Chasing the Ovoid: The Cosmic Goodness that is Chaosmos

Hand of Equipment cards from board game Chaosmos with ovular Ovoid card on topCurrently on Kickstarter, Chaosmos is a cosmic chase played out via board game for the enigmatic Ovoid, a singular item of untold power. Produce the Ovoid card at the end of the game and you’re the winner, but along the way you’ll probably have to search planets, battle your foes with futuristic weaponry, and possibly even reverse time! Each player controls a unique alien race with its own set of powerful special abilities, as well as a hand of Equipment cards. By visiting a planet cards can be exchanged with those on the planet, represented in the game by an envelope. By paying attention to rivals’ interplanetary travels and opponents’ cards (revealed by being the victor in battle), shrewd players will begin to construct an understanding of their opponents’ strategies as well as possible locations of the Ovoid. If the Clue-like sleuthing isn’t enough to whet your appetite, Chaosmos features a 35mm miniature for each of its eight alien races as well as the Chaos Clock dial, which keeps track of game turns and can be reversed or sped up by use of the Temporal Displacer card, which can move the Chaos Clock forward or backward up to 8 turns!

The great news is that Chaosmos has already met its $40,000 goal. I spoke with game designer Joey Vigour of Mirror Box Games the day after the game’s launch, on January 3, when the game had just reached 50% Funded and he revealed a wealth of information about Chaosmos’ development, strategy, and Stretch Goals.

The Development of Chaosmos

Game designer Joey Vigour from Mirror Box Games at Chaosmos Board Game at GAMA Trade Show convention

(L to R) Danny and Joey Vigour at the 2013 GTS with Chaosmos

CG: Can you describe the process of the decision to Kickstart the game yourselves, because as I know, you had several serious nibbles from some game publishers at the GAMA Trade Show?
JV: Yeah, absolutely. We debuted our game at the GAMA Trade Show in March 2013 and our original goal was to meet a bunch of publishers and find out if the game was something that could compete in this current marketplace and it had original mechanics. We were pretty familiar with sort of the classic modern games, but we weren’t really sure if it was a marketable concept because it is pretty different from what’s on the market. We met with seven or eight different publishers at that show. We had lined up several interviews in advance and we met a couple people that let us pitch to them at the show. Three of the meetings went well and we followed up several times and there was some back and forth. One company actually requested that we develop the game with a completely different theme. But ultimately we just decided that this is a personal project so we really wanted to produce the game ourselves and the only aspect of producing the game that we didn’t think we could handle on our own was fundraising and so that’s why we decided to go with Kickstarter.
CG: Ok, now what was the theme that they were interested in?
JV: It was essentially a joke. I had jokingly said “Oh, and if you don’t like space then we could just make it pirates.” And they thought that was great and they wanted pirates, so instead of Hyperspace – which lets you teleport – they wanted Favorable Winds and you know… so it’s interesting.
CG: Yeah, I guess that in many ways it could still work. I don’t know about the countdown clock (Chaos Clock) and would they be chasing Davy’s Jones…?
JV: The Chaos Clock was going to be a Kraken. It was an interesting dalliance, but the honest truth is that I’m actually pretty married to the space theme. It’s a very personal theme for me; I love space. It was always conceived to be space. It was inspired by a bunch of different sci-fi books, especially one, Interstellar Pig, that’s a space book. It just seemed totally wrong to publish it with a pasted-on theme because so many mechanics are specifically designed secondarily to the theme and they work so well with the space theme. And so we were really stretching it. Why would you be able to remotely look at an island that was thousands of miles away in the pirate theme? It just wasn’t working; I didn’t like it. There wasn’t really a lot of money on the table anyways, so this was the right decision, to self-publish.

Early Origins of Chaosmos: Joey Vigour’s Childhood and an Interstellar Pig


CG: Right. So you mentioned conceiving the game, what was the original interstellar galactic event that spawned Chaosmos?
JV: I guess I would have to go back to my childhood. When I was a kid I designed a bunch of games and one of them was a paper-and-cardboard prototype called Interstellar Pig and it was inspired by a kids’ book [of the same name by William Sleator] that I still like to this day. Very rudimentary game. Roll and move, but the book was just great. Very inspirational. I thought a lot about space and a lot about the idea of flying around and looking for cosmic treasure essentially. So several game designs later, I ended up looking back at that prototype and reimagining it as a modern board game with an action point allowance instead of rolling and moving and a lot of, sort of, unique spins on existing mechanics and then some mechanics that I hadn’t seen before at all. So the initial game design started when I was a kid, but about two years ago, 2012 is when I buckled down and decided I was going to start working on this seriously. And it took about a year of development and then the past year since March has been almost exclusively putting my ducks in a row, building up to January 2, 2014 when we launched.
CG: Sure. Now have you read the sequel, Parasite Pig?
JV: Haha, I have read Parasite Pig; I think it’s terrible, haha. I’m not a fan of the sequel. I don’t think that it has the spark that the original has.

An Evolving Chaosmos

Fat multi legged alien species Drusu from board game Chaosmos

Concept Artwork for Drusu the Scryer

CG: You mentioned getting your ducks in the row, but what has changed about the actual game since the 2013 GAMA Trade Show in March? Have you changed anything about the game.
JV: Absolutely. I guess the primary advancement since that trade show is game balance and cutting down on player downtime, because when you playtest a game with friends and everyone knows all the cards there’s not a lot of analysis-paralysis. But when we actually took it to blind playtesting, we found that players really were uncomfortable making snap decisions that they didn’t fully understand the repercussions of taking certain cards versus other cards. There’s a lot of Race for the Galaxy style choices you have to make where you have a bunch of great cards and you have to discard some of them, or in this case, leave some of them behind on a planet. That just wasn’t working, for players to have to wait their turn, so to speak. So I would say the big change in the past nine months – and it’s a wonderful change – is that you’re now allowed to start your turn as soon as the previous player says he’s finished and he can continue adjusting his hand and the cards in his envelope and make changes between which cards are in his hand and his envelope even when it isn’t his turn. So that is a dramatic change. It allowed us to cut half an hour out of the gameplay and reduce the problems of analysis-paralysis to a negligible degree.

purple-fuschia plastic sculpture of multi legged alien Drusu miniature from Chaosmos board gameCG: Did any of the alien races change? Do they all still have the same names and the same unique game-breaking abilities?
JV: We balanced the races more. That was a major change, because some aliens had amazing powers that were really powerful, but new players couldn’t figure out how to have fun with them, because they are basically really difficult powers. So we just tweaked everything until each alien now has basically a simple power and a more interesting or complex power. And so you can use both powers together in some cases or just the simple power. That was great. The alien names changed a lot in that they have really really long names, but we gave them nice, simple, memorable names. Like Vroon is pretty easy to remember. And Guriwan is a pretty easy to remember planet. Melphyuri-Ghorshi got shortened to Mel-Ghor, so a lot of positive changes in that way. It doesn’t hurt the gameplay at all obviously. Mel-Ghor’s the same planet and it’s called Melphyuri-Ghorshi by the aliens that inhabit it, but the galactic record books shortened the word [laughs] to Mel-Ghor.

CG: Now what’s the deal with this Homesick alien?
JV: Oh, the Haghouhen. Yes, so, he’s a very sad alien. He’s the last surviving member of his race. His planet was destroyed by comets and raided by Atturnuk’s race, the Cphovic Empire, so he’s the only one left. And he believes – maybe correctly, maybe incorrectly – that the Ovoid is the secret to reviving his race so he won’t be alone anymore.
CG: Ok. He’s kind of emo.
JV: Yes, he’s the emo alien.
CG: Now did you ever think of leaving some of these blank and then have as pledge levels on Kickstarter that backers actually name some of these things? How important are the names to you?
JV: Most of the names were created by my friend William Tombs. He also did most of the art, not the 3D renderings, but the art that the renderings were based on. And he is, in my opinion, like J.R.R. Tolkien. He has a whole world designed and he wants to make a bunch of games set in this universe: miniatures games and roleplaying games and novels. I think it’s great. I don’t think this particular game requires that amount of alien research in order to enjoy it. You can have Alien A, the Green Alien, or the Blue Alien or it could be like Cosmic Encounter where you have very simple alien names like Mirror, but I like a little bit of flavor. I think it is part of the overall experience and narrative as you play the game. When you remember particular sessions later, it’s more fun if you had an epic battle on the toxic planet of Atturnuk and Atturnuk reveals his Respiration Worm which is a worm that lets him breathe on Guriwan. It’s just more fun. It allows you to enjoy the game thematically as well as mechanically.

Sword-wielding alien Brute Atturnuk the Brutal from board game Chaosmos

Player Card for Atturnuk the Brutal with Space for Hyper Tokens and Special Abilities

CG: Now any changes in the technology cards, the Equipment cards?
JV: There’s been some changes. One example is, there was a card called Cosmic Fear which forced your opponent to lay down all the combat cards that he was going to play all at once. That way you could decide whether you needed to waste that extra Ion Grenade in order to beat him or if you could save it. But that card ended up being too powerful, so it ended up being changed to a single-use card which goes to the Void after you’re done playing it. It was too powerful, because no card in the game should feel like a must-grab. Everything needed to be equivalent or equivalent in that they’re all good situationally. That was the biggest change, I would say, in the last six months, is weakening that card a little bit.

Mirror Box Games and Chaosmos at BoardGameGeek.Con

“BoardGameGeek.Con is a must-go. It was the greatest con I’ve ever been to.”

CG: I want to return to the must-grabs in a second. Changing topics just a little bit, what was BoardGameGeek.Con like for Mirror Box and what’s it like for the rest of us who have never been there? Tell us about it.
JV: BoardGameGeek.Con is a must-go. It was the greatest con I’ve ever been to. It was a convention for gamers; there was all sorts of gaming. I would walk around around and see Tom Vasel playing games with people that he’d just met at the table. I saw Rich Summer from Mad Men playing games. He’d walk by and sit down and he’d start playing a game. And he’s an actor, you know, and they’re not and no one cared. It was just amazing. We had a giant display in the main hall near the Hot Games section so we got a lot of traffic. Over a hundred people signed up to our email list and probably a 120 people played our game so almost everyone who played our game jumped on to our list. That’s a big deal. When you’re going to other conventions, a much smaller percentage of people are interested in backing your game later. We went to the right convention for our game.
CG: So at Gen Con, attendees buy tickets to play in events, does BoardGameGeekCon have a similar mechanic or do people just come and if there’s room they play?
JV: It’s expensive. It’s 80 or 90 dollars for the con, but you just walk into the board game library and they have every game ever and you check out whatever you want and hopefully you return it in a timely fashion and they don’t have to chase you down. And you play and you just play all day. And you can check out the Hot Games table(s) where all the cool games from Essen are being demoed. There’s a lot of prototypes. There’s a special section for prototypes and then there’s a lot of events, special events, that are going on. Unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to get outside of my exhibition hall that much, but it was just an amazing experience.
CG: Ok, so you definitely want to go again?
JV: I will go every year from now on.

CG: Ok. So how many demos and play tests do you think you’ve done now?
JV: Well, let me see. I would say it has definitely been, in the last year, we’ve probably played something like 1,000 sessions, because we had three and sometimes four copies of Chaosmos being demoed simultaneously at BGGCon for the entirety of the con. So, yeah, probably 1,000 games and quite a few blind play tests. We’re now testing a 5th-player expansion and we haven’t done our blind play tests for that at all. So that’s our next big hurdle, is to find the time to do blind playtesting with a fifth player.

CG: How many prototypes are there now?
JV: In this final version – we changed our board, that’s another change, that’s another thing that changed since the GAMA Trade Show is we reduced the number of stars between the planets – this version, there’s seven copies and they’re all checked out by reviewers right now. And there’s probably twenty prototypes. Then there’s three original prototypes where we 3D-printed the aliens and got them hand-painted. So hopefully we’ll get those all back. We used a company called Sculpteo for the 3D ones. And then all the other copies, as soon as I get those back I’ll probably chuck them because you never want to go back to your old version. The worst thing is when you show up to do a demo and you realize you packed the board from six months ago.

Must-Have Aliens, Equipment Cards, and Strategy

CG: You mentioned must-grabs and so on, is there a particular alien race that everyone seems to envy or want to play?
JV: A lot of new players like Atturnuk the Brutal because his miniature features a giant sword. A lot of people choose him. People who like backstory and who actually read the flavor text on the alien character sheets choose the Haghouhen a lot. A lot of people like Clokknid. They like robots for some reason. He’s a series of interlocking robots connected by an artificial intelligence that governs them all. A lot of people like that for reason.
CG: Has anyone started talking in a robotic voice for him?
JV: We have found that certain players do the voices and they do the voice from the moment they see the art for the character to the moment the game is done. That has been a strange experience. One guy is actually a voiceover artist. He was at our playtest we did just prior to the GAMA Trade Show in early March and he invented a voice for all eight aliens plus some other bonus aliens that we’re tweaking. And he recorded a little intro with all the different aliens. So I think we’re going to release alien profile videos using his various voices for the aliens. That’ll be fun.

Equipment card Telethwarter Trap for board game Chaosmos says Booby traps when Face UpCG: The Equipment cards break down into Traps, Bases, Weapons and?
JV: So, yes, there are different types of Equipment cards. There’s Advanced Weapons; there’s Primitive Weapons. There are counters to all of the Advanced Weapons. Most of the cards are unique. There’s a 70 card deck and most of them are unique. There are Tactical cards which actually go face up on a planet. It could be face down just like any other card and you could take it into your hand and move it to another planet and come back for it later. But if you set it face up, then when another player lands on that planet, if he doesn’t have the Signal Jammer, he’s going to get trapped and the Trap would banish him back to his home planet and his turn would end. But there’s only three Traps in the game and they’re valuable, but you have to be careful how you use them, because they fill up your hand if you carry them around and then if you Trap a planet that doesn’t end up being important you’ve sort of wasted your time and your Trap. Vaults are interesting because they don’t protect a planet from prying eyes, in that if you land on a planet that’s Vaulted, you can still look at that envelope, but you can’t take anything. It’s a Magnetic Vault. You can’t take anything unless you reveal a Key. So you can hide the Ovoid on Pendra and if I land on Pendra I’ll announce “Ok, there’s a face-up card.” I’ll get to peak inside and see the Ovoid and I’ll know that you left it there and you’ll know that I know that it’s there, but if you hid the key on a different planet, then I’m gonna go on a mini-quest to find the Key, so I can come back and open the Vault. But by then, maybe you’ve figured out another way to get the Ovoid back. So a lot of second-guessing of what other people are doing. And then there’s also Bases that protect the envelopes with the combat cards that you store inside the Base.

Equipment card of cubic Vault that reads Locks when Face Up from board game ChaosmosCG: So do some players forego playing Bases and Traps and just choose to play with Weapons? Is that viable? Are you able to play the whole game and beat it just choosing Weapons to use or can you be totally defensive and just collect Counters?
JV: This is, I think, the element of the game that I’m most proud of. People often ask, “What mechanic are you most proud of?” I think figuring out a way to the balance the game to a degree where we’ve yet to figure out an automatic game-winning strategy, that’s the thing I’m most proud of. Some players collect Weapons and Weapons are important because when you beat somebody in combat you get to look in their hand and take a card so that’s a way of discovering the Ovoid if somebody’s carrying it. If somebody isn’t carrying the Ovoid – if they’ve hidden it somewhere – you could beat them a hundred times and not get the card you need to win. Some players play with Vaults, they love setting Vaults up and deactivating the Vaults and moving them to other planets and then reactivating them. Some players like sticking all the Weapons they can get inside of their Base and then finding more Weapons and teleporting those Weapons into the Base using Hypertube cards. I personally think that the reason the game is so balanced in regard to strategies is the psychological element is more powerful than the mechanical element of which cards you have, because if I think that you are setting the Ovoid inside a Vault on Guriwan and I spend the game looking for something to break in there and steal it, and you’ve actually outsmarted me and you moved it earlier to a different planet that I hadn’t even thought of, then you’re going to win and I’m going to lose even though I might have all the Weapons in the world, and a Key, and a Signal Jammer that breaks Traps. It’s all about the Ovoid. It builds, and builds, and builds over the course of the game and it comes down to who has the Ovoid. So yeah, it’s a battle of wits.

Chaosmos Stretch Goals: Player Shields, Components, and Miniatures

Player shield with alien Drusu used to shield information from other players in Chaosmos board gameCG: So we’ll be talking about some other stretch goals in a bit, but what will players do if the Player Shields remain locked? What’s the role of the Player Shields?
JV: When you’re opening a planet, first of all, it’s important that no one knows what cards are there. If you’re not sitting far enough away from the person to your left and right, there’s a chance if you’re not accessing your envelope under the table or off to the side that they could accidentally catch a glimpse of some of the cards. Anytime that you’re manipulating cards face up as well as face down, there’s the chance of accidentally revealing information and information is key in this game. Part of the concept of the Shields is it’s more just a matter of do players want them? Is it something that they want to tell their friends to back the project so that we can get to that level? I don’t think that it’s a critical game element; we’ve played the game for two years now without playing with Player Shields. We did make some recently as a test and it seemed like people were responding to it. It adds an element of three-dimensionality to the tabletop. Because you can look across the table and see what race I am and what my special abilities are quicker than just looking at my alien sheet.

CG: Ok. Onto some stretch goal stuff. Your first few stretch goals, can you explain the differences in components, between the 1.5 millimeter tokens and the 2 millimeter tokens?
JV: Sure, so, all of the Hyper Tokens are cardboard chits. So thickening them to two millimeters would be great because it makes them easier to pick up and it has some weight to it. I think it’ll be fun to thicken basically all of the cardboard in the game. In addition, there’s Landing Markers. Every time you land on a planet you’re going to be leaving your flag behind to remind people that you were there last. So all these 56 markers in the game – rather than just putting a thin sliver of a flag on a planet, it’ll be fun to have a nice, meatier meeple to leave behind.
CG: What can you think of that’s a comparable 2mm product?
JV: I don’t know the exact size of other games. Fantasy Flight uses a lot of 2mm cardboard in their expensive titles. Descent, Twilight Imperium. The flags in Twilight Imperium are great. So we want to upgrade components to that. Right now we’re working with Panda GM. In my opinion they make the best components in the industry. They make Merchants and Marauders and they make Eclipse: great component quality.

CG: So also for component quality, which is your second Stretch Goal, for the playing cards you have this upgrade from greycore to bluecore. Can you explain that to us?
JV: When I was a kid I had Magic cards that went through the washing machine and then dryer and you could still read them and play with them and those are bluecore. It’s a level of cardstock where there’s actually a core inside the paper which keeps it sturdy to a degree where you can play with the cards for years and years and years and they’re still playable, they’re still readable, they’re still in good quality. A lot of games, especially Kickstarter games, come out with greycore. It’s just a significantly lower quality paper. So greycore is still playable, it’s still great, but if you’re going to love a game and be proud to own it, you’re going to want to have bluecore because that’s the Magic: The Gathering quality.

The Chaosmos Miniatures

Grey plastic sword-wielding miniature of Atturnuk the Brutal for Chaosmos board game

35mm 3D Plastic Sculpt of Atturnuk the Brutal

CG: Also, I’m always a fan of miniatures in board games, but how important are the minis to Chaosmos?
JV: I think it comes down to the thematic experience. It comes down to when you’re a kid and you play with miniatures it’s something that’s meaningful. I don’t remember any of the hex and counter games that I played when I was a kid. I mean I owned Starship Troopers and Diplomacy and I don’t really remember those games, but I remember the games that had miniatures, even the bad games with miniatures, so it comes down to does the game inspire the thematic in us? So I guess you could play the game with little pawns or cardboard player stands, but to me, it’s a miniatures game. It was always intended to be a miniatures game even when I was a kid. My brother, who is the primary sculptor in the family, would make little Play-Doh creations that we would put in the oven and we would play with those miniatures, so to me it really comes down to theme. The game is a thematic experience and my favorite thematic games all have miniatures.
CG: And why the 35mm scale?
JV: This is not a 4X game and you’re not going to be moving large armies around. You have a detailed, single alien that you are playing the role of. Warhammer 40K would use 28mm for the size of a figurine, but 35mm it gives it enough attention to detail so you can easily see that the blue alien has a bunch of extra arms and his special ability allows him to hold extra cards and Vroon the Adventurer has a jetpack and he can move an extra movement action. Each alien’s miniature relates to their special ability in a way that even kids who play the game, instantly remember what they’re special ability is because of the miniature. So the 35mm, the larger size miniature, I think, adds to the fun.

CG: If we can imagine, right now you’re sitting at 50 percent funded. Let’s say you were at 3 percent. Would you ever ditch the miniatures if you needed to?
JV: Well Kickstarter is an interesting thing because when somebody backs your project, they’re believing in you and you can’t undermine them later and say, “Well, we’re keeping your money, but we’re not going to give you what you backed for.”
CG: Right. So you’re saying that maybe that’s why they backed you in the first place, because they want the miniatures?
JV: I think it depends on the backer. I think the family and friends who backed the project really probably don’t care about what they get in the end. I think the important thing is keeping our word. If our Kickstarter was a disaster but we could maybe figure out a way to make it work, I think you can always relaunch a project, but I had total faith that the project was complete and the miniatures were a critical component of that and as long as we’re honest with people about why we love miniatures and the component quality of the final product… I think everybody who’s backed us, loves the miniatures. We haven’t had anybody really say that they wish they could have the game without miniatures.

CG: Yeah, don’t you have Kemet behind you in your video?
JV: Yeah, probably! I love Kemet. I just played Cyclades recently as well and those have awesome miniatures. To me, I would rather play either of those games over any hex encounter game even if it had superior mechanics. It just excites my mind for whatever reason!
CG: Right, I share that with you. It’s also exciting to see the miniatures in this. Of course, you also have Twilight Imperium back behind you and you must love those figures and those ships too.
JV: I love Twilight Imperium. I play it more than anyone I know on the internet. We played six or seven times last year. My goal is to play at least six times again in 2014 and I think I worked it out that if I play at least six times in 2014, it’s one fifth of one percent of all my free time.

Hyper Tokens, Strategic Advice, and Chaosmos’ Dice

CG: Is the number of Hyper Tokens you have public knowledge or would you shield that as well?
JV: No, that’s public knowledge and you only have three and you don’t get them again. So you wouldn’t be able to hide it even if you wanted to. Hyper Tokens are a very valuable resource. It’s sort of like when you’re out of other options and you’re like, “I got to get to that planet before he discovers my entire cache of weapons or he gets the Ovoid,” or something like that, then you can expend the Hyper Token. But it’s generally really dangerous to do that, because when you use one, it’s such a big deal. It’s an immediate red flag. So this is another way to deduce what’s going on in the game and why it’s not a complete fog of war, because when you Hyper Token over somewhere, you’re probably not bluffing that there’s something good over there. You might be; there might be an amazing, clever reason that you’re bluffing. Generally speaking it’s a red flag that something awesome is going down on that side of the map.

CG: So you can just discover right at the beginning of the game that you have the Ovoid, right?
JV: Absolutely. You might start the game with the Ovoid, but it doesn’t necessarily give you an advantage. In fact, in many ways it gives you a disadvantage. If you carry it with you, it just fills up your hand, it’s a completely useless card until the last turn. Not to mention the fact that if someone suspects that you have it, they are going to come after you in such an aggressive way, it will be hard for you to gather items on planets because there will be people trailing behind you. So having the Ovoid… I don’t think it’s an advantage at all in the early part of the game. In the mid-part of the game, yeah, it’s nice to know where the Ovoid is, but I personally don’t carry it with me because it’s just too dangerous. They’re so many super-powerful weapons that are only good for one battle – so most of the cards are permanent; they go back to your hand after you use them. But some cards, like there’s Nano Fabricators that duplicate weapons and there’s Ion Grenades that are +3 in combat, but then they’re discarded. So if you really want to, you can probably win any single combat just by using these special cards, but you have to be tactical as to which combat is the one that you really need to win, because losing combat in this game, it really doesn’t matter that much. The other person will take one of your cards. He’ll get stronger and you’ll get a little bit weaker, but then you’ll land on a planet and you fill up your hand again and move on. It’s not a big deal. But if he takes the Ovoid from you because he won a battle, that would be a critical battle.

Two dice, one red one blue with numbers on them and a circular mirror for Chaosmos board gameCG: What’s the Ovoid on the dice mean?
JV: So, it’s actually a Mirror. The Mirror mirrors the other die. If you roll a 3 and a Mirror, then that’s a 6. If you roll a 5 and a Mirror, that’s a 10. If you roll two Mirrors, then that’s Infinity and you would instantly win that battle.
CG: Oh wow. But do you get into Infinity +3 versus Infinity?
JV: No. Somebody asked me that. I don’t think that it’s ever happened. Maybe it’s happened once. But if you both roll Infinity then both players are immediately banished back to their home planets and their turn ends. I was thinking about this because I saw the movie The Avengers and at one point Thor’s hammer strikes Captain America’s shield and bad things happen. And I thought that was a pretty funny moment, so that’s what happens when both players roll Infinity.

CG: Ok. Alright. Good luck with Kickstarter!
JV: Thanks!

All game images and artwork copyright Mirror Box Games and used with permission.

Card-Boards Wooden Card Holders

Ever since I first used a Card-Boards Card Holder at a friend’s house, I’ve been hooked on the devices and want to use them in every game that uses more than three playing cards. $15 gets you four of the attractive, smooth, wooden holders from Card-Boards, located in Orem, Utah. I sprung for eight of them because the Card Holders really are that useful. It may be hyperbole to claim that the boards revolutionize card games, but now that I have used them, I don’t want to go back to spending 15-90 minutes holding a hand of cards. Imagine playing Scrabble without the tray for your letter tiles and you’ll begin to understand the true worth of Card-Boards.

Cards from Guildhall Board Game from AEG held in wooden Card-Boards card holder

AEG’s Guildhall Cards are Easily Sorted Using a Card-Board

While Card-Boards.com owner David Hacking originally made his card holders for family games of Ticket to Ride, they are useful and usable for almost any card game where players need to hold a private hand of cards. Hacking’s now sold over 2,000 of the boards and it’s easy to see why. Measuring 10″ by 3.75″ wide by 0.75″ tall, a Card-Board has four slots cut into it. Each card holder holds about 16 standard playing cards without the cards overlapping one another. The slots are cut to a depth of approximately 3/8ths of an inch and will obscure that much of a playing card. As for quality, I imagine the wooden boards will last a lifetime and beyond. There are other companies besides Card-Boards making this style of wooden board, of course, but I found Card-Boards’s response to my order as well as the shipping to be lightning fast. If you’re playing with unprotected cards without plastic sleeves, the Card-Boards also help to prevent the transfer of sweat, oil, and Cheeto-dust to the cards that can happen with prolonged gripping. Your cards should also remain straighter because they’ll be free of the bending tendency that accompanies holding cards in a semi-circle.

Game of Thrones LCG Lannister cards in wooden Card-Boards holder

A Card-Board Card Holder Can Keep a Pride of Lions Ready for the Game of Thrones LCG

A Significant Downside and Two Minor Ones

The only real downside to the Card-Boards is obvious in that they require a flat surface to rest upon. In small cramped spaces or without a table available the Card-Boards will not be of much use. A minor downside of the card holders is that properly holding a hand of cards is an actual learned skill that is expected of most adult gamers. I may be making a mountain out of a molehill, but children do need to develop manual dexterity and hand and finger strength, besides the skill of not revealing one’s hand to other players. However as an adult, I’ll stick to a Card-Board when I can get away with it and avoid hand cramps. The only other problem the Card Board could pose is that it reveals your hand when other players get up from the table and walk around to answer the phone or get more chips and soda. In this respect, it’s also like a Scrabble tray but at the point where this becomes an issue, you’ve probably got bigger ones.

The Perfect Use for Card-Boards: Hanabi

R&R Games’ Hanabi is an addictive game of near-silent cooperation, the 2013 Spiel des Jahres Game of the Year Winner, and also the perfect way to use Card-Boards card holders. While I’ve played Hanabi a number of times, I’ve never done so by holding the cards in my hand. Instead we play using the Card-Boards. Each player’s hand of 5 cards is always perfectly visible and we have an easy time pointing out which card to discard or play. With a player’s cards tilting away from that player there is no danger of a player getting a glimpse at his own cards and the game becomes a purely mental and social exercise. The Card-Boards have the added advantage of allowing further organization based on the transmitted knowledge of what number or color cards are by using the other three rows. Now this may break the spirit of the game, but players could possibly do so already by trying to hold their cards in different places by using their ring or pinky fingers.

Game of Hanabi played using wooden Card-Boards card holders

Hanabi is Much Easier and More Enjoyable with Card-Boards Card Holders

Excellent for the Elderly and Others with Special Needs

As good as the Card-Boards are for a fairly healthy adult, they are even better for the elderly or others who suffer from arthritis. As such, the Card-Boards would make a great gift to a grandmother or grandfather. Children (or adults) with disabilities will also benefit from the Card-Boards. Simply by using a card holder, those with moderate to severe cerebral palsy or who are quadriplegic could still play most card games and retain the same level of secrecy that most card games demand. The dealer could deal cards directly into the Card-Board with the player giving instructions as to which cards to play or remove. “Play the middle card.” or “Discard the second card from my left.” could suffice for instructions.

The Fan Style of Card Holders: Not as Useful

When compared to the fan style of card holders, where cards are clipped or slid into a holder, the Card-Boards design comes out ahead since it has multiple rows, is more durable than plastic, is stylish, and is generally less expensive. Handheld fan-style holders can be just as hard for those with disabilities to hold as managing a hand of cards conventionally. Due to this, I would recommend Card-Boards to both teachers and parents because they allow every child to participate in educational games and activities. Any concerns a student may have about standing out from his or her peers by using a card holder will vanish once their peers realize just how many advantages a Card-Board has and just how comfortably one can play by using one. Every player will want one.

Resource cards from Attika in wooden Card-Boards Card Holders

Even for Games with Fewer Cards Like Attika, the Card-Boards are Useful and Keep Hands Free

The Incredibly Useful Hugo’s Amazing Tape

Clear rolls of Hugo's Amazing Tape with words Patent ApprovedWhile Hugo’s Amazing Tape bills itself as “the most VERSATILE, DURABLE and STRONGEST HOLDING tape in the WORLD!“, I have found that it at least lives up to its name and is really quite amazing and incredibly useful. Packaging for it shows the tape wrapped around a wrist “to help relieve arthritis pain”, keeping pipes held together, wrapped around luggage, and keeping a book opened to a specific page, but it is the tape’s organizational use (and not these “miraculous” uses) that has most impressed me. The patented secret to the tape is that it lacks adhesive and only adheres to itself.


The tape is amazing for any application where rubber bands (or string) might normally be used, namely keeping cards and game components together. Unlike string, yarn, ribbons, or rubber bands, Hugo’s Amazing Tape shouldn’t bite into your bundled material, because it has a larger surface area. In the case of rubber bands, which become brittle over time and are sensitive to the cold, the tape is again a winner. Hugo’s Amazing Tape is transparent and comes in Clear, Blue, and Purple varieties. It is sold in 2 inch, 1 inch, and 0.5 inch width rolls measuring 50 yards long, but for most gamer purposes I strongly suggest the moderate 1 inch roll. Getting the tape is a little tricky, because despite its many craft uses, I have not seen the tape sold locally at Joann’s or Wal-Mart. Instead, you can buy a roll directly from Hugo’s, or find it in stock at boardsandbits.com or at Amazon.com, of course.

A few pieces of advice for when you get your own: Do write on the tape with a Permanent Marker if you want to. Sometimes finding the end can be hard and a dot, arrow, or star can help you find it. The company advises that items should be wrapped “at least twice” in the tape, but for playing cards, 1.5 to 2 inches of excess tape snugly wraps most decks in my experience. When I dropped a 45-card Game of Thrones LCG Lannister deck from a height of over 25 feet, it didn’t split the deck open (or harm any Joffreys) with only two extra inches. For owners of Summoner Wars or Omen and for further insight into Hugo’s Amazing Tape from boardgamegeek.com users, please read this warning about potential damage to cards from the tape. In my own limited experience with the tape, I have yet to see any hazards.

Card, Board, RPGs, and Miniature Games


Gamers caught between using rubber bands and dedicated card boxes to keep cards organized, should take a long look at Hugo’s Amazing Tape. Because the tape is broad and does not contract or constrict like elastic, it lacks the bite of a rubber band which can mar card edges. Thus the tape is useful for managing small and moderately-sized collections of cards. The choice for the CCG/LCG player then becomes whether to use Hugo’s Amazing Tape to keep a group of cards together or whether to store them in a cardboard or plastic deck box. Admittedly simply having cards taped together won’t protect them from a soda leak or other environmental hazards like a deck box might, but the tape has the advantage of not being confined to a set amount of cards, provided you were generous when you cut the tape the first time.

Board Gaming Uses

It’s this versatility of the tape that has seen it pressed into use by many board gamers who may only have sets of 5-10 cards to keep organized. Tired of your Guillotine decks getting mixed up? Do you hate how the Game of Thrones LCG Core Set has a tendency to spill the top cards of its four decks around? Hugo’s Amazing Tape is for you!

Almost invisible Hugo's Amazing Tape has been wrapped around Guillotine card deck to keep it organized. Colored arrow marks where tape ends

The Noble Deck and Action Deck for Guillotine Stay Separate with Hugo’s Amazing Tape

Games like Smash Up have dedicated card trays for their decks and Hugo’s Amazing Tape would be overkill on them, but even classics like Risk or Monopoly would benefit by having neat stacks of money, deeds, or army cards in the case of Risk. If you know any obsessive-compulsive types or anal-retentive neat freaks, you can probably get on their good side with a gift of the tape.

Stack of Game of Thrones LCG cards held together with Hugo's Amazing Tape

Game of Thrones LCG Cards Stay Neatly in Place Thanks to Hugo’s Amazing Tape

RPGs and Miniature Games

Of course, any other type of tabletop game that uses cards can benefit from the amazing tape. RPGs that use Fate decks like the TORG System or modern games like Pathfinder which has issued item decks can benefit from the use of Hugo’s Amazing Tape to keep cards organized. Likewise, you can keep your Warmachine and Hordes cards together and grouped into individual faction-specific bundles with the tape. While many prefer nine-card plastic binder sleeves for storage and to review unit capabilities, making a travel “deck” using Hugo’s Tape may be the way to go, especially for older systems like Confrontation or AT-43 that actually use the cards to determine unit activation order. Lastly Hugo’s Amazing Tape is invaluable if you’re a gamer with a broad collection of miniatures which came with ability cards. Now Dungeons & Dragons Miniatures (and Chainmail), Star Wars Miniatures, Heroclix, and Pirates of the Spanish Main Crew and Ship cards can all be easily separated for storage.

LARPing

Spools of thread with Hugo's Amazing Tape wrapped around them keeping threads confined

Thread is Neatly Wrapped Under a Layer of Hugo’s Amazing Tape

The most advertised use of Hugo’s Amazing Tape, as the back of the packing says, is “to prevent raveling and to keep dust and dirt off of” spools of embroidery thread. While I’ve not had too much experience with dirt and dust in my own brief attempts at stitching and sewing, I have had many spools unwind and get caught in or on something, which is always annoying, but never quite as bad as old audio cassettes. With this amazing tape however, I can easily put an end to any runaway threads. The tape could also be of use when assembling and gluing foam weapons to get an accurate dry fit without the possible tears to the foam from trying to temporarily use duct tape or any other adhesive tape. However for dry fitting weapons, I would probably just use rubber bands.

Most LARPs wouldn’t be complete without food and Hugo’s Amazing Tape could have a few culinary applications. I tested the claim that the tape is “Heat and Cold Resistant” by putting Guillotine cards wrapped in the tape in the freezer and several hours later the tape still functioned normally. To test its heat capacities, I wrapped some spaghetti in the tape and boiled it. Failing my Wisdom check, I ate a few bites of the spaghetti which came out perfectly. It was undercooked though closer to the center, where the stands had been forced together by the tape. Despite initially having a whitish residue from the whole wheat pasta, the tape retained its self-adhering properties and regained most of its clarity.

Leftmost picture of spaghetti with Hugo's Amazing Tape wrapped around, next picture raw spaghetti where tape was used, then Game of Thrones cards held together by the tape

The Tape Survived Boiling and Is Still Usable But Left Covered Areas of Spaghetti Raw

Modeling Uses

Hugo’s Amazing Tape may also be of minor use for some miniature modeling purposes. If a project requires extreme delicacy, involves broad surfaces, and the need for keeping multiple parts pressed together while glue or epoxy sets, Hugo’s Amazing Tape may be the perfect solution. For certain soft modeling materials like balsa wood, bass wood, or foam, Hugo’s Amazing Tape could be used to prevent telltale rubber band impressions.

Summary of Hugo’s Amazing Tape for Gamers

Obviously I have become a huge fan of this amazing product. To recap, Hugo’s Amazing Tape is reusable, non-adhesive, and offers great utility and has a strong grip with little to no bite. While I would always prefer a lower cost, 50 yards for around $11.99 won’t break any banks. Now to test some of those bolder packaging claims!

Crokinole – The One Flick You Must See

Black and Red Crokinole Discs on Board

Crokinole: Played by Flicking Wooden Discs Towards Board’s Center

If you’re familiar with the game of crokinole, then odds are that you’re either a hardcore board gamer or a grey-haired white guy from rural Canada as the documentary Crokinole reveals. The epicenter of the crokinole world would seem to be Tavistock, Canada, and it’s there that much of the 2006 documentary takes place, at the 2004 World Crokinole Championship. But what is crokinole? Crokinole is a board game that involves flicking wooden discs towards the center of a round board and knocking your opponents’ discs out into a gutter akin to shuffleboard or its indoor version, table shuffleboard, occasionally encountered at bars in America. It’s a pleasant enough game, involving skill and coordination, and can be quite satisfying, especially when a 20 is scored, the game’s equivalent to a bullseye. Crokinole is also a rather obscure game, with the game’s name unknown to modern computer spell checkers and college-educated professionals alike, so for it to be the subject of a documentary is fascinating in its own right.

Once you’ve understood the basic flicking mechanic of crokinole, the claims of the documentary to be “THE ONE FLICK YOU MUST SEE” will make more sense and seem a good deal less boastful. Crokinole opens by quoting from the 1897 Selected Journals of L.M. Montgomery:

We went over to the party but I can’t say I really enjoyed myself. Alf doesn’t dance – thinks it the unpardonable sin, I believe – and I didn’t like to leave him alone among the strangers with nothing to amuse him. So I didn’t dance much either but played croquinole most of the evening and was bored to the point of tears. I love dancing and I loathe croquinole.

Cover of Crokinole the one flick you must see with sunglassed player in blue shirtFrom that high point, the film slowly and pleasantly meanders. Crokinole lacks the narrative punch of other documentaries about competitive pastimes like Spellbound or Word Wars, but like them though, Crokinole is the authoritative documentary on its subject. While slow, the documentarians have covered all of their bases with the film, which captures multiple viewpoints on competitive crokinole. It’s also well-scored by the Earl Jones Trio. The film’s greatest strength though is its excellent tongue-in-cheek marketing, with the back cover stating “Those who have the adequate endurance to remain in a plastic chair for hours will excel, while those who cannot withstand the rigorous demands of a stationary position will falter.” This attitude towards crokinole seems to be widely shared by its Canadian players and the residents of Tavistock who all have a dry humor about the game and its championship tournament. “How could you miss it?” laughs one resident. A World Crokinole Championship referee sheepishly jokes about his neon safety vest, while another resident smiles and says of crokinole, “I wouldn’t say it’s nail-biting action like other sports, but yeah, it’s alright.” Gillies Lake Productions takes it further on the DVD cover and preemptively forewarns the would-be viewer with a quote from Bob Mader that “… It’s a long long grind.” Yes, yes, it is. While that statement isn’t misleading, the cover of the DVD is. On the copy I watched, the cover is dominated by the concentrating sunglassed Paul Stewart, an American player from Texas. It’s a decent image, but Stewart is in less than 2 of the movie’s 79 minutes. Most of the players are a great deal older and it would be more accurate to think of Crokinole as the Grumpy Old Men of gaming movies.

The Demographics of Crokinole

Fortunately for the viewer, the crokinole players that Crokinole introduces are all charming and congenial. They are also a very homogenous group, all white and predominately male. Two middle-aged or older women are also shown as part of the World Crokinole Committee. If Crokinole is sounding more and more like Cocoon, that’s not far off (though to be accurate, younger female players can be seen in the background of the World Championship footage). Brothers Jason and Raymond Bierling from “up country” are notable for both their red-hair and being “quite young” (someone thinks they are in their mid-20s) and while they appear in Crokinole, they are not the focus of the film. Nor is the similarly-aged, long-haired and bearded Birch Kuch from the Yukon who briefly makes an appearance in the championship.

Grey-haired and with glasses Joe Fulop concentrates over a crokinole board at the 2004 World Crokinole Championship

Three Time World Crokinole Singles Champion Joe Fulop © Bill Gladding / Tavistock Gazette

The Champions

Instead, filmmakers Joshua and Jonathan Steckley focus on four subjects. Farmer Dan Shantz is a previous winner of the 2001 Doubles Crokinole Championship and got a lot of practice as a child when he was ill and housebound, playing each of his fingers against the others. Unfortunately Shantz doesn’t tell us whether his pinky beat out his index finger, but his anecdote speaks volumes about the amount of solo practice championship crokinole requires. Grandfather Bob Mader may or may not be a farmer, but he lives in or near a village, and won $500 for his third place finish in a World Crokinole Championship. Mader played for Canada in the 1962 World Ice Hockey Championships, but sustained a knee injury in the championship game against the USA. The film jacket humorously advises in the rating section that Crokinole contains Canadian accents, but Mader’s speech like many of the others who appear in the film is also quaint and charming. Ringing a bell on his home’s porch, Mader reminisces, “Give it a dingle, that was dinnertime.” Joe Fulop is a part-time teacher, golf enthusiast, and the 2001 & 2002 Crokinole Singles World Champion. Someone says of Fulop, “That’s what he has for breakfast: crokinole. For dinner: crokinole.” It’s probably accurate on some days, because Fulop does play a lot of crokinole against himself. One of the challenges facing Fulop is his escalating Parkinson’s disease. He manages some humor about it. When asked whether it’s the worst disease for a crokinole player, Fulop’s eyes twinkle as he responds, “Well, cancer’s worse.” Al Fuhr is the fourth subject and most athletic, playing on two baseball teams when not fishing or flicking crokinole discs. Comparing himself to the single Fulop, Fuhr points out about himself that he leads an active lifestyle, a lifestyle slightly crimped because of an accident involving a 500-pound shed door which fell on his head.

Bald-headed crokinole player Al Fuhr concentrates during World Crokinole Championships

Crokinole Subject Al Fuhr Concentrating During the WCC © Bill Gladding / Tavistock Gazette

Mr. Crokinole and Other Crokinole Personalities

Besides the four players, the documentary focuses on Wayne Kelly, or as he is more famously known, Mr. Crokinole. Kelly runs crokinole.com and has spent a good deal of time documenting the game’s history, including the origins of the name crokinole, a difficult task given that he consulted “28 to 30” dictionaries and encyclopedias which lacked any mention of the Canadian board game. As an expert on the subject, Kelly provides the real backbone to the documentary and as one might expect, the documentary is also sold on crokinole.com. His inclusion in the documentary would seem to be mandatory. He authored The Crokinole Book which sold out of its first printing of 5,000 copies within the first year of publishing it in 1988, has had over 3,000 different crokinole and carom boards pass through his hands, and sells 5-8 crokinole boards each day.

The other subject that Crokinole frequently cuts back and forth to is Willard Martin as he constructs a crokinole board out of particle board in his workshop. Despite his hopes (and Mr. Crokinole’s) that various flubs will be edited out, they are instead preserved for the viewer to enjoy. Want to watch Martin clean his urethane brush? Joshua and Jonathan Steckley have also captured that. While most of his moments on camera could have been edited out, Willard Martin’s nostalgia as he recalls listening to the radio with his father as a child is quite touching and well worth including. Besides identifying him as Willard Martin though, the directors fail to point out Martin’s significance to crokinole. A quick Google search reveals that Willard Martin is indeed a second-generation crokinole board maker, selling his WILLARD boards through crokinolegame.ca. So great is his skill at board making that his boards have been used at the World Crokinole Championships.

The World Crokinole Committee

The World Crokinole Championships are hosted and organized by the World Crokinole Committee, as one might expect. It’s here, in showing the committee at work, that some of Crokinole’s most heated and dramatic moments can be found. Watch as a number of crokinole board storage boxes fall over! Listen as the committee discusses the “pro-cess” for paperwork. Board 46 is missing! Someone may have taken one of the boards to get some illegal practice in! Sadly, the investigation into the missing board is stopped once it is located. It’s because of scenes like this, the Canadian accents, and the film’s many other ironies that Crokinole also feels like an extended episode of Kids in the Hall from time to time and occasionally made me wonder whether Crokinole is a mockumentary or not. If it is, the humor is so slight and its treatment of its subjects so gentle that it barely registers as such, besides being non-fictional.

No Slam Dunks in Crokinole: The Crokinole World Championship

Just like children and beginners getting strikes in bowling, it is quite possible for newbies to get a 20 in crokinole. Scoring a 20 while also knocking your opponent’s piece into the gutter is even fancier, but there’s no equivalent to slam dunking in crokinole. There’s nothing the “masters” of the game can do that a player at home cannot. Because of this much of the World Crokinole Championship is uninspiring to watch. For about five minutes in Crokinole though, the flicking is fast and furious as 20 after 20 is scored by Joe Fulop and Al Fuhr in the semi-finals. It only escalates from there in the championship as stony-faced Joe Fulop battles the much younger Brian Cook. “The third time is the sweetest,” Fulop says after his victory.

Cameraman films the 2004 World Crokinole Championship between Brian Cook and Joe Fulop as neon-vest wearing referee watches

2004 World Crokinole Championship: Cook vs. Fulop © Bill Gladding / Tavistock Gazette

Strategy in Crokinole?

While the champion and runner-up certainly exhibit great skill, a different moment in Crokinole had me shaking my head. When asked about Al Fuhr and how his crokinole playing compares to his baseball playing, his baseball coach Tom Myers, says “He’s extremely competitive, regardless of which he’s playing and strategic. I mean, crokinole, he’s thinking three plays ahead and in the ball diamond, he’s the same. He’s thinking two or three batters ahead, where I should be putting it on the plate. So [he’s] strategic in both too.” Now unless I’m missing something huge about the game of crokinole, it seems that the goal and strategy never vary: score as many points as you can and prevent your opponent from doing so. Just like picking up a split spare in bowling or playing darts, playing well requires finesse and a lot of practice, but there is no change in strategy.

The Whole Crokinole… Almost

Board level view of Crokinole guards

Crokinole Posts Make the Game Harder But No Change in Strategy

Despite the Steckleys’ thoroughness in documenting the many foibles of crokinole and mining the game’s depths for any humor, the directors missed the easy laugh that is “the one-cheek rule”, instead only covering it in the DVD’s special features. According to the one-cheek rule, crokinole players must keep one butt cheek on the chair at all times. This restricts players’ movements while at the same time preventing any tables from getting flipped. As a reaction to the one-cheek rule, crokinole is sometimes played on a rotating Lazy Susan to aid players in getting that perfect shot. The directors do include crokinole played with cue sticks (which is also a part of the World Crokinole Championships), but it would have been interesting to see or hear about any violations of the one-cheek rule or players’ opinions on rotating crokinole boards. They also include such crokinole slang as a “doogie”, which should never be confused with the “dougie” dance. A doogie is a 20 in the regional slang of Tavistock, Ontario. There is more humor as doogie is misidentified as the German word for twenty (zwanzig).

Photos of Joe Fulop, Al Fuhr, and Championship Match between Brian Cook and Joe Fulop © Bill Gladding / Tavistock Gazette and used with permission and many thanks.

GTS Press Conf. 3 – Gen Du, Bin’fa, Let’s Have Church, Major Me Baseball

After Dave Doust from Cool Mini or Not spoke, we still had a number of other presenters to hear from at the GAMA Trade Show Press Conference, beginning with the brains behind Gen Du, followed by the creators of Bin’fa, Let’s Have Church, and Major Me Baseball. Scott D’Augustino and Jerome Gonyeau also spoke from Wizkids, but what they had to say will be included in a later article on the Wizkids Premier Presentation.

Gen Du: The Gentleman’s Duel

Eytan Benichay introduced us to the concept behind Gen Du, the Gentleman’s Duel. Most of the cards are player-created with two blank cards coming in each starter deck of 50 cards. Players create both mechanics and art for new cards, submit them online, and the best cards enter play with the next set. It’s an intriguing marketing strategy that could result in players buying more cards to get duplicates of the card that they designed themselves. So far Gen Du is on its Beta set of 136 cards, with 136 cards released in the Alpha set at an anime convention in August, 2012. With a current total of 272 cards in print, Gen Du is available in local stores in the Miami area and at the Gen Du website. While at the GAMA Trade Show, Benichay also secured distribution with Mad Al Distributors and Magazine Exchange. Starter decks sell for $10, while boosters of 15 cards are $4.

Eytan Benichay stands with Jack-in-the-box style Gen Dun head in front of poster displaying cards at GAMA Trade Show

Gen Du Co-Creator Eytan Benichay in the 2013 GAMA Trade Show Exhibitors’ Hall

Gen Du in the Exhibitors’ Hall

Miami resident Eytan Benichay had more to explain about Gen Du at the tail end of exhibiting on Thursday. In his own words, Gen Du “is a perfect hybrid between card games, board games, and table top war games. Both players build dungeons and then try to conquer each other, which makes for an intense experience.” Despite being called the Gentleman’s Duel, Gen Du is a game of deceit and destruction, with players’ dungeon room cards being concealed. For Benichay, Gen Du’s innovative approach to card creation is a major focus. As he puts it, “Never has there been a game where card creation and game play can be so heavily impacted by the players.”

Stay tuned for a review of Gen Du on cravengames.com, as well as news of Gen Du’s third card set, which could feature YOUR player-created card. With any luck and skill, it will also include one from Craven Games.

Bin’fa, the Tao of War

Game Designer Ken Hodkinson and daughter Erika Bird in front of Bin'fa poster at GAMA Trade Show

Ken Hodkinson and Erika Bird with Bin’Fa, Tao of War

Another presenter was brimming with both character and personality. Kenneth Hodkinson is the creator of Bin’fa, the Tao of War, which began in 1971, when he was working in a Massachusetts factory on a Davenport machine. He got to thinking and devised a strategy game with furious cavalry charges, promising that once a Bin’Fa game begins, “soon there’s blood on the floor.” Hodkinson got some friends to invest and had 500 copies of the game produced, submitting one to Avalon Hill after the creator of Mastermind, Roddy Sampson, said he loved the game. While it was initially rejected, Avalon Hill later picked the game up, releasing it as Hexagony, so-called because of the hexagonal nature of the playing board, and perhaps for the agonizing deliberation that confronts the game’s generals during gameplay.

Six triangular pieces of Bin'fa playing board with army markers on them showing how game can be easily changed

Endless Variety: Bin’fa’s 6 Playing Surfaces Can Easily Be Reconfigured in Multiple Ways

Hodkinson provided an even richer, and more in-depth history of what would become Bin’fa, the Tao of War via a five-page handout passed out to the attending press. Fast forwarding to the present, the game is now played on six board tiles that can be arranged and re-arranged into a near-endless series of combinations. No game need ever be the same. Bin’fa has the look and feel of a classic abstract strategy game like Chess or Go, but also includes mechanics for supplies/logistics, terrain, and a general. In another modern twist, Bin’fa can also be played with vortex markers, allowing an army unit to teleport across the battlefield, further adding to its complexity.

Let’s Have Church

Randolph Myers from Gotta Have Games was similarly charismatic and bubbling over with enthusiasm for Let’s Have Church. Let’s Have Church originated back in 2008, but launched in 2011, and has since sold over 2,000 units. Developed by husband and wife team Randolph and Nichole Myers the game is already available in seven retail stores in the Detroit area, as well as in Atlanta. The game has three main parts, with the first two including the performance round, during which players act out, draw, or describe scenes or passages from the Bible. Another round poses multiple-choice questions, such as “Which name is NOT found in the Bible? A. Joanna, B. Lydia, C. Eunice, or D. Shaniqua ” In the third round, a statement is read and then the following question is asked, “Church folks or Bible phrase?” Let’s Have Church is so great, Randy Myers says, because its content is non-offensive. Myers has played it with “literally 100 people” split into teams of fifty and the game is also played at youth retreats and marriage retreats.

Game Designer Nichole Myers raising the roof for Let's Have Church at the GAMA Trade Show

Nichole Myers of Gotta Have Games Raising the Roof for Let’s Have Church at GTS 2013

While the game box puts the player age at 13 and up, Myers says 16 to mid-forties is their sweet spot. Personally he likes to say the game is for anyone, 8 to 88, but he’s had a 92 year old tell him, “I like it too.” Randolph and Nichole Myers plan on at least two expansions and say that this is just the beginning for Let’s Have Church. His presentation came to an end when, as he put it, he began “getting the Chuck Woolery sign.” Later, Myers was able to tell me that four retail stores picked up Let’s Have Church at the GTS. Gotta Have Games also signed up with a smaller distributor and is thinking of switching manufacturers, all because of attending the GAMA Trade Show.

Major Me Baseball

Raymond Keith holds up game box for Major Me Baseball with can earrings at GAMA Trade Show

Keith Raymond Pitches Major Me Baseball

Keith Raymond was similarly energetic when he outlined Major Me Baseball’s selling points, boiling the game down to movement. He promised that “anyone can figure this out in two innings,” because the game’s playing cards are self-explanatory. Raymond calls the game three games in one because it has variations for Major League, Little League, and Home Run Derby play. The game uses dice for offensive and defensive plays. In describing a runner approaching first base, Raymond detailed that one die has four sides with “Safe”, one side “Pick Off”, and one side, “Take a Base”. This is because it is very rare for a defensive player to throw the ball to first and pick off the runner, according to Raymond. But since it does happen in a game of baseball, he has incorporated it into Major Me Baseball. As for stealing a base, the die has three sides “Out” and three sides “Safe”, reflecting only a 50% likelihood of stealing a base. In the Major League version of the game every play is included in the game’s cards from a Triple down to a Balk. Raymond’s Home Run Derby is played by the hitter rolling three dice with each die split between an equal number of Outs and Home Runs. Each variant of Major Me Baseball only takes 10-12 minutes to play.

Trademark logo Major Me Baseball 3 Games in OneKeith Raymond’s Major Me Baseball competed with another gentleman’s baseball game, Homerun Baseball, in the Exhibitors’ Hall. From this, as well as a presentation on an Olympics board game and the designers of the football game Yards: The Game of Inches attending last year, it would seem that sports games make a perennial appearance at the GAMA Trade Show, if not retailers’ shelves.

The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer

Book cover with medieval illumination for TIme Traveller's Guide to Medieval EnglandI’d like to think that I’ve gotten a lot out of my world travels, but in my visit to Japan, Shinto shrine blended into Shinto shrine. European castles vary, but only so much. Is one walled town so different from the next? Don’t get me started on Baroque and Rococo palaces. There is always a sense of place, but not necessarily of those who lived and died there. How did these people actually live? In The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England, Ian Mortimer provides a captivating answer for the English living from 1300 to 1400. Mortimer writes of Geoffrey Chaucer, that “he can make the people come alive, with all their desires, fears, deceitfulness, lustfulness, and cheating.” But Mortimer’s description is just as apt for his own writing and because he does breathe life into 14th century England, I recommend his guide to any English teacher aiming for a better understanding of Chaucer, student of history, or fan of Braveheart, as well as to any tabletop gamer or LARPer.

Beginning with his description of Shitbrook, the refuse-laden stream on the outskirts of Exeter, Mortimer unlocks the door to a treasure trove of medieval body functions. How one goes to the bathroom in a different place or time is really one of the most common questions we all have. In the case of medieval lords, Mortimer remarks, “wherever you go, a neat pile of wool or linen will be provided for you to “wipe your nether end.” Some great lords insist on cotton but it is not always available.” Life is different aboard a ship with Mortimer outlining diversions at sea, but he returns to the subject of relieving oneself and concludes that below decks on a ship, “Every storm has seen men and women emptying their stomachs, souls, and bowels down here in darkness and fear.” Occasionally Mortimer gets a little dry, such as when cataloguing merchants’ town house goods, but he gets juicy when describing surgeons, such as John of Alberne who pioneered surgical cleanliness as well as a method of “curing anal fistula, a nasty affliction following abscesses in the colon which particularly affects men who have spent too long riding in wet saddles…” Another medical highlight is provided in a quote from the physician John Mirfield on a remedy for tuberculosis: “take blind puppies, remove the viscera and cut off the extremities, then boil them in water, and bathe the patient in this water…” On the whole, Mortimer’s writing retains a conversational and informative flow with some occasional humor. In his chapter on medieval medicine he writes:

So, as long as you can get enough to eat, and can avoid all the various lethal infections, the dangers of childbirth, lead poisoning, and the extreme violence you should live a long time.
All you have to worry about are the doctors.

Role-Playing and Gaming Connections

Besides a brief mention of popular medieval games, Mortimer’s book has little to do directly with gaming itself. But since medieval Europe – England in particular – is the basis for most of Western fantasy, The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England is a great study in improving the earthiness and sense of reality for role-playing games. Even within the first paragraph of Ian Mortimer’s introduction he poses questions familiar to any role-player after first setting the scene of a dusty London street:

The wooden beams of houses project out over the street. Painted signs above the doors show what is on sale in the shops beneath. Suddenly a thief grabs a merchant’s purse near the traders’ stalls, and the merchant runs after him, shouting. Everyone turns to watch. And you, in the middle of all this, where are you going to stay tonight? What are you wearing? What are you going to eat?

As for those medieval games and pastimes Mortimer details campball (football/soccer), tennis, archery, and wrestling. More intriguingly he categorizes cockfighting as an interest of boys and girls and describes cockbaiting as “throwing sticks and stones at a tethered chicken.” This is the child’s version of bearbaiting and bullbaiting, in which adults attack those animals with sticks and sic dogs on them. As for dice games, Mortimer states that they, “are are enormously popular”, which is also indicative of his present-tense style used throughout the guide to present the facts of medieval England to the reader as if he or she were really present. The last games described are board games including an early form of backgammon called tables, nine men’s morris, and checkers. Mortimer points out to his modern audience that the rules of chess differ between then and now with queens only moving one square and bishops moving only two squares at a time. These pieces were also known by different names, prime ministers and elephants respectively.

World Building for Fantasy Authors and GMs

Back in 1989 TSR released Cities of Mystery for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, featuring several dozen card stock buildings and double-sided city street maps. The box also came with a great city guide written by Jean Rabe for GMs to design their own fantasy towns and cities. How did the town come to be? How has it grown? Who guards it? The Time Traveller’s Guide is a great compliment to Rabe’s hard work. Both cover much of the same ground, but in different veins with Rabe quantifying and randomizing a town’s dimensions and occupants in true D&D percentile fashion. Mortimer is much more personal and personable, putting a human face on many medieval problems. Rabe’s prohibition on the smellier occupations, like tanning, are best explained by Mortimer. His Borough Ordinances of Worcester list includes “The entrails of butchered beasts and pails of blood are not to be carried away by day but only by night.” and “No saddler, butcher, baker, or glover, nor any other person, may cast entrails, “filth of beasts’ dung”, or dust over Severn Bridge. Also no one may shave flesh, skins, or hides but above the bridge…” In our sanitized world it is easy to forget how leather gets created or how steak gets to the plate, but in medieval society neighbors affected by the processes of tanning and butchering had to deal with their side effects on a daily basis. That the medieval English were concerned about hygiene, sanitation, and cleanliness despite ignorance of germ theory is shown by their laws and ordinances. It’s also one of Mortimer’s few reoccurring themes: the similarities between past and present and withholding judgement on our ancestors. As he puts it, “Of course they are not all filthy. Many are proud of the clean state of their houses – like their modern counterparts – regardless of the judgments of people in six hundred years’ time.” After reading through Mortimer, a GM will probably question and improve on many of the basic realities of his fantasy setting. To put it more bluntly, he or she will have to decide where the high elves crap. Do prostitutes denote themselves with a special color (yellow hoods, in the case of the historical English)? Fantasy rules for peace-bound weapons abound, but what about gate and bridge tolls?

The Time Traveller’s Guide has a more specific use for GMs as well. Those dry tables of 14th century values collected from tax reports listing folding tables, brass pots, and basins are reminiscent of the equipment sections of any Player’s Handbook. While there are only a handful of weapons and armor priced out, Mortimer has the appraised values covering many other areas. A GM (or even a fantasy author) could compile the values in a spreadsheet and compare the prices to arrive at a ratio-based understanding of how a sword’s price (1-2 shillings) compares to a roast goose (7 pennies) compared to a packhorse’s price (5-10 shillings). Mortimer also details wages, inn stays, and quite importantly, fines. Don’t worry, the odd monetary system of the English is covered in Mortimer’s chapter on measurement so you can convert between pounds, shillings, pennies, and stranger denominations with a little effort. Keeping in mind the economic turmoil created by the Black Plague and many other factors, an industrious Game Master can create a table of ratios for use in any fantasy RPG with a setting like medieval England.

Food and Clothing: Medieval England for LARPs, the SCA, and Re-Enactors

While tabletop GMs will reward their players with close attention to Mortimer’s chapters on clothing and food, the two chapters are essential reading for Society of Creative Anachronism members and LARPers. Besides the costuming, most good SCA/LARP events feature food. Great events feature drink of the alcoholic variety! Throughout his guide, Mortimer presents information on the three estates of England, the peasantry, townsfolk and gentry, and the nobility. The nobility are further divided into the clergy and the secular, with occasional special mention of royalty. Just like your clothing or domicile, what you would eat or drink in 14th century England is based on your estate. Wine and spirits were limited to the well-off while the prices of ale and bread, as staples of townsfolk, were heavily regulated. Rural peasants made their own. Mortimer focuses a lot of attention on the rarity of meat, which was normally limited to four days a week due to church edicts, and the corresponding association of meat as a status symbol. While his descriptions might make a chef drool at the variety of spices and fruits on offer, what was actually included in the category of fish caught my attention. Besides whales, “seals, porpoises, dolphins, barnacle geese, puffins, and beavers are all classed as fish as their lives begin in the sea or in a river.” The prohibition on eating meat was taken quite seriously, Mortimer notes, so these sources of protein were “eaten gleefully” on the 194 or 195 days of the year when only fish were allowed.

Mortimer’s 19 pages on medieval clothing are the most engaging that I’ve read on the subject, having thumbed through a dozen or so costume books. Using the same structure of the three estates, Mortimer notes the contrasts between the dress of paupers, yeomen, and noblemen. More importantly, he lists the clothing regulations established by the Sumptuary Laws of 1363 which actually restricted the lowly-born from dressing above their station. Mortimer also traces the considerable changes in both men’s and women’s fashions in 14th century England. Ever wondered about those odd pointy shoes so similar to those worn by court jesters? Read The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England and Mortimer will satisfy your curiosity and introduce you to the ridiculous twenty-inch Crackow, which was the footwear equivalent of a Humvee in its day.