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James Wallis levels with you

Alas Vegas major arcana complete

John Coulthart has completed all 22 cards of the major arcana of the Vegas Tarot, which he has been working on since the Kickstarter for my forthcoming RPG Alas Vegas finished at the start of March. What’s more he’s put them all up on his website, with descriptions of the inspirations and influences behind them. It’s a stunning piece of work.

The cards were commissioned to be the interior artwork of Alas Vegas, but the reaction to them has been so overwhelmingly positive that we are planning to run another Kickstarter to fund the production of a complete Tarot deck later this year. The plan is to recruit four more artists, each to handle one of the four suits. We’re undecided whether to leave the cards in black-and-white, or to colour them—colour would be the more commercial choice, but the hard-edged starkness of these images almost begs to be left alone. If anything this sharp would ever beg.

Kickstarter backers who pledged for an art print can expect a survey in the near future to ask which of the 22 images they’d like to receive. The rest of you will have to hold your breath for the game itself.


Agricola (other brands of cola are available)

I host a semi-regular games evening, in which we catch up on modern classics that we should have played years ago. Afterwards I usually send an email round to the group with a summary of what we’ve learned—the overview of Tales of the Arabian Nights 3e a few weeks back was one of them. Here’s another, and there may be more.

 * * *

So: Agricola. The #2-rated game on BoardGameGeek, the catalogue of all tabletop games ever. An eurogamic simulation of competitive farming in seventeenth-century Germany. Hundreds of cards, hundreds of little wooden bits, what feels like hundreds of rules. Intimidating.

Thankfully the rulebook is well structured, everything fell into place quickly and within a the first few minutes we made a key realization: this is the game that Lords of Waterdeep nicked its core mechanic from. On your turn you get a choice of actions, but once you’ve chosen one you put a counter on its space on the board and nobody else can choose it for the rest of that round. It makes more logical sense in Lords of Waterdeep, where each action is represented by a building that your faction takes control of, but even though it doesn’t really fit with farming (“what do you mean, nobody else can sow any crops this round?”) it works a lot better in Agricola.

The game quickly switches from a jolly romp of building pastures for sheep and bolting extensions onto your house to make room for your children into a bitter and increasingly tough fight to save your family from starvation, and trying to generate enough extra resources to maybe expand your farm just a little AUGH NO NOW WE MUST EAT MY DAUGHTER’S PET COW OR PERISH or at least pick up a ‘begging’ card with its whopping –3 score for each person you can’t feed.

And then suddenly it’s over and you have to add up your points, and that’s all a bit dissatisfying because it is completely not obvious while you were playing who was actually winning. A bit like Carcassonne, the gameplay is lovely involving clever fun and you can see exactly why people rate it so highly, and then there’s the abrupt shift of gears into working out numbers and adding them up. There’s a scoring pad in the box. It’s that kind of game.

Ben won, I think I’m right in saying. I scraped in second despite having basically starved my entire family to death at the end of round 2. Kevan misinterpreted one of the scoring rules and although he played a blinder and was set up to outbreed and outfarm us all, ended up third because he’d not built enough fields. That kind of game.

It is brilliant, though. The game is beautifully balanced, and it quickly becomes apparent that where it’s balanced is on a knife-edge. The complexity is perfectly structured, the metaphors hold together so you feel you’re building a farm instead of juggling numbers and bits of wood, and although the only direct competition is for the unique resource spaces, it’s enough to stop the game ever feeling like everyone’s playing solo on the same board.

We were playing the introductory ‘family’ version, and we all came away with a suspicion that the more complex versions (its cards are included in the basic box) might actually be easier to play without everyone starving to death each turn, and there might be more variety in playing it with four or five people. It’s one of those games that will improve enormously when you’re au fait with the structure and the way it unfolds, or at least when you’re playing with people who are.

Ben had to shoot off after that, so Kevan and I played some two-handed Love Letter. I have played a lot of LL in the last week, and I think we can conclusively say it’s a 3-4-player game. It works for two but it’s not enormously satisfying, and the card-mix pretty much guarantees that you never get to the end of 16-card deck. Still clever, still fun, still massively in the lead for the game I play the most this year, but nowhere near as compelling—or as tactical. But that’s not going to break my habit of carrying it with me in my laptop bag, next to my hip-flask. That sort of game.


Hyper Camp: gaming is an island

Hudøy is a small island in the Oslo Fjord, about eighty kilometres south of Oslo itself. A five-minute boat-trip from the shore, it lies on the western side of the channel: a low rocky jigsaw-piece measuring about one kilometre by two, covered in light woodland and a collection of wooden buildings of various sizes: meeting-rooms, eating-halls, dormitories. It is owned by the City of Oslo, and for most of the summer it is used as a holiday camp for disadvantaged children from the capital.

For the last two years Hyperion, the federation of Norwegian gamers, has rented the island for a week in the summer to create Hyper Camp, an—actually I can’t think of a single word that covers what Hyper Camp is. A getaway for around a hundred games players, thinkers and designers aged 14–24, a training ground, a summer camp, a peer-bonding session, an away-week for the future loci and Lokis of the games world. Whatever it is, there should be more like it.

Approaching Hudoy

Hyperion arranges for experts and tutors to visit the camp: where they can’t source them locally they fly them in. Flying in for Hyper Camp 2013 were me and Dr Simon McCallum; we’d met at a DiGRA conference a couple of years before and had bonded over cricket. Cricket was about the only thing that Hyper Camp didn’t offer, though I’m sure if we’d proposed it we’d have got volunteers for a couple of teams.

I was there to run workshops on board-game design and RPG design. Other activities included larps and larp workshops ranging from equipment-making to prosthetic make-up, e-sports, plus miniature gaming, roleplay, and even how to run organisations like Hyperion. Simon had brought an Oculus Rift dev-kit which his students had rigged with a Kinect, a Wii balance board and a Wiimote to create a proper sense of embodiment in the virtual world: being able to move your arms and see them move in an immersive VR world brings a whole new dimension of being-there to the experience. In the evening there were larps.

Larp workshop

The students I had for my game-design workshops were excellent. Norway doesn’t have much of a home-grown tabletop games industry, and the people at the RPG workshop were only able to name three Norwegian-produced RPGs, at least one of them out of print, and most of the play seems to be big-name US games like D&D, Pathfinder, Shadowrun and Warhammer FRP (more second-edition than third, interestingly). But there were intelligent questions about crowd-funding and self-publishing. This is not an inward-looking scene. The questions I get most often in the UK and USA, about getting material published for existing games, didn’t come up.

The board-game workshop was particularly strong. Each of the three groups produced a game that was intelligent, tactical and not obviously based on anything I’d seen before. Admittedly my understanding of the design and play were compromised by the fact I don’t speak or read Norwegian (everyone at Hyper Camp spoke English to a remarkably high degree so I could lecture in my mother tongue—this is an incredible privilege for native English speakers visiting Scandinavia, and an indictment of the standard of foreign-language teaching in the UK) but people seemed to be having fun, and the critiques were positive and useful. I dont know if I’d have recommended any of them to a publisher, but if I spoke better Norwegian who knows?

Game design workshop at Hypercamp

I am thoroughly impressed with Norwegian gamers. In my earlier post I described how Hyperion is able to exist, but what I didn’t talk about is the effect this has on Nordic gaming culture. There’s a cohesion there, a community and a sense of communication that I’ve only found in a few other places—Ireland comes to mind, but in Ireland it’s been brute-forced through an extraordinary collection of conventions and local clubs and societies. In Norway the state seems to have gone out of its way to make this kind of networking arise organically from the needs of the group. I’m not sure if it’s cultural or political, but it’s wonderful.

Hudøy isn’t plush. The beds were small and a little spartan: the loos were earth-closets, the food was basic. Norway may have the third-largest sovereign wealth fund in the world but that doesn’t mean its inhabitants live like royalty. But it all adds to the sense that Hyper Camp is a removal from the ordinary world and from regular constraints: this is a place where new ideas can be thought, new projects can be planted, and new worlds can be shaped into existence.

Hudoy main buildings

I had a fanboy moment: I met Anita Myhre Andersen, the creator of the legendary larps 1942 and 1943—the last of which caused her to be banned from entering Belarus for life. 1942 is featured in the book Nordic Larp: it was a week-long recreation of a Norwegian village under the Nazi occupation, heavy not only on realism but also on resonance: some of the participants played their own parents and grandparents. Just reading about it is extraordinary; playing in it must have been life-changing. It’s the kind of experience I’d love to bring to the UK, and I have a few ideas about how. Fingers crossed.

tl;dr More of this sort of thing everywhere, please.

Sunset on Hudoy

Thanks to the organisers and volunteers of Hyper Camp for inviting me, Felix Vaager of Hyperion for being an excellent host, and particular thanks to amazing Hyperion volunteer Thomas for driving me at great speed to Oslo after I missed my train.


Fjord Escort: Hyperion and Hypercamp

I run a workshop on board-game design, paper-prototyping and the iterative process. It lasts between two and four hours, and involves small groups of people concepting and designing a game, watching others playtest it, listening as they critique it and—if there’s time—working through that criticism to create a revised version. I’ve run it three times already this year (once for a group of students, once at an academic conference, and once is under NDA—sadly, as it was a good one) and it always gets great feedback. Most importantly it’s always different: not just the type of games that people devise but their subjects and the ambition they bring to it.

At one university recently I watched a very talented group of student designers crash and burn because they couldn’t reconcile the game they wanted to make—an ambitious narrative card-game based around playing out a court case—with either the brief for the project or the amount of time they had: their prototype had literally nothing playable in it. I’ve seen the same thing happen several times and it drives one of the central messages of the exercise: if you don’t start with a core of good gameplay, a structure or a mechanic to act as your nucleus, then you’ve got nothing to hold it together and your parts will fly off in all directions.

And sometimes it produces a game that’s really interesting. When I was a lecturer on the BSc Computer Games Development course at the University of Westminster I’d make my students a standard offer: if I was sufficiently impressed with their board-game I would introduce them to a suitable publisher for it. It only happened once, and I couldn’t get a publisher to bite (I suspect the game was a bit component-heavy, to be honest) but still it was an exciting and fun result, and a very impressive day’s work.

Anyway, as you may have gathered from earlier blogposts and the fact that Nordic Larp won the Diana Jones Award last year I ‘m very excited by what’s going on in the Scandinavian games scene in the last few years. There are some really interesting schools of design (‘Jeepform’ is the one that everyone’s heard of but there are more), and their larps lead the world in terms of development and scope. Perhaps most interestingly, they’ve put a lot of time and work into making games a recognised and legitimate cultural form in their countries. Whether or not you believe games are art, you’ve got to see the potential benefits in making games companies and games events able to access government-backed cultural funding and resources.

There’s an organisation in Norway called Hyperion. It’s a federation of games clubs and players from all over the country, mostly covering tabletop games and larps. It has tens of thousands of members, and because of that it is able to receive around two million kroner (£220,000/US$340,000) in annual funding from central and local government to support its activities. It distributes these funds as well as organising activities that I can mostly describe as Way Cool.

The money mostly comes from taxes on gambling, and is given to gaming organisations in the same way that sports organisations are funded. Hyperion has offices and paid staff (though not many—it’s not a huge or rich organisation). And one of the things it does is to organise Hypercamp, an annual week-long summer camp for around a hundred young games designers and students, aged about 14-24, on Hudøy, an island in the Oslo Fjord about fifty miles south of the capital.

Hypercamp offers sessions on larp design, costuming and cosplay, make-up, e-sports, miniatures gaming, stage make-up and more. In the evening people larp or play board-games or roleplay, or swim or chat or sing. And the camp also runs workshops on designing and prototyping board-games and RPGs. Enter stage left, clutching a boarding-pass, me.

That’s what I’m doing as I type this: I’m travelling to Hypercamp as a guest of Hyperion, to run my board-game workshop. I am hugely honoured to be asked, and wild pegasi couldn’t have kept me away. An island! In a fjord! With the descendants of Vikings!

I won’t be able to upload this post until I’m back in the UK, so by the time you read this I’ll be in the bosom of my family again. Expect a post-mortem with pictures. A figurative post-mortem, I hope.

How was your week?


A tale of Tales of the Arabian Nights

Tom Armitage tries to become un-lost in Tales of the Arabian Nights

Last night Tom, Martha, Ed, Kevan and I spent three hours exploring the world of Tales of the Arabian Nights (3rd edition, Z-Man Games 2009). It was memorable. TOTAN is not a great game, it’s certainly not a gamey game, but it’s an extraordinary thing: a colossal, intricate and beautiful story generator with a board. It is the work of a mad genius, who you will encounter on table B and you should probably choose to beat him soundly.

Stories were told: comedies, tragedies, and a great deal of laughter at the misfortune of others. At one point I had become scorned, so I opted to undertake a long pilgrimage to serve penance for my deeds (and remove the negative status and its equally negative modifiers). The very next turn—having not yet started the pilgrimage—I became scorned again. Tom spent most of the game imprisoned, and having finally got out of prison he immediately became lost. Ed was simultaneously respected and scorned, and crippled, and envious which meant he had to rob everyone he met. Martha attacked almost everything which got her outlawed, and then she became accursed and grief-stricken, possibly as a result. People became amazingly rich and then astoundingly poor, often in quick succession. By the end Kevan was an ape with a flying carpet and I was insane. You may understand why.

It’s not a game that rewards tactical play. I’m not sure there are any tactics at all, it’s more a matter of keeping track of all your various skills and statuses. TOTAN is basically a collection of really, really clever mechanics and a brilliantly written book of 2600 individual storylets, and a lot of gorgeous components, that just about hang together to make a game. The main problems with the first edition—the lack of a sense of competition, the lack of interaction between players—are actually worse in this version, and the fourteen reaction matrices, mind-boggling in their complexity twenty-five years ago, seem now to beg for a nice bit of Javascript to sort it all out. But in the thick of play it hardly seems to matter, and it’s still got the rule that if you are grief-stricken (a bad thing), have the Storytelling skill and are in the same space as another player then you can make them grief-stricken as well. That more or less sums up the game: it’s kind of a pointless rule, and it doesn’t come into play very often, but it makes me grin every time I think of it.

Kevan snuck in a crafty win just as we were about to break for the evening, despite or perhaps because he had been turned into an ape. If there are tactics then I suspect he was the person who found them. I also suspect he may be keeping them to himself.

Would play again in a heartbeat, but then it’s a game that could have been designed for me and I played my copy of the first edition to death in the late 80s. Unique, quite bonkers, and delirious fun.


Games on Business Cards, part 2

I just ran out of business cards.

This is hardly earth-shaking news, I know, but I have a tradition that whenever I print a new set of business cards I put something new on the back. It’s always a game, it’s always about business cards and—obviously—it has to be small enough to fit on the back of a standard 85 x 55 card.

This is the kind of thing I do for fun.

The new game is called ‘Fill My Position’ and it’s based on a variant of the core mechanic of the Book Game, better known these days as Apples to Apples. The key difference is that there’s no hidden cards in play, and I’ve also built in a role-playing element and a borrow from the classic TV show ‘Blind Date’. In 150 words. Here it is:A game on the back of a business card, by James Wallis

‘Fill My Position’ replaces ‘Here On Business’, the game on my last run of cards. HOB is an actual RPG stripped back to its bare essence, playable in half an hour, and you can see it here.

I’m always amazed that more games designers, writers, poets, artists and other creatives don’t do this, putting examples of their work on their business cards. It’s a portable portfolio, a piece of you in your potential client’s pocket, a literal calling card.

Go on. Have a go.


Viva Alas Vegas

John Coulthart has delivered more of his amazing artwork for the Alas Vegas major arcana, and I can’t resist showing it off. As with the last set of cards, these aren’t the finished versions, but I am still overjoyed with how they’re turning out.

Click through for larger versions:

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Diana Jones Award 2013 shortlist

I administer the Diana Jones Award ‘for excellence in gaming’. This is its thirteenth year, and we’ve just released the shortlist for the 2013 award. I think it’s an outstanding collection of items, and since I don’t have access to the actual DJA website to update it right now, I’m throwing the press release up here so there’s a URL I can link back to.

Enjoy.

The DIana Jones Award trophy30th May 2013

 SHORTLIST FOR 2013 DIANA JONES AWARD ANNOUNCED

A card-game, an RPG, a book, a convention and a web series vie for hobby-gaming’s most exclusive trophy

From a list of nominations that included traditional board-games, card-games, miniatures games and role-playing games, as well as events, books about games and gaming, and for the first time a PhD thesis, the secretive committee of the Diana Jones Award has built a shortlist of five items that it believes best exemplify ‘excellence’ in the field of hobby-gaming.

The Diana Jones committee is proud to announce the shortlist for its annual Award for Excellence in Gaming:

Dog Eat Dog, an RPG by Liam Burke, together with the Asocena supplement
Published by Liwanag Press
‘Dog Eat Dog is a game about colonialism that skilfully brings issues of violence and assimilation to the fore. A lightweight economy forces the native players to continually make agonizing decisions and the colonial player to be an utter dick. The Asocena supplement includes “setting hacks” that move the action from a player-created fictitious island to real-world settings – Italy under German occupation, for example – which shows off the game’s true potential as a tool for empathy and understanding.’

Love Letter, a card game by Seiji Kanai
Published by AEG
‘A game like a fine watch mechanism: tiny, intricate and beautiful.’

Metatopia, a games convention in Morristown, New Jersey
Organised by Double Exposure, Inc.
‘Metatopia is a sui generis experience, in which game designers pay the con to demo their games for alpha gamers (who pay less for tickets, as they’re the “attraction”) and/or experienced alpha designers. It’s half retreat, half academic conference, half workshop, half game convention.’

Playing at the World, a book by Jon Peterson
Published by Unreason Press
‘A thorough, scholarly account of the history of hobby gaming in general and Dungeons & Dragons in particular. It convincingly traces the roots of D&D’s core mechanics all the way back to chess, its tropes through fantasy fiction and mythology, and its community back to the wargaming societies that formed at the turn of the last century. Peterson’s book is a must-read for anyone in the industry.’

Tabletop, a web series created by Wil Wheaton
Produced by Geek ‘n’ Sundry
‘Tabletop has brought a new energy and humour to the board-game field: its blend of good humour and gameplay is pitch-perfect and has introduced a range of titles from modern classics to indie RPGs to thousands of new players. The games hobby could not want a better public face than Wil Wheaton.’

 

PRESENTATION

The winner of this year’s award will be announced and the Diana Jones trophy will be presented at the annual Diana Jones Party, which will be held at the Cadillac Ranch, 39 West Jackson Place, Indianapolis, at 9pm on August 14th – the night before the Gen Con games convention opens to the public. All games-industry professionals are invited to attend.

 

ABOUT THE AWARD

The Diana Jones Award for Excellence in Gaming was founded and first awarded in 2001. It is presented annually to the person, product, company, event or any other thing that has, in the opinion of its committee, best demonstrated the quality of ‘excellence’ in the world of hobby-gaming in the previous year. The winner of the Award receives the Diana Jones trophy.

The Diana Jones Committee is a mostly anonymous group of games-industry alumni and illuminati, known to include designers, publishers, cartoonists, consultants, and those content to rest on their laurels.

Past winners include industry figures such as Peter Adkison and Jordan Weisman, the role-playing games Nobilis, Sorcerer, and Fiasco, the board-games Dominion and Ticket to Ride, and the website BoardGameGeek. This is the thirteenth year of the Award.

More information is available at the Diana Jones Award website or at the Award’s Wikipedia page.

 

CONTACT
For more information you can contact a representative of the DJA committee directly: committee@dianajonesaward.org


Baron Munchausen rides again

Lock up your wine cellars! The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen is back in print, thanks to the good works of the Mayan god Chaahk and his representatives in the home counties, Lightning Source print-on-demand.

This is a reprint of the second-edition paperback, the so-called ‘Wives and Servants’ edition originally released in 2008, with a couple of typos fixed and a new ISBN. Copies of that and the first edition were selling for ludicrous prices on Amazon (seriously, $300+ wtf) and when an international media figure told me he couldn’t afford to buy the book I figured it was time to do something. The reprint is on sale at many online bookshops but I recommend the Book Depository: the price is decent, they ship all over the world, and I make slightly more per sale there than from Amazon and elsewhere. Cover price is £11.99/€13.99/$17.99.

Baron Munchausen 2e cover(The 2008 edition was released in three versions: the limited-edition hardback Gentleman’s Edition; the softcover Wives’ and Servants’ Edition; and the Difference Engine number 3 digital edition. They are almost identical, except for a salacious illustration in the hardback which does not appear in the cheaper versions, lest it corrupt and deprave any of the more sensitive genders or the lower orders who might glimpse it.)

Because it’s print on demand I’m not offering this to regular games distributors: the margins don’t make it possible. However if you’re a retailer who’d like to order some copies then get in touch and we’ll work something out.

Work continues on the third edition of Baron Munchausen’s immortal game, with new material co-written with Alexandr Munchausen, a descendent of the Baron who by an extraordinary coincidence I met at Spiel 2012—a story which you will doubtless hear more in the coming months. Publication: sometime after Alas Vegas. Which I haven’t forgotten.


Alas Vegas tarot cards—a first look

Here are the first four images that John Coulthart has created for the Alas Vegas tarot.

For some reason Kickstarter isn’t letting me insert images directly into my update posts, so I’m posting these here mostly so I can embed a link to them.

They’re all still works in progress. In particular we’re still discussing borders and typography. But this gives you a good idea of how the end results will look. I am a very pleased and excited man.

The Magician:

magician

The High Priestess: 

02

The Empress:

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The Wheel of Fortune:10

If you’re interested in getting the latest updates about Alas Vegas but you didn’t subscribe to the Kickstarter, there’s a mailing list you can subscribe to by sending an email to alas-vegas+subscribe@googlegroups.com.