My Promises to My Future Self

I have the corniest reason for selecting this picture of a mountain top as my featured image. I took this photo while backpacking for a couple of days in the North Cascades. This is Colchuck Lake. My wife and I took this trip as a sort of pre-honeymoon, a few weeks before we got married.

Gross.

When I took the photo, I thought it was neat how the mountain was reflected on the water. I’m using the photo now because it’s sentimental and reminds me of a time when I was granted quiet, peaceful reflection. Mainly, I reflect on how lucky I am to have an amazing wife who supports me and to be surrounded by people who also have an interest in what I’m doing here.

I’m ready to take the next step forward and turn this design thing from a fun hobby into something real.

This is a board games blog, not live journal (is that still a thing?)

I’ve got a few things that I believe I’ve got to change to really get me there. I hope that I don’t lose people during this transition, but I think it’s for the better. Here’s what I’m talking about:

  • I’m working on an official name for the entity that I design games under. It’s not going to be “Under the Tabletop.” I really haven’t cared about an official name so far. My thought process on this is that I should have a game close to ready, something to really show, before I brand my work. Nothing is set in stone yet and as such, I have nothing more to say on that. But I’ll keep everyone informed along the way. I’d rather make this change now than later when I have a game or two being kickstarted and I don’t really know what to call myself.
  • Some time early next year, I’m going to close down Under the Tabletop and redirect all traffic to a new site. I’ll still keep up my development diaries, although they may expand somewhat.
  • I likely may not continue the whole “drink and review” thing. I haven’t written a drink and game pairing review in a while. It was fun, but my time so far has been so consumed with creating things that when I get to play a game with someone, I want to enjoy the moment. The drink and game review began to feel like a chore. At first, I thought it was a great way to show everyone that I’m actively participating in the board game community, but I think I’ve got different ways of showing that now.
  • I’m going to take on at least one smaller project and have it ready for a kickstarter campaign by March 2020. When I mean smaller project, I mean a shorter-paced game that you could likely fit in your wallet or a tin can. I have a few ideas on what that looks like and I’ll definitely keep everyone posted on that.

Thanks to everyone who has followed me thus far and I hope that you’re all there after my vaguely worded changes. (I promise, I’ll have more to come once I settle on a name and set up a C corp.)

For the 10 people who read this blog

I just want to say thank you. I appreciate anyone who reads this and hope that you get both enjoyment and helpful information from it.

So thank you!

But…?

I’m taking a short break from writing this and may consider easing back on my. Originally, I was able to push out an article once a week! But now, I’ve got a lot on my plate. I’m heavily into developing my game and working on design/artwork as well as trying to organize playtesting cycles.

Finally, I knew you’d quit. It was just a matter of time

I’m not quitting! I’m just taking a break and then reducing my posting frequency.

I’m also trying to finish a short sci-fi story in time for an upcoming contest. (Wish me luck!)

Break a leg

I think you’re only supposed to say that to actors who are about to go on stage, right?

I know—I’m just stating my wish

Expect a new article in the last week of May.

Cheers!

Dragon’s Milk & Call to Adventure: great beer with an unfortunate name and an unfortunate game with a great name

My title is too long, you say? I know, but I had to go for it. It communicates my feelings for this pairing well, this article is just to offer the details on how I came to this conclusion.

 

I backed Call to Adventure on kickstarter. When my copy was delivered to me, complete with Name of the Wind cards and a neat original backer cinch bag, I was ecstatic! Call to Adventure is a hero story building game. Players “compete” (I’ll get to why this is in quotes later) to become the most damn interesting hero in the world.

Your title is too long

Imagine a D&D-esque world where—after a hefty journey—you’re finally able to relax for a moment in a hole-in-the-wall tavern, far from where you’re from but somehow you still feel at home. As you plop your rear end in your seat and take your first foamy gulp of your ale, you overhear someone boast their tales of peril and wonder, logic and madness, natural and supernatural. You have only one thing on your mind: my life story is way better!

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That is Call to Adventure, a fantasy world where you build your hero’s back story, motivation, and destiny.  Seems fun right? Well…

Uh oh

Uh oh is right. The artwork and custom assets for Call to Adventure are phenomenal. The game has blood-red rubies for experience tokens and custom two-sided “dice” runes that are shaped like large pieces of Eclipse gum.

 

The actual gameplay of Call to Adventure is severely lacking. It suffers from severe mechanical over-engineering. Call to Adventure also has the poorest written rule book that I’ve ever had to parse. If this game were set during the Spanish Inquisition as opposed to a fantasy world, I could see Catholic priests using it to torture people for information on where all of the heretics are hiding.

There are so many inconsistencies in the wording of the rule book and the over designing of the game that I’m under the conclusion that the developers, Brotherwise games, were so caught up in the idea of a “hero story building” game that they didn’t stop to think about what makes for a great tabletop game: fun, challenging mechanics and an extremely well-articulated and well-organized rulebook.

A great tabletop game transcends its theme; Call to Adventure, unfortunately, succumbs to it. There were so many times when I just wanted to stop playing this game. It has all of the iconoclast mechanic explanations of a game like 7 Wonders with absolutely zero wonder of its own.

I’m sad now, can we talk about something nice now?

When I was perusing the beverages of my local alcoholitorium, I was looking for a drink that wanted to share its story with me. Something that spoke to me and said, “you’ll want to hear (or in this case, drink) this.”

I settled on Dragon’s Milk—a bourbon barrel-aged stout from new Holland Brewing in Holland, Michigan. I bought it for the ridiculous name and my affinity for dark beers, but I continued to drink it because of just how damned interesting it is as a beer.

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Dragon’s Milk does not suffer from over-engineering. Quite the opposite, in fact! This beer is filled with complexity: it’s malty and creamy smooth like a chocolate cream stout, but includes the caramel and slight buttermilk notes that you’d find in a bourbon barrel-aged beer. It’s thick, its full, but it’s not overwhelming. Once you get past the name, and all of the dirty dragon-based jokes that you can make from the name, you get a beer that’s on par with those fancy, limited edition, longer-aged craft beers that you see on the market. (It also has 11% ABV, whooo dog!)

But what does it all mean?!

Call to Adventure comes with a lot of lessons:

  • Even tabletop games from established publishers can be absolutely rushed and deliver a substandard experience.
  • Do not rush your rulebooks. This rulebook was clearly rushed. If it somehow wasn’t rushed, get better people to host your playtests. Like I said—worst. rulebook. ever.
  • Having great artwork and fancy custom runes and tokens doesn’t make your game fun. And it definitely doesn’t make up for poor, clunky game mechanics.
  • Don’t get cute and call victory points something else. Call to Adventure calls them “destiny” points. They’re victory points—get over it. I’m not gaining any thematic suspension of disbelief from you calling a spade a clover.
  • Over-engineering your game is the one true evil. I believe in this case, having an over-engineered game coupled with an absolutely horrid rulebook (Spanish Inquisition torture device) made Call to Adventure extremely frustrating to play at all times. I would wager that you can have an over-engineered game with a fantastic rulebook and have that game be a delight. Don’t shoot me for this, but I believe that a lot of aspects of Dungeons & Dragons are or were at one point extremely over-engineered—but the insanely smart rulebooks completely remove the pain from the game.

Was there anything aside from the assets that was good about this game?

Definitely! My favorite aspect of this game is that it gives you the vehicle to tell a story without having to start from scratch. Another part of Call to Adventure that I enjoyed was that, although someone is declared winner, I never actually cared about competing in this game. Some may find that frustrating but I found it refreshing. Competition can be fun but I enjoyed the fact that, when my partner won the game by one “Destiny” point, I really just wanted to hear her connect the dots between the cards she gathered along the way.

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Final Verdict?

If I had a chance to play Call to Adventure before eagerly kickstarting it, I wouldn’t have backed it. What I did was based on blind consumer trust. I’ve enjoyed every Brotherwise game I’ve played until now—Boss Monster and all of its expansions and Unearth. I believe that in the future, I’m going to wait until a Brotherwise game hits retail stores and I get a chance to borrow a copy to play from my friendly local game store before I put my dollars in their hands again.

But as for Dragon’s Milk? Oh I’ll be putting my dollars in New Holland’s hands in the future, you can count on that.

Root and Barleywine: Rich Gameplay With a Rich Beverage

Root and its expansion were an impulse buy. So far, it’s been the best tabletop game purchase that I’ve ever made. I’ve played it twice—once with two players and another time with five. Let me tell you: the rules of this game are fucking hard to understand.

This isn’t just a difficult game to understand, I believe this was an insanely difficult game to develop. Imagine taking four different area control games and smashing them together. Then imagine developing an expansion where you take two more area control games and smash those into that game as well. Root is six different games bundled into one experience.

Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

I like to think of it as a book that you’re compelled to read multiple times in order to understand. There’s both good and bad in that. The good—well, you want to keep playing this game. When you’ve finished, you want to play again from the perspective of a different faction. The bad—you fuck up a lot AND no matter how many different rule books, walkthroughs, overview cards, how-to-play-the-game quick guides are thrown at you (Root has all of these), you’ll forget or completely cock up a rule.

That Nestle water isn’t mine, I promise!

Wait, I’m confused…

I understand, let me back up a bit and explain the game.

Root is an asynchronous area control game. I mean asynchronous in every sense of the term. A player controls one of six factions, each with completely different assets, rules, mechanics during their turns, and methods of scoring points.

When playing with more than two people, expect to take a lot more time than the 90ish minutes advertised. Most of that time is spent thinking about your moves, consulting the multiple rulebook to see if your play is valid, and figuring out how other players work. Even if you’ve played a few times, remembering the rule sets of six asynchronous factions is difficult.

Oh, never mind that sounds easy, carry on!

Exactly. It’s not only difficult to understand how your own faction fits in with the game, let alone understanding how your competition plays their game. And that’s just it, each player in Root plays their own game. Some more than others. (I’m looking at you, Vagabond.)

Players typically only attack one another when they need to own a clearing. I’m positive that that’s the entire point of Root: figure out how you score points and only be aggressive when you need to be.

The Marquise de Cat must go!

One small gripe that I have is on precisely that, though. I wish that there were more strategic reasons to claim a clearing other than “I need more resources and building spots.” I think that would force more challenging (in a good way) player interactions.

One larger tribe that I have is with how difficult it is to explore the rules and find the answer that you need. Simple set-up things that I would’ve hoped would be on the back of the faction boards are buried deep in the core rulebook. Sometimes rules are a little too vague, other times rules are overtly complicated in their wording. I think another pass or two over these rules would’ve fixed that right up. (I hear that a new edition of the rulebook is being released, so these issues may be fixed!)

This is too much…I need a drink

Then might I suggest that you go with a 2011 Pike Place Brewery Barleywine.

This is a complex, strong (as in, high ABV) drink. Can you see why I chose it to pair with Root? Pike Place is a brewery local to Seattle, currently nestled in the heart of the Pike Place market.

Also, the artwork of this game seems inspired by novels like Redwall—in which there are moments where cute, anthropomorphic animals guzzle down barleywine by the cask.

So do you like this game or not?

Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. Root has the best kind of complexity. It takes several sessions for you to get down the logistics of each faction, let alone to try and think of complex strategy. But you still want to be a mastermind and learn the rules.

I have the core game and the expansion. Leder Games, makers of Root, have already announced a second expansion that they’re kickstarting in a matter of days and I’m going to back it on day one.

Root is the first game in a long time that compels me to play it. I can hear Root whisper, “play me” when I see it on my shelf. I want to try and play a faction again just to pin down those amazing plays. I want to play different factions to figure out how to master them. When I don’t have time to play, I just stare at the box and think about what could be…then I have a drink.

My Ten Favorite Two-Player Tabletop Games

Looking for something fun to play with your spouse or that one person in your family who likes tabletop games? Ten years ago, it’d be difficult to find a game that’s designed for two players. But now there’s a whole market for two-player games out there! Here’s my list of favorite games that either work well with two players (but can support more) or are designed specifically for two people to play.

10. Coup

You control two of five different persons of influence—each with their own unique abilities. Your mission? To kill both of your opponent’s persons of influence before they can kill yours.

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Image is from the beautiful, Brazilian-artist edition of Coup gifted to me from some friends

A great buffing game becomes an intense interrogation in a two-player setting. Coup is a lot more difficult when you have to look the same person in the eyes and claim that you have the Duke, the Captain, and the Contessa all in one match. It’s more fun to play a few games in rapid 10-15 minute successions.

My internal torment includes:

  • Do you really have the Duke this time around?
  • Should I call your bluff, you lied last game?
  • What the fuck am I supposed to do?!

Coup is a game that provides a thrilling setting of hidden identity politics whether you have 2 players or 8 players. Most importantly, it doesn’t seem like you’re getting a reduced version of the game when you play in a 2 player setting. We have the Reformation expansion and swap out the Ambassador for the Inquisitor for extra flavor.

Despite what she keeps telling me, my partner is a master at bluffing. I’m on to you! (I think.)

9. Boss Monster

As a famous dungeon-crawling hero, have you ever wondered what it was like to be that grotesque villain with impeccable interior design instincts? Wonder no more with Boss Monster: the game where you play the boss at the end of the dungeon that you’ve built! Create dungeon rooms and use spell cards to lure entirely suspecting adventurers to your crib and kill them before they can reach you directly. In Boss Monster, souls are currency, and it takes ten to win and be the best bad guy-girl-thing in town!

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Behold, the 16-bit inspired artwork!

This game is built for two- to four-players. I think this game is more fun with two, as you can reduce extra layer of having to pick your indirect spell battles against your opponents and just focus on trapping more souls than one other person.

8. Bohnanza

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Is that anthropomorphized bean committing genocide?

Grow and sell beans in this fun game about…well, bean counting. The more coins you get at the end of the game, the better off you are as a farmer. Bohnanza takes the tried-and-true mechanics of the classic commodities game Pit and adds the nuance of balancing what’s in your hand versus what you plant in your field versus what you sell to the market to support your rich farmer lifestyle.

7. Machi Koro

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Be the first to activate the attractions that will put your city on the map. Machi Koro is all about playing the odds. Compete with your opponent to purchase buildings from a market area which will give you coins or other benefits depending on how you (or sometimes how your opponent rolls).

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I love the minimal, but still expressive artwork for Machi Koro

I typically dislike games that rely on a luck factor, but I think that as long as you can spread everything out enough to the point that you’re collecting money for most of your rolls, you’ll be swimming in metropolitan tourist money for days.

The reason that I like this game in a two-player setting is due to the amount of things you need to keep track of in the mid- to late-game stages. I think it’s just right with two players.

6. Welcome to the Dungeon

This game is quick and hilarious. Welcome to the Dungeon is a “push your luck” style game where you fill a dungeon with monsters, destroy buffs from a dungeon crawler, and then ultimately decide whether you’re going to make your opponent run the dungeon with that crawler. If the dungeon crawler dies, the person who had to run it takes a wound. If they survive, a victory point is awarded. Two victory points and you win. Two wounds and you’re out.

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This barbarian might not make it through the dungeon

I think that Welcome to the Dungeon is fun with two, three, or four players. The game was designed so well that you don’t have to entirely change your strategy (if you even have one) to accommodate for the extra players.

5. Century: Spice Road (or Golem Edition)

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I blogged about this one awhile back. I love this game. It’s a delicate balance of holding gems, upgrading gems, and trying to claim those golems!

4. Illimat

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This is another game I blogged about. I appreciate modern life being breathed into a classic card game like Hearts or Spades. The artwork is lovely—something that I’d frame and hang on my wall if I didn’t need the cards to play the game!

3. 7 Wonders Duel

Are you starting to see a pattern here? This is one of two games on my list that was actually designed as a two-player only game. I love 7 Wonders Duel. It gives me all of the open strategy and theme of Civilization, but it doesn’t take three years to finish.

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(Here’s my review on 7 Wonders Duel and white wine.)

2. Jaipur

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Jaipur—the city, not the game

Ah memories…this was my first review! (I should experiment with more frozen lasse, that stuff was delicious.) Jaipur is the other game on this list that is designed just for two. My partner and I are so familiar with this game that when we play it, we fall dead silent so that we can focus on getting into the good graces of that Maharaja. (That merchant looks so excited and worried at the same time.)

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Jaipur—the game, not the city

1. Carcassonne

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The real Carcassonne—I hope to go there and play a game of Carcassonne (then the universe will collapse in on itself, I think)

This isn’t just number one on my two-player list, this is my number one of all time. Period. Out of all of the games on this list, Carcassonne always finds it way onto my table—and into my heart. I have fond memories of playing this game with the people that I love. It has everything you need from a tabletop game: strategy, rivalries, city planning.

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Not to mention the expansions, of which there are like eleven. Each one weirder and more fun than the last. Playing with five or more expansions makes my brain explode with madness! (In a good way.)