How Not to Spend Money Wisely on Board Games

Thinking further about the return on investment ratio tabletop games offer, I’ve had two realizations.

The first is it’s really easy to take a bath on games I think I like. Take, for example, Marvel Heroes. I tried it out at Northeast Wars in 2008 and thought it was awesome. I’m honestly not sure why. I think it was the prospect of a high production value board game about name brand superheroes I actually knew — having been a Marvel man, and more specifically an X-Men aficionado, in my comic-reading days — after most of my exposure to contemporary board games left me thinking they were all about power plant management and other dreary tasks.

Based on that one play, I ran out and snapped up a copy at the local game store for a cool manufacturer suggested retail price of $60. I think I played that copy three times before unloading it for $20. So for a net cost of $40, it cost me $13.34 per play. That’s worse than seeing a first run film here in Burlington, particularly since Marvel Heroes roughly takes as long to play as a feature presentation.

In retrospect, the warning signs that Marvel Heroes wasn’t for me — abstract resource management, more things to do than can be managed in a turn,  a bevy of similar, but not quite the same abilities to utilize — were all there. I just didn’t look very closely at the game the first time I played it, or, more accurately, felt the things I did like outweighed those negatives.

Now, I’m not denying the possibility of falling in love with a game on first sight. Rather, I say, it’s not nearly as common as one might like to believe. And that leads me to my second realization: I’ve completely gotten over my “buy a little of everything” attitude that informed my purchases when I first got into tabletop games in general. I think that, like role-playing games, a lot of board games cover similar patches of ground in what wind up being not terribly different ways. And that’s fine. I just don’t need to throw any more money at figuring that out.

[Tuesday Night Board Games] Forbidden Island

Bob from Montpelier stopped by Quarterstaff Games last Tuesday for board game night. He brought something I’d seen at the Game ‘n Grill last weekend, but hadn’t gotten the chance to try: Forbidden Island. I’d heard about the game well before this past week, but I have to admit I mentally wrote it off without doing my due diligence. The initial descriptions I read made it sound like “Pandemic lite”: players work together to retrieve archaeological treasures from a rapidly sinking island. My first thought was a less complicated, more family-friendly version of Pandemic, which other comments around the web seemed to bear out.

As Bob explained the game, the similarities between Forbidden Island and Pandemic became even more obvious. Each player has a specific role in the expedition: explorer, diver, navigator and so on, just as everyone in Pandemic has a different job with the CDC. These roles have different abilities that aid the players as they move from location to location on the island, represented by a grid of tiles, and try to retrieve the artifacts.

See, the island is sinking. At the end of every turn, bad stuff happens. Cards are flipped over, revealing which locations, like the Temple of the Moon or Breakers Bridge, submerge this turn. If a submerged location is drawn again, it sinks beneath the waves completely. This not only makes traveling around the island increasingly difficult, but can cause everyone to lose the game if that location was the final resting place of a particular piece of treasure that hadn’t been recovered yet. Fortunately, sinking locations can be shored up. A player can spend an action to flip an adjacent tile, or the one on which their pawn stands, from submerged to dry. That location will begin to sink again, sooner or later, but it buys breathing room and keeps lines of movement around the island open. In fact, the rate at which the island sinks increases as well, not unlike, say, the infection rate of worldwide diseases increases over time. The number of location cards drawn increases as Waters Rise cards are pulled, so the number of tiles flipping each turn increases, until there are locations that the players just can’t save from sinking.

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[Broken Spokes] Walpurgisnacht

Note: because we meet to play Broken Spokes on Thursday nights and what has come to be Actual Play Friday on Held Action immediately follows, these session reports are going to lag about a week behind. Whatever you’re reading about on Friday, we’ve already moved on to some other huge calamity requiring resolution.

This week was the first session of really real, actual factual role-playing for this campaign, after wrapping up character creation the week before. I was nervous, because I’d been scrabbling to expand my initial story seed for some time, mostly unsuccessfully. For whatever reason, I was having difficulty spinning out twists and complications to make things more interesting. As it turned out, what I had was enough.

The theme of the night was adaptation and modification. Right off the bat, Laban reminded me that last time we briefly discussed the prospects of turning the campaign calendar back to the pulp adventure era of the 1920s and 30s. The idea appealed to me because not only is it a fine era for high adventure and it rules out technological wrinkles like cell phones and the information wellspring of the internet, but the time period’s perfectly in sync with riffing on modernization versus traditional rural life and other Lovecraftian elements.

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Ghostbusters: Pumpkin Jack

After struggling with a non-starter of a plot seed for some time now — slasher movie characters coming to life during a horror film convention, I think I finally got something I can work with for Carnage, thanks to a poster at who shared his own idea for a one-shot Ghostbusters game. My take’s already going in a different direction because I’m still trying to accomplish some of the things that I wanted to do with the slasher concept, but there are some core elements that will carry over. Not that knowing that will save any potential players who scour that thread for clues. Bwa ha ha.


So I went to Muddy Waters tonight for a writing session. I hadn’t necessarily planned on making it a Ghostbusters session, but I think I got more done in that Open Office document than I did filling out the Broken Spokes wiki. Some story elements and characters popped into my head that I never could have expected. This might be what fiction writers refer to as their characters telling them what happens next.

As it stands, I have a much better grasp of what to shape this into, but it’s not quite there yet. Material I wrote tonight doesn’t line up with my goals. I could ditch the goals and follow the material as it inspires me, but it’s leading me in a direction I’ve already gone. I want to do something different this year.

Right now, there’s an element linking back to one of the original ghost hunters of modern fiction. The Wikipedia article teaches me it really makes no sense as such in the context I want to use it, so I think I’m going to end up inventing my own substitute, who can be modified to fit appropriately. But the inspiration’s still there. I’ll tell you all about it after the convention in November.


I’m not sure if I want to stick with GURPS for this and future Ghostbusters games. Having had time to think about it, I wasn’t taken away the representation of proton packs and ghost traps. Basically it’s more fiddly math on my part than I necessarily want to do. I also don’t think it’s necessarily fun for the players. They basically spend turns maintaining their streams until the ghost is contained.

So the choices seem to be make everything else so entertaining that busting ghosts is a dreary, but necessary part of a ridiculous job, or mechanically spice up the zap ‘n trap part of things. I’m struck by the thought there should be an option for going “full stream,” whatever that might be — probably extra damage or an instant containment field with a risk of catastrophic malfunction or power burn-out. But are those interesting problems? They essentially take away the player’s single really useful tool for a random period of time.

Looking back at Lurker in the Limelight, most of the fun at the table came not from busting ghosts, but character interaction and riffing on the absurdities of entrepreneurial spectral extermination. The system I would most likely switch to, Cinematic Unisystem, wouldn’t really make a difference in that regard, as both it and GURPS are pretty traditional in what their mechanics represent in the game world.

I’ll think about it more. I have a month or so before I have to submit anything for the convention book.

Nonchalant Gnome Gaming Society Site Redesign

I see the Nonchalant Gnome Gaming Society launched a new website last month. If you hadn’t before — and even if you had, because the links have obviously changed — subscribe to their news feed to keep up with the board game doings in Clinton County, New York.

The Nonchalant Gnome site was one of the first I ran across when I first began looking around the web for online presences of gaming groups that met in real life in the Vermont region. They meet across Lake Champlain in New York state, so I haven’t been able to make a trip over there to visit one of their meetings, but I took some lessons away from their website. In short: make it personal so browsers can tell there are real, interesting people behind the web page, make it easy to find out where and when events happen and make it easy to contact someone who knows what’s going on.

Before now, I don’t think I realized quite how strong example the Nonchalant Gnome website has been to my efforts in making social media a useful tool for Vermont area gamers. So I tip my hat to Chuck Henry. If not for that quirky DokuWiki that was the first incarnation of the society’s website, I don’t know where or in what, if any, form the Green Mountain Gamers site, or Burlington Board Gamers before it, might have taken.

On the Outside Looking In On the Role-Playing Hobby

One of these titles is not like the others.

Stocking a game store is a rough job. There are at least four distinct areas of product in the tabletop game hobby: board games, collectible card games, miniatures and role-playing games. Part of running a store is knowing how to display the contents of each of those areas in a way that makes sense to people who literally come in off the street. It can require an almost encyclopedic knowledge of just one particular area of the hobby to know how to organize stock sensibly.

With role-playing games, it can get even more complicated. At Quarterstaff Games, it’s a bit of a crap shoot. Books by a particular publisher tend to clump together, but the publishers never seem to be alphabetized, nor are game lines sorted by genre particularly strongly.

Furthermore, it’s not uncommon to see books placed together based on similar form factors. In the case of the pictured books, there’s a selection of the so-called indie set, typically published as one-off, hyper-focused games, plus the pocket edition of Spycraft 2.0.

There comes a point where any role-playing games that aren’t Dungeons & Dragons or a closely-aligned substitute are going to hang together, regardless of marketing gimmicks. Wonderful as Spycraft is — we had a lot of fun using the Stargate iteration a couple years back — it can’t have much bigger a share of the role-playing population’s time than any other title, regardless of who publishes it.

Long story short: from outside the role-playing hobby, it’s all the same and there’s little use in getting divisive and crabby.

[Green Mountain Game Days] Summer Game ‘n Grill 2010 Report

This Saturday, June 19th was the first annual Summer Game ‘n Grill, a day of tabletop games hosted by the Green Mountain Gamers, a collective of Vermont-based people with the common goal of encouraging more public gatherings to play games all around Vermont, of whom I am one. We spent the last three or four months planning this out since the idea first germinated in the wake of Northeast Wars‘ deflation, and then the game day just happened, wham.

Happily, the day was an unqualified success. Over almost twelve hours of gaming, we topped out at about forty participants, at one time or another. Going in to this, I planned to count the day successful with twenty people, so blowing the doors off, relatively speaking, with twice as many was a huge boost to both my own confidence and the group’s.

Board games ruled at the Game ‘n Grill. I had brought a couple role-playing adventures to run, but didn’t try at all to push them. At the time, I felt the crowd was pretty obviously there for board games. In retrospect, there were sufficient people there I knew to be role-players that I could have corralled them into a game, but didn’t. Because really, it’s a game day about mixing up and moving around from game to game. Who wants to sit at a single table for three or four hours at a time? Well, okay, the Agricola players did.

The day itself was a hit with everyone who attended. The Green Mountain Gamers group proved that the model works; not only do people want a single day of free play, but they’re happy to donate towards the cost of doing so and they really like being able to grill their lunch. This whole first year of game days is an on-going experiment in my mind, but I think we started off strong.

Next stop, Fall-loha!

Happy Birthday, Held Action!

Today marks the one year anniversary of Held Action‘s first publication, from the day I made my post of introduction and reported on local Free RPG Day activities. Those posts actually date from the brief period of time when I blogged on Dreamwidth. A couple weeks later, I got tired of the limitations of the cloned LiveJournal interface and crossed over to WordPress. That also pushed me to think of a name for the blog, and it wasn’t until I had thought of something I liked better than “Tyler’s Game Blog” that I bought the domain and set up this blog on

What a year it’s been. First I chose a schedule to keep myself to, then I had an enormous spike in things I wanted to say, then I fell back into the more comfortable schedule I’d originally chosen. I’ve run through most of the material I wrote in other times and contexts, so now it’s all fresh, usually sparked by something I’ve read or heard elsewhere. And that’s what I wanted in a gaming blog: a place to publish the thoughts and ideas I had that I didn’t feel like putting in someone else’s discussion forum, but still wanted to make public.

According to, here are the top ten most popular posts of the last year, least to most. It’s amazing what the viral bump can do to hit counts, isn’t it?

  1. National Library Week 2010 Drumming up enthusiasm for an endeavor that inspired Saturday gaming at the local library.
  2. The Art of Board Game Storage When I get a game room of my own, I’ll use this technique.
  3. Game Master Mistakes: Not Really Listening I know enough to fess up when I make mistakes.
  4. A Screen for Every Game Promoting my favorite GM screen, the customizable sort.
  5. Physical Evidence Extolling my enjoyment of Propnomicon‘s Lovecraft-inspired creations.
  6. Labyrinth Lord: Downward to Adventure! My actual play report for International Traditional Gaming Week.
  7. The Lurker at the Threshold Expands Arkham Horror One of my inconsistent moments of pseudo-journalism.
  8. Scouting and Dungeons & Dragons Most mind-boggling is this one posted last week and it’s already number three in terms of hits.
  9. The Arkham Horror Expansion Guide One of those wonderful moments of blogging came when I saw someone else recommending this post on Ah, gratification.
  10. How to Make a Pamphlet Prop I really do intend to get back to making that Ghostbusters proper suitable for download. Honest.

[Broken Spokes] Character Creation Redux

Last week, I thought we were going to dive into kicking off Broken Spokes. In actuality, we spent most of the evening finishing off character creation, primarily equipment and the players tweaking the bits of their characters about which they’d had second thoughts between the first creation session and now.

As it turns out, they were both concerned about their characters’ gear. That’s a fair point, but one I tend to gloss over as a GM because equipment lists put me to sleep. I’d rather just assume they have everything they would reasonably have and leave it at that. Not so with these two guys.

In a lot of ways, it was helpful and educational to follow them through the gear load-out process, picking up tidbits like:

  • GURPS Lite lacks automatic fire rules. We had to do some detective work with Basic Set: Characters, since I had neglected to bring Campaigns, thinking that the combat rules in Lite were all I needed for the evening. (This turns out to be a standing point of contention about the fourth edition of GURPS Lite, I found while browsing the discussion forum at Steve Jackson Games’ website.)
  • Ammunition matters. This week I’m bringing GURPS High-Tech so Laban can have his choice of things to propel at qlippothic horrors at high velocities.
  • For some folks, it’s not enough to say “You have everything a person like your character could reasonably be expected to have, on their person or back at home.” It’s enough for me, but I am learning to respect others’ desire for fully detailed inventories of pockets, backpacks, vehicle storage compartments and basements. I exaggerate for humor, but really, Wayne’s cat burglar has to keep all that stuff somewhere.

Scouting and Dungeons & Dragons

Followed shortly by specialities in trap-finding, spellcrafting and min-maxing.

WJWalton linked to this find: an official Dungeons & Dragons activity badge from the UK Boy Scouts program. At some point in time, it seems, there was a version of the Hobbies activity badge, intended as a catch-all for those pastimes Scouts already pursued that didn’t fall under the aegis of another activity badge. As commenter darrell explains below, this TSR-sponsored version of the  Hobbies badge was awarded to all scouts, regardless of whether their hobby focused on Dungeons & Dragons.

So there’s some precedent for the Video Games badge Cub Scouts can earn. Really, there’s nothing untoward about either. Scouting’s always been about encouraging well-rounded development in all areas, outside and indoors. There are badges for studying architecture and nuclear science (!), as well as pioneering and personal fitness.

Between this and Walton’s take on a role-playing advocacy badge (scroll to the end of the article), I’m interested by the idea of having embroidered merit badge-like patches made up for general distribution.

For another perspective on role-playing and scouting, check out A Scoutmaster’s Blog, in which a Minnesota scoutmaster comments on his experiences role-playing, both as a player and a Scout and later a GM for his troop.