Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Free Games Friday at Tasty Minstrel Games

Tasty Minstrel Games is gearing up for the release of its first two games, Terra Prime and Homesteaders. I'm excited about both of these games: I helped playtest Terra Prime, and Homesteaders just looks like the kind of game Helen and I will love. The photos (and video!) of the games look great; Tasty Minstrel went all-out to produce a pair of quality products. Both games are currently available for pre-order at great prices (I've already placed my order!), and TMG hopes to ship them in mid-autumn of this year. (To pre-order, follow the video link and scroll down.)

As part of their startup promotions, TMG is hosting Free Games Friday: every Friday they give away a free board game to someone randomly selected from their email newsletter subscribers. The games are from TMG founder Michael Mindes' own collection, and there are some good ones in there. I'd be participating in that, but I already own most of them myself!

I'm posting about all this for several reasons. First, I think these are going to be fine games, well produced, and as I said above, the pre-order prices can't be beat. Second, if they continue as they have started, TMG will be producing a line of games of similar quality, and I want to see that happen. Third, the TMG developer (and designer of Terra Prime) is my good buddy Seth Jaffee, so I'm doing all I can to help Seth and Michael promote their business. And finally... well, Helen wants one of their plush dragons, and apparently I can get one for her if I post about Free Games Friday in this blog!

Now, I wonder what the expiration date is on that old bag of Dragon Chow that's stashed in the garage...

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Battle of the Bands!

Last weekend was pretty busy. On Saturday I had a three-hour gig with the Mission Gold Jazz Band down in Monterey. That went very well; the band had fun, and the audience did too: we had people dancing whose ages ranged from the teenagers manning the food booths up to the senior citizens.

Sunday I drove back to Monterey again, for the Monterey Dixieland club's "Battle of the Bands." Monterey holds a three-day jazz festival, the "Jazz Bash by the Bay", every year in March. Bands appear by invitation only. For their 30th anniversary in 2010, they decided to hold a competition to select one "wild card" band to appear at the Jazz Bash in 2010. Four bands competed, and I was in two of them.

One of my bands was brand-new: Valerie Johnson and her King Bees. Sunday was our premiere performance. But I have played with Val and nearly everyone else in the group before, and it's always good music and great fun. Val sings songs ranging from naughty novelty songs, to the blues à la Bessie Smith, to gospel. She's the best jazz singer I know. You can hear Val sing with the Creole Syncopators here: Valerie Johnson: Good Tunes.

My other band was the Mission Gold Jazz Band, a group I've been performing with for over 15 years. We've had our ups and downs during those years, but bandleader John Soulis has always tried to keep to the King Oliver / Lu Watters two-cornet style. After 15 years I can play a lot of these tunes in my sleep; but I don't, because a really rockin' two-cornet band is (in my opinion, anyway!) considerably more exciting than, say, the SuperBowl.

Sunday's challenge for me was that I was playing trombone with the King Bees, and cornet with Mission Gold. Now, I'll tell you a secret: playing a brass instrument is an unnatural act. It takes considerable development of the embouchure (the muscles around your mouth and in your lips) to be able to do it at all. Switching between a low-register instrument like the trombone, and a high-register instrument like the cornet, adds a whole new layer of challenge to it. I've been asked how the hell I do it, more than once, by other brass players. (Usually I answer, "Badly.") On Sunday, I had fifteen minutes to jump off the stage after the King Bees' set, run and change my yellow-and-black shirts for the MGJB's button-down shirt and tie, run back and move my stands and horns around, and tighten up my chops for cornet work. Twice. Believe me, I was tired when it was all over.

I'm sorry to report that the King Bees seemed to be under a curse that day. We didn't get to rehearse because we come from scattered areas around California; Sunday was the very first time we had all played together. Half the band was late to the first set—well, we started only a minute or two late, but they literally ran from their car onto the stage, pulling on shirts as they came; no chance to settle down and focus on music. Then the sound system went bad on us; we couldn't hear each other and nobody but me could hear Val (I was standing next to her).

Nevertheless the band performed well, on the whole. I think the audience didn't realize what level of musicianship they were hearing, some of the time. One tune finished with a spot-on ending that most bands would have had to write out and carefully rehearse; the King Bees just pulled it out of the air. And in the second set we played a tune that the reed player had written out during the break for the benefit of the rhythm section. It was "Never Swat a Fly", in honor of the swarms of bugs we all endured. That tune came off perfectly, again as if we'd rehearsed it. (Side note: I actually did suck down a bug at one point, and had to spit it out again before I could continue playing—bleah! It really wasn't the best conditions I've ever performed in!) The King Bees will be making appearances at other festivals in future, and as we settle in I expect great things.

Mission Gold, on the other hand, had a great day. We did get to rehearse beforehand, for weeks, and we'd had that three-hour gig the day before. We were in top form, and if I may say so, we blew the audience away. Mission Gold won the Battle of the Bands by count of ballots, but I think we could have won it by simple acclamation: we were the only band for whom the audience broke into applause simply because the judges mentioned our name.

So that means that the Mission Gold Jazz Band will appear at Dixieland Monterey's Jazz Bash by the Bay, March 5-7, 2010, along with a host of other fine bands. I expect to have a blast.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Pacificon 2009: Other Games

We got to try several new (to us) games at Pacificon, and some of them were noteworthy. Here's a quick rundown on the good ones:

Endeavor: I'd been hearing buzz about this game, and it seems to be justified. Endeavor is an appealing combination of worker placement and area control. That's not an unusual set of mechanics these days (see Royal Palace below), but I usually enjoy this genre and Endeavor had some interesting additional mechanics. It is also a "building" game, where you start with few resources and capabilities and try to build them up over the course of the game, and this is another pattern that Helen and I like. In that regard Endeavor felt much like Through the Ages: you need to develop in several different categories at the start of the game, but it's difficult to do so in a quick-yet-balanced fashion. The start-up process is slow, but there seems to be a powerful snowball effect that isn't apparent in the first couple of rounds. Endeavor hasn't leaped to the top of my must-have list because other games we own (especially Goa) offer a similar experience. But it is also different enough from those other games to stand on its own, and we may well pick up a copy one day.

Royal Palace: This is another game of worker placement + area control, but this one reminded us more of Louis XIV. Partly it's the theme, since both are set in the courts of France. But both offer bonuses to the player with the most workers in each location. An interesting twist is that workers are removed from some areas when they are used, so the area control aspect is very fluid. It is possible for every player to have the majority in a given area in succession, as each takes their turn. But unused workers remain, and in some areas workers remain even if used, so it's also possible to build up a big advantage and keep it. Helen commented (and I think I agree—it didn't hurt my opinion that I won our four-player game!) that while she prefers Louis XIV, Royal Palace has the strong advantage of being a good two-player game. I think we will want a copy of this.

Glory to Rome: Helen tried this one and enjoyed it so much, she practically dragged me by the collar to have me try it. I think she was right. This is a card game similar to San Juan and Race for the Galaxy: the salient feature is that every card has multiple uses, but you can use only one of the options for each card. In GtR the cards can be used as resources for building buildings, to trigger actions (such as building, acquiring resources, or cashing them in), or simply stashed away for their face value in victory points. Also as in San Juan and Race for the Galaxy, when a player chooses an action all the other players have a chance to take that action as well. The bottom line: this game has fairly simple rules yet offers many options. Player interaction is high and can lead to a certain amount of chaos, but in a shortish game like Glory to Rome that's okay. Copies of Glory to Rome are rare and are currently expensive. But rumor has it that many more copies exist and are waiting to be delivered into retail channels, so we'll be patient. We will definitely acquire this one when we can.

The Stars Are Right: We are not usually fans of Steve Jackson's card games, which are far too light and chaotic for our taste. The Stars Are Right looks like a typical SJ game, with irreverently cartoony artwork of Cthulhu and his sanity-threatening buddies from H. P. Lovecraft's horror stories. But this game was not actually designed by Jackson, and it has some genuine depth to it: it's what Helen calls a "chewy" game. Like Glory to Rome, the cards have multiple uses; unlike Glory to Rome, there's an array of tiles on the table (the "constellations in the sky") that can be manipulated with your cards, and this gives the game an element of spatial thinking that's missing from most card games. We bought a copy in the dealer's room, and we've been enjoying it.

Martian Rails: We're fans of the Empire Builder crayon rail series, and we could not resist adding this new entry to our collection. It's notable for its "spherical" map: Lunar Rails also has a spherical map, but the one in Martian Rails is easier to deal with. The designer combined the areography of the real, modern Mars with Schiaparelli's illusory canals and with locales and references from classic science fiction: Burroughs, Weinbaum, Clarke, Bradbury, and more. It's practically worth the price of the game just to study the map, but it is also fun to play. The extreme terrain of Mons Olympus and Valles Marineris are there, and pose some unique and entertaining challenges.

Pacificon 2009: Rottweiler

This Labor Day weekend Helen and I trekked off to Pacificon for three days of intensive gaming. Happily, Pacificon really isn't much of a trek for us: it's about 10 minutes from home, so we could spend all day and half the night at the con and still sleep in our own beds. But because we did game late every night, we we're pretty bushed by the end. (That, and an unexpectedly busy week, makes this a late posting.)

A primary goal for me was to get in a few live playtests of Rottweiler. I'd hoped for three, but got two, which wasn't bad at all. (Lesson learned for future: schedule stuff like this in advance. Trying to get pickup sessions together is unreliable and time-wasteful.) Both sessions went very well, all things considered. I had some experienced players and some newbies; some but not all of the experienced players had seen a prior version of the Rottweiler map. Overall, both sessions "worked": nothing was clearly broken. The balance of the various starting positions wasn't perfect, but of course I don't expect or need it to be; I just need it to not be too horribly unbalanced. Game lengths were a bit shorter than I expected, lasting about two hours or a little less each. I am considering adding a few more empty city markers to extend the game another round or two.

There were some parts that didn't work as well as I'd like. One new feature continues to be troublesome. I've tried a number of variations for it. One such sounds good on paper, but is rarely used in practice—and given that, why bother having the feature at all? Another does get used simply because its rules pretty much require it; but it does not foster competition or interaction among the players, so again it feels pretty pointless to me. I would happily abandon the whole notion, but it's something the publishers are interested in, so I feel that I must make a strong effort to make it work. Then if I fail, I can at least list all the reasons why the feature should be dropped.

A few other items need tweaking or abandonment. There are some Rail Baron and Railroad Operations cards that I added for historical theme; there I may be trying too hard. Some are specific to certain historical locations and events, and wind up feeling like unjustified gifts to those players who build in the area. That's okay as a general rule—Service Bounties are like that—but I have to be careful not to make them too powerful (which is unfair) or too weak (which is pointless). It's surprisingly difficult to balance these things: the granularity of VPs and achievements seems too coarse at times. If I lower the difficulty, the reward is suddenly too great. If I raise the reward, it's too much advantage for the player who achieves the goal. Argh! But I have some other knobs I can tweak, so I think I may yet be able to salvage these items. The map itself seems to be much improved. I didn't find anything in these sessions to suggest any urgent changes, although I did find a couple of "typos" to fix up.

I think the next step is to run a few more solo playtests, to try some tweaks to the troublesome issues. If I can make significant improvements, I'll look for more opportunities for live playtests. The publisher has some groups they want to sic onto Rottweiler, and they seemed to want to start this process in September, so I'll try to get something together for them soon.