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Preview: Visitor in Blackwood Grove

(Note: Like all Nerdbloggers Kickstarter or early-access previews, we received no compensation for this preview.  In the case of Visitor in Blackwood Grove, my preview is based on an early prototype that was desktop printed.  The images in the preview are from a later revision, but still not finalized assets.)

The site has been on a long break recently as our personal lives and careers have limited the time that we can spend on nerdy stuff (and I think all of us have opted to play games, read books and comics, and keep up with movies with the time we have rather than write about those things).  Things are getting a bit more settled, for me at least, and I’ve got a ton of content in various stages of completion rolling out soon.  To start that off, here is a quick look at a new deductive/inductive logic game from Tiltfactor and designers Mary Flanagan and Max Seidman : VISITOR in Blackwood Grove.   

The Pitch:  An alien craft has crashed in the woods.  Government agents arrive to dissect it at the same time a kid who has seen the crash arrives to investigate.  A “shimmering semi-permeable” barrier surrounds the alien ship.  The kid and the agent(s) will compete to figure out just what types of objects can penetrate the barrier. If an agent does so first, he or she wins.  If the kid is successful, he or she joins the alien player in victory.

The Play:  The game begins with the alien player secretly constructing a rule about what can get through the barrier.  This could be something like (“things you can buy at Wal-mart” ) or (“Things that would fit in a backpack”).  The alien then sorts two face up cards by placing them either inside or outside the barrier.  One player plays the kid.  Up to three other players can play agents.  All players are dealt a hand of cards and take similar, but slightly asymmetrical turns.  The agents (who are playing as individuals) slide a card to the alien on their turn.  The alien then places the card either inside or outside the barrier, oriented in a way that only that agent can see it.  The kid player up to three cards while predicting whether they would make it through the barrier or not.  When the alien’s turn comes around, he places one of the cards in his hand face up based on the rule.  Either player can instead try to guess the rule by correctly sorting four random cards from the deck (the agents can do this from the start; the kid has to build trust first by correctly predicting cards).  If the agents or kid correctly sort the four cards before the alien plays his last card, the game ends with either an agent win or a kid plus alien win.  If the alien plays his last card, the agents win.

   Sample Play:

Let’s say as an alien, you flip over these two starting cards (a pennant and a cell phone):










You then look at your hand and the two cards and decide on a rule.  For these two you might concoct something like “objects that often have buttons” or “things that you use to communicate.”  Having done that, you would then sort the two cards, placing the one that passes the rule inside the barrier and the one that doesn’t outside the barrier (the rule could also be one that leaves both items outside or inside the barrier instead).  Let’s say you chose “objects that usually have buttons” and sorted the phone in and the pennant out, for this example.

The agents turn would be next, and he would likely slide a card over to you for analysis.  Maybe this one:

Since a car usually have buttons, you would place the card in a stand inside the barrier and orient it in a way only that agent could see.

After each agent has done the same, the kid player would then get a chance to predict.  He does so openly at the start of the game, so the agents will get all of the information the kid does, though that will change as the trust between the alien and the kid goes up on a rewards track with each correct prediction. 

This would continue with the alien placing new objects from his hand on the alien turn until one of the players is able to correctly sort four random cards or until the alien runs out of cards. 


My Thoughts: I am a big fan of Zendo, a game from Looney Labs that has one player creating a rule about the way pyramid groups are composed and the other players trying to construct groups that match the rules in order to eventually guess the rule.  Visitor in Blackwood Grove provides a similar experience in a very portable package.  Games are short (ten minutes on average) and it works with everyone from young kids to adults.  It is very non-gamer friendly.  Given the reasonable price and broad range of gaming situations this game is good for, I have no problem recommending giving it a look and backing it if you like quick, light deduction games with flexibility to make become heavier and more thinky for groups that want that.


What I liked: Fast, easy to teach and understand, fun theme, just thinky enough to keep gamers attention but not cause non-gamers to zone out. This is a wonderful entry into the deductive/inductive logic game arena and one of the best I've played that could be called a family game.  

What I didn’t like: the game is heavily reliant on the alien player coming up with a good rule, and unlike Zendo, the rule-making here is kind of wide open. I saw some analysis paralysis and some bad rules-- making the game a bit fragile for a family, non-gamer* setting (I think gamers will mostly do well from the start).  This gripe is somewhat invalidated by the fact that someone can win without actually guessing the correct rule as long as they sort the cards correctly, but I still hope that the final production will includes a good list of suggestions that players could use while learning to create their own. 


*Yes, I know, non-gamer is a dumb term to use to refer to people who aren’t deeply rooted in gaming as a hobby, but it seems to have worked its way into the gamer lexicon. 



Note:  If this game sounds good to you, go check out the Kickstarter.  It is reasonably priced and has already made its publication goal, but there are a few stretch goals you can help them out with.  With the current cost and contents, this is shaping up to be a real bargain.  





Games Played January 2017

Here is a pic of my games played for January.  Forty games puts me on a good pace, but I think only one game (Terraforming Mars) is going to be on the 10 x 10 challenge I'm planning on doing this year in place of my normal game-a-day style challenge.


Of the games on the list, I really want to get Terraforming Mars, San Juan, Paris Connection, Baseball Highlights 2045, 7 Wonders, Champions of Midgard, and Tak to the table regulary this year.  The rest of the list I'd be fine not playing again for a while--though I do want to try Spinderella with my normal game group just so they can experience the awesomeness of a roll-and-move kids game that actually is fun.


Beowulf The Movie Board Game impressions

This is a big surprise to me, but I may have discovered a new favorite beer-and-pretzels game at my game night this week—Riener Knizia’s Beowulf the Movie board game. 

Wait, come back—I’m serious here.

Beowulf (as I will call it from here forward) is a re-theming and reimagining of Knizia’s classic Auf Heller und Pfennig and the more recent Kingdoms.  The original game is a simple tile-laying game where players attempt to place their castles in rows and columns that have the most points.  Castles act as multipliers (whether the row is positive or negative) in the end-of-round scoring.  There are also tiles that have special effects like dividing up rows into sections or manipulating the values of tiles in the rows and columns.  Some of the tiles have effects like doubling values or scaring off positive values, and on your turn, because of the limited tile selection,  you often have to choose between options like helping one opponent while helping yourself or hurting two opponents while hurting yourself slightly less and the like.  It is confrontational and “mathy” and is absolutely not for everyone.  I, however, love it, and it has been a staple filler for my groups on-and-off for the last twenty years or so.

Beowulf takes the game and adds miniatures for warriors and ships and such in place of the castles, some more tile powers, and, most importantly, adds two different boards to play on.  The original game played out on one board for three rounds with the only difference being what castles were available to the player because all but the level one castles were discarded after use.  The three boards and new player powers add enough variety that the game no longer feels “samey” as it moves forward.  It is definitely a little more chaotic as some tiles can move or remove other tiles (or even move the other players’ pieces), so a player is rarely safe when placing his figures on the board.  I mentioned beer-and-pretzels, right?  This game is perfect for hanging out with buddies and talking some trash or just talking about whatever.  The end of round is still a math exercise, but as a math guy with other math guys in the play group, it never feels like a chore or takes as long as some critics complain. 


The game can be purchased cheaply online, and I think it is definitely worth the price—and it was definitely worth the five dollars I paid for it during the Fantasy Flight holiday sale a few years back.  I just wish I hadn’t listened to all the critics and had gotten it to the table sooner.


Hedersleben - Producing the Music of the Spheres - and the Chronos

Hedersleben's third release - The Fall of Chronopolis - is based on the novel of the same name by Barrington Baley.  Here's the description of Baley's work from Amazon:  

The mighty ships of the Third Time Fleet relentlessly patrolled the Chronotic Empire's thousand-year frontier, blotting out an error of history here or there before swooping back to challenge other time-travelling civilisations far into the future. 

Captain Mond Aton had been proud to serve in such a fleet. But now, falsely convicted of cowardice and dereliction of duty, he had been given the cruellest of sentences: to be sent unprotected into time as a lone messenger between the cruising timeships. After such an inconceivable experience in the endless voids there was only one option left to him. 

To be allowed to die.

Do I get any of that from listening to the music?  Not really.  Is that a bad thing?  Not at all. 

I'd never heard of this band before stumbling across them at Amazon.  It was one of the recommendations they offered while I was browsing around.  The title intrigued me.  The samples sold me.  I hadn't read the book either, so I've got that to look forward to as well.  

How to describe this piece?  Well, it's spacey, it's rhythmic, it's repetitive - it's great.  It has all the elements I love best about about Hawkwind (with the exception of Dave Brock).  In fact, dare I blaspheme, I enjoy The Fall of Chronopolis better than anything the Hawks have released in the last decade or so.  If you like spacerock, you should love this one.  

The band - whose names I must learn.I still don't know the band well enough to know their names, but they are a tight unit.  And the lady on vocals is exquisite - at a couple of points she put me in mind of Annie Haslam.  Check them out here:  An Empire on youtube.  Musically, it all works around the Chronopolis idea - it has passages that are grand and etheral and clockwork-like.  I've got to dive deeper into the lyrics next and read the book - which is available in ebook form.

So there you go.  If you like your rock spacey, if you like it sci-fi-y, or if you simply want to try something new, give Hedersleben a look and a listen.  I don't think you'll be disappointed.  I will definitely be checking out their previous releases and eagerly awaiting the next.

Going to give it five out of five stars.


Too Many Cinderellas, a Haiku, and musings about microgames

After the clock struck

Too many Cinderellas

How will the prince choose?

The recent explosion (revolution, fad, renaissance?) of micro games is fascinating to me in the same way flash fiction, Haiku and other minimalist, rule-driven forms of art are.  The idea of a designer limiting his or herself to 20 or so cards and a few bits while attempting to create a compelling game experience is such an interesting one that I’ve basically been playing every micro game that I could get my hands on since I first experienced the trend with Sejei Kanai’s Love Letter (16 cards and some scoring tokens) in 2013.

While I’ve really enjoyed my early experiences with a few micro-games, I exhausted each of the games pretty quickly, and I’ve started to wonder in recent months if there was any lasting value to that style of game.  Game design, like most creative acts, is challenging enough without adding extra hoops to jump through, and is it possible that the concessions necessary for the design of micro-games make them more of a novelty than anything likely to have a lasting legacy. I see a strong comparison of micro-games to flash fiction.  Flash fiction is a term used to describe stories with which authors have limited themselves to a restrictive number of words.  It is a poorly defined genre with stories as small as one-sentence or as long as 2500 words.  There are some great works of literature that fall within the upper limit of the flash fiction definition, and it is a critically accepted format that some of our great writers have worked in. 

However, one specific type of flash fiction often called “One-sentence fiction” —an attempt to write a story in a single sentence--has been popping up in various magazines and journals (and Tumblr, and Reddit, and Facebook) in the past few years, but unlike it’s larger brethren, one-sentence stories really feel like a shallow thought-experiment more than a form of art.   Take the most famous example, weakly attributed to Hemingway:

                For sale: baby shoes, never worn

There is pathos here, but after the initial processing of the situation (a gut-punch, admittedly) are we left with anything to hold onto?  I say not. No matter how attractive the first reading of a piece of micro-fiction is, the experience is ultimately an empty one.

So, are micro-games the empty, shallow experiences of one-sentence fiction or are they a valuable, lasting work of art?   It is likely too soon to answer that question, but it has been on my mind.

Enter Too Many Cinderellas, a design by Nobutake Dogen and Nao Shimamura being released in English by Grail Games.  It is the day after the Royal Ball and, apparently, the prince was really, really drunk the night before because he has no clue who the lady he fell in love with the night before really is.  Heck, he isn’t even sure the person he danced with was a lady:


…or even a human:



The prince may have a drinking problem, but that isn’t the focus of this game.  The focus is on being the advisor that gets their client accepted as the real Cinderella.  Players do this by playing cards from their hands that have clues about the real Cinderella on them—she isn’t blonde, she doesn’t like cake, she is a guy—and then voting on whether the rules will take effect.  Each player has two voting tokens—a “yes” and a “no.”  If the player thinks the rules should take effect, they vote “yes” and hold onto the token.  If they don’t want the rule card to take effect, they vote “no” and leave the token on the card (and no longer have a way to disallow future rule cards). 

The fun of the game is in the voting.  Since it only takes one “no” to disallow a rule card, players often must risk not playing their “no” vote in hopes that another player will play it.  After a few games (or a thorough studying of the cards before the game), it will become clear that some rule cards eliminate more potential candidates than others do.  So, if a rule card says that Cinderella is not a man and your best candidate is a man—you likely need to play a “no,” but if it says Cinderella is not young, you can push your luck and hope that another player will play their “no” token and you can save yours until a rarer rule that will affect you comes up.  A player can use the knowledge gathered from who was voting against what rule to get an idea which Cinderella cards each player has in hand and choose rules accordingly, so the game has some of the social deduction or other popular micro games mixed in with the simple voting mechanism.

When each player has added two rules to the tableau, the player with the lowest value (or highest if that rule made it through voting) Cinderella that doesn’t violate the rules, presents that card as the true Cinderella and wins the round. Players play until one player has won a certain number of rounds and that player is the winner.

Before I get back to the value of micro games discussion, let me say that I recommend Too Many Cinderellas without reservation.  It is a cute, fast-playing game that has pretty much replaced Love Letter as our micro game of choice at our college game nights.  The cutesy art is really appealing to new visitors to the game night and it has been a game that other members are picking out of the stack to teach to newcomers, and I’m always looking for games that I (as host and owner of many of the games) don’t have to teach every time myself.  It’s fun.  It’s cheap.  If the theme doesn’t turn you off, you should consider buying it.

That said, I do wonder if strict adherence to the component limit has hurt the game.  I’m not sure, but I think it possibly has. The game has a victory condition that I really dislike.  If the round ends and nobody has a Cinderella that does not violate a rule, then players add their two remaining cards together and the lowest one wins.  This is completely unsatisfying and anti-thematic.  A larger deck of cards with more balanced rules—producing a card set where a few cards would sneak through any combination of rules—would fix the problem, but it also might make the game more predictable and the “gambling” with “no” tokens less interesting.  It is hard to say if the game would have been better with a full set of cards—say the 56 card deck--created by adherence to factory standard of the traditional card games— that we see in many hobby card games, but I can’t help but think that the problem arises from the format here.  In the end, I think that is where we are almost always going to end up with micro games.  There are going to be flaws that could be fixed by throwing more components in the box or expanding the game play that are not going to be fixed because the company is wanting a micro game that they can produce cheaply both because it opens up a different market than the 60 dollar games and because there is a trend that can be jumped on.  I’m going to be very interested in seeing if twenty years from now any of these hot micro games have stood the test of time or whether their very nature means there isn’t enough game space to explore to keep them on the table.