that someone has to take any drawn Friend keeps people interacting.

Fable cards tend to have less powerful effects than Friends, only work that turn, and in some cases don't have any effect (ie. the card requires you to be on a location alone and you end up with somebody in the same spot). You can pile them up, though, and choose the best one for any given situation. Fable cards also include monsters, which can destroy resources in an area if anyone goes to it (wolf), destroy the resources someone already has if they visit where the monster is placed (dragon!), or knock part of someone's house off (BIG BAD WOLF). It's a take-that mechanic, and a lot of people aren't fans of that type of gameplay. However, it's not as simple as fucking someone over at will; Fable cards are shown before gather cards, thus monsters are placed in locations before anyone knows for sure where their opponents are going. Monsters are very dangerous for anybody who's telegraphing their moves, but if you can keep your opponents guessing, they may play monsters at inopportune times, target other people, or never use them at all because they never find a good moment.

The balance between efficiently gathering resources and remaining unpredictable is fairly well struck, though not perfect. In general it ends up being more effective to collect whatever you need most than to dodge opponents unless you're sure the area you need is about to be targeted in a way that keeps you from collecting as much useful stuff as you'd get from somewhere else. Even then you need to really know it's going to happen, in which case your opponents are being predictable and you have the advantage. Mostly people are going to try and be clever here and there and fuck themselves up in the process, and the monsters don't show up that often most of the time, making a straightforward strategy generally preferable.

One questionable decision is the inclusion of basic and advanced cards. If you do as they suggest, and remove the advanced cards before your first play, you get a fairly shitty version of the game. Without more tools for pushing back against other people's advancement, one big hit on a resource (most likely when everyone else avoids it expecting a monster because it's too tempting a target) puts you so far ahead you can coast to victory. It's a more solitary version of the game, and while playable, it's very much a learning version of a game that doesn't need a learning version. You aren't going to have an advantage by knowing the mechanics better than newer opponents, because the mechanics are clear from the start; an advantage in experience would involve knowing the cards available, which doesn't require playing a basic game first. Shuffle everything in and play the full game from the start.

This is a very good game for introducing people to some of the concepts that undergird more complex titles. Solving the riddle of your opponents' hidden decisions and using that to your advantage? Check. Keeping track of your opponents' progress and resources? Check. Timing your special abilities for maximum effect? Check. If you already run with a pretty hardcore gaming group, this probably won't be enough to keep you entertained for more than a few plays, but if you're a casual gamer or routinely have them around, this is going to last quite a bit longer for a very reasonable price.

Score: Ten finished houses out of twelve (fucking wolf blew the roofs off the other two).

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Guns, Data, and Missing the Point

If digital writing required the same ink as print, we'd have blown through all the dye, murdered every octopus and squid, and started in on the crayons just to cover everyone's gun-related opinions over the last few days. There's no argument that can sway anybody who lives in this country anymore, not on its merits. Opinions shift when headline events occur, and if outside opinions sway a person, it's from being surrounded by a bunch of people shouting in unison. The gap between 'we will die with all these guns' and 'we will die without all these guns' is too massive for someone to leap on the strength of a single person's eloquence.

Some people keep fighting anyway. Some walk away, unwilling to lose (more) friends and relatives to a firestorm that only ever has fuel added. I watch numbers. Less open to interpretation, as a wise man (read: greedy fictional banker) once said.

One of my Facebook friends posted a takedown of Everytown for Gun Safety's statistic that there have been eighteen school shootings in the first month and a half of 2018. The takedown focused pretty hard on the fact 'only' six or seven had injuries or fatalities, which seems like a pretty fucked way to look at the situation. Within the lifetime of anyone coherent enough to understand what we're talking about, the idea of guns on a campus would still have been cause for a freakout. Setting aside incidents where bullets flew in or around a school in a separate category because someone's aim was shitty is missing the point pretty hard.

That said, there were also instances like a third-grader pulling the trigger on a cop's gun, which is a situation that sounds idiotic as shit but is very much an accident. Whether the list looked like the 'correct' number would be eight or ten or twelve or fifteen, eighteen was clearly not right. Pointing that out is fair. It's arguably necessary given how many media and political sources took that number and ran with it, because if a statistic gun control advocates start relying on can get shot down as easily as this one, it's doing zero good for the cause.

But there's a flip side to making corrections: letting go of the point once it's made. The Gun Violence Archive has just about every data point you could want at a glance about shooting incidents (some of which don't have any casualties). The New York Times used the archive's data in a recent piece on shootings since Sandy Hook, and as of February 15th found eleven school shootings listed in 2018. Both logic and a dig through well-collated data shows the eighteen number was too high. The people who complained about that can enjoy that they were correct, and let it fucking go.

Eleven in a month and a half is still one every four days. If your message is, hey, this statistic is too high, but this is still really fucking bad and we need to find some answers, great. That is a reasonable perspective. If the main thing you're bitching about is that the gun control people overshot their argument, and you can't stop harping on it because they're dishonest or it's clear you can't get a straight answer out of liberals or whatever the fuck else, shut the goddamned fuck up.

Go hug your guns. I truly don't give a shit. I've stopped believing that we're going to fix this problem before the whole country burns. But if you'd rather watch the country burn before you give up your weapons, own it. Own the fact that, no matter how much you argue there will be just as many dead people without guns, we can't possibly know that without changing anything and your guns are more important than trying. I will respect people more for throwing themselves on top of their arsenals screaming, "MY GUNS! YOU NO TAKE!" than anybody scrabbling for the tiniest handholds so they can cling to the notion one erroneous statistic discounts every other argument on the side of those who made the mistake, including entirely valid arguments presented by the corrected statistic.

Just be sure—for your own sake, be really, really sure—that you are all-in with whatever you believe. Because if what you support is or becomes the rule, and it leaves you in a position of having to help someone else grieve the loss of a child or parent or whoever that might not be gone if you hadn't gotten your way, your belief isn't going to do shit for them. You're going to have to look at them and know, in your deepest heart, that even if you had known this would happen you still couldn't have supported anything else. If you can't do that, you need to seriously ask yourself why you feel the way you feel when it comes to guns, and pester yourself about it until you figure out something that makes sense, that you can live with.

Because not everyone is going to.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Dave Reviews: The Game of KYOOOOOT

Stuffed Fables

The description of Stuffed Fables at the above link calls it "an unusual adventure game".

Yeeeeeah. That's accurate.

Stuffed Fables is called an 'AdventureBook Game'. This is the first of its type from Plaid Hat Games. When you open the box and see a big spiral book full of stories taking up more space than anything else, it might immediately bring to mind Above & Below or Near & Far. The box cover alone, however, makes it clear we're dealing with kid-style stories, and likewise the game follows a simpler (read: more linear) path than either of those two.

The directions are easy: Read the book. Passages in italics are story for the current bookkeeper to read to the group. Regular text involves gameplay. Don't move forward from the section you're on until something in the game tells you to do so. As long as you know a few core rules, that's all you need to run the whole thing.

Let's split this between the gameplay and the storytelling.

—Gameplay. Every character has its own set of abilities, although each starts with the same amount of stuffing (health) and hearts to power their abilities. Characters usually have at least one ability that nudge them towards using certain types of items, though they can use anything they want.

You start a turn by drawing five dice from a bag. White dice potentially give you extra stuffing. Black dice are threat dice, which can trigger enemy minion turns or other negative effects. Other dice can be used for actions specific to that die's color, or for a few general abilities not connected to a color (mainly movement or storing dice for a later turn). Non-boss enemies have one hit point; beat their defense with a roll and you KO them, earning a button that can serve various purposes later. Bosses have hit points equal to the number of players in the game, but you hit them the same way, by rolling higher than their defense. Other icons on the board can give you other stuffed animals to talk to, merchants to deal with, or push the story forward.

The gameplay is about as good as it needs to be for a game like this. The best mechanic is the ability to choose how many dice you roll to attempt specific tasks. In most cases you'll want to roll as many dice as you can, or (if for some reason you have a pile of dice you can use) at least enough to just about guarantee success, but having the option not to do that and instead take multiple shots at a task with worse odds is good and I'm glad they offered it. Needing specific colors of dice for certain tasks, but having to pull dice from a bag each turn, is a recipe for annoyance, but the ability to save dice for later, or give friends dice to use on their turn, does a fair bit to alleviate issues created by randomness. Skill tests and group tasks can be failed, but you should usually have a much better than 50/50 chance to succeed.

Perhaps the highest praise for the gameplay is that it's good enough while also not overshadowing the story that is the selling point. Speaking of which...

—The story. When we opened the book, the first thing that came up was, do we actually have to read this kiddie shit to each other? Once the gameplay aspects came in, though, we got over that, and everyone read without feeling weird about it by the end. It's also a little darker than someone might expect—not original Grimm Brothers level, but not shiny happy Disney stuff either, no matter how the first page of the story book might read. The first story revolves around the animals retrieving the blanket of 'their' child from little spider monsters with doll heads. If you look at the little spider monsters with doll heads and don't buy into the creepiness that exists here, you're probably not going to buy into the whole theme. And those are the lowest-level threats.

More generally, if you can buy into stuffed animals coming to life and running around (which is a relatively common idea), you can perceive the threats to their well-being. Yet stuffed animals don't die; they can give stuffing to each other, including if one of them hits zero. Having all the animals flatten out (literally) is a loss; we didn't get anywhere near that point, but the idea of it feels pretty sad.

It can feel odd to be an adult, reading these stories to other adults, but they've written and paced it all in a way that lets you get into it. It helps that the art and miniatures are really nice, so you know exactly what characters are running around the maps.

—The overall. Pretty good gameplay, solid story. Sounds like winner!


Playing through a story is enjoyable. You go through the process, have a good time, and think, man, this is fun, I'd like to do this more. Then you get to the end and... nothing. There are different endings available depending on how the story plays out, one better than the other, but once you hit the ending, that's it. There are eight stories available; like a legacy game, there's not much point to playing them multiple times unless you're trying to introduce someone new to it, but there's no legacy aspect. Nothing moves from game to game. I mean, you could house rule it so your characters keep their items, but they'd become incredibly broken.

It feels a little odd to criticize the game for only having eight stories to play when Time Stories starts out with only the one, and that's quite popular. The difference I would draw between them is that Time Stories is a mystery to be solved, so once that happens you naturally wouldn't have a reason to play it again. Stuffed Fables is a game that makes you want to keep seeing new stories, just like you would want more work from an author you like, with sufficient gameplay but not enough to make you want to re-run anything. Some people may get through all eight and decide they got their money's worth; others will think there should have been more. I have no good advice for how to decide which side of that line you'll fall on. It helps if you enjoy crisp art and excellent miniatures. That's all I've got.

Score: Six crawly doll heads out of eight.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

League Math; or, I Done Learned Something

The League of Legends season has been running for about three weeks. I finished my placements within the first week to take advantage of the quest reward (quests are the tastiest candy), but I've only played a half-dozen ranked games since then. I'm 3-3.

I have 35 LP.

If, by some miracle, anyone reads this who also doesn't know how the League ranking system works, it's based on the Elo rating system that dominates competitive games where people or teams need to be ranked who may never get a chance to play one another. This is common when the competitive pool is not structured in small leagues, but rather allows anyone interested to jump in. Elo ratings use a formula to determine the win rate any player should have against any other player. The more someone plays, the more accurate their Elo rating will be. In a perfect mathematical situation, where a person performs at the exact same level every time against players of the exact same calculated ability and has an exact 50% win rate (such as 3-3!), that person should not see a change in their rating.

LoL doesn't show anyone's rating, or MMR (match making rating). Your only shift comes in LP, and if you lose at 0 LP or win a promotional series at 100 LP, a change in division. However, in the aforementioned perfectly balanced scenario, a 3-3 record starting at 0 LP would also finish at 0 LP. Considering someone playing what the system considers to be a completely equal team will gain or lose 20 LP—which is to say, winning three games without losing any would put you at 60—being at 35 LP at 3-3 feels incredibly strange.

What particularly confused me was this: I'm Bronze 3 at the moment, and it's not like there are only a few players down at this level. Even if we were placed with players possessing a wide variety of MMRs, why would the game always put the highest ones on the other team?

Time for research!

It turns out, if op.gg is correct, that the game higher MMR players on the other team at all. Rather, everybody has a higher MMR than I do. Mine is only 935, which is fresh HOT garbage (although kadeem is only at 810, so at least I'm not a total statistical dumpster fire). Apparently—again, assuming op.gg is correct, though I can't imagine they'd start posting match MMRs unless they were pretty damn sure those numbers mattered—it's just my MMR versus the match MMR. It can't be the other team's MMR, because opposing teams have had pretty serious fluctuations while the game MMRs have been pretty steadily near 1100.

I have to assume going 2-8 in placements is the main reason my MMR is so bad. Still, if I'm 3-3 in ranked, it should have gone up... which means it was lower? Holy shit. Well, I'm not going to complain. If it gets me out of Bronze faster, I don't care if they put my garbage MMR over my name in neon.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Dave Reviews: A Very Meh Comic

Tokyo Ghost

I wanted to like this. For a while, I did.

Led Dent and Debbie Decay are constables in future Los Angeles, a world where everyone is plugged in all the time and can't see the world around them for all the screens in their faces (Debbie being the lone apparent exception). In the course of their work, they're sent to Tokyo, the last tech-free land on the planet. I'm curious if Tokyo was chosen because the creators liked the idea of a low-tech Japanese aesthetic, wanted to flip the script on Japan often having the most cutting-edge technology on Earth, if they just liked the sound of "Tokyo Ghost", or if it was something else entirely.

In any case, Debbie uses the opportunity to unplug Led and bring him back to his senses. They'd grown up together and fallen in love before he succumbed to the screens, and she sees this as their chance to be the happy couple. It all happens a bit quickly; the problem isn't so much that the process needs to take X number of pages for it to matter, but rather that because it happens so fast, and we don't see Led struggle very much with reintegrating himself into the real world, it's a given some other conflict has to come and fuck everything up for them.

That's the end of spoiler territory. I only went in that far because that's the best part of the story and is worth reading even if you already know the above information. The way the world is built, both with the art and the storytelling, is very good. Ending spoilers here means that I can only say this: they get to the end of book one (if you're reading it as two trade paperbacks), take everything they were doing well, and flush it.

The advertising in the link calls Tokyo Ghost a "smash hit". I don't know what the sales numbers are, but this isn't a situation where I didn't like something and can't fathom how anyone did. I understand that the end of the first book, and all my complaints about it, are something I think most people will grasp but not that many will think is as important as I do. I know that it's easy to bag on any sort of writing because it's not to one's taste, or forgive writing some sins because we like a particular thing about it. Copperhead is my example of the latter; it started pretty strong, but the writing has weakened noticeably over time. I still enjoy it, though, because I like the outer space lady sheriff and the characters that surround her. Others, perhaps many others, will forgive Tokyo Ghost its faults in a way that I can't.

All that said, my criticism of the story is largely based on as objective a factor as I can find. Even if you don't mind the exact things that happen from the end of book one into the beginning of book two, those events leave the writers pinned in a very serious corner. They have room to be creative about how to make the necessary future plot points happen, but there are necessary future plot points, and that's a problem. For a story to really succeed, the readers need to have some question about what's going to happen, the fate of someone in a questionable situation, the likelihood that the heroes will triumph, etc. If you're in a position where thing X has to happen for everything you've done before to make sense, and if thing X doesn't happen then you wasted everyone's time, you have fucked up. That's the situation with Tokyo Ghost.

It's a cool world. I like Debbie. Led's ok, but he's meant to be the meathead, so it's not like he's a bad character. I'm sure lots of people read the first few issues and were sold on the whole concept. But it doesn't hold up all the way through.

Score: Six absurdly sized motorbikes out of nine.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Dave Reviews: Photographers Who Can't Beat A Goddamned Smartphone Camera


I wonder if Mike Elliot is proud of his name being so firmly attached to this.

ShutterBug has a clip-art looking cover, and (spoiler alert) it's the clip-art version of a game. Your goal is to travel the U.S. looking for extraordinary creatures so you can snap photos of them for different magazines, and possible to fill a portfolio of specific pictures for side jobs. You move up to three hexes in a turn, collecting Tip cards when you move through or finish a turn in a city. Those tip cards let you take photos of creatures when you land in spaces where they are. Whatever the photo quality on the card, you discard that many Tip cards (assuming they're relevant to the creature and/or terrain) and get the photo tile.

Your main goal is to fulfill the requests of one of the two tabloids on your secret assignment card. If you get at least as many points of a given creature as the tabloid wants, you score all the points you have for that creature. You can only score requests for one of the tabloids, no matter how many you meet between the two of them. Side jobs are another way to score, although whether or not you can get them is mostly a matter of chance; stay aware of what the side jobs are and recognize if you have the possibility of fulfilling one.

Here's the main problem: the game ends after eight rounds. If you average one Tip card per round—which means moving through a city on most turns and ending on a city once or twice to offset the times you run off into the wilderness for a picture—you end up with ten or eleven, adding in the three you start with. You need one tip card per point that you score, and tabloids have ten points worth of requests. Therefore, if you want to nail everything on one of your special assignments, you have to almost perfectly maneuver your photographer towards both the cities with the Tips and the creatures you need as photo subjects. If you place more of a focus on Tips—using the fact Chicago and New Orleans are somehow adjacent to each other, for example—you can end up with more room to play with in scoring points but less ability to chase the specific pictures you need.

What about the side jobs? Given how tight you're probably running with Tip cards, the most likely way you'll finish side jobs is if you happen to finish most of one as part of your secret assignment and the last part of the job is easy to reach. Maybe that's done on purpose because the side jobs never change and the designer (hi Mike!) wanted to make it feel special each time you finish one. Then again, the side jobs range from two to five points, and you get two bonus points just for finishing the game in a city space, so maybe they're not that special after all.

In a two player game, each player controls two photographers, and you get a little more to work with in terms of resources. Even then, it's not a given you'll finish the whole secret assignment, because you need your Tip cards to match the photos you're taking well enough to play them, and you need the potential photos you need to go on the board in the first place. It would be one thing if two players were swimming in photos and points, and the normal game just played tighter, but even with the extra character it's still not that easy to get all the pictures you want.

It's true that the scoring is relatively flexible. You don't need to finish all three parts of the secret assignment for the parts you do finish to be valuable. That, however, leads to a game that doesn't feel very rewarding for whatever effort you put into it. If you get an assignment with X, Y, and Z requirements, especially when you get two such assignments and have the option of which one you do, not being able to finish the whole thing feels like you're not succeeding even if you win. It would be one thing if there was a reasonable choice to be made between finishing the secret assignment and piling up side jobs, but it's more likely that if you aim for more side jobs it's because the assignment is too hard to complete.

This is more a proof-of-concept than a finished game. It runs too tight on Tip cards for a system where you don't know what photos will be available. The side jobs never change, despite the nature of how they work being such that a deck of side jobs you draw from each game would fit much better. There's a lot to be said for efficient thinking, and efficiency is something I like in board games, but this thing isn't worth the effort.

Score: Five garbage yeti pictures out of nine (entire rolls of film).

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Dave Reviews: Garden Sculptures of Hate


Nothing says peace and relaxation like a sculpture garden. Except... not this sculpture garden.

Topiary is a game for two to four players based on a simple presence: take your people and put them on the edge of a sculpture garden so they can see as many sculptures as possible. The trick, because there's always a trick, is that you don't know what's in the garden at the start of the game except for the middle sculpture in a 5x5 grid.

At the start you get a hand of three tiles and a pile of little meeple folk. Each turn you place a meeple next to one of the tiles, either orthogonally so it looks straight down a row, or at a corner so that it can see in a diagonal path. Then you take a face-down tile into your hand and place a tile in the open spot (it can be the one you just picked up). Whatever line a meeple looks down, they can see the sculpture directly in front of them and others going back as long as the ones behind are taller than the ones in front. Thus a meeple could see everything in a 2-3-4-5 line, but only the first two in a 2-5-3-4 line.

At the end of the game, your score consists of three things: the sum of all the sculptures your meeples can see in their lines of sight; bonuses based on multiple sculptures of the same type in any single meeple's line of sight; and tiles in hand that are worth as much or less than a sculpture of that type that at least one of your meeples can see. Most points come from the first total, and all scoring requires you to get as many sculptures in front of your meeples as possible.

It sounds relaxing until you realize the flip side of this is that you can also make sure as few sculptures as possible are in front of your opponents' meeples.

The theme of this game does not match the play at all, because this game is a total fuck-you hate fest. If you have a 5-height sculpture in hand and an opponent is setting up a long visible line, drop that thing in front of all the other sculptures and that meeple's only getting five points. You can frequently screw people out of more than five points that way, and sometimes create a line for yourself where that five is at the back, making tactics of screwing over your opposition usually more effective than playing peacefully and just trying to help yourself. Unless, of course, everyone knows how to fuck each other over and so everyone plays carefully so as to minimize the ability of others to screw them.

It's a little weird to rate how good this game is, because the expectation of what you're going to get looking at the box is entirely undercut by the gameplay. I can't think of an aesthetic off-hand that would have worked particularly well, but almost anything would have been better than this. That said, the game itself is reasonably good, but its casual setup doesn't really fit the strategy required to win. It does not appear to be the intent of the creator to make a game where someone is almost guaranteed to be called a son of a bitch at some point. That's what we have, though.

Topiary is a light game with some clever ideas; a casual design with a rage-inducing best strategy. It's a game worth playing, but at the same time I don't know what type of player I would recommend this to. Maybe one who's willing to draw angry faces in sharpie on the tiles.

Score: Seven growly-looking T-Rex trees out of eleven.