Saturday, June 30, 2012

Expansion Review - Guild of Alchemists

Time now for another review of Russian gaming awesomeness (I would like to point out that my word processor believes that 'awesomeness' is actually a word, and so I intend to use it a lot more from now on). Tonight's review will address the final expansion for Potion-Making Practice, called Guild of Alchemists, which provides yet another way to play one of my favorite Russian games.

Guild of Alchemists asks players to create the ultimate alchemical product - the philosopher's stone. Harry Potter may have had to work a lot harder for this one, but you can do it at your kitchen table while you drink a beer and talk about girls. Of course, if you are playing it with girls, you may want to talk about something else. That part is up to you.

In Guild of Alchemists, each player will get a card that will tell him all the concoctions he has to make to get to the final big payoff. So you'll have to make the Love Potion, then the Molecular Doohickey, then the Unicorn Fart, and so on. Each progressively more complex creation will get you more points, so even if you don't actually manage to make all these items, you've still got a shot at winning, because making the philosopher's stone is worth a bunch of points, but it's no guarantee that you'll win.

If you've played Potion-Making Practice very often, you'll probably spot one particularly damning aspect right off the bat - it can be VERY HARD to make specific potions in a specific order. Usually you just sort of scheme your way to a big combo, but you only manage to get one or two really impressive creations. Now, though, you're going to have to find them, find the parts you need, and only then move on to the next one. This can be frustrating, especially to the new player, so if you're new to Potion-Making Practice, I really would not play Guild of Alchemists until you've got a good handle on the game. I played the original at least a dozen times before I ever tried this crazy difficult expansion.

However, it's not all bad news. There are a bunch of new spells in Guild of Alchemists that can help you get what you need. There's nothing like the painful groan you get when your opponent puts the potion you need in the table of elements, and you can't get it because now it's just a ball of Firelight (that's a stupid exaggeration - there are plenty of things just like that painful groan, most of which are other painful groans). But thanks to the spells that let you just pick up a card and put it in your hand, the path to your magnum opus is quite a bit easier than it seems to be on the surface.

And if you really want to release the hogs of war (or dogs of war, whatever farm animal of war, Lana), you can add in University Course, which is chock full of spells that pretty much mean all bets are off. In fact, this is now the only way we play the game. With the base game and both expansions in play, potions will be made left and right, monsters will be summoned, talismans will be crafted, and scores will reach triple digits. This is not Sparta. This is just madness.

But it's fun madness. It takes about two hours to play now, at a minimum, but it's a wild two hours. Even if you wind up twenty points down, you're not out of this one as long as the cards you need are still in the game. And in two hours, most of the cards will show up sooner or later, so eventually, someone will probably make their final concoction, and usually, that big payoff will be enough to eke out a win, even from last place. You still have to manage your hand. You still have to think about every play. But with more to do, and more to do it with, you won't feel as tightly constrained as the original game tends to be, and you won't have anywhere near as many frustrating turns where you can't do a damned thing.

Potion-Making Practice has become a staple of weekend gaming in my house. We'll set aside a whole evening to whip up wild elixirs and devious schemes. In fact, I'm considering making some card trays out of wood that will let us organize all the various elements and hold the three decks, just to make it seem more official (I could probably just draw a chart on poster board, but this would be an excuse to do some woodworking). If you're a serious fan of Potion-Making Practice, definitely consider snagging a copy of Guild of Alchemists, and get University Course while you're at it. If you're just dabbling, or if the original only hits your table once a year, I would save your money.


2-6 players

Adds a sense of direction to the chaos
Makes a simple card game into an evening of entertainment
Adds more options, more decisions and more action

Will double or triple the amount of time you need to finish a game
Can be very frustrating if you don't know what you're doing

Do you have any idea how cool it is that you can order Russian games from anywhere in the world? I'll tell you. It's pretty cool. Here's a link:

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Fantastic Board Game Review - Rex: Final Days of an Empire

I sometimes question my gamer credibility. I read stuff written by all these really impressive nerds who have tons of references and who have all played all these old-school games that I ignored when they were out, because I was playing HeroQuest and lots of NES. For instance, I've never played Magic Quest, and that's supposed to be a really big deal. I haven't even seen a copy of Titan in my whole life, and those big-shot nerds are always talking about what an impressive game it was. And the most relevant to tonight's discussion is that I never played the old Dune game, and what is worse, I don't even like the books.

The reason that's relevant is that I'm reviewing Rex: Final Days of an Empire, and it's a reprint of Dune. Which I've never played. So if you're reading this review and hoping I will answer that burning question that goes, 'why does it burn when I pee?', then I will tell you to take a break from loose women. And if you ask me how Rex compares to the original, then I will tell you that you're an idiot, because I just told you I never played Dune.

However, if you ask me if Rex is an awesome game, I would be inclined to say yes, it is an awesome game. Because it is. At first, it looks like a fairly simple battle game, where you try to grab up specific power points to try to control the city. But as you play, you realize that there are layers to Rex, and as you peel back one, you discover yet another way that the game will blow your mind. Peel them back enough, and you can get to the gooey center, which, it turns out, is just saltwater taffy.

The most obvious secondary level to the game is the negotiation. Every turn, a card tells you where influence will be placed, and you'll all rush around to grab it up. But sometimes, before that card pops out, a different card will tell you that there's a ceasefire, and you can talk alliances. When that happens, it can be a total free-for-all, with everyone jockeying for position, trading influence for favorable alliances, and possibly stabbing allies in the back to win the game alone. When alliances occur, they change the landscape of the game, and make previously weak targets into powerful friends - or enemies. Or ex-wives.

Then you've got your various factions. One player might be the humans, holding onto their last vestiges of power and trying to stave off the fall of their empire. They get free troops by the bucket, but they're almost always broke. If they team up with the merchants, though, they can offer protection from the random acts of violence that sporadically occur around the city, and in exchange, the merchants can toss them a few bucks now and then, to keep them competitive. Mind-readers and psychics face off against peace-loving turtle people who can see the future, and nobody wants to come up against the political assholes, because they might just turn your leaders against you and send your entire army into the crapper.

Another fantastic element of Rex is the dreadnought fleet that circles the city and routinely bombs the piss out of residential neighborhoods. These mean motor scooters simply cannot be beaten - but they can be anticipated. They move on a specific path, and while only the humans know how far they will go, it's always safe in whatever place they just left. Although there's probably a mess.

It's impossible to relate every brilliant aspect of Rex. It works on so many levels that if you approach it as one kind of game and ignore the others, you won't stand a chance. If you don't plan for future traitorous possibilities, they're virtually certain to rear up and bite you. If you focus all your energy on getting powerful cards, you won't have anything left to buy troops. And if you spend all your time looking at internet porn, you won't get any work done (though that's just basically how life works, and has very little to do with Rex).

One potential downside of having all these layers is that you really need a full crew to see them all. With four people, the negotiation is limited, and with only three, it's pretty much out of the picture completely. Plus the game is more interesting when you have to take into account the various capabilities of your opponents, and with fewer opponents, there are fewer considerations. If the political backstabbers aren't there, you can feel comfortable using more leaders, and if the turtle-people are gone, you don't have to worry that they're going to keep you from playing the cards that would kick their shell-covered butts. This is one game that really begs for the most people you can gather, and if you only ever play with the same person, I wouldn't bother with Rex at all.

Like most of my favorite games, Rex is not one that you can set up and knock out in thirty minutes. It's several hours of investment, but the time will fly by so fast that you'll wonder why your stomach is rumbling, until you look at a clock and realize you haven't eaten in six hours. It's not a marathon, or anything, but don't think you're going to just play real fast and then break out something else. When you decide to play Rex, you have to be ready to sit down and have a few hours of fun, and not try to rush through so you can get to the next game before the store manager closes down the food court where your weekly game club meets to play Euros in public.

So maybe I haven't played all these amazing old games that big-shot nerds are always bragging about. Maybe I was playing old-school D&D and bookshelf war-games with my old man when all those super-cool geeks were enjoying all-night Twilight Imperium marathons. But I am hoping that by reviewing Rex: Final Days of an Empire, I have restored just a couple points of gamer cred. I need those cred points. I was just about to trade them in for a pony.


3-6 players

Deep and engaging
Requires strategy, tactics and negotiation skills
Your faction will influence your play style without forcing you into a role
You'll be talking about the game three days alter

Much, much better with more people - three people loses a lot

I heartily recommend Rex, if you've got four or five people you can get together to take it for a spin. Run over to Noble Knight Games, and tell 'em I sent you:

Monday, June 25, 2012

Expansion Review - Ordonnance

I am growing increasingly fond of Russian games, which is kind of odd, if you ask me. I grew up in the 80's, when we were all pretty sure that the Pinko Commies were going to start a world war that would kill us all in a nuclear Armageddon. The only people we hated more than the Soviets were the guys who dug through a freshly opened box of Lucky Charms to get the toy before the cereal was gone. But all that changed after Reagan took down the Berlin Wall by telling someone else to do it, and now I'm finding out that those wily Russians have some pretty awesome stuff going.

I've done a few reviews from the Russian publisher called Right Games, including Kingdoms of Crusaders, which is the base game for the expansion I'm reviewing right now. For what it's worth, I also have a Russian game with plastic robots and stuff that was called Robogear when it was published in English, but the rules (and the box) are in Russian so I don't know how you play it. That's not really relevant, but it's pretty cool anyway.

Kingdoms of Crusaders is a really clever two-player game, with lots of tension, a little luck, and enough hard thinking to make your brain smoke. If you regularly play two-player games, and you're looking for a really good one, Kingdoms of Crusaders should be part of your library (assuming you can find it - it's from Russia).

The thing is, the only way you can play Kingdoms of Crusaders with more than two people is to have multiple copies of the same game. If you combine your set with your friend's set, then you can play four players, and after that, have no idea who owns which cards. So what the game needed was an expansion that would let you play with four people without having to buy an entirely new copy, which is where Ordonnance comes in.

(Quick aside - 'ordnance' means weaponry. An 'ordinance' is a law. And an 'ordonnance' is a law in France. So obviously, this expansion takes the basic idea of the Crusades in the Middle East and adds Parisian attorneys, who as history tells us, were frequently launched over the walls of besieged cities to spread disease and frivolous lawsuits. That, or this expansion wasn't translated very well.)

If you just want to play a four-player game of Kingdoms of Crusades, Ordonnance can do that - but that would make kind of a lame expansion. So to make it worth your while, Ordonnance also has crazy expansion cards that do all kinds of different things. Has your opponent claimed an indomitable lead in Jerusalem? Now you can negate his knights and leave him trying to hold the area with a couple spearmen and an incontinent poodle. Are you hiding the cards you need to rule a spot with just three cards? Slap down an area limit and lock down that cocky bastard.

There are also some crazy double-up cards that put all your eggs in one big, gun-toting basket. These make it really hard to beat your banners - but if you lose those banners (thanks to the cards in Ordonnance, probably those French lawyers), you've got a big bag of nothing. Usually, these cards are really hard to beat, but it only takes one card to make them a liability.

So where there was one tense, smart game, now there are three ways to play. You can go with the original, with its tight, clean design and razor-wire decision-making. You could mix it up and play with a couple more friends. Or you could add the wacky cards and throw a little chaos into that game.

The original is, as I said, a very smart game. There's bluffing and feinting, power plays and strategic retreats. Every move is a combination of an attempt to gain ground and a mental misdirect. It usually comes down to a very close three-to-two split, and it's a rush getting to the end.

With more than two players, though, Kingdoms of Crusaders is a very different game. With two, it's focused like a laser pointer. With three or four, there's an injection of anarchy that makes it a lot more unpredictable. The game becomes more interesting, but less of a duel of wits. It is still fun, but it's just not quite as cerebral. Honestly, I didn't like it anywhere near as much as the two-player version. It just loses that every-card-counts feeling, and that's my favorite part.

The two-player game with Ordonnance, however, is exactly the opposite of what I expected. I was counting on the game to lose some control and tension, because now there are all these unpredictable rule-breakers that change up the game while you're playing it. I was wrong, though - the added sneaky element actually ramps up the paranoia. You may think you've got an area nailed down cold, but until the final card drops, there's just no way to know. You have to plan ahead, maneuver more cautiously, and take into account all the various ways your opponent could steal the win with a last-minute play that may cause you to throw down your cards in shocked rage. You would be a total bitch if you did that, but you may want to.

If you're ordering Kingdoms of Crusaders, maybe because you would really like a great two-player card game, I would recommend picking up Ordonnance at the same time. Even if you never intend to play it with four people, the added game play options will make your game even more exciting and variable than it was before. If you're just buying it for the four-player game - well, you may want to hold off. It is fun with a group, but nowhere near as teeth-grinding and agonizing as the original.

What I really need to do now is find a bunch more Russian publishers who can send me stuff to write about. Maybe I can find out if, during the 80's, they were all worried that the United States was going to nuke them into the Russian version of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. Maybe they have some bad-ass games about the US invading the USSR that was a classic back in the day. But really, if I really want to play Russian board games, I will probably have to learn to read Russian, which is not particularly likely. So for now, I'll settle for the cool stuff cranked out by Right Games.


2-4 players

Adds lots of intensity in the 2-player game
Makes a good game even better

Loses some of the brilliance when you play with more than two

Right Games is serious about selling you some games. They've set up a whole eBay store where you can get all their killer Russian card games, and shipping is far more reasonable than it has any reason to be:

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Rant - We Are Not Important

I know I just recently did an article about gamer types, and then turned around Monday and asked people to help me find my wife's wedding dress. I really should review a game here. But something just occurred to me, and I want to talk about it, so lucky you.

Game reviewers are not important. We think we are, but we're wrong.

We provide a service, and it's really not that much of a service, all things considered. We're the functional equivalent of your buddy who already owns everything. We tell you 'hey, that was fun,' or 'that game was stupid' or 'playing games designed for children is going to impede our ability to get laid,' but we don't tell you anything you couldn't find out for yourself if you just sat down and played the game. We're about as useful as the corner dry-cleaner, except that the cleaner can press your pants and all we can do is pontificate.

We are not book critics or movie critics. Book and film critics can discuss the various interpretations of themes and dialog. They can discuss hidden symbolism. They can analyze the artistry found in the books and films they review, and draw comparisons to how those things affect us in real life. They can analyze the human condition as presented in the films they watch and the books they read, and then relate those findings to broader themes.

You can't do that in board games. Board games are an industry created by nerds who wanted to play board games. As an artistic medium, board games are slightly less viable than cooking desserts, and slightly more artistic than bowling. Even video games have the capacity to contain more artistic depth than board games. Board games are all about the rules, and rules are inherently not artistic.

You could, of course, argue that the narrative a game relates might have some depth. I would challenge you on that point, though. The story and the theme could be presented in a novel, a film, or even a video game, and be an order of magnitude more effective. Without the rules, there's no game. You can't say the same thing about the story, especially because the story could change when players take a different course of action, and often, there's no story in games in the first place.

If we want discussions of games to be a critical medium, we need better games. I don't know if it's even possible to create a game where the theme is moving and powerful. I have trouble conceiving of a game that asks big questions and begs us to answer them. I am not sure how you would make a game that forces us to examine ourselves and the world around us. But I do know that if you want game reviewers to be game critics, we need to be talking about games where fun is less important than the powerful message, and frankly, I don't want to play those games. Unless I miss my guess, neither do you.

Game reviewers who talk about the artistry of a game, and try to discuss the finer points as if they were connoisseurs of fine wine, seem rather self-absorbed in a best case, and horribly deluded in a worst case. There is an artistry to creating a boxed product that will cause a group of players to interact on the same level in a competitive and entertaining environment, but readers, for the most part, don't care. You want to know if the game is fun. You don't want to know if the game will help you understand the horrors of modern war. You're not hoping that the game will present a symbolic tale of the classic hero's journey. You just want to know if, when you play it, you will have a good time.

Really, we're just a selling tool. Reviewers set ourselves up as a sort of information dispensary, trying to get publishers to give us products so that we can tell you how much we like them. We are a marketing expense, a debit in the advertising budget. We work for free games because it gets us free games, and we don't mind trading a couple hours of writing time if it means we get a 60-dollar game we didn't pay for. We're walking, talking Superbowl commercials, and better yet, we do it for peanuts.

But then, there's no reason we have to be important. We write because we like it, and you read what we write because you like it. If you stop liking it, you'll stop reading it, but we're self-absorbed enough that we'll write anyway. We'll pretend that there's some deeper meaning to the discussion, that our analysis is somehow improving the overall caliber of the human existence, and that's fine because we like writing it and you like reading it.

I honestly don't feel any reason that we need to be important. I play games to have fun, and I write about them because that's also fun. If I can give you a reason to want to read what I write, that's great, but it doesn't make me important (unless you were just about to jump out a window and one of my dick jokes made you laugh so hard you changed your mind).

I read lots of stuff by people who are doing their damnedest to be game critics instead of game reviewers, and they're having fun and people are having fun reading their unimportant nonsense, and I say more power to 'em. I think a lot of reviewers would be a lot happier if they quit pretending that we were a big deal, but then, lots of those people probably wish I would take myself a little more seriously.

Well, bad news - I'm not important. I'm a game nerd who enjoys bathroom humor. When that changes and I start to think I'm going to change the world by talking extensively about plastic goblins, I'll give it up and start painting gravestones as a symbolic outrage against the eternal nature of death.

And then I'll tell you if it was fun.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Help Me Find My Dress

Right out of the gate, for clarification, I do not wear dresses. That title was kind of an attempt to be all eye-grabby. But I am looking for a dress. It's my wife's wedding dress. She was wearing it when we got married (which makes sense, because if she was wearing it before then, it would have been dreadfully optimistic).

When my house caught fire last year, FRSTeam by Bibbentucker was hired to store our clothes until we moved back in. We did move back in, at the beginning of June, but somehow, in the meantime, the emergency drycleaners lost a whole big pile of our stuff. They lost my Navy dress white uniform. They lost my daughter' first communion dress. And worst of all, they lost my wife's wedding dress. They actually lost a bunch of other stuff, too, but those are the big three. I'm just glad I got any socks back (though they did ball them all up - half of my socks have the elastic all stretched out of them, so one will stay up on my leg and the other sort of puddles up at the top of my shoe).

The wedding dress was pretty important. We were going to give it to my daughter when she got married. Everyone was kind of excited about it. And now we can't, because FRSTeam by Bibbentucker lost it. But we still want to do that, so we're offering a huge chunk of our insurance settlement to get it back. It's coming out of the money I was going to use to buy my games again. Shouldn't FRSTeam by Bibbentucker pay for it, you might ask? I would agree. Sadly, they do not. They are trying to get out of paying anything remotely close to that, even though they lost the dress and we did not.

Anyway, in order to reclaim the missing dress, I have resorted to a low tactic commonly reserved for evil dictators, common thieves, teenagers and housewives with too much time on their hands - I have started a Facebook page. And at that Facebook page, I have placed a couple pictures of the missing garments. I will add more, if I can find them. Unfortunately, a couple weeks after our wedding, someone broke into our mailbox and stole all our wedding photos, including the negatives, so I don't have very many. That's just one reason this dress was so important - we don't have a whole heck of a lot from that day.

If you were to visit this Facebook page, maybe throw me a Like, and maybe mention it to your Facebook friends (or Google+ friends, or your Twitter friends, or your actual real life friends), it would seriously help me out. I want to reach as many people as I possibly can. If you know anyone living in the Dallas & Fort Worth metropolitan area, pay them special attention - I think I can be reasonably sure that my wife's dress has not left the country.

As an added bonus, if you do go to the Facebook page, you can see a picture of me when I was really young and a hell of a lot skinnier. It will not help you pick me out of a crowd - I've disguised myself with wrinkles, a receding hairline, and a short beard with lots and lots of gray hair. But you can still point and laugh at what a dork I was, and wonder how I got a wife that looked this damned good.

Thanks in advance for any help.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Card Game Expansion - Potion Making University Course

Last year, the Russian game company with the horribly misrepresentative URL 'russianboardgames' sent me all their games (and they are all card games). My favorite of the bunch was called Potion-Making Practice, and it was a big hit in my house.
Then my house caught fire and all those cool Russian games went up in smoke.

Then the publishers, who are awesome, sent them all to me again, this time with all the expansions that they had just translated into English. Two of those expansions were for Potion-Making Practice, and they're good enough to warrant two reviews.

In my original review, I poked some fun at the title of the game. Potion-Making Practice sounds like a boring high-school class in a very interesting world. But now that I've played University Course and Guild of Alchemists, the 'practice' part makes sense. Because the original really is just a warm-up.

Quick recap - Potion-Making Practice is a tough game to play. It's hard as hell to make the potions you need, because there are 16 components in the game, and often less than eight on the table. The potion you need might be sitting on the table where you can't get it, or it might just be that it never gets made at all. There are never as many spell cards as you might want, and for the player who just wants to dive in and start putting together some cool magical cocktails, Potion-Making Practice can be frustrating.

University Course changes that dramatically. This expansion (with nearly as many cards as the original) introduces wild-card components, lesser talismans with ongoing effects, and gobs and gobs of spells (I recently started saying 'gobs' after I read it on a website out of Britain. I am hoping it makes me sound more refined, to try to balance out any potential references to genitals or poop). Now there are tons of ways to get the cards you need, and since you can play two cards in a turn, tons of opportunities to use them.

In fact, University Course can be almost as bewildering as Practice, but for the completely opposite reason. Where the original made you watch like a hawk and manage your hand like a miser, University Course will allow you to whip up magical concoctions left and right. Now there are so many potions on the table that scores will skyrocket, and there will be so many low-level creations in play that it will become far easier to build the more expensive drinks, like the Supreme Elixir or the Unicorn or the Coronarita.

The difference is striking. Where Practice is an intense game about patience, timing and opportunity, University Course is a wheels-off free-for-all. Both are fun, but they are very different games (even though University Course is just an expansion, and you still have to have Practice to play it). Plus, since the end-game conditions require that both decks be depleted, the game is almost twice as long with University Course. This is not optimal if you start a game at 9:30 when you have to work the next day and end up staying up until one in the morning.

If you prefer your games subtle and cerebral, you are not going to want to play University Course. It is not subtle and cerebral. While it definitely requires some strategic decision-making and moderate card management, it's so easy to make potions now that some of those decisions just don't seem as important as they did before. Without the scarcity of resources, it's not at all difficult to put things together, and that means less caution, less analysis, and more wild romping.

Some people, of course, love wild romping. It is undeniably more entertaining to make potions than to sit there, looking at the table, seeing nothing you need and just slapping down a component card because you're stuck with no options. At the same time, however, one of the things I love about Potion-Making Practice is that you're making all these subtle decisions, but they can have a huge impact. Your decisions in University Course lack that anguished gnawing feeling you get when you wonder if you just threw down the wrong card, because now you can just pull a few cards off the blue deck and probably get that wrong card back.

If you have played Potion-Making Practice (and if you like it, which I suppose is an important requisite), I heartily recommend picking up University Course. It changes the way you play, but it lets you do what the game says you do - make potions. And after all, isn't that the name of the game? Yes, it is. It's written right there on the box.


2-6 players

Opens up the game and provides a lot more options
Makes it easy to make potions
Adds a lot of energy to the original
More of everything is just more fun

Reduces the penalty for bad decisions
Makes it easier for a poor player to beat a good one

University Course takes Potion-Making Practice in a completely different direction - one where you get to actually make a lot more potions. You can find it on eBay, right here:

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Sorta Sports Game Review - Blood Bowl Team Manager

So far, 2012 has been the year I had to keep making exceptions about not liking sports games. I still don't want to play a game about soccer or baseball or cricket or professional curling, but I'm considering changing my opinion about sports games in general. There are just too many oddball sports games out there that I wind up liking. Hell, a while back, I even liked one about hockey (though in my defense, that was just barely about hockey).

The latest game to challenge my dislike of board-game sports is Blood Bowl Team Manager. I was not expecting to enjoy this one. I never did like the original Blood Bowl, because it was basically a clusterhump football game with tomes of rules and obscene violence. Combine my distaste for sports games with my general lack of interest in Blood Bowl, and the odds of me liking Blood Bowl Team Manager were about the same as becoming an astronaut.

Blood Bowl Team Manager is, I suppose, essentially a sports game, but rather than fighting your way through a single game, you're competing in an entire season. You're not the coach, either. You're the manager of the whole team. Every game turn is an entire week of a five-week season, so you'll be handling your team as they head out to various matches and tournaments. You'll recruit hard-hitting dwarf linebackers, swift elf quarterbacks, and brutal orcish knee-breakers. Your team will learn new tricks, obtain sponsors, and otherwise get better at the sport of Blood Bowl, and in the end, the team with the most fans wins the game.

At first, there's an intimidating amount of stuff happening. You draw your cards (the guys who will be your team for this go-round), find out which matches are available, and plan your approach to the week ahead. This part seems pretty basic, but what happens here makes a big difference in what happens next. It might be that there's a tournament, and the winner is going to get a whole mess of bloodthirsty fans. Or maybe there are only the regular matches, but a random rainstorm means you can't over-commit. Your strategy for the coming round will depend heavily on this part, so it's crucial to pay attention. It might also be a good idea to hire the Saints to set you up a bounty system.

Then you get into the meat of the game, where you decide where to put your players to get you the rewards you want to build your team and earn some fans. Do you pit your passer against the skaven receiver, or put in your tough blocker to try to send the opposing passer to the penalty box (which I'm pretty sure is actually hockey)? Will you compete for the big payoff of fans, or hold off to try to pick up another star player? Will you get caught in a hotel room with an eight-ball and a couple hookers or go on Dancing With The Stars? The choice is yours. Except for that last one. You can't to go on Dancing With The Stars until your career nosedives.

The balance of aggression, careful card play, and long-term planning makes Team Manager an exceptionally interesting game. It's not just important to play the right card in the right place, you also have to choose the right time to play it. You'll build a strategy that takes into account the team you're playing, the cards you've acquired on previous turns, the opponents you face, the time left in the game, and lots of other factors that make it hard to decide what you want to do. Which, if you ask me, makes it more awesome.

The game also looks great. The cards all have art that will help you envision all the madness of managing the roster and yelling at players who don't show up for practice and trying to get the chaos warriors to quit oozing corrupting goo all over the guy who picks up the towels.

I do have a couple problems with the game, though these are largely my personal preference. My biggest problem is the same one I always had with the original. In a world where peasants squabble for food in the mud, where the highest technology available is a portable toilet, and where chaos demons make a regular habit of eating small villages, who the hell has time to watch professional sporting events? And I don't mean gladatorial fights where the rules are 'if you walk out, you win,' I mean there are sportscasters and locker rooms and cheerleaders. The anachronism is staggering, and I've always kind of just rolled my eyes at the sheer silliness of it. You guys don't have time to make professional sporting teams! There are man-sized rat-people planting diseased stinkbugs in your sewers!

But I know many people can get past the mental block that I've always had with Blood Bowl and still really love it. The original game was wildly popular for a long time, even after it was out of print, so I am sure plenty of nerds are completely willing to accept an established sports league in a time before anyone invented toilet paper. However, the other problems I had relate quite a bit better to the game itself.

For one thing, it can be a little complicated. It's no where near as complex as the original, and you don't have to paint up any miniatures or analyze rules for interceptions or penalty flags. But it can still be confusing to follow the abstractions that move the ball from midfield to your hands, or to understand how you divvy up rewards at the end of a week. It's not insurmountable, and I have fallen madly in love with games that are a lot trickier. I'm just saying that it's not hard to play your first game wrong.

But it's also kind of long. Again, this is a personal preference thing, and in this particular case I don't mind at all. If you're trying to decide if you want to play Team Manager, however, you need to understand that it can take a couple hours to finish a four-player game. Maybe longer, if it's your first time. Once you get it down, you can probably blow through those five turns in less than an hour, but until you're good at it, Team Manager is going to take a while. Like I said, that's fine with me, and I don't personally count that as a strike against the game. It might be a consideration for you, is the only reason I bring it up.

My final complaint is one that Fantasy Flight has practically trademarked - the FAQ. For no reason I adequately understand, nearly every FFG game ships with ridiculous mistakes. Fantasy Flight does not ask forgiveness for these errors, they simply post an online errata guide that tells you which cards are not supposed to be in the game any more, even though you paid for them, which rules were printed incorrectly, and other total boners that should have been caught and that you will never know about if you don't go online to find out what FFG screwed up this time. If you ask me, it's a little embarrassing that one of the largest game companies in the world has to issue updates every third time they put something on the market.

These complaints are minor, and for me, a non-issue (except the idea of playing football while trolls throw poop at the city gates). Blood Bowl Team Manager is a really cool game. There's plenty of tough decisions, lots of strategy combining with plenty of tactical plays, and a fun theme (even if it doesn't make any sense). When your dwarf rolls out on his giant rolling lawnmower and sends the entire opposing team to the emergency room, or when your nasty man-eating orc gains fans for eating the other players, you can almost hear Madden saying, 'we got a game where usually the team that scores the most points wins the game' and then eating a five-legged turkey.


2-4 players

Built on a wickedly popular theme
Great long-term and short-term strategy
Difficult decisions the whole game
Smart enough to satisfy the thinkers, and bloody enough to satisfy the fans of bloodshed
Really cool art

Can take a while
A wee bit complicated
Theme is just silly (feel free to curse me for thinking Blood Bowl is ridiculous)
FFG is becoming synonymous with FAQ

I sure did like Blood Bowl Team Manager, silly theme notwithstanding. If it sounds like you might like it, run over to Noble Knight Games and pick it up. Tell 'em I sent you.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Reboot Review - Thunderstone Advance

It's time for another Thunderstone review, and that means it's time for another review from my dad.

If I had it to do over again, I’d . . .

In those poignant moments of life we occasionally hear folks say they wish they could have a chance to do it again, but differently. Like after a divorce, or when knowing life is coming to an end due to cancer. (Serious opening, but bear with me). Most all of us wish we could go back and, knowing what we know now, take another swing at it.

Well, AEG has had that rare opportunity to go back and do it again, but this time better. Thunderstone Advance is all the old Thunderstone but the little tweaks that we found irritating have, by and large, been cleaned up and improved, so that the end product is, in my opinion, better than the older experience. I’ll elaborate.

When you open the box you immediately come upon the new game board. For those of you who have played Dragonspire, you know the board that came with that game. A genuine piece of … well, I really didn’t like it. It had spaces for the dungeon deck and cards in the three ranks and for any Guardian that managed to slip out of the dungeon, but the board was WAY too big for what it accomplished, so it was a great waste of table space. When I first pulled the board out of Thunderstone Advance I thought, “Oh, no, not another crappy board.” And maybe this was where my opinion of Advance began to have hope, because when you open up the board you find something altogether new and VERY helpful for game play. Not only does it have spaces for the dungeon, but also for all the village cards and sundry cards. AND, not only that but it leads you through set-up so that you don’t end up with all weapons or spells or villagers, but helps spread the cards around. Now, fellow gamers, THAT’S an IMPROVEMENT! And, I might venture, a stroke of genius. Oh, don’t let me miss mention of the fact that the new board is double sided. One side shows the dungeon/village, the other side for playing the wilderness. (Can you guess what expansions will come along?)

The rulebook to TA is a delight for the veteran gamer to read. Some of the older Thunderstone rulebooks looked as though they were rushed past the editors so several stupid mistakes went to the printer. Ah, to be allowed to go back and do it again, but better. I didn’t read the new rule book as if I was the editor, but in my reading of the new rules I didn’t find nary a one misspelling or stupid error. Good job, AEG!! But not only did they send the rules to the editor, but they spent the time to do a crack-up job on describing play and on illustration. This is a beautiful book, and laid out in such a way that a new gamer to Thunderstone will pick it up immediately. You’ve set the bar very high this time, AEG – now to live up to it in future expansions.

A few years back when Matt and I first played Thunderstone, after the game we talked about the need for another action – to be able to improve your hand to enter the dungeon, instead of just tossing those cards aside and grabbing another. What a surprise, while reading the new rulebook, to come across the new addition of the action “Prepare”. I was dancing around the room and feeling absolutely validated. (OK, so maybe not dancing per se, but at least gesticulating there in my chair.) That alone made me love TA, but the entire package deserves positive mention.

A new addition to the game is “Familiars.” Kind of weird, and I’m at a loss to understand the rationale for including them, but they’re a cool touch. Early in the game you get to take a familiar – kind of like a side-kick animal or mythical creature that decides to follow you like a dog – and at certain moments they might just throw a helpful trick your way. I like ‘em. Wish I had one in my non-gaming life, but then I already have two dogs – not that they ever do more than bark when someone comes to the door.

New diseases, as well as curses, militia has been replaced by “Regulars” and they’re much more reliable (and stronger) though sad to see Richard Gere go, some really great new cards, starting decks now have their own divider cards so you can keep a player’s set ready to go, and, well, you get the idea – I’m very happy with the new game.

If you’re a veteran Thunderstone gamer, you’ll definitely want to pick up this “went back and did it again” version. If you’re new to the game, skip the earlier ones (though I enjoyed them as well – um, maybe not all the expansions) and start here.

Exceptional rule book – clear, beautiful, with great new ideas.
Awesome artwork.
Really cool new gameboard that’s actually helpful in play.

Richard Gere is no longer in the game.
You’ll have to find space for all the boxes that you won’t need when the expansions come out.

If you're all 'wow, where can I get a copy of Thunderstone Advance?!' possibly because you have not been paying attention to any of the other reviews here, or maybe you're just new in these parts, I can help you out. Not only can you get this great redo from Noble Knight Games, but you can save ten bucks on it, and if you mention Drake's Flames when you buy it, you'll even be helping me out.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Statement of the Obvious - Gamer Types

I had a game all ready to review tonight, but thought I would bring up something I've been thinking about recently (recently, in this case, meaning the last five minutes. I'm easily distracted). And the something that has been bouncing around my head for going on six minutes now is how you play games.

I've played games with a lot of different people, and one interesting thing that I've seen is that play styles vary wildly from person to person. You would think that people would be committed to winning, and thus attempting to make the best possible decisions to try to win, but that's not true. If you've played games with more than three people, you know what I mean.

For instance, when I play games, I want to win. Everything I do is an attempt to outwit and outplay my opponent. However, I also want my win to be clean. I don't want to win because I knew the rules better, or because the other person was distracted, or because I cheated and peeked at the other guy's cards while he was in the bathroom. So I'll make the best moves I can see, strike hard bargains, bluff like a lying snake and pray for good rolls. But at the same time, I'll tell the rookie at the table when his move is going to hurt him, or lay out possible plays, or describe potential plays based on different strategies. For me, there's no point in winning if you have to play dirty to do it.

And there's a good reason for playing nice. Not only does it make other people think you're actually a decent human being, but when you helped them the whole time and still beat them, they don't have an excuse. You helped them out, and still kicked their asses. Obviously, you are superior.

The problem with this mindset is when I lose, which I do a lot. Then you have to hope your opponent played dirty, so that you can have an excuse. Except that my friends are nicer than I am, which makes my losses only that much more humiliating.

So the Magnanimous Tool is one gamer type, but there are lots more. This is mostly because gamers are often social pariahs with glandular issues and inappropriate assumptions about the opposite sex. Board gamers like to think they're better than role-players (because we are, unless we are also role-players, which I am), but we're all basically dorks. And this leads to some wildly varying gamer types.

You've got the Revenge Killer. This guy will make haphazard plays, barely thinking about what he's doing - until you come after him. Then you've shed first blood, and it's on. He'll spend the rest of the game making moves that are actually against his best interest, just to make sure you lose. I have a good friend who plays this way, and it can be entertaining - but it is definitely a weakness. All you have to do to avoid trouble with this guy is wait until someone else decides to take the fight to his door, and then he'll go all Jihad on the other dude and leave you alone to rampage at will.

There's also the Superior Life Form. Man, this is one irritating guy to play. He's not interested in anything but winning. He doesn't cheat, but he doesn't feel like he plays fair. If you make a mistake, even one you made while your dog was biting the postman and you had to run back to the table after you got the beast back in the house, this aggravating game nerd will let you pay for it. He won't remind you where you've placed your cards. He won't tell you if you dropped your money. He's not a bad guy, and you can trust him not to cheat - but you can also trust him not to tell you when you did something stupid because you were trying to tell your child, via cell phone, that his lunch is in the refrigerator and if you come home and the milk is on the counter, you'll be taking it out of his hide.

Which brings us to the next gaming jackass, the Hummingbird. This is that gamer who wants to show up, wants to play, and then is constantly allowing himself to be interrupted. He'll take phone calls and answer texts. He'll order food and then eat it over your game. He'll leave the table to go to the bathroom right before his turn. It's like he just showed up to socialize, and the game is just an afterthought. He's not even particular who he socializes with - he's just as happy to talk with someone in another county as he is to talk with the people in the room.

Or what about the Monk? The guy who has to meditate over the board from every angle, who can never come to a decision, who takes forever to make a play. This is the guy whose turn takes four times longer than all the others combined. He'll reach for a piece, pull his hand back, look at his cards, mutter to himself, reach for a different piece, change his mind, and then ask to see the rulebook. I hate this guy. He makes me crazy. Just take your turn, man! It's just a game! We're not planning the invasion of Canada (unless we're playing 1812, which is about the US invading Canada).

One particularly aggravating gamer is the Flipper. Whether or not he actually flips the board and storms out, the Flipper is prone to outbursts that effectively ruin the game for everyone at the table. When things don't go his way, he'll spill his drink on the board, or walk out of the room before his turn is over, or slam the table so hard that all the meeples wind up abandoning their posts and taking naps in the farmland outside the city. He's a terribly bad sport, and while he can be a gracious winner, he's one hell of a sore loser.

But the worst, the most loathsome of the gaming douchebags, is the Time Traveler. This horrible worm will realize two turns later that he forgot to play a card, and will insist that the game stop so he can rewind the clock. If you let him, he will make everyone put their guys back where they were, then play his card and insist that everyone still make the same decisions even though he changed the entire board. If there's one guy I don't want at my table, it's the Time Traveler. He's often a spoiled little turd who will ruin the game for everyone and make it take three times as long, because he'll throw a tantrum if he doesn't get to take his free move.

There is one more kind of gamer I can come up with, and it's the gamer I like to call Everybody. If you play games with the same people long enough, you'll realize that everyone is the Hummingbird when the pizza shows up, and everyone is the Monk when the game is confusing. In fact, I can clearly remember games where I was the Time Traveler, or the Revenge Killer, or the Flipper. Let's face it, we're human beings, and we are prone to being really crappy. It's in our genetic makeup. It's what makes us both interesting and ugly.

So the next time you're playing a game with some jackass who makes you want to punch him in the face, just remember that sooner or later, everybody will bother you. And the best thing you could do is just let it go. Then you can do what everyone actually wants to do and hurl a profanity-laced indictment at the guy and intimate that at least one of his parents was a farm animal.

That's what works for me, anyway.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Scrabbly Game Review - Word Wars I.II.III

I get asked, on a fairly regular basis, to review prototypes of games that are on Kickstarter. I pass on most, because I am not going to review a game that's basically a bunch of Post-It notes stuck onto a sheet of cardstock, but now and then I go against my better judgment and try a game that I had no business agreeing to play. That's how I got suckered into reviewing Word Wars I.II.III, and that is why I will very soon be getting some extremely disagreeable correspondence from a guy whose name may or may not be Alvin. I will explain my confusion shortly.

Word Wars (I'm dropping the numbers, as not only do they not really help the title any, they are a pain in the ass to type) is a scrabble-like game played with cards. You get ten cards with letters on them, and you try to make three words. The trick is that each card can be played as one of two letters - if you've got a 'p,' you can flip it upside down and make it a 'd.' That one is pretty easy to figure out, but the 'x' that turns into a 'z' needs a decoder ring, and the 'g' that could also be a 'k' is almost indecipherable.

The idea here is that having the option of flipping your letters offers a greater variety of options in spelling words. This is why it's even possible to create three words with ten letters. The problem we found, however, is that while it is an interesting idea, it fails in execution thanks to a strange distribution of letters.

Let me back up and interrupt myself.

The company that makes Word Wars is actually one guy. A long time ago, he tried to sell the game to Wizards of the Coast, but they didn't want it and sent the standard 'we don't buy unsolicited games' boilerplate, except that Richard Garfield said, 'cool idea,' which the creator is using as an endorsement. Then just recently, he tried to partner up with Zynga, and they didn't want it, and sent him the same form letter. And so, rather than say, 'huh, I guess nobody really wants this game,' he started telling people that he was fighting the good fight against powerful corporations and put his game up on Kickstarter. Why none of this triggered any red flags for me, I can't say, because I knew most of this before I agreed to play the game.

At some point in time, Word Wars was actually a tile game. This is why I had to back up - to explain why the letter distribution was odd. It was basically just Scrabble, but you could flip the letters to make different words. In that case, the letter distribution basically worked, and although 'a' and 'e' were on the same tile, you could work with that. But then after the lengthy history of being beaten down by those mean publishers who would destroy a man's dreams, the guy (Alvin, I think, though I'm not sure) remade it as a card game.

And honestly, the card game isn't bad, but - and here's the biggest problem - it does not need flippy letters. You could put 'z' and 'x' on the same card, and just put one letter on one side of the card, and the other letter on the other side. In other words, when this stopped being a tile-laying Scrabble clone, it didn't need the gimmick any more.

The shame is that the gimmick actually would have worked, if he had sold these as alternate Scrabble tiles. It could have made Scrabble more fun, which is not saying much because it's still Scrabble. But they're not alternate Scrabble tiles, they're cards, and if you don't get dealt enough cards with vowels on them, you can't spell a damned thing. And since the 'a' and 'e' are on the same card, this can happen with alarming frequency.

Word Wars is not a bad game. In fact, after I put it away, one member of my usual gaming group asked if she could buy it from me, because she had a good time. Seriously, it's not bad. But it's amateur hour at its worst, and shows what happens when you get too attached to an idea and can't let it go, even if it would improve the game. Get rid of the confusing inverted letters, redistribute the letters, and you would have an interesting little game that you could take camping and play with smart people. As it is, Word Wars is an almost-ran, a workable game that could have been a lot better, if the creator were not dead set on showing people how clever he is.

So now that I said some unkind things about Word Wars, I expect Alvin (if that is his name) will be complaining to me. That, or he will use the comments section to write a review of my review that will be as long as the original (if not longer). And I will still not be sure of his name, because while he signed the letter he sent with the game, he uses a rather strange script made out of letters that I think came out of his game. It looks like Alvin, but I can't say with any surety. I also can't tell what many of the letters in Word Wars are supposed to be, which might be why all those monoliths of corporate game design didn't want to buy his game.

If you want an interesting card game with words, you could do worse than Word Wars. It's got a lot of problems, but if you're patient, there's a decent game in there. This Kickstarter project is going for another week or two, so you might be able to pick up a copy cheap. Once it's gone, I wouldn't count on seeing it again.


Interesting word puzzler
Will help you stretch your language muscles (with four-letter-words)

Unfortunate letter distribution can make this harder to play
A neat gimmick that would work great - in a different game

 You can pick up this little game for twelve bucks. That's not too bad, and it might even be worth your money. But you've only got until the middle of the month, so hurry up and check it out:

Monday, June 4, 2012

Card Game Review - Epic Spell Wars

I played a perfectly horrible game this weekend, and I absolutely loved it.

It's called Epic Spell Wars of the Battle Wizards: Duel at Mt. Skullzfyre. Yep, that's the whole name. I'm not even going to pretend I can type that more than once, so from now on, it's Epic Spell Wars. The name is a great indicator of how tongue-in-cheek the game is, but it does not help to explain how completely awful it is.

Epic Spell Wars is a pretty easy game to play. You've got a hand of spell component cards, and you put them out on the table to cast such spells as Old Scratch's Mysterious Exorcism and Beard O'Blastey's Delicious Chicken. The spells combine to create branching effects and do awesome things like hurt other people very badly. You can also maybe heal or get treasure, or something, but mostly you just rip out the other guy's heart with a fiery blast of pain. So that's pretty awesome.

It's also horrible. The violence in this game is not subdued or downplayed. The art on the cards is freaking terrible, and yet totally awesome. It's basically cartoons of people being cut in half, exploded, eviscerated and beheaded. It's impossibly gory, and I am not nearly as ashamed as I should be to admit that I love every last splatter of gray matter.

The premise of the game is that you're all competing in wizard tournaments - in Hell. You can cause each other immense pain and do considerable violence, but if you die, you just come back again. If you can kill every other wizard twice, you win - but this can be hard to do, because the other wizards are bound and determined to throw giant angry gonads at your head that will tear off your arms and legs with their testicular tentacles.

I did not make that up. You can be killed by flying testicles. SO AWESOME. And horrible. AND AWESOME.

For people who actually want games to be for smart people, Epic Spell Wars is perfect. If you can creatively combine the cards in your hand for maximum destructive capacity, you can send vorpal swords to cut your opponents to pieces - and maybe do it twice, or do it to all your enemies at the same time, or grab some treasure after you're done. If, like me, you think that the only thing cooler than chopping a person in half with a vorpal sword is chopping a person in half with a vorpal sword twice, then you will love Epic Spell Wars.

Need more evidence that this game is horrible? The rulebook has profanity. And not the kind of weak profanity that you can use around children over twelve. The rules use the kinds of bad words that are usually reserved for dock workers and porn stars. You cannot allow your young children to even read the rules. That's how awesome Epic Spell Wars is.

Now, I admit that I love to revel in the depravity of the human condition, and that may be improving my opinion of this game. However, it's also actually a very cool game. There's a lot of strategy that goes into building your spells. Sometimes you want to build a powerhouse of nuclear destruction that will melt your enemies down to their skeletal structure, and you don't mind waiting around to do it. Sometimes you want to dish just a little pain and give yourself a chance to grab some treasure or heal up. And sometimes, when it's down to the wire, and your opponent only needs a weak hit to send him spiraling into the grave, you just need to be fast and brutal. Combining the cards just the way you need them can help you perform an especially effective Pact with the Devil, or it can just send a lightning-fast Explodey explosion to take down a foe who is teetering on the brink.

If there's anything that might damage your enjoyment of Epic Spell Wars (aside from the complete lack of social acceptability), it's that at times, it might feel a little luck-happy. You might pull a hand full of stuff that just doesn't work the way you want it to work. You might roll very poorly and end up damaging yourself when you invoke the help of Satan himself. You might set up a killer spell and then watch it fizzle because the dice hate you. Personally, I'm fine with that, because the luck can be mitigated and improved by smart play. But even when you play smart, you can still get totally screwed by dice rolls that just don't go your way. And then a giant man-ball is going to squeeze your neck until your eyes pop out.

So to sum up, Epic Spell Wars is both absolutely horrible and completely awesome. It takes balls to make a game that so willfully stands up and says, 'you can stick your family values where they won't get sunburned.' And not just flying killer testes, either, but actual metaphorical balls.


2-6 players (and more is definitely better)

Insane violence abounds in a setting completely devoid of moral compass
Smart and fun as hell
Good strategy balanced by some tricky luck
Great, great art

Insane violence abounds in a setting completely devoid of moral compass
May be a little too lucky for overly analytical types

 If you think you've got the intestinal fortitude to handle a game this awesome and horrible, get yourself over to Noble Knight Games and save a couple bucks on it:

Friday, June 1, 2012

Tips for Surviving Disasters

The continuing nightmare saga that started with my son lighting my house on fire is coming to a close, and has allowed me to come up with a few tips for potential disaster victims that I would like to share. Hopefully most of you will never have any need of these little tips, because hopefully none of you will have something terrible happen to your house that forces you to live in a crappy rent house owned by an Armenian immigrant who thinks 'slumlord' is a term of endearment.

Tip Number One: Hire good people. Your homeowners policy is almost certain to let you pick the people you want to use to handle all the tasks associated with getting you back on your feet, but the odds are that your disaster preparedness kit does not include the phone number for a large-scale emergency dry-cleaner. Therefore, your insurance company may be able to recommend someone. Keep in mind that you do not have to use the people they like. You can use whoever you want. Choose your own emergency dry-cleaner, and if you don't know one, use one associated with the contractors fixing your house. Do not use Bibbentuckers or anyone associated with FRSTeam unless you would like to lose your wife's wedding dress, your daughter's confirmation dress, the dress your wife was wearing when you asked her to marry you, and your dress white uniform from the Navy that they don't even make any more because everyone in the military wears digital camo now.

Tip Number Two: Be there every day. I'm serious. Walk through the house on a daily basis. If you see something you don't like, mention it to your contractor immediately. Do not wait until the job is finished, assuming that the contractor is a sharp guy who is on top of the task, or you may wind up with spackling mud stuck on the insides of all your cupboards that you will have to chip out with a bread knife because all of your tools are in storage. You may also have a light switch in the bathroom that doesn't actually turn on anything, or half-painted walls behind your kitchen cupboards, or a built-in bookshelf with nails sticking up out of the boards that will tear the hell out of anything you put on it. Those are only some of my examples. If you try, you can probably think of some of your own. In fact, if you have had a disaster that forced you to file a homeowner's claim, you probably already have some wonderful examples. Feel free to share. There's nothing as entertaining as a tale of an improperly installed toilet that sends human waste to puddle around your bare feet in the middle of the night. (That is not true. I can think of many things more entertaining. But feel free to share anyway.)

Tip Number Three: Do not adopt the animals you find at your rent house. Your rental home may come with stray animals in the back yard. Do not put them in traps and bring them back to your real house. You may wind up with a home that smells vaguely like cat urine. And when I use the word 'vaguely,' I mean 'intensely.' By leaving those stray animals to their natural habitat (that habitat being the crawl space under the neighbor's shed), you not only save yourself the problem of spraying your new carpet with a can of Febreeze, but you save countless dollars on veterinarian bills when you discover that the lovable little scamp you rescued from a life of deprivation has worms, fleas, and some very oddly colored mites in one ear. On the other hand, should you decide to adopt that crazy cross-eyed cat that has kittens in the neighbor's yard, you may find yourself falling in love with the cat, especially if she sits in your lap and purrs contentedly while you watch reruns of Simon & Simon. OK, never mind this tip. I really do like that cat, though I am obviously insane for adopting yet another animal.

Tip Number Four: Do not schedule all your deliveries on the same day. When your home is ravaged by fire, or when a tornado rips off your roof, or when a drunken teenager crashes through your home and parks his mom's used minivan in your fireplace, people will come and take all your belongings. This is fine, as long as you hired them and they are not bums who just want to take your clothes to make a fort. Those professionals will clean your belongings and store them until you can get back in your house (unless you are using the crappy service we used, which charged us for cleaning and brought everything back dirty). The problem is, eventually they will bring back your things, and then you will have a house full of cardboard boxes. And you did not pack these boxes, so stuff that belongs in the attic will be in a box with stuff that belongs in the kitchen. It will take you a considerable amount of time to unpack those things, and if another person brings more things at the same time, you will become so overwhelmed that you might end up calling your spouse at work every twenty minutes to complain about the horribleness of the task you must now accomplish. You might wind up with the final delivery sitting in your driveway, and unless you are lucky enough to have a strapping 17-year-old son who caused the problem in the first place by lighting your house on fire, you will have to carry all that crap in the house yourself. In my case, of course, I will not be carrying anything. I threw my back out carrying boxes at the rent house, so now my kids have to do it all.

Tip Number Five: Fill your home with booby traps. I cannot overemphasize the importance of protecting your house when it is obviously uninhabited. We had wandering neighborhood kids smoking cigarettes in our bedroom. We had someone break down the fence to steal our 15-year-old swingset. We boarded up the shed, but someone very industrious yanked all the boards off the shed and stole every last power tool we owned. And the insurance will not replace these things, even though you have delivered the house into their hands, unless you file another claim. This claim will, of course, come with another deductible, meaning that unless several thousand dollars of tools were stolen, you would be better off simply buying them all again. And the swingset was so old that it cut your hands when you were swinging unless you were wearing gloves, so that's obviously not worth replacing. Plus my kids are teenagers, and don't really use swingsets any more. They want cars.

Tip Number Six: Save your money. Your contents claim may come in months before your house is ready, and then you will be sitting on a very large sum of money. Your first impulse might be to start spending it. Do not do this. Because if the city inspector finds that your home is badly out of code, possibly because the two-bit lying shyster who sold it to you bribed the home inspector you hired and never actually put sheathing on the walls, so that the plastic siding was nailed directly to the studs and every time it rained, water got inside the insulation, your insurance will not pay to fix everything. They will have some money for code upgrades, but there's a woefully good chance that it will take more than that to fix your house. It could cost you another, say, sixteen-thousand dollars to get back into your home, and if you spend all of your contents claim rebuying your toys and games, you will have to store them in the back of the van in which you are forced to live because you can't afford to move back home. This is one tip we actually did follow, thank God, or we would be living in a van.

Tip Number Seven: Do not have a fire. Or a tornado. Or a drunk crash into your living room. If you don't listen to any of these other tips, listen to this one. Unless you have lived through the prolonged waking nightmare of a disaster in your home, you cannot possibly imagine how much it should be avoided. We had very good homeowner's insurance - I mean, you would be hard-pressed to find someone better in the entire nation - and we were still amazed at how much could go wrong. Things that you would never expect will be completely screwed up. Like, my bedroom door doesn't close any more. The plumbers almost killed my kids with a gas-leaking dryer install. My backyard looks like a street scene from Fallout 3.

Tip Number Eight: Count your blessings. In the entire fiasco of burning and hotel staying and moving back in, we lost three goldfish. All the people were fine. All the pets made it (outside the fish, and one of those was unrelated to the accident). My house is better insulated than it has ever been, and we can keep it cool without breaking the bank. The paint is beautiful, with different colors for every room that make it a pleasure to walk from the kitchen to the bathroom, especially if you have to pee. My new water heater delivers hot water almost instantly. And my insurance company (Liberty Mutual, in case you're wondering) was fantastic, and when they heard how much money we were out, refunded our deductible - and then didn't raise our rates. We were expecting to get cancelled, or at the very least half to pay a lot more, and our rates didn't go up at all. All things considered, we did OK. Sure, there's still a lot of work to do, and this weekend is going to suck like a hungry streetwalker, but we're all as healthy as can be expected, the house is mostly great, and we even have a new pet cat that sits in my lap and purrs contentedly while I watch reruns of Simon & Simon.