Games: Streetcar

Streetcar: The New Orleans Trolley Game is not the best game I own, but it is the game I have had the greatest change of heart about. The first time I played it, years and year ago, everyone hated it. Hated it. I could sense that there was a good game in there, but I couldn’t convince any of my original opponents to play it again. So Streetcar hit the shelf, and there it sat for well over a year.

Lord knows why I every tried it again, but the next time I gave it a whirl it was well received by everyone involved. Since then my enjoyment of the game has increased with every playing, to the point where it has clawed its way up into the echelons of favorites.

The Streetcar board shows a greatly abstracted map of New Orleans, divided into a 12×12 grid with a dozen or so “Landmarks” scattered around the board. On the perimeter are Trolley terminals numbered 1-6, with two terminals for each number. A set of like-numbered terminals are always on opposite sides of the board, so if one of the “3” terminals is on the East side the other will be on the West. Each player then gets two cards at random, one of which assigns them a number (from 1-6) and the other which assigns them two landmarks. Each player also starts with five tiles, each of which shows trolley track connecting two or more edges of the tile. The simplest tiles show a single length of track connecting opposite sides of the tile or curving to connect one side to an adjacent side. Other tiles show more complicated arrangements, with tracks bi- or even trifurcating.

Each player gets to put two tiles on the board each turn, with the goal of creating a route that starts at one of their terminals, travels past their two assigned landmarks and ends at the opposite terminal. A tile may be put into any vacant space on the board, but must be placed so that no track leads off the board, no track leads into a landmark, and all track “syncs up” with the tiles that have already been played. All tiles played are “public domain,’ which means that any player can use them in their course. The problem — and by “problem” I mean “aggravatingly fun part” — is that everyone is trying to build their own routes through the middle of the board, which means that they will be trying to steer the tracks one way while you try and guide them back the way you want.

What makes Streetcar an excellent family game is that while there is plenty of opportunity to screw with your opponents (by placing tiles that divert them from their intended destination), it is also relatively easy to recover from such treachery (by simply re-plotting your course). In other words, you get all the fun of a “mean” game without any of the hard feelings. There is something of a bluffing element as well. At the start of the game you don’t know the number or landmarks belonging to other players, and you must therefore deduce them based on where they lay their tiles. If they choose to put a tile or two in a completely bogus location, you may later come along and try to “screw with their course,” only to discover that they never had any intention of visiting that part of the city. Sneaky!

It takes a play or two get “get” Streetcar, and some people never enjoy the spatial reasoning aspect of the game (which, while slight, is present). But most folks grow to like it, and may even, as in my case, grow to like it quite a bit.

I don’t recall where I originally got my copy of Streetcar, but it’s available for purchase at Funagain Games.

Games: Interactive Fiction

[Games: Interactive Fiction] A while ago I briefly mentioned a neat little game called 9:05, and swore that I would “write more about interactive fiction later this week.” And did I? Did i write more about later that week? No I did not. And while that may make me a filthy stinkin’ liar, I am at least a filthy stinkin’ liar so racked with guilt at this oversight that I’m going to make good on my promise now.

“Interactive Fiction” is the new-fangled term for a genre of games that once lacked a name and was simply described as “like Zork.” “I’m totally addicted to this new game I bought called Planetfall! it’s one of those game, you know, like Zork?” Later this category of time-killers was referred to as “text adventures”: games without graphics, in which everything is described in words and you, as the protagonist, interact with the environment by entering a series of written command.

West of House

You are standing in an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front door. There is a small mailbox here.

> open mailbox

Opening the small mailbox reveals a leaflet.

>

Ahhhhhh yes, it’s all coming back to you now, isn’t it? I’m sure many of you, like I, wasted hours and day and weeks back in the 80’s as you sat in front of your computer, subsisting solely on beef jerky and RC Cola, trying to solve each and every puzzle in Enchanter. Well, a few years back someone clued me in to the fact that, while the legendary Infocom is more or less defunct, there is still an active community of Text Adventures out there, walking around with brass lamps and stashing treasures into their trophy cases. Better yet, there’s quite a few folks who continue to write (free!) text adventures — so many that there’s even an annual competition to reward the authors for their efforts.

These games are now called “Interactive Fiction” (IF), because many contemporary offerings break the traditional “solve puzzles, save princess” mold. While the classic puzzle romps are still prominent, many IF authors now use the medium to explore literary and philosophical ground. (Try the groundbreaking Phototopia to a prime example.)

I go on an IF bender about once a year, during which I typically download and play half a dozen games over the course of a month. I’m on one now, which is why I’m writing about it here. If trying out such games interests you, there’s no shortages of resources available to you on the web. Check out Stephen Grande’s Brass Lantern, the Interactive Fiction Archive (along with this nice guide to the archive) and the two largest IF societies, XYZZY and the Society for the Preservation of Adventure Games.

Me, I’ve played maybe 20 modern IF games and enjoyed quite a few. Here are my favorites

  • Anchorhead An astounding game, and the one that got me rehooked. I am an H. P. Lovecraft fan, and this tribute to his literary (and atmospheric) style is my favorite of all the contemporary IF games I’ve played.
  • Spider and Fly Adam Cadre (who also wrote the aforementioned 9:05 and Photopia) is considered one of the masters of modern IF. This is the one I enjoyed the most.
  • Babel Eerie science-fiction game reminiscent of “The Thing”. I hated one of its puzzles but, beyond that, recommend it hightly.
  • Winter Wonderland Cute! Fun!
  • Yes, Another Game With a Dragon! Just finished this one the other night and thought it was great. A nice introductory game for those who have fond memories of Zork

Incidentally, you can play any of the old Infocom games by telenet’ing to eldorado.elsewhere.org. Have fun.

9:05

Here’s an interactive fiction game that is so brief that you can play in on your coffee break. No foolin’. It’s called 9:05 and it’s quite clever. I’ll write more about interactive fiction later this week.

Games: Don

Don is tricky, and no less so for being extraordinarily simple. The deck contains 30 cards, which are divided in two ways. First, they are divided by number: three cards in each of the denominations 0-9. Secondly, they are divided into six different colors, with five cards in each hue. There’s no correlation between these two division (e.g. all the 3’s aren’t green). Every players starts with 12 chips.

On each turn one or more cards are dealt into the center of the table, and all the players bid, auction-style. After all but one has passed, whomever bid the highest amount takes the cards. This continues until all the cards have been claimed. At the end of the game, players receive points for each color they have cards in: 1 point if they have one card in a color, 3 points if they have two cards in that color, 6 points if they have three cards, 10 points for four and 15 points if they nabbed all five cards of that color. Also, whomever has the most chips at game’s end gets a bonus two points.

That’s the entire game, and it would be a dull one were it not for two clever and insidious rules. The cards, you’ll recall, all have a number from 0-9, and all of the cards that a player owns are displayed face-up in front of him. When a player purchases cards, his bid money goes to the person who owns the most cards showing that amount. So if I win the auction with a bid of 9, the person who has the most 9 cards will get my 9 chips. (In the case of a two-digit bid, only the last digit counts, e.g. a bid of 13 goes to the person with the 3s). If no one has the target number, then the monies are distributed equally amongst the other players. Don, in other words, is a zero-sum, closed-system game: the starting funds (twelve chips per player) is a constant, with chips just being circulated rather than being paid to or taken from a bank.

The second sneaky rule — and this one is really maddening — is that, when bidding, you cannot bid an amount equal to any of the cards you own. (Here again it’s only the final digit that counts — if I have a 1 I cannot bid 1, 11, 21, etc.) This restriction, combined with the first rule mentioned above, makes collecting cards a precarious proposition. If you have lots off different numbers you stand to collect on an assortment of different bids, but your own participating in the auction will be hampered. And your opponents will exploit this: if you own a 4, 5 and a 6, you can be certain that the player before you will bid “13,” knowing that you’ll have to jump all the way to 17 if you want to stay in.

And entire game of Don takes about 20 minutes, and it’s simple enough to teach in about four breaths. It has a nominal “Mafia” theme (each color in the deck is said to represent a different district in Chicago), but, really, this is just an abstract but elegant auction and set-collection game. I’ll be playing a lot of this one in the coming months. I purchased my copy of Don from Funagain Games.

Games: Werewolf

Werewolf is a terrific game, made all the better by the fact that it’s absolutely free. Before each game you randomly distribute Identity cards — one player will be the Moderator, one player will be the Seer, two players will be Werewolves, and all the rest will be Villagers. Players identities are kept secret, and you can never show anyone else your card.

The game alternates between night and day. At night, all players close their eyes and then the Moderator says “Werewolves, open your eyes”. The two players with the Werewolf cards open their eyes and silently agree upon another player to kill. After they have decided and communicated their pick to the Moderator, they again close their eyes and the Moderator says “Seer, open your eyes”. The Seer then points at another player, and the Moderator indicates whether the selected player is or is not a Werewolf. Then everyone opens their eyes and day begins.

At daybreak the person killed by the Werewolves immediately turns his card faceup and plays no further part in the game. The rest of the day is simple: all the living players must now decide who to lynch. As soon as a majority of players give the thumbs down to someone, the targeted player is killed: he flips his card faceup and is out. This continues until the Villiagers win by lynching both Werewolves, or until the Werewolves when the number of Villiagers is equal to the number of Werewolves (at which point the Werewolves rise up and openly slaughter the remainders).

A very simple game, but exceptionally tricky to play. The tension comes from two angles: on the one hand, you never really know who any of the other players are, so picking someone to lynch is tough; on the other, no one really knows who you are, so even if your innocent you may find yourself the target of mob rule. As a Seer you may know the Identities of a few people, but your job is just as difficult: you have to get people to lynch the Werewolves without exposing yourself (and thereby certainly getting killed the following night). And even if you do expose yourself (“I’m the Seer, and I know for a fact that he is a Werewolf!”), that doesn’t mean the Villagers will necessarily believe you, since making this very statement is favorite tactic by the Werewolves.

You can play Werewolf with just about any set of cards, or even make your own. When playing with standard playing cards, we use the Ace of Spades for the Moderator, the King of Clubs for the Seer, the Jokers (or the red Jacks) for the Werewolves and then an assortment of cards ranked 2-9 for the Villigers.

Games: Adel Verpflichtet and Barbarossa

Klaus Teuber is an odd designer. Even before cooking up the stellar Settlers of Catan — a game that was to boardgaming what Mark Maguire was to baseball — Teuber already had two prestigious “Game of the Year” awards under his belt: one for Barbarossa and a second for Adel Verpflichtet. This is doubly surprising because these three games couldn’t be more dissimilar — you’d never guess the same guy invented all three.

Settlers of Catan I won’t go into — Lord knows you can find enough information about SoC elsewhere on the web. Barbarossa and Adel Verpflichtet, however, are relatively unknown, despite their award-winning status. I have recently purchased both, and I enjoy them quite a bit.

In Barbarossa, players first create riddles by making tiny sculptures out of clay. These are placed in the center of the board as the game begins. On a turn, a player will move around a circular track and carry out the instructions of the space he lands on. Two of the spaces on the board allow a player to point to any riddle in the center of the board and ask it’s creator for a letter — the first letters, say, or the third. Two other spaces are marked with a question mark, and allow players to ask others about their riddles. A player may ask any number of “yes or no” questions about the riddles — “Is this edible?”, “Do I have one of these in my house?”, “Does this have to do with horse?” — until they get a “no”. At that point the player gets a second round of questions, but this time he may try to guess someone’s riddle by writing down what he think it is and showing the creator. If the player is correct, a plastic arrow is stuck into the sculpture and points are awarded. If the guesser is the first to identify a riddle, he gets 5 points; if he is the second, he gets three points; once a riddle has two arrows in it, it is “dead” and can no longer be guessed.

What makes Barbarossa interesting is that the creator of a riddle also gets points when his riddle is unraveled. After the correct guess is made and an arrow is stuck into the sculpture, all the arrows in all the riddles on the board are counted. If the total number of arrows is less than five, the creator loses points; if the total number of arrows is 5-10 the creator gains points; and if the total arrows exceeds 10 then the creator, again, loses points. So the trick is to make moderately-difficult riddles — riddles that are neither to easy to guess nor too hard. In a sense the whole thing is decided before it even starts (while the players sculpt their riddles), but that doesn’t stop the game from being entertaining from start to finish. And it’s hilarious to see what the other players use as their riddles and what sculptures they make to represent them. (In my last game, my wife made the Kingdome, which drove me crazy because I was certain it was a hamburger …)

Then we have Adel Verpflichtet, which I played last night for the third time and am truly starting to enjoy. The admittedly paper-thin premise is this: players are rich and eccentric aristocrats, who have a standing bet about who can amass the best collection of antiques. Players all start with four Antique cards. On a turn a player can take one of five actions:

  • Go to the Auctionhouse and try to buy on of the two Antiques on sale there.
  • Send his Thief to the Auctionhouse to try and steal someone else’s money.
  • Go to the Castle to show off his collection of Antiques.
  • Send his Thief to the Castle to try and steal someone else’s Antiques.
  • Send his Detective to the Castle to try and capture another player’s Thief.

Ya get all that? Players first secretly choose where they will go: the Auctionhouse or the Castle. Once the destinations are revealed, first the Auctionhouse players and then the Castle players secretly choose what action they wish to take, and then the actions are reveled and carried out.

In the Auctionhouse, whomever bid the highest amount of money gets to take one of the Antiques, while those who played lesser amounts simply reclaim their bids. Then, if one (and only one) player played a Thief, he steals the winning bid.

In the Castle, all the players who opted to show off their collections do so, and whomever has the best (i.e. the collection with the most Antiques) receives points (as does the person with the second-best collection). Then, those players who played Thieves get to take an Antique from each of the collections on display. And, finally, players who played Detectives send the played Thieves to jail and get points for doing so.

All this makes for a tense game of bluff, think and double-think. The easiest way to earn points is to show off your collection, but every time you do so you risk being robbed. Meanwhile, those who play Thieves in the hopes of robbing you risk having their thugs thrown in the pokey, and so on. How well you fare is dependent not only on your choices, but also the choices of your opponents. If you’re skilled at predicting what your opponents will do you will fare well, but if you’re equally readable by others you may wind up in the poorhouse. Think “rock-paper-scissors,” but, y’know, fun.

I purchased both Barbarossa and Adel Verpflichtet from Funagain.com.

B.A.G.E.L Report

B.A.G.E.L.: Last night was gamenight (with special guest-start, Jessamyn West), so B.A.G.E.L. gathered to drink the beer and play the following games.

You’re Bluffing: My second time playing, and I fared slightly better than my first (in which I lost by a score of 7200 to 10 — no kidding). The deck has 40 cards — ten sets of animals, with four cards in each set. Each animal has a value ranging from the Horse (with 1000) down to the chicken (worth only 10). Player start with $90 in money cards. On a turn, a player can do one of two things: auction off an animal, or initiate a horsetrade.

To start an auction, a player simply flips over the top animal from the draw pile. All the other players then bid on the animal, with the active player serving as the auctioneer. Once someone has made a bid that no one else wishes to beat, the auctioneer has two choices: she can either sell the animal to the high bidder (by taking his money and giving him the card), or she can buy the animal herself by taking the animal and giving the bid amount to the high-bidder. Purchased cards are displayed face-up in front of a player.

Once two or more people own the same animal, an active player may initiate a horsetrade on his turn instead of conducting an auction. To do a horsetrade, a player selects an animal card owned by someone else (but which the active player also has) and makes a bid on it by putting any number of money cards facewdown. The other player now has two choices: he can either accept the bid (sight unseen) and give the active player the selected animal card, or he can counterbid. Making a counterbid is just like making a bid — a player puts any number of cards facedown — and, afterwards, the two involved parties swap bids. Each announces aloud how much he received from the other, and whomever bid the most takes the other person’s animal card. The swapped bids are kept.

This continues until all the cards are owned and in sets of four. At the end of the game, you receive points for each of your quartets in accordance with their value (so the four horse will earn you 1000 points), and then you multiply that sum by the number of sets you own. So while obtaining all the chicken cards will only net you 10 points, it will also double all the points you acquire from other sets.

Simple rules, but it sure makes for a tense game. When bidding in an auction, you can bid high in the hopes that the active player will give you the money and take the card — but if he opts not to, you have to fork over the cash yourself. And the horsetrading is especially devilish. Say someone makes a bid on a card you own by putting three money cards face down. You could just take the money and give him the card, but what if the total is only $20? So perhaps you want to counterbid. But what if the bid is really $140 and you counterbid $120? After swapping bids he will still get your card, and, here again, he only paid $20 for it — but this time you could have had all $140 if you just taken the money in the first place. Agonizing.

Still, I quite like this game — in fact, I even liked playing it during the 7200 to 10 rout (but perhaps liked it a little bit more this time, when I eked out a victory). The simple rules combined with the tough decisions make this a game I’ll be playing often in the future.

I purchased my copy from the magnificent Magic Mouse Toys in Seattle’s Pioneeer Square.

Take It Easy: This award-winning game is like a cross between a jigsaw puzzle and bingo. Each player starts with a board and a set of 27 tiles, and one player is selected as the Caller. On each turn the Caller randomly selects one of the tiles; each other player then finds his corresponding tile and places it in any empty space on his board. The object is to create …

… uh, y’know what? Never mind. Just go here and play a round or two online. It’ll probably take less time for you to play an entire game than for me to explain the thing.

Times Up: The rules to Time’s Up are simple. Forty cards form a central draw pile, and each card bears the name of a famous person: Pythagoras, George Harrison, Luke Skywalker, Johnny Appleseed, etc. Players break into teams of two. In the first round, a player draws cards from the central pile and tries to get his partner to guess the indicated name by saying anything he wants: “This is the guy who came up with the famous theorem stating that the square of two sides of a right-angle triangle is equal to the square of the hypotenuse…”. Two restrictions, though: a player cannot pass, and only has 30 seconds to accumulate as many cards as possible. If a player gets a person he doesn’t know (I didnt know Clarence Birdseye, for example) he will have to describe the name as best he can. (“First name is also the first name of Supreme Court Justice Thomas; last name is what a robin uses to see”.). Play continues until all the cards have been claimed, at which point the teams get one point for every card they got.

In the second round the teams use the exact same set of forty cards. This time, however, they can only say one word (“hypotenuse!”) but may use as many gesture as they like. In the third and final round, players cannot say anything, and must rely entirely on gesture (*pantomime of a triangle*). While the second round is usually pedestrian, the third round is unfailingly hilarious.

This is the best party game I own, and I own quite a few. Don’t even joke about buying someone Disneyland Monopoly as a gift if there are any copies of Time’s Up available anywhere on Earth.

Games: Button Men

Button Men is a quick and clever little dice game from Cheapass. In the basic game, both players start with five dice of varying sizes (6-sided, 12-sided, maybe even a 20-sider or two) and begin by rolling all of them, with the player rolling the lowest single number going first. On each turn a player must, if possible, capture one of his opponent’s dice. This can be done in one of two ways. When making a Power Attack, the active player uses one of his dice to capture any opponent’s die that shows a number equal to or lower than the attacking number. If making a Skill Attack, the attacker choses two or more of his own dice which, when totaled, exactly equal the number shown on an opponent’s die. In either case the targeted die is captured and the attacking die or dice are rerolled. The other player then takes a turn, and so on until someone loses their last die, at which point the round ends. At that time, each player scores the full-value of any captured dice (so a 12-sided die would be worth 12 points, regardless of what number it bore when it was captured) and score half value for any of their own dice that remained uncaptured (so an uncaptured 6-sided die would be worth 3 points). Highest score wins the round; first to win three rounds takes the match. To read more about the game, click here.

If you’d like to try Button Men, please visit Dana Huyler excellent online adaptation. After you’ve created an account, feel free to challenge me to a game (I go by the username Shadowkeeper), or you can click here to send me a player mail. The next time I’m on the Button Man site I’ll be more than happy to give you a tutorial of the game, as well as a thrashing you’ll never forget.

Games: Get The Goods

Many of the games I picked up when I first started my collection eventually wound up on the back of the shelf, superceded by the better games I later purchased as my tastes got more discriminating. Back there amongst the chaff sat Get The Goods, a game I bought ages ago after reading a GAMES Magazine endorsement (they named it their “Family Card Game of the Year” in 1997). Having not played it in years, I’m not sure what possessed me to grab it on the way to the bar this evening, but somehow it wound up in my bag of tricks. And when we wanted to play a quick game for four people, Get The Goods fit the bill admirably. Even better, I rediscovered a terrific little gem: a game that’s simple to learn, easy to play, and a whole lot of fun.

The Get the Goods deck contains four different types of cards: Luxury Cards, Wild Cards, x2 Cards and $ Cards. The $ Cards are set aside, the remaining cards are shuffled, and each player is dealt a starting hand of four. The $ Cards are then shuffled into the draw pile, the top three cards are flipped face-up for all to see, and play begins.

The premise: each player is an obscenely wealthy individual without a care in the world. Well, they each have one care: they are all obsessed with having more Luxury items that their fellow aristocrats: more Casinos, more Real Estate, more Yachts, etc. To show the accumulation of such gewgaws, there are nine cards for each of ten different Luxury items (the three mentioned above, plus Stocks, Gold, Cash, Antiques, Oil, Art and Jewelry). On each turn a player gets three Actions, which he can spend in one of four ways. For a single Action, a player may play a card from his hand to the table. If playing a Luxury that he already has at least one of, the player simply adds the card to his existing pile. He may also play a card face-down as a “Keystone Card.” (The first card in any pile of Luxuries must be a face-down Keystone Card. This card can be of any type – it does not have to match the cards that eventually go atop it — and does not count towards the total numbr of cards in that pile.) If either of the three face-up card is a Luxury Card, a player may take it into his hand as an Action. He may also take a face-up Wild or x2 Card, but doing so requires two Actions. And, lastly, the player may opt to take the top face-down card from the draw pile at a cost of two Actions.

The $ Cards serve as ticks in the game’s clock. Whenever a face-up card is claimed by a player, the top card from the draw pile is revealed to take its place; if this card is a $ Card, it is set aside and another card drawn. Also, when a player chooses to take the top card from the draw pile and wind up with a $ Card, he sets that aside and draws again. After the fourth $ Card is revealed, a scoring round takes place. For each of the ten Luxuries, the player who has the most receives 3 points, and the player who has the second most gets 1 point. If someone is the only person with a certain type of Luxury, he gets both first- and second-place points, i.e., 4. After all the points have been distributed, the game resumes. When the seventh $ Card arrives another scoring round takes place; and after the tenth and last $ Card appears the game ends with a final scoring round (where each card remaining in a player’s hand earns him -1).

The two special cards also spice things up a bit. A Wild Card can be player as any type of Luxury Card – perfect for inching ahead of another player who is vying for the same commodity. And you can play a x2 Card to any of your piles, although doing so prevents you from playing any more cards to that pile for the remainder of the game. The advantage of the x2 Card: if you get any points for a pile containing a x2 Card, those points are doubled. (So getting first-place for a x2 pile will net you six points instead of three).

This game couldn’t be simpler – all you really do on a turn is draw cards or play cards or both – but is remarkably fun. At first everyone tends to specialize in his own Luxuries, but by the midpoint the rivalries begin as everyone starts trying to horn in on other players’ action. The trick is to pick your battles carefully – get into too many grudge matches and you’ll get whomped, but you can’t win unless you get into at least a few. The use of the Keystone Cards is a great little mechanism for sowing anxiety, since no one knows which cards are face-down and therefore out of play. (This means, for example, that I have no way of knowing if there are nine or eight or even six Casino Cards truly up for grabs). With a playing time of only 30-40 minutes, I don’t think I’ve ever played a game of Get the Goods singly — after the first game the urge to play again is almost always overwhelming.

Get the Goods (also know as “Reibach & Co”) can be purchased from Funagain.com.