PAX Unplugged Coffee Recommendations

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Now that the 2017 Essen Spiel Fair is over, the board gaming hype machine is turning itself towards my hometown, Philadelphia, for the first-ever PAX Unplugged! I’ll be in attendance, but this little update isn’t about my con experience, it’s about yours: In particular, your coffee experience! I spent 7 years working in specialty coffee, so I have lots of opinions about the subject, including the following:

  1. Hotel and convention center coffee is terrible (I was a wholesale salesperson with hotel and convention center accounts, so believe me, I know).
  2. Chain coffee isn’t much better.
  3. Local shops have character, vibes, and (often but not always) the best coffee around.
  4. Philly is a sleeper hit when it comes to the specialty coffee scene. Outside of the West Coast and Chicago, you can’t find a better coffee city than Philly (New York: You know I’m right. Don’t @ me).

So, when you’re in town for PAX Unplugged, here are my recommendations, helpfully sorted by proximity to the convention center…

LESS THAN A MILE: Go for a walk!

ELIXR: Hidden away on an alley behind a Chipotle, this is a locally-owned roasting company with a great staff. Few tables and a long line mean you should probably order to-go. Their direct relationships with farms in Guatemala mean that their late-fall offerings are incredible. 207 S. Sydenham St.

SQUARE ONE: Roasting in Lancaster, but with 2 locations in Philadelphia, about equidistant from the convention center. Thirteenth street is my favorite of these two locations: Bright and spacious, with plenty of seating and big communal table you can use for an off-site board game if you want. 249 S 13th St. or 1811 JFK Blvd.

MENAGERIE: Right in the heart of Old City, and not far from gamer/techie hub N3RD ST., Menagerie makes a great cup of coffee, usually from hard-to-find-on-the-East-Coast Midwestern roasters. If they have Ruby Roasters on the menu, get it!  18 S. 3rd St.

ONE TO THREE MILES: Grab a bikeshare or a Lyft!

ULTIMO: One of the city’s specialty coffee pioneers just started roasting their own coffee about a year and a half ago. Their espresso program, featuring single origins and cocktail-like signature beverages is a must. While the Catharine Street location is closer, the Fifteenth Street shop shares space with a craft beer bottle shop. 2149 Catharine St. or 1900 S. 15th st.

REANIMATOR: Super-light roasted beans from some of the best importers in the world. This minimalist, nordic style of coffee isn’t for everyone, but if you like it, you’ll LOVE it. Also the only place on this list where you can get a cup in the roasting facility itself! Full disclosure, I used to work here, and I absolutely love it. 310 Master St. (the roastery) or 1523 E. Susquehanna St.

LA COLOMBE: Philly’s most famous coffee brand is also its least consistent (sorry La Colombe!). The exception: The Frankford Ave flagship store, where the company’s top baristas showcase its excellent “workshop” brand of coffees. This spot also plays host to a restaurant, bakery, and rum distillery. Not my favorite place on this list, but worth a visit if you’re in the neighborhood.

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Designer’s Diary: Leviathan I

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My asymmetrical tabletop card-combat microgame was recently picked up by Past Go Games, and we’re planning for a Kickstarter launch on Oct. 9! Get the print and play here. Here are some of my thoughts on making this game:

I made this game, in short, because I love Moby-Dick. It’s my favorite book, for too many reasons to list here. I first read Moby-Dick while living, studying, and working at the Mystic Seaport in Mystic, CT. The museum houses the Charles W. Morgan, the last remaining wooden whaleship in the world. I studied, sang chanteys, and even spent a night board the Morgan, and that made reading Moby-Dick feel even more real to me.

But the book is daunting — with chapters that read like Shakespearean drama, science textbooks, introspective contemporary fiction, and swashbuckling sea stories, it’s a stylistic jumble that does not open itself to the reader at first glance. I wanted to give readers an easy way to appreciate Moby-Dick, and Leviathan is hopefully that. A whale-themed game was rolling around in my head, but I actually started work in earnest to create an entry for a micro-game contest. Pretty quickly, I realized that I wanted to make a micro-game that used the table space differently. My hope was to use the “the table is the board” aspect of wargames in a non-war-themed game. Leviathan didn’t quite meet that criteria (Ahab and Moby are undoubtedly at war with each other), but it tweaked the theme enough that I felt comfortable developing it further, knowing that it would stand out. My favorite thing about Leviathan is the suspense. I love hidden movement games, but the need for a paper and pencil in many of them strikes me as inelegant. When I’m playing Leviathan as Ahab, seeing the six shadowy whales surging across the table towards my flimsy boats is terrifying!

Leviathan’s asymmetry is also something I’m very happy with. By making each side play differently, Leviathan invites you to see things from the other side, sometimes immediately; many players, whether having won or lost as the Whales, immediately want to switch sides and play as Ahab.

The game’s working title came from one of the many names that Melville gives to whales as a whole. Leviathan is also referenced in the Bible, as a mysterious sea-monster, and as the title of Thomas Hobbes’s famous political treatise. I love the contrast of a big-sounding title for a micro-sized game, so (with the good advice of my publisher) the title stuck. As Melville writes “To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea” and (meaning no offense to Circus Flohcati) I think the same notion applies to thematic games.

Critical Modifications

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I gave a talk at a conference, and you can watch it here! Huge thanks to Tony and the folks at Lets Play PA for putting this conference together, and for putting all of the talks online so that others can see them.

There were a few kids in the room, which limited my content a little bit, and we broke for an activity, after which they shut off the recording, so the end of the talk was elided, but the full slideshow is viewable here.

Immigrant’s / Game Designer’s Nightmare

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Check out this wonderful and infuriating story:

http://wamu.org/story/17/02/10/immigrants-nightmare-schoolboys-entrepreneurial-response-homework-politics/

Huge props to the family here for backing Aidan — making and publishing subversive art is important to the health of our society, and making and publishing subversive games is important to the health of the form.

The folks at r/boardgames posted this, and hopefully one of the publishers’ representatives there will assist Aidan in developing and publishing this timely game.

A Game Without A Theme

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I recently developed this game for a class about game design fundamentals. It’s pretty simple, and (biased opinion warning, but one that’s been backed up by playtesters), pretty fun. I’ll post the rules below, and you can try it out, but here’s why I’m posting it: I want a theme.

There are plenty of theme-less games out there, but in the current gaming renaissance, a theme helps, and if I pitch this game, I’d like to at least suggest a theme to go with it. So, if you read this and get hit with the idea for a theme, get in touch. In the meantime, here’s the game:

TRADE OR DUEL a game for 4-9 players by Greg Loring-Albright

Components: 18 cards numbered 1-18.

Goal: End the game with the LOWEST hand total of all remaining players.

Setup: Shuffle the cards. Deal each player 2 cards. This is their hand. Keep it secret from all players. If playing with fewer than 9, set aside all unused cards without revealing them to anyone. Determine a first player. 

On your turn: choose any player. Say to that player “Trade.” Or say “Duel.” That player may not refuse. They must say “One” or “Two.” Thus, there are four possible interactions: Trade 1, Trade 2, Duel 1, Duel 2. Here is how each interaction plays out:

Trade 1: Each player chooses a card and lays it face down on the table. They trade.

Trade 2: Above, but with 2 cards.

Duel 1: Each player chooses a card and lays it face down on the table. Simultaneously reveal the cards. The higher card wins.

Duel 2: Above, but with 2 cards, and the highest SUM wins.

Winning Duels: The winner returns their card(s) to their hand. The loser’s card(s) are discarded, face-up, to the center of the table.

Tied Duels: In a tied duel (possible only in duel 2), both players lose, and discard their cards.

Elimination: If you have no cards in your hand, you are out of the game.

Unequal hands: If a player has a hand containing only 1 card, they may not declare or be declared to be part of the 2-card interactions. They (or they player they interact with) must choose Trade 1 or Duel 1.

Endgame: After everyone has taken 3 turns, the game ends. All non-eliminated players compare their hands. The lowest sum wins. If there is a tie, everyone remaining in the game takes another turn. Compare hands. Continue playing and comparing until there are no ties.

House on the Hill

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OK, so I love Betrayal at House on the Hill. It’s a theme-heavy, strategy-light romp through a haunted house, and about halfway through, you look up one of 50 (!) scenarios, usually involving one player turning on the rest and trying to kill them.

This game is a blast if you get into character, but one of its big flaws is that, if a new player becomes the traitor, they can feel WAY out of their depth. Each scenario (“Haunt”) has is basically a new game set in the already-explored haunted house, complete with its own rules, strategies, and ways to manipulate the game’s luck.

As I said above, I love this game. I’ve played almost every haunt, and, not to toot my own horn, but I’ve gotten pretty good at shepherding newbies through the complexities of the game’s second act.

That said, whenever it hits the table, I think, “Someone should make co-op haunts.”

Co-op (short for co-operative) board games like Pandemic or Flash Point pit all the players against the game, whose rules turn it into a murderous AI made of cardboard. Everyone wins or loses together, and they’re great fun if you’re worried about someone suffering because they don’t know the rules to a competitive game.

So, after lots of wishing for co-op haunts, I just sat down and made some. Here they are!

Download the PDF.

Enjoy, and let me know what you think!

 

Another Kind of Playtesting

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I. TWO KINDS OF PLAYTESTING

I’m relatively new to tabletop game design, but one piece of advice I have encountered again and again as I learn the craft is “Playtest as much as possible.”

I often hear this advice repeated as a reminder to prepare for “edge cases”: The rare play styles or occurrences that your rules might not have accounted for. This is good advice. Rules should be able to handle any and all play styles; an unresolved edge case could result in a game that quickly becomes unplayable, so this kind of playtesting is important.

There is another kind of playtesting, however, that I haven’t heard as much about, but is still just as important. If the usual advice is for the designer to engage in “edge case” playtesting, I’ll call this other style “high-skill” playtesting.

II. SELF-AGGRANDIZING THOUGHT EXPERIMENT

Imagine that your game, whatever it is, has achieved massive popularity and has a vibrant organized tournament scene. These players have spent hours and hours studying the efficiencies of your game, and know which move is the right one in just about every case. One of them has even written a guide book on playing your game.

Does your game hold up to this level of rigor? Most games should. Not every game requires this kind of playtesting. Immersive games, party games, games of chance; these games are not designed to create the kind of skilled play that classical perfect-knowledge/skill-only games like Go and Chess can create. But if your game involves mastery and skilled play, your playtesting regimen should include testing sessions with highly skilled players.

III. TWO NON-HIGH-SKILL PLAYTESTER TYPES

Most playtesting, in my experience, comes with a mix of edge-case players and middle-of-the-road players. No one has played the new game enough to develop intuition about correct moves or to grok the game’s core systems enough to understand them. The “average” playtester will follow the session leader’s cues, attempt to play the game well, and will end up playing at what is hopefully a representatively normal level of play. Other playtesters take pride in being edge-case wizards. These testers will not play to win. They will play to find the holes in your rules. Both playtester archetypes described here are valuable, but neither is a “high-skill” playtester.

IV. HOW TO GET HIGH-SKILL PLAYTESTERS

So how to you develop a group of high-skill playtesters to ensure that your game holds up to the rigor of top-level play? I’m not entirely sure what the answer to this conundrum is. As the game is in development, it is bound to shift, which means that no player can grasp the systems with the requisite depth to play at a top level. My answer so far has been to playtest it myself. As a designer, I tend to have blinders to some of the game’s flaws, so I’m NOT recommending replacing playtesters with yourself. I am, however, recommending supplementing your (hopefully rigorous) playtesting with some high-skill self-playtesting.

V. A FEW GUIDELINES

When self-playtesting at a high level, I’ve found it helpful to follow these rules:

1) Always make the optimum move: I’m tempted, when playing my games as multiple players, to develop a little personality for each of them: “Red will play defensively, blue offensively.” etc. Don’t. For high-skill playtesting, every player has to be a min/maxing machine. Always make the smart move.

2) Play the game all the way through: I tend to end my self-playtesting sessions once a winner is clear. It is useful, however, to see if a high-skill play style can turn a seemingly-certain defeat into a victory.

3) Take the time to run the numbers: This is my least favorite part, but high-skill players will do it. If you’re playtesting and deciding between two moves, use math to figure out which move to make. It’s time-consuming and annoying, but this is what high-skill players will do with your game once it’s out in the wild. Having done it yourself will give you real insight into whether or not your game will hold up.