Five Things #27

Song of the Water Bear by Laine Bell is a surprisingly effective story about tardigrades, from their own perspective.

I am constantly perplexed as to why so many people are people panic-buying toilet paper. Neuroscientist, Dean Burnett explains.

Sara Elsam talks to Games Workshop co-founder Ian Livingstone about fantasy, bringing D&D to the UK and the birth of Warhammer.

Kieran Fisher argues Buffy the Vampire Slayer Is the Perfect Binge Watch. This is part of a series, all of which is worth a look.

Dana Najjar considers the billion year algae that hints at the origin of land plants.

Best Treehouse Ever

We’ve been playing quite a few games over the past week or so and one game that keeps on being brought out is Best Treehouse Ever. This is a remarkably playable combination of card drafting and tile laying, the aim of which is to build the best treehouse ever.

Each player starts with a tree trunk (card) and a hand of six cards representing rooms. Players simultaneously pick a room card and place it face down on the table. Once everyone has chosen a card, these cards are turned face up and each player has to add the room to their treehouse. Then each player passes their hand to the player on their left and the process is repeated until all cards have been either played or discarded, at which point scores are calculated and another hand of six cards is dealt.

There are a couple of additional rules to make things a bit more tricksy. Your tree cannot rise more than six levels, it can’t lean too far to one side or the other, and rooms of the same colour have to be placed next to each other. This means that you have to think a bit about what card you want to play and where to place it. And if you are not able to place a card, you have to discard one, so everyone always has the same number of cards in their hand.

As with Bärenpark, there is very little direct player interaction which makes for a very calm gaming experience in which most of the conversation leans towards being an almost co-operative discussion about how to build the best treehouses.

The artwork deserves a mention here, being appropriately cartoony with a sense of fun showing on each of the room cards. This really adds to the spirit of the game and makes the treehouse theme come to life.

Best Treehouse Ever is a game that is easy to learn and very quick to set up. The game also has enough depth to make it worth bringing out repeatedly. We’re having a lot of fun with it.

Five Things #21

KT Bryski provides a very different take on the story of Red Riding Hood in The Path of Pins, the Path of Needles.

In 2008 Rian Dundon spent 9 months on the road with Fan Bingbing, China’s biggest movie star, and gained a firsthand look at the country’s celebrity-industrial complex.

There are exactly two wolves in the wild in Flanders at present. Pups could be on the way.

Nick Tyrone discusses three things the left gets wrong. Repeatedly.

Ben Orlin presents The Game of Snakes. All you need is a pen and a bit of paper.

Five Things #19

Shades of H. P. Lovecraft in Nesters by Siobhan Carroll.

Was it just luck that Earth has plenty of oxygen? Lewis Alcott and Benjamin J. W. Mills suggest that breathable atmospheres may be more common in the universe than we first thought.

Luke at Start Your Meeples examines the enduring popularity of Carcassonne.

Ryan Billingsley suggests that if you want your kids to read, you should let them read whatever they want. This is a view I can wholeheartedly endorse.

And James Parker considers the joy of being middle aged.

Bärenpark

Bärenpark is a tile laying game, the aim of which is — as the name suggests — to build a bear park.

Each player starts with a park area board and a single tile and each turn consists of three steps. Firstly, the player places a tile; then he takes one or more additional tiles (depending on the icons covered) and finally, if all the available spaces on an area board have been covered, the player places a bear statue. Different tiles have different vales and, once all of the area boards have been filled, these values can be totted up and a winner declared.

Bärenpark is a really simple game and one that is very easy to learn. Moreover, the design of the game is such that it is very easy to understand, at a glance, exactly what is going on. As with the best of games like this, however, this simplicity hides a surprising level of depth. While, on the surface, the game is essentially a spacial puzzle derived from fitting together the different shaped tiles, there is also a reasonable level of planning that needs to be taken into account.

The area board has various icons printed on it and the icons you cover determine which tile or tiles you can draw. This means that you have to think ahead a bit and to determine what tiles you will need in two or three turns time to most effectively fill the available space. Or, you can do what I do which is grab the highest value tiles first and then start trying to figure out how to fit them all together.

The fact that there is very little direct player interaction (grabbing a tile before an opponent is about the limit) gives the game a very gentle feel which gives rise to plenty of discussion about how best each of the players can solve the various puzzles in front of us. This is quite a change of gear for me — I usually want to crush my enemies and see them driven before me — but it does make for a genuinely pleasant game-playing atmosphere.

Bärenpark is a great little game — one that is easy to pick up but that retains enough depth to make it worth coming back to again and again. The indirectness of the competition also makes this a game that can be brought out and inflicted on people that aren’t used to (my) normal game playing behaviour.

Five Things #10

For He Can Creep by Siobhan Carroll is a dark fantasy about Jeoffry, a cat who fights demons, Jeoffry’s human, a poet, who is confined to an insane asylum, and Satan, who schemes.

Stephen Dowling suggests that cats are more social than we realise.

Margaret Schotte asks how the sailors of early modern Europe learn to traverse the world’s seas. The answer: they learned maths.

Nick Barlow argues that the first past the post electoral system is a significant factor in why British politics is broken.

And Luke at Start Your Meeples suggests four opening strategies for Hive.

Five Things #9

Between the Dark and the Dark by Deji Bryce Olukotun is a powerful story about hard choices and the potentially calamitous consequences of failing to recognise cultural differences.

Five hundred years ago, Leonardo da Vinci came up with a radically different bridge design to connect the city of Constantinople with its neighbor city Galata. Now, researchers at MIT have proven that his bridge would have worked.

Daniel Crown looks at Hnefatafl, the board game at the heart of Viking culture.

Dean Burnett explains, scientifically, why “Edgy” comedy can get fu*ked.

And finally, Nick Barlow reviews the various parties’ prospects in the upcoming UK general election and concludes that things are far too volatile to give predictions about what the result of the election might be.

Hnefatafl: The Viking Game

Although Hnefatafl is a recent acquisition for me, this is a very old game indeed. The game goes back to medieval Scandinavia and became popular across Northern Europe during the Viking era.

When newer upstarts, like chess, started to become popular during the Middle Ages, Hnefatafl lost out and the rules of the game were slowly forgotten. All was not lost, though, and in the 1900s various attempts were made to reconstruct the rules based on the Sámi game, Tablut. These had been written down at some point in the 1700s and translated (quite badly) from Latin into English somewhere in the 1800s.

This brings us to the game that I now have, from Masters Traditional Games, which both looks and feels solidly retro. The resin pieces have a suitably medieval look to them and feel nicely solid to handle. Even the linen board felt appropriate and has the additional advantage of allowing for a relatively compact box.

In terms of the actual game, Hnefatafl — and the class of games to which it belongs — is not balanced by design. This is a two-player game in which the white king starts in the centre of the board surrounded by his 12 pawns. The dark pawns (who have no king) are arrayed around the edges of the board.

For white to win, his king needs to escape to one of the corner squares. Black wins by trapping the white king, which is q lot more difficult than it sounds.

Because of this, it’s generally best to play the game as two rounds so that each player plays as both attacker and defender.

This is the sort of game that is right up my street. Although the rules are very straightforward, the design of the game is such that it has a huge amount of depth and there are a wide range of strategies that can be tried and discarded. It can be a quick game, but when the attacker starts building a blockade to slowly close in on the king it becomes a truly challenging strategy game and one that will keep you (or me, at any rate) playing again and again and again.

Twenty-One

For all the flashy modern games that we have in the house, it’s surprising just how often we go back to older games that have stood the test of time. One of these is Twenty-One (also known as Pontoon or Blackjack).

This is a card game that goes back at least as far as the 17th century and is (as you’d expect) played with a standard deck of cards. Each card is worth the number of pips on the card except for the ace, which is worth either one or 11 (player’s choice) and the picture cards, which are all worth ten points each. The aim is to get as close to 21 as you can without exceeding this number (in which case you are bust and have lost).

There are many versions and descendants of the game and multiple variations on the rules. The way we play it is to first select a dealer who deals two cards to each player, including himself. Play then goes clockwise, starting with the player immediately to the left of the dealer. That player then draws cards until either he decides to stop of goes bust, then it’s the next player’s turn.

When someone goes bust, they have to immediately declare it. Of the players that didn’t go bust, whoever was closest to 21 wins the round, with a couple of exceptions. A royal 21 (a picture card and an ace) beats any other 21 and a five card trick (five cards, any score as long as you don’t go bust) beats everything.

The winner of the round takes the pot and someone else gets to be dealer for the next round.

This is, of course, a gambling game. Each player pays in to the pot to join a round and pays into the pot for each additional card they take.

Obviously, we use glass beads rather than actual money. Otherwise the boys would never have to ask for pocket money again.

The great advantage of Twenty-One is its flexibility. A round only takes a couple of minutes to play and, if we’re waiting for something, we can play as many rounds as we have time for.

And it’s an educational game. Not only do the boys have to add up the cards in their hands and calculate how far they are from 21, but they also have to try to assess the probability that the next card will take them over.

Timeline: Science and Discovery

About a month ago, Luke at Start Your Meeples mentioned Timeline: Diversity, one of the many games in the Timeline series from Asmodee Games. This prompted me to pull out, yet again, our copy of Timeline: Science and Discovery, a game that we play infrequently but regularly.

In terms of rules, all of the Timeline games are the same. Each player is dealt 4 cards with the date side down and the rest of the cards are left in a pile in the middle of the table (date side down). Turn over the first card and then the players take it in turns to pick a card from their hand and place it in the timeline (leftmost is the earliest event and rightmost is the latest). If you place your card correctly, well done, if not the cared is discarded and you have to draw another card.

The first player to get rid of all of their cards wins the game, but the competitive part of the game takes a very long second place to its ability to provoke discussions.

What happens is this: Someone picks a card and says something about what event they are sure it happened before or after. At this point everyone else starts jumping in with their own best guess as to where the card should be in the timeline. This will continue until the player turns their card to reveal the date, at which point we all say either Aha! or Oh.

With 110 cards in the deck, it’s not possible to memorise all of the dates so the game forces you to start thinking about when discoveries happened in relation to each other (was bacteria discovered before or after the arrival of The Mayflower, for example).

Timeline is not a game that we play particularly often, but when we do it can trigger a conversation (and often, much Googling) for the rest of the evening.