A Game and a Game and…

Blokus has one of my favorite qualities in a game: the rules are simple, the decisions less so. I played it yesterday for the first time in years, with my almost-six daughter, her similarly-aged friend, and my three-year-old son.

Well, Max, didn’t make all his own decisions. When his turn came round, he chose one of the pieces in his color, and I chose where on the board to place it. Yesterday was a landmark in his game-playing development in that he seemed to understand and respect the concept of waiting for one’s turn.

So what do you do on your turn? You place one of your pieces on the board so that it touches one of your previously-played pieces at one or more corners. It may not touch another of your pieces along an edge. It may touch another player’s piece. You start the game by placing one of your pieces in an empty corner of the square board.

The game ends for you when you cannot legally place any of your pieces. The game ends altogether when no player can play. The aim is to get all your pieces onto the board. Failing that, you do well to be left with only a few small pieces unplayed.

The photos show a four-player game going from first moves to what I’d consider the end of the opening (or the start of the middle game, as the players meet in the middle of the board) to game end. They show how colorful and attractive the board becomes as the game develops. The visual appeal, along with the simple rules, makes this a good kid/family game.

If, after reading the above, you’re interested in buying Blokus or games like it, you have several broad options. One is to buy it from an online game store. I think I bought my copy from Funagain, where Blokus is currently on sale for $20.

I’m glad to say that Blokus and games like it are more widely played and sold than they were when I was doing a lot of game-buying. New online game stores, such as GameSurplus, have sprung up.

I should apologize for my parochial bias in linking only to USA-based sites. But instead I’ll become yet more parochial in linking to a few stores near Roslindale (and hence near Maddie’s friend Hannah). Eureka! is a good puzzle and game store in Brookline. Near Eureka in Coolidge Corner is the toy store Magic Beans, and nearer to us, in Jamaica Plain, is the toy store Boing! I think I’ve seen Blokus in each of them, although I’m more sure about Beans than about Boing.

Then, to return to online retail, there’s always Amazon. The selection of games there is a lot better than I’d have expected (and found) a few years ago. Amazon even has a video promoting Blokus.

Blokus is an example of a game that’s been successful, and has been part of the wider increase in interest in board games. That wider change is worth a post of its own, and will probably get one soon. But right now, I’ll remain specific to Blokus, and remark that there’s a series of Blokus games.

There’s the smaller version, called Blokus Travel or Blokus Duo depending on the edition. (It’s currently available at Eureka! and at the online retailers mentioned above.) There’s Blokus Trigon, and… but you can go to the official Blokus website and find out more.

In closing, Blokus is excellent as a family game, or as a light filler for groups who usually lean toward heavier games. The basic game strikes me as best with its maximum number of 4 players, but I’ve heard positive reports of it for fewer.

Unity Games, the Organization

Unity Games is many things:

  1. An organization of and for players of designer games in Eastern Massachusetts and beyond.
  2. A collection of gaming groups in that area. For example, I used to host gaming at my apartment in Boston’s South End every Wednesday evening.
  3. An series of open (i.e. no invitation required) gaming events.
  4. A discussion forum, implemented as a Yahoo Group.
  5. Another website, unitygames.org.

I think that most UGers would agree with each entry on the above list, although some might add other items, and many would change the order. The first list entry is a rather general definition, and includes a couple of terms that could themselves use clarification. Let’s start with the designer games that UGers play.

[A] broad class of games that generally have simple rules, short to medium playing times, high levels of player interaction, and attractive physical components.[1] The games emphasise strategy, downplay luck and conflict, lean towards economic rather than military themes, and usually keep all the players in the game until it ends.

That definition is from the the Wikipedia article on German-style games The article itself explains the German connection, and presents several alternative terms for the genre. The term designer games is appropriate because the game boxes usually feature the names of the designers.

The other term that might raise questions is organization, which might seem rather heavyweight to describe a collection of people who play games. But, as of today, the Yahoo group has 799 members, and yesterday saw more than 300 people at the 15th open event: that requires organization.

UG, like any organization, has both formal and informal aspects. The formal aspects are things like schedules and policies. For example, Unity Games XV… [was] held Saturday February 7, 2009… at the Woburn Hilton and had a pageful of policies.

Informal, or cultural, aspects of UG include an emphasis on teaching games to others. When I first went to meetings of a UG group (even before UG as such existed) I was impressed by how willing the members were to teach games, and how good their explanations were.

UG has grown considerably since its founding in 2000. Compare UG XV’s attendance of over 300 with UG I’s attendance of under 50 (which was a little higher than expected).

Organizations are subject to growing pains. Good cultural stuff in particularly likely to suffer, for a couple of reasons. First, there are simply more people, and new people. Second, growth often brings the need (real or perceived) to introduce more formal stuff.

UG has done a remarkably good job of hanging on to its culture. For example, teaching games remains important. This may be partly because it is a particularly viral virtue. If someone teaches you a game, does so well, and appears to enjoy doing so, you may be encouraged to teach others. It’s also because this informal aspect now has a formal counterpart, in the form of a teaching area at UG events. Volunteers sign up to teach particular games at particular times.

Another way in which UG is able to grow is that the gaming groups are autonomous. Anyone can start a group, and announce sessions on the UG Yahoo group. Of course, they don’t have to, and some groups are invite-only.

As UG approaches its 10th anniversary next year, it continues to grown without losing its strengths. Since that seems like a good topic sentence for a closing paragraph, I won’t tack on more paragraphs in further support.

Fun, Games, and Family

Having kids changes everything, including the games one plays. I used to play a lot of board and card games, but the time available for that hobby decreased sharply just over five years ago, when Maddie arrived. I have of course played many games with Maddie, and with her younger brother Max, but those games have been along the lines of Peek-a-Boo or Candyland (the former being the more interesting of those two games).

I’m glad to say that Maddie is now five, and able to play some games for which I actually want to be awake. We’ve played a lot of Rat-a-tat Cat since it arrived as a present for Maddie. The same goes for Labyrinth.

It’ll be a while before we’re playing my favorite game together, but it’s a good start.

Scrabble: A Few Points

Scrabble is a couples’ game. By this, I don’t just mean that it’s best as a 2-player game. I mean the sort of thing that 7-how-7 / steve was getting at when he made these scrabble magnets for Valentines day.

It was silly of me to be surprised when I read about how Scrabble games can go on Facebook. I got the tile-trembling truth from an article by Will Doig. It was shared with me by Matthew Gray, who I know from other, more innocent, board-gaming experiences.

Scrabulous, the Facebook application that allows users to play Scrabble against each other online, has turned Hasbro’s slow, stodgy board game for vocabulary enthusiasts into one of the internet’s sleazier pickup joints

It reminded me to nudge my wife to tell her that it’s her turn on the Scrabulous game we started recently. It is so far my only Scrabulous game. But if you would like some good clean scrabbly fun, let me know.

Finally, here’s a scrabbly quote from Kelly Link’s wonderful story, The Faery Handbag.

Zofia and I played Scrabble all the time. Zofia always won, even though her English wasn’t all that great, because we’d decided that she was allowed to use Baldeziwurleki vocabulary. Baldeziwurlekistan is where Zofia was born, over two hundred years ago… Baldeziwurlekistan is also an incredibly valuable word in Scrabble points, even though it doesn’t exactly fit on the board. Zofia put it down the first time we played…

Zofia kept rearranging her letters on her tray. Then she looked over at me, as if daring me to stop her, and put down “eziwurlekistan”, after “bald.” She used “delicious,” “zippery,” “wishes,” “kismet”, and “needle,” and made “to” into “toe”. “Baldeziwurlekistan” went all the way across the board and then trailed off down the righthand side…

“I used up all my letters,” Zofia said. She licked her pencil and started adding up points.

“That’s not a word,” I said. “Baldeziwurlekistan is not a word. Besides, you can’t do that. You can’t put an eighteen letter word on a board that’s fifteen squares across.”

“Why not? It’s a country,” Zofia said. “It’s where I was born, little darling.”

“Challenge,” I said. I went and got the dictionary and looked it up. “There’s no such place”…

“They call it something else now,” Zofia said. “But I think it’s important to remember where we come from. I think it’s only fair that I get to use Baldeziwurleki words. Your English is so much better than me. Promise me something, mouthful of dumpling, a small, small thing. You’ll remember its real name. Baldeziwurlekistan. Now when I add it up, I get three hundred and sixty-eight points. Could that be right?”

Price-Fixers of Catan

Mayfair Games publishes the English-language versions of Settlers of Catan and its many expansions and sequels. As such, it is the pusher of the gateway drug that got me into “German-style” boardgames a few years ago.

Mayfair now wants to put a floor under the price of its wares. “Retailers should sell Mayfair Games products at no more than a 20% discount off MSRP.” This has sparked an extensive debate on BoardGameGeek.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this is that Settlers has been described as “popular” on a blog as popular as Boing Boing.