The Real Stone Chambers of Vermont

After I posted The Stone Chamber some time back, a friend of mine who’s a real life archaeologist loaned me a copy of Vermont’s stone chambers: an inquiry into their past, by Giovanna Neudorfer. This is a scholarly work from 1980 that did practical research and field work on some of the stone chambers still existing around Vermont. It was a quick read, but also dense, given the amount of information Neudorfer collected in her study.

Unsurprisingly, her research pointed to practical, historical origins for the chambers, typically after the arrival of Europeans in the area. Used for storage, distilling and other conventional purposes, the stone chambers are part of the historical record, not artifacts from a bygone, unrecorded civilization.

In role-playing games, we make up the things we do because it’s fun to make believe, quite frankly. Role-playing is a highly escapist pastime. I think it’s a fair estimation that most participants in the hobby do so to vicariously live out the thrill of smiting foes, exploring strange worlds and otherwise getting out of their real lives for a few hours in a positive, socially-centered way.

The distinction is it’s made up and we know it. The willful invention of pseudo-history in the fact of contradictory facts — which is distinct from those topics when there is a genuine lack of knowledge about a historical event or era — is a significantly different and problematic issue.

The 2010 ENnies

I did vote in the ENnies this year. I did. I just wasn’t psyched about it. For whatever reason, nothing in the role-playing hobby that came out in the last year really caught my attention and ardor. I think I was busy making what I already owned work for me.

There was maybe one category in the ENnies with a nominee I had any emotional investment in, never mind curiosity, Best Podcast. All Games Considered, a show for which I’ve already expressed my appreciation, is back in the running after winning the category in 2009. So I voted for them.

My feelings about awards for games seem to vacillate. Sometimes I find them useful as a guide to games worth checking out. Other times they seem completely inapplicable to my game-playing desires. This year’s Spiel des Jahres nominee list was a similar situation for me, so don’t think I’m bagging on role-playing game publishers or the people who nominated this year’s ENnie contenders.

None of it seems relevant to me these days. I spend more time thinking about my own gaming efforts and activity in the local community than what game is hot elsewhere in the world. I’m clearly in the middle of a grassroots phase.

[Fletcher Free Library Gaming] Prisoners in the Tower of Carcassonne

I made my way to the Fletcher Free Library for some Saturday board games for the first time in quite a while. As the weather in Vermont becomes more clement, I and many other sensible people want to spend less time indoors, particularly on sunny afternoons. However, we’ve been going through a bout of heat and humidity lately, so I thought the air-conditioned library would be a good place to hide out for an afternoon. As it turns out, the room reserved that day for board games has a skylight, which is not conducive to staying cool on warm days. Still, we did get some games in before the heat and stuffiness drove us out.

When I got there, Andrew and his friend were checking out the library’s graphic novel collection. I think I witnessed someone’s first time reading Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, which was a funny thing to realize. Once Sarah and Alex came along, we played a couple rounds of Dominion; the first round, we randomly mixed cards from Intrigue with Seaside, which was fun, albeit unmemorable. I can’t remember coming up with or observing any really dynamite combinations.

The second game sticks out in my memory much more clearly. It was straight-up Intrigue — still maximizing my purchase, y’see — and we played the Victory Dance setup, which includes the Saboteur. Now, I’d dealt with the Saboteur before last week at Quarterstaff, but it didn’t do a whole lot. This time, however, it got my damn Province, which was heart-breaking and irritating all at once. If I play that setup again, I’ll try spreading out my victory points more by going for Duchies and Dukes. I opted to stay out of the struggle, thinking that everyone else would descend upon them and I could snaffle up Provinces like usual. And by the way, Upgrading Estates into Great Halls is a wonderful thing.

After that, we brought Chuck into the action with Carcassonne. For this, we used Sarah’s Carcassonne set, which is over-stuffed with a plethora of expansions: Inns & Cathedrals, Builders & Traders, Abbey & Mayor, The River II and, for the first time ever, The Tower and Cult, Siege & Creativity. The latter one was easy, being a pair of magazine promotions and some blank “design your own” tiles. The Tower, however, I was much more leery about.

I have a habit of adopting received wisdom as my own opinion when lacking personal experience. In this case, I accepted that The Tower‘s central mechanic of capturing other people’s meeples is mean and counter to the traditional Carcassonne style of passive-aggressive parasitism. And frankly, they’re right. One player took advantage of the towers as they were intended. The rest of us typically used them just to get our meeples back. And none of us bothered to cap a tower. I think we just became more cagey about placing new meeples relative to existing towers.

This particular session gave me a valuable experience in expansion bloat, when there are just too many rules elements flying around for the game to feel fun anymore. My ideal Carcassonne uses all the tiles, the mega-meeple, the builder, and the abbey tile because it’s useful in completing seemingly impossible to finish features. Well, I found it useful on Saturday.

More News of Betrayal at House on the Hill

"Jinkies, gang. That's a spooky old house. Let's check it out!"

Boardgame News posted an announcement with more details for the new edition of Betrayal at House on the Hill — and that’s a link to the refreshed web page at Wizards of the Coast — including box art, pictured to the right, and a release date: October 5th, 2010. Not only does that provide ample time for Halloween themed board gaming, but it’s also a month ahead of Carnage. That should make Alex happy, as he planned to run it there, one way or the other.

Other highlights of the new edition include new haunts, modified original haunts, new items and redesigned tokens. Hopefully “redesigned” means that not only will it be easier to pick out the rats from the tentacles, say, but the two sides will stick together.

I’m going to snap this one up more or less game unplayed. I know I like the mechanics and theme. I’m indifferent to the first edition bits — we usually just grab whatever’s convenient, rather than the specifically named token; Rocketship the Dog is a popular feature in our play sessions — aside from the way all the tokens fell apart, so if they’re improved, my opinion can only go up.

It’s gonna be a long wait until October. I’m torn over whether to get in some more plays of the original version of Betrayal at House on the Hill, or fast completely, to really savor the experience of the new edition.

Turn Me On, Dead Man

Paul was supposed to die, not John. In the original history, Paul’s death in 1966 catalyzed the surviving Beatles’ transformation into something completely unlike their History B replacements. The Beatles-A never achieved the mega-mondo-ultra-stardom of the Beatles-B, but then, they never broke up and John wasn’t killed in 1980, either.

The hints in the music and album art of the Beatles-B are psychic bleedthrough from the original timeline. As time moves forward from the disruption point in 1966, the bleedthrough becomes more pronounced: people find clues that weren’t there before in the music, the legend becomes widespread and refuses to die in the face of — from the perspective of History B — factual debunking.

If the disruption isn’t corrected, the divergence will eventually become so pronounced that the rival timelines can no longer share the same metaversal coordinates, ripping each other apart in the attempt to exist independently. The first step to correcting the problem is figuring out who traveled back to 1966 to save Paul in the first place and why.

Mashing up, in my way, Mighty Godking’s alternate history of the Beatles and The Madness Dossier for an thread.

The Waiting is the Hardest Part

Some people scoff at brick and mortar game stores. “Why pay retail when I can get it cheaper from an online retailer?” I’ll tell you why: instant gratification.

There is no greater pleasure than being able to stroll into the store, grab that game you’ve eyed for months now and start unwrapping it before the clerk’s even finished swiping your card. With an in-store game night, you can be playing the game — because certainly you wouldn’t buy a game you haven’t already tested and know you’ll like, just as I wouldn’t — in minutes, as sometimes happens at Tuesday night board games.

Unless, of course, the store doesn’t have the game in stock. Then the whole thing falls down. That’s where I found myself last week. I finally decided to throw down for Dominion: Intrigue, only to find Quarterstaff Games was out of stock. Not only were they, but so was the distributor. Intrigue seems to be out of print for the moment. The only copies to be had are those already in the supply chain, which probably aren’t all that few, given the line’s surging popularity.

With instant gratification out of the way, I found myself with two options: wait for the store to get the game in stock or buy it online. Either way, I’d have to wait. Buying online seemed like the quicker option. So that’s why I find myself drumming my fingers tonight, because a silly eBay seller couldn’t mention the fact they ship via FedEx, a service which does not play nice with my current abode. If I’d known, I’d’ve shipped the package elsewhere, but here we are.

Later today, I’ll head out to the FedEx station to pick up Intrigue after what seems like much too long a wait, when really it’s only been about seven or eight calendar days. That’s quicker than waiting for the local game store to restock, but being thwarted by FedEx has still made me cranky about online retail in general.

For Sale: Slightly Used Turtles

A copy clearly used, but not necessarily well loved.

Monday evening, I found myself browsing through Crow Bookshop on Church St. As part of my used book browsing routine, I always hit the science fiction and fantasy section, as well as the game shelf. I don’t often find anything, but it’s a habit that’s paid off in the past. This time, I found a very nice copy of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles & Other Strangeness, the game lovingly spoken of by so many role-players. I’m not usually one to play the “it was so cheap, I couldn’t pass it up” card, but I gave away my TMNT books a couple years back — which I had bought as part of my “buy everything that someone, anyone ever may have recommended” phase, which thankfully ended quickly — and frankly, came to regret doing so. I’m a hoarder, I know, but they’re books, damnit.

So for seven bucks, I bought Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles & Other Strangeness. This copy even has a character sheet in the back, making it a sort of upgrade from the last copy I owned. Now, will I use this copy? If I take my own medicine, then yes, I should. The members of my role-playing group — currently stalled on Broken Spokes for scheduling reasons, surprise, surprise — are Palladium players from back in the day, so I think they would take to a Ninja Turtles game readily. In fact, I can imagine a proposed one-shot spinning out from there, but that wouldn’t stop the endemic scheduling issues.

A lot of my role-playing library came from used book stores or online equivalents like eBay. There’s a Barnes & Noble over in South Burlington with a used books section that, for whatever reason, was a veritable spring of role-playing material. I picked up a lot of Mage: the Ascension and other White Wolf titles there for cheap. I discovered Changeling: the Dreaming because its brightly colored spine caught my eye from the bottom shelf.

Maybe it has to do with being near the local university, pulling in students looking to dump a load of books for quick cash. Whatever the reason, that place was a gold mine, once this discerning shopper realized the trick was to comb through the over-sized shelf in the science fiction and fantasy section, where all the graphic novels, trade paperbacks and role-playing books were tossed together. Often there would be caches of books from a particular game line, as though someone chose to wash their hands completely of In Nomine or whatever.

I don’t cruise the used book stores as I once did. Part of that is portion of the book-selling industry largely shifted online in the last ten years. The local shop with stacks of battered paperbacks have a hard time competing with online sellers for all the usual reasons: overhead costs, variety of inventory and so on.

My buying habits changed, too. Two years or so into the role-playing hobby, I realized I was buying a lot of books, reading them once and then shelving them. I didn’t have a role-playing group at the time and was feeding my desire for hobby-related stimulus by amassing a frankly useless library of role-playing material. I mean “useless” in the sense I couldn’t possibly utilize all the material in a meaningful fashion, beyond superficially skimming plot seeds and character ideas for use in whatever game I happened to run, which I wasn’t even doing at the time.

I’m a lot pickier these days. I still try to buy used when I can, though. A couple months after a book’s release, the odds are some unhappy role-player’s going to offload it on eBay,’s trade and sales forum or some other similar venue. As long as I’m patient, and I typically am because I’ve played the “gotta have it now!” role enough to know it’s not worth the fleeting glow of getting something on the first day of release, then I can let other people find out what the game’s really like and then make a more informed decision.

Of course, there are still the times when I impulsively buy Teenage Mutants Ninja Turtles & Other Strangeness because it’s on the shelf and I let the book hoarding tendency override my sensible consumer tendency. It’s an on-going struggle.

Good Things Come to Those Who Wait

Sarah really likes her prize.

Way back in February, we had a Dominion tournament at Quarterstaff Games. Rio Grande Games very kindly donated a prize that, unfortunately, didn’t make its way into our hands in time to be awarded on the night of the event.

This past Tuesday, though, we did receive it. Conveniently, the winner of the tournament was on hand to accept her prize and express her happiness on doing so.

[Tuesday Night Board Games] The Dominion of Space Alert in a Small World

Alex (right) points out an element of the Small World map.

This week, board games at Quarterstaff were entertaining, albeit non-momentous. Some newcomers came by. I helped teach them Small World, which I somehow contrived to win. I eked it out by one point. If I hadn’t taken the Spirit Elves and thus gotten one extra point a couple turns because of one little hold-out in decline that the Hill Giants and Something-something Skeletons ignored, I would have come in third. The top three scorers were right on top of each other, like 88, 89 and 90, something close like that.

After that, we ran through a couple tutorial sessions of Space Alert. One day I will play this game in normal mode, with all the elements and threat decks and such. It’s just that every time I play, we’ve got a new player. Space Alert just isn’t a game it seems fair to throw a newcomer into full bore, so we run through a couple tutorial missions and by then, everyone’s ready to move on to a different game. I still haven’t played with internal threats and the security droids, for crying out loud — nor actually read the rulebook that far, so shame on me for being unprepared to push the level of play upward.

Then came two rounds of Dominion. With two new players, one of whom had a single play under her belt and the other had never heard of the game before, I took a different tactic than I normally do. In addition to explaining cards, verbally narrating my turns to show how things work and making some suggestions on what might be useful choices for the other two players to make, I also played as well as I could. In the past, I’ve taken a more easy-going approach in teaching a game, sometimes not making optimal choices so as not to outpace someone who’s just learning the game.

This time, I played exactly as I would have in a game with experienced players. My rationale was to show by example, explaining why I did what I did, in addition to the usual elements I put into teaching a game. The results were lopsided, but I think it worked out well for the players.

The first game I ran away with by some silly number of victory points. The second game they walloped me hard in return. I think my score was somewhere in the teens and they were both in the high twenties. For whatever reason, I just couldn’t get my buying power together in one hand that game. I choose to think that means I’m a damn fine teacher of the game, at least when it comes to that introductory setup.