Running battles in combat-centric role-playing games can be as painful as stepping on a caltrop. You’re either depending on the Gamemaster to keep the entire scene in his or her head, or you’re constantly drawing and erasing the map on a ratty piece of graph paper. I’ve seen groups use Lego minifigs, chess pieces and even jelly beans. While the DIY crowd can certainly save a buck or two and keep using confections, many gamers are seeking out more polished solutions. There are a host of battle map options, ranging in price from a few to a few hundred bucks. Over the next few weeks, I’ll look at the ways that tabletop RPGers have taken the battle map to the next level.
First up, Battle Graph Dry Erase Boards. These are the spiritual successor to a product no longer in production, called Tact-Tiles, which were solid plastic boards with a dry-erase coating on one side. Best of all, Tact-Tiles were modular and locked together to form a massive surface that could be used for large scale battles or dungeon crawls. Unfortunately, the company that made Tact-Tiles, BC Products, went out of business. Now you’re lucky if you can find Tact-Tiles on eBay, and when you do, be prepared to shell out upwards of $100 for a set.
Brian Davison, owner of Longtooth Games, saw the need for a replacement. Last spring, he released Battle Graph Dry Erase Boards to the gaming community, and there was much rejoicing. Unfortunately, before posting this review, I found out that Battle Graphs are no longer being manufactured. I wanted to get the word out on them, anyway, because they are a good product and there might be a way you can save them! Hit the jump to find out more.
Before their halt in production, Battle Graphs came four tiles to a $25 set. Unlike the solid plastic Tact-Tiles, Battle Graphs are made of a particle board material. One side is coated with a white dry erase surface. Each tile is 10″x10″ and is gridded with 10×10 squares. The grids are actually scored into the surface, which makes for a built-in ruler when drawing dungeon walls. Just be careful not to get any moisture on the scores, because it can seep under the dry erase surface and cause some nasty damage.
Because of the way the four tiles interlock, you’ll end up with a total of 19×20 squares per four tile set. The interlocking tabs and blanks will provide slightly more or less room, depending on their location.
We put Battle Graphs to the test during my weekly Dungeons & Dragons game. Typically we use a combination of D&D Dungeon Tiles, Paizo Flip-Mats, and dry erase battle mats. The modular nature of the Battle Graphs was helpful in maintaining a “fog of war” style reveal in the dungeon crawl. We did notice that some of the tiles didn’t lock together very tightly and the gap between them was larger than it needed to be, but it did mean that miniatures didn’t go flying whenever we had to shift the tiles around.
My group likes pretty pictures on our battlefield. Unless your GM is a better artist than I am–and excels in the medium of dry erase–you’re not likely to win any awards for realism. A blank battle mat does give the GM more control over the encounter, which can certainly make up for poor visual verisimilitude. Even if you do have to keep reminding the players that the oddly shaped blob is a bridge, not a gelatinous cube.
The tiles are durable and portable, which means you won’t feel guilty chucking them in your backpack on your way to your FLGS. In a half year of use and cleaning only with paper towels or dry erasers, the Battle Graph boards have no ghosting whatsoever. The white dry erase surface is high quality but the other side is unprotected. As in, not waterproof. And Mountain Dew is made of mostly water. So if someone spills their drink, the Battle Graph boards are just as vulnerable as your Player’s Handbook.
Unfortunately, Brian Davison has hit some issues with the production of the Battle Graphs. As stated on the website:
“We are currently unable to continue the manufacture of our Battlegraph Dry Erase Boards. We are continuing our efforts to find financial support to get things up and running. If you are an interested investor, I would love to talk with you.”
So if you’re interested in investing in a really cool game product, head on over to battlegraph.com and touch base with Brian. And for anyone else who wants to add a versatile piece of battle map technology to their game room, Battle Graph Dry Erase Boards gets the GeekDad Seal of Approval. Hit up eBay or wait ’til Longtooth gets back into action. If you get the chance to buy, I’d recommend picking up two sets, just so you can build a mega dungeon on the fly and utterly destroy amaze your players.
Wired: Great price tag (when they were for sale). Modular, durable dry erase surface lets you create awesome “fog-of-war” encounters for various tactical RPGs. Scored grids make for easy and accurate line drawing.
Tired: Out-of-production. Unprotected bottom surface and scores are not Mtn Dew friendly. Blank white slate can be bad for art-challenged GMs.
(Full Disclosure: I received a free set of Battle Graph Dry Erase Boards.)
I’m excited to go to the NYC Toy Fair again this year and an thankful that I have more time to plan for it. Rumor is that one or two other GeekDad contributors will be there so a meet-up is hopeful.
The fair is growing this year with over 1200 exhibitors and a reported 7000 never before seen products. I’m skeptical of that last number, but it does promise to be a fun time.
I’ve already got appointments with LEGO, Bandai America, and Playmobile, and probably won’t book too many more. I’d like to keep my schedule open and spend more time cruising around in the cheap booth talking to startups and smaller toy and game companies. I missed the 20% of the floor last year that included most of the independent game houses and startups. This year I’ll start on that end so I can talk with the creators and owners of the companies and hopefully sniff out some cool new games for you all.
If any of you are going and would like to meet a GeekDad or two, ping me on twitter @AntonOlsen and we can coordinate when and where. Or just keep your eye out for the GeekDad shirt. I’ll be wearing one of the new ones from ThinkGeek.
Is there anything special you’d like to me to look at, or seek out?
Christmas 2009 brought a good haul of LEGO, including another entry in the LEGO gaming range: Race 3000.
Race 3000 allows you to build a LEGO Grand Prix track and to race around it with up to 4 players, overtaking, switching lanes, avoiding oil slicks and taking shortcuts. There’s even a little LEGO podium for the 1st, 2nd and 3rd placed cars to assemble after the race.
The game requires a little building to put together. There are about sixteen steps to build the race track and the instructions are well laid out as you would expect from LEGO. It took us about 15 minutes to build the game and the board is designed with a convenient break-point to allow it to fit back in the box without disassembling.
At its most basic level, this is a simple dice race. You roll the die and move the indicated number of spaces around the board. The die itself warrants special mention as it plays a crucial role (no pun intended) in the game. It is the same rubberized cube found in Minotaurus, but you start with only a couple of tiles relating to the turbo boosts on the die. As you roll, you add tiles of your color to the face that is showing, allowing the die to develop differently with every game. Depending on the tiles visible after a roll, multiple players may get to move their cars on each turn. This really adds a lot to the depth and replayability of the game.
The die mechanic, whilst quite ingenious, brings with it a problem. Because there can be a number of actions each roll, there is a certain amount of patience required, which can be a bit of a stretch for younger players. A turn can involve adding another tile to the die, moving, and then allowing the other players to move as well, all with reference to the original roll. We found our youngest almost had to sit on his hands to stop him from fiddling with the die during an extended turn.
The rules run to 3 well illustrated pages, though they need careful reading as some of the rules are a little abstract and hard to follow. Players are encouraged to create their own rules and upload them to the LEGO website. Unfortunately there isn’t much structure to this and the rules suggestions seem to take the form of a long, rambling forum thread. I would have liked to have seen something a little more formal and organized. With regard to house rules, there is one that we quickly implemented. The game keeps playing until a first, second and third player have been found. Once the winner has finished there is isn’t much guidance in the rules for how to bring the game to a speedy conclusion. When we play, once a player completes the race, his tiles are removed from the die and he takes no more turns in the game. With the free spaces on the die, the end of the game goes much faster and the remaining players can add their tiles to the newly revealed spaces.
Our initial impression of this game was that it was a little clumsy to play, but once we had played a few turns, the rules started to make sense and a good time was had by all.
Wired: The die mechanic is excellent and plays to Lego’s strengths. Captures the feel of high speed racing, with LEGO!
Tired: The rules are slightly clumsy and take careful reading. Requires some attention to detail that younger players may struggle with.
Maybe it’s my parenting instinct to try and get the best out of my writers, like I do my kids, but I’ve really enjoyed sharing their talents with a wider audience (the writers rather than the kids)
Whereas I restrain myself from putting my children’s art and writing online before they can grant me permission on that, with Game People I’m always pushing our contributors to create new and inventive ways to review video games.
One such response is Lottie Rose, who create Haiku reviews of video games. She’s just had an airing over on The Escapist:
Rather than write reviews like the rest of us she composes three line Haiku poems. Nothing hugely unusual there, not until she folds some related paper craft and photographs the vignette ready for publication. Confused yet? Hopefully the results below will make more sense.
I’d love to hear what you GeekDad’s make of it.
The team of students attempting to turn a Microsoft Surface table into a platform for Dungeons & Dragons campaigns made a lot of progress since GeekDad highlighted the project last fall. An updated video released in December shows an adventure in progress, complete with miniatures, maps, virtual dice, and a DM control panel. And Orcs.
SurfaceScapes is a proof-of-concept designed and engineered by nine students at the Entertainment Technology Center (ETC) at Carnegie Mellon University. The software attempts to support normal role play by automating the calculations and animating the battles in a geographic space. Keeping with the D&D culture, the Dungeon Master pulls the strings on encounters with monsters and treasures from behind a protected screen … in this case, a networked laptop.
The project began as a student pitch to the CMU faculty last year, buoyed by a later meeting with Microsoft representatives at a conference. Since the release of the first video, feedback from geeks around the world has been positive. Individual D&D traditions range, making it difficult to please both those who want to feel the dice and those happy to let Surface help them out. The sometimes contradictory suggestions for new features have stimulated the design process.
Team members share their own varied perspective on the game, from a naive understanding to those who campaigned regularly for a couple decades. By lowering the barriers to play, more levels of participation can be supported. You don’t need to know the rules of D&D to use SurfaceScapes. Casual gamers can jump into battles as easily as the more dedicated adventurers. The magic moment for everyone, though, came during the first 20-minute game session.
“It was like, ‘Wow, we made this,’” teammate Michael Cole recalls.
Relax. Nothing ever happens at first level.
For GeekDads, playing a module or two on SurfaceScapes is half the fun. The other half would be using the technology as gateway drug to get the next generation of geeks to play, too.
Kids have not been heavy users of the prototype, but the few who have interacted with SurfaceScapes quickly adapted to the interface. They may have benefited from the streamlining of the calculation that can bog down the narrative, particularly for those not familiar with the game. Kids also respond well to the tactile interactions.
- The size of the table (30 inches) invites many users to manipulate data simultaneously.
- The massive multi-touch interactions handle many more geometries than other touch-screen devices.
- Physical objects can become associated with on-screen data.
- It encourages direct interaction, where people can grab at what they see without using an intermediary device, like a mouse or keyboard.
In short, Surface lets kids play together and grab lots of stuff.
Microsoft User Experience Director August de los Reyes recalls a conference where the 4-year-old child of a speaker was playing with the Water screen saver. It seemed so real, the kid paused to see if his hand was wet.
“Lots of adults are kids, too,” Reyes reminds us. “It never fails when people come in contact with Surface, they turn into 12-year-olds.”
In gaming theory, life’s a die, and then you bitch
Eric Havir, manager of digital communication for Surface, argues the buzz around the CMU project is more than the novelty of the technology. “SurfaceScapes is innovative in a number of ways. They found what’s appropriate for the use, and use the right tool for the right job.”
D&D is a group activity where people share focus on a common narrative and playing space, qualities that fit nicely with what Surface has to offer. When running campaigns, the DM has a cardboard shield to hide his master maps and character sheets. The design team addressed this by avoiding Surface and giving the DM a separate laptop. Even the object recognition capabilities fit the D&D culture, where players cherish their miniatures as extensions of their character personas.
“In retail or hospitals,” says Havir, “people are more likely to walk off with things.”
Future enhancements may include channels for private communication between the DM and individual players, possibly through iPhones. Part of the focus for this semester is to develop a level builder, to allow DMs to get beyond the original story set in a forest and a cave. “We don’t want to take away from the power of the Dungeon Master to create,” says former CMU team member Michael Lewis.
A fight to the death with a vampire has a few inherent problems
Before you rush out to update your holiday wish list, realize that several obstacles stand between you and your gadget-driven RPG experience.
For starters, Surface is not a mobile unit. You can’t pack it up with your miniatures and head out the door to meet your friends. Every physical move requires a couple people, some peripheral equipment, and recalibration when the table reaches its new destination. “It’s a lot of work to move,” admits programmer Michael Cole.
It is also a significant investment to acquire the device that can run SurfaceScapes. Most of Surface’s early adopters are retailers, hotels, and research institutions, such as CMU. A single unit runs upwards of $15,000, making it a bit more unobtainable than an iPhone or even the rumored Apple Tablet. This isn’t pizza money (unless you are buying 2,000 pies).
Finally, while there has been some interest by companies to turn it into a commercial product, SurfaceScapes remains an academic enterprise. Most of the team members are in their second year with plans to graduate, leaving the future of the project uncertain. The long-term value for the design students is the experience working with a new kind of interaction.
Perhaps the best way you can reap the benefits of the team’s hard work is to head to Pittsburgh and volunteer for a user test. So far, the game has been evaluated only by fellow students, friends, and a few guests visiting ETC. The SurfaceScapes team will also be at PAX East in Boston on March 26-28.
Many thanks to Richard Chen for arranging interviews with representatives from both Microsoft and CMU, and to August de los Reyes, Eric Havir, Dyala Kattan-Wright, Michael Cole, Bulut Karakaya, and Michael Lewis for taking time to talk with me about the project and the technology. Also, thanks to druidic.net for the great D&D quotes in the titles.
I have loved games, maps and geography for as long as I can remember. Having all of them at once is only that much sweeter. A few years ago I discovered the 10 Days in.. games from Out of the Box, but I never did buy them. They’ve been on my Amazon Wish List for a long time, both for fun and educational reasons. So I was amazed at my luck when I learned that our very own John Kovalic is the illustrator for all of the games, and is working on the upcoming 10 Days in the Americas, too. I was hoping to review that one when it comes out, but when contacting the game publisher, they sent me review copies of the other four games that are already in print! I knew that my family and I were in for a treat.
I decided to start with 10 Days in the USA, since the map would be more familiar to the kids. I was very impressed with the board. It unfolds from very small into a fairly large board, and is nothing but a colorful map of the country. It turns out that you don’t actually use the board for anything but reference; there are no pieces that go on the board. Instead, the game includes thick cards that show either states or methods of transportation. The state cards have a drawing of the state and the state’s capital and population. The game also includes stands for the cards. That is it!
It is a simple set up, and the game’s premise is also simple: Complete a journey of 10 days where each day is somehow connected to the one before it. The game seems straight forward, but in actual play, it can be more complicated as you get yourself into impossible travel situations. Your initial strategies may evaporate as you realize that the one card you need isn’t available any longer. Some of the best games are that way, deceivingly simple. It’s a different game each time you play, since there is an element of luck and a large deck of cards. But there is plenty of strategy, too.
Game play starts with each player taking ten cards, one by one, and placing them in their card holders. This is where a lot of strategy comes in because once you place the cards, you can’t move them around. You can only replace them with new cards from the pile later in the game. I quickly learned that the setup of your cards is key to the whole game, but is also greatly susceptible to luck. But the more you play, the more strategies you figure out. Once you learn the patterns of placement, you can get a better starting set, if the cards are in your favor.
I like how during the game setup, you don’t take turns picking your ten initial cards. You just put all of the cards in a big messy pile and each pick your cards, one by one. Then if one person is slower than the rest, you aren’t constantly waiting. Once every player has done their setup, you start taking turns, swapping out your cards for better ones in the draw or discard piles. The first person to connect up all 10 of their travel days wins.
You can connect up the days in several ways. In the USA game, you can walk, drive or fly from state to state. Driving and flying each take up a day. Partly because of the variety of transportation available, your ten day trip doesn’t necessarily have to be in one direction. You could end up zig zagging all over the country. You don’t need to have an efficient travel route.
Once you have set yourself up for the best trip that you can, you spend the rest of the game trying to fix all the holes in your travel plan. You find yourself really wanting to rearrange some cards. Perhaps that would be a way to make this game easier for younger kids: get your ten initial cards all at once, and then arrange them in the best way possible. I can see the potential for a great number of house rules to keep things interesting.
For each game we played, it really did take the 20-30 minutes labeled on the box. It is a fairly quick game, unless people take a really long time to think about their turn. The first time we played, though, it took about ten minutes longer, since we were learning as we went. All of the games are supposedly for ages 10 and up, but my eight year old daughter had no real troubles. And my five year old really enjoyed watching us play, and studying the maps.
The second game we played was 10 Days in Europe. The set up is the same as for USA, but game play is slightly different. Instead of cars, there are boats for ocean and sea travel. Third we played 10 Days in Asia. Asia has four different ways to travel: by foot, plane, boat and train. Lastly, we played 10 Days in Africa. It seemed more like the USA game, since there was just car, plane and foot travel, though there were a couple of ferries thrown in. Each of these games is a little bit different and requires a slightly different strategy. If you want to play all of these games, I recommend playing in this order, from simplest to slightly more complicated: USA, Africa, Europe and then Asia.
I wish that there were related games that taught about history and culture of all these countries. Perhaps you could use the same boards and just make new card sets! (Hint, hint, Out of the Box.) Another way they could have added complexity to the game is to have points for different kinds of connections, such as more points for walking than for flying or taking a boat. You could easily use any of these game boards to make up your own game, such as continent domination, or a different traveling game. Just design your own pieces or use pieces from other games!
You might wonder why you should buy more than one of these games, since the game play for each is fairly similar. Sure, you end up playing the same type of game each time, but if you look at it as a way to learn about geography, learning the country names, locations and sizes, you quickly see how useful it is to play all of them.
These 10 Days in… games are quite different from other travel games I have played, such as TransAmerica, Ticket to Ride and Journey Through Europe. Rather than having specific locations to connect up, you just need to connect 10 days worth of travel. Your travel plans can be more fluid until the end.
One interesting but not surprising fact is that 10 Days in Africa was chosen as one of the Mensa Select games in 2004. Only five games are chosen for that distinction each year. Criteria used to choose the Mensa Select games include originality, game play, play value, aesthetics and instructions. Read GeekDad’s post about which games were chosen for this distinction last spring for 2009.
The 10 Days in… games are a fantastic way to learn about state and country names, locations, neighbors, sizes. A few small countries on all the country games are excluded for ease of play, but they are still outlined on the board.
The games retail for about $24.99, but you can get them cheaper on Amazon. I can’t wait until 10 Days in the Americas comes out later this year. I need the complete set!
Wired: Solid map and geography learning, fun game play, wonderful illustrations. The game can be challenging and fairly good for mixed abilities. Great price. Could easily use the boards for made up games and other kinds of learning.
Tired: I can think of a lot of game variations just off the top of my head, and I wish they’d included some more options in the rules. Perhaps Out of the Box should publish a companion book.
We’ve posted about cool cake art on GeekDad before, and about cupcakes, and of course about games. But we’ve never posted about all three topics at once, until now.
A graphic design and jewelry artist named Robin Dahlberg and several of her housemates made a set of one hundred of the most awesome cupcakes ever. Each one is decorated to evoke a particular famous game, ranging from Rock-Paper-Scissors to World of Warcraft. In the spirit of gaming, Dahlberg created a web page that makes a game of figuring out what game each cupcake represents, and there’s even a bonus level! The cupcakes are just beautiful — I know I would have trouble eating one because it would mean destroying the fine handiwork.
So, I’ve played 77 of the games represented. How about you?
Hat tip: MetaFilter.
The Family Gamer Awards are very different to the ESRB and PEGI ratings. Rather than trying to keep people away from the wrong games, they look to connect people with the games they will enjoy. The awards suggest the best games to suite each of their six age-groups (toddlers, juniors, students, workers, parents and grandparents). This culminates in an end of year chance for readers to vote for the games they think are best suited to each type of gamer. As well as winners in each age group the game with the most events takes home the Family Game of the Year award.
The votes are in and counted now - with slightly more predictable results than last years surprise win by Mirror’s Edge. This year Wii Sports Resort sits at the top of the pile as the most voted for family game, and deservedly so. But as well as this, delve into each age category and you soon find a few unusual popular titles and hidden gems:
Games for Toddlers (2 to 4 yrs)
WINNER: EyePet on PS3
Games for Juniors (5 to 10 yrs)
WINNER: High School Musical 3: Dance! on Wii/PS3/360
Games for Students (11 to 17 yrs)
WINNER: Wii-Sports Resort on Wii
Games for Workers (18 and over)
WINNER: Uncharted 2: Among Thieves on PS3
Games for Parents
WINNER: Assassin’s Creed 2 on PS3/360/PC
Games for Grandparents
WINNER: Flower on PS3
Nominations are now open for the first set of 2010 family games, just email Paul Govan with your suggestions.
My three-year-old daughter loves puzzles, particularly the chunky wooden puzzles with pieces shaped like parts of the picture (as opposed to jigsaw pieces, which she has more difficulty with). So it’s no surprise that one of her favorite iPhone games is a puzzle game. Whimsy Animals has sixty simple puzzles which then reveal photographs of animals accompanied by animal sounds. My daughter has put together all of the puzzles multiple times and hasn’t tired of it yet.
It is a bit easier than a real puzzle: the pieces don’t rotate so it’s a matter of sliding them into the proper place. But for even younger kids, you can turn the difficulty level down. At the easiest setting, you can just nudge each piece and it will slide into the proper place on its own. The middle setting requires you to get each piece touching its location and then it slides the rest of the way, and then the hardest setting is more like an actual puzzle.
My six-year-old doesn’t play nearly as much, so despite their claim of “all ages” I’d say this is really something for preschoolers. Still, the animal photos are fun to look at even if the puzzles don’t present much of a challenge for older kids and adults. I was given a download code to try out the program, but as much as my daughter has played with it I think the $1.99 is certainly reasonable.
Wired: Simple puzzle with animal photos and sounds; entertains my preschooler for hours.
Tired: Not great for older kids.