Solvable Games, Themes, Mechanics, & Player Expectations

People often talk about “breaking” games. Most of the time, I think what they mean is that they have arrived at a process by which they can win against their particular playgroup (or groups). My board gaming is challenged by the fact that my family will play games with me as a way of spending time together, but none of them are particularly into games. This tends to suit my preference for playing new games regularly (which frustrates them, I’m afraid) because I don’t gain expertise in the games and thereby surpass them in an un-fun way.

But some games see a lot of play, and some of those I don’t seem able to lose. 7 Wonders is one of these. No matter what I do, I seem to do well compared to my family in this game. Last night I played a game of it with my brother, Todd, and Jenifer. I thought I would try monopolizing the gray resources early in the game and thereby get an income from the other two as they tried to stop me from getting a crushing monopoly on science (green) cards. Well, they didn’t try to stop me, so I ended up with an insane collection of science (three full sets of three, plus a couple more).

In our brief debrief, I asked why they didn’t stop me from getting all those easily chained cards. The answer was a little surprising to me. That level of competition is less interesting to them than to thinking positively about their own civilizations. It is more fun for them to more or less ignore my winning tableau and focus on making a satisfying tableau of their own. I feel like this is a case of a mismatch between theme and mechanics. The theme is about building up a civilization, but the game is all about drafting the best pick of limited resources while keeping a shrewd eye on what the other players are doing. It’s not a huge mismatch, but the ways in which a civilization are built are not modeled in the game one for one. Both of my opponents value constructive play over competitive play and destructive play. But in the thematic approach of the game’s designers, civilization isn’t about inward-facing constructive urges so much as it is about competition. So when I say a mismatch of theme and mechanics, it’s really a mismatch between player expectations for this particular group and the experience that is produced by the mechanics in play.

Like any well-conceived game, 7 Wonders models a certain experience of play to reinforce a position on its theme. I don’t know if the designers thought about it like this, but in order to play well, you have to play in a certain way (competitive play with attention paid to restricting limited resources from others). Following through on that way necessarily paints a picture of the rise of ancient civilizations where competition is highlighted.

Compare with the focus of Race for the Galaxy (also about civilization building, albeit far future) and you will see a huge difference in the play experience. RftG is all about the efficient use of internal resources, and finding the best way forward given random opportunities. Both games involve making the right choices from a limited set of tempting options, but in RftG competition is sidelined to a timer mechanism–you have to watch the others to adjust the pace of your development and to try to use their needs (read: action card selection) to your advantage. Playing RftG tells you that you never know what the universe is going to hand you, and that the most important thing is to be aware and make the best use of this things it does.

For a third look a the broad category of civilization games, take a peek at Smallworld (or its predecessor, Vinci). Smallworld has a completely different take on civilizations: each has its moments of glory and then a slow burn to decline, and the most successful players can time things right. One of the things that I most like about Smallworld is that protracted, direct competition is almost always detrimental to the aggressor. So choosing to go to war means reducing your short-term potential for scoring. Yet the game is rife with conflict.  It reinforces a view that conflict is unavoidable, but that you should choose your battles with great care.

The more I think about games, the more I come back to core experiences. What does the game push you to do? It is all well to think about games in terms of mechanics. But the presence of a particular mechanic or procedure tells you very little about the core experience of the game. And a good experience is like a good literary theme, it makes a stand about something, leaving you to ponder it. Just as with literature (and other arts as well) some themes are not to the liking of some people. Consumer beware.


[Monthly Monsterhearts] First Session

This is the second installment of my actual play log of a monthly Monsterhearts game that I’m playing with Jamie Fristrom, Sev Trooskin-Zoller, and Erin Sara Beach-Garcia. You can find the first installment, which contains basic information about the characters in the story, here.

Session 1

As this was our first session, we spent some time talking through our setting (modern day, in a fictionalized Concrete, WA) and doing the homeroom seating chart. I have to say, as an opinionated aside, that I really enjoy the seating charts. Beyond setting up some interesting NPCs for the game, I feel that it really gets a lot of work done setting expectations and normalizing genre for everyone assembled. The results of that work are the characters summarized in my first post.

Scene 1

Miss Mayberry, the home room/English/Social Studies teacher set the class up for some unstructured study time. Tucker, the captain of the wrestling team and our resident asshat, was languidly lobbing spit balls at the back of Logan’s head from two rows back. Logan contacted the Emissary on his smart phone to determine what it would take to cause Tucker to choke on one of the projectiles. The cost, telling Tess (the girl sitting between the two) a secret about himself, was too high, and Logan kept things low-key. Meanwhile, Brooke made a show of going up to the teacher’s desk to ask a question as cover for passing a note to Anita (“This school needs a party. Stat!”). She followed this up with a note to Peter (through the hands of smitten and disgruntled Tom) stating that there would be a party in the woods that night. To Brooke’s chagrin, Peter passed the note on to Tucker.

Scene 2

P.E. for the boys. “Coach” Bartlett was yet again making the class play football, and every fumble and error resulted in running laps. We see Peter making his way slowly around the track, smoking a cigarette. Bartlett tells Preston, his favorite, to stop Peter. Preston throws the ball at Peter, who catches it and tries, ineffectually, to throw it back hard at his head. The “coach” tells Peter he has to come to “football practice” after school.

Scene 3

Meanwhile, in art class, Brooke makes a point of getting an easel next to Amber and asks her to the party. Amber is suspicious of social sabotage of some sort, but eventually promises to come.

Scene 4

Cut to the party that night. It’s out in the woods down by the river. This is the only place for kids to hang out in the area, so it’s well-used. Between Brooke and friends, enough alcohol has been gathered to sate the crowd. Bea is on hand providing weed—it isn’t clear whether she’s selling or giving it away. Brooke is trying to be nice to Amber. She invites her over to where the cooler kids have been hanging out by the inevitable fire and gives her a wine cooler (or more up-to-date girly drink). Tess and Anita aren’t quite convinced that they should be hanging out with Amber, and accuse Brooke of taking her on as a “charity case.” Brooke pulls them aside and tries to get them to stop being bitchy, but they resist and go their separate ways. Brooke is accused of sympathizing with a slut and of being obvious.

Meanwhile, Peter is shotgunning beers with Tucker and they are both a little wasted. Shelly is pissed that Tucker is getting drunk with his buddies instead of her and starts exchanging innuendoes with the more sober Peter. They are both momentarily turned on, but Peter’s conscience gets the better of him, preventing him from going off in the woods with his friend’s girlfriend. Shelly, not in the mood to feel rejected, sees that Tucker isn’t even paying attention and therefor can’t get jealous, and stalks off.

Concurrent with the beginning of the party, Logan dons his ski-mask and prowls the streets “on patrol.” He eventually finds Jeff’s parents behind a bar in mid-drunken-altercation. He tries to cow the dad with his super-heroic presence, but fails and inadvertently insults the mom, who punches him in the face. Undeterred, Logan lays out Jeff’s dad cold. This causes Jeff’s mom, Lacy, to start yelling for help. The bartender-cum-bouncer comes out of the bar with a baseball bat. After a brief exchange, Logan tries to punch the guy, who fends him off easily and takes his ski-mask. After a little more posturing and flailing, Logan leaves.

Back at the party, Peter drunkenly tries to look into the abyss, but fails. He is dazed and woozy from the experience, and in that state he runs into Bea. He convinces her to sit and smoke a joint with him, and turns her on in the process. They go off to Peter’s truck to have sex.

Brooke apologizes to Amber about her bitchy friends and takes her out to lay on the big rock in the middle of the river and look at the stars. They talk for a little while, but Amber continues to be uncomfortable, both socially and physically (it’s cold out on the river late at night). Brooke convinces Amber to go play video games together at Amber’s place (Amber is into video games). Amber still suspects social sabotage, but Brooke walks through the party to the parking lock arm-in-arm with her to reassure her that everything’s okay.

Logan, discouraged and unmasked, decides to go to the party (where better to find trouble, after all?) He arrives to find Tucker smacking Shelly around. With significant help from The Emissary, Logan steps up and give Tucker a little of his own medicine. Tucker leaves, and Logan tries to take advantage of the situation to arouse an already receptive Shelly. After failing that, he joins the party proper and tries to be cool. A group of freshmen seem impressed, particularly Marshall, who seems to admire him. After a short conversation, Logan manages to out himself as a geek.

Logan walks to the parking lot and sees Peter, post-coital, leaning out of the truck, chest-hair bristling and coolly smoking a cigarette. Logan is a bit turned on. They talk a little and Logan realizes that Peter wants to be friends like the old days, but wants Logan to be more cool (or at least less nerdy). Logan tries to be cool by talking about how he punched Tucker, with limited success. He notices that there’s a girl in the truck at some point.

“Who’s that in the truck?” Logan asks.

“I don’t know.” Peter pauses for a beat, then, “Just fucking with you, it’s Bea.”

Peter drives both Bea and Logan home. He drops Bea off first and smacks her ass on the way out of the truck. She’s pissed at him.

Scene 5

While the second half of the party is going on, Brooke and Amber are at Amber’s house playing video games. Brooke isn’t very good at them, but laughs good naturedly whenever Amber shoots her in the head. After a while of letting things unwind on their own, Brooke starts to offer some physical reassurance—a hand on a shoulder, for instance. Soon they are making out on the couch. It’s obvious that Amber is craving affection. It doesn’t go any farther than that. As she leaves, Brooke gets Amber to promise that she’ll try to stand up for herself more, at least when she has Brooke to back her up.

[Monthly Monsterhearts] Who’s Who

This is the first account of the Monsterhearts game that I’m playing once a month with Jamie Fristrom, Sev Trooskin-Zoller, and Erin Sara Beach-Garcia. It’s mostly a record for us to remember what the heck is going on between widely-spaced sessions, but it might be interesting to others (though, probably not—play reports are kind of like describing the details of your marathon run to someone who wasn’t there).

Dramatis Personae

Sev graciously volunteered to MC for us, leaving three player characters. We’re all juniors in a fictionalized version of Concrete, WA (it’s a real place, look it up). Heading up toward the mountains in the middle of nowhere, with lots of trees and whatnot around. Our school is a commuter high school for the small towns in the surrounding area.

Logan, The Infernal (Jamie)

Logan is a nerd who discovered a “secret equation” on his computer that, it turns out, is something bad called the Emissary. Logan is a lonely kid, mostly ignored, not too much picked on. This one time, at the end of last year, Logan’s mom made him go to a school dance so he could “meet people”. He was miserable and alone, and Brooke danced with him. Since then, he’s been watching her, a little. He and Peter used to be besties when they were little, but Logan retreated into his nerdy pursuits at some point and they drifted apart.

Logan may or may not be bisexual. Or, rather, he probably is, but he hasn’t worked it all out yet.

Peter, The Werewolf (Erin Sara)

Peter is a tough kid who manages a level of popularity while still being a little removed from the popular kids. He hangs out with Tucker, the captain of the wrestling team (which is where the jocks are in absence of a football team) but isn’t on the team and seems to have some influence over him that we haven’t really figured out yet.

Last year, Peter was at an epic party out in the woods where everyone was wasted. He got bitten by a werewolf, but the memories weren’t all that clear. He’s slowly learning the extent of his abilities (or, if you prefer, curse). Peter and Logan were tight when they were kids, but they drifted apart as Logan began to withdraw into his nerdiness. Peter has been watching him, hoping that there was a way to get back what they once had. Recently, he drove Logan into “the city” (Bellingham) to get some computer parts or something, and Logan kind of owes him one for it.

Brooke, The Fae (Jay)

Brooke was born into a family that lived out in the middle of nowhere, even by the standards of concrete. Her parents were always at each other’s throats. When she was 10 she ran away into the woods and was “never found”. The parents soon split up and moved away. She was actually found by a full-blooded Fae who had chosen to live among mortals for reasons as yet unknown. Her adopted mother bestowed the gifts of the fae on her and they moved to Concrete together.

Brooke is on the volleyball team and is reasonably popular. There was that time last year when she danced with Logan at the Spring Fling to make the other girls stop laughing at him.


In no particular order.


Tom is into Brooke and sits right behind her in home room. She’s been nice to him, partly because she’s “nice to everybody,” and partly because he’s a good photographer, and is helping her get the school newspaper off the ground.


Apart from Logan, Jeff is the smartest kid in class. He’s well-rounded in his academics and is relatively cheerful. He is, at least in part, motivated to do well because he fears his abusive parents.


Bea’s dad is the go to pot dealer in town. She likes the money and what they can do with it, but tries not to think too hard about where it comes from. Very recently, she was walking on the train trestle with Tess and Mary. She was stoned and fooling around, and caused Mary to get caught and hit by a train.


Used to be friends with Bea, but blames her (rightly, it would seem) for Mary’s death. At least nominally friends with Brooke.


He’s a geek, but isn’t comfortable in the role. He’s nearsighted, but won’t wear his glasses, because he doesn’t want to look like a nerd.


Captain of the wrestling team. A douchebag.


Held back a year because last year she got pregnant and had an abortion. She likes to play video games.

Miss Mayberry

Home room teacher. She was the prom queen at school a decade or more ago, and tries to continue in that mode. Plays favorites.


Brooke’s best friend. She’s into theater and, perhaps, “drama”.


Tucker’s #1 crony. Sheldon’s cousin. He’s not comfortable with how much control Peter has over his friends, and wants to be top dog himself.

“Coach” Bartlett

Would be the football coach if there was a team. Uses P.E. as an excuse to indulge his gridiron fantasies. Trying to get Peter to be one the non-existent team, for which he holds practices and everything.


“Coach” Bartlett’s favorite suck-up.


The queen bee of the junior class. Dating Tucker. Not a nice person.


Jeff’s mom. Abused., but not all sunshine herself.

RPGs vs. Story Games



A year ago, I would have told you that I didn’t like the term “story games”. It seemed to me to be a slightly elitist term for roleplaying games used by slightly elitist gamers who wanted to put some distance between themselves and the dysfunction and baggage of “traditional” games like Dungeons & Dragons. I still can’t confidently tell people the difference beyond the mind-numbingly simple (“a story game is a game where you make a story”). However, I have come a long way in that year, partly because I have had a chance to put in a lot more play time on games that can’t be confused with D&D at all–games like Fiasco and A Penny for My Thoughts.

Most importantly, I’ve internalized a lot about the kind of play that happens at the Story Games Seattle Meetup group. Those gatherings demand that a whole and complete story be played out in 3-4 hours, (usually) without a centralized authority, and with zero prep. To make that work, you need games that create and support dynamic situations quickly. You need games that often feel very different from the traditional model to play. In short, you need story games. And my designer’s mind has really embraced the idea.

In my mind, I’ve started calling them story-making games. That is, games where the story is made by playing the game instead of ahead of time. I’ve found this so much more satisfying than traditional play that I find myself looking for ways to eliminate the game master from games that have them by default.

So, yeah, I’m okay with “story games” as a thing now. Which is not to diminish the fun that many people still have with traditional RPGs. It’s better for both activities to differentiate.

Fiasco Night was not a Fiasco!

I facilitated an evening of Fiasco for five tables of four players each last night at the Center for Serious Play at UWB. It was a blast! I was kind of bummed to not be playing, but it was hilarious to run from table to table and overhear a variety of crazy scenes in progress.

I don’t know yet if I have any new converts to Story Games, but everyone seemed to heave a great time.

Henry and the Laser Guitar

This is an aborted branch of my final project where I illuminate props with a laser pointer and the reflected glow lights the model. This one turned out quite nicely. The starburst pattern is just laser reflection + optics + long exposure.

Henry Bale illuminated by guitar casting reflections of a laser pointer

Thanks to my pal Henry Bale for modeling.