All posts by troypress

Tunnels & Traps: A Tiny BASIC Game

Back in 1980, I created a computer game for my TRS-80 Pocket Computer, inspired by Tunnels & Trolls. Given the passing of Rick Loomis, I thought I would dig it out.

As with T&T, I had attributes: ST (Strength), DX (Dexterity), and CN (Constitution, used for hit points). But I skipped LK (Luck) and CH (Charisma), and I used D&D’s WS (Wisdom) instead of T&T’s IQ (Intelligence). Like T&T, and unlike D&D, attributes could increase: in my case, quickly, after every monster, rolling three dice and if the total exceeds an attribute you can increase that attribute; if it doesn’t exceed any attribute, take that amount in gold instead. Powerful characters would gain wealth, while weaker characters would gain power. Unlike in T&T, attributes couldn’t increase past 18, though.

Combat was different. As with T&T, monsters had one number (this MR was based on how deep and how far you were in the dungeon), which was used for all their attributes (CN=3*MR, ST=3*MR, etc.). But missile attacks (F for FIRE, using DX plus a bonus for level deep) lost effectiveness after the first round, melee attacks (A for ATTACK, using ST) quickly lost effectiveness during an encounter, and spell attacks (C for CAST SPELL, using WS) gradually lost effectiveness. If you rolled under your attribute score (on 3 dice), you doubled your result, so better attributes minimized your downside. Your result was compared to the monster’s, and the difference was the damage and determined who it was dealt to (a difference of 0 harmed no one). After killing a monster, you could heal up to the monster’s level, providing the incentive for attacking tougher monsters.

Saving rolls were different too: they were done on three dice instead of two, with no cascading rolls in case of doubles. You had to roll under your attribute to succeed. A wisdom saving roll is needed when looking for traps, and a dexterity saving roll when jumping away from triggered traps or for parrying an attack when fleeing a monster.

A last shout-out to T&T: the troll was the toughest monster!

The Pocket Computer would only display 24 characters at a time. After a PRINT statement, you’d hit a key to see the next PRINT statement.

Screencap from a YouTube video

The Pocket Computer had a Tiny BASIC that lacked the ELSE statement (a common omission), but also RND, DATA, READ, and RESTORE. However, unlike TRS-80 Level I BASIC (my first programming language), which only had two string variables (up to 16 characters each), the PC-1 had 26 string variables of 7 characters each – sort of. They were actually an overlay over the 26 numeric variables: if you used A$, you couldn’t use A (numeric variable), and so forth. Also the array A() would alias these variables: A(1) was the same as A, A(2) was B, etc.

The PC-1 only had 1,425 bytes of RAM available for programming, and I must have hit that limit because my TRS-80 Level II BASIC listing had longer text descriptions and an additional command.

The goal is to collect the most gold. Commands:

  • Attack with a sword (uses ST)
  • Cast spell (uses WS)
  • Fire missile (uses DX)
  • Traps? (detects a trap in an empty room using WS)
  • Inventory (shows your attributes)
  • North
  • South
  • East
  • West
  • Up
  • Down

You can play Tunnels & Traps with Joshua Bell’s great Applesoft BASIC emulator. Copy and paste the following code, modified a bit to work there:

1 DIM A(26):GOTO 7
3 D=0:FOR I=1TO 3:R=23*R:R=R-32767*INT(R/32767):D=D+R-6*INT(R/6)+1:NEXT :RETURN 
5 PRINT "ST"; S; " DX"; F; " WS"; W; " CN"; C; " GD"; G:RETURN 
6 GOTO 30
7 PRINT "TUNNELS & TRAPS":INPUT "EXPLORE TUNNEL #?";N:R=N
8 GOSUB 3:S=D:GOSUB 3:F=D:GOSUB 3:W=D:GOSUB 3:C=D:G=0:GOSUB 5
9 PRINT:INPUT "COMMAND?";A$:GOSUB 3:GOSUB 10:GOTO 9
10 IF A$="A" THEN T=S-E:PRINT "SWORD";:GOTO 76
12 IF A$="C" THEN T=W-E/3:PRINT "SPELL";:GOTO 76
13 IF A$="D" THEN Z=Z-1:GOTO 6
14 IF A$="E" THEN X=X+1:GOTO 6
15 IF A$="F" THEN T=(F+L)*(E=0):PRINT "ARROW";:GOTO 76
18 IF A$="I" GOTO 5
20 IF A$="N" THEN Y=Y-1:GOTO 6
22 IF A$="S" THEN Y=Y+1:GOTO 6
23 IF A$="T" THEN T=W:GOTO 62
24 IF A$="U" THEN Z=Z+1:GOTO 6
26 IF A$="W" THEN X=X-1:GOTO 6
28 PRINT "NOR SOU EAST WEST UP DN":PRINT "ATTK CAST FIRE INV TRPS?":RETURN
30 IF M<0THEN GOSUB 62
31 IF M>0THEN A$="X":PRINT "PARRY";:T=W:GOSUB 80
32 L=INT((ABS(X)+ABS(Y)+3*ABS(Z))/3)+1:M=0:GOSUB 3:IF D>7 THEN M=L:REM
38 IF D<5 THEN PRINT "TRAP";:T=F:M=-L
40 IF M=0 THEN PRINT "NOTHING";
41 IF D<7 THEN M=-L
42 IF M=1 THEN PRINT "IMP";
44 IF M=2 THEN PRINT "KOBOLD";
46 IF M=3 THEN PRINT "GOBLIN";
48 IF M=4 THEN PRINT "HOBGOBLIN";
50 IF M=5 THEN PRINT "ORC";
52 IF M=6 THEN PRINT "HALFORC";
54 IF M=7 THEN PRINT "OGRE";
56 IF M>7 THEN PRINT "TROLL";
58 PRINT " HERE!"
60 IF D>4 THEN RETURN 
62 GOSUB 3:IF (D<T)AND(M<0) THEN PRINT "YOU JUST ESCAPE A TRAP!":M=0:RETURN
64 IF M>=0 THEN PRINT "NO TRAP DETECTED.":RETURN 
66 GOSUB 3:IF A$="T"THEN D=INT(D/2)
68 IF D>L THEN D=L
70 IF D>C THEN D=C-1
72 C=C-D:PRINT "A TRAP CAUSED ";D;" DAMAGE.":RETURN 
76 E=E+1:IF M<=0 THEN PRINT "S ARE USELESS HERE!":RETURN 
78 GOSUB 3:IF D<T THEN D=D+D
80 P=D:GOSUB 3:IF D<L*2 THEN D=D+D
82 IF P>=D AND A$<>"X" THEN M=M-(P-D)/3:PRINT " HIT FOR ";P-D;" DAMAGE."
83 IF P>=D AND A$="X" THEN PRINT " SUCCEEDED."
84 IF P<D THEN C=C+P-D:PRINT " MISSED.":PRINT "YOU TOOK ";D-P;" DAMAGE."
86 IF C<1 THEN PRINT "YOU DIED IN TUNNEL ";N;"!":GOSUB 5:PRINT:END 
88 IF M>0 THEN RETURN 
90 PRINT "YOU KILLED IT!":M=0:E=0
91 GOSUB 3:PRINT "ROLL OF ";D;": ";:IF C<L THEN C=L:IF C>18 THEN C=18
92 IF (D<=S)AND(D<=F)AND(D<=W)THEN G=G+D:PRINT "GOLD!":GOTO 5
93 T=23:A(6)=F:A(19)=S:A(23)=W
94 IF (S>=F)AND(S>=W)THEN T=19:U=23:V=6:IF (F>=W)THEN U=6: V=23
95 IF (F>S)AND(F>=W)THEN T=6:U=23:V=19:IF (S>=W)THEN U=19: V=23
96 IF (W>S)AND(W>F)THEN T=23:U=6:V=19:IF (S>=F)THEN U=19: V=6
97 IF D>A(T)THEN GOTO 195
98 IF D>A(U)THEN T=U:GOTO 195
99 T=V
195 IF (T=6)THEN F=F+1:PRINT "DEXTERITY!":GOTO 5
196 IF (T=19)THEN S=S+1:PRINT "STRENGTH!":GOTO 5
197 IF (T=23)THEN W=W+1:PRINT "WISDOM!":GOTO 5
198 GOTO 5

And below is the PC-1 source code. You’ll have to forgive the lack of comments. There wasn’t sufficient memory to have any! And it is spaghetti code, inspired by assembly language: the common subroutines had one-digit line numbers that jumped down because every byte counted, and RETURN took less space than GOTO 9. The whole thing later got much further developed in the comparative luxury of 16KB RAM on the TRS-80 Model I Level 2. But that’s a post for another day.

  1:GOTO 7
  3:D=0:FOR I=1TO 3:R=23*R:R=R-32767*INT(R/32767):D=D+INT(R/6)+1:NEXT :RETURN 
  5:PRINT "ST";S;" DX";F;" WS";W;" CN";C;" GD";G:RETURN 
  6:GOTO 30
  7:INPUT "TUNNEL #?";N:R=N
  8:GOSUB 3:S=D:GOSUB 3:F=D:GOSUB 3:W=D:GOSUB 3:C=D:GOSUB 5
  9:INPUT A$:GOSUB 3:GOSUB 10:GOTO 9
 10:IF A$="A"THEN T=S-E:PRINT "SWORD";:GOTO 76
 12:IF A$="C"THEN T=W-E/2:PRINT "SPELL";:GOTO 76
 13:IF A$="D"THEN Z=Z-1:GOTO 6
 14:IF A$="E"THEN X=X+1:GOTO 6
 15:IF A$="F"THEN T=F*(E=0):PRINT "ARROW";:GOTO 76
 20:IF A$="N"THEN Y=Y-1:GOTO 6
 22:IF A$="S"THEN Y=Y+1:GOTO 6
 23:IF A$="T"THEN T=W:GOTO 62
 24:IF A$="U"THEN Z=Z+1:GOTO 6
 26:IF A$="W"THEN X=X-1:GOTO 6
 28:RETURN 
 30:IF M<0GOSUB 62
 31:IF M>0THEN A$="X":PRINT "PARRY";:T=F:GOSUB 80
 32:L=INT((ABS X+ABS Y+ABS Z)/3):M=0:GOSUB 3:IF D>8THEN M=L
 38:IF D<5THEN PRINT "TRAP";:T=F:M=-L
 40:IF M=0THEN PRINT "NOTHING";
 41:IF D<7THEN M=-L
 42:IF M=1PRINT "IMP";
 44:IF M=2PRINT "KOBOLD";
 46:IF M=3PRINT "GOBLIN";
 48:IF M=4PRINT "HOBGOBLIN";
 50:IF M=5PRINT "ORC";
 52:IF M=6PRINT "HALFORC";
 54:IF M=7PRINT "OGRE";
 56:IF M>7PRINT "TROLL";
 58:PRINT " HERE!"
 60:IF D>4 RETURN 
 62:GOSUB 3:IF (D<T)*(M<0)PRINT "YOU ESCAPE TRAP!":M=0:RETURN 
 64:IF M>=0PRINT "NOT FOUND":RETURN 
 66:GOSUB 3:IF A$="T"THEN D=INT(D/2)
 68:IF D>LTHEN D=L
 70:IF D>CTHEN D=C-1
 72:C=C-D:PRINT "TRAP HIT FOR ";D;".":RETURN 
 75:E=E+1:IF M<=0PRINT "S USELESS HERE!":RETURN 
 77:GOSUB 3:IF D<TTHEN D=D+D
 79:P=D:GOSUB 3:IF D<L*2THEN D=D+D
 81:IF (P>=D)*(A$<>"X")THEN M=M-(P-D)/3:PRINT " HIT FOR ";P-D;"."
 83:IF (P>=D)*(A$="X")PRINT "!"
 84:IF P<DTHEN C=C+P-D:PRINT " MISSED":PRINT "YOU TOOK ";D-P;" HITS."
 86:IF C<1PRINT "YOU DIED!":GOSUB 5:END 
 88:IF M>0RETURN 
 90:PRINT "YOU SLEW IT!":M=0:E=0
 91:GOSUB 3:PRINT "ROLL OF ";D;":";:IF C<LTHEN C=L:IF C>18THEN C=18
 92:IF (D<=S)*(D<=F)*(D<=W)THEN G=G+D:PRINT "GD!":GOTO 5
 93:IF (S>=F)*(S>=W)THEN T=19:U=23:V=6:IF (F>=W)THEN U=6:V=23
 94:IF (F>S)*(F>=W)THEN T=6:U=23:V=19:IF (S>=W)THEN U=19:V=23
 95:IF (W>S)*(W>F)THEN T=23:U=6:V=19:IF (S>=F)THEN U=19:V=6
 96:IF D>A(T)GOTO 99
 97:IF D>A(U)THEN T=U:GOTO 99
 98:T=V
 99:A(T)=A(T)+1:IF (T=6)PRINT "DX!"
100:IF (T=19)PRINT "ST!"
101:IF (T=23)PRINT "WS!"
102:GOTO 5

Celebrating Rick Loomis by Replaying Buffalo Castle

When I learnt Rick Loomis passed away, I pulled out my copy of his Buffalo Castle, the first solitaire RPG adventure. I played a lot more solitaire RPGs than in-person, and I have Rick to thank for that. (I met Rick once, at a convention, of course.) You can play along with me:

  1. Purchase a revised edition.
  2. You’ll need Tunnels & Trolls to play. I recommend 1st Edition, because Rick originally sold Ken’s 100 copies from the ASU copy shop, and it’s actually a love letter from @Trollgodfather (Ken St. Andre, the designer of Tunnels & Trolls) to a group of friends who made up the game together. Plus, go Sun Devils!
  3. You’ll also need this treasure table (not in 1st edition).

Play along! I created a character. Key thing to note when you do: “Constitution” is what you will probably think of as health or hp. “Hit points” in T&T are for each round of combat: “The hit point total is the sum of a characters [sic] dice roll plus whatever adds may be coming to him.”

  1. On my first game, I went through the left door, and I tried to sweet-talk my way past the troll (spoiler!), only to have him kill me in one blow.
  2. On my second game (same character), I went through the center door, was teleported to the troll (1 out of 12 paths!), to be killed in one blow after I missed my saving roll by 1. (“Saving rolls are made with 2 dice. Doubles add and roll over so that you need not give up hope.”)
  3. On my third game, I went through the rightmost door, fell into a pit, and crawled out to be rewarded with “You have entered room number six.” I drank from a fountain and lost 2 charisma. I then failed my saving roll twice and got: “The walls smash you flat. Sorry about that!”

Yeah, so this was like a 1970s arcade game. You’d just expect to die a lot and have to puzzle your way through. This reminds me of a BASIC or FORTRAN IV program, which is not surprising as Rick claimed to be the first person to buy a computer just to play games!

I eventually came up with a strategy, bought different weapons, and won!

So celebrate the life of Rick Loomis by playing this pioneering game and returning, momentarily, to what gaming was like in 1976.

At Loggerheads

The hook:

A Saltmarsh merchant says his woodcutter partner, Concisor Maplesky, hasn’t been heard from in a month. The merchant needs the party to find out what happened to the woodcutter and to ship two masts down Kingfisher River. He’ll pay 100 gp per player. He provides a boat to go upstream and a map showing which tributaries to traverse to reach the logging camp at Flicker Creek.

If you’d like to read the rest of my one-page adventure, it’s available in the new DMs Guild exclusive ebook, The Lonely Scroll Adventure Contest: Saltmarsh. It’s got a great custom map by Daniel “Axebane” Walthall.

Whether you’re interested in the Saltmarsh of Greyhawk, of Forgotten Realms, or just need 47 ideas for seashore adventures for your own campaign world, check it out!

The Village Blacksmith (RPG Setting-Neutral Edition)

My players’ characters are visiting a village smithy, so I decided the local bard will sing this poem as they approach (then ask them for money!). Since our homebrew campaign world is set in Stone Age Eurasia, I changed the references to Christ and Sunday worship. My edited words are in italics. (With apologies to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.)

The Village Blacksmith

UNDER a spreading chestnut tree
The village smithy stands;
The smith, a mighty man is he,
With large and sinewy hands;
And the muscles of his brawny arms
Are strong as iron bands.

His hair is crisp, and black, and long,
His face is like the tan;
His brow is wet with honest sweat,
He earns whate’er he can,
And looks the whole world in the face,
For he owes not any man.

Week in, week out, from morn till night,
You can hear his bellows blow;
You can hear him swing his heavy sledge
With measured beat and slow,
Like a cleric ringing the village bell,
When the evening sun is low.

And children coming home from toil
Look in at the open door;
They love to see the flaming forge,
And hear the bellows roar,
And watch the burning sparks that fly
Like chaff from a threshing-floor.

He goes each tenday to the shrine,
And sits among his boys;
He hears the cleric pray and preach,
He hears his daughter’s voice,
Singing in the village choir,
And it makes his heart rejoice.

It sounds to him like her mother’s voice,
Singing in paradise!
He needs must think of her once more,
How in the grave she lies;
And with his hard, rough hand he wipes
A tear out of his eyes.

Toiling,—rejoicing,—sorrowing,
Onward through life he goes;
Each morning sees some task begin,
Each evening sees it close;
Something attempted, something done,
Has earned a night’s repose.

Thanks, thanks to thee, my worthy friend,
For the lesson thou hast taught!
Thus at the flaming forge of life
Our fortunes must be wrought;
Thus on its sounding anvil shaped
Each burning deed and thought!

Questions to Ask During Session Zero

I ran a Session Zero on Friday for our new homebrew campaign. We had just wrapped up a 41-session, open-table campaign set in Melvaunt in Forgotten Realms, and this time we’re doing a homebrew, closed-table campaign. Every group’s Session Zero has different things to cover, but here’s what we found useful.

The questions I asked to better tailor this campaign:

  • What was your favorite moment from the last campaign? Least favorite?
  • What did you like in general about the last campaign? What did you dislike?
  • Do you want to play one character over the new campaign or play multiple characters?
  • Should we allow players to be resurrected or not?
  • Do you like creating maps?
  • Do you like codes and ciphers?
  • What kind of records are you as a team going to keep about the world and your adventures?
  • What types of monsters would you like to encounter?
  • How would you feel about a session with no combat?
  • How can we speed up combat? [We have 7 players, so I feel like it can bog down, though not every player felt that way.]

Introduction to any house rules. For instance:

  • For a player who is not present during a session, their character is assumed to be present and along for the ride but not contributing much. An absent player’s character cannot be killed.
  • At the end of a session, the players reach consensus on where they want to go the next session. [A complaint was how long it took them to decide which clue/quest to follow at the start of a session.]
  • While the DM’s guide says a permanent magic item every five levels, we are going to have some different items that come along more often.
  • Combat ideas:
    • Everyone rolls for initiative (including me as DM for monsters). High roll goes first, then combat proceeds in clockwise order around the table.
    • Players can postpone their turn if they are not ready. [We were already doing this.]
    • If the AC is obvious (humanoid wearing armor), I’ll tell the players it. Everyone will roll d20 and damage die together, ignoring damage die if they didn’t hit.
    • I’m going to provide better feedback into the declining health of the opponents.

Discussion of how the world differs from Forgotten Realms or other player expectations. In my case:

  • There’s a shop with common magic items only, but anything rarer – even uncommon – will require tracking rumors and legends to find.
  • Rather than copper, silver, electrum, gold, and platinum pieces, the lands use electrum pieces universally, though their home city is unique in that it has copper pennies too. The electrum pieces are the only reminders of the wider world of the vanished empire: which city-states used the minotaur coins, the winged horse, and the lion?

After much discussion of character races and classes, I had every player tell us about their character. I had already encouraged them to think of a high concept and troubled aspect of their character’s background. Then also had to tell us how their character knows the character of the player to their right.

I’ve already tweaked the encounter tables based on what I learnt from the session, and I have changed some of the clues and potential story lines. For instance, while one of our past players loved riddles and ciphers, that wasn’t something any of the current players wanted much of, so that series of clues is being revamped.

I believe the Session Zero is going to pave the way for another great 40-session campaign.

Photo by Donald Tong from Pexels.

RPG Campaigns Played by System

Obsidian Portal, an online campaign management tool for RPGs, shares stats on the number of campaigns run in its system. I’ve created a Google Sheet with this data.

This represents the 129,098 campaigns created over the lifetime of the software (12 years, as it was created in 2007). As a result, you’ll see Pathfinder in second place at 18% of campaigns, due to its historic strength: it is doubtful that 18% of campaigns played today are in Pathfinder, given the loss of players to D&D 5e and the release of Pathfinder Second Edition.

D&D, across its editions, represents 47% of these Obsidian campaigns.

The Top 10 systems that aren’t D&D are:

  1. Pathfinder RPG (17.66%)
  2. Savage Worlds (2.40%)
  3. Shadowrun (1.94%)
  4. Fate RPG (1.88%)
  5. World of Darkness (1.83%)
  6. Star Wars: Edge of the Empire (1.80%)
  7. Call of Cthulhu (0.98%)
  8. Vampire: The Masquerade (0.85%)
  9. Mutants and Masterminds (0.72%)
  10. GURPS 4th Edition (0.70%) (1.25% if you add in earlier GURPS editions)

The full Google Sheet is here.

The Golden Ages: An Epic Civ Light

  • Designer: Luigi Ferrini
  • Publisher: Stronghold Games, Quined Games, et al
  • Players: 2-4 (2-5 with expansion, Cults & Culture)
  • Ages: 12+
  • Time: 90-180 minutes
  • Times played: 10, with purchased copy

I missed The Golden Ages by Luigi Ferrini when it came out in 2014, among the thousands of games that came out that year. I stumbled across it in reviews of Sid Meier’s Civilization: New Dawn among players who said they preferred it. Ten plays later, I can see how it compares favorably.

In most civilization games, any hidden elements of the board are explored rather quickly (e.g., Clash of Cultures) or the board starts out as fully visible (the first and third board games based on Sid Meier’s Civilization series of video games). A standout feature of The Golden Ages is how it handles exploration. Like Nations, The Golden Ages span four ages. You must explore at the start of each of the four ages, and get one tile: a 3 spot L-shaped tile the first age, then a 2-spot tile in subsequent ages. This enforces a pacing throughout the game of gradually exploring the world, a pacing that seems much more thematic than other games’ approach to this.

One element that did initially put me off was that the map is actually the world map, randomized; you could put together the actual world as a puzzle. In fact, twice I picked up the game at my FLGS and put it back because of this. But the style of the map doesn’t affect gameplay and has grown on me.

After placing your tile at the start of each age, you decide where to place your capital (in ages 2 through 4, you can opt to leave it where it was the prior age). Like Vinci or History of the World rather than most other civ games, you will play multiple civilizations over the course of the game. Here too you can decide, 10 of the 25 civilizations only give you one-time bonuses (such as a free thematic tech, e.g., Writing for Phoenicia) but most give you lasting abilities (Rome lets you take a building without an action, and Roman players often stick with Rome for more than one age).

Each age will comprise 4 or more turns. Each turn you can choose from 8 available actions, 4 having to do with colonists (you have 3 colonist meeples each age) and 4 other actions. Meeple actions:

  1. Artist – Remove an upright colonist from the map and place in the Agora (a separate card) for 3 victory points.
  2. Builder – Remove an upright colonist from the map and place it in the Agora and select a Building from the marketplace (which contains 1 Building per player) and add it to your playing card.
  3. Explorer – You may move as many spaces as your technology allows (one at the beginning, two with Carriage, three with Rail, anywhere with Flight). If no opposing city is there, you may build a city (place a cube) and collect income (1 per cube placed to start, 1 per Game resource). Place your colonist flat.
  4. Soldier – You may move as many spaces as your technology track allows. If you end in a square with a competitor, you may pay to attack. The game limits military from dominating; you may attack only 4 times, paying an escalating cost each time: 3, 5, 8, and 12 gold. The outcome is certain (the attacker always wins) but the amount of VP to be gained is variable – you draw a Glory token which will range in value from 2 to 6 VP (kept hidden from other players). After the attack, place your colonist flat. (See the designer diary for more on this design.)

The colonists give the game a strong worker-placement vibe, though the innovation here is that workers are limited by their geographic position on the board. Moving to the Agora as an Artist or Builder becomes a way to return workers to the capital, so that you can move them with the capital in a future turn.

The other 4 actions are limited by money or cards rather than by workers (colonists):

  1. Buy a single technology, provided you have its prerequisites (to the left of it in its row on your player card). The final tech in each row gives you an immediate VP bonus. Many early techs provide you an extra cube (so that you can continue to found cities). At the end of the game, techs in the first column provide 0 VPs, the second column 1 VP, the third 2 VP, and the fourth 4 VP.
  2. Buy a Wonder and take its immediate effect, if any (marked with a lightning bolt). Wonders in and of themselves aren’t worth VPs, though two cards provide VPs per Wonder.
  3. Activate a building or Wonder for its effect, turning the card upside down. Buildings and Wonders provide discounts on tech or provide money or VP for certain conditions (e.g., Library provides a discount of 2 when buying a tech, and Granary provides 1 gold for each of your upright colonists). Effects can be used one an age; at the start of the next age, all will be turned face-side up.
  4. Declaring a Golden Age is the unique mechanic. Once you have played all three of your colonists, you can declare a Golden Age. You choose which of the remaining History’s Judgment cards will provide VP at the end of the era (five are randomly drawn at the start of the game), trying to choose one that benefits you disproportionately from your opponents. You flip your city wooden column upside down so that its 2-gold sticker is on top. If everyone else on their turn declares a Golden Age, the age ends; if anyone else takes a different action, then you will collect 2 gold pieces that turn. You will continue to collect this bonus until all players declare a Golden Age. At the end of the game, the last Age provides everyone a single turn before ending the game, much to other players’ frustration.

Unlike most traditional civ games, your economy is not powered by the resources controlled but by the resources you grab each turn (think of the need to attack each turn in Risk in order to gain a card): controlled resources are instead eligible for VPs. . This motivates you to constantly expand. Resources include game (animals), wheat, rock (minerals), and gems. For instance, you start the game with the technology Hunting, which lets you take 1 Gold every time you take control of a region with game. Metallurgy will provide 1 Gold per rock, Engineering obsoletes Metallurgy and provides 3 Gold per rock, and Computer Science provides 2 VP per rock you control when you discover it (silicon, I assume). Agriculture, Medicine, and Genetics provide corresponding abilities for wheat. Gems are a bit different: first, in a nice bit of design, there are no gems on the map to start the game; the second-level tech Currency provides 2 Gold per gem controlled, Economy 4 Gold, and Rocketry (on a different tech tree) 3 VP for gem. Gems become something to fight over (though one player found it unthematic that gems aren’t worth anything without a tech).

I typically prefer civ games where military comes in at the end, as the map tightens; here, there are good early cases for military, due to civ and Wonder powers. In one game, I lost by a huge amount after misjudging the military option: with each subsequent attack costing more, I didn’t have the finances to carry my plan through to completion. The movement/military tech branch doesn’t affect battle outcomes, which seems very unthematic; in another game, where I had concentrated on wonders, I defeated two neighbors with flight while I hadn’t invented the wagon yet (guerilla warriors, I suppose).

The randomness of the History’s Judgment cards and your 4 Civilization cards and your Future Technology card provides high variability from game to game while giving you an ability to strategize. As one of my sons observed, these cards really force you to play differently from game to game. The game has an expansion pack, Cults & Culture, and a promo pack of additional Wonders is available. So far I’ve only used the expansion to play 5, adding no new rules; it may provide more replayability for games with two players.

The Golden Age action in itself is a fascinating mechanic. For one, it keeps the game from getting bogged down; while you will have expanded your civilization’s range of possible actions (through Buildings and Wonders and amassing gold), you typically won’t want to use all of those actions. One play was won by a player who always declared the Golden Age first, carefully choosing History’s Judgement. In one of my plays, I choose to launch attack after attack after the Golden Age was declared; everyone else pulled in 2 gold pieces per turn, but I amassed Glory so that I could buy the Porcelain Tower wonder. (I won that game, but I’ve lost the last 5 times!)

So how does The Golden Ages compare to Sid Meier’s Civilization: A New Dawn? My youngest son (12 years old) loves New Dawn and vastly prefers it, because it is highly evocative of Civ 6, his favorite video game at the moment. My eldest son (25 years old, for whom I got New Dawn as a Christmas present) likes the replayability of The Golden Ages. Because the Golden Ages uses VPs, there seems to be more varied ways of winning, where New Dawn is a race to achieve 3 out of 6 objectives. New Dawn is a game of optimization around its focus row. The Golden Ages is a game of constraints and careful management.

I’ve played 5 times with 2 players, once with three, and twice with four and five players. The BGG community says the sweet spot is 3-4 players, which seems right to me. With 5 players, the game still played in under 3 hours (after rules explanation). Even better, in one 5-player game, the first and second-placed players both took completely different strategies: the winner stayed as Rome the whole game and built lots of buildings; the runner up built no buildings but set the pace for each turn and declared every Golden Age but the last. (I came in third.)

For the full rules, see BGG.

As a Luddite who still prefers Vinci to Small World, and who would always suggest Vinci to someone who suggested we play Risk, I find The Golden Ages to be much more thematic than Vinci and with much less downtime. Since it minimizes combat (to no more than 4 attacks per player), The Golden Ages may displace Vinci altogether for me. It’s hard to do a civ-lite well; the inherent contradiction in the form is that the first Civilization board game (Avalon Hill) and the Civilization video games are epic affairs, and light board games are un-epic. The Golden Ages squares this contradiction far better than most civ lites.

This game is for you if:

  • You enjoy civilization games.
  • You prefer VP-driven games to 4X games.
  • You don’t mind some military combat, but don’t want to play a wargame.

This game is not for you if:

  • You dislike games with military conflict. It’s meaner than 7 Wonders, as you lose regions you settled and resources you controlled, while never devolving into a straight-out wargame like History of the World or Vinci. (Though one woman in my game group who typically avoids more conflict-oriented games didn’t find the military overpowering, even after my sneak attack on her.)
  • You need more chrome than wooden cubes and cylinders. (Try Clash of Cultures!)
  • You need strong theme. One of our players initially derided it as too abstract, before warming to it. Some on BGG find the art off-putting and say that the lack of English on the cards takes them out of the theme. (Try Kevin Wilson’s version of Sid Meier’s Civilization.)

The Fall of the Gamebook and the Rise of Interactive Fiction

One out of five adult Americans with online access (90% of the population) have ever read any gamebooks, such as Choose Your Own Adventure, Fighting Fantasy, Lone Wolf, or solitaire RPG adventures such as the Tunnels & Trolls series. These books definitely reflect the 1980s, when publication peaked: those 35-44 years old (kids in the 1980s) are most likely to have ever read a gamebook (39%), compared to just 18% of those 45-54 years old and 30% of those under 25. While classic gamebook lines are being relaunched (e.g., Endless Quest and Choose Your Own Adventure), the genre is unlikely to return to its heyday.

Contrast that with interactive fiction. Interactive fiction in the 1980s was about text adventures, map making, command-line prompts, and sudden death, but modern interactive fiction focuses on narrative, delayed branching, and meaningful choices that shape a longer story arc.

A fifth of online adults have ever played any text adventures or interactive fiction games on a computer, tablet, or smartphone, such as Choice of Games, Infocom, or Twine games. The growth is in interactive fiction on smartphones. The younger the adult, the more likely they’ve played: 45% of 18-24 year olds, 36% of 25-34 year olds, and 26% of 35-44 year olds have played.

Smartphones reshape our cognition and our attention spans in ways that should lead to the continued rise of interactive fiction vs. traditional books. Interactive fiction presents short segments of text that then require a response, a medium well suited to the smartphone era.

This Researchscape survey of 1,000 U.S. adults was fielded online from April 22 to 23, 2019. For more, please check out the slides and general methodology.

A New Sequence

I discovered an interesting numerical sequence:

     1,  2,  3,  4,  5,  6,  7,  8,  9,
 2,  3,  5,  7,  9, 11, 13, 15, 17, 19,
 6,  7,  8, 11, 14, 17, 20, 23, 26, 29,
12, 13, 14, 15, 19, 23, 27, 31, 35, 39,
20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 29, 34, 39, 44, 49,
30, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35, 41, 47, 53, 59,
42, 43, 44, 45, 46, 47, 48, 55, 62, 69,
56, 57, 58, 59, 60, 61, 62, 63, 71, 79,
72, 73, 74, 75, 76, 77, 78, 79, 80, 89,
90, 91, 92, 93, 94, 95, 96, 97, 98, 99

I’m not sure if its properties will be useful, but it is easy to calculate.

Every number from 1 to 99, expressed in decimal form, converted to the lowest possible base: so 10 becomes 2 in binary, 11 becomes 3 in binary, 12 becomes 5 in base 3, 13 becomes 7 in base 4, etc.

2018 Most-Played Boardgames

My nickels and dimes, for the year, were:

BoardgamePlays
Unpublished Prototype45
Innovation25
Secret Hitler19
One Night Ultimate Werewolf15
Battle Line13
Civscape13
Sid Meier’s Civilization: A New Dawn12
Avignon: A Clash of Popes11
The Golden Ages10
Sushi Go Party!9
Homeworlds8
Brew Crafters: The Travel Card Game5
Choose Your Own Adventure: House of Danger5
Covalence: A Molecule Building Game5
Spin Rummy

Last year, like most years, I played unpublished prototypes (my own and my friends’) more than any single published game. (You can download Spin Rummy and Hero’s Arc, two games that I created for contents this year.)

Innovation remains an all-time favorite, always different and therefore endlessly replayable. One memorable session ended with my opponent blasting through the entire draw deck: I had never had that happen before, and I’ve played the game 54 times!

Secret Hitler being played so often reminds me that my game list is a work of collaboration: what games get played is a negotiation, depending in part on what games I can find willing participants for. Since Secret Hitler scales well to high player counts, it made it to the table 5 times, even though I’m not one to suggest it.

Similarly, I play Civilization: A New Dawn because my youngest loves it and wins often at it. It’s fundamentally a race game, but needs more variety in victory conditions to be more replayable.

I’d prefer to play The Golden Ages, my new favorite, but that is harder to get to the table, since the same son hates it.

Add in Civscape, and you can see that four of these top fourteen games are civilization games, which remains my favorite genre.

Even Sushi Go Party! makes the list for civ reasons: I teach it first as an introduction to 7 Wonders, which got just 3 plays last year, as many of my friends have tired of it. (I haven’t!)

Even though I only played 5-Minute Dungeon one evening, I immediately realized it would be perfect for two families, and it became a well-received Christmas gift.

Making a surprise return to the table was Axis & Allies (1986 rules), which my 12-year old fell in love with before growing to hate it (he’s 0-4).

Setting aside the unpublished prototypes, I played 147 different games last year, thanks to the great circle of friends that has grown up around our meetup, Suncoast Gamers.

One resolution: board games that didn’t make it to the table last year I’m going to try and give away this year, to free up some space and to get them to places where they will be better loved.

Happy gaming in 2019!

(Image of Tasty Minstrel Game’s Coin Age – not played this year! – by Daniel Thurot.)