Monday, 27 February 2017

Feeling Blue (the Shearer)

One of the great sadnesses of being away from the homeland for a long time is missing out on all the little bits and pieces of Australian news that don't make it into the media here in Britain. I gather the big stuff and a lot of political nonsense from my social media feeds and from my too-rare forays into internet radio, but all too often I miss things that I really would have liked to have known about, particularly things that touch on some of my more fringe interests that I don't share with that many of my Facebook friends. The longer I'm here, the more I feel myself losing touch with the little things that made up my identity as an Australian.

Yesterday, while hunting for the words for the next verse of a half-remembered poem (What joy! What retribution! All that blood and gore. Armless, legless, headless corpses, strewn around the floor...), I realised that the author of that timeless little number and countless others, and a familiar voice from many years of listening to my ABC radio, Col Wilson, died earlier this month at the grand old age of 89. And I didn't even know! Boom, right in the feels.

'Blue' was one of that dying breed, in the CJ Dennis mould, that we know fondly as 'bush poets', a doggerilist of the highest order who pumped out verse after rhyming verse for years and never seemed to run out of ideas. There was no air of superiority, no pretensions, rarely a change of meter, just a sharp wit, a keen eye for irony, and an authentic, down-to-earth voice that I've always appreciated and today feel bereft without. Blue would write poems about silly little every day conversations, his kids, politics, whatever came into his head. I first met his verses in the poetry collections that I used to devour whenever I got the chance (I grew up on rhyming verse, a pasttime that goes a long way towards explaining my fondness for folk music today), and then later I heard him weekly on the radio, and his thoughts were always a bit of fun and good for a laugh.

I don't know what else to say. I'll miss the old coot and his songs and I wish I had half his unashamed confidence in my own art. It seems only appropriate to leave the last word to Col and since I'm here in the UK there's really only one verse I could go with:

God save our gracious thong.
Keep our feet safe and strong,
And free from pong.
Wear them instead of shoes,
To pubs and barbecues.
Health, happiness to all of youse,
God save our thong.

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

H-Index Fixes Everything

The last few months have seen a serious dearth of creativity here at Leaflocker HQ, which not only explains the general lack of anything going on around this little corner of the internet but probably also explains why people have been spending a lot of time asking if I'm okay and generally checking up on me the last little while. With a lack of creativity comes an inability to write, an unwillingness to apply myself to any task that I don't have to, a general malaise that causes me to lie in bed too long and make the short British days even shorter, and a tendency to not say all that much as a product of not having very much that I find interesting to say.

Not devoting time to my usual beloved creative pursuits does leave more time for other things that don't require thinking too hard, and thus the last few months have seen a serious increase in the sheer amount of board games that I've been playing. Given that I just passed a little milestone in that respect, I thought this might be a good time to do a little writing on the topic and see if I can't get a little creative spark back into my life.

Back in September 2015 when I arrived in Oxford I joined the board games society and made regular acquaintance with people that obsessively logged their gaming experiences over on Board Game Geek. Back on January 1st 2016 I joined that strange group of people, and ever since I've carefully noted down details of each and every one of the 543 games that I've played, as well as dipped a toe in the perplexing world that is 'the hobby' in a way that makes my previous casual forays in that direction pale into insignificance.

This weekend, I hit an H-index of 12 since I started logging games. The H-index is a metric stolen from academia that in mundane use measures the number of different papers you've had cited, if you've had five papers published 5 times each, then your H-index is 5. It's designed to balance out folks who have lots of small papers that are rarely cited and or a few big, commonly-used papers in order to make some kind of measure of scholarly impact. The fact that we've such a measure to for use to track gaming activity is probably an indication of the type of person your average BGG user is.

Since I am apparently one of those people, I thought that it might be fun to run through the games that have brought me to this milestone just to get back into the habit of putting words onto a digital page again. Let's see how it goes.

H=1. 9/1/2016 - Ticket to Ride: Marklin (1)

Appropriately enough, the first game that I played after resolving to log my games has a good claim to be called my favourite. There are others games that have more strategic depth that I can get utterly lost in, but there's no game in the 45-90 minute range (the sweet spot) that I would ever prefer to play. I don't think I've ever turned down a game of TTR, and I find it perpetually entertaining after what I suspect is approaching about 100 plays, though at the time of writing I only have 13 in the last so many months. I recently acquired the app to allow me to try out some of the other maps, and while some of them are interesting puzzles, I find myself returning to my old faithful Marklin copy whenever I possibly can.

H=2. 31/1/2016 - The Grizzled (3), Ticket to Ride: Marklin (2)

The Grizzled, a gorgeous little co-operative game about a platoon of down-on-their-luck French infantrymen attempting (and mostly failing) to live through to the end of WWI, whose theme I just love and whose gameplay was interesting enough to keep me coming back, at least for a little while. Though I played three games of this one back-to-back while I was back in Australia on the 11th, it took another three weeks for me to play a second game of anything else, as it was a time of a lot of travel and activity and not a lot of time for gaming. When I did game in this time, there was always something new and exiciting to try, and most of those were relatively long Euro-style game that didn't lend themselves to immediately being played again.

H=3. 12/2/2016 - Istanbul (3), Forbidden Desert (3), The Grizzled (3)

While Marklin lay gathering dust in early February, I'd been getting heavy use out of my new acquisition, one that had been hurriedly thrust into my hands as I departed for the plane out of Australia back in January but that I'd wasted no time trying out. Thanks both to its great flexibility of working seamlessly with any player count from 2-5 and to my custom box for it looking more than a little bit intriguing, Istanbul is a nice little number that still boils along well with the games club, especially now that I've acquired the expansion to give it just a touch more variety and unpredictability than the base game had.

Forbidden Desert is one of the games on this list that I kind of wish wasn't on the list, as I'm not a big fan of this interesting but slightly clumsy cooperative number. It's not that I actively don't like it, it's just that I've got more interesting things to do with my time, especially since we played this exclusively in a Games Cafe surrounded by interesting games... However, my fellows wouldn't let it rest until we'd finally cracked the damn thing, so this saw quite a few games early in the year before dropping off the radar. I'm afraid my experiences with it have so put me off the concept that I'm still yet to play the college copy of the predecessor, Forbidden Island, but I suspect that I'll get to it eventually.

H=4. 30/3/2016 - Codenames (8), 7 Wonders (4), Finca (4), Istanbul (5)

We say goodbye to Forbidden Desert and The Grizzled, but instead welcome a couple of mainstays to the list. Codenames had been easily my most played game of the last part of 2015, so it was honestly surprising that it look this long to make it onto this list, but it would go on to lead the play count for the rest of the year. The ability to play it with wildly divergent player counts and have teams so that pretty much anyone can play, the fact that you can almost never just play it once, combined with the fact that I have access to three different copies so that there's almost always one to hand means that whenever we play games we almost inevitably play a few games of Codenames.

7 Wonders is one of those games that takes a long time to teach, and once you've explained all the rules still leaves people staring at you with betrayal in their eyes and suddenly regretting having agreed to play, but one that is ultimately pretty simple once you're able to get over that initial barrier to entry. It's rare for a fortnight to go past in which I don't play this at least once, as the expansions fill it out nicely and different players mean you're always having to adapt your strategies, and it doesn't take any longer with 7 players than it does with 3, which makes it an excellent candidate for game night when every one if sitting around and wondering what to play.

Finca is a surprise addition to this list, as while I'm a big fan of this fruit-trading, donkey-breeding extravaganza, I've really struggled to convince people around here that it's worth the investment of time. Thankfully though, persistence pays off, as I'm slowly building up a little fanbase as I find people willing to look past the frustration that this game can cause to see the joy of the possibilities. Probably not a big enough one to ever get this little favourite of mine back into the H-index list, but enough that I'm not going to suffer another drought of it again like I did after these plays in March.

H=5. 18/5/2016 - Paperback (5), Codenames (12), Istanbul (6), 7 Wonders (5), Ticket to Ride: Marklin (5)

TTR managed to force its way back into the list for this one, but the real new standout was Paperback, the letter drafting game that is almost exactly a combination of Scrabble and Dominion, and which I went straight out and purchased the night that I first played. By this point in the year, I was starting to think seriously about investing in games to bridge the gap between the old tired famil games that many of my college family were familiar with and the games that I was playing with the club, and this one just seemed like far too good an opportunity to pass up.

H=6. 29/6/2016 - Hey! That's My Fish (7), Codenames (18), Istanbul (9), 7 Wonders (8), Ticket to Ride: Marklin (7), Paperback (6)

With June came the UK Board Games Expo and a chance to considerably expand my collection by spending far more money than could really be considered sensible. I picked up a number of expansions and a few little games as well as a couple of big ones, but the immediate winner out of my new acquisitions has to be be the beautiful little Hey! That's My Fish, which despite its silly name and kiddy theme is actually an interesting little area-control abstract strategy game that is great to be able to pull out as a filler whenever you need something to get your teeth into a little bit, and which handily fits in your pocket once you've gotten rid of the absurdly large box (a practice that I've continued in the name of ease of transportation despite now actually having space to store game boxes if I wanted to).

H=7. 8/8/2016 - Hanabi (7), Codenames (31), Istanbul (9), 7 Wonders (8), Ticket to Ride: Marklin (8), Hey! That's My Fish (8), Paperback (7)

The second behemoth game of the year, and the start of a real acceleration of my gaming habits, came with the purchase of Hanabi while I was armed with cash and instructed to head down to my friendly local games store and purchase some titles to fill out the Brasenose College stash. From this point I added a second weekly games night to my repertoire, and Mondays at college became social gaming night, at a less intense level than Wednesdays, but with snacks. Hanabi went down a treat with this crowd, and though their interpretation of the 'no tabletalk' rule leaves something to be desired, I think we've become pretty competent players over the last few months. We should have, too, as we've played it an awful lot. We also bought Codenames at the same time, which partially explains the sudden jump in plays of that.

H=8. 19/9/2016 - Red7 (9), Codenames (36), Istanbul (9) , 7 Wonders (9), Hey! That's My Fish (9), Ticket to Ride: Marklin (8), Hanabi (8), Paperback (8)

Red7 is a fun little filler card game that I'd had all year and had been bubbling along just outside of the top echelon, but that really came into its own as an opener for college games night. When teaching this one I tend to play without the odd-number abilities and just play with the basics, but most people seem willing to make the step up after playing it just a couple of times. I always use the tagline 'If you're not winning, you lose', which never fails to get a confused grin from a new player.

H=9. 6/11/2016 - The Resistance (13), Codenames (61), Hanabi (32), Hey! That's My Fish (14), Red7 (12), Istanbul (11), 7 Wonders (9), Paperback (9), Ticket to Ride: Marklin (9)

Unfortunately, when your main weekly games night becomes more of a social gathering, then there's an increased chance of being forced to play social deduction games. I'm not a big fan of The Resistance or an other Werewolf-like game, but it is quite popular amongst the college crowd so these days I find myself being drawn into the occasional game, which I still prefer to sitting by myself in a dark room. This month in particular it seemed like the Resistance was always on the table, but thankfully the phase has passed and now it's more of a rare event.

H=10. 8/12/2016 -  Between Two Cities (11), San Juan (10), Codenames (65), Hanabi (49), Red7 (17), Hey! That's My Fish (14), Paperback (14), The Resistance (13), Istanbul (12), 7 Wonders (11)

As term winds up and the students suddenly vacate Oxford, those of use that are left behind find ourselves with a lot of time to get the important gaming stuff done, so we got down to a couple of days of pretty intense gaming action. For the most part, games that took lots of players were often the order of the day, so we ended up playing the Stonemaier Games number Between Two Cities, a game which I continue to believe is better than Sushi Go, despite the wider success of the latter. As you can see from this list, games that are toeing the boundaries of party games are definitely more popular around the college scene, but since college is basically one big party anyway, I guess that's no surprise.

For a brief period of two glorious weeks, San Juan, the card-game version of Puerto Rico and a long-time favourite of mine, was all the rage, being played at least 5 times in a single day (and only one of those even included me amongst the players). It was so popular that two further copies of the game had to be acquired as Christmas presents. Not bad for a game that's been out of print for a while now.

H=11. 9/12/2016 - Codenames: Pictures (11), Codenames (65), Hanabi (49), Red7 (17), Hey! That's My Fish (14), Paperback (14), The Resistance (13), 7 Wonders (13), Istanbul (12), Between Two Cities (11), San Juan (11)

It only took a single day to get from H=10 to H=11. I wasn't kidding about this being a hectic time for board games. We also played quite a few games of Codenames: Pictures, bumping it up into the list in extremely short order after it was acquired. Most people around about these parts seem to prefer to the original, though I myself think the wordy version is ever so slightly superior.

H=12. 4/2/2017 - Ticket to Ride: Marklin (12), Codenames (66), Hanabi (59), Red7 (22), The Resistance (17), 7 Wonders (17),  Paperback (16), Hey! That's My Fish (15),  Between Two Cities (14), Istanbul (13), Codenames: Pictures (13),San Juan (12)

To hit twelve this last weekend, I taught a couple more of my friends to play Ticket to Ride, restoring it back to its rightful place on this list. H-13 seems likely to be a long way away though, as I've got no likely looking party games lurking on the horizon, and the nearest games are languishing all the way back at 8. I think the most likely options are a little game like Micropul suddenly becoming popular around college or my finding some people around to play regular games of Chess or Mahjong with. I wouldn't be surprised to find that the gap between H=12 and H=13 is the longest gap yet, but the thought isn't going to stop me playing games.

With that in mind, I'm off to games club.