13 Game School: Sheriff of Nottingham and Growl!

This episode, we take a look at Sheriff of Nottingham and Growl, two fantastic games of fibs and falsehoods! Plus, we take a quick dive into Weber’s Law and the game theory of Machiavelli.

Watch live Sunday mornings at 11am PST at https://www.twitch.tv/richardmalena

12 Game School: Junk Orbit and Promenade!

This episode, we take a look at Junk Orbit and Promenade, two games with shifting utility values and strategies in constant flux!

Watch live Sunday mornings at 11am PST at https://www.twitch.tv/richardmalena

Get Ready for Game School!

Happy Tuesday, friends! I wanted to let you all know about my new Sunday show on Twitch, Game School! Every week, I’ll be bringing a new game to class to teach you how to play and how to win. We’ll dive deep into the strategy and tactics behind every game as we learn to be better game theorists! If you want to join in on the fun, meet me Sunday mornings at 11am PST on Twitch!

Looking for a preview? Here’s last week’s episode all about Shadows Over Camelot and the Art of Betrayal. My voice somehow missed my Yeti microphone and ran through my laptop instead, but I’ll officially be posting these on YouTube starting next week.


See you on Sunday! Time for the new incarnation of AGT!

Dwellings of Eldervale and the Perfect Mix

It isn’t much of a secret that I like epic games. I want a majestic experience that I can dig into on a game night, spending a few hours planning out vast strategies and fretting about each move from my canny opponents. I want to claw my way to victory and never quite know where I am on the road to success. I want a game that is too complex to analyze, yet begs me to try. Fortunately, like I said, this isn’t really a secret to those who know me.

A few months ago, I was given the opportunity to try out a new game prototype by a friend clearly rubbing his hands with absolute glee. I looked down at the table and saw a colorful array of resources, meeples, miniatures, and dice, all surrounding a hex grid revealing the land of Eldervale. I had eight elemental factions to choose from, each with unique abilities for my small army of meeples, and told that I was about to play a worker placement, area control, tableau-building game. Disbelieving, I sat down to my first game of Dwellings of Eldervale, by Luke Laurie and Breaking Games. I lost that game, but I won the next one. I’m about fifty percent in the ten or so games I’ve played since then as well, and I am hungry to play even more.

Think about how many games on your shelf have been played more than ten times? For me, it’s a short list: Betrayal at House on the Hill, Spirit Island, Codenames, Splendor, Lords of Waterdeep. Already, Dwellings of Eldervale has launched into the short list of my favorite games, which is pretty impressive for only having just launched on Kickstarter this week! (The conversation below might make a little more sense if you know more about the game, and this preview by Tantrum House is one of my favorites!)

So what exactly makes Dwellings of Eldervale satisfying for a game theorist?

1. Multiple Paths to Victory: The first thing a player has to do when they sit down for Dwellings of Eldervale is decide where in the world they’re going to try and focus. Dwellings of Eldervale has a wide variety of ways to gain victory points and each one is built around a different mechanic within the game. Placing workers in the elemental realms gives players the opportunity to dwell, gaining a permanent advantage and area control. Other players might instead focus on building their tableau, trading resources to gain unique powers and abilities. Some of these choices depend on a player’s personal taste, but some of the elemental factions have that might do better with one strategy than another.

Take one of my favorite factions, the Embercrush Ogres.

Each faction has four types of units, each with a different amount of dice in battle and two unique abilities!

Each faction has different abilities, and the Ogres have a powerful one. Each of their workers adds an extra die in combat, making them a constant worry for other players from the very first turn. Combat is another major way to gain victory points and control the board, so the Ogres have a huge ability to control the early game until other players can catch up to their battle prowess.

By giving players so many choices in how to initially approach the game, Dwellings of Eldervale becomes highly replayable. I still don’t have a favorite faction, nor do I have a favorite strategy. This game begs you to try new tactics in new ways in the constant quest for victory.

2. Resists Dominant Strategies: At its heart, Dwellings of Eldervale is about building an engine to generate victory points. However, it doesn’t feel like a race in the same way that a tableau-builder often feels. If a player seems to be doing too well, the other players can use the game board itself to start making damaging moves. No portion of the game exists in a vacuum, which leads to extreme competition throughout the game.

As your worker become a dwelling, they get their very own roof! Photo by Dwellings of Eldervale designer Luke Laurie.

A major part of the game is the regroup action, where a player removes their workers from the game board and returns them to their ready area. On their way back, a player uses each of these workers to activate their tableau abilities. The more workers a player has to regroup, the more they can do with their tableau. If a player is focused on building their tableau to the detriment of area control, then an opponent may be able to start battles and send those poor meeples to the Underworld before they can be regrouped.

Meanwhile, players also have the opportunity to gather cards from the magic deck, which are full of fun and interesting spells letting you wildly change the game. The deck is also filled with Quests and Prophecies, allowing you new ways to gain victory points, either at the beginning or end of the game. Even though each card may only offer limited amounts of points, completing many of them in a row can lead to a healthy swing by the end of the game.

As this long list of complications increases, it becomes almost impossible to determine an optimal strategy without trying to do a little bit of everything. I have to develop a mixed strategy if I have any hope of winning the game. In a mixed strategy, I am forced to constantly change my actions with the intent of forcing my opponents to mix theirs as well. If other players know my plans too well, they can try to place their workers in the perfect locations to thwart my every move.

3. Constantly Changing Game State: As a game of Dwellings of Eldervale continues, the board is constantly in flux. The hex grid expands as players explore the world, constantly adding new resources to gather, locations for dwelling, and even huge, terrifying monsters to battle. None of these things can be easily predicted, meaning a player’s strategy may shift at almost any time.

But even from the very first turn, a ton of variety comes from the eight decks of adventure cards.

Cards from the adventure decks are available for purchase, as long as a player has the proper resources. These are placed into a player’s tableau, granting them new abilities and options as the game progresses. However, the different elements don’t require entirely unique resources, so the potions a player gathers can be used to purchase cards from four different elements. Since only one adventure card is shown at a time from a given element, players can battle over specific elements and abilities throughout the game. The fun here is that by choosing an opponent’s elements, you limit their power in the game overall.

Sometimes, when I play a game, I just want to have a good time with my friends. But when it comes to an epic gaming session, I’m looking for the opportunity to test myself against my opponents. Dwellings of Eldervale gives me that chance in a way that I haven’t been excited about in a long time. Every game is a new experience, with factions and adventures I’ve still never tried, and I can’t wait to get out there and play again.

If this article got you even a little excited about Dwellings of Eldervale, check out the campaign before it leaves Kickstarter on July 25th!

Letting the App Drive

Anyone who knows me must be aware of my love of role-playing games. Besides writing my own D&D content on the Dungeon Masters’ Guild, I’ve also been telling my own stories in campaigns for decades. Getting a group of people in a room to collaboratively build a tale of heroics and derring-do? It’s an incredible feeling. And it really doesn’t matter if we’re running through a story of my own design or I’m getting to share in someone else’s playground. This is easily my favorite game of all time.

Art by Lindsay Smith!

Have you watched the incredible Xander Jeanneret lead his adventurous mother and her amazing friends through a story? It’s an absolute delight. 

These stories work so well because while most of the people at the table are embodying a single hero, one of them is playing the entire world. Imagine that. They have to hold together the strings of an entire populace filled with quirky characters, a landscape dotted with towns and dangerous dungeons to visit, an endless array of powerful foes, and the reins of a story leading a party throughout the world in an order that is fun, engaging, and narratively interesting. Yeah. Being a Dungeon Master is hard work. So what if a computer could do it for you?

Two years ago, I was introduced to a massive tabletop game called Mansions of Madness. Similar games, like Descent and Hero Quest, had a similar theme: a group of heroes battled to win against the vileness of the game itself. However, in order for the game to work, one player would have to switch teams and play as the game itself, running monsters and events to challenge the heroes in their quest. If the chosen player was particularly mean, the experience for the heroes could be dramatically different than if that player was being generous. (Look, I said I was sorry!)

This is an easy example of the Volunteer’s Dilemma, where one player must choose to play a slightly different game than everyone else for the good of the group. If the heroes win, the chosen player doesn’t necessarily gain the same sense of satisfaction. More than likely, a heroic victory is a result of the volunteer’s plans and resources falling through. In order to make the game a challenge, the volunteer has to truly try to win, meaning someone is going to lose this game.

A few games tried to break away from this trend, but were forced to design a fair mechanism to create a mysterious, changing game that wouldn’t be stale after a single play. Arkham Horror did this through a mountain of potential cards, locations, and choices that left players fundamentally unable to play the same game twice. Castle Ravenloft added a monster strategy system that forced players to choose the least damaging option from a short list. In a strategic sense, each of these systems can be broken by a player who studies the game and can find efficient and safe routes to victory. (Look, I said I was sorry!)

Mid-mission in Mansions of Madness, Second Edition with tons of exploring left to do!

Enter, the app.

The second edition of Mansions of Madness comes with a fantastic app, allowing everyone to play together while the pre-programmed adventures tell the story. Fantasy Flight Games has done an amazing job of creating a randomizer which mixes up the ways in which a skill test can be resolved. The app asks for a few inputs, like are you attacking the creature with a spell or with a bladed weapon? Once you type in the answer, you’re committed, and the app will ask you to make a specific check which might not be the one you’d expect.

Maybe you’re attacking nearby Deep One with a spell called Wrack, which is usually governed by your Lore ability. Rather than a Lore test, the app might ask you to make an Agility check to dodge out of the way of your opponent’s thrashing limbs during the casting process. If you are successful, the app then tells you how to deal damage to the creature.

Mid-mission in Lord of the Rings: Journeys in Middle-Earth, with so many places to search for the remaining tracks!

Suddenly, I’m engrossed in a game where I don’t know exactly what’s going to happen. The app has given me the illusion of a game master making a series of choices that I can’t quite predict! Sometimes the moment acts in my favor, but other times…

The new Lord of the Rings: Journeys in Middle Earth app acts in the same incredible way. While the games uses cards instead of dice, the app itself is a brilliant randomizer that gives keeps the game feeling fresh as it hands players new surprises every round. After playing the first adventure a number of times, each run has a similar goal, yet adds interesting and unique details to the map that add just enough mystery to keep me on my toes.

Video games and tabletop games allow for wildly disparate mechanics to take place in a single game. Learning how to make a hybrid game to find the best of both worlds is going to take some real effort, but Fantasy Flight Games is making huge strides with both Mansions and Journeys to build something incredible. As more and more game companies start building their own hybrids, I am hopeful that we’ll be able to bring the thrill of the roleplaying game experience to the regular tabletop game night!

Rise of Tribes and the Tragedy of the Commons

You know that feeling when you sit down to a play a game without really knowing what to expect, and then are immediately blown away by the cleverness of the mechanics, the scope of gameplay, and the overall experience you have that brings joy to your little tabletop gaming heart? I hope so. It feels pretty good and you each deserve that moment. To give you an example, you might want to check out Rise of Tribes by Brad Brooks and published by Breaking Games. I was introduced to both the game and designer at a local board game prototyping event, and I haven’t been able to shut my mouth about it since. Seriously, you should already be driving to your FLGS to pick up a copy.

Rise of Tribes is all about bringing your people to greatness. To begin, each player chooses one of the Tribes, and in the advanced game, picks one of that tribe’s two Leaders. You lay out a series of hexes representing Lakes, Forests, and Mountains, where your tribe members might gain Food, Wood, and Stone. You get two actions per turn, choosing to Grow your tribe, Move around the board, Gather new resources, or Lead your way to new opportunities. From there, you race against the other players to construct villages, research new technologies, and achieve goals for your tribe to do what every civilization in history has ever wanted to do—collect Fifteen Victory Points.

Okay, so you may think this sounds a lot like Twilight Imperium or Sid Meier’s Civilization or a host of other games with similar themes. What sets Rise of Tribes apart for me is a dedication to two particular mechanics. One makes the game infinitely more fun than any other area control game I’ve played, and the other is an intriguing twist on the Tragedy of the Commons.

Let’s start with fun! Have I mentioned how much I dislike Risk? It’s a game we all need to play, but the idea of moving huge units around and rolling dice in a very random way… you’ve heard the arguments before, I’m sure. It isn’t fun for me. In fact, I don’t really enjoy games where combat is a necessary path to victory, because I don’t think zero-sum games are a ton of fun for everyone throughout the game. If your gain comes from my loss, I’d rather play Scrabble. Scythe was a great example of a game where some battle was needed, but very quickly, players stopped gaining points for fighting! Two victories, and you could tell your military to take a nap.

In Rise of Tribes, players can be on the same hex space as much as they want. As they peacefully coexist in the same space, both players can utilize that hex just as if they were the only ones there. They couldn’t choose to attack each other, even if they wanted to, without a good reason. Which in this case is defined by population.

Each hex has a population limit of five tribe members. Which means that on this board, the Red and Blue players coexist in all spaces just fine, but someone messed up in the circled Forest space. Here, the population has hit a critical level and Mother Nature needs to step in.

Do we roll dice? Draw cards? Play Rock, Paper, Scissors? Slap Jack? Nay. Instead, every tribe loses one of their members in that hex, and that process continues until only one tribe remains. In this case, since the two sides are even, all six tribe members are lost. Welcome to the brutal truth that combat is bad for both sides. More importantly, combat itself is never worth Victory Points. It may help a tribe achieve its Goals, but combat for its own sake is never something that helps you progress.

By simplifying combat and making it such a huge penalty for both sides, players shy away from it unless they must battle to complete a goal. Even then, since all goals are public information, every player can see the battle coming and decide how they plan to respond.

I love the flow of combat, but what draws me to Rise of Tribes is an ingenious way to choose your actions each round.

Place your die to the left, push the action dice, remove the last one. This strategic planning mechanism is just so satisfying!

At the start of the game, you set three dice to specific faces above each potential action in the game—a Sun, then a Moon, and finally a Blank face. At the start of your turn, you roll the remaining two dice and consider your options. For your first action, you choose one of your dice and place it to the left side of the action’s dice. Then, you push them all to the right, putting your dice into the left-hand space, and removing the far right one from the action. Finally, you see how lucky your action is going to be. If the board shows two Suns, you get the best possible outcome. If it shows two Moons, you get the worst. Anything else is the normal action.

This means that on a lucky day, you grow your tribe by twice as many members than on an unlucky day. Your tribe can move farther and gather more, as long as that sun keeps shining down. It’s a beautiful, thematic mechanism that gives the game a healthy dose of intrigue and strategy.

As the game progresses, you soon begin to realize that your turns are affected by the players who have gone before. If everyone before me left Suns on an action, then no matter what I place, I’ll have a good day! Well, hold on. Doesn’t that mean that even if I place a Moon there, it won’t hurt me? And then the next player has to deal with my leftover Moon? What if they roll two Moons? How should I play best to help myself?

Welcome to the Tragedy of the Commons! You made it. Congratulations.

The Tragedy of the Commons is a game theory simulation of a common good and the problems that come when players are able to abuse that good. Imagine that you live in an apartment complex, and one mysterious tenant keeps filling up the shared dumpster with a ruined couch every single week. It’s funny the first time and nothing happens. But the next week, another tenant joins in. Soon enough, there are seven couches in the trash! Now, there’s no space for anyone else to put in their trash, and the garbage company is getting frustrated and responds by increasing their rates in your building.

What kind of responses happen when you, as the law-abiding tenant that you are, suddenly lose access to a common good through the actions of others? Do you bring a mob to the parking garage and lay in wait, preparing an ambush of suddenly screaming, angry tenants when that couch-ruiner walks in? Do you simply accept that bad things happen and pay the increased bill? Or maybe you decide that nothing matters at all, and you can join in the couch chaos too!

There’s a glorious moment in Rise of Tribes when everyone has been dropping Suns down on Gather so everyone can have a mountain of resources the entire game, and then, with a sudden grin, one player plops down a Moon. They’ve decided to throw a couch in the dumpster. Do you put down a Moon as well, sentencing the Gather action to unlucky doom and gloom for turns and turns to come? Do you fight back and try to salvage the situation with another Sun? Shrug your shoulders and drop a Blank? This might be my new favorite simulation of the Tragedy of the Commons!

Rise of Tribes is a fun, fantastic, civilization building game that plays in a relatively quick 30–60 minutes. With plenty of varied Leader abilities, a bunch of different options available in terms of Goals and Technologies, and a string of unique Events that shake things up completely, this is absolutely a game that’s going to show up at my game nights for a long time to come.