Wednesday, August 30, 2006

This Is So Cool!

This is just too cool. StatCounter has added Google Maps support. Everybody do me a favor. Tell all your friends to visit my blog and see if you can fill my map with little orange dots. *grin*

A Very Successful Game Night

We had a lot of people turn out for game night last night; including some newcomers! It's always nice to see new faces. Hopefully our newcomers will become regulars!

The six of us who arrived first passed the time until the others arrived by playing Loot. Loot is a light card game by Gamewright Games. Unlike most of the games we play at game night, I've actually seen this one in some of the local big name stores like Target and Fred Meyer. Kudos to Gamewright for getting their product into those stores!

This was my second time playing the game and I'm afraid that my initial impression remains unchanged. It's too long for what it is: a very luck-heavy, ultra-light card game. The artwork is whimsical but the game play just isn't deep enough for a game of that length in my opinion. Still, it's enjoyable enough with the right people and I'm sure that many will feel that it's worth its low price.

Next up, I really wanted to play Masons with the correct rules. Adam, Mike and I watched Max (one of the newcomers) run away with an early lead that proved to be uncatchable. With the correct rules the game proved to be much shorter and that's a good thing because the last time we played it went way too long. In this game, players take turns placing walls on the board. Whenever an enclosed area (called a city) is created it triggers a round of scoring. In last night's game, we all waited too long before creating that first city. That allowed Max to play a couple of scoring cards which enabled him to score something like twenty points on a single turn. From that point on his victory was basically ensured. I suspect with repeated play, we might get a better feel for when to trigger scoring to ensure that nobody gets such a huge advantage. I like it but I do feel it's a little luck heavy, particularly for a Colovini game.

The next game we played was one which none of us had ever played before: Aqua Romana. This is a very pretty game by Martin Schlegel and Queen Games where players build aqueducts that crisscross all over a roman square. It's a tile laying game with tiles that look an awful lot like the tiles in Streetcar or Metro. The twist here is that there are master builders (big wooden meeples) that march around the perimeter of the board which dictate which tiles can be built where on each player's turn. My initial impression is that it's very pretty and very tactical. There's some strategy as well but for a game with no luck element at all I found it surprisingly difficult to figure out what my next move was going to be. I imagine that would be different with fewer than four players. Still, I enjoyed it very much and I'd happily play it again. One other thing: the English translation of the rules was terrible. There were several phrases that left us scratching our heads but I think we ultimately got them right.

I really wanted Adam to have a chance to play Carcassonne: the City. A few weeks back I introduced him to the original Carcassonne but this version is so much superior that I really wanted him to play this one too so he, Michael, Max and I played. Everyone but Michael managed to muscle in on a large shared market about half way through the game and it put Michael behind by a huge amount of points. Unfortunately for him, he always seemed to be an easy target and without really thinking about it, we never seemed to give him a break. In the end, he got lapped more than once on the scoring track. It's a good thing he's a good sport because a lesser man would have been very upset. Adam won but (for at least three of us) the scores were respectably close. Sorry Mike. Next time I'll have to remember to pay more attention to things like that.

Other games played tonight included For Sale, Bus, Thurn & Taxis, Cleopatara and Puerto Rico.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

The Übercar!

I wasn't able to attend game night last night so I can't tell you what went on there but I can tell you what I was up to instead.

Several years back my oldest son was just beginning cub scouts. Now every spring the cub scout packs in our area (like most areas throughout the United States) hold a pinewood derby. Unfortunately, the track that my son's pack had available to them at the time was in a horrible state of disrepair. My wife and I, realizing we had five sons who would all be cub scouts at one time or another, wondered if perhaps it wouldn't make sense for us to buy a new track. That way we could contribute to the local community and ensure that our boys would always have a good track on which to run year in and year out. After a bit of searching, we found a place back east that made excellent tracks for a reasonable cost and placed an order. Since then, we've been happy to rent our track out for a small fee to any group in the area provided they let us run it. (Our own pack gets free use of course.)

Most of the time our track is rented to cub scout packs but every now and then a few fathers get jealous and decide they want to run a race of their own. Last night was just such a night. A group of dads from a church in Kirkland rented the track and I had a great time running it.

One thing that's particularly fun for me is that now every time I run the track I get to show off "The Übercar!" I made this car a few months back for a father's race that our own church held. After running this track for several years and seeing all of the great designs, I've picked up a few ideas about what goes in to a truly high performance pinewood derby car. The Übercar was the result of all of that experience. In its first race it barely came in second. The time difference was measured in thousandths of a second over three heats. Since then it's undergone a little more fine tuning and it has yet to lose a race. I'm sure that record won't last forever but either way, it's a pretty darn fast car. More importantly, it incorporates a few really neat design ideas and it always turns some heads.

So here, without further ado, I am proud to present the Übercar!

Let me walk you through its features.

First of all, this car is 100% BSA legal. The axles and wheels are straight from a BSA kit. The measurements are all completely within spec. The axles have been polished of course and the wheels have been sanded perfectly smooth and completely coated with graphite to reduce friction, but they haven't been "doctored" in any other way.

The trick to building a fast pinewood derby car is to build a car that converts as much potential energy as possible into kinetic energy as quickly as possible and then make sure that energy stays in the system. That means putting the weight as far back as possible and then doing whatever you can to eliminate friction. Most of the special features in this car are an attempt to apply these principles.

The most obvious "odd" feature on the car, and the one that draws the most comments, is the large turnbuckle that runs the length of the car. That is the car's primary secret weapon. It's an ultra-light aluminum and plastic turnbuckle that would normally be used on a radio-controlled model airplane. Its purpose is to flex the car's frame and thereby allow extremely high precision adjustments to the car's steering. If I lengthen the turnbuckle, the axles flex apart and the car steers just a bit more to the left. If I shorten the turnbuckle, the car steers a bit more to the right. By carefully adjusting the steering over multiple trial runs, I can "dial in" the car so that it tracks as straight as possible down the track, thereby reducing friction and ensuring a straight and fast course.

The wooden frame has been trimmed to the barest minimum. I've removed almost all wood except for the two axles and a thin strip connecting them. The axles are located very far apart to encourage straight tracking. The front axle has been carefully drilled so that only the left wheel actually touches the track. The right wheel never touches the track at all, ensuring that only three sets of wheels and axles are adding friction. The rear axle is as close to the back of car as possible to try and get the weight as far back on the car as possible. Almost directly over the back axle is a small bolt that rises from the bottom of the car. On either side of the bolt's shaft are permanent lead weights. On the bolt itself are a number of heavy flat washers secured with a nut. This enables me to put approximately 90% of the car's weight almost directly over the rear axle. Furthermore, the washers allow me to finely adjust the weight of the car so that I can quickly add or remove weight to ensure that no matter whose scale is being used, my car will always weigh in at exactly five ounces.

The only other feature of note is the boom at the front of the car. This is the only really "sneaky" part of the car. Over the years I've noticed that cars with a raised nose tended to get a slight advantage at the start. The reason for this is quite obvious once you think about it. The starting gate on most tracks (including mine) is a set of posts that rise up from underneath the track. The cars rest against these posts until the starter simultaneously drops all of the posts, releasing the cars. Because the posts drop down under the track, cars with a raised nose tend to be released a fraction of a second sooner, particularly if the starter is a bit slow on the release. This is a definite advantage with a slow starter as it can put my car a full inch ahead of the other cars. It's also an advantage which I've always been very careful to completely negate whenever I run the starter by being sure I drop the starter faster than the cars can move.

At this point, I'm convinced that the only thing I could do to make this car faster (without violating the rules) would be to improve the wheels themselves. While I spent a fair amount of time on the current set of wheels, I would love to get a precision lathe and balance a new set of wheels that roll even straighter. Still, I'm pretty happy with this car since it's consistently been the fastest car I've ever run on my track.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Perhaps if we built a giant wooden badger?

I wasn't able to stay at last night's game night for as long as I would have liked but I did manage to get in a few games.

My only large game of the night was a game of Shadows Over Camelot. I must have played this game dozens of times and yet tonight was the very first time I have ever played as the traitor. Unfortunately (for me), there were six players in the game. With fewer players, it's much more likely that the traitor will win but with six players, most of whom are familiar with the game, my chances weren't so good. I decided to play the fun way by trying to remain hidden throughout the game and in that sense I was successful. A couple of people had their suspicions but were never sure enough to accuse me. But in the end, good triumphed over evil nonetheless. I needed the knights to loose just one more quest and there were a few cards that could have done the trick but fortune favored Arthur and his companions and in the end, even having an unrevealed traitor in their midst wasn't enough to tip the balance in my behalf. I suspect that if I'd just given myself away at the start of the game by pulling siege engines each turn I'd have been much more likely to win but where's the fun in that?

Tejas brought in a copy of Nicht Die Bohn and so we played a round of that. In this card game, one player places a card in the middle of the table and all other players choose a card to play from their hand simultaneously. When all the cards are revealed, the starting player chooses one of the other player's cards. That player chooses one of the remaining player's cards and so on until the final player takes the card that was offered by the first player. There is some potential for nasty play here and I can see why some people might enjoy it but I found it to be way too chaotic for my taste. I felt that I might just as well have been choosing my cards at random. Perhaps it plays better with fewer players but either way I don't think I'll be interested in playing again. Christopher and Tejas seemed to like it though and it's received enough good reviews on "the Geek" that if it sounds like something you're interested in then you might want to give it a try.

I had to leave at that point but other games played that night included Bang! and Rum & Pirates and of course Loopin' Louie.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Review: Thurn and Taxis

Each year a committee of journalists in Germany selects one game and bestows upon it the lofty title of Spiel des Jahres (Game of the Year). This year that honor went to Thurn and Taxis, a game by Andreas and Karen Seyfarth. Andreas Seyfarth is perhaps better known as the man who gave us Puerto Rico, the number one game on Board Game Geek, so clearly we have a designer who knows his craft. Thurn and Taxis is indeed a well crafted game but it is also a very different game. It was designed for a much different audience (families and casual gamers) and consequently it's much simpler and quite a bit shorter. Thurn and Taxis is for two to four players and plays in about an hour.


The first thing that caught my attention when I heard of this game was the name. I must admit that I had never heard of the Thurn and Taxis family so hopefully I can be excused for doing a little bit of head scratching. If I were German I'm sure I'd have immediately recognized the name as belonging to an illustrious family of noblemen known primarily for advancing the European postal service in the 16th century. Luckily for those of us who weren't in the know, Hans im Glük and Rio Grande Games have thought to include a very nice full size, full color information sheet to quickly bring us up to speed on the topic.

In Thurn and Taxis, players race to build postal networks throughout Germany and its neighboring provinces. Whoever builds the largest and fastest network will win the game.

This is certainly not the most riveting theme ever to grace a game board but it isn't truly awful either. While I must admit that I'm not overly excited to play postman I did at least find the theme of passing interest and were it not for this game I might have never known about the Thurn and Taxis family (vital knowledge to be sure).


I've already mentioned the full color information sheet. In addition to that you'll also find a very nice full color rulebook which does a very good job of explaining the simple rules. The box also contains an extremely attractive game board, eighty wooden houses (twenty in each of four player colors), a deck of over sixty half size cards, several sturdy cardboard counters, and four very nice rules summary cards.

The components are very attractive, sturdy, and everything we have come to expect from a Hans im Glük game. If there is any fault to be found here it's that they used half size cards instead of full size cards. A minor fault indeed.

Game Play

At last we come to the important part. Thurn and Taxis is a simple game and its rules can be very easily summarized. A basic turn consists of three actions which must be performed in sequence: take a card, play a card, and then if you choose, score your cards. In addition to these three actions, players may choose to take one (and only one) of four possible bonus actions (or action enhancements) on their turn.

There are twenty two cities on the board. Cities are linked by a network of roads and they are also grouped into colored areas (or provinces). Players use the cards to create routes that link cities. Each card represents a city and each city card in a route must be directly linked by road to the one played next to it. Also, no city may appear in the same route more than once.

At the start of your turn you draw a city card and add it to your hand. Cards are selected from a set of six face up cards. If you don't like any of those cards then you may choose the top card from the face down supply instead.

Next you MUST play one of the cards in your hand and you MUST play it to one of the two ends of the route you already have in play unless you have no cards in play in which case you start a new route by playing one of your cards face up in front of you. New cards must be played to either the front or the end of your current route, never the middle. Once cards are played, they may not be rearranged. If none of your cards in your hand can be legally added to your current route then you must discard all of the cards in your route and start over using one of the cards from your hand. This gives Thurn and Taxis a little bit of a press-your-luck feel. As you play you will find yourself constantly trying to make sure you always have one card in your hand that you can legally play, even if it's not really the one you want, just to be safe and avoid the disaster of having all of your progress erased.

Finally, if your route is three cards long or longer, you may chose to score it by placing houses in the cities along your route. You may either place houses in every city you've visited in a single province, or you may place one house in a city you have visited in each of the provinces your route passed through. At the end of the game, unplayed houses cost you one point each so there is a big incentive to play as many houses to the board as you can.

If by playing houses you have satisfied one or more of the many bonus scoring conditions, such as playing houses in all of the cities in an area, then you get to collect the bonus chip for each of those conditions. Bonus chips are worth a decreasing amount of points each time they are collected. So it's better to be the first player to collect a bonus chip for a given category because whoever is second, third or fourth will receive incrementally fewer points.

Bonus chips are award for having at least one house in each of the board's several provinces*, for having houses in all of the cities of a province or pair of provinces, for completing routes of a given length, and for being the first player to reach one of the game's ending conditions.

*more precisely, each of the provinces but one which basically amounts to the same thing

Players also try to "upgrade their carriages" by completing ever longer routes. The first carriage requires a four card route, the next requires five cards, the next requires six and the last requires seven cards. Each carriage is worth an increasing amount of points so upgrading your carriages improves your score.

Earlier I mentioned that there are four bonus actions (or action enhancements) and that you can choose to execute any one of them during your turn. These four actions are: (1) draw two cards instead of one, (2) play two cards instead of one, (3) discard and replace all six face up cards before drawing your card, or (4) upgrade to the next carriage level with a route that's up to two cards short of the listed requirement. A large part of the strategy in the game hinges upon which of these enhancements you choose on each of your turns.

The game continues until one player has either placed all of their houses or upgraded to the final carriage. All players get the same number of turns so if the first player satisfies one of the end conditions then all other players get one final turn but if the last player satisfies one of the end conditions then the game ends immediately. At that point you add up the values of your carriage plus all of your bonus chips and subtract one point for each unplayed house to calculate your score.


Thurn and Taxis is a very nice light to medium weight strategy game. It's aimed squarely at families and casual gamers and I think it hits its mark. Clearly the Spiel des Jahres committee agrees with me there. They tend to select games that are attractive and simple to play, which play in about an hour and offer a relatively high number of strategic options. They also tend to favor games that offer relatively little direct confrontation between players. Thurn and Taxis is exactly the type of game they look for.

I have played Thurn and Taxis with two, three, and four players and I can say that it works well across the range. This is to be expected for a game that has so little player interaction. That isn't to say that there is no player interaction at all. A good player will pay attention to what his opponents might be looking for and take advantage of opportunities to deprive them of key cards. It's also very important to build your routes as efficiently as possible and in such a way as to always leave yourself as many good choices as possible.

If you're looking for another deep gamer's game like Puerto Rico then this isn't the game for you but if you're looking for a very enjoyable lighter game that offers enough strategic potential to keep it interesting over repeated plays then look no further. It's been a huge hit with both my family and my gaming group. I'm quite happy to play this game any time.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

You Guessed It: Game Night

Another great turnout to another great game night.

When I arrived, some people were already in the middle of a game of Thurn and Taxis and some others were sacrificing one another to the zombies in Mall of Horror so I decided to start reading the rules to Rum & Pirates which we played as soon as the Thurn and Taxis game broke up. Rum & Pirates is a very nice game where players move their pirates around a board collecting tokens that are worth "honor points" at the end of the game. (Apparently there is honor among thieves after all. Who knew?) The board is made up of a 3x3 grid of tiles that are randomly laid out at the beginning of the game, meaning that each game will be slightly different. That sounds cool (and it is) but to be honest, it really doesn't add all that much variation to each game since each tile contains more or less the same things (a network of paths between various goal spaces). Still they are each slightly different so it does change things just a bit. There's some luck involved (mostly in the form of random die rolls) but I didn't find the luck to be overwhelming, particularly for a family game, which this clearly is. All in all, I found it to be a very enjoyable game which I am anxious to play again.

Next up for me was another brand new game: Masons by Leo Colovini. Colovini has earned a reputation for dry, brain-burner games. His games tend to be hit and miss for some. For instance, I really liked his games Carolus Magnus, Magna Grecia and Cartagena but I wasn't so keen on Bridges of Shangrila or Submarine. I think with Masons he's got another winner. The game has a similar feel to the old pencil and paper child's game Boxes. On each turn players plunk down walls and whenever they enclose an area (complete a city) it is scored. The difference is that when you complete a city, all players get an opportunity to score so the object is to arrange things so as to maximize your potential to score while minimizing that of your opponents. We rushed through the rules in our hurry to begin playing and we missed one of the very important ending conditions which resulted in our game dragging out much longer than it should have. Had we played the game correctly it would have been a very good experience but forgetting that rule broke the game. I look forward to playing it again now that we've figured out how it works. Played with the correct rules this is an excellent game.

While all of this was happening, there was a large World of Warcraft game going on. If you like long games with hundreds of little bits, a fantasy setting, and piles of cool plastic miniatures, this is the game for you. It's not my thing. Too long and too many little pieces of cardboard to keep track of. But those that like it in our group really like it. It seems to get played every other week.

Finally, we rounded out the night with a few Loupin' Louie games. If you can find a copy of this game (currently only available in Germany or used on eBay) then you should get it. It's the perfect closer. Super silly and tons of fun.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Come to Game Night!

It's been a while since I've posted our regular open invitation so I guess it's time to do it again. We've been having a great time at our Tuesday game nights and you can too! We'd love to have you join us.

We meet at 5pm every Tuesday night in the cafeteria of Microsoft building 50. Building 50 is right off of the NE 40th exit of I520. If you need access to the building, go to the courtyard on the north side of the building and knock on the cafeteria doors. Here's a map:

An Abbreviated Game Night

Unfortunately, I got "volunteered" to attend a meeting at seven last night so that cut my game night a bit short. Nevertheless, I did get to game from five to six thirty and that was just enough time to get in a couple of games.

Christopher brought Loopin' Louie again so I was able to get in a couple of games while people were arriving. What a great little dexterity game. Just in case you don't know what it is, Loupin' Louie is a kid's mechanical barnstorming game. Louie is the pilot of a small plastic plane which sits at the end of a small counter weighted, swinging boom on a rotating motorized turret. The turret spins around which causes the plane to "fly" in a circle. Each player has a number of disks balanced on top of a "barn". In front of the barn is a small lift that players can move up and down by means of a lever. As Louie approaches your barn you use your lever to push him up and over the barn. Hopefully you'll use the proper force to cause him to travel over one of your opponent's levers and into one of the disks on his barn, knocking it off and allowing the next disk to roll into position. Lose all your disks and you're eliminated for that round. It's fast and simple and incredibly fun.

The main event for me was a game of Castle Merchants. This is a relatively simple game involving tile laying and hand management. Players race to reach castles in order to sell their goods at the best prices. Get to a castle late and you get a poorer price. Players play cards in order to lay terrain tiles on a hexagonal board. Then they can play cards to travel over those tiles. You need to be careful how you build so that you help yourself without putting down a path that aids your opponents. There are also rock slide tiles which you can play in order to block someone off or slow them down. This is a relatively unremarkable game that was made much better than the sum of its parts by the people I was playing it with. The competition was fierce, with the game being decided by a single point. Jason edged me out for the win after he and I (and a little bad luck) had conspired to keep Adam out of the running.

One more game of Loupin' Louie and it was time for me to leave. Hopefully next week I'll be able to stay a little longer.