Sunday, January 4, 2015

How I Buy Board Games

How I buy Board Games

Those who know me well, know that I rarely pay full price for anything. I believe if someone is selling it, then someone else is selling it for less. :-)  Board games are no exception. Board games can be very expensive.  And yet, if you compare it to a video game, it's not unreasonable, considering the replay value of a good board game and that it entertains a group of people at a time.


Spending a lot of money on a good board game will never be regretful. However, spending even a little money on a bad one can make you want to put the game to the fire. So research is key. It's not enough to simply look at top-ten lists, as your own personal preferences, play style and group are going to guide what works for you.  Obviously actually playing the game is the best way to know if you should buy it (many shops rent games or host game nights). But if that option isn't readily available to you, then here are a few online resources.

Reading about board games is difficult at best, and some of the worst (*cough* geek dad *cough*) simply go through the rules of the game. If you're looking for the rules, you can download them for pretty much any game straight from the publisher's site -- which I also recommend you do before purchasing the game.

But mostly, I prefer video reviews. Mostly. Aliens reference! The best video research sources that I know of are:
  • Watch It Played: There is simply no better, more complete and comprehensive review of board games anywhere online. Rodney does a fantastic job of delivery and his reviews are very thorough. However, for this reason, his reviews can often be very long, often multiple parts and you might not have the patience for it, if it's your first exposure to the game. That said, once you've decided to invest in a pricey game, I highly recommend checking to see if there's a Watch It Played series for the game, and watch it entirely. It will ensure you're making the right decision, and also will teach you how to play the game.  Context helps when faced with a thick instruction manual! I also have to mention, as a natural non-smiler, Rodney's persistent smile is to be envied! :-)
  • Starlit Citadel: Kaja and Joanna are a close second favourite of mine when it comes to online video reviews. They give a great overview of the rules and gameplay, and also offer up intelligent opinions without judging for you. They'll tell you if the game is slow to set up, good for younger gamers, etc... but they won't outright say it's a bad game. It's good information, a low time investment and a good summary to introduce you to the game.  The videos are also very well produced with good shots of the game components.  Joanna and Kaja have fairly diverse opinions regarding genres and styles of games, so you usually get a good contrast.
  • The Dice Tower: Now if opinions are what you're looking for, you will find no shortage of them at The Dice Tower. Of the three sources I'm listing here, The Dice Tower has possibly the worst reviews, the worst video quality, the worst explanations and the most opinions. That said, I respect people that don't sit on the fence. Luckily, you can often get conflicting opinions among the various reviewers at The Dice Tower. I tend to use these videos to highlight aspects of a game that I should watch out for. So if Tom Vasel says a game plays slow and has low quality components, I'll be sure to research that further (perhaps via one of the other video sources).  But I do appreciate the experienced opinions that these guys offer.
Why is TableTop not here? Well, as much as I love Wil Wheaton, the signal to noise ration on TableTop is a net loss for me. I rarely get anything useful out of those videos when compared to the others, so I will only watch them if I have no other choice.

I can usually find popular games on at least one of the review sites above, but when I can't there are a number of other great reviewers on YouTube. They vary in quality, but they usually get the job done. The point here is: do your research. Don't trust star ratings on Amazon or Board Game Geek to make your decision for you. 

Where and When to Buy

Now for the tricky part. And I apologize to my American friends, this is mostly specific to Canada. The good news is, in the US, you generally get the games cheaper and with lower shipping costs, so you don't need my help!

Shipping is the killer. Plain and simple. Games are made of cardboard and paper -- and often lots of it. They're also big, sometimes bigger than they need to be (Android Netrunner, I'm looking at you).  And mailing anything in Canada these days just seems to be unusually costly.  Big country, not a lot of people... I guess we have to take the good with the bad.

So what do you do? Well, volume helps.  Brick and mortar stores have to make a profit. They do so by getting wholesale cost of the games initially (probably with some distribution middle-man markup), and they buy in bulk, so they save on the shipping.  Still though, as much as I'd love to support my local hobby shop, most of them don't offer the kinds of loyalty programs that they should to earn my repeat business. 

With that, let's get the elephant out of the way:
  • Amazon. Do not buy games from Amazon. I'm a huge fan of Amazon, but when it comes to board games, there are few worse places that you could buy. The prices are often higher than brick and mortar shops (at least in Canada). So don't buy from there, unless you must. The only time I did, was to purchase a very rare out of print game from Germany via a retailer who had an Amazon store. And it was pricey... 
  • The Sentry Box (Calgary): This is basically Disneyland for tabletop gamers. They have everything. And I mean, if it's in print, or even if it's ever been printed, they probably have it. That said, they also have a lot of floor space, a downtown location, a lot of employees and the prices to match. The Sentry Box's prices are fair, I won't say that they aren't. In fact sometimes cheaper than online alternatives and almost always cheaper than Amazon(!). Still, I will only buy the rarest of finds from The Sentry Box. I really wish they had a loyalty program. Or perhaps they do, and it's simply the most exclusive an poorly advertised loyalty program in existence. But as it stands, to buy from Sentry Box you will generally pay list price or higher. They also have quite possibly the worst website in the business...  
  • Revolution Games (Calgary): This is the local brick and mortar shop I choose to support most of the time.  Their store is a tiny little hole in the wall, but is somehow often more comfortable to look through than other large shops. They carry a ton of stuff, and they have good insight in what to carry. It's rare that I can't get what I'm looking for, despite their limited shelf space compared to Sentry Box or others.  Most importantly, their prices are very good, usually better than Sentry Box, and they have a 10% per $100 loyalty program. In Board Game terms, that's like 2 games. Good enough for me! That's all I'm looking for. So if I only need to buy one game, and I don't have a bulk order in mind (see below), I will buy from Revolution first. I should also mention that their staff are great, and the owner is absolutely fantastic. Very helpful, insightful and a gamer himself.  They have a surprisingly good website, with a search that actually works.
  • Myth Games (Calgary): Myth Games is a bit of an odd duck. they have a decent amount of floor space, but very low stock. They do have a decent amount of LARPing equipment if you're into that.  But most of the time they just don't have what I'm looking for. However, they often have very good blowout sales (their boxing day sale was better than any other online or brick and mortar that I know of).  I've probably bought more stuff that I don't need from Myth Games than anywhere else (other than Steam perhaps).  But more importantly, they often get the latest stuff first. I don't know how or why, but it seems to me that they have a very good supplier and I see new stuff on their shelves before anyone else.  So I've bought a fair amount there. They also have a decent loyalty program similar to Revolution Games, although with multiple tiers that I don't have time to remember or understand. But for the most part, I treat it as the same 10% per $100 type program.  Their website is little more than a business card.
  • Starlit Citadel (Online, Canadian): Sometimes to save money you have to spend money.  With Starlit Citadel, you can often get board games at wholesale prices and with free shipping, as long as you spend $175 or more. I keep a wish list of board games that I intend to buy (as I'm sure many gamers do). Once I reach a critical point of needing/wanting/must have a certain number of games, I'll place a big order with Starlit Citadel. Usually it takes about 5 games in total to get to $175 (unless you're buying all big ones, but often I am not).  Sure it's online, and you have to wait and stuff, and they're often out of stock... but the savings often amount to a significant amount. It's not uncommon to save %30, which means with a purchase of 5 games, you're getting one or two of them for free.  But remember, don't rush your purchases. Be sure to research and try out games that you are interested in before buying. If you recall from the research section above, Starlit Citadel hosts those reviews as well. This place has my number.  Needless to say, their website rocks:

These are my own experiences and opinions. Please don't take the omission of your favourite store or site as an offence. But please do share your own recommendations in the comments section.


Saturday, April 5, 2014

An Awesome Budget Standing Desk

It's been six months since I built my standing desk, and I have to say: I'll never go back.  My latest setup is shown in the photo above.  The two photos that follow show the desk in various angles and stages.

I started with this design:

I modified it mostly for safety.  With all of my tweaks, I probably spent around $100 (not including the base Galant desk itself).  In the original design, I have no idea how they keep it from tipping over.  So, I built what's in that doc, but:
  • Used only bolts, no screws (other than for the keyboard tray).  The Lack table is hollow, so screws are not very secure.  Home Depot had bolts of a perfect length.  I recommend using washers to avoid crushing the Lack's hollow wood legs.
  • I bolted L brackets to the back legs to act as mount points.  
  • I used mini-vices to mount the brackets to the table. These are cheap at Home Depot. I think they look neat and they also act as additional cable management!
  • I padded all feet and brackets so as not to damage the table underneath (so it's a low commitment if you don't like it).  
  • I also used non-slip material between the padding and the desk, such that the combined effect is a stable, non-slip, quiet structure.
  • Later I added the second Lack table for another monitor. I didn't need to secure it, as it doesn't physically interact with anything else. 
  • Finally, I also added extra legs (not shown) to my Galant desk. The default Galant uses T-legs (seen below), which can rock when significant leverage is applied. You'd be surprised how much leverage you can generate while simply typing.  So I bought a couple of additional adjustable legs from Ikea (this links to chrome, I found them in a color that matched the Galant legs in the store).  I added them to the front of the desk. I didn't need to screw them in, as when tightened appropriately with some non-slip material between, the pressure holds them in place and keeps the desk from rocking and made everything more stable.  

I found that even the best commercial standing desks can suffer from "wobble". With this design, the key is to get monitors with really good stands -- preferably ones that adjust! The dual high-end BenQs shown in the top picture are excellent.  I suppose my reasoning is that if I'd rather spend $1000 on monitors than on a desk.

While standing, I wear Crocs (but never outside of my house).  I also have a balance board and a foam balance pad. I can easily swap between standing surfaces by kicking them out of the way.  Changing surfaces and footwear throughout the day is key to remaining comfortable. I also have a drafting chair, although I never really use it.  One of the most surprising things about switching to a standing desk is that I rarely have the desire to sit.

  • Cheap, cheap, cheap.
  • Totally customized for individual preferences.
  • Properly offset monitor and keyboard tray. Many retail standing desks center the keyboard tray relative to the center of the both monitors, which makes no sense. You want one monitor directly in front of you and the other off to the side (right or left). Google images for "standing desk dual monitors" to see some bad examples.  Here's an example of what you do NOT want:
  • Added bonus is that the 2nd level that the Lack desk creates above the keyboard tray is incredibly useful. I use it to hold my drawing tablet, as well as tea cups, pens, notepads etc.
  • Multi-level design. While the lack of adjustability is a con, it creates the opportunity to organize lots of stuff vertically. I have my laptop and a laser printer under the monitors, as well as a USB hub and all my cables etc.
  • Not easily adjustable. I have two of those red shelves, so I can adjust 1cm up or down fairly easily. And my monitors have adjustable stands.  Otherwise I vary height by standing on different things (which is beneficial anyway).  However, if you share this desk or computer with someone else (who isn't a clone of you), then this becomes a major consideration. 
  • If you're taller than 5' 10", I don't recommend this design. I'm exactly 5' 10", and I think some of the design limitations of the parts used here would make it less ideal for taller people.
  • Finding a drafting chair that's tall enough. You need a surprisingly high chair to match the height of the desk. This is where adjustment would be beneficial. Although, shorter people will have a much easier time with this.   
  • Tweaking. I tweaked mine for a couple weeks after I built it. For example, I added the non-slip material to stop the legs from moving around etc. Minor, but worth noting.
  • For the first week or maybe two, you'll be sore and unconvinced that standing is a good thing. For me it was my trapezius and shoulders that needed to adjust to "not slouching" or "persistently shrugging" (check your shoulders right now, are they up around your ears?) :-)
Standing... but not still. Keep Active.

The key is to listen to your body, but don't give up on standing.  Find different footwear and standing surfaces that you can easily swap throughout the day.  And don't stand too still! Be active. The balance boards, pads and some music go a long way to keeping you moving throughout the day. Just like with sitting, be sure to take breaks, stretch out, watch your posture etc.

Another Con for Gamers:

This may be a minor point for some people, but if you use your computer for both work and gaming, you may find that standing has less appeal while playing many games. When you just want to chill out and play some Bioshock Infinite or Skyrim, you may find that you're less interested.  A primary contributing factor is that you could potentially end up standing for 18 hours... too much of a good thing. So if you have the space to have your gaming machine at a separate desk, I would recommend it. Luckily for League of Legends fans, I don't think you'll have a problem, because LoL is more like work than it is like gaming, so I've had no reduction in LoL time. This gaming factor may make a stronger case for a more expensive commercial power-adjustable desk.

Overall I'd say standing desks are worth it, regardless of which solution you choose. This is a cheap way to try it out before spending thousands on a big heavy piece of furniture. Currently I have no plans to "upgrade", but I'd say any such desk is worth the money. Just watch out for those commercial models with the keyboard tray centered between two monitors. That's a deal breaker IMHO.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Fast-Play House Rules for Talisman

Talisman is one of my favorite board games. However, it is heavily criticized for being too heavily based on random chance (dice rolls) and it can be a bit of a grind.  These are not good qualities for any game, but somehow Talisman remains a popular title. It must be doing something right!

The great thing about Talisman is that it's fairly easy to adapt with house rules to make it both more strategic and faster to play. This works especially well with my younger boys (5, 7, 9), who all love the game. As much fun as we've had playing it, we rarely play through all the way to the crown of command.  Instead, we often end up deciding on some other goal, and now we've come up with a system that we think we'll use as our standard house rules for a relatively short game, that is still a lot of fun. It will quench your Talisman thirst while avoiding the grind.

  • Talisman 4th Edition, Revised
  • Reaper Expansion -- this is a must for any Talisman owner.  The Reaper is cool, but the extra adventure cards and the Warlock quest cards are essential.
Reducing Randomness, Increase Strategy - but just a little!
  • As usual, a player may choose to spend a fate token to re-roll a move roll.  However, we've augmented this to allow the player to optionally choose to move one space instead of re-rolling (still at the cost of a fate token).  This helps to avoid having to bounce back and forth while you try to land on that one key spot. As long as you land within one space of your destination, you can be certain that at the very least, you'll get there on your next turn. This also makes fate tokens somewhat more valuable, and thus changes how quickly you might choose to spend them.
Winning the Game: Talismans, not Crowns

The game is called Talisman, but all a Talisman really does is gain you entry to the true goal: the Crown of Command. By far the most grinding part of the game is the Inner Region.  It's kind of a boring, serial trek through either tests of craft or tests of strength.  It's also possible for someone to really make you mad by stealing your Talisman at the last minute!

So we've decided to ignore the inner region altogether for fast-play games.  Instead we make the goal all about winning the most Talismans.  
  • Each player starts the game with one Warlock quest card.  To fulfill his quest, he must still report to the Warlock (middle region), at which point he gains a Talisman and another quest card.
    • There are four talisman cards available to be earned this way.  However, there are other ways these Talismans can be acquired, thus exhausting the pool faster.
    • A player who doesn't like his quest, or finds it too difficult, can head to the city to discard it to the bottom of the quest pile and draw a new random quest (like a town job board).
  • There are also 3 Talisman cards in the adventure deck (total of 7 Talisman cards), which makes it that much more interesting.
  • The game ends when the four specific Talisman cards are exhausted, regardless of whether or not any or all of the adventure deck talisman cards have been found.
  • The player with the most Talisman cards wins. In the event of a tie, you can either just call it a  draw, or continue to sudden death until someone either steals or wins a Talisman from another person, or draws a Talisman from the adventure deck.
The pace of the game seems really nice.  The strategy is interesting, as some characters will focus on completing quests, while others focus on either stealing or bullying Talismans away from other players. While you might think a class like the Thief could be over-powered, knowing this means that the Thief will likely be running for his life in the early game, as smart opponents will want him gone quickly!  This also means that a particular spell that steals an object (including a Talisman) from a player is not nearly as depressing as losing it while you're half-way to the Crown of Command.

Another interesting self-balancing aspect is that Talismans count as carried objects -- you can only have four.  If you've found yourself without a mule or any other means of augmenting your maximum carrying capacity, you might find that you have to make a critical decision to keep that fancy magic sword that makes you strong, or the Talisman that wins you the game!  So the greater success a player finds, the harder it may become to maintain that success.

We also found that the outer and middle regions are used much more, as we often found ourselves travelling back and forth between them, even at lower levels.  This doesn't happen as much in a regular Talisman game, as you typically don't seek the middle region until you intend to head for the Portal of Power.

Side Note: Those Cone Counters

The most annoying thing about the Revised 4th Edition of Talisman is the "cone counters".  These are the counters used to keep track of your Strength, Craft and Life points.  I find them hard to manage and deal with at a glance.  At a distance, one can easily mistake a 5-point cone with a 1-point cone.  Worse, the 1-point cones fit inside the 5-point cones, opening up the potential for accidentally hiding or granting an extra point if you're not careful.  

To remedy this, I bought 3 sets of 12 six-sided dice (with pips, not numbers).  There's one set for each of the colors green, red and blue, matching Life, Strength and Craft respectively.  These dice are far easier to manage than the tokens, they take up less space, and they're easily distinguishable from the gold dice that are used for regular rolling.  Check out the example image to see how much more clear the d6 approach is (see previous image for actual usage in the character card layout).

Overall these adjustments have given new life to Talisman in our house.  It's a much more fun and exciting game that eliminates the grind and gets to interesting action right away.