Monday, May 10, 2010, 6:13 PM
As has been widely reported, today was my last day at Wizards of the Coast.
It has been a privilege to work with so many wonderfully talented and dedicated individuals over the past fourteen years.
At the risk of forgetting more names than I can remember, here's a list of just some of the amazing folks I've had the honor to sit near at one point or another:
Tim Shields, Rob Voce, Joe Hauck, Judy Holman, Chris Galvin, RE Dalrymple, Monty Ashley, Jason Carl, David Hoppe, Skaff Elias, Andrew Finch and the many others who helped create the innovative Organized Play division and its many programs.
Jim Butler, Rich Baker, Duane Maxwell, and David Eckelberry: thanks for welcoming me to the Alternity team!
I joined an R&D department that already boasted names such as Bill Slavicsek, Jeff Grubb, Ed Stark, Thomas Reid, Kim Mohan, Mike Selinker, Shawn Carnes, Mike Donais, Teeuwynn Woodruff, Wolfgang Baur, Cindi Rice, Keith Strohm, Monte Cook, Sue Cook, Bruce Cordell, Miranda Horner, Julia Martin, Jennifer Clarke Wilkes, Michele Carter, Skip Williams, Penny Williams, John Rateliff, Chris Perkins, and of course Stan! How's that for a challenging situation for a 26-year-old would-be game designer to face?
And then, over the next dozen years, I had the pleasure of helping to welcome plenty of amazing folks into R&D (and the larger company as well): JD Wiker, Rich Redman, James Wyatt, Erik Mona, Jeff Quick, Rob Heinsoo, Jesse Decker, Matt Sernett, Chris Youngs, David Noonan, Logan Bonner, Owen K.C. Stephens, Charles Ryan, Stephen Schubert, Mike Mearls, Stephen Radney-MacFarland, Chris Sims, Peter Schaefer, Peter Lee, Torah Cottrill, Jeremy Crawford, Greg Bilsland, Cal Moore, Steve Winter, Chris Tulach, Scott Larabee, Scott Rouse, Sara Girard, Kierin Chase, Shelly Mazzanoble, Marty Durham, and dozens more whose names will come to me as soon as I hit "submit post."
And then there's all the tremendously talented freelancers who I've been able to help earn a little money doing what they love, such as Rob Schwalb, Ari Marmell, Scott Gray, Alex Jurkat, Ray Vallese, and Dawn Geluso, to name just a few.
Last but not least, I also had the great fortune of working in the same building as my brother Greg, and of course, of meeting my future wife Gwendolyn Kestrel.
I've lived the dream for fourteen years, one month, and nine days. When I think of all the folks who don't even get a fraction of that luck...well, I certainly can't feel sorry for myself for very long.
Many have asked what's next for me. For now let's just leave it as "Answer Hazy. Ask Again Later." Keep your eyes out...you never know where I might show up.
Wednesday, November 11, 2009, 10:07 AM
I've been looking forward to this blog post ever since I decided to talk about my favorite games on the blog. Sadly, I haven't had a chance to play a full game of BSG for a few months (my last game was rudely interrupted by a flooding bathroom, which pretty much ended my gaming for the day).
But that drought came to an end last night, when I played the new Pegasus expansion for the Battlestar Galactica board game, published by Fantasy Flight Games.
To put things in perspective: I find BSG to be the most fun, entertaining, exciting, and tense of the various cooperative board games that have come out since Reiner Knizia's Lord of the Rings revitalized this sub-genre. I've played LotR, Shadows over Camelot, Fury of Dracula, and of course Pandemic--see my separate blog post on that last one--and while I enjoy each and every one of those games, BSG beats them all.
Part of this love is due to the masterful ways in which the game designers (Corey Konieczka, Eric M. Lang, Jeff Tidball, and Mark O'Connor) have captured the essence of the compelling BSG intellectual property. Based on the recent reboot of the venerable sci-fi series, this game represents the best marriage of licensed property and gameplay experience that I've seen in a long time, maybe ever. (TSR's Marvel Super Heroes game comes to mind as a potential competitor.)
In a nutshell: Each player takes the role of one of the significant characters from the show, such as Adama, Roslin, Baltar, or Starbuck. (The Pegasus expansion includes additional characters, some of them significant--such as Caprica Six--and others secondary at best, such as Kat or Dualla.) Theoretically, all the players are human members of the fleet, working together to escape the Cylons and survive various crises--from the mundane-but-costly Water Shortages and Looming Elections to the more serious saboteurs and mutinies--long enough to reach Earth. That's the cooperative part.
Of course, it's not quite that simple. One or more of the players WILL turn out to be a frakkin' toaster (or in board game parlance, a traitor). That isn't such a big twist--plenty of cooperative board games use a traitor mechanic--but the twist comes in how the designers match this mechanic to the tropes of the show.
In most games, the traitor's identity is determined (secretly) at the start of the game. That means you know there's a traitor from turn 1, and once you determine a player's loyal, you can trust them for the rest of the game.
But BSG is all about paranoia and turning your trust against you...so the game adds a second phase, roughly halfway through, in which every player receives a second "loyal or traitor" identity card. If EITHER of your loyalty cards indicate that you're a Cylon, it trumps any "you are not a Cylon" card you have.
This means that you can play half the game believing you're on the human side, working loyally and diligently to destroy Cylons and save humanity, only to find out to your horror that you've been on the wrong side the whole time.
This, frankly, is brilliant game design. If you've watched the show, you know that one of its big hooks is the reveal when a seemingly human character learns that he or she is actually a Cylon. To capture that in a relatively simple and straightforward game mechanic is the kind of thing that designers dream of accomplishing.
If that were the only example of matching good design to the IP, the game would be able to hold its head high. But it's only the tip of the iceberg. From specialized character abilities and drawbacks that capture the essence of the characters' identities--Tigh's a drunk, so he has trouble holding on to skill cards, Kat's a stim junkie, so she can't stay in one place for more than a turn--to a truckload of crises drawn straight from the show and translated into challenges that the players must work together to solve, playing this game feels like recreating a season (or more) of the TV show.
While I haven't seen this in person, I'm told that even gamers who haven't watched BSG commonly enjoy the game due to its great design and playability. Your mileage may vary, but I certainly give the game my highest recommendation. It's not the best cooperative game for less-experienced gamers (IMO, that's Pandemic), and you'd better set aside 3-4 hours to get through it, but at the end you'll want to pick a new character and play again.
As for the new Pegasus expansion, by designers Corey Konieczka, Daniel Clark, and Tim Uren, I was also pleased at its gameplay. The new mechanics, while daunting at first glance, proved quite well explained in the rulebook and relatively intuitive to the four experienced BSG players at the table.
Key additions include Cylon leaders as characters (and if you're dubious about being able to play a character who's openly a Cylon, trust that the designers have good answers for that) and a tense new endgame scenario (escaping from New Caprica) that really amped up what can sometimes feel like a foregone conclusion. It also throws in plenty of new Crisis cards, Super Crisis cards, Quorum cards, and even new skill cards, to keep even the basic game scenario feeling fresh and new.
Play BSG a few times before adding the expansion, but if you're looking for new challenges and twists to your BSG game, I definitely recommend picking up Pegasus.
Tuesday, October 13, 2009, 4:36 PM
So we were talking about racial powers yesterday, and we decided that the halfling's racial power--Second Chance, which forces an enemy to reroll an attack--doesn't feel as cool as it should.
I mean, turning a hit (or even a crit) into a miss is really good. So why doesn't the halfling player feel more excited about it?
We came up with two reasons, and then two solutions that don't involve any changes to the rules.
1) The halfling player doesn't know the success chance of the reroll. Compare this to the elf, who knows before he rerolls the attack that he rolled a 4, or a 14.
2) The halfling player doesn't get to do anything. Compare this to, well, pretty much any other racial power, where the activating character gets to roll dice, move his mini, or change a number on his character sheet.
Here are the simple fixes we discussed:
1) Let the halfling player know what the DM rolled on the d20. This concept is anathema to most DMs--that's what screens are for, right?--but it sends a clear signal about the value of forcing a reroll. If the monster beat my AC by 3 by rolling an 18, that's a lot different than if he rolled a 6--in the latter case, using second chance is a pretty bad choice.
2) Let the halfling player reroll the attack. This is getting into crazytown, but it gives the player the illusion that his fate is in his control. (Yes, it violates the basic rule that "rolling high is good" but I'm willing to live with that for what is essentially a player feel-good opportunity.)
If you have a halfling in your campaign, I encourage you to try one or both of these ideas out in your game. And if you're playing a halfling, tell your DM politely that Andy said it was OK.
And don't forget to let me know how it worked!
Tuesday, September 29, 2009, 11:37 AM
I recently had the opportunity to play the new expansion for Pandemic (titled 'On the Brink'), so it seemed like the right time to revisit one of my favorite cooperative board games.
As the title would suggest, Pandemic is all about diseases spreading across the globe. Of course, only you (and the other players) can stop this horrible development. It's like a board game version of the 1995 film Outbreak, only without a really expensive cast. I mean, seriously, check it out: Dustin Hoffman, Rene Russo, Kevin Spacey, Cuba Gooding Jr, Donald Sutherland, and Morgan Freeman? How was this movie not excellent?
But anyway, back to the game. Each player takes the role of a disease-fightin' specialist, such as the Medic or Scientist, who has a special ability not shared by the other "characters." (In my last game I played the Dispatcher, which sounds pretty boring--in the Pandemic movie, I'd have been played by Clint Howard and spent my time sitting at a desk eating Twinkies and talking over a headset--but in play can be incredibly powerful as he moves other players around the board.) Together, you roam the globe stamping out disease outbreaks while researching cures to the four deadly plagues menacing the Earth.
Each of the diseases is represented by colored wooden cubes, placed on a map of the world. The more cubes in a city, the nearer you are to another potentially game-ending outbreak. The more cubes on the board, the nearer you are to the disease simply overrunning humanity.
The game has not one but three different ways to lose. This should be a sign to you about the difficulty of winning. In a recent introduction of this game to some friends, we managed to lose in all three ways in consecutive games before finally winning. If you're easily discouraged by losing to cardboard, paper, and tiny wooden blocks, you might want to skip this one.
But once you've managed to cure all four diseases in time, you'll no doubt want a tougher challenge. Thankfully, the game itself allows for easy adjustment of the difficulty so that the hard-core Pandemic expert can still know the joy of losing.
The newly released expansion adds a number of dimensions to the basic game, both refreshing the game for experienced players and adding new challenges for experts.
The core of the expansion is three new "scenarios" to go through. Each one ramps up the challenge in different ways. I've played the virulent-strain scenario (in which each outbreak also results in other catastrophes), but haven't yet tried the five-disease scenario or the bioterrorist scenario (which seems to turn the game into a version of Fury of Dracula, which is not a bad thing.)
But even if you're content with simply curing four basic diseases, the expansion still adds twists. Several new character roles help break you out of familiar play patterns, and an array of new special event cards also change up the game experience. So far, I haven't seen any problems with the new roles--they seem quite competitive with the existing ones, but not overpowered.
I also give kudos to the rules writing and editing, particularly for the expansion. The organization was clear and intuitive, and we always found the answers we needed quickly.
If you enjoy cooperative games, I can't recommend Pandemic enough. The combination of resource management and time pressure makes for a surprisingly tense game, though the endgame tends to be a bit anticlimactic. (You can usually figure out whether you'll win or lose a couple turns before it actually occurs.)
If you haven't yet experienced the glory of cooperative board games, this one's a great place to start. The game play is pretty straightforward, and even folks who aren't hardcore board gamers should be able to understand what's going on.
I can also recommend the expansion, Pandemic: On the Brink. Following up a winner is always difficult, but the designers have delivered an excellent second act. (Now I'm just waiting for Pandemic: The Zombie Apocalypse.)
Tuesday, September 8, 2009, 1:29 PM
Carcassonne is a tile-placement game designed by Klaus-Jürgen Wrede and published in 2000 by Hans im Glück in German and Rio Grande Games in English.
Ultimately, this is a pattern-recognition game, as you seek to build roads, fields, and cities by the canny placement of tiles that expand your portions of the countryside that's being "built" by the game.
I expect that its most diehard fans are also puzzle fans, as there's a distinct jigsaw-puzzle feel to certain game elements. (Beware of following that tendency too far, however: sometimes the piece that fits perfectly in the one empty square in the middle of the board isn't your best play!)
The game also rewards experience--the more you play, the faster you recognize which pieces you need, and the more easily you remember how many of them are likely to show up. Some of the expansions solve this "problem" by introducing weird pieces, but I find those tiles to be curiosities at best and "rewards for luck" at worst--if there's only one perfect tile amidst 70 or 100, the odds of you being the one to draw it when you need it are pretty small.
I had played the game (and many of its expansions/spinoffs) in cardboard form, but it was its appearance on xBox Live Arcade that made it one of my mainstays. Being able to play against reasonably competent computer opponents (the AI's actually pretty solid), the immune-to-human-error scoring (which can be a bit tricky in the normal version), and the instantaneous replay (no more picking up several dozen tiles) combine to make this an excellent 15-30 minute XBLA experience. Lately, I've been playing a couple of games of Carcassonne a day via XBLA for exactly these reasons.
What do you think of Carcassonne?
Read more about Carcassone here...