Friday, December 31, 2010

Innovation – My 2010 Game of the Year

So while I'm on "vacation" for the first time in four years, I thought I'd take advantage of the (more) bloggy format of this blogging blog and blog somewhat randomly. P.S.: Blog.

With the year's odometer now turned over for those of us who don't run our lives on the Chinese or Hebrew calendar, "Best of the Year" lists are starting to appear and while I've never rarely participated in such folly in the past, I'll break tradition and state that Carl Chudyk's Innovation (Asmadi Games) is far and away my favorite game of 2010. I've already puked out thousands of words of appreciation for this fantastic design, but of course you (and I) can't read them since Boardgame News doesn't work right now, so here's an overview: Innovation is the Civilization card game for those who don't want to read a lot of rules prior to playing.

What do I know of Civilization? Almost nothing. I've never played the Tresham design; I've never played the computer game (or almost any computer games); I've seen only a few segments of the Civilization series from Kenneth Clark; I haven't played (gasp) Through the Ages; and so on. I'm essentially one of those troglodytes who hasn't seen Star Wars, yet has absorbed enough about what goes on to give an amusingly misguided summary of Hans Solo, Darth Vader, the white-faced guy, and all the rest.

But for some reason I decided to pick up Kevin Wilson's Civilization: The Board Game (Fantasy Flight Games), which a knowing friend immediately mocked because the board game uses graphics from Civ IV while Civ V had debuted mere days earlier. How outré, said my friend, how shoddily half-assed of FFG to pitch gamers a new design in old clothes.

Me, in my ignorance, thought nothing of this as I was too busy being bowled over by the 32-page rulebook. I've never been one to shiver with delight at the site of a beefy rulebook, thinking ahead to the long, luxurious hours I'll spend soaking in the bathtub while relishing every little detail on its pages. No, I'm more of a shower guy, content with a quick hosedown of rules that span no more than a few pages – enough to get my hair wet without leaving my digits crinkly. I don't care to learn in detail how the car works; instead give me key, ignition, gas pedal, gear shift, mirrors – okay, I'm set to take it out for a spin to see what happens.

In practice the Civilization rulebook proved less imposing than it did at first glance. Four pages are devoted to a component list and detailed description of every last chit; a few more to the game set-up. Hey, this is more like a LEGO instruction book than a rulebook! I can handle this. Oh, wait, now we're into the rules, nevermind.

My brain has a tough time keeping lots of details in it for a single game. I can remember the rules for dozens, if not hundreds, of games – a party trick that never fails to impress the ladies when I bust out a few rule descriptions while in mid-limbo – yet I cannot recall hundreds, or even dozens, of details for a single, particular game. Essentially my brain has endless rows of lockers, "Library of Babel"-style, each of which can hold the contents of a single game and while the lockers themselves are infinite, no game can spill over into multiple lockers, which means that I've found myself at a loss when confronted by any big box FFG game and the attempt to embed an entire family history and details on how to make bread by first constructing a Wonder factory in its rulebook.

Having said that, I read the rules for Civilization: The Board Game and had a Civ-loving friend (who had also read the rules) over to play. The game lasted 2.5 hours, and I consulted the rulebook many, many times during play to make sure I was doing things right and not forgetting various details and I was completely smoked as my friend had an Actual Plan for how to win the game and I was busy treading water in the rules. I did spot his impending victory a couple of turns prior to him achieving it, but that knowledge was merely enough to earn me a solid second place.

Okay, having been through that, what did I learn:
  1. How to play better: I can see how I would play the game better on a second go-round, partly due to not having to look things up in the rulebook so much and partly due to having some idea of how I could tie actions together to build synergy into my advancement efforts.
  2. Why computer games sell so well: Not because of whatever was done with the Civ V graphics, but because the software handles many of the game details for you, often allowing you to learn a game directly from installation and random button-pushing – something not possible with analog games unless the players are toddlers.
  3. How much I love Innovation: Which is the point of this post.
While Civ: The Board Game is apparently faithful to the computer game, according to my friend, all I noticed was the busyness of the design, with lots of little parts meshed into a design that I couldn't keep straight during play. I spent so much time watching the wheels turn and checking the framistan that I was barely cognizant of where I was going within the game. Did I end up creating an effective civilization that would eventually develop roll-on deodorant and wireless technology if the game had lasted long enough? Perhaps, but I was too busy with the details to notice such things.

With Innovation, on the other hand, I can set up and teach the game within ten minutes. All of history has been reduced to 105 cards, with each player starting with two cards from the prehistoric age. At the start of the game, you have one choice of two items to put into play. On your first real turn, you typically take two actions, with those actions being:
  1. Draw a card.
  2. Meld a card.
  3. Use a card in play.
  4. Claim an achievement card (which isn't possible until you score points, which takes at least a couple of turns and sometimes far longer).
So simple and straightforward. Each card says what it can do, which means the choices available to you are evident. What will the consequences of these actions be? Will action A lead to better results than action B? Give one of them a try and find out what happens.

Effectively you have been reduced to the position of gaming neanderthal. You're not trying to chart a path through the dozens of tech cards available to you in Civ: The Board Game: Which two of the ten level 1 cards should I build first? And which of the ten level 2 cards should follow that? And which of the nine level 3 cards? How would I know what to choose given that I know nothing about the course of the game? And all those choices come on top of multiple others about where to build cities and buildings, and which of the multiple wonders to build, and how to spend your points, and so on. In Civ, the number of choices is too much for me. I'm doing tons of things, but I can't see how they fit together. I feel like I'm managing a second life, and that's hardly a playing experience I need.

Again, with Innovation I have one choice to start the game. Then I have three choices – meld, draw or use the card in play – then I have three or four more, then perhaps five, and so on. I'm pulling LEGO bricks out of a black box and slowly assembling something that might turn into a dynamic machine. Each turn I have exactly two actions available to me, so even when I have 5-10 choices – from the cards in play in front of me, the pile from which I can draw, and the cards in hand – the number of possible combinations is still limited.

As I've become more familiar with the game – 90 plays and counting! – I can now consider whether to do the best thing possible this turn or to focus on I might do this turn that will allow me to do something even better next turn. I can react to an opponent's play, or try to build a structure that will eventually topple over on him and render him lifeless. I can anticipate future plays from opponents and dig for cards in particular decks that fit with my plans. I can work on splaying my cards to display more of the six types of icons in order to mooch from the actions of others and protect me from (some) attacks, or I can try to jump the ages and get a "technological" edge on my opponents.

And there's still much more to learn – or at least that's how I feel each time I play. I've never gone through all 105 cards and tried to memorize what each of them does and which icons they have where, and this lack of out-of-game exploration has delivered a far richer sense of exploration during play. After my first couple of games, for example, I knew the 15 cards in age 1 cold, while knowing the specifics of most cards in age 2 and several in age 3. I had reached the higher ages, but they still felt nebulous. I had experienced their power, both in my hands and in others', but I couldn't recall precisely which cards were in which decks. Instead of trying to grab knowledge of the game all at once, I let it sink in through repeated exposure, akin to a computer game (I suppose) in which you know enough to start the game, then just see what happens. (See point #2 above.)

As I and my friends have achieved more experience with the game, we've adjusted our play styles. In the early days, two-player games would rarely dig deep into decks from age 7 and above as we played somewhat conservatively, feeling our way around the early stages of history and hitting the special achievements with little interference from opponents. Now, we blast through the ages, having a better idea of what's possible in two turns and how to counter what opponents might do. We pocket specific cards for certain situations; we encounter high-level cards that seem insanely powerful, then figure out how to play against those threats in the early game to keep ourselves from being vulnerable later. We shoot for instant win cards in the later decks, ceding advantages to others on the assumption – the hope! – that they'll never bring those advantages to bear.

Three-player seems like the sweet spot for the game as you avoid the freewheeling, almost out-of-control feeling of the four-player game and the somewhat tight, zero-sum feeling of the two-player game. If I had a choice for number of players, I'd choose three, then two, then four. (If I had five, I'd choose two simultaneous games of Innovation.)

Do the cards feel like a simulacrum of reality and history? No, but that's not what I play games for. I play for the intellectual challenge, the ability to best my opponent in some tiny sandbox with rules particular to that location. I want to feel like I can make clever plays, affect my destiny in positive ways, prepare contingency plans for the disasters that will surely come, and be surprised by what both I and my opponents can do. Innovation hits all of these markers. Even after 90 games – which includes a dozen games in a week over the Christmas holiday when my brother, friends and I neglected a half-dozen Spiel 2010 releases he had brought me from Europe – I continually find myself saying, "I've never seen that before," or "I thought that card was worthless, but it really proved to be the right tool to save my bacon that game," or "I can't believe you figured out how to escape that trap," or (most often of all) "Want to play again?"

My opponents say yes. I say yes. Yesyesyes. Set up the cards once again, and let's go!

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Dale Yu: Show Business – Like No Business I Know?

(While we're all waiting for the BGG news section to go live – me to get writing again and you to be reading said writing – let's turn to a review of a Spiel 2010 release from the relatively new publisher Sinonis, which hit Essen with both Master of Economy and the title reviewed here: Show Business. Former BGN columnist and physician-on-staff Dale Yu does the honors... —WEM)

Times played: 1.5 (one game aborted due to rules confusion) – with demo copy
Players: 2-5
Time: 90-120 minutes
Ages: 13+

[Author's note: This is one in a series of many game reports from the Spiel 2010 crop of games. While I would normally not write reviews without playing a game at least three times, I have decided to write my initial thoughts down in order to be able to get to more games in a timely fashion. I realize that some games have complexities/subtleties that only are evident after multiple plays – and as such, I will make a point to always outline my level of experience with the game. Finally, while I will always make an effort to describe the rules to the game, the descriptions here are not meant to be comprehensive nor complete – just enough for the reader to get a feel for the game and how it works - DY]

One of the great things about Essen is getting to learn about new companies and the new games that they have produced. To me, this is one of the most exciting parts of the week – trying to find the "diamond in the rough" as it were. The first great finds like this that I can remember was Jenseits von Theben (Prinz Games) or Leapfrog (Fragor Games). These were both in small booths, tucked in an out-of-the-way hall at Spiel – and I knew virtually nothing about them before I saw them demoed at the fair. Finding games such as these has spurred me on to continually be on the lookout for similar finds.

This year, there were a multitude of new booth renters at Spiel – many of which were from Eastern Europe. Sinonis was one such company, and they had two new games on offer this year: Show Business and Master of Economy. There was only a smattering of information available prior to the show about both of these games, so I only knew about the basic themes before I arrived in Germany. I did manage to set up a short meeting at the booth, but the guys running the booth were super-busy. They were in a pretty small booth, so there wasn't much room for demos (only one table IIRC) – so while I was there, I was able to get a short overview but not a full blown demo. I was very intrigued by the idea of Show Business – put together the best band you can and tour Europe to make the most money! So I brought a copy (or two) home from the show to try.

Here's the short version of the report: I honestly don't have a verdict on the game. I'm not entirely sure that I've played the game of Show Business yet, and I don't know if I have the willpower or time to figure it out. For more details, read on.

The object of the game is simple: form a music band during the course of the game and win by having either the most popular band (highest up on the Popularity scoring track) OR by having the most money in hand. Sounds good so far, right? I agree! I'll try to go into some detail about the rest of the game (or at least how I think it's supposed to be played) – but there are a number of questions that aren't answered in the rules and a number of questions that are generated in the rules due to the atrocious translation. And, before you think I'm being unfair in judging the rules, I will note that the game designer and publisher have made mention of the translation issues online and have said that they are working on a new translation to come out soon. They have also put out five detailed "tutorial" articles to help novice players get through the rules and understand how the game "should" be played.

As a short example, this is the introductory paragraph of the rules, directly lifted from the .pdf file:

"Show Business is the economic-tactic game for 2 to 5 players, aged 13+, with the game time 60 to 150 minutes. Become music manager, create your own, unique band and have it play Rock, Pop, Black, Jazz or Club music and record popular hits. Predict trends and influence mass media, to have your hits better ranked on charts, than hits of your competitors. Use your influence power to hire professionalists available on the market, to help your band raise its popularity or to weaken career of other groups. Contract most lucrative concerts and travel with your band around the best music clubs. Take care of high satisfaction within the group, to have your band as long as possible with you. You've got one year to lift up your debuting band on top of popularity. Gain fame and money greater than your competitors!"

So, as you can see, it's not perfect English, but in general, it should be "understandable". Unfortunately, the game is quite complex, and the imprecise wordings that are seen in the translation does lead to a number of questions about the rules. In the groups that I played in, one group was willing to try to make a table ruling to continue playing the game while one other just decided that to throw in the towel.

Each player has a band, represented by a player board. There are spaces on the board for the musicians – which come from a separate deck of 50 musicians (and each of them has their own set of statistics); these cards are two sided representing the two styles of music that each one likes to play. Of course, you also have to make note of the types of instruments that they play because you can't put a singer in the drummer spot of your band! There is a bunch of other information that you track on this board including the songs that you've recorded, action cards and other attributes. You start the game with 3 musicians, and your band can have up to 6 people in it. Managing the composition of your band is important because you can only record songs or go on tour if you have at least 4 members in your band (comprising the mandatory instruments).

The main board is also full of stuff. There is a popularity track (VPs) around the edge of the board. The left side has the Top 10 song chart while the right side has a map of Europe which shows where the bands are touring currently. Finally, there is a rondel on the board which shows 5 special actions which might be taken at the end of a round.

The main actions in each round are played out using "Influence Cards". These cards have all sorts of different options on them – there is a deck of 80 different cards. Essentially, you get to play a card from your hand. Then, you can either use the action printed on the card OR you can use one of the cards that are laid face up next to the board in the Influence market. This market is made up of four cards, and you are only allowed to use a card if it is in a numbered slot that is equal or less than the influence number on the card you played. Once you've chosen a card to play in this fashion, you do it.

Again, let me quote the rules for this section: "Active player places INFLUENCE CARD, played in previous step, onto INFLUENCE FIELD on her/his BAND BOARD on the top of pile (irst card played will start forming this pile). This activates that card for ACTION. Individual ACTION may be carried out always with the use of active INFLUENCE CARD, it is card actually laying on the top of the pile on INFLUENCE FIELD. Player can decide to activate for ACTION one of INFLUENCE CARDS available on ields 1 to 4 on INFLUENCE MARKET, instead of the card played from the hand. In such a case, she/he takes one chosen card from INFLUENCE MARKET, but only from field, which number is less or equal to the POWER of INFLUENCE CARD played from hand. Then places taken card, on the top of the pile on INFLUENCE FIELD on her/his BAND BOARD, directly on the card played from hand, placed there before. Since this, the card taken from INFLUENCE MARKET is active for the ACTION, instead of card played from hand in step 3. After active card is set up, player carries out one of the ACTIONS available for this card"

Trust me – even with all the components in front of us, it took about 10 minutes in our initial attempt to learn from the rules to figure out this step alone… Anyways, there are many possible actions that you can do here: you can try to add new people to your band, take your band on tour, record a new song, try to influence the popular music trends (to match the qualities of the songs that you're recording), promote your songs to get them on the Top 10 chart, or you can use the special ability of the person depicted on the card – there are 10 different possibilities here. A few of the special abilities involve direct confrontation, and this was a turn-off to a few of the gamers that I played with.

Some of the steps can be fairly intricate – for instance, if you choose to record a song, you have to be in one of the three cities that have recording studios. Then, a song must be available there in your color. Then, if you choose to take it, you have to mark down its music style (from 5 possible), lyrics (5 possible), volume (5 possible) and tempo (5 possible). You also make note of how many of your musicians play in the style of the song that you've chosen.

Each player gets a chance to play one (or two) actions when it's their turn. The game itself is timed over a year – well, actually 56 weeks – and each action that you play will take somewhere between one and four weeks of game time, the actual amount is detemined by the influence number printed on the card. In most turns, you get to play two actions – you only get one action though if your marker crosses one of the quarter-end spaces on the time track after the first action. If this occurs, you only get one action and then you move into a special "quarter-end" phase.

Again: from the rules… "Active player plays out of hand one INFLUENCE CARD and moves her/his marker on TIME TRACK as many fields towards field 56, as indicated by POWER of played card. If in consequence of this move, player's marker crosses or reaches as first one of four QUARTER END fields (14, 28, 42, 56), player carries out his ACTION (step 4) and goes to phase INFLUENCES (step 5) and further to steps 6 to 10. Otherwise, after first ACTION is completed (step 4), player plays out of hand second INFLUENCE CARD, moves again his/her marker along TIME TRACK (step 3 again), carries out second ACTION (step 4 again) and continues to phase INFLUENCES (step 5) and further to steps 6 to 9. In that second case, step 10 is ignored. Player does not carry out steps 3 and 4, if her/his marker stays on field 56 on TIME TRACK or if has no INFLUENCE CARDS on hand or gives up intentionally." Simple, right?

After all players have had a chance to play their action(s), there is a little bit of housekeeping to be done… The bottom most card in both the influence market and artist market is discarded, all other cards are moved down one slot, and a new card is dealt into the "4" space. Then, all players apply the event signified on the rondel, there are 5 possible choices here, and it should be noted that the location of the marker on the Rondel can be manipulated by actions previously taken in the round. The Rondel might cause the music trend dice to be re-rolled, allow players to collect royalties (gain money) based on their songs, players may have to pay salaries to their band members (money back to bank), or possibly deal with a band breakup as some of your more independent band members might leave the band if they aren't happy. After the rondel action, there is a closed fist auction to determine the next starting player. If no one has ended the quarter on the time track, you start again with playing Influence cards (and doing the appropriate actions) with the new start player.

However, if you are at the end of the quarter, there are a few other things to be done. First, score all the songs on the chart. To do this, you see how well the songs match up to the current music trends (signified by 4 dice on top of the chart). There is a fairly complicated (and tedious) method of scoring the songs, assigning points based on whether or not the song matches the current trend in each of the four categories as well as a bonus based on how many of the band's artists actually play in the style of the song. This is then followed by a round where players can use cards out of their hand to further influence the scores. Then once the songs are ranked, bands are awarded Popularity points (VPs) based on the standings of their songs. That ends the quarter-end housekeeping, and players go back to playing influence cards and doing actions. This whole procedure is repeated for the four quarters of the year, and then at the end, the player with the most popularity wins. If there is a tie, money is a tiebreaker.

Sound complicated? It is, but not necessarily in a bad way. There are a bunch of interacting mechanics here which might lead to a great game. It's hard to wrap your head around everything going on in your first game. To that end, the designer has put out five tutorials on BGG to try to help new players understand the game. Here is a link to one of them.

Is the complexity too much? Possibly… First, it's hard to judge for sure because the poorly translated rules don't help. Unfortunately, I don't have access to a native Polish speaker, so I don't know whether or not the rules are just as complicated in the native language of the designer/publisher. However, it's hard to play a game with this many complex pieces when you're not entirely sure of what rules you are following. The bits that I have quoted above are straight from the rules and are completely representative of the syntax/grammar used in the 12 pages of 10-point text. There are plenty of illustrations which help you muddle through the rules, but for us, it still wasn't enough. Second, the fact that the designer felt it necessary to augment the rules with such detailed tutorials makes me wonder that the rules still may not be sufficient to teach me the game properly. That being said, I wish I had seen these tutorials before I tried to play the game because they would have really helped me figure out what the heck I was doing!

In the end, we struggled through a 4p game of Show Business in about 3.5 hours including reading the rules, re-reading the rules and arguing over them, playing the game while taking breaks to discuss the rules that we didn't understand, and then actually making it to the end. It was far too long to spend playing the game, but certainly there was a lot of time lost on the rules and rules discussions as well as the usual time delays involved in any game being played for the first time. And, surprisingly, it wasn't a completely negative experience because there are a number of mechanisms in the game which are quite interesting.

I liked the idea of building a band from the different artist cards. The number of options here are huge as there are many different artist cards, and each one is two-sided leading to many different permutations. The composition of the band is of paramount importance in the game because of the bonus score that your band makeup has on the score of the songs you record (only if they match the popular music trends, of course!). Trying to find the right band members in the artist pool is only one way of adding people. You might also use the special ability of the "Groupie" card to "steal" a band member from an opponent. Once you've got the band that you want, you also have to constantly keep your eye on the overall happiness of your band so that the members don't leave. I found this part of the game to be an enjoyable puzzle.

However, overall, my experience was soured by the abysmal rules. Just as with new friends, first impressions are important – and the rules pretty much serve as the first impression. If you can't understand how to play the game from the rules, it's going to be a hard sell getting the game to the table. This isn't the first (nor sadly not the last) game at Essen to come out with a bad set of rules. Even if most of the issues here are in translating, more attention should be paid to having a native speaker go over the translation before publication. Similar to my experience with Brass, which also had a truly abysmal original set of rules, the negative impression that the first attempts of learning the game have left on me might be too much to overcome. After aborting my first two tries to learn Brass, I haven't been interested in trying it again as there are plenty of other great games available with rules that are playable for me to spend any more time trying to decipher that ruleset any further.

NB: I have been asked, on many occasions, to do this very sort of final proofread for a translated ruleset which doesn't take a lot of time. Most of my suggestions revolve around word choice or modifying translations of idioms which simply don't translate well. However, in the end, I think that the final product is much better for the gamer who opens the box and learns from the rules.

After my one-and-a-half plays, I decided to move my personal copy of Show Business into the collection of someone who was interested in investing more time to figuring out the rules and playing it again. I still have access to a copy of the game (actually two!), so if I am motivated to play it again, I will be able to. Furthermore, the gamer who wanted the copy of Show Business did promise to try to write something up about the game after he played it a few more times. In the end, this is probably the best thing to happen to the game because it now has a home where it will be played.

Given the number of new games that I've still yet to play from Spiel 2010 combined with my overall limited time free to play games, it would take a lot for me to bring this to the table again. Hopefully, the re-written ruleset will make the experience better (and quicker) in the future – and I hope it does because I do think that there could very well be a good or great game described within those rules. And if there is, hopefully someone will figure it out and tell me, because I'm not likely to try it again otherwise as I was so frustrated by my initial attempts to play the game. I would certainly recommend to anyone who wants to try the game for the first time to read the 5-part tutorial on BGG, or better yet, wait until the new translation is available.

Until your next appointment,
The Gaming Doctor

Monday, December 20, 2010

Boardgame News Moving to BoardGameGeek

Now it can be told: Starting in January 2011, Boardgame News will disappear as a standalone site to be reborn as part of BoardGameGeek. Perhaps you've heard of this site?

I will be News Editor for BGG, and BGN will run on a new blogging set-up that Aldie, Dan and the BGG coding crew are building. A news module will be incorporated into the BGG front page, with headline-style links to the news articles, game announcements, columns, etc.

My focus as news editor will be on game announcements, game previews, interviews, designer diaries, industry news and game-related articles. I'll be pulling together this info for convention previews, too, and Gone Cardboard will reappear in a new form down the road.

Many thanks to Scott and Derk for making a place for me and Boardgame News. We had chatted about this-and-that over the years, and I felt they were good people – yes, even Derk – so when BGN ran into a ditch in November 2010, I decided to approach them to see whether they could help out. They generously made a place for me, freeing me from having to worry about technology, advertising, donations and all the rest of the stuff that was taking time away from writing – freeing me, in other words, from all the things I'm terrible at so that I can focus on what I do best. Sounds like a good deal to me. Hope that you'll agree when the news starts flowing again on BGG in January 2011...


Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Kramer, Kiesling & Alea Bring Back King Arthur

Stefan Brück has released a bit of info about the alea title to follow Die Burgen von Burgund – currently scheduled for a late February 2011 release in Germany – and for the first time in many moons Stefan Feld's name will not be on the box of an alea release. Instead the dynamic design duo of Wolfgang Kramer and Michael Kiesling will present König Artus und die Tafelrunde, aka "King Arthur and the Round Table".

König Artus (2-4 players, ages 9+) will be a medium-sized game rating 2-3 on the alea difficulty scale. Brück says that the game attracted him due to its high replay appeal, with that appeal being due to the game's exceptional playing mechanism. The game will include two levels of difficulty.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Gaming Quote for the Day

From Haruki Murakami's Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World:

The Colonel nods, then glares again at the board. The tides of fortune have almost swept victory to the old officer's feet. Even so, he does not rush into the fray as he compounds stratagem on strategem. For him, the game is not to defeat the opponent, but to challenge his own abilities.

The Past and Future of Boardgame News

" has been down since Nov. 30, 2010. That's a long time, Eric. What's going on with the site, and will it ever return?"

Glad you asked, faithful or occasional BGN reader. I upgraded my hosting service in mid-November 2010 due to continued slowness with the site. Surely throwing $1,000/year at the problem will solve everything, right?

Wait. Back up. Let me start earlier.

In March 2010, Cloudberry Games' Rustan Håkansson approached me about designing a new site for Boardgame News. I had recently unveiled a refreshed site that featured stark plains of white and some streamlining in the content featured, while not being appreciably different in content or more importantly the amount of backend work needed to do anything. Creating the members-only Spiel preview, for example, required me to post game announcements up to three times: once on the site proper, again in Gone Cardboard for items from North American publishers, and a third time in the preview itself, adding details for playing time and links while using HTML coding. Normal game announcements also required posts in two places: Gone Cardboard and the announcement itself. Maintaining the members only aspect of the Spiel preview required me to adjust the status of users based on whether they had paid, along with sending out reminders to them to make said payments.

I recognized that various technological doodads would allow me to automate many things, but learning these skills or paying someone else for access to their skills was out of the question. As part of the March 2010 redesign I decided to drop the premium content to remove some of the busy work involved with running the site. Instead I would employ a steady campaign of harassment and shame to encourage donations from readers. Not really the best option, but I could experiment for a year, then decide what to do.

That last thought, by the way, matches my approach to everything related to Boardgame News: experiment, then decide what to do. I never did something and thought, "There. I'll never have to touch that again." Every aspect of the site was open to change, ostenisbly for improvement but determining whether something was improved or not was often, um, determinable only after putting the change into effect.

So Rustan approached me and said, hey, the redesigned site is a nice change but how about something really new? In his mind I had switched American cheese for Swiss, and he had a suggestion for a whole new type of sandwich, so to speak. He showed me examples of what he had in mind, took a list from me of what I wanted to be able to do, then got to work. I wanted to debut the new site by July 1 to time it with the debut of the Spiel 2010 preview. Rustan was reluctant to agree to this date, but eventually he fell for my charms and said he'd do what he could.

The new site launched on July 7, after I badgered Rustan to finish a few things so the site could go live and I could stop double-posting on the existing BGN site as well as the spiffy new Drupal one. Rustan had created a modern site that allowed me to use tags in a release date field to automatically have games show up on Gone Cardboard or convention previews. Very nice! And users could create customized buy/try/look lists that would be printable down the road. Plus each user now had profile pages, and the image picker would make uploading and posting images a far easier process. So much better than the old site!

Problem was, Rustan was used to designing for companies with money, money that buys tons of server space. While everything worked beautifully in our months' long test run, once the site went live, the number of viewers and posters started bogging things down. How dare you readers spoil the usefulness of this beautiful site!

Rustan was also now busy with his (paying) job, so naturally he had to focus on his (paying) clients, but he still generously spent time paring away features to lower the amount of resources needed for the site. I also upgraded from a shared server to space in a dedicated one. Things looked good for a while, but as I added more and more titles to the system, everything slowed to a drip of data, to the point that users were better off logging out so as not to have the system cross-referencing games to their (possibly non-existent) buy/try/look lists. These lists also formed the basis for a "hot list" of games in Gone Cardboard and the Spiel preview, and this cross-referencing also slowed the site. Rustan cut this aspect of the site as well, yet the slowness continued, with the CPU available to me on the server being 90-100% filled all the time.

Finally, in mid-November 2010 I bowed to the need for paying for more resources and doubled the amount of space I had on the dedicated server. Yes! Pages started loading faster, columnists could post material more easily, the image picker didn't take a minute to open. Things looked good.

Then on Nov. 30 everything stopped. The site just flat out went nowhere. I rebooted the server, and it worked for a few minutes, then stopped again. Rebooting more did nothing. I asked my host for help, but my host – who unbeknownst to me was a do-it-yourself type of place – said this was my responsibility. I had upgraded my account, and therefore I needed to adjust the settings myself to maximize the server space I had rented. I cursed at them a fair amount, and eventually someone led me through the process. The problem remained. A rep at the host checked IP logs and discovered a few IPs hitting BGN dozens of times at once; he led me through the firewall process for blacklisting them. The problem remained. I continued to check the IP logs and blacklisted more IPs; the problem remained.

The snag turned out to be memory issues, in which the available memory would be completely used within minutes of rebooting the site – even when IPs were hitting BGN at an expected rate, even when no one was using the site. Neither Rustan nor I had made any changes to the site prior to the emergence of this problem, but here we were. So.

My host is useless, and I am equally useless, lacking the technical skills to figure out what might be the problem in the site design. Worse, I can't log in to the site due to a lack of memory (duh), so I can't attempt to change the site design to strip even more things out to at least make it possible to post something to tell people why I can't post anything. A modern dilemma to be sure. A human in prehistoric times would respond to this situation by throwing the computer against the wall. That same impulse lives in me, too.

(Rustan, by the way, is not useless. He is rather a capital fellow and has offered advice while traveling and otherwise completely consumed with his normal work. I'm grateful for the chance to have tried something different and wish I had thousands of dollars to spend on servers to keep the experiment going.)

Several BGN readers have offered technical assistance, and while I appreciate the offer, rather than continue down this path – with a website more advanced than I can manage, living the Peter Principle that I first discovered in a crummy Avalon Hill game decades earlier – I've decided to experiment with something new. (Surprise!) After all, with the time spent on various technical issues, not to mention soliciting ads, holding donation drives, handling payments, and tackling other non-writing-related tasks, I figure I'm spending half my time on things that don't involve me posting material for you to read – and since writing is what I'm actually skilled at, better that I find a solution that will allow me to focus on research and writing while someone else handles the money and worries about the technical end of things.

That solution is largely in place, and Boardgame News will return sometime in January 2011, if not sooner. More details on this solution soon.