Friday, August 25, 2017


Unplugged Dilintia: One Deck Dungeon

I am green with envy.

Between realizing that Desktop Dungeons is basically a card game and that Spider Solitaire has the brutal difficulty and opportunities for improvisation of a roguelike, I got to wondering if it was possible to make a proper dungeon crawl with a single deck of cards.  I even got some blank cards and made a few abortive attempts at it.

And then Asmadi Games just goes and does it.

To be fair, I never would have made a game this awesome.

This game ticks every box on my list.  It's a tiny box filled with very simple pieces that display extraordinarily complex behavior.  Character cards and dungeon cards introduce nuances that shake up the game every time you play it.  Setup is blindingly quick (once you're a little familiar with it), you don't need a lot of tablespace to play it, and cleanup is a snap.  You can even make out a character sheet to mark your progress in an ongoing campaign, earning yourself abilities that you'll need to conquer the tougher dungeons.  Every other dungeon crawler that I own is basically obsolete.  Dungeon!?  Hero Quest?  Wrath of Ashardalon?  Why mess around with those huge boxes and hundreds of pieces when I can just flip out this deck of 56 cards?

The game's single deck may be the headliner, but the mechanics are the real star of the show.  The main basic conceit is that you have a dice pool that represents your stats: yellow for strength, red for agility, and blue for magic.  (There are also black Heroic dice that you can earn in various ways which act as a wild card.)  Every encounter has colored boxes that you need to cover with your dice.  A small box needs a single die of the same color that's at least as high a number as the one listed.  A large box can contain any number of dice of the same color that total up to a number at least as high as the one listed.  Every box that you leave blank costs you some time and some life.  So far, so hoopy.

Then you add in character abilities and magic potions.  These allow you to trade dice, re-roll dice, add more dice to your pool, and so forth.  These abilities mitigate the random nature of the dice rolls, turning each encounter into a puzzle.  Which dice do you spend on abilities?  Which ones do you use to cover up the colored squares?  Which damage effects can you afford to suffer?

Then you add in monster abilities.  Every monster you encounter adds some little quirk to the encounter, like doing extra damage, costing extra time, and so on.

And then you add dungeon effects.  At the beginning of the game, you choose which dungeon you want to explore, and the deeper you go, the more buffs the monsters in the dungeon receive.  This is a really great way to steadily increase the difficulty of the game without having to make a separate stack of monster cards for Level 1, Level 2, and so on.  On the back of the dungeon card is the stats for the dungeon boss, which you get to face if you clear three levels of dungeon.

And let's take a moment just to appreciate how elegant the game's single deck is.  The draw pile represents time left to spend in the dungeon.  Exploring the dungeon and entering a room take time, and sometimes combat and traps will eat up time too.  The passage of time is represented by discarding cards off the top of the deck without playing them.  If you get to the bottom of the deck, additional time wasted comes with a slow health penalty, so you're encouraged to descend to the next level.

Facedown cards represent rooms you haven't entered.  Turning a card up represents opening the door and peeking inside.  You can then choose to have the encounter or flee.  (Fleeing, of course, ultimately costs you time because you'll need to open or search for a different door.)  The center of the card has a picture of the encounter and the colored boxes I mentioned.  Combat encounters work by rolling your entire dice pool and placing dice.  Trap encounters allow you to pick one of two ways to proceed.  One usually costs time and carries a smaller risk than the other.  You then use just one type of dice to try and fill one large box (in addition to rolling against the buffs listed on the dungeon card).

After suffering the consequences of an encounter, you get to loot the room.  (It's assumed that you defeat any encounter that you survive.)  Three edges of the card have information about what kind of loot is available.  You can take the loot as an item, increasing your stats and therefore your dice pool.  You can take it as an ability, giving you more ways to use your dice in combat.  Or you can take it as XP, which will eventually level you up and allow you to carry more items and abilities.  It's a really interesting choice because every option is beneficial and it's not always obvious which one you should choose.  But whichever one you go with, you then slide the card under your character card (or, in the case of XP, your level card) so that only the relevant edge of the card is showing.

It's so beautifully elegant.  Every card in the deck is capable of representing any aspect of the game, and so you only need one kind of card and therefore one deck.  Nothing needs to be divided at the beginning of the game, nothing needs to be sorted back into proper piles at the end.  Shuffle the deck and you're ready to start.  Gather the cards back up and you're done.  The game does cheat a little with a pile of extra components -- damage tokens, potion tokens, dozens of dice, and cards to describe the dungeon and your experience level -- but you're free to be a little messy with these.  It won't slow you down to just leave them in a big pile off to the side and pull them into the game as you need them.

And it really does feel like a roguelike.  It's tough.  The first time you play it, it might feel impossible.  But when you start trying out your skills and start to get a feel for how they might link together into combos, you'll start pulling out those tricky reversals and cunning escapes that the best roguelikes are known for.  I died on my first four attempts at the Dragon's Cave, but I never really felt frustrated.  I always felt like next time I would get a better ability, or better rolls, or I would just have a better idea of what I could have done differently.  And my gosh, did I ever feel like a clever asshole when I finally slew that dragon.

But if you don't enjoy being beaten by a deck of cards, there's Campaign Mode.  Campaign Mode is a set of optional rules that serves two functions.  First, it's a way to track your progress and score your victories.  Second, it puts the game's difficulty on a sliding scale that adjusts itself as you play.  You get a sheet that describes a number of abilities, each with a number of tick boxes next to them.  Every time you play, you earn checkmarks -- one for each time you level up, one for each dungeon level you clear, and three for slaying the boss.  Some tick boxes can only be filled if you challenged the harder dungeons.  If you fill in all of the boxes for a skill, you get access to it the next time you play.

The upshot of all this, of course, is that the game gets easier the more you play it.  Once I finished the Dragon's Cave, I took a peek at the later dungeons and boggled at some of the nasty effects that were at play.  I figured I should start building up my character if I had any hope of taking them on, so I started filling out a Campaign sheet.  And it's stunning how much easier the next two dungeons were.  I finished the Yeti's Cave on my second attempt and the Hydra's Cavern on my first.  Partly it was luck of the draw, partly it was my experience and understanding of the game developing, but the extra potion and hit point and starting skill sure didn't hurt.

See, if you fail repeatedly against a dungeon, you still earn checkmarks to boost your abilities, which makes subsequent attempts easier.  Play enough, and the game will eventually power you up enough to win.  For more immediate results, Campaign Mode also introduces an explicit difficulty select.  Novice mode allows you to start at experience level 2 with an extra healing potion, Standard mode allows you to start with one random card's worth of XP, Veteran mode is playing by the regular non-Campaign rules, and Fearless mode is beginning with no healing potions.  And as it happens, you get bonus checkmarks for the difficulty mode you chose -- you get two free checks just for playing the game by normal rules.

Purists will sneer at this style of play, but I'm glad it was included.  Not everyone is a hardcore roguelike fan, and adjusting the difficulty to meet the player's needs ensures that everyone can have a good time with the game and eventually see all of the dungeons it has to offer.  Normal mode is for people who want to "win" the game by out-smarting and out-lucking it.  Campaign mode is for people who want to "finish" the game.  It turns the game and its five dungeons into a story and gives them hope that they will eventually see the end of it.  After the initial difficulty of the Dragon's Cave, presented as the easiest dungeon in the game, I shuddered to think of what I'd find in the other dungeons.  I probably never would have attempted them without the training wheels offered by Campaign Mode.  Seeing how easily I got through the intermediate difficulty, I was actually kind of disappointed.  It's emboldened me to try them again sometime, but this time without "cheating".

And let's face it -- it's satisfying to tick off boxes on a sheet.  Even though the mechanic is designed to take some of the sting out of failure, you don't get the checkmarks for nothing.  Leveling up and clearing dungeon floors are small victories in and of themselves, and even the extra checkmarks you receive for difficulty selection require a certain degree of boldness from the player.  The bottom of the sheet has a number of boxes to allow you to track how many games you've played, so another measure of success is to finish the five dungeons in as few games as possible.

The game's great.  It's tiny, easy to learn, easy to pick up, moves quickly, and gives you a lot to think about.  Perfect brain candy.  I always want to play it forever.


Saturday, January 14, 2017


The Classic NES Mini Conspiracy

So Nintendo has been accused of manufacturing a planned shortage of Classic NES Mini units in order to get people's attention, drive up interest, and increase demand.  It's possible, I guess.  But if that was their intention, then it backfired spectacularly.

For one, I've forgotten that the damned thing ever existed.  When I first heard about it, I thought "What a fun idea!  I would like to buy one of those."  I showed up at the store on release day, and of course, I couldn't get one.  "All well," I thought, and that was about the end of it.  I saw some people talking about it on Twitter for about a day, and I haven't much heard or thought about it since.  This was nothing like the amiibo thing, where the buzz and the thirst survived for months after launch -- it just plain doesn't matter anymore.

The problem is, the thing had a very narrow window of relevance.  And that sentence is in the past tense, because it's over now.  That thing was a perfect little impulse purchase for the Nintendo fan who hasn't tasted the thrill of unboxing a brand new console for several years.  It was the perfect little flashy electronic gizmo to put under the Christmas tree.  It was a novelty that had exactly one holiday season's worth of legs to run on.  It was something to tide Nintendo fans over until they knew more about the Switch.

If Nintendo wanted to do a short initial release to drum up interest, the time to cash that interest in by flooding the shelves with product was before Nintendo fans were starting to prepare their wallets for the Switch launch.  No one is going to care about hooking up a dinky NES to their HD TVs this summer and next Christmas when they've got a brand new magical tablet system in their homes.  Yes, I'm sure there are still some die-hard fans who still hope to buy one some day, whether at scalper prices or otherwise, but now that Nintendo's initial marketing salvo is spent, I can't imagine people remaining hyped about the idea of an 8-bit plug-n-play TV games system for weeks or months while waiting for it to show up on shelves.

It's weird because Nintendo seemed to be taking the idea seriously.  They had demo presentations and advertising displays and they even re-opened their old hint hotline (which, hilariously, ended long before the majority of potential customers had any hope of actually buying the thing).  Why on Earth they would bother to raise so much awareness about something they didn't actually have available is beyond me.

We must believe that either Nintendo faked a shortage and forgot to cash in on it, or they just handled the device incredibly badly.  I have to believe it was the latter.  Nintendo has been badly misunderstanding the demand for their products lately.  Look at the 3DS, rotting on store shelves at launch because they believed they could gouge $250 out of us for a handheld.  Look at the Wii U, abandoned by the industry at large with terrifying speed.  And look at amiibo, inflating to $60 apiece on eBay because no one could find the damned things.  It seems like it's always feast or famine for Nintendo, and they lose out either way.

The only ulterior motive I could imagine for this behavior is to increase interest for Virtual Console games on the 3DS and Wii U.  I can't be the only person who saw all of this hype surrounding a tiny box of NES games and thought about how I already had two perfectly good machines -- one hooked up to an HD TV and one small enough to go with me everywhere -- that could download and play a much wider variety of games than that thing ever could.

It's not impossible.


Tuesday, October 04, 2016


Further Thoughts on Lego Dimensions

I've reviewed Lego Dimensions, performed an analysis of its cost, and done a little musing about why NFC toys are so appealing.  You'd think the subject would be out of my system by now, but here I am, sitting on my couch with a pile of Legos spread across my coffee table, still trying to make sense of it all.  Why this game?  Why am I still so completely hyped on a game that continues to ask me to buy into it?

Well, let's start with the fact that it's a Lego game, and Lego games are pretty damned awesome.  Traveller's Tales have come up with this formula that has pretty much universal appeal and application.  Let the player wander through scenes from their favorite movies -- or completely original scenes based on their favorite franchises -- and let them smash everything in sight, compulsively collecting shiny, shiny studs.  Give them a huge cast of characters to play as, each with abilities that can be used to solve puzzles and open new areas in those levels, and make those characters collectible and easy to switch between on the fly for maximum ease of gameplay.  Tie the whole thing together with hilarious and quirky Lego-ized cut scenes, and you've got all of the makings for a romp.  These games are easy enough that children -- the target audience -- can play them start to finish without much frustration, but complex and entertaining enough that adults can enjoy them too.

And Lego Dimensions really shows off the flexibility of their formula by making a game that's been pieced together from such disparate franchises as Doctor Who, The Simpsons, The Lord of the Rings, Portal, Back to the Future, Adventure Time, Scooby Doo, Harry Potter, and on and on.  Every world that you visit in the game has its own flavor, and yet they all feel like they fit together.

Of course, the difference between Lego Dimensions and other Lego games is the fact that you have to pay for every playable character that you want to add to the game, putting content like collectibles, hidden areas, levels, and explorable open worlds out of your reach unless you pony up the money for it.  And gamers are right to feel a little resentment about this because, frankly, this shit is pretty expensive.  The idea of tripping through the Lego multiverse with a wild and ludicrous cast of characters sounds amazing, but it takes a significant investment to make you feel like you're getting the complete experience.

I can't really argue against that.  If this is more money than you're willing to sink into a game, that's pretty much the end of the argument.  But I think I'm fine with it, and I can tell you why.

Probably the most significant reason, to me, is that this is a game that was designed with the intention of being expanded upon and bringing compatibility forward.  So instead of buying a whole new disc or Starter Set every year, they've kept the game in development.  This year they're releasing as many new levels and adventure worlds as they had last year as free downloads that you can activate by buying the appropriate characters, and plans are to do the same thing next year.  This is really awesome.  It's great for consumers because it makes them feel like everything they buy for this game is a piece that they're adding to this giant world, and it's great for Traveller's Tales and Warner Brothers because they can add a license to their game without having to worry about renewing it for a sequel disc a year later.  (Unless they do?  I don't know what the licensing for this game entailed; it seems like it would be a nightmare.)

And really, let's talk about the licensing.  I mean, you can see that Warner Brothers has really favored licenses that it already owns, like the Harry Potter movies, the DC Universe, The Lord of the Rings... But the fact is, they've really reached out to places like Universal, the BBC, and now Sonic Team and Cartoon Network to get them on board with this idea, and the game feels so much richer for it.  And maybe the extra money we have to sink into the game is just the price we have to pay to live in a world where Jake and Finn get to go adventuring in Middle Earth.

There's also the question of the kind of content you get.  Owning a character in a franchise gives you access to that franchise's open-exploration Adventure World, where you can roam around at will looking for missions to complete and just plain enjoying the experience of being in Lego-ized versions of your favorite franchise worlds.  I find these to be kind of hit or miss -- some of these worlds feel much too small to accurately represent their franchises -- but I have to admit, I will spend hours in these things, just hunting around for secrets and new things to do.  These worlds might be the strongest feature of the game as a whole just because they do give you more opportunities to play as your favorite characters for long stretches of time without having to switch out to cross obstacles designed for specific characters.  And it just plain does a better job of recreating the feeling of playing with toys.

But as much as I enjoy that sort of open, undirected play, the new levels are probably the premium content here.  The first couple Level Packs felt a little shallow to me.  The Simpsons and Back to the Future were the worst, neither of them being particularly action-oriented, which made it seem like they were over much too quickly.  But the levels have gotten better over time.  Ghostbusters was a pretty decent adaptation, and Midway Arcade actually added authentic emulated arcade games into the mix, and Year 2 started off with a bang with excellent Adventure Time and Mission Impossible levels.

Of course, what I really love is the new Story Pack idea.  There are going to be three of them this year, starting with Ghostbusters 2016.  Not only do you get an Abby Yates figure, an Ecto 1 Mark II build, a complete six-level adaptation of the movie, and a new adventure world, but you also get a completely new build for the portal that resembles the new Ghostbusters headquarters from the movie.  The new portal build looks awesome, it has a working sliding door -- I just love it to death.  It really makes Lego Dimensions feel like it's this sort of pseudo-platform that they're developing a complete game for, while at the same time mixing in with the rest of the world of the game -- you can take Abby out to the other worlds, and you can bring everyone else into her game.  I really look forward to seeing what they do with the other Story Packs they release in the future.

You also have to take into account that you're not just paying for software -- you're getting Legos.  Each new set that I collect gives me the opportunity to sit down for five minutes and put together a tiny Lego set.  It reminds me of the Lego sets that came in Happy Meals back in the 80s -- they're just these little bite-sized activities.  And when you're done, hey!  You've got a tiny Delorean!  Or the Mystery Machine!  Or BMO!  Or a Weighted Companion Cube!

Now, at this point I would love to argue that Lego Dimensions is a better toys to life concept because you get actual Legos that you can actually play with, but let's get real.  I'm not going to take these models apart.  I'm not going to mix them in with my Lego collection and make other things out of them.  These are my COLLECTIBLE MINIATURES.  And although the game gives you the option to upgrade these models by taking them apart and putting them back together in different configurations, I'm not going to do that either.  Those variations on the Weighted Companion Cube or the Tardis are nowhere near as cool as having the official model builds.  (Although I am pretty happy about upgrading the Delorean into a hovercar.)

And let's address one point of absolute, brutal honesty.  Lego Dimensions positions itself as being a better value than other NFC games because every figure also comes with a little build -- a vehicle, a gadget, an animal companion, etc.  And while it's really cool to see some of the iconic vehicles and props that are associated with these characters, there isn't a lot of difference between one vehicle or another.  I keep the Batmobile handy, and that solves most of the problems that I would need a vehicle to solve.  And not every character really needs this sort of extra.  Like, Legolas comes with this giant crossbow car because... that's what he had in the movie, right?

But even with all that said, these toys are just gorgeous.  They have the sort of detail that normally goes into the Lego Creator line, where pieces have been chosen quite creatively to add texture to every model, and a surprising amount of thought has clearly gone into every design.  Cyborg's power suit has several points of articulation.  The ghost trap actually opens up.  The doors on the Delorean open in the iconic spread-wing style.  Even if you treat these toys like sterile collector's items, they're still posable and cool and just fun to play around with.

And that's probably the reason why this game has been so successful at drilling past my defenses and getting into my brain.  Because I love Legos.  I've started collecting and building sets again as an adult hobby, and I love it.  And I would love a Portal Lego set.  But Legos are pretty pricey.  The Lego Portal set of my dreams would need enough pieces to actually build some test chambers that I could play around with, not to mention a fully articulated GLaDOS.  That would cost hundreds of dollars, easily.  A Lego Dimensions pack is kind of a reasonable compromise.  For thirty dollars, I get some physical pieces that I can build and interact with, a small, playable Portal level, and a huge explorable Aperture Science Adventure World.  It's as if every tiny Lego Dimensions box was a whole playset.

The last thing I have to say about Lego Dimensions -- until I figure out something else I want to say about it -- is how much I just adore the physical nature of it.  I love the little ritual of setting up the portal and getting out my figures when I want to play it.  I love setting out the characters that I'm going to need for the scenario that I have in mind.  I love switching between heroes on the fly as I'm playing, and the need to make the most of the limited space you have on the portal -- several puzzles require you to move characters around, and if you aren't smart about how you're using your space, you'll end up fumbling around and possibly being attacked by enemies.  It's something that I've loved about this game from the beginning, the idea that the portal is this sort of extra novelty controller that gives you something else to keep track of while you're playing.

Year 2 of Lego Dimensions is going to tear my wallet apart.  There are so many new franchises coming in that I want to get just for the pleasure of owning these characters as minifigs -- who wouldn't want an E.T. or a Gizmo?  I might be a little more sore about this if there was anything else I wanted to spend my spare time and money on, but as it is, I'm enjoying the ride.


Saturday, August 27, 2016


Unplugged Dilintia -- Brain Fitness: Solitaire Chess

A few years back, Think Fun started making apps based on their tabletop puzzle games, and the first one I bought was Solitaire Chess.  It's a bit like peg solitaire with chess pieces; you control all of the pieces, every move must be a capture, and you win if you're left with one piece on the board.  It was this perfect little mobile time-filler, and I liked it so much that I thought it would be fun to have the physical version.  After all, I like chess sets, and there's something nice about moving physical pieces around.

Unfortunately, the physical version of this game was... inelegant.  The puzzle layouts are printed on board-sized mats.  You're meant to stack them together so that the puzzle you're working on is on the top, and then slide the entire deck into a plastic gameboard construct and lock them in place with a small plastic piece.  This gave you the rather nice effect that you were playing on a gameboard with the puzzle layout printed on it.  The problem was, the stack of cards fit into the gameboard too tightly, and the plastic locking piece was a bit of a hassle to remove and replace every time you wanted to access it, and it turned moving from one puzzle to the next into this tedious rigamarole.  Alternately, the gameboard was designed so that you could lay the puzzle layouts on top of the board and just play with them that way, but I didn't like that solution.  The board was designed with little divots that the pieces could fit into, and laying the card on top made them inaccessible; it didn't feel like it was the way the game was "meant" to be played.  And no matter what you do, there doesn't seem to be any place in the entire assembly to house the instruction booklet.

Yes, I know this is nit-picky, but I'm a nerd, dammit.  These things are important to me.

So Think Fun have been re-releasing some of their puzzles under the "Brain Fitness" label.  They're the same games, but re-branded to appeal to more of an adult market with a less toy-like aesthetic that wouldn't look out of place on an executive's desk or something.  Solitaire Chess seemed like a natural candidate for this treatment -- Chess has always carried an air of sophistication with it -- and so here we are.

The Brain Fitness edition of Solitaire Chess throws the gameboard out completely.  All of the puzzles are printed in a spiral-bound book, and you simply turn to the puzzle you want to play, set the pieces on top of it, and play right off the book.  The entire affair comes in a nice sturdy cardboard box with a plastic mold that holds all of the pieces very comfortably.  Also, this version has 80 puzzles compared to the original's 60, so that's a bonus.

It's a shame that the original version was so awkward to use.  I can't help thinking that the best design for this game would be to have a single, static gameboard with challenge cards to describe the different puzzle configurations, like the majority of Think Fun's puzzles have.  As it is, the Brain Fitness version is slightly disappointing for not having a proper gameboard to play on, but is otherwise the quicker and more elegant way to play the game.  I might end up making my own gameboard to go with it, and I like craft projects, so that's a plus.

So yes.  Get the Brain Fitness version.  It's good.


Friday, August 19, 2016


Unplugged Dilintia -- Clue Master

Several years ago, Thinkfun published a game called Grid Works.  It's a logical deduction game where you have to place nine pieces -- three each of crosses, circles, and triangles, in blue, green or yellow, for a total of nine unique pieces -- on a 3x3 grid according to pictorial rules -- certain patterns either MUST appear or CANNOT appear in the finished configuration.

And it was pretty decent.

Then Chocolate Fix came out, and I'm afraid I was a little put off by how similar it was in concept to Grid Works.  I skipped it, thinking it was just a reskinned game.  But when Thinkfun started making apps, I thought what the heck and downloaded the game.  I was pleasantly surprised to see that, although the basic game was quite similar, the puzzles were designed to require slightly different tactics.  Where a lot of the solving in Grid Works comes from simply spotting patterns in the rules and building from them, Chocolate Fix has much more to do with setting up known patterns on the board and building on them -- to this end, the game comes with several temporary markers to help you visualize your solution.

So when I saw Clue Master on the shelf, I was open to it.  Hey, if they made Chocolate Fix so much different from Grid Works, maybe this new game will have its own little spin on things.

Guess what, it's just Grid Works.

I mean, I sat down and put the two games side by side and... although Clue Master has a decent share of new puzzles, a number of them are just 1:1 copies of the older puzzles.  So if you already have Grid Works, it's hard to give this new game a very strong recommendation.

However, I do think I like Clue Master better for a couple reasons.

For one, it's been reskinned with an 8-bit aesthetic that makes it a close match to Code Master.  Grid Works came out at a time when Thinkfun seemed to be moving away from the cartoony themes of games like Rush Hour and Stormy Seas and toward more abstract visuals like Tilt and Turnstile. It's nice to see Grid Works getting sort of a second chance now that Thinkfun is coming back to games with stronger personality and theming.

And the package as a whole is slightly nicer.  All of the solutions are arranged in one handy page at the back of the book, making it easier to check your answer (and this is the kind of game where checking your answer at the end is important).  The pieces are also nicer -- more solid compared to the spongey pieces in Grid Works.

And hey, Grid Works has been out of print for years.  If you missed out on it the first time, you might want to take a look at Clue Master now.  If you liked Chocolate Fix, you might find this take on the idea interesting.  And even if you already have Grid Works, maybe the couple of new puzzles and the flashier package will be worth it to you.


Tuesday, August 02, 2016


Unplugged Dilintia -- The Oregon Trail Card Game

There's something about The Oregon Trail, right?  It's this completely unfair little simulation game from the 80s that never taught you much besides how to shoot deer and die of dysentery.  Revisiting it as an adult, it doesn't feel like much of a game.  You have very few important decisions to make, and it's hard to feel what their impact is.  You have to learn by trial and error, and even then, it seems like your party members die for completely arbitrary and unavoidable reasons.

But that's kind of the point, isn't it?  The game was designed to teach players about the Oregon Trail, and it supposedly based its probabilities and consequences on real-world data.  Maybe it didn't teach any rote facts to impressionable young minds, but it sure as hell gave you a hands-on taste of just how difficult it was to try and cross North America in the 19th century.  I've always been sort of a pansy, tree-hugging, Bambi-loving wuss, but when you sat me in front of a keyboard and gave me a visceral demonstration of how hunting your own food meant life or death on the trail, I started gunning down deer with the best of them.  It might be one of the earliest examples of "video game as documentary".

And now, some forty-five years after the original college-exclusive HP 2100 minicomputer version, Pressman Toys has decided to pick up the license to create a card game, because why not?  Nostalgia runs deep.

Don't expect a lot of deep simulation or book-keeping.  This game is very fast-moving and lightweight, perfect for a casual family game or chilling with your tabletop friends.  I can't account for the authenticity of its probability data -- I expect it's close to nothing -- but it certainly manages to recreate the feeling of playing the computer game.  Instead of trying to correct the original game's difficulty, the card game unapologetically embraces it, even littering its promotional materials with gallows humor about the likelihood of death.

The game is played cooperatively.  Every player is dealt Trail and Supply cards.  On your turn, you can play a Trail card to advance down the trail.  A few cards are Towns and Forts where you can resupply, a few more are simple clear trail, but the majority of the cards challenge you to ford a river by rolling a die or to draw a Calamity card.  Calamities are all of the nasty events you remember from the game -- sickness, cold, dead oxen, and so on.  When a Calamity is put into play, you either deal with its consequences immediately, or you get a limited amount of turns to play a Supply card to remedy it before it results in the death of a player or worse.  If the team plays enough Trail cards before everyone dies, then everyone -- dead players included -- wins.

As a charming little touch, the game comes with a dry erase pen and a whiteboard designed to resemble the character name entry screen from the computer game.  When a player dies, you can erase their name from the list and turn the card over to reveal six tombstones designed to resemble the ones in the computer game's death screen.  You can write the player's name and a little epitaph before moving on.  This isn't a strictly functional gameplay element, but it's a nice little touch to remind players of the original source material.

It can take a few tries at the game to get a feel for how to play well.  Certain supplies are more valuable than others, and sometimes it's better to let a Calamity run its course than to waste the limited resources to try and fix it.  Even then, the game is kind of a screwjob, especially for smaller parties.  A two-player team gets only 10 supplies to split at the beginning of the game, and the party can only suffer two deaths before they're defeated, and yet the rules say they have to try and cover the same distance as a five-player team with 20 supplies and a much greater buffer for untimely deaths.  With the number of Calamities that result in instant, unavoidable death, it's possible for a small team to be dealt an unwinnable hand.

But that can be fun if it's the kind of experience you're looking for.  And while it, being a card game, can be modified to meet your particular tastes with regard to difficulty, it can be satisfying to play the game on its own terms and eventually, one day, hit that one magical run where everything finally comes off and ends with your wagon rolling into Willamette Valley.

Solitaire Rules

Being a cooperative game, it's relatively easy to come up with a solitaire variation.  Here's my take on it.

All in all, I'd have to say I'm pleasantly surprised with this game.  Licensed tabletop games are sort of hit or miss, but this game does a good job of bringing the Oregon Trail experience to your tabletop without bogging it down with a lot of rules and moving parts.  It feels a good deal more random than some of the really good, deep European tabletop games that have become so popular these days, but if you have any kind of nostalgic connection to the computer game, you'll probably find this is a good bit of fun.


Thursday, April 21, 2016


Ten Years Is A Long Time

I've been wondering for a while now how I was going to mark ten years on this blog.  Round, even numbers like 10 don't come around very often, and they please us so very much that it seems like a shame not to celebrate them when they happen.

But honestly, I'm not feeling very retrospective.  It's just a blog.  It seems kind of silly to celebrate what amounts to a landfill for all of the thoughts about video games that I need to get out of my head for a while.  Don't get me wrong, I'm pretty happy about quite a lot of the things I've written.  Every now and then I thumb through it with narcissistic contentment, like "DAMN those are some good opinions".  I know I'm the only person who reads this thing.  I'll probably peek in on this a few years down the line and be like, "Yup, ha ha."  Fistbump, Future Me.

If this blog is anything, it's a record of how my relationship toward video games have changed over the years.  I go back to my earliest posts and smile about what a narrow-minded little fanboy I was.  You can see me trying to emulate the tone and style of the professional game review sites, never going any deeper than giving a colorful list of a game's features.  You can also see, here and there, symptoms of burnout -- it was a point in my life when I'd spent a decade acquiring video games with my own money, and I was starting to feel like it was making me unhappy and I needed a different way to relate to them.

Eegra changed me.  Discovering a website filled with people who were both smart and held a passion for video games made me want to try harder.  It took me outside of my bubble and awakened me to the budding indie scene that was developing in the PC realm.

I don't write as much these days.  I've abandoned the idea that I'm writing these articles for any reason beyond my own pleasure, so I tend not to bother unless I feel like I have something to say and I don't see anyone else saying it.  And while I've never stopped buying and playing video games, I have at least slowed down considerably.  I linger more on the experiences that matter to me.

And, in a way, this blog has helped me come to this place.  Instead of constantly watching game news and tracking when the next big thing is about to release, I take a flip through my archives and remember how excited Go Vacation made me, or how cool it is that Fantasy Life has a pacifist path.

So let's mark the tenth year of Electric Dilintia by saying that I'm feeling pretty good.  Video games are as awesome and as horrible as they've ever been.  As long as I keep thinking about them, I'm going to keep writing about them.

And with any luck at all, I'll have something a bit more substantial to mark the Wii's ten year anniversary.


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