13 March 2012

Geeklets: LEGO Travel Adventures

All kinds of Legos!

We had an opportunity recently to give our local Children's Museum money – not very much, about the price of a night at the movie theater, with popcorn – in exchange for a special Donor Preview Night at their newest exhibit.  This just so happened to be Lego Travel Adventures, which was an immediate Must-See for both Cups and Daddy, so we ponied up our movie admission and headed out for "Family friendly hors d'oeuvres" and a sneak peek at the exhibit. 

I'd never been to a Donor Preview Event before, but we did go the night $childrens_hospital rented out the museum from 6-9 PM for all of their referring docs and office staff, and that was pretty bruisingly fun, so we were definitely looking forward to it.  Cups was looking forward to it for an entire week, and the car ride was almost intolerable: at some point when she chirruped "I'm so excited!"  I shot back with

"And you just can't hide it?"  Never teach a five-year-old to sing 80's hits, even in jest.  Try as I might, I couldn't get her to wrap her head around the rest of the lyrics.  The rest of the ride was one-line 80's hit night.

Our Children's Museum is a really nice place and they know how to throw a party, including an open wine and beer bar, which is really vitally important when you are shepherding excitable kids through a Lego exhibit between 6:30 and 9 PM.  For the eats there were ciabatta pizza rectangles and fried raviolis and vegetable skewers and ice cream bars and brightly colored Jello rectangles, and the tables all had little frosted glass candle holders full of Legos on them so we could build while we ate.  It was all themed in primary colors and rectangles.   Our Lego dinner tower

Just to emphasize how excited Cups was, she built a tower instead of eating her pizza and then scarfed it down in ten seconds flat when told there would be no more Legos until she finished her dinner.  And then, three bites into an ice cream bar, she abandoned it to run upstairs to check out the exhibit.  Let me repeat that: Cups handed me a quarter-eaten ice cream bar and said "I'm done.  Now for the Legos."

I am an old-school Lego Maniac: the kind where there were rectangle pieces and flat pieces and square pieces and wheels.  I am bewildered by all the specialized bits that have come out of the modernization of Legos, and at the same time very excited about angles and slopes and things.   Cups, on the other hand, has always been able to build dinosaurs and Jeeps and languished over the untouchable Vader lurking over Daddy's study desk.  It's just the way Legos are for her.

The exhibit was subdivided: there were Duplo cars to build and race (and a Lego racecar big enough to sit in!) as well as some of the larger building blocks, the kind big enough to build playhouses out of, out among some glass-enclosed model cases with clever themes like "San Francisco" and "Paris".  There were also some interactive computer displays for creating virtual models.  Cap'n, either building or preparing to eat.

Cap'n quickly got bored after a few runs of the Duplo car down the track, since he was explicitly banned from either eating it or from sliding himself down in lieu of a wheeled construct, so he and Daddy headed over to one of the other exhibits, which left Cups and I to enter the Building Area.  I am certain that when this particular exhibit is open to the general public that the Building Area will be shoulder-deep in kids, and there will not be room enough to build a two-block tower, let alone the "dream vehicle" they encourage you to make.  But at the Donor Preview there was room, and Cups shouldered her way up to the build tables. 

They were big flat areas to build on with buckets full of disembodied Lego parts, mixed and matched from all the sets.   Scattered over the tables were partially assembled Frankenfigures and half-constructed walls.  Cups grabbed a partial body and started assembling.  It just so happened that the majority of the minifigs on the table were from the Lego Friends set: you know, the creepy friendly new “For Girls” Legos.  They have a size advantage over the original minifigs, as well as being leggier and arm-ier, so maybe that’s why all the kids were building with them, but it was still sort of satisfying.  Cups grabbed a head and a torso and legs and about six different hairs before she found one she liked (blonde, like her), and put a little pink crown on the top of it, and held it up to me.  "This is Princess Leia, Mom." 

All of the pink in the whole world was forgiven in that moment. Cups, Princess Leia, and the Air Vehicle

Princess Leia had a minimalist spaceship, and a dog, and a console, and we headed over to make a greenscreen copy of it to email to Friends and Family.  I wouldn't call the greenscreen camera a quality lens, but we did render the picture you see here, including Cups with the very strange face, and sent it to ourselves.  And then Princess Leia flew around the volcano for a bit before stopping to let her dog out, and we headed off to more Fun and Adventure. 

Really, there isn't much to a Lego Exhibit except the bits where they show you the awesome stuff people have built and the bits where you get to make your own awesome stuff, but for the Donor Preview the Children's Museum also roped in some other activities.  Cups with Master Builder Steve Gerling

One was the Master Build, where a Lego Master Builder was working with all comers to generate a huge Space Shuttle model (hint: if you ever want to do something that's fabulously tedious, get a bunch of kids to do it a little bit at a time), and another was the Girl Scouts, and their First Lego League entry.

I was a Girl Scout once.  I quit because my troop was interested in fashion shows and manicures and etiquette lessions, while I was interested in snakes and computers and science fiction books.  I wish that there had been something like First Lego League in my troop, because I would have loved getting involved in robotics, and I think First Lego League goes about it the right way: they target kids of all stripes, rather than dressing their event up in pink and calling it "for Girls".  And then they make it fun.    The Girl Scouts couldn't stop fiddling with their machine, showing off tasks, correcting each other.  They couldn't stop talking about what they were doing.

I stopped to chat.  We talked about Lego Friends, and the marketing of Legos to girls, and the Girl Scouts volunteered that they didn't particularly want pink Legos, because the ones they had worked just fine.  We talked about First Lego League, and snakes, and about being part of a team and making something; we talked a little bit about engineering and science in a roundabout way, but it was clear to me that the competition wasn't about being Girls in Science to these Girl Scouts.  It was about making something really cool.

That's how I would like science (and, incidentally, Legos) to be marketed to Cups: I'd like it to be as easy and natural as showing girls having fun in the photo array on the top of the First Lego League webpage.  I'd like it to be something that girls do because it looks like a lot of fun, and not because someone tied a pink ribbon on it or made it sparkle.  I'd like to stop playing into the divisive ideal that there are "kids" and there are "girls", because that becomes down the line that there are "people" and there are "women", and leads to some people's accomplishments being prefaced with "female" as if somehow being a "female engineer" is a different thing than being an "engineer".  And that leads to people sitting in think tanks asking how to market Legos to girls, when girls were already playing with them.

Cups knows how.  So do the Girl Scouts I met the other night.  And so does Princess Leia in her minimalist spaceship air vehicle. 

03 March 2012

Never Board: Discworld:Ankh-Morpork

I don’t know if you noticed, Albert, but that was a pune, or play on words.  — Death, “Hogfather”

I am one of those people who reads fanfiction only if my friends insist on it, and generally even the best of it is met with a cringing heart.  I am nervous about film adaptations of anything that I have loved, and I feel the same way about board games.  In my experience, once something has become big enough to spawn spinoffs into other genres, those spinoffs tend to fall flat.  Games especially tend to be either so complex in their efforts to replicate the “feel” of the work that even thinking about playing them is a chore (I’m looking at you, Battlestar Galactica), or they have largely irrelevant gameplay designed as a backdrop to “Here’s your favorite characters once again”  (Hello, Star Wars Trouble, Anything-Opoly, Trivial Pursuit Extremely Specialized Nerd Edition, and Risk: with New Characters).

I wanted to be excited about Discworld:Ankh-Morpork, if only because Sir Terry Pratchett has produced a consistently fascinating and varied world with so much stuff in it that I’m never bored with it.  But I was wary – very wary – because getting my hopes up meant risking having them crushed.  I put it on the Christmas Hogswatch list, which is really the best way of getting things that you think you want but are afraid you don’t, and it showed up under the tree in short order.  We broke it out for a two-person game shortly thereafter, and I am happy to say that this game spinoff delivers.

Discworld Game BoxWhat’s in the box: The instruction booklet is a slender eight-page folio that lays out the rules in a clear and concise manner; the majority of its space is devoted to making sure you know what all of the cards do and how they affect gameplay.  It’s illustrated with examples and accompanied by a set of “cheat sheets", one for each player, that reiterate the meanings of the card symbols, the win conditions for each personality (so important!) and the functions of each city area.  Between these two references I have yet to have an unanswered question.

The gameboard itself is a map of Ankh-Morpork, subdivided into twelve regions that will be familiar to anyone who’s spent much time reading Pratchett’s books; the pieces are sturdy cardboard coins and wooden tokens (the Hogfather did not spring for the deluxe resin pieces for me).  There are also a lot of cards.  I would have liked the map to maybe have a bit more color variation: the sepia toned palette is very pretty and very thematic but it does take some looking at times to find the distinctions between regions.  On the other hand, it is very pretty and not at all garish.

I’d like to take a moment to address the designers of the packaging: this is an injection-molded plastic insert in a large cardboard box, so the actual design of the plastic insert should in theory be infinitely variable.  The package designers chose to make three card deck-sized slots (one with a divot in the middle that is sized to hide the die) and one large featureless rectangle to contain all of the other pieces.  I can deal with fitting the five different decks of cards into three slots (three are very small), but this game contains six houses and twelve minions in each of four different colors, four demon and three troll pawns, and twelve trouble tokens. It also contains a bunch of cardboard coins.  It would have been nice to try to design the box to allow these to be separated at least a little bit.  As it is: get some snack-sized zipper bags or you will be sorting forever.

Gameplay: Discworld:Ankh-Morpork is a game about the constant power plays of Ankh-Morpork’s city politics, and about getting on top of the dung heap for just a moment.  To start the game each player draws at random, an identity which determines that player’s conditions for winning the game.  The three Lords (Selachii, Rust, and de Worde) are trying to control territory; Chrysoprase is trying to raise $50 in cash and property; Lord Vetinari wants to get his spies into everyone else’s business; Dragon King of Arms is causing trouble; and Vimes just wants everyone else to run out of options.  Your personality (and therefore your win conditions) are known only to you, so a very important part of the game is trying to guess who’s trying to win and how – while trying to conceal your plans from everyone else.

The game starts with one minion for each player and one trouble token on the board in three separate areas.  How it goes from there is entirely up to the players themselves.  On your turn, the first thing you do is check to see if you’ve won – all win conditions except Vimes take place at the beginning of your turn – and then you choose a card from your hand, play it, and follow the instructions on the card.  When you’re done, you refill your hand back up to five and play passes to the next player.   That’s the whole game in a nutshell.

The actual gameplay is considerably more complex: each card has from 0 to 4 symbols along the top of the card, which tell you both what you may do and what order you may do it in (yes, 0 symbols mean that The Peeled Nuts is a useless card).  With the exception of the Random Event symbol, executing any action is optional, but you cannot go back – you must play from left to right. There are symbols to place a minion in or adjacent to an area where you already have one (if there is already a minion there, you must also place a trouble token and potentially inch Dragon King of Arms closer to his win condition).  There are symbols to remove someone else’s minion from any area where there is a trouble token (also removing the trouble token).  There are symbols to remove just a trouble token from the board.  There are symbols that let you get paid, interrupt play, and play another card.  There are symbols that let you buy property in an area where you have minions, as long as there are no trouble tokens there.  And then there are the Random Events.

There are actually two decks of cards that combine to form the draw pile: the first half are green-bordered and the second half are brown-bordered.  Initially, this seemed like a needless complexity to me, but after playing several games it became clear that this allows the game to proceed naturally from a setup phase to a strategic phase.  Most of the green-bordered cards deal with placing minions, buildings, and trouble tokens (and getting paid).  With the exception of Rincewind (count on Rincewind to be in the wrong place) there are no Random Event symbols in the green deck.  Once the cards move to the brown deck, there is a lot more moving minions around, whether through assassination or actually moving the tokens, and more manipulation of the board in general.  There are also several other members of the Unseen University faculty in the deck, and every wizard comes with a Random Event.

I have yet to be benefitted by a Random Event: they’re generally bad things that affect players at random, so they can come back to haunt you – things like fire, flood, demons, trolls and dragon attacks.  They destroy minions or buildings or place blocking tokens around the board, which can seriously sabotage even the best-laid plans.  They’re best saved for a desperation move, and once you’ve played a few times you see why you don’t get the option to skip a random event.

Buying property allows you to use the special properties of that particular region: some give you money, some allow you to place or remove trouble tokens, some allow you to buy extra minion placements, some allow you to discard cards.   Additionally, a building counts just like a minion for determining who’s in control of a region; very important for Lords Selachii, Rust, and DeWorde.  I’ve found that the money-earning properties go quickly for everyone (who doesn’t want more money in Ankh-Morpork?) but that there are advantages to each, and none of them are really useless.Ankh-Morpork Gameboard, Game in Progress

Winning: The first player to start his or her turn with their win condition on the board wins.  Alternatively, if you’re Vimes, you win as soon as the deck runs out of cards.  If nobody is Vimes and nobody else wins by the time the deck runs out, then there is a point system to determine who the winner is.  We’ve had to use it once, but under most circumstances someone either gets lucky or careless or both.  It’s hard when you have four people going to keep track of how many areas everyone controls, how many trouble tokens are on the board, how many minions are where, and how much everyone’s cash and property is worth.  And all the while the draw pile is dwindling as cards like Leonard of Quirm allow a draw-4 and owning Unreal Estate lets you draw and discard an extra card a turn.

Overall Impressions:  It’s hard to find a good board game for two people, and since Cap’n just eats the pieces and Cups is still in the Star Wars Trouble age range, we’re condemned to two-person games for now.  Discworld:Ankh-Morpork delivers on the two-person front with interesting gameplay that doesn’t suffer from being scaled down, and the changing winning conditions and strategy involved give it great replayability. 

We took it to a game session over the holidays and got some of our friends involved as well, including some folks who’d never heard of Sir Terry Pratchett.  I’m happy to say that you don’t have to be familiar with the Discworld series to enjoy the game, and while the cards are hilarious if you know the characters involved, they’re still funny if you don’t.  Expanding to four players turns an interesting strategic battle into a game that requires your full attention.   It’s just complex enough with four players that everyone’s going to miss something, which means everyone has a chance to win.

It’s extremely satisfying as the winner to start your turn off by saying “And I win”; there’s a tension involved in wondering if you’ve accounted for everything that keeps it fresh.  We played – and played again – and played again, and at least one of our newcomers left saying “I’ve got to go read these books,” which is the best of all possible tributes I can think of. 

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a city to infiltrate.