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Archive | November, 2011

Editorial: The Problem Solver


The Problem-Solver


I was having a discussion with a friend of mine who is not, by nature, a ‘gamer’ recently and he made an interesting comment: “Why do you need to have more games than just the ‘classics’ like Chess?”

This is actually a reasonable question. After all, Chess has been around in one form or another since about 600AD, a lot longer than Settlers of Catan. Chess exemplifies the maxim of, “simple to learn, a lifetime to master”; Chess has a long history of organized and competitive play around the world; Chess has an organized system for players to rate and match themselves against any other player; Chess is strategic and tactically complex in a way few other games approach; and most of all Chess is fun!

But even listing all those elements, why do you never see gamers playing Chess? why does everybody own a Chess set and so few people play it regularly in their hobby game time?

I believe the reason is tied into being a ‘gamer’ and what that means.

First though I want to revisit that conversation with my friend, because I think it highlights the key difference between ‘gamers’ as a type and other people and helped me to clarify why gaming is such an important hobby to me.

I believe the fundamental difference is that ‘gamers’ view game-playing as a skill or an activity unto itself, while non-gamers see game playing only as a skill of playing that particular game, like Chess. Gamers might play Chess to enjoy the interplay of strategy and tactics, of planning, of the social pleasure of victory or defeat, but a non-gamer might only see playing Chess as a way to practice and improve your ability to play Chess.

My friend actually espoused this viewpoint in our conversation, “there are so many things to know about Chess that I don’t see how I’d have time for other games, if I got into it.” I think that this is the attitude of an athlete, not of a gamer.

An athlete usually picks a sport or a skill and practices it, and trains their body and their mind to the performance of that skill, and, at a very high level tends to not practice other skills in other sports choosing to focus on achieving excellence in one area rather than in every sport. Similarly for high level Chess players, there are reams of books written about strategy, and lists of moves to memorize for efficient play and an endless lifetime of the pursuit of excellence in that skill, but to what extent does being excellent at Chess help you win at Carcassonne?

A gamer, in contrast, is practicing a different set of skills, not the skills of soccer, or of Chess, but the skill of ‘game-playing’ which is, I believe, as valid and valuable as the ability to kick a ball, or know the opening to Kasparov vs. Deep Blue.

What is the skill of ‘game-playing’? What are you learning when you pick up a new game, and more importantly why is it valuable, fun and for some gamers, so compelling a hobby?

A short list: the ability to socialize in a confrontational environment; the ability to prioritize actions in response to novel situations; the ability to develop strategies in a new environment; the ability to adjust those strategies as the environment changes; the ability to process new instructions; the ability to be a gracious loser and a humble winner.

In short, you’re practicing and learning valuable skills for LIFE, not for games, when you pick up a copy of Dominion and I strongly believe that in doing so you’re putting yourself ahead of non-gamers. Take a look at that list again. Every one of those skills is valuable in a work or professional environments, some of them are critical to successfully navigating the modern world. They’re valuable in relationships, negotiations, novel problem solving. I’m pretty sure I’ve used the decision-making skills I learned playing Magic when I was fixing my sink, not because I knew how to play Magic, but because I knew how take a situation and say, “okay, I’ll try this…that didn’t work, now I’ll try this other thing…hmm, that was better, what if I change it a little and try this last thing.”

There are studies indicating that game players do in fact see benefits of the kind described above. The work of James Paul Gee and Jan Mcgonigal are good places to start for further reading. Additionally, there is anecdotal evidence that employers are using game playing as a litmus test for certain kinds of skills in the workplace, and more to the point, as evidence of a particular worldview.

The only way I know to develop this viewpoint, and to grow those skills is to play games. Certainly it’s the most fun way! But not to play the same game exclusively, because then you’re not learning to play games, but to play a game, and that’s less useful than developing the wider toolbox of skills described above.

The gamer is ultimately a highly trained, engaged, curious problem solver, whether the problem is defeating your friend in Warhammer, scoring points in Lost Cities or yes, even checkmating your opponent in Chess. You’re developing your ‘gaming-brain’ or your ‘decision-making muscles’ every time you pick up a game, and more importantly every time you pick up a new game. You learn these skills, which are inextricably about coping with novelty and change, best when you face new situations, new rules and new games.

The skills of gaming, and subsequently the hobby of gaming for many, are the skills of breadth, of taking a large number of experiences and a wide body of knowledge and applying it to new situations, rather than taking one domain, or one situation and studying it completely. Both are valuable, and both can be fun, but as I think more about raising my new son I know I’ll be leaving a copy of Settlers in his room, and hoping someday he can beat me at Chess.

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Tutorial: Simple Light Box

There have been an number of local players recently looking at purchasing light-box setups for miniature photography. Some of the pre-configured set-ups look like this:

Regular Photo Studio-in-a-Box

Professional 30″ Photo Studio Soft Box Dome Light Tent with 4 Backdrops (Red, Blue, Black and White Backgrounds)

These can be very nice set ups, and frankly for the price they’ll be most people’s best bet. I took a different approach though and used this project as an opportunity to build something. Now, I’m not saying that this was easier, or cheaper, but it was certainly more fun for me, and I’ll walk through some of the steps I took to build the photo booth I’m now using to take pictures.

I modeled the design on the “Photo Studio in a Box” from above, so basically it’s a cube with an open side, a backdrop and surrounding lights.

To make the cube I first made wood armature frames:

These are simple 9 inch squares made from pine strips that are 1/2 inch by 3/4 inch. The corners are held together with glue and a brad from a brad nailer. The nail is really only for support until the glue dries. These are not fine carpentry, in fact they’re only ‘eyeball’ square, but for my purposes on this project that was more than adequate.

I didn’t take a photo of the next step because the baby was crying and I got distracted, but after the glue is dry on your squares you have to cover them in some light diffusing material. You can get very technical here, as a former theater-nerd I went and bought real diffusion gels from a theatre supply place near my house, but you can use wax paper in a pinch or tracing paper. The stuff I bought is very much like this: Lowel Frost Diffusion Lighting Gel Filters for the DP Light System, Four 12″ x 16″ Sheets. or Rosco Cinegel Tough White Diffusion, 20″ x 24″ Sheet of Light Diffusing Material. The specific material isn’t so important, what matters is that it can soften the lights you use and avoid hot spots on the models when you photograph them. I just taped the diffusion to the frames I made with duct tape. Once that was completed I tested the set up on my work desk like this:

You can’t see it here but I taped the four frames together too. For the first set of photos I tried with this set up I just used the lights I have on my desk normally:

And this actually worked fine as you can see here:

I think in this photo I actually added another light from above the light box. This was my first test and I was really pleased, the model looks pretty well lit, there aren’t weird hotspots and the background really makes the model stand out. The background was a free pdf I printed from Massive Voodoo. However, I ‘m not one to leave well enough alone, and this wasn’t a permanent solution, since it was sitting on the part of my desk where I paint.

I also wanted to have a more self-contained solution with integrated lights, and so I went to our local IKEA and picked up: these and these. I’ve been using these LED lights in my display cases for a few years now and they’ve worked great. I used some scrap pine I had from making the frames to make light stands and so as of last night the set looked like this:

and was taking photos like this:

Which is pretty good for an hour’s worth of work and 80 bucks in parts (mostly that cost is the lights, which I could have saved more on, but I bought extra).

My next step will be figuring out how to use a better camera to take pictures with and hopefully I’ll find the time/inclination to work on some image editing too, since it seems like a lot of the best photos are enhanced with some simple color balance and background clean up.

Feel free to ask questions etc. Thanks!

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Morrowan Army Commission Finished

I finished painting the Morrowan Army Comission I previously posted about here over the weekend. I actually finished the models while at our local store’s Foodmachine event. If you don’t know what Foodmachine is, the short version is that it’s an opportunity for players to cheat in a Warmachine tournament in exchange for donating cans of food to a local charity here in the Baltimore area. We raised over $400 dollars for the North County Emergency Outreach Network in Anne Arundel County.

Anyway, the commission was finished:

You can see here the fall basing scheme I used. I really like this scheme, I think the bright colors work well against the white of the model (I also used this scheme for some Retribution models I painted earlier in the year) while giving visual interest and not overwhelming the model. This is frankly a pretty basic paint job, typical of the commission level work I’ve been doing. You get blended colors, highlighting and shading but not a lot of freehand or elaborate detailing.

One of the most important things to remember when painting for anything, either your own models or for commission is that there are levels of painting. You can paint fast and sloppy and use quick techniques to get models just on the table with color, or you can spend hours and hours working every detail and blend in a model to perfection. Obviously there’s some limiting factor in the actual mechanical skill of the painter too, some people are extremely fast and their work looks great, others are slow and still look to improve their models.

What’s important is that you work at a pace and to a finish that you can achieve and that satisfies you. Or pay somebody like me to paint your stuff for you.

Here’s the completed Gun Mage UA. You can see the white blending and the basing scheme a little better in this photo.

I’m also finally using a light box, but it’s a work in progress and I’ll be continuing to improve the photos for this blog. I have to also figure out how to do some image editing to improve the photos without distorting the paint job too much. There are a lot of good tutorials out there on this subject, Here and Here are good places to start.

I’ll do another post showing how I built my light box and how I plan to improve it soon.


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Review: Penny Arcade: Gamers Vs. Evil

Something I’ll try to do occasionally on this site, when the product is interesting enough, will be to review various things that come across my desk. My first victim will be the Penny Arcade Game: Gamer’s Vs Evil. Obviously this is a game based on the great webcomic Penny-Arcade.

I picked this game up from my friendly local game store Games and Stuff last week and had a chance to try it out over the weekend with some friends. I had not heard about this game before seeing the announcement for it on the Penny-Arcade website but was immediately interested since I am a long-time PA fan as well as fan of this type of game. Someday I’ll do a post about my custom built carrying-case for my Dominion collection.

Game Overview:

For the last several years, starting with the release of Dominion, the first and still largest game in this genre, deck-building games have been a swiftly growing part of the ‘board’ game universe and have found there way onto many gamer’s shelves. However, if you’re new to the genre I’ll outline the basic concepts and then the very interesting additions that PA:GvE makes to the genre.

In a deck building game each player starts with a collection of cards, they use those cards on their turn to generate a resource (or multiple resources) and use those resources to, usually, buy more and better cards for their collection. As play goes on, your collection gets better and better at generating resources, eventually getting to point where you can buy victory points or some in some way use those resources to achieve the game objectives. Each player is (typically) buying cards from the same pool as all the other players from turn to turn. In order to provide long-term value to these games the designers typically include more variations of ‘pool’ cards than you can use in any given game, and for many players, including myself, a significant part of the fun of these games is discovering the effective card combinations or acquisition strategies given a novel set of pool cards. In PA:GvE there are 16 pool cards for each game, of which four will be the same for every game, 10 will be choosen randomly from a set of over 20 potential cards and two will be “Bosses” with special cards called “Loot”. The bosses represent the single most interesting innovation in this game, and I’ll discuss them more later. For each pool card there are 6-8 copies available for purchase by the players and there typically (though it is random) will be a range of acquisition prices for the cards.

A selection cards for games of Penny Arcade: Gamers vs Evil

PA:GvE takes the basic formula and does some interesting things to twist it so that it presents a new but comfortable and familiar gameplay experience.

* There are two resources (Power and Tokens) to acquire, and while not strictly opposed, you will often have to choose to focus on one at the expense of the other. Power is used to acquire red “Evil” cards and tokens are used to acquire green “Gamer” cards. Generally speaking green cards will provide tokens and red cards will provide power allowing you to specialize your deck for one resource or the other.
* Instead of purchasing victory points as effectively a third resource only useful when the game is over, PA:GvE has you accumulate victory points throughout the game as you acquire action cards from the pool, both regular actions and the super actions called “Loot”.

The two biggest changes to the formula however are:

* Each game features two bosses, one “Gamer” boss and one “Evil” boss. Each boss has a stack of eight cards that are unique to them and in a random sequence each game, these are the “Loot” Cards. This is instead of the stack of 6-8 identical cards for every other pool card available. Boss cards are more expensive than regular pool cards, starting at eight resources to acquire, while other cards max out at six. Additionally, Boss cards are worth a large number of victory points each, and acquiring them will be the key to victory in most cases. they are not just victory points however, each boss loot card is very powerful, and worth extra resources, or allows you to take extra actions etc. The green loot cards have the added bonus of a random element, when you play them from your hand you roll a d20 and have the potential to get a super-powerful critical effect or a fumble that provides a bonus to your opponents. There are two other interesting wrinkles to Boss cards: first, as their stack is depleted by player’s purchasing cards the cards get more expensive, requiring you to constantly balance the need to acquire boss cards with the need to build up your deck to keep pace with their price inflation; second, once one boss stack is completely depleted, the game ends. There are other game-end conditions, but in my games we always ended by running out of boss cards.

* Each player plays a unique ‘character’ from the Penny Arcade universe, which is a great tie-in to the comic and provides an opportunity for a lot more replay-ability. Each character comes with their own special power or unique card, and each character starts with a different number and proportion of the starting cards, making them play very differently. In this respect PA:GvE is similar to another deck builder called Puzzle Strike, and uses this feature to similar effect, in that game however you simply started with unique cards and didn’t have permanent powers.

A selection of character cards for Penny Arcade: Gamers vs Evil.

Product Overview:

I was really impressed by the quality of the product, but I was not surprised by it. Cryptozoic, the makers of this game, the World of Warcraft Collectible Card Game and apparently some additional upcoming Penny Arcade licensed games has developed into a first rate production studio. There are a lot of cards included in the base game, they are of a really nice cardstock and very glossy and they have selected very nice, though admittedly not-original Penny Arcade artwork to illustrate the cards. I think there is new art on some of the resource cards however.

The box, with Mike Krahulik’s distinctive style on the cover is very eye-catching, though you’d have to be a fan of Penny Arcade to recognize it, and the cartoon style might not appeal to all buyers. The game comes with the standard elements for a game of this type: a rule book explaining specific corner-case card interactions (we encountered none we needed to look up in our three plays), randomizer cards with a unique colored back to aid in selecting pool cards for your game, and a box insert to help organize your cards after you open the box. It also comes with a d20 for the green boss card effect, though I can’t imagine any buyer of this game not having a sack of d20s lying around.

Box Insert and Organization for Penny Arcade: Gamers vs Evil

One place where Cryptozoic has done a nice job is in the box insert. There are clearly labelled areas in the insert tray for each type of card and space for what I can only assume are planned expansions. Because of the extra room in the box insert it should be possible to sleeve the cards for this game and continue to use the real box, something you can’t do with Dominion because of how the insert is designed. My only complaint is there is not a place to put the large format character cards other than just on top of the others in the box and you may need to use your own dividers to keep your pool cards all organized into separate stacks if you’re OCD like me. I have played with the game 4 times since last week and I am already noticing some slight damage to card edges, as you would expect from a game involving a lot of shuffling and card handling, so I will be sleeving this game soon, the cards should fit standard card sleeves, and not require the European size sleeved like Dominion or Fantasy Flight Game cards.

Penny Arcade is known for having a ribald sense of humor and this game does not shy away from that aspect of the license, with cards like “TouchWeiners” and “Scrotuum” as well as references to a murderous Santa Claus this is a game that revels in the off-color pun. It’s also full of in-jokes for the true Penny-Arcade enthusiast with characters like Annarchy, The Cardboard Tube Samurai and even newer characters from other Penny Arcade projects like Lookouts. Basically, if you think Penny Arcade is funny this game will tickle your fancy in that regard, if you like your games with a few dirty puns you’ll be amused, but if you don’t, or if you’re playing with young folks you might want to be a little selective about which cards you use to play. This is hardly a crippling problem for the game though, and frankly, if you have a young player that likes fart jokes and violent humor they’ll be a lot to like in Penny Arcade generally and in this game.


I played this game with folks new to the deck building genre and with my regular Dominion play-group and both groups were able to pick it up easily. I think deck-builders have a fairly low intensity learning curve generally so that helps with teaching new players. We agreed though that the added features of this design will make learning optimal strategies more interesting since there are a number of dimensions you don’t find in a game like Dominion.

Games took between 30 and 45 minutes, which is typical for this genre, if a little fast. Unfortunately as is typical for this genre there is little player interaction, but the addition of the boss cards, and their very limited availability does mean you can disrupt your opponent’s strategy buy buying cards and increasing the price, or by buying some of the very limited attack cards that are available (mostly on the “Power” side of the resource equation). There are deck-building games that feature a lot of player interaction, the best one in my opinion is Puzzle Strike (Amazon Link), developed and sold by Sirlin Games.

Ultimately the fun of the game is the balance between the resources, either focusing on one to the exclusion of the other, as some characters are designed to support, or going for a balanced strategy supported by some of the other characters. I did not notice any glaring balance problems, for instance if Power was always the optimal resource, and certainly you could get a random draw of pool cards that shifts strategies to one resource or another.

Some specific cards were particularly well designed and solve some reductive strategies from other deckbuilders, which was nice to see. The most obvious example of this was the card, “Chaos World Smasher” which would normally put one “Pax Pox” or negative victory point card, into each opponent’s deck when you played it.

Chaos World Smasher for Penny Arcade: Gamers vs. Evil

In Dominion this is equivalent to the “Witch” from the base set. Unlike the Witch though, which can only be prevented if certain pool cards are available for purchase, the Chaos World Smasher can be countered by already having a Pax Pox in hand. Strategically this means that in Dominion you can have strategies when the Witch is in play but not the counter where you can flood an opponent with negative points without repercussion but in this game the flood provides its own negative feedback and diminishing returns, making the strategy more dynamic and interesting. We actually discussed house ruling this feature into Dominion since we liked it so much.

Red cards all had victory point values, like the boss loots and so at first glance a “Power” heavy deck might seem advantageous, but the benefits of red cards in play were reduced relative to green cards at the same price, providing a nice balance. There were also cards that generated the opposite resource (red cards worth tokens and vis a versa), though again, the green cards tended to be better for the same price.

Another interesting card was the “Deep Crow” which had no effect but to be worth additional victory points (almost the same as a boss loot) but it made you pick up a Pax Pox when acquired, effectively reducing its value. However, as in many deck builders there are cards that let you permanently remove cards from your collection, called “deleting” in this game, and a multi-card strategy using this feature could be very powerful.

Final Verdict:

Our games were fast, light and fun, and we enjoyed both the twists to the deck building design as well as the license. For the price there was a lot of value for a fan of the deck building genre in the box, and any fan of Penny Arcade should be entertained even if they are new to the genre of game or a new gamer overall. This is a much stronger outing for Penny Arcade than their last card game design, leveraging the popularity of the genre as well as the very high production and design skills of their new partners Cryptozoic.

One good thing I heard was that they are already planning an expansion, “Gamers vs. Cthulhu” which should be interesting and hopefully expands the design in interesting ways.

I would recommend this game to anybody who enjoyed Dominion or Puzzle Strike, or any long-time fan of Penny Arcade. A definite 5/5 for those players, and a 4/5 for players new to either the genre or the license.

Look for more reviews on this site in the future and please comment or ask questions for more detail.

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Fireball for Circle Battle Engine

Somebody in our group mentioned that after the Storm Strider Conversion project we should try to add fire shooting to the Circle Battle engine, since it has attacks for a number of different element types. If a person was going to do this…and I not saying we will…it seems like this device: Fireball Shooter would be the best way to go.

Probably not many people would appreciate it though if you lit their models on fire.

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Morrowan Army Commission

A friend down at the local game store asked me to work on his Morrowan Army for him. I was definitely looking forward to this, since I’d not worked on any Merc jacks before and other than a huge Retribution commission last summer hadn’t developed a real skill with painting white. We started the commission small, with just a Mule and some Gun Mages (done in a more Morrowan, rather than Cygnar) style.

Here are some initial steps on the Mule, as well as the test model for the Gun Mage color scheme.

At this stage I’ve just blocked in the metallics since they’re the deepest part of the model and the white, since I was most concerned about getting a good base to work from for the white. You can see in this photo where I’ve drilled out the gun barrel. I’ve started to add the drilled out guns to my modelling recently and I think they add a lot to the sense of the model. Even if you don’t paint in a totally photo realistic way (like Massive Voodoo) you can still get a lot of mileage from a few simple techniques.


Here I’ve added the rest of the colors to the model to finish the scheme, though clearly there’s a lot of work to do on shading etc. I’ve chosen for this commission to use a relatively limited overall palette. The base white is Menoth White Highlight, the blue is Cygnar Blue Base, the leather and boots and wood are Gun Corps Brown and the Gun Mage pants and the Warjack hull are Greatcoat/Ironhull Grey.

I find that using a relatively small number of colors helps me in a number of ways: it makes the scheme easier to execute and remember over time as commissions can be long-term; it helps to visually simplify the model; it helps to define the silhouette of the model on the table and finally it helps to define the edges of the model’s various parts. Contrast is key to my sense of a well-painted model, and a limited palette with a light and dark color really helps. There are painters that are much more focused on color theory and composition from an artistic perspective. This article by Ghool at Hand Cannon Online (a much better painter than me) really illustrates the point about contrast: Model Critique.

The client was happy with what he saw here and so I’ve started working up the rest of the Gun Mages and finishing the Mule. I know I promised this before, but I’ll have a light box built soon and hopefully that will improve the pictures.

Next post I may do a basing tutorial, since I’ve worked up a technique I really like for whole army basing.



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Storm Strider Conversion Tutorial

I recently completed a massive conversion project for the new Cygnar model the Storm Strider. I posted about the project here: Tutorial

This is the website for my local store: Games and Stuff

Hope you like it. Feel free to ask questions.

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Scaverous Commission Finished

Here is a commission piece I just completed yesterday. I’ve been slowly working on this friend’s whole Cryx army. This was a great model to paint and a fun hobby project to assemble, but definitely not a new player-friendly model. I’m just getting started on this blogging thing, and it’s clear I need to finally make a light booth for photos, and maybe buy a real camera.

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