2014 Reading

January was a lousy month for writing. I wrote a short story for the William Ledbetter contest, and that’s it. I started two novels, and while I do want to finish them both, they won’t get finished with the plot or characters I had mind. C’est la vie.

On the other hand, January was a great month for reading.

Non-fiction
War – Sebastian Junger
My Story Can Beat Up Your Story – Jeffrey Schechter
Wired for Story – Lisa Cron

Novels
Big Red’s Daughter – John McPartland
Scrapyard Ship – Mark Wayne McGinnis
On Basilisk Station – David Weber
Terms of Enlistment – Marko Kloos
Armor – John Steakley
Old Man’s War – John Scalzi
Redshirts – John Scalzi
Starship Troopers – Robert Heinlein
Sand – Hugh Howey (incomplete)

Short Fiction
Clockwork Soldier – Ken Liu
The Wrong Foot – Stephanie Burgis
Pastry Run – Nancy Fulda
Cannibal – Chuck Palahniuk
The Jackal’s Wedding – Vajra Chandrasekera
That Undiscovered Country – Nancy Fulda
The Lamplighter Legacy – Patrick O’Sullivan
Taking the High Road – RPL Johnson
Letting Go – David Walton
She Who Lies in Secret – Steven R Stewart
Cherry Blossoms on the River of Souls – Richard Parks

Not many of those were published last month, let alone last year, but this is about when I read (or re-read) them, not when they were published. I do intend to finish Sand, but I found myself distracted by non-fiction. The “I should be writing” guilt doesn’t way on me as heavily when I can justify my procrastination on “research.”

Dunning-Kruger

Messrs. Dunning & Kruger sent another letter this week, but they signed it “Neil Clarke.” I shall continue with my correspondence in the hopes that the responses grow longer.

Books on Writing

It’s been a while since I’ve posted, and that’s a reflection of priorities and forgetfulness. I’m busily writing away under a non-SF/F pen name, and I’ve also found that my short thoughts are more easily encapsulated on twitter, where I can be found as @dbrentbaldwin.

Today’s post, however, concerns books on writing. I’ve read a couple dozen books on the subject in the last few years, and some have been much better than others. Here are five of my favorites.

On Writing by Steven King – Half autobiography, half book on craft, it offers much sound advice for the beginner, but more importantly it offers a considerable amount of inspiration. It’s hard to read a chapter and not find myself wanting to sit down and dive headlong into a new story.

Telling Lies for Fun and Profit by Lawrence Block – These chapters are taken from Block’s long-running series of articles he wrote for Writer’s Digest, but they cover a gamut of topics, and they also a good amount of practical for the beginner and the working writer both.

Story by Robert McKee – The best of the screenwriting books I’ve read. It gets into more detail on what makes a scene work and what makes a story work than anything else.

On Writing Romance by Leigh Michaels – It covers romance for sure, but it also has good chapters on character development, conflict development, inner and outer conflicts and just practical things any storyteller needs to know.

Character and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card – If only for the MICE quotient, but he also covers very good ground here with regard to points of view, narrative distance and ways to really get deep down inside a character.

Kindle MatchBook

Amazon has today announced that select print books, when purchased new, will include a copy of the e-book for somewhere between free and 2.99. The program is called . There’s not a hard number of books, or–as far as I can tell–a full list of what’s in the program currently, but in principle, I love this.

As a reader, this is amazing. This program includes books purchased all the way back to 1995. I suspect it won’t include all of my purchases, but I already see Neal Stephenson’s Anathem on the list. That’s one I’d like to re-read, but since I’ve taken to reading on my Kindle in the last few years and I only have it in hardback, I haven’t gotten to it. (In other words, I really love e-readers and they have changed the way I consume books.)

As a writer, I’m still good with this. I just saw an email come through from Amazon informing me that I can go to my KDP dashboard and set the promo price for my titles. That’s something I’ll be doing “real soon now.” Now granted, everything I’ve published to date has been self-published, but there are still STRANGERS reading things I’ve written (howdy, stranger), and if those STRANGERS have not yet embraced the wonder that is electronic books, I’m thrilled that when they inevitably do, the transition will be easier, at least from my end.

This is exciting and I’ve long wanted to convert my print catalog to an electronic catalog, and this is a better way to do it than converting by way of the dark corners of the internet. It’s a win for readers. It’s a win for writers. And it’s probably even a win for publishers.

Game Dev Tycoon Cheatsheet

Game Dev Tycoon: making it big time
Game Dev Tycoon: making it big time

Note (March 11, 2014): Sometime after release and after the above post was written, the game was patched and the advice offered here lost some of its effectiveness. It will still keep you from going bankrupt, and maybe it will help point you in the right direction.

Like most everyone else that reads technology websites, I saw the articles this week about how the two brothers that developed Game Dev Tycoon put up a torrent of their own game. In the torrented version of the game, the number of sales lost to piracy starts to increase until the in-game studio can’t turn a profit. As a marketing move, it was pure genius: every tech website and blog on the internet covered it. And it worked on this humble writer/gamer. So I spent the $8 and downloaded the game.

It’s wonderful.

WELL worth the $8. It’s not an easy game at first, but through some trial and error, and then reading the raw data values on the wiki, I’ve built myself a little cheatsheet to ensure that I’m making games with the maximum potential. If you want to make a Mature Virtual Pet Adventure for the Gameboy–err, Gameling–go right ahead. Just don’t expect it to make much money. If you want to play the game without the constant fear of bankruptcy, or if you’ve stalled out around the PlayStation (Playsystem) era, here are some tips!

The various development options
The various development options

One of the first things a player learns in-game is that some combinations of Genres and Topics are considered “Great combos” and they will sell well. There’s more to it than that combo, though. There’s also the target audience and the device itself.

I’ll use the Gameling as my example, because it’s where I have been able to make most of my early profits to propel my company from the garage into an office park. The Gameling favors young players. There’s a penalty assigned for the other categories. In fact, all the early consoles do this. Target your early games at the youth market, and you’ll do well. This starts to shift in the XBox 360 era, though PCs always favor Mature. Most of the combos I post below will target the highest modifier Genre for the given system. In the Gameling case it’s 1.01 for RPG and 1 for both Action and Casual. Before I dug into the numbers, I saw success with youth oriented RPGs. This explains why.

  • Gameling: youth: RPG 1.01, Action 1, Casual 1
  • TES/SuperTES: Youth: Action 1
  • Playsystem: youth: RPG 1.07, Action 1.05
  • PS2: youth: RPG 1.07, Casual 1.02, Action 1
  • mBox: youth: Action 1.07, Adventure 1.015
  • PC: Mature, any genre
  • mBox360: Everyone: Casual 1.04, Action 1.015, RPG 1
  • GS: Youth: Sim, strat, Cas 1.04, RPG 1.02
  • PPS: Youth: 1.06 RPG, 1.03 Action
  • PS3: Action 1, RPG 1

The downside to targeting the youth market is that they’re picky. There are a number of topics that non-starters and take a penalty. For any youth oriented game, avoid the following: Military, Dungeon, History, Horror, Business, Romance, Cyberpunk, Hospital, Vocabulary, Law, Game Dev, Startups, Hacking, Government, Prison, Surgery, Post Apoc, Alt Hist, Vampire, Werewolf, Aliens, Wild West, Dance

Games target to Everyone and Mature audiences only have one bad topic: Virtual Pet. Anything else is fair game as long as it the combination works with the chosen genre.

Here’s the quick and easy list of consoles and combos. I haven’t included every console since I’ve mostly focused on the ones with high market share. The wiki has a good list, but this is filtered by age level and console.

  • G64: Any: Any combo below
  • Gameling: Youth: RPG: Medieval, Fantasy, Sci-Fi, Mystery, Martial Arts, Spy, Detective, School, Fashion
  • Gameling: Youth: Action: Sports, Medieval, Space, Fantasy, SciFi, Airplane, Martial Arts, Ninja, Spy, UFO, Time Travel, Hunting, Music, Rhythm, Superheroes
  • Gameling: Youth: Casual: Sports, Racing, Airplane, Martial Arts, comedy, Movies, Fashion, Music, Rhythm
  • TES/SuperTES: Youth: Action: See Gameling
  • Playsystem: Youth: RPG: See Gameling
  • Playsystem: Youth: Action: See TES
  • Playsystem 2: Youth: RPG: See Gameling
  • mBox: Youth Action: See Gameling
  • GS: Youth Sim: Sport, Space, Racing, Sci-Fi, Airplane, Martial Arts, Transport, Movies, Evolution, Life, Virtual Pet, Hunting, City, School, Fashion, Music, Rhythm
  • GS: youth: Strategy: Medieval, Space, fantasy, scifi, airplane, transport, UFO, evolution, city, school
  • GS: youth: casual: See Gameling
  • PPS: Youth: RPG: See Gameling
  • mBox360: Casual: Sports, Racing, Airplane, Martial Arts, comedy, Movies, Vocabulary, Fashion, Music, Rhythm, Dance
  • PS3: Action: Everyone: Sports, Military, Medieval, Space, Fantasy, SciFi, Airplane, Dungeon, Martial Arts, Horror, Ninja, Spy, Cyberpunk, UFO, Time Travel, Hunting, Prison, Music, Rhythm, Superheroes, Post Apoc, Alt Hist, Vampire, Werewolf, Aliens
  • PS3: RPG: Everyone: Medieval, Fantasy, SciFi, Dungeon, Mystery, Martial Arts, Spy, Detective, Cyberpunk, School, Fashion, Post Apoc, Alt Hist, Vampire, Werewolf, Aliens, Wild West

Dual Combos
You gain the ability to research dual genres at some point in the basic office. I’ve done best when I held off on this until I had 6 developers and Large games. I’m not as clear on what makes a winning game here, but I’ve tried to focus on combos that are both design oriented or technology oriented.

DUAL Combos:

  • PS3 Dual: RPG/Adv: Detective, Fantasy, Medieval, Mystery, SciFi, School, Spy (Design Focus)
  • mBox360 Dual: Casual/RPG: Fashion, Martial Arts (Design Focus)
  • grPhone Dual: Sim/Strat: Youth: Airplane, City, Evolution, Scifi, school, space, transport
  • grPad Dual: Sim/Strat: Youth: Airplane, City, Evolution, Scifi, school, space, transport
  • mBox Next: RPG/Casual: Everyone: Fashion, Martial Arts
  • PS4: RPG/Adv: Detective, Fantasy, Medieval, Mystery, SciFi, School, Spy

What are design and technology? Each genre rewards the player for focusing on either design oriented elements or tech oriented elements. I’ve outlined each genre and a general guide to slider levels for each of the development phases. When doing dual genres, I try to combine two genres with the same focuses.

The slider positions can adjust, but I’ve listed the minimum requirements. This refers to the chart at the bottom of the screen, not the actual sliders themselves. Once you start adding features to the game, you’ll have to adjust the ratios a little to ensure you get 100% functionality for each section. Don’t add features that require you to go outside the bounds listed.

The focus indicates that you want approximately 2/3 of your total points to be in that section. So if you’re making an RPG and you have 100 Design points, you should have around 50 Tech points. If you make an RPG that’s 100 Tech and 75 Design, prepare for bad reviews. As long as you follow the slider percentages, the overall focus should take care of itself unless all your features are in the wrong category.

Action Sliders (Tech Focus)
Phase 1: Engine (40% or more), Gameplay (40% or more), Story/Quests (no more than 40%)
Phase 2: Dialogues (no more than 40%), Level Design (40% or more), AI (40% or more)
Phase 3: World Design (20% or less), Graphic (40% or more), Sound (40% or more)

Adventure Sliders (Design Focus)
Phase 1: Engine (no more than 40%), Gameplay (any), Story/Quests (40% or more)
Phase 2: Dialogues (40% or more), Level Design (any), AI (no more than 40%)
Phase 3: World Design (40% or more), Graphic (40% or more), Sound (any)

RPG Sliders (Design Focus)
Phase 1: Engine (20% or less), Gameplay (40% or more), Story/Quests (40% or more)
Phase 2: Dialogues (40% or more), Level Design (40% or more), AI (20% or less)
Phase 3: World Design (40% or more), Graphic (40% or more), Sound (any)

Simulation Sliders (Tech Focus)
Phase 1: Engine (40% or more), Gameplay (40% or more), Story/Quests (any)
Phase 2: Dialogues (20% or less), Level Design (40% or more), AI (40% or more)
Phase 3: World Design (any), Graphic (40% or more), Sound (40% or more)

Strategy Sliders (Tech Focus)
Phase 1: Engine (40% or more), Gameplay (40% or more), Story/Quests (any)
Phase 2: Dialogues (20% or less), Level Design (40% or more), AI (40% or more)
Phase 3: World Design (any), Graphic (40% or more), Sound (40% or more)

Casual Sliders (Design Focus)
Phase 1: Engine (no more than 40%), Gameplay (40% or more), Story/Quests (no more than 40%)
Phase 2: Dialogues (no more than 40%), Level Design (40% or more), AI (no more than 40%)
Phase 3: World Design (20% or less), Graphic (40% or more), Sound (40% or more)

Tip: once you start building medium games, you can judge the exact percentages based on the workload percentages for the developers you assign to each category.

There are also specific features in the game. Things like graphics and sound and savegames. From what I’ve read and seen, they don’t specifically affect your rating. What they do is give you additional tech or design points. It’s these points have the largest effect on your games reviews. Put most of your features on the “40% or more” sections above. Generally speaking, you want the tech/design points to increase from game to game, or least every half dozen or so games. This can be done by researching more features or training your staff.

Staff become very important as you start tackling larger games. I found that I like to focus on Design oriented games, so I highly recommend having 3 very capable Design folks, 2 very capable Tech folks and 2 people that are good hybrids (one of which is probably your starting character). It’s also important to train your people. Once you start making decent money on games, and you should if you’re using the combos listed here, I’d do a round of training at least every other game. The goal is to get people that can specialize in things like Story/Quest, Dialogues, Graphics, World Design and Level Design (in more or less that order). For AAA games you want at least 3 but not necessarily more than 5 specialists on the game. Those specialists will make RPG/Casual games highly effective, and those have been my most consistent money makers.

The wiki has a solid training article, but the short version is this:
Design people should use Game Design for Pirates, G3 Pixel Cup and Game Design Course.
Tech people should use Code Incomplete, G3 Code Jam and Programming Course

Game Dev Gems and G3 Game Jam will train people about equally.

Ron Raglow is broken. :(
Ron Raglow can’t train any more. 🙁

I’ve noticed a bug where the developer in the right-most chair stops upgrading at some point. I’m not 100% if it’s a bug or if that particular employee just stopped upgrading, but he also failed to grant benefits from research. Keep an eye on it if you give someone training but don’t see any improvement to their stats.

A few additional notes: Sequels sell well, but you want to wait at least a year to avoid a penalty (so make another game or two) and you get a bonus if you use a different engine. Don’t release the same genre/topic combo in a row. There’s a penalty. Trend bonuses are straightforward except for the “strange combo” trend. In that case, you actually want to release a game that has a badly fitting genre/topic. I’ve just spent this time doing research or training. We need standards here, people!

My absolute best (non-MMO) seller has been a Casual Martial Arts RPG. It moved nearly 9 million units and turned a profit of around 117 million dollars. It was only a large game, not AAA. I did make a Fantasy RPG Adventure MMO (AAA size) and it made me 430 million before I took it off the market.

I hope this information can make the game more fun for someone else. Good luck and enjoy. (And go buy it, you cheap bastards. It’s only $8.)

Microsoft Word and Quotation Marks

I’m dealing with a seventy thousand word manuscript right now and I was having some trouble with quotation marks. For some reason I decided to change all my smart quotes to normal straight quotes. The document stayed that way for a while, and then I was editing it and realized that I hated the straight quotes. So I did a find and replace, looking for ” and replacing with “. (Those should both be straight quotes.) It looked good at first, but then I noticed that the quotes at the end of my sentences were all going the wrong direction.

Then I spent a couple hours trying every way imaginable to fix them without having to fix every sentence by hand.

I failed.

In the end, I copied my text into a fresh document, did a find and replace of ” and ” and it magically worked. My hypothesis is that a combination of the auto-correct settings, my large (ish) manuscript and track changes caused the issue where find and replace wouldn’t fix them like it always has in the past. The downside is that it completely blew up my track changes history, but I have various copies saved with older versions, so it’s not a big deal.

In related news, I’m working on The Ghoul Hunter’s Apprentice this weekend. Just when I thought it was done, I received some AMAZING feedback from a member of my writing group, and it’s inspired me to take a big machete to a number of the opening chapters. My darlings, they are a dying.

What I’m Reading

I’ve been traveling a lot lately, so I’ve had extra time to read while sitting in airports and in airplanes.

In no particular order:

Jake Tapper, The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor (A+ heart rending non-fiction)
David Farland, Million Dollar Outlines
David Farland, Drawing on the Power of Resonance in Writing
Sara Gruen, Water for Elephants
Melanie Marchande, I Married a Billionaire (reading outside my normal genres)
Barry Eisler, A Lonely Resurrection
Barry Eisler, Inside Out
Jeffrey Ford, Creation (short story)
James White, Un-Birthday Boy (short story)
David Cordingly, Pirate Hunter of the Caribbean (non-fiction about the golden age of piracy)
Brit Mendelo, The Finite Canvas (short story)
Rachel Swirsky, Portrait of Lisane da Patagnia (short story)
Meghan McCarron, Swift, Brutal Retaliation (short story)
Blake Snyder, Save the Cat
Jay Lake, The Stars Do Not Lie (short story)
Mary Robinette Kowal, The Lady Astronaut of Mars (short story)
David Farland, Charley in the Wind (short story)
Donald Edwin Westlake, They Also Serve (short story)
Ernest Hemingway, A Clean Well-lighted Place (short story)

I think that covers the last month or so. Maybe the last two. Of all those, I recommend Jake Tapper’s the most. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were remote events to me, and he told a powerful, moving story that brought the cost of war home.

Turkey Noodle Soup

My brother stopped by last night and our conversation wandered around to the topic of food. It’s not surprising. If I’m in a conversation, it often does. I like food. Mostly I eat because the alternative is dying, but I figure that if I’m going to be eating, it may as well be something good. Anyway, Jeremy mentioned that he’s doing more cooking these days and he asked for some noob friendly recipes. I love noob friendly food. Food that’s noob friendly means food that’s easy to prep and generally quick to cook. You know, weeknight food. I just got in from work and I’m starving and I don’t feel like waiting three hours to eat kind of food.

I made chicken noodle soup a few weeks ago and it was amazing. I actually dubbed it chicken noodle potato soup because I put in way more potatoes than the recipe called for. I like potatoes. Anyway, I made a turkey a few days and it was less amazing, but still pretty good. It gave me tons of leftovers, and after four days, I was getting tired of turkey. So I decided to make soup out of it.

So let’s talk ingredients. We start with protein. I’m using turkey, but you can use chicken. I commented to Carissa that we should pick up one of those $5 roasted chickens sometime, carve it up and use it for soup. That would be a real easy starting point for something like this. Soup’s a versatile thing, though. You can use whatever. I used chicken breasts last time and they were fine. I used four day old turkey today and it turned out great. The recipe I based this on calls for two cups. If you really like meat, use more. If all you have is a single chicken breast, that’ll work, too. Whatever. Soup don’t care.

Chop the protein into bite sized cubes and cook it in a big pot. I used a wide 2.5 gallon thing. You probably want something close to that size. Throw in some fat to keep the meat from sticking. 1 tbsp of olive oil, vegetable oil, butter, whatever. Cook the meat, set aside.

Next you need vegetables. We’re more or less going for a mirepoix here, but I go easier on the onion. I used normal carrots last time. It took a few minutes to peel them and chop them. Today I had a bag of baby carrots in the fridge. I just cut them in half. We’re aiming for about a cup here. Celery is required. Rinse it. Chop it. Easy. Again, about a cup. Onion is the third part of the holy trinity. I used a big, yellow onion. Chop it. It may be a cup, it may be more than a cup. Whatever. It’s an onion. They’re self-contained orbs of flavor. Take all the chopped veg and throw it into the pot where you just cooked the meat. Add some more fat (and tbsp or so), stir. Cook for 5 minutes or so, enough to soften the carrots and celery.

While the mirepoix is softening, crush three cloves of garlic. Chop. Throw in pot. Then you have to make a choice. Do you like potatoes? If yes, chop up half a dozen or so red potatoes. If not, chop up one. Or not. Soup don’t care. I like potatoes. I use half a dozen or so. Throw those bad boys in on top of the veg.

And finally the liquid. If you used the 2 cups of chicken, 1 cup of carrot, 1 cup of celery ratio, you need about 4 cans of chicken stock. Or 2 of the 28 ounce boxes. Puncture. Pour.

Now we need some things to add flavor. Get thee some fresh thyme. Alternatively, one of those little 99 cent plastic packages of thyme. You could probably use the dried stuff. I haven’t. Don’t be a heathen. Throw four or so sprigs of thyme into the pan. Throw in 3 chicken bullion cubes. If you have turkey bullion cubes, feel free to use those instead. Is there such a thing? I have no idea.

Stir all this nonsense up and bring it to a boil. Add the protein back to the big pot of bubbling goodness. Add half a bag of egg noodles. Or 8 ounces. It’s not an exact science. I used Always Save today. It’s a soup. Soup don’t care.

Reduce heat and simmer for 30 minutes. At the end of 30 minutes, chop some parsley. Half a cup or so. Throw that into the pot and stir. As you stir, look for those thyme twigs. Pull them out.

At this point, sample the broth. It’s expected that your tongue gets burned here. If it doesn’t, grats. I hate you. This would be a good time to add salt and pepper to taste.

Congratulations, your soup is done. Enjoy.

***

Summary:
2 tbsp olive oil
1c celery, chopped
1c carrot, chopped
1 onion
3 cloves garlic, chopped
2c cooked chicken or turkey
3 chicken bullion cubes
4 cans chicken stock (about 56 oz)
8 oz egg noodles
1/2 c of parsley, chopped

Cook protein in 1 tbsp oil. Remove
Cook celery, carrot, onion in remaining oil until celery and carrot soften.
Add thyme, stock, potato and garlic. Bring to boil.
Add chicken and noodles, reduce to simmer for 30 mins.
Add parsley at end. Salt and pepper to taste.

New Story

I wrote a short story for the girls a few weeks ago. Then I looked at the word count and compared it to some of the chapter books Sophia has (that are emblazoned with the Scholastic ribbon), and realized that for the first and second grade age group, 4,000 words is a book, not a short story.

I wrote a children’s book for the girls a few weeks ago. That sounds weird. It’s a fun little story, and of course it includes a dog. One can’t write a story for Sophia without including a dog. And since both girls are now in ballet lessons, I’ve worked that in, too.

The Girl Who Danced on the Moon Cover

After the older girls in ballet make fun of her, Jersey wants to quit dance forever. The only thing that can cheer her up is her dog, Bromley. When Bromley leads her into the trees near her house, she discovers a world unlike any she’s ever known–a world of fairies. The fairy Luna flies her high into the clouds and dances with her in the moonlight. Luna teaches Jersey what it means to believe in herself, but will it be enough for her return to ballet?

I’ve looked into getting it published in dead tree form through CreateSpace, but once I got the proof back I decided that I didn’t like how Word made the text look. I’m in the process of learning Adobe InDesign so I can make it look better, but InDesign is hard and I end up finding that I’d rather write something else or read something else, so I haven’t learned it well enough to get the book layout finished yet. Someday. Maybe.

Available for Kindle
Also available for Nook
And let’s not discriminate against Kobo
I’m discriminating against Apple because their process for self-publishing is terrible.

Settlers of Catan is the Gateway Drug of Board Games

I’ve had the opportunity to chat with old friends this summer and I’ve run across a common subject: board games. While many of us have curtailed our video gaming excesses of the 2000s, we’ve replaced them, at least in part, with board games. In these conversations I’ve also learned that if you talk about board games with someone between 20 and 40, there’s going to be a common phrase: “Have you played Settlers?”

As a matter of fact, I have. Have I ever. I’m a board game addict, and I’ve come to a conclusion about Settlers. Settlers of Catan is the gateway drug of board games. You’ve probably played it, and you’ve probably enjoyed it. Who hasn’t giggled when someone says, “I’ve got wood for sheep?”

Before Settlers I played games like Life or Risk or Monopoly. I never really loved them. The randomness (and duration) left me feeling like I had eaten too much cheap cake: unsatisfied. That’s the beauty of Settlers. It provides enough randomness in the dice rolls to appeal to people that are accustomed to the classic American games, but it balances it with a clever distribution of resources and the ability to trade. Throw in the relatively quick pace of games—60 to 90 minutes—and a dash of schadenfreude with the robber, and Settlers has become a new favorite. There’s good news, folks. Settlers of Catan is loads of fun, but there are plenty of games out there that are just as good, if not better.

 

Here is a list of five of my favorite games.

5. Seven Wonders – It’s a card based game, but these aren’t the four suits you’ll find at a poker table. You have the opportunity to build one of the wonders of the world. Or perhaps a collection of monuments the likes of which Rome can only dream. Or maybe a military that would make Donald Rumsfeld drool with envy. Or perhaps a fabulous collection of guilds that allows you to take advantage of your neighbors’ buildings, too.

Seven Wonders will handle up to 7 players and everyone takes actions simultaneously, so it moves very quickly once everyone understands the rules. The first game will probably take a couple hours, but after that they will drop to half an hour to an hour. It’s fun, it’s quick, and it’s a steal at around $35 on Amazon.

4. Battlestar Galactica – this is an actual board game based on the television show. The players are represented on the board as one of the characters from the show, and each player is given a loyalty card that indicates whether they are loyal humans or Cylon agents. The Cylons will work hard to sabotage the humans without revealing their identities, while the humans struggle with a myriad of complications presented by a set of cards that will send Cylon fleets, fuel shortages and riots to disrupt the search for Earth.

There are few things in gaming as fun as revealing yourself as a Cylon and wreaking havoc on the humans. You’ll spend an hour or two nervously sabotaging the fleet just enough to hold them back, but not quite enough to make them suspicious. Add in a dose of table talk to incriminate other players and generate false accusations, and it’s an experience you’ll never forget.

It’s big, it’s fun and it takes a three or four hours to play a game. Perfect for a rainy Saturday afternoon. I’ve never played with less than 4 players, but I’ve played with 4 to 7 and it’s still very fun even with 7. You can get it for around $35 on Amazon.

 

3. Dominion – this is another card based game with not a suit in sight. Instead, you have 25 different cards in the box, with money and victory point cards extra. You start with a basic hand of cards and you use them to make your hand stronger buy purchasing more powerful cards. The catch is that the cards that actually do things don’t score you points. They only increase your options for a turn. There’s a fine balance between building a deck that’s powerful enough and a deck that has enough victory points in it.

Games take 60 to 90 minutes, and you’ll seldom be able to stop after just one game. The good news is that any given game will use 10 of the 25 cards, so every game will be different than the last. When you consider the expansions (not required by any means), you can play Dominion for years without every playing the same game twice.

The base set will only handle 4 players, but adding Intrigue allows up to 6. Games will take around an hour, though the cards can make some take less and some take up to two hours. The base set of Dominion is available for around $33 on Amazon. There are a number of expansions, but I particularly recommend Intrigue and Prosperity.

 

2. Lords of Waterdeep – This is a more recent game, and I fell in love with it the very first time I played. You’re one of the (wait for it) Lords of Waterdeep. Waterdeep is a city in the Forgotten Realms of Dungeons and Dragons. It makes no difference which lord you are since all of them are going to need a motley collection of adventurers. You win the game by completing quests, and you complete quests by sending out the right party of adventurers (and coin) to handle it. Each quest card rewards victory points, more adventurers, coins and some of them even provide powerful effects that will remain in play until the end of the game. This is a worker placement game, so you only have a limited number of actions per turn; the player that uses them the most wisely will be the victor.

I particularly enjoy that I can play this with my wife and our first grade daughter. She doesn’t understand strategy very well, but she has a great time building up a band of adventurers and completing quests. The only downside is that she’s hit on the concept of “girl power.” There are cards in the game that allow you to interact with your fellow players, so any time she has a card that can help a player, she extends that benefit to her mother. Any time she has a harmful card, it goes straight to Daddy. I don’t necessarily recommend playing it with a six year old, but it’s possible. (These are the times when I wish I had boys.)

I’ve played with 3, 4 and 5 players (it maxes at 5), and it’s great with all three numbers. A game will take 90 minutes to two hours. Price-wise, this is right in the same ballpark as the other games at $38 on Amazon.

 

1. Imperial – This is my favorite war game. You are one of the wartime financiers of World War One Europe. Purchases of bonds in the European powers grants a return on investment, but it can also grant control of the country if you have the largest investment. Unlike almost every other war game, you don’t control a country permanently. At any time another player can buy a larger bond and take the country from you. The game is won not by who controls the most countries or who wins the war, but by who has the most valuable investment. It’s an entirely reasonable use of resources to march your armies and fleets into battle in order to have them be destroyed so you can avoid paying taxes on them, even if they lose the battle.

It features one of the most unique game mechanics with the rondel of actions. There are no dice rolls. There is no randomness. The strategy is predicting which countries will successfully expand and investing in them. In many ways, it’s more about knowing the other players and predicting what they’ll do than it is about any particular military strategy.

It plays excellently with anywhere between 3 and 6 players and takes an hour and a half to two hours. It’s around $41 on Amazon.

 

If you’re looking for something else besides Settlers, I can’t recommend any of these games enough. They’re all fun; they’re all different; they’ll make the nerd in your life happy.