- Swedish 1960s translation of the Game of Life. I just found a uranium mine. According to Boardgame Geek, there are 13,879 better boardgames than this.
- I bought a Kindle and I like it. Better than reading on my phone. No screen glare. Weeks between recharges. Bigger page.
- As a boy I was shocked to learn that most people have to pay a monthly fee to keep a roof over their heads. I found this to be a horrifically unstable arrangement, similar to staying at a hotel. My parents had never spoken to me about their mortgage loan. I felt that the only monthly expenses anyone should by rights have to reckon with were food and utilities.
- Reading Neal Stephenson’s 90s WIRED essays about stuff that was cutting edge 20 years ago. Very strange.
- Me and Cousin E stumbled into our first Magic the Gathering tournament & got crushed. Found out it was elite level. National champion took part.
- There’s a German brand of athletic braces etc that’s named Bauerfeind, “Farmer’s Foe”.
- Gossamer: “Middle English: apparently from goose + summer, perhaps from the time of year around St Martin’s summer, i.e. early November, when geese were eaten (gossamer being common then).”
- I’ve sung “Rock And Roll All Nite” twice to Cousin E, and he really liked it! Showed his appreciation by turning over and pulling the duvet over his head. Didn’t know the kid was into Kiss!
- Young folks will soon see me as an arrogant and elitist greybeard. Funny how they will have no idea that I was once an arrogant and elitist 15-year-old.
Ascension with its four days off is shaping up to be the geekiest time of the year. This time I had three big events to choose from: the LinCon gaming convention, the Kontur/SweCon scifi convention and the 45th anniversary of the Tolkien Society. Tolkienians do things in nines.
I decided to spend two days at LinCon on the Linköping University campus and one day at Kontur/SweCon in an Uppsala hotel, saving the Sunday for family pastimes.
Here are the games I played at LinCon. And I had lots of free Nepalese tea from the tea bar!
- Through the Ages II (2015). This update of a 2006 civilisation builder is currently rated second-best game on the planet on Boardgame Geek. I enjoyed playing it though I found it too fiddly and counter-intuitive. Also it took six hours for three players including rules run-down and a lunch break. So it’s not for me.
- Biblios (2007). This is a short and sweet abstract game with cards, colours and numbers. The theme, about Medieval monks copying books, is thinly but prettily painted onto the mechanics.
- Innovation (2010). Another civilisation builder, though short and abstract. I taught this favourite of mine to noobs and got beaten twice even though I’ve played the game nearly 40 times.
- Lovecraftesque RPG (2015). In this interesting short-session role-playing game, the group improvises a horror story in the tradition from H.P. Lovecraft using cards. Participants serve as game master, protagonist and assistant game master(s). After each scene, these functions shift one step clockwise around the table, so that last scene’s protagonist becomes the game master, (one of) the assistant game master(s) becomes the protagonist, etc. We got a really good creepy story together about inheriting a closed-down Civil War veteran’s hospital that has more recently served as a mental asylum. Check it out! The PDF is only £10. Also check out the games designed by Simon Pettersson with whom I played!
- Star Realms (2014). Space battle deck-building game. Fun!
- Forbidden Island (2010). Beautifully illustrated re-make of the Pandemic co-op game aimed at kids.
At the convention auction I sold Glass Road, Great Dalmuti, Province, Race For The Galaxy, Space Cadets Dice Duel, Spank The Monkey and Yahtzee. Instead I bought Sid Meier’s Civilization and The Castles Of Mad King Ludwig.
At Kontur/SweCon I chatted with loads of acquaintances, old and new. I also heard interesting interviews with Guests of Honour Kameron Hurley, Ann Leckie and Siri Pettersson. Saladin Ahmed couldn’t come as planned but had sent clips of himself answering questions from con goers, which were interesting to listen to. Good academic talks too: Josefine Wälivaara about the relative absence of queer themes in scifi movies and television, and Jesper Stage about the economics of colonialism in scifi. And I bought a Lois McMaster Bujold paperback from the Alvar Appeltofft Foundation’s huge travelling used-books store.
My next con will be nothing less than the Scifi WorldCon 75 in August, in Helsinki! I learned from its organisers in Uppsala that I’m very likely to be giving a talk about Scandinavian pseudo-archaeology at the WorldCon, and I’ll probably also be on some panels. Everyone around the Baltic, you need to go to Helsinki! Not because of me, but because this is an extremely rare event for geeks in the region, pretty much like the Geek Olympics coming to your home town.
2017 was my fifth LinCon and the second one without my kids — see 2016.
The original roleplaying game, 1974’s Dungeons & Dragons, set the template for a hugely popular genre that persists to this day as RPGs, boardgames (such as Descent) and video games (such as World of Warcraft). The core activity in these games is to enter underground complexes of rooms and tunnels (dungeons), defeat their various inhabitants (dragons, if you’re out of luck) and steal their treasure. The player characters who do this are termed adventurers – or, by some these days, murder hobos.
As you may have noticed, there are very few dungeon-like sites in the real world, and real people who behave like D&D adventurers tend to have extremely short careers. Let’s ignore the murder hobos and look at dungeons from an archaeological perspective, to investigate why they are never seen on Earth.
A typical D&D dungeon is located just beyond the edge of a tract of wilderness, at a convenient commuting distance from a friendly settlement such as a semi-isolated farming hamlet. The first question for an archaeologist is whether the dungeon is inhabited by sentient living creatures. If not, it is either an animal warren (basically a very large anthill) or a tomb.
Apart from magpies, animals aren’t interested in collecting treasures. So let’s look at a tomb. A dungeon is always full of treasure when the player characters reach it, which means that the tomb must be extremely well hidden and unknown to the locals. Why else would the treasure still be there? Tutankhamun’s tomb survived almost untouched because it soon got covered by the backfill from a later, much grander tomb – which was robbed at an early date. And it certainly wasn’t possible for a few adventurers to wander into King Tut’s tomb guided by a map they bought from an old fellah at the coffee house. Carter had to employ a large team of farm workers to shift dirt for months opportunistically before they found the entrance.
Another possibility is that everyone around knows where the tomb is, but that it is tightly guarded, either by the authorities or by supernatural (possibly undead) beings. Since the treasure is still there, we may infer (again) that these guards make it too difficult for a few adventurers to wander into the tomb. You need an army. Archaeologists very occasionally do find treasures in unguarded tombs, and in every single case this comes as a surprise to us. Because if anyone had remembered the location of the treasure, they would have removed it a long time ago.
If instead there are sentient beings living in the dungeon, then to an archaeologist it is simply a settlement site, same in principle as the nearby farming hamlet I mentioned. Archaeologists don’t classify sentients into people and monsters, into good and evil. It isn’t clear to us upon arrival whether we can in better conscience raid the hamlet, the dungeon or more likely neither. We are simply dealing with paired settlements on either side of an ecological boundary. One practices agriculture and has few other riches, the other one does not produce much food but possesses great riches. Being so close to each other, the two communities must be aware of each other and in contact. We can see that any conflicts between them haven’t wiped either of them out so far, so most likely they are economically interdependent. The hamlet probably sells food to the dungeon inhabitants in exchange for treasure. Both communities are in all likelihood highly averse to the other getting wiped out by murder hobos. Such an equilibrium proves the farmers to be too weak to rob the dungeon dwellers and the dungeon dwellers unable or unwilling to farm the land. To an archaeologist, this setup is indistinguishable from a hamlet with a nearby stronghold or monastery.
If instead the dungeon’s inhabitants have only very recently settled there, it becomes difficult to explain why there is treasure in the dungeon. Did the new inhabitants bring it? Or did they defeat a group of strong tomb guardians? Either way, the dungeon is now basically an army encampment, and so again, not a place that four hobos can walk into.
There is also the issue of the underground spaces themselves. Most designers of D&D dungeons have a poor understanding of their physical characteristics. Are the underground passages largely natural caves? Then they will have quite a distinct morphology that differs depending on whether it’s a limestone karst system where a stream has eroded the rock away over millennia, a talus cave where fallen stone blocks have stacked on top of each other and left spaces under and between them, or lava tubes in a volcano. Such morphology is hardly ever recognisable on dungeon maps. Instead the spaces typically seem to have been excavated by means of mining technology, which demands enormous amounts of labour and produces spoil dumps nearby whose volume is about twice that of the dungeon or mine itself. Dungeon designers rarely pay much attention to the difference between natural rock sheets left standing in the dungeon, masonry walls and wooden walls.
Finally the issue of structural longevity. Archaeologists hardly ever encounter underground spaces that haven’t filled up with dirt or rubble. But there is often a sense in D&D that the dungeon is old. Since it is an open volume of air full of functioning doors and traps and hasn’t been flooded by groundwater, there must be magic at work unless someone is there to do continual upkeep and drainage work. And if, as seems to be the rule, the passages are artificial, then the integrity of the ceiling supports is of paramount importance. This is particularly true if the dungeon has been burrowed into earth or forms the basement of a masonry building. The basement of a ruinous castle quickly fills up with rubble unless masonry vaulting has been put in, and then the vaulting is likely groaning under the weight of rubble on the ground floor for which the structure was never engineered.
As you can see, studying archaeology is a pretty effective way to lose the ability to enjoy fantasy literature and roleplaying games not written and designed by archaeologists. But I believe that there are nevertheless pieces of archaeological information that can be used to add verisimilitude to your game scenarios, without making them hopelessly mundane.
- Keltis (2008, travel version, very handy, and Cousin E loves its mathiness)
- Sechs nimmt / Category 5 (1994)
- Deception: Murder in Hong Kong (2014, like Clue + Werewolf) *
- Heimlich & Co. (1984) *
- Taluva (2006) *
- Blokus (2000)
- Carolus Magnus (2000) *
- Qwirkle (2006)
- Telestrations (2009) *
These are mostly short games that you can play repeatedly in one evening. Taluva and Carolus Magnus are a bit longer. A long game that I played thrice was Glory to Rome. All are highly recommended!
Dear Reader, what was your biggest boardgaming hit in 2016?
This past weekend saw my seventh annual boardgaming retreat: 43 hours in good company at a small hotel (in Nynäshamn for the first time), all meals included. My buddy Oscar organises everything. This year we broke the attendance record, with 28 participants, mainly guys in our 30s and 40s. Before Sunday lunch I left early and went to the release event for Karin Bojs and Peter Sjölund’s interesting new book on X-chromosome haplotypes, Swedish male-line descent and genealogy: Svenskarna och deras fäder, “The Swedes And Their Fathers”.
I played thirteen sessions of ten different games in Nynäshamn. To give you an idea of how popular each individual game is, I’ve included its current BGG rank. For instance, Scythe’s 10 means that right now there are only nine boardgames that the largely US-based users of Boardgamegeek.com rate more highly. And they have rated tens of thousands of games!
- 4 Gods (2016). Ranked 4059. Players simultaneously lay a kind of jigsaw puzzle together and put little plastic dudes out to claim land areas. Bit stressful!
- Ave Roma (2016). Ranked 3226. Intricate cube pusher / worker placement ostensibly about the Roman Empire. Interesting worker / initiative mechanic but little to make you care.
- Deception: Murder in Hong Kong (2014). Ranked 289. Mashup of Werewolf, Resistance and Clue. Good with large groups.
- Detective & Co. (1984). Ranked 1329. An early design by Wolfgang Kramer, who won the first of his five Spiel des Jahres awards for this game and went on to design El Grande, Tikal, 6 nimmt and many more. In the deceptively simple Detective & Co, you only know the colour of your own playing piece and anyone can move any piece around the board.
- Glory to Rome (2005). Ranked 117. Intricate card-based logistics game by Carl Chudyk who later released the excellent Innovation. Good fun, not too long!
- Love Letter (2012). Ranked 154. Minimalist card game with few components but a lot of depth.
- Meeple War (2016). Ranked 3381. Light and varied worker placement / war game.
- Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu (2016). Ranked 639. A re-skin of the 2008 hit Pandemic, with Lovecraftian horror added. Both versions are good and you only need one.
- Patchwork (2014). Ranked 38. Competitive tile-fitting game for two. Elegant! This is the game I’m most keen to play again of the ones I learned at the retreat.
- Scythe (2016). Ranked 10. Intricate cube pusher / worker placement / mini war game in the dieselpunk world of amazing Polish military painter Jakub Rozalski. Not enough interaction for my taste.
The Nynäsgården conference hotel has an interesting history that I got wind of when I used the basement service corridor. Its walls are hung with really good 1970s art prints, some of which deal with themes of Labour movement nostalgia. A senior staff member explained that the place was built as an old folks’ home in the 1920s and converted into a study-course facility by the Workers’ Educational Association in 1971. The art was donated to this organisation and was eventually sold to the current private owners along with the whole building. This stuff’s message is not what the current owners want to project (cf. the removal of the statue of the ideal working-class family from in front of Vår Gård in Saltsjöbaden), so they’ve put it in the basement.
There’s a scifi convention in my home municipality near Stockholm this weekend: Fantastika 2016. I’m giving a talk on my Medieval castles project, and I’m also on a boardgame recommendations panel. Below is the list I’m bringing: it’s a selection of my favourites with an emphasis on the period 2010-2016.
“BGG rank” refers to the Boardgame Geek web site, where lower is better. So the higher the number here, the less conventional the recommendation. To put the rankings in perspective, note that BGG covers tens of thousands of games.
|7 Wonders (2010)||26|
|Caylus Magna Carta (2007)||498|
|Death Angel (Space Hulk CG; 2010)||453|
|Glass Road (2013)||163|
|Love Letter (2012)||145|
|Plato 3000 (2012)||2787|
|Tigris & Euphrates (1997)||45|
Spent two happy days at the LinCon 2016 gaming convention in Linköping. 1500 gaming geeks of all ages from newborn to dotage, and with a very good gender balance. The only age/gender demographic that was visibly missing was old women. But brown and black people were sadly almost entirely absent. My own main complaint though was that for the first time neither of my kids came along to the convention.
This year I didn’t learn any new games, but I taught a couple and I took part (rather ineptly) in a little Blokus tournament. Here’s what I played, all enjoyable games that I recommend.
- Agricola (2007). Build the best farm in Early Modern Germany! Worker placement and resource management.
- Glass Road (2013). Build the best glassworks & brickworks in Early Modern Germany! Resource management. By Uwe Rosenberg who designed Agricola, Bohnanza and more.
- Caylus (2005). Build the worker’s village at one of Louis the Fair’s castle construction projects. Worker placement and resource management.
- Elysium (2015). Collect sets of cards under the vague pretence of constructing your own version of Greek mythology.
- Tobago (2009). Find buried treasure by adding successive scraps of treasure map that constrain the set of possible spots until only one remains.
- Dominion (2008). Deck building.
- Kingdom Builder (2011). Settle land according to recombinant rules that make for a different game each time. By Donald X. Vaccarino who designed Dominion.
- Blokus (2000). Abstract.
- Repello (2010). Abstract.
- Heckmeck (2005). Abstract. By Reiner Knizia who designed Tigris & Euphrates, Samurai and more.
- Saboteur (2004) *
- Istanbul (2014) *
- Love Letter (2012) *
- Manhattan (1994) *
- 6 nimmt / Category 5 (1994)
- Elysium (2015) *
- El Grande (1995) *
- Magic: the Gathering (1993)
- Province (2014) *
- Boss Monster (2013) *
These are mostly short games that you can play repeatedly in one evening. Istanbul, Elysium, El Grande and Boss Monster are a bit longer. Another long game that I played a lot was Galaxy Trucker. All are highly recommended!
Dear Reader, what was your biggest boardgaming hit in 2015?
Most story boardgames don’t let you do much tactically to influence the results or win. I’ve reported previously on what a game of Arkham Horror (2005) can be like. And I’ve played Betrayal At House On The Hill (2004) quite a lot. But the storiest of all story boardgames I’ve played is Tales Of The Arabian Nights (2009). Me and my friend Roland played it Sunday, which took us 22 rounds and about 4.5 hours.
Roland was Ali Baba and finally managed to win, which was no mean feat given that it’s hard to get the damn game to end at all. You need 20 points to win. But we had 40 points each at the end, because each of us had gotten stuck with annoying disability cards which said plainly that you couldn’t win while having them and were really hard to get rid of.
Ali Baba’s story would have been well worth chronicling, particularly the bits where he kept trying to get home to his wife in Sri Lanka and almost got there but drifted away or got teleported – to Ireland, twice! But I played Aladdin, and here’s his story. My favourite bit is the one with the barber.
A poor young man named Aladdin travelled from Baghdad to Shiraz in southern Persia. There he hired someone’s slave as a bodyguard for a visit to his mistress. Sadly the woman really disliked the slave’s looks, so she refused to let Aladdin in and instead cursed him. Aladdin decided to forget about her and head for China. In the Central Asian mountains he came upon a mystical fire but escaped harm by means of prayer. The experience toughened him up. Then our hero ran into some cheerful brigands. He attacked them and was badly hurt by a spear.
Though wounded, Aladdin soon reached the great Chinese city of Suzhou and found a secret temple frequented by evil fire-worshipping Magi. He tried to blend in among the congregation to steal valuables, but was unmasked. Only the intervention of a friend saved the young man, who ended up with a consuming envy of rich people.
Aladdin rode a boat south along the coast and went ashore in a mountainous region. There he happened upon another one of those secret evil fire temples. This time he prudently reported his discovery to the Sultan. The wise and powerful ruler of the Muslim world somehow had this Chinese temple torn down, but forgot to reward Aladdin. The young man’s covetousness grew even worse. He headed for the city of Gaya in eastern India.
In Gaya Aladdin tried to help an insomniac wizard. When he failed, the wizard had him dragged behind a horse until near death. After this harrowing experience, Aladdin decided to make a pilgrimage to Mecca. But first he debunked a snake-oil salesman. The bystanders were so impressed by Aladdin’s learning that one young woman offered to marry him. He refused and instead went south to Tana. Here a chained Ifrit asked him for help. Aladdin refused and was tricked into drinking magical water. Suddenly he was a woman!
The confused young (wounded, mangled, covetous) woman went to Muscat in Arabia where she was beaten and crippled by a Jinn. Continuing on up the Persian Gulf to Basra, she made the acquaintance of an extremely talkative barber who began pursuing her relentlessly in order to bore her further with his endless blabbering. Fleeing the barber to Mecca, she completed her pilgrimage and managed to hide from her pursuer. She was now a Hajjah. However, the barber was so angry with her that he spread evil rumours of her all around Mecca and she became publicly disgraced.
Having shaken the barber off her trail, Hajjah Aladdina went to eastern Turkey and helped a beautiful enchantress get rid of an annoying former lover. She simply pointed out the risk the man was running of getting turned into a toad. This little victory was enough to turn Aladdina into a respected magician and master storyteller. She immediately decided to go on another pilgrimage, this time by way of Hamadan in northern Persia. Here she carelessly asked a madman for directions and got completely lost. Before finding her way again she was chewed upon by an unspecified beast.
Back in Mecca, Aladdina witnessed a house fire. Drinking from a water bucket, the crippled young woman became violently ill. But she completed her second Hajj. Travelling through the desert in this state, she came upon a mystical river where she took a boat ride and caught four magical fishes. Pleased with her catch she rested to regain her strength.
Arriving in Damascus, Aladdina was hypnotised and robbed by a magician. Ali Baba came travelling through town, and Aladdina made sure he too caught the illness she had contracted in Mecca. She then went back into the desert again where she safely performed meteorological studies of a great storm. Ali Baba came along and paid her to treat his illness. Nobody could explain why Aladdina couldn’t administer the same effective treatment to herself.
Our heroine now went by sea to Rome where for some reason she beat up a disabled man she had never seen before, calling him a “wicked hunchback”. This behaviour suggests that she may have been losing her grip on reality. Indeed, from this point on her tale begins to become strange even by Arabian Nights standards.
It seems that Aladdina travelled to Adrianople in western Turkey. Here she assisted a beautiful sorceress in a magical ritual, which failed. Aladdina then visited a magnetic mountain, where a ghost treated her to an evening of drinking and conversation before whisking her away to a haunted house – in southwest Khazakstan (!). Here an Ifrit showered her in gold, she told stories to it, and she believed that she had somehow been made Sultan.
“Sultan” Aladdina travelled south to Daybul in Pakistan. Here, despite being fabulously rich, she robbed a princess and received yet another curse. Our erratic heroine then went by boat to Zeila in Somalia where she avoided dealing with a chained Ifrit but instead ran into a vizier who was being chased by a mob. He hastily put his clothes on the unresisting madwoman and ran away, leaving her to get beaten by his pursuers. And at this point news came from Baghdad about Ali Baba winning the game.
This past weekend saw my sixth annual boardgaming retreat: 43 hours in good company at our usual small Nyköping hotel, all meals included. My buddy Oscar organises everything. There were a bit more than 20 of us this year after a few late cancellations, mainly guys in our 30s and 40s. After Sunday lunch I left early and drove to Norrköping where I gave a talk about my recent excavations to 50 keen members the Friends of the Town Museum association, just like after the 2010 retreat.
I played thirteen sessions of nine different games in Nyköping. To give you an idea of how popular each individual game is, I’ve included its current BGG rank. For instance, Splendor’s 71 means that right now there are only 70 board games that the largely US-based users of Boardgamegeek.com rate more highly than that game.
- Splendor (2014). Ranked 71. Short abstract numbers and colours game that makes for a fine filler when you’re waiting for someone to come off another game or for a meal to be ready.
- Istanbul (2014). Ranked 102. Shortish worker placement and resource management game set in Istanbul’s bazaar. I brought this one and it proved quite a hit.
- Boggle (1972). Ranked 1686. Word game with random letters on a grid. My buddy Jan brought the game and completely crushed everyone who had the misfortune to play against him.
- Legendary Encounters: Alien (2014). Ranked 62. Combines cooperative play against hostile game mechanics with deck-building, all clad in terms and imagery from the scifi film franchise.
- A Study In Emerald 1st ed. (2013). Ranked 397. Lovecraftian horror meets spy fiction and detective fiction in Victorian Europe in another hit game by the revered Martin Wallace, based on a 2003 story by Neil Gaiman. Combines deck building with various other mechanics in a nice salad. The best new game I learned at the retreat.
- Elysium (2015). Ranked 290. Card game about the Greek pantheon. I bought this for the retreat to contribute something new, and two of the three guys I played it with agreed with me that it’s pretty great.
- The Resistance: Avalon (2012). Ranked 33. A Werewolf variant in an Arthurian setting, where half of the players are baddies and know it, while the other half are goodies and don’t know who’s bad. Us baddies won, to some extent because I managed to convince everyone that I was a baddie and then complained loudly every time someone suggested that another baddie could be sent on a quest. They didn’t trust me enough to take my advice and so a lot of baddies got to go on quests that they could sabotage.
- Codenames (2015). Ranked 54. This simple word association game is all the rage right now, and I don’t quite get the appeal.
- Cyclades (2009). Ranked 110. We played with the 2014 Titans expansion that completely transforms the game. I was on a team with my buddy Jonas who knows the game well, so I mainly just did what he suggested. I did pick up that the game has a pretty neat auction, initiative and action space engine at its heart, and I’d be happy to play the basic version one day. I’m generally not fond of expansions.