Jane Austen LARP

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Though I played a lot of tabletop role playing games in the 80s and 90s, I’ve never been much of a live action role-player (LARPer). Just seems to be way too much preparation for such short events. So the only real LARP I ever took part in was in May of 1992 (it was called Saturday Night Live, ha-ha-ha) – until this past Sunday, when I tried again. And it was fun!

Boardgaming buddies head-hunted me for this extremely well organised LARP because they had a male deficit. The event was titled Kärlek och fördel, “Love and Advantage”. The idea was basically to collect all the main characters from Jane Austen’s 1810s novels at the same ball, “a social mine field” as one participant described it. The venue was the picturesque 1750s country house of Skärholmen.

Preparations weren’t too heavy. Most importantly, I read and enjoyed Austen’s 1814 novel Persuasion. I also grew sideburns, brushed up on the almost entirely forgotten country dances I picked up at Tolkien Society banquets 20 years ago, learned to play whist, borrowed a Regency outfit from another participant, and selected some Wordsworth and Coleridge poetry to perform. The organisers gave me a few pages of background info including my main “intrigues”, tasks or quests, for the evening. Then I was set.

I played a pretty unsavoury character, Mr. William Elliot, who ignores the son-less uncle whose baronetcy he is scheduled to inherit, who marries a woman of humble family for her money, and who upon his wife’s death decides to curry favour with his uncle again just to make sure he gets the title in due course. The main point-of-view character in Persuasion describes the man as a bit of an opportunistic psychopath, but we don’t really learn much about him except that he stares fondly at women in the street.

My tasks for the ball revolved around three women.

  • Cousin Anne. Try to charm her into marrying me.
  • The widow Mrs. Clay. Keep her from marrying my uncle, because such a union might produce a son who would rob me of the baronetcy.
  • The widow of a deceased friend of mine, Mrs. Smith. Keep her from telling cousin Anne how poorly I took care of her after my friend’s death, despite all he’d done for me.

About 85 participants spent the nine hours of the event talking (in character), dancing to live music, playing whist, performing & listening to music and poetry, and eating. Most people wore gorgeous outfits. Almost every unmarried character’s main motivation had to do with marriage. Time went fast.

As it turned out, I failed to win the heart of cousin Anne, much like in the novel. I almost managed to buy Mrs. Smith’s silence, but that player decided (quite correctly) that it would be more fun to cause a scandal, and so came into the parlour toward the end of the evening and threw a petticoat at me while yelling about my betrayal. Mrs. Clay did not charm her way into Uncle Walter’s breeches, but that was mainly because he decided to propose to the other widow, Mrs. Smith! As for my acting, such as it was, my William Elliot was of course very much more like Martin Rundkvist than the rather faceless man in the book.

Knowing that my chances with a cousin Anne who had read Persuasion were slim indeed, and having done all I could to warm her up, I reasoned as follows. Since William Elliot had loads of money, what he/I really wanted was just any young woman from the upper gentry. And one such presented herself with alacrity in the person of our host’s oldest daughter, whose biography copied that of Charlotte Lucas Lydia Bennett from Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. This young lady had once eloped with a man who soon ditched her, and then returned home in shame. So her family saw her as “spent” and unmarriable. But she and I soon came to an understanding. I spoke to the parents, I complimented the mother outrageously, the girl and I went on a starlit walk in the park, arm in arm, with her mother and brother as chaperones, and finally I proposed and she accepted. A union across novels, and a happy ending!

I might do this again as long as I don’t have to sew my own outfit.

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Photographs by My Durén and Susanne Baldefors.

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Boardgaming Retreat

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My buddy Oscar doesn’t like roughing it at gaming conventions, sleeping on classroom floors, eating cup noodles etc. So for two years now he’s organised civilised boardgaming weekends where he’s gotten a bunch of gamers together and booked a small hotel for us (here’s about last year’s). It’s 48 hours of gaming in good company with meals and nice rooms, all for a very reasonable off-season price. This past weekend. I played sixteen sessions of thirteen different games, as follows.

  • Innovation. Card game out of MIT, nominally about the rise of civilisations, where the cards keep interacting in novel ways.
  • Werewolf. Party game that opened our event, all 24 of us playing. Every night the werewolves eats a villager, and every day the surviving villagers lynches someone and hope it’s one of the werewolves…
  • Stone Age. Worker placement / resource management game about the transition to agriculture.
  • Macao. Resource management among Portuguese traders in 17th century Macao. Innovative resource allocation mechanism using dice and a future-turn track. You can either get small amounts of stuff soon or large amounts in the far future.
  • Ubongo. Solve tile-laying problems against the clock and collect beads strategically.
  • Hansa Teutonica. Nominally about Medieval trade in Germany, but the abstract bones of the game mechanics are much in evidence.
  • 7 Wonders. Card drafting / resource management game where you select a card from your hand, give the remainder of it to the person to the left, receive the hand of the person to your right, play the card you chose, etc. No down time for anyone even when we played it with seven people!
  • Whist. Classic trick-taking game with everyday playing cards. Another practice round for next weekend’s Regency LARP.
  • Dixit. Improvise captions to beautifully surreal paintings by Marie Cardouat. To win, make them just specific enough but not too specific.
  • Dutch Blitz. Sort cards faster than your opponents. I sucked basket balls through drinking straws at this one.
  • Brass. Resource management and route building in early industrial England.
  • Heckmeck am Bratwurmeck. Nifty dice mechanics by the great Dr. Knizia. And nice chunky mah jong-like plastic tiles. Has almost nothing at all to do with the title’s “fuss at the barbecue worm corner”.
  • Ablaze! Three semi-abstract games about forest fires played with the same cardboard hexagons and plastic markers.

All said, my favourites this time around were Innovation, Stone Age, 7 Wonders, Dixit, Brass and Heckmeck. I need to mark them as “Want to play” on Boardgame Geek.

Boardgaming Groups and Game Stores

Listening to the Dice Tower and Spiel podcasts and reading forum entries on Boardgame Geek, I’ve come across two central aspects of US boardgaming culture that have me kind of baffled. One is the ubiquity of open-to-all gaming groups, and the other is the emphasis on the FLGS, the Friendly Local Gaming Store.

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To begin with the gaming groups, to me gaming is something I do with my friends at our houses – usually mine. The varying cast of gamers having tea at my table once a week are my guests. A recent Dice Tower episode (#205), however, featured a long discussion about what to do if your gaming group gets saddled with a member that nobody wants to play with. These club-like US groups seem to convene on public premises – universities, church basements, pubs, game stores – and while pretty much anybody can get in, there’s no accepted way to kick obnoxious characters out. I’ve never had that problem. If I invited someone I didn’t know well and they didn’t turn out to my liking, I’d just never invite them again. (Both of the two gamer friends I’ve picked up blindly from web forums are lovely people and I invite them all the time.)

I wrote to the Dice Tower about this and they kindly replied to my question on the show. The main reason the show hosts mentioned for organising public gaming groups is basically about evangelism: they want to get new people into the hobby. Part of their motivation seems to be that they want to increase demand for boardgames, ensuring that more and better games will be published in the future. This is unimportant to me. Even if no more boardgames came out starting tomorrow, it would take me decades to play through the thousands of good ones that have already been published.

I’m thinking that maybe those open-to-all gaming groups exist because few people are like me. Maybe there aren’t enough hosts. If there were a gregarious guy in every gamer’s area who was happy to have people over all the time, then only the problematic characters discussed on the Dice Tower would have to join open groups. Of course, to anyone with a family, the spouse has to be OK with it too. And my wife seems happy with the setup. Typically she’ll just greet everybody when they arrive and then spending the evening at the piano or computer or TV or reading while we play games peacefully for a few hours. She’s happy that I’m happy, and she greatly prefers having me around over me spending one evening every weekend away from home. Me, I really don’t enjoy late-night train rides either, so I’m glad the game comes to me instead of me going to the game.

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Then there are those stores. Before the Internet, I cared about game stores because that was the only place I could find out about games and buy them. (The Tradition store that I frequented in its Storgatan and HumlegÃ¥rdsgatan locations in Stockholm during the 80s was never particularly friendly though. There was this tall blond store clerk who clearly A: was not a gamer, and B: did not particularly enjoy talking to enthusiastic kobolds.) But for 15 years I’ve learned about and bought my books, games and software over the net. I don’t like spending time in stores. To me, a high-street shop is just an unnecessary price-raising link in the logistical chain between the manufacturer and me. And brick & mortar shopping is a huge time sink compared to ordering stuff from my desk. The only time I buy games or books over the counter is in the rare case when I need a present for someone and have forgotten to order in time.

With this attitude, you’ll understand that I’m horrified by the thought of spending hours playing games in a store. But that is apparently common in the US. The smarter store owners seem to realise though that boardgamers aren’t really worth hosting, since we can play for hours without buying anything. The money is in collectible cardgames such as Magic: The Gathering, where a player’s success correlates strongly with the amount of money he spends on cards. But even when the shopkeeper does oblige – why spend your free time in a store? Or on a mall concourse, for that matter…

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So, my recipe for better boardgaming is this.

1. Learn about games and buy them on-line.
2. Keep a list of your favourite local gamers.
3. Send out text-message or e-mail invitations on, like, a Wednesday morning for people to come over on Saturday. As the replies come in, keep poking people on your list until you have the requisite number of pledges. (I usually go for three guests with my kids as extras.)
4. Keep some simple stats on what percentage of your invitations a given friend has accepted. You’ll soon see which ones are worth asking, which saves time and avoids mutual embarrassment. Bachelors/ettes are the most dependable ones.

Game Review: Cave Troll

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Dungeon Crawl as Subway Punk-Gang Standoff

Everybody knows what a dungeon game is. There’s this underground complex of rooms and corridors, stocked with traps and secret doors, treasures and meanies to guard them. And you are a member (or all of the members) of a Tolkienesque band of vagabonds who descend into the underground, torch in one hand and sword in the other, in search of their fortune. Dungeons & Dragons, DungeonQuest, Descent

Cave Troll is not that kind of game. Sure, the board depicts an underground complex full of treasure, and you do play a band of adventurers. But there are several competing parties of them, and each has more members than there are meanies in the dungeon. That dungeon is like the subway at rush time. And most of the time the adventurers don’t fight the meanies, they threaten each other over the piles of gold strewn here and there. Every once in a while, someone blows a whistle, and the punks divvy up the loot according to who has more or tougher people in a given room. Treasure, for some reason, cannot be moved.

It’s actually an area control game of a kind harking back all the way to Risk, though little fighting is involved. Each player has his own stack of upside-down cardboard chits, like a deck of cards, only since they’re chits they fit in the dungeon’s rooms. Every turn you can reveal new chits and put them on the board, or move around the chits you’ve already put down, or use a magic item if you have previously been lucky enough to draw the chit that provides you with one of those. And you do your best to take possession of the rooms with the largest piles of treasure, waiting for someone to flip his “divvy-the-treasure time” chit.

You have a couple of pet meanies in your chit stack as well, and you can send them after other players, but at my place we’ve found that it’s usually not worth your time to harass the other players. Better to put more of your punks on the board instead. Time runs out once someone flips his last chit, and one successful strategy is actually to flip yours as fast as possible just to prevent other players from using theirs.

Your party consists mainly of vanilla punks. But then there’s the knight, who is held in such awe in this feudal society that nobody of lower rank dares enter a room where he’s hanging out, and the thief, who is busty and long-eared and can teleport for some reason, and the barber (errr, we call the barbarian the barber, OK?) who is big and scary. But the funniest party member is the dwarf. He’s really good at finding extra gold in those rooms. But he doesn’t give a damn about who wins the game: he happily hands over his loot to whoever is around. Stupid little punk.

As for the meanies, there’s the eponymous cave troll who is basically a nuke you drop on an offending room, the orc who kills punks and the wraith who scares them off. The latter two appear out of something that looks a lot like the dungeon’s central cesspit, which may explain their grumpy manner. But as I said, at my place the orcs and wraiths rarely get to leave the pit, poor things.

All in all, I quite like Cave Troll, giving it an 8 out of 10. It’s a good, simple, short game that offers interesting strategic decisions and little down-time. The artwork is nice to look at. It works well with 6-7-y-o kids, as the only reading you have to do is the brief manual for your magic item. And it travels extremely well: the game is light-weight and easy to pack, fitting into the volume of a trade paperback book if you leave the box at home and put the chits in baggie. The board collapses into four book-size puzzle pieces.

I have the 2002 Fantasy Flight edition of Cave Troll with multi-lingual rules. It was my first thrift-store game. Game thrifting, rescuing good games from the cold and uncaring hands of non-gamers in thrift stores, is almost a hobby in itself.

Sanity Claws

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I seem to be on a poetry roll here, kids.

When I was 14, Citadel Miniatures put out a small run of a novelty pewter miniature named Sanity Claws: a tentacled menacing monstrosity for the festive season. And now Norm Sherman of the Drabblecast, whom I do not hesitate to call a genius and an Elder God, has written a Lovecraftian poem on the same theme (in all likelihood quite independently of that 1986 pewter giggle-shudder item). Hear Norm perform the poem on the Drabblecast’s Christmas Special!

‘Twas the Night

By Norm Sherman

‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the edifice
Not a creature was stirring, neither mouse nor St. Nicolas
The stockings were hung by the aperture gaping
Where smoke, in its wisdom, had ere been escaping

Downstairs my uncle was strapped down in bed
While visions of ichor danced round in his head
His nightmares of late had been growing much stronger
And sense dared not trespass his mind any longer

Once a learned professor at Brown University
My great-uncle had often, in secret, conversed with me
In his study at night, over manuscripts moldering
With a pipe at his lips, always lambent and smoldering

All that research of his, into cults esoteric
Strange symbols and glyphs and arcane numerics
Of that Dutch survey crew and their frenzied report
Of a vast arctic city filled with sunken-faced dwarves

And that journal recovered from one ‘Ensign Lamar’
Which references “He that rides beasts through the stars”
Gloaming and heaving with corpulent dread
Bloated, batrachian and covered in red

And there’s the relic in my uncle’s display
A four-sided top carved of wood, or some clay
With symbols engraved into each of its sides
That surely must tell of coming end time

I was pondering this manifold doom that would smite us
When out from my window shone a miasmal brightness
How the pale gibbous moon shone down on his back
Which bulged with the throngs of some hideous sack

With some alien ululations in a primordial tongue
He froze me in place, and unable to run
I was forced to be witness to things vile and foul
So unspeakably horrid I can scarce speak them now

He summoned his steeds by their blasphemous names
And with his gangrenous grasp he pulled down on their reins
Then suddenly upwards that noxious horde flew
That red-bellied nightmare rising up from my view

Cacodemoniacal laughter I heard from my roof
And the lumbering clomps of thick octopoid hooves
Then repugnant and hoary, his stench filled the air
While he writhed down my chimney as I watched from the stairs

He spoke not a sound as then off from his back
He heaved up that thick throbbing cyst of a sack
And from it a stench came so charnel and dense
That I nearly passed out when he drew from it thence:

An Amazon Kindle, and a few pairs of nice socks
A sweater, a tie, and Call of Duty: Black Ops
Law and Order Season V on Blueray DVD
And an espresso machine (hope he kept that receipt)

Then all at once swung round this tenebrous being
And with dark ancient eyes of unfathomable seeing
Their biliferous blackness spanning eons extinct
Revealing my own maddening fate, with a wink

Then into that monolith of chimney he lurched
With the gelatinous frenzy of invertebrate birth
Ripping free to the roof he launched into the night
With a vow to return when the stars are just right

Miniature by Bob Naismith, painted and photographed by Steve of the Bleaseworld gaming blog.

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Happy Gamer Manages to Get Wife Interested

Yesterday my buddy Swedepat showed up at 13:30. (That’s his name to help distinguish him from Irish Pat.) I hadn’t been able to find a third or fourth gamer on short notice. But our plan was to try out the new games in my house, and we started off with Juniorette’s Christmas present, Forbidden Island. Of course she wanted to play too, and her mother joined in just to be sociable.

I’m a geek living with, not a jock girl, but more kind of a hipster. My wife’s a journalist who’s into fashion and literature and fancy cooking. A good thing about East Asian families is that they appear to teach their daughters to seek out smart-seeming guys in the mistaken belief that these will be good providers. My wife goes nuts with desire whenever I fix her computer.

Anyway, Forbidden Island. It’s a cooperative game where either everybody wins or the game wins. We beat the game at the second-easiest difficulty level and moved on to Junior’s Christmas present, Small World. He wasn’t around, but the four of us played it and Juniorette kicked our asses!? She’s seven! She’s so little that she almost throws a tantrum if she isn’t allowed to be the banker! But suddenly she plays a mean game of Small World.

So there’s only one new game left, Thebes, kind of an intricate German-style game. It’s almost dinner time, and I expect my wife to bow out. Juniorette, of course, has already proven herself to be the match of grown men at complicated games in English, so we count her in. And my wife stays at the table. We play Thebes, I cook and we eat in the middle of the game (great to have two dinner-sized tables), Swedepat wins, Juniorette beats me… And then my wife asks if we want to play another game of Thebes right away!

So we did. And then we played Cave Troll. My wife was with me at the gaming table until 21:30 last night. Love you to bits, baby!

Cynical Boardgame About Archaeology

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Thebes is a multi-award-winning 2007 German board game by Peter Prinz. I just bought it on a tip from my buddy Oscar, who found a good offer on-line and thought of me because of the game’s theme. It’s about archaeological expeditions in the early 1900s. The box is big, the production values are lavish, and I really look forward to learning it. But before I can say anything about its qualities as a game, I have to share an opening paragraph from the rule book with you (and I translate from the Swedish version).

The players travel as archaeologists through Europe to gather needful knowledge for their fieldwork expeditions. With the aid of assistants, the players must get hold of equipment and services for the expedition. Thus equipped, the players travel to Egypt, Crete or Mesopotamia to dig for treasure, which will garner them fame and improve their reputation in the form of Victory Points. Players who can arrange exhibitions and attend conferences will improve their reputation (Victory Points). But all of this costs time, and time of course a scarce resource. The one who plans his excavations and exhibitions best will earn the most Victory Points and win the game.

This is awesome! Peter Prinz is quietly making fun of my whole profession here. Because in Thebes, archaeology’s goal is not to find out about the past. Prinz knows something about the sociology of science. The goal here is to become as famous as possible by finding “treasures” among the ruins of past civilisations and exhibiting them in the capitals of Europe! For every excavation you blindly grab a number of cardboard discs out of a bag, and about half of them are “Worthless Junk” that give no fame points! Gathered knowledge about an ancient culture does help you a little in winning the game, but only if you’re acknowledged as the top expert in the field — fame again.

Now, let’s see, is there any archaeologist you can think of who practices relentless self-promotion? Hmm…

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Boardgaming Retreat

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I spent most of the weekend at a gaming retreat organised by my buddy Oscar. It was like a small exclusive gaming convention. Oscar found a small B&B outfit in Gnesta, a small town an hour’s drive from Stockholm, and negotiated a deal with them. 18 people, two nights’ board, two excellent dinners and breakfasts and lunches. Everybody paid about $220 (1500 SEK) for the package (not including drinks).

And we had two days of solid board gaming. We were 15 guys and three ladies, all between 25 and 45, and all boardgame geeks. Everybody was extremely friendly, as gamers are wont to, and I had a lovely time.

Here’s the games I played:

  • Small World (about fantasy-world conquering hordes)
  • Zendo (abstract)
  • Endeavor (about Early Modern global trade)
  • Sechs nimmt (abstract)
  • Wallenstein (a Risk-like war game about 17th century Germany)
  • Navegador (about Early Modern global trade again, a game released just a few weeks ago)
  • Das Zepter von Zavandor (abstract, thinly overlaid with new-agey stuff about magic and chrystals)
  • Werewolves of Miller’s Hollow (a psychological experiment with 17 participants!)
  • Roll Through the Ages (Yahtzee meets Civilization))
  • Atlantic Star (about Edwardian steamer cruise lines)The one I enjoyed the most was Wallenstein, partly of course because I managed to win, but also thanks to its ingenious source of the random element for battles. It’s a cardboard tower with hidden grids and shelves inside, and you toss little painted wooden cubes into it. Many of the ones you toss in don’t come out immediately at the bottom, but on the other hand a lot of old cubes from previous fights may pop out. And so you never know quite what the outcome will be.

    Even the drinking was geeky: last night some of the guys brought out a few beers each, and every single bottle turned out to be a microbrewery specialty offering. Nobody got sloshed.

    Then, after lunch today, I drove down to Norrköping and gave a talk at the town museum on the area’s 1st Millennium elite, which was very well received. And when I got home Jrette gave me a warm Father’s Day welcome!

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Weekend Fun

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  • Had breakfast guests: a beautifully pregnant old friend and our old boss/buddy came at ten and I cooked us all a full English. Everybody who’s into the Gustavian / Georgian era and reads Scandy, read Kristina Ekero Eriksson’s new popular biography of Märta Helena Reenstierna, the Lady of Årsta! I read it in manuscript, and I loved it.
  • Played Lost Cities against my wife who is getting worrisomely good at it, and Puerto Rico and Space Alert against gamer buddies. The latter game is highly unusual. It’s a cooperation game played against the clock, with a twist I’ve never seen before: it includes an audio CD that gives you messages and keeps time in the game while everybody orders their guys around. Then, when the audio track ends, you run the “program” you’ve all co-created, and see if you’ve all beat the game or not. Think Pandemic crossed with Roborally and played against the clock. We were crap, but we had fun!
  • Cocktail party, and for the second time, Junior babysat Juniorette. It’s really a new chapter in life when your kids aren’t small anymore!
  • My mom cooked us dinner to celebrate her birthday.

And you, Dear Reader? What did you do for fun this weekend?