LinCon 2022 Gaming Convention

Returning to its usual Ascension weekend date and everyone’s favourite venue, the Linköping University campus, LinCon 2022 was its usual strong and nerdy self. I met loads of old and new acquaintances, gave a talk on Nils Mattsson Kiöping to a small but enthusiastic audience, bought two games at the flea market and enjoyed the auction camaraderie without buying anything there.

And I played eight games:

  • Acquire (1964). Start companies, buy stock, make sure that your startups get bought up.
  • Secret Hitler (2016). Social deduction à la Werewolf and The Resistance.
  • Splendor (2014). Abstract colours and numbers.
  • Viticulture (2013). Winery worker placement.
  • Santa Maria (2017). Competitive solitaire cube pusher.
  • 7 Wonders (2010). Civilisation builder. The only game I’ve ever really enjoyed with more than five players.
  • Tichu (1991). Two good old Chinese card games combined into an even better hybrid.
  • Space Lane Trader (2022). A competitive solitaire that should have been a video game.

2022 was my ninth LinCon. Here are my impressions of the previous one.

Thoughts After Ten Sessions of Swords of the Serpentine

You can be a barbarian in sudden urban confusion

My role-playing group finished up our space FBI campaign in Ashen Stars before the summer break. Then we’ve played ten sessions of Swords of the Serpentine during September through February. This is an urban sword & sorcery game by Kevin Kulp and Emily Dresner, inspired by Howard’s Conan, Leiber’s Fafhrd & Grey Mouser, Pratchett’s Ankh-Morpork and Renaissance Venice. The printed book has not yet appeared due to trouble with the illustrators. Instead I’ve used the pre-pub PDF that you received when you pre-ordered SotS.

This campaign has been quite different from the space FBI one: primarily because while there are ten published full-length scenarios for Ashen Stars, there is only one for SotS (in the core book). It didn’t fit our campaign premise, so I haven’t used it. Instead our game has been like a TV series with overlapping longer and shorter story arcs devised by myself with input from the players and the source book. It hasn’t been divided into discrete quests.

The main long arcs have been:

  • The characters are the young adult generation of the Galimberti, a noble family of impeccable pedigree with almost no money left. This is one of several campaign frames suggested by the game’s designers. I chose it because it made the characters city natives and it gave them a realistic reason to collaborate and look out for each other. I also came up with Grandma, who relies on the characters to help her get the family back on its feet. She was very useful as a quest giver: she had authority over the characters and they shared her long-term priorities for the family.
  • Two of the characters wonder where their dad has disappeared to. Player Marcus came up with this when the rules prompted him for his three main drives during character creation. I decided that Dad had escaped from some criminal acquaintances 20 years into the future, using the magic gondola of a famous courtesan.
  • One of the characters lives in a tower with a monster in the basement. Player Roland came up with this and I gave the monster some odd ambitions and biological characteristics.
  • A merchant-wizard from distant Caym is trying to kill one of the characters out of some murky revenge motive. I came up with this when the rules demanded that each character be allied with two factions in the city and enemies with a third. We had a lot of fun with the way this bad guy’s turn-person-into-bird spell misfired.

This has been my first self-designed campaign where almost none of the material was pre-written. But as you can see from the above, the game design has prompted and supported myself and the players in improvising story arcs. When combined, the character drives, allies and adversaries are super fertile for this purpose.

Though the game mechanics are a version of Gumshoe, I’ve followed my story gamer tendencies and played this very free-form, using the game mechanics only rarely and clumsily. All the more so because there have been no written scenarios that prompted me for when and how to use the rules. I did try – in vain – to get a couple of the players to read up on the combat mechanics as supporting umpires. The most useful parts of the core book have instead been the richly embroidered setting material. (Here’s an example of how I’ve engaged with it.)

It’s become a running joke when I explain that something happens for obvious dramaturgical reasons, not because of any rules. And this preference of mine in role-playing has become all the clearer to me in recent years when I’ve played in other game masters’ campaigns, where dice and other mechanics determine the outcome much more strongly than does an assessment of what would be dramatically satisfying.

I put our SotS campaign on hold after ten sessions because there are no published scenarios yet. Making up my own material has gone well and we’ve had lots of fun, but it added an element of stress to game prep that I’d rather not have. Actually though, prep for each session probably took considerably less time this way than when I had to read up on elaborate investigative Ashen Stars scenarios last academic year! I learned some really useful tricks from Michael E. Shea’s 2018 book Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master. You can get an enormous amount of story gaming mileage out of simply writing down ten secrets about the social and physical setting of your campaign.

2021 Year In Table-Top Gaming

Tichu

This was the year of vaccination and gradual normalisation. (Who knows though what the omicron variant will do in 2022?) Boardgame night moved back to my place from Patrik’s after the summer.

In addition to boardgaming, I game-mastered nine role-playing scenarios: six in Ashen Stars (space opera) and the equivalent of three in Swords of the Serpentine (sword & sorcery in fantasy Venice). The SotS campaign though is not really divided into discrete quests. It’s like a TV series with long and short story arcs devised by myself with input from the players and the source book. I self-published a scenario for Ashen Stars in April. Took part in three sessions of the GM-less RPG Fiasco and one session of an Aliens RPG — where we all died after completing almost the entire mission because our driver failed a driving roll, sigh. In November I went to an unseasonal LinCon and my friend organised his annual gaming retreat again, though I skipped the latter.

Below are the ten boardgames that I played more than twice during 2021. None of these were new to me. The year’s total was 51 games, way below the normal pre-2020 number of 75-80. This is because of time spent on RPGs instead, not because of the pandemic.

  • Tichu / Zheng fen (1991)
  • Architects of the West Kingdom (2018)
  • Coloretto (2003)
  • Hive (2001)
  • Brass: Birmingham (2018; some tweaks on the original 2007 Brass)
  • Eclipse (2011)
  • For Sale (1997)
  • No Thanks! (2004)
  • The Resistance: Avalon (2012)
  • Roam (2019)

Dear Reader, what was your biggest table-top gaming hit of 2021?

Stats courtesy of Boardgame Geek. And here’s my gaming year of 2020.

Eversink’s Agricultural Base

Everyone approaches a fictional world with different questions. In my case and with my professional background, some things I like to know in order to suspend disbelief are:

  • Where do people’s calories come from mostly?
  • Who owns these resources?
  • Who taxes the production?

My role-playing group and I are currently playing Swords of the Serpentine, which is a fine sword & sorcery RPG set in the trading metropolis of Eversink, a fantasy Venice. The game’s designers evidently do not share my humdrum economic concerns sketched above. In the following I’ll summarise what the core book has to say on these points and offer some suggestions of my own.

Where do people’s calories come from mostly?

Eversink is on a cluster of islands in the Serpentine river delta. River valleys in temperate climate are fertile.

“Under normal market conditions, Eversink brings food from the few remaining farms upriver or imports food from its neighbors. Eversink’s biggest imports are grains: wheat, soybeans, and sorghum … also imports beef, mutton, and chickens … Cattle are kept on farms upriver and butchered in the slaughterhouses of Sag Harbor” (p. 236). “Rice is grown at the edges of the swamps, although most of that is eaten by commoners instead of finding its way to market” (p. 236). “Eversink’s survival depends on … food and supplies arriving daily” (p. 308).

“Private and community vegetable gardens are common … uninhabited roofs are ripe for small vegetable plots. Eversink’s citizens grow everything from pole beans to various root vegetables to herbs” (p. 236). “… you’re likely to come across small hidden (and well-defended) vegetable gardens grown on other people’s roofs by those who need the food most” (p. 231).

The mention of “few remaining farms” is enigmatic. It probably refers to the collapse of the Serpentine Empire one thousand years ago, but it seems odd that any farm-wasting process that started then would not have run its course long ago. Maybe only the lowest part of the river valley is still farmed. There are “forest-folk upriver” who deliver timber to Eversink (p. 308), and the map shows forest cover along the Middle and Upper Serpentine.

The river itself is in good ecological shape: “There are plenty of fish in the bay, and like salmon, fish may swim upriver to spawn. … There’s a particular type of sea eel that breeds and is born in the freshwater pools of the Serpentine River” (p. 237). But the river is not where the best fishing is: “Seafood from the Bay of Coins is the core staple of the Eversink diet” (p. 235).

Summing up, Eversink is self-supporting in fish, that is, in protein and fat. The city also has a local farming base up the river valley, but its carbohydrate productivity is insufficient and the city has to import grain.

Who owns this resource?

The fishing appears uncontrolled. But who owns “the few remaining farms upriver”? I have found no hint whatsoever in the core book.

The nearest part of the mainland described in the core book is the feudal kingdom of Capria. Indeed, the local language in Eversink is a dialect of Caprian (p. 235). Capria has “vast farmlands” (p. 312), where “Most of the population are land-holding free peasant farmers”, yet “Capria’s powerful but thinly populated noble class are [also] rich in land” (p. 313). “The most popular local gods improve weather, farming, and fertility” (p. 313).

For most sword & sorcery adventures, it will of course matter little if the farmland along the Lower Serpentine is owned by the farmers themselves, by local landlords living on manors near their tenants, or by absentee landlords in Eversink.

Who taxes the production?

In other words, to what state(s) does the river valley belong? To begin with, the farms that partly support Eversink are apparently under the city’s rule, meaning that the lower / lowest part of the valley is part of the city state. But the behaviour of neighbouring Capria suggests that the middle reaches of the river are not.

The kingdom does not reach all the way to the banks of the Serpentine (p. 229, 312). Yet “The Caprians want to retake the Destroyed Plateau on their northern border. They send a stream of heavily armored platoons [across the Middle Serpentine] into the wastes to recover destroyed cities” (p. 313). And “The Destroyed Plateau is a vast and empty blight on the continent. Nothing grows in the soil except lichen and some twisted shrubs” (p. 327). It is not clear what hinders Capria or Eversink from annexing the apparently stateless Middle Serpentine territory, nor why Capria keeps sending troops across the valley and into the infertile zone. Nothing in the core book suggests that these constant troop movements cause any friction with Eversink — or with the forest-folk.

Summing up, any commoner owners of farmland on the Lower Serpentine probably pay taxes to Eversink itself, and the territory is apparently part of the city state. But if the city’s ancient nobility owns a lot of the land, I would expect them to be exempt from taxes by analogy to European history.

Update 22 November: Kevin Kulp explains on Facebook, “I think that centuries ago, when nobles were at the height of their power, a lot of jungle upriver was cleared for huge plantations. As the mercanti surged and more food was imported, nobles became poorer, but no one wanted to SELL their land. So a lot of nobles still have decaying plantations and farms upriver, forgotten, overgrown, and overrun by squatters or hostile creatures. (ie, adventure fodder)”

Update 5 December: “Popular sport varies by social class … The nobility prefer fencing, riding, and hunting upriver…” (p. 234) “With little interest in anything but high society, rumor, and politics, this wastrel typically spends their day hunting, eating, courting…” (p. 167) “Those swamps don’t contractually belong to the city … seem surprisingly hostile to ‘Sinkish residents who venture into their depths for smuggling, hunting, or exploration.” (p. 280)

LinCon 2021 Gaming Convention

The LinCon gaming convention for 2020 was cancelled and the one for 2021 pushed half a year forward to the fall. And this weekend it’s finally taking place, 2½ years after the previous convention! As usual, I went to Linköping for the first two days, Thursday and Friday.

This year’s venue, venerable high school Katedralskolan, has its advantages and disadvantages compared to the Humanities building on the uni campus where the convention usually is. This has much better communications, being only a short walk from the railway station and downtown. But the layout of the large multi-story school building is quite confusing.

Organisation was good though a bit shakier than usual: no programme was posted on any physical notice board, and only about twenty people came to hear my archaeology talk due to an unexpected and unannounced schedule change. But I’m sure everything will work fine come the next convention in May.

I played eight games, mostly with new friends that I made right then and there.

  • United Systems Colonial Marines. A self-published RPG inspired by Aliens. Our group did pretty well investigating the buried alien space ship up until we had to drive fast under fire to a pickup point off-planet. Then our driver made a bad die roll, our vehicle crashed and we were all shot by the enemy.
  • Atlantis Rising (2012). Co-operative resource management on a sinking island, like Forbidden Island for grown-ups.
  • Pickomino / Heckmeck (2005). Classic push-your-luck dice game.
  • Revolution (2009). Influence the leading figures of a small town with threats, blackmail and bribes! Funny and absurd situations arise, like when two players both threaten to beat the town priest up, but one of them is also bribing the priest, so he goes along with that one’s demands.
  • Camel Cup (2014). Betting on camel races!
  • Tikal (1999). Competitive field archaeology in the Yucatán.
  • Kingdom Builder (2011). Endlessly varied map-based game where no session is like the last.
  • No thanks (2004). Solid little filler game.

2021 was my eighth LinCon. Here are my impressions of the previous one.

Adventurers

Ever since the first role-playing game was published in 1974, characters in the games have typically had quite an odd lifestyle and a strange set of motivations. The game rules often describe them as adventurers who go adventuring. They’re essentially violent homeless vagrants, or murderhobos. I got to thinking about what an adventurer is in the real world, today.

  • Professional mountaineer / polar explorer / extreme sportsperson
  • Backpacker
  • Hiker (not really, as few people hike for more than a week)

And in past definitions of the word:

  • Gambler
  • Financial speculator
  • Mercenary soldier

The word adventurer is more than four times as common in English writing from around 1800 as in current writing. This is clearly because of the change in the word’s sense. Like in 1800, we certainly still talk a lot about financial speculators and not a little about mercenary soldiers. But we have very few professional mountaineers, and most current writing is not about Dungeons & Dragons.

The German Abenteurer means today what its English cognate means. Peaking in use during WW2, it has not seen any dramatic change in frequency since 1800. The French aventurier has never been a common word but is no less common today than in 1800. It now means “an unscrupulous person who resorts to intrigue, breach of trust, dishonest speculation and violence to achieve notoriety, fortune, power, etc.” Entertainingly, Larousse glosses it as a synonym of captain of industry and schemer!

The Swedish historical dictionary SAOB says nothing about our word äventyrare yet, because Ä is the penultimate letter in our alphabet.

Deep Learning and Card Counting

Hey folks who understand deep learning and games. This is the famous method that has allowed computers to beat human players reliably at chess and go. Many intricate games have semi-open information. For instance, in Catan you see the other players draw resource cards to their hidden hand and then play them. But only an idiot savant or someone who keeps written notes (against all social convention) can keep track of what’s on anyone’s hand at a given moment.

In other games such as poker you can in principle assign probabilities to what card another player just drew by looking at what cards the full deck contained, what cards have been played so far, and what cards you are currently holding. Few human players outside of the movie Rain Main can do this.

Let’s call these methods card counting. Here’s my question. If you teach a computer to play Catan or poker with deep learning, should you introduce rules against card counting? If you don’t, then the computer is effectively not playing the same game as humans do. This would make deep learning Catan different from when deep learning algorithms play chess and go with exactly the same rules as humans.

My New Scifi RPG Scenario

I played a lot of role-playing games in the 80s and 90s, and published a few scenarios. Then I quit almost entirely until last fall when I took up Ashen Stars in a big way with friends. Now I’ve published a scenario for this gritty space opera game.

In The Disappearing Sensei, the crew is tasked with tracking down a long-forgotten cyborg deserter and data thief. Neither her motivations nor what she stole from the Combine navy turn out to be quite what the crew might have expected.

The cover art is a portrait by Jorge Don de Rayoja (VanCoralArt) of the German actress Anna Maria Mühe in a Weimar Republic style. Fritz Lang taught us in Metropolis that there were robots in 1920s Germany, and apparently there were cyborgs too!

Go ahead and have a look at the scenario!

Thoughts after 16 Sessions of Ashen Stars

I’ve been game-mastering Robin D. Laws’ gritty space-opera detective role-playing game Ashen Stars since September with a group of four players. In this game you’re free-lance FBI agents in a space federation on the skids after a war. We’ve had fourteen sessions and played six scenarios. I’ve also re-played the intro scenario with another group of four, so a total of sixteen sessions. We’ve had lots of fun!

Ashen Stars offers a rich background of world building, scenario hooks and advice on how to design your own scenarios. There are nine published scenarios for the game, and we’ve played five of them so far plus one of my own. Here are some thoughts.

The game has detailed rules for designing space ships and running space battles. But none of the published scenarios contain any space battles. The only expensive stuff you can buy with the in-game money a player group makes from solving cases is spaceships and ship upgrades. Which you never need. So my group soon stopped paying attention to how much money they have. It’s just piling up. Of course I can put in any number of space battles that I like, but I’ve told the players that this will only happen if they take an interest and learn the rules themselves. So far nobody has.

The central design principle in the Gumshoe family of role-playing games is that you never fail an attempt to get core clues using an investigative skill. If a player tells me that she uses Data Retrieval to look up the alien arms dealers online, then she rolls no die: I just give her any core clue I may have lined up. Less important clues can be bought with skill points. And then there are situations where I just tell a player that “here’s some information that’s immediately obvious to everyone who has the skill Forensic Accounting”. So there’s a) active skill use on the player’s part, which is free. And there’s b) semi-active skill use with a point fee, that I need to prompt for. And there’s c) passive skill use where I just blurt information. I often find it hard to determine whether the scenario designer has intended that a player would use a skill actively or passively in a given situation.

I’m starting to feel like it is never more fun to deny a player extra info because she’s run out of points, than to simply give her the clue anyway. The point-spend rules are intended to divide spotlight time evenly between the players. When an imaginative and talky player runs out of points, the theory goes, he’ll have to give other players more room for the rest of the scenario. But my players don’t seem to care who found a clue. I don’t hand the clue on a slip of paper to the player who bought it with her points. I just tell everyone that their pilot has realised something interesting about the alien arms dealers, and then they discuss what this clue means for their case. When nobody cares much whose skill points bought the clue, then it becomes less meaningful to keep track of those points.

So after 16 sessions of Ashen Stars we’re still having fun, we have no idea how the space battle rules work, we don’t care how much money the characters have because nobody ever buys anything, and we’re losing the motivation to keep track of their investigative skill points. To be continued!

(And one more thing. The PDF version of the rule book is so graphics-heavy that it takes ages to scroll through it. Instead I use the EPUB file that has no illustrations. Works great! I’ve put it on my Kindle and I bring that to game night instead of my laptop.)

Addition 20 April after 22 sessions: I remembered another piece of rules machinery that’s fallen by the wayside: the group’s reputation score. A high score means a short time between paid missions, which allows you to save money, if you care about how much money you have. Space battles demand ship upgrades demand money demand a high reputation score. Take out the space battles and all four become unimportant to gameplay. Of course, my players still always neatly fulfil the missions. It’s just that their reputation score has proved unimportant.

Boardgame Review: Nättrollz

As blogging has assumed a lower profile in the minds and habits of Internet users, creators and publishers have sent me fewer review copies for Aard. Looks like the last time was over nine years ago, when I reviewed the Italian boardgame Beer & Vikings. (Sadly it never made much of a splash, having only 78 ratings on the Boardgame Geek website today.) But now I am happy to report that I have received two games for review. Let’s first look at the Swedish 2017 party card game NätTrollz by Mattias Dristig. It’s from the publisher Eloso on a licence from Dristig’s company Vildhallon.

Fluff & flavour text
This game is about Internet trolls, as its Swinglish name suggests. A game consists of the players having five pointless discussions on an online forum, each of which ends when someone posts a cute cat video that distracts the participants. The cards have funny flavour text which becomes familiar during your first game.

Art
Each card has a drawing of an ugly internet troll by Jan Kustfält. Though the drawings are strongly formulaic and all the trolls look pretty much the same, I don’t mean that the art is lacking in skill. These are skilful caricatures of one really ugly person.

Game mechanics
NätTrollz is a trick-taking game with a lot of interrupt cards. Players of whist and bridge will understand if I say that in order to take a trick here, you need to have the special trick-taking card, and you can play it at any time out of turn order. Tichu players will understand if I say that this is Tichu, only you always play single cards, a trick always gets bombed repeatedly, and indeed the only way to win a trick is to bomb it.

The trick-taking card is the cute cat video. 9 cards in a deck of 82 are cats. If luck has it that you don’t get any of these cards, then you can take no tricks. For a chance to get more cat cards you need to draw more cards, which will often result in you ending the game with a full hand. And any card you’re left with after five tricks is negative points. There is no new deal between tricks.

The large number of other interrupt cards (16 out of 82) confuses gameplay quite a lot, since you can play them at any time, for instance three different interrupt cards in a row during someone else’s turn — or your own.

Overall
It says on the box that this is a party game, so it’s somewhat beside the point to say that NätTrollz is largely a game of chance with humorous flavour text and does not reward much re-play or tactical study. It’s fun for people who have never played it before, who don’t expect to play it again soon, and who have perhaps drunk a few beers. If you buy this as a gift, I’d say that the ideal recipient is a non-gamer who hangs out a lot in online forums occasionally plagued by semi-literate racist uncles.