Good Portsmanship

Contest theme: Good Portsmanship. In the spirit of free and open source software and culture, every entry must be a translation, or "port", of an existing game to the piecepack. While this may seem like a mechanical exercise at first glance. there is plenty of room for the game designer's talents. Read on...

Here are the rules for the contest.

Competing Entries

GameBased on
TheColonistsOfNatickThe Settlers of Catan Card Game
HumanHarvestAtta Ants and expansions
Pub sCrawlSenet
Sonic Bio-Mutants in SpaceHoliday
Take Off, EhEl Grande
TheWanderingMerchantMerchant of Venus

Noncompeting Entries

GameBased onAuthor
TileThirteenPiecepack community game design competitionsRonHaleEvans
WindFarmsPower GridPhillip Lerche

Contest Results

WINNER OF THE GOOD PORTSMANSHIP CONTEST: TheColonistsOfNatick, a port of The Settlers of Catan Card Game, by GaryPressler

RUNNER-UP: ShoppingMall, a port of MarraCash, by MichaelSchoessow and StephenSchoessow.

Congratulations to Gary, Michael, and Stephen! I'll be sending the contest prizes to Gary ASAP. I'll also try to come up with a little something for Michael and Stephen.

It took me longer to judge this contest than I thought, largely because in many cases I had to play two games instead of one: the contest entry, and an original that was unfamiliar to me. So, I apologise, and here's the feedback on the games. (I hope to have feedback on the noncompeting games as well later.)

As ClarkRodeffer said recently, authors receiving feedback should be prepared to take a little vinegar with their honey (or vice versa). Game authors are encouraged to request even more detailed feedback, which I will be happy to provide as time permits in private e-mail or on the list. Practically all the games that didn't win qualify as "good fixer-uppers", and in my opinion can be turned into darn fine games with a bit more playtesting, feedback, and tweaking. Make no mistake, this is a good batch of games.

If there is one common problem, it's that the entry rulesets tend to be hard to understand and need to be better organised, preferably with tables and player aids. I realise it might have been somewhat unclear how to do this within the plain text / Markdown constraint of the contest. However, I do encourage the authors to streamline their rules, add player aids, and so on, when polishing them for formal release.

I don't know who the authors are as I write this. When I'm done, this message will go to Marty Hale-Evans for an edit pass, and then to Meredith "The Eradicator" Hale, who will add the authors' names and send it to the piecepack list.

Finally, if the authors would be kind enough to drop me a note and say whether it's OK for me to web-publish a PDF of the contest version of their rules while they're working on the release version, I would greatly appreciate it.

Now on to the feedback.

1. WINNER: TheColonistsOfNatick, a port of The Settlers of Catan Card Game, by GaryPressler. This game is solid, playable, and well-presented, the stand-out winner of the contest. It hums along like a little sports car; in the marketing jargon of the computer industry, it "just works". The "San Marco" (I divide, you choose) mechanism for selecting events from dice is a welcome improvement on the original game. It is the most "piecepacky" of the contest entries (with the possible exception of Pub sCrawl), and makes ingenious use of its single-piecepack constraint. One of my playtesters suggested opening the game up to more than two players by using more than one piecepack. I'm not sure I agree with that, but the author does mention the possibility of an expansion using a seasonal piecepack, and I look forward to that a great deal.

2. RUNNER-UP: ShoppingMall, a port of MarraCash, by MichaelSchoessow and StephenSchoessow. Although we had some rules questions for the author, this is another game that pretty much "just works" as presented. Everyone who played it enjoyed it, and most of us agreed it was an improvement on the original. Indeed, I tend to think of it as Fischer Random MarraCash, because the random setup fixes a problem with the static layout of the original game's board in the same way that Bobby Fischer has tried to overcome the modern dependence on book openings with Fischer Random Chess. Nor is that the only improvement to the game; there are many. There is an "improvement" we never used, and that's the one in which you can exchange managers between different stores you own in the mall. After some analysis, we agreed that this was probably because the game is a little too short, so tempo is everything, and you can't waste a turn action not making money. Pretty easily fixed by adding a few more customers (pennies), we thought. Finally, ShoppingMall could use a bit of zazz. The theme is a little drab. It makes perfect sense, but the game could have taken a tip from Take Off, Eh and added some funny colour text. Even renaming it "Regional Manager" would lend a bit of humour. But overall, a splendid game.

3. GlobularCluster, a port of Tikal, also by MichaelSchoessow and StephenSchoessow. GlobularCluster is a fine, solid, playable, close port of Tikal. The only serious problem with this game is that it's too close a port of the original, and doesn't really improve on it significantly, unlike the winner and runner-up in this contest. Other, minor problems include the spacing of supernovas toward the end of the game, which needs some tweaking, and again, that the game is such a close port that players familiar with the original tend to muddle the themes, calling supernovas "volcanos", and so on. Nevertheless, one of my playtesters, for whom Tikal is a personal favourite, remarked that if he were going on vacation and didn't have room for Tikal, he would bring a piecepack and the rules to GlobularCluster. High praise!

4. Sonic Bio-Mutants in Space, a port of Holiday, by JonathanDietrich. First, a tip of the hat to the author for good taste in choosing a game to port: the forgotten classic Holiday, by Sid Sackson. The way the author ported the world-travel mechanic to rook-like constraint on a rectangular grid is ingenious and fascinating. However, it's also a little murky. Whereas Holiday has incredible clarity -- you always know which exotic location you want to jet to next -- Bio-Mutants often left players hemming and hawing. The ending is also somewhat anticlimactic and drags a bit. However, everyone who played it agreed that it had depth, and repeated play would probably be rewarded.

5. CroquetForPiecepack, a port of Croquet, by DanSmith. While the rules to this game need streamlining and better organisation, there is fun to be had after you get through them. The die-rolling mechanic to determine the success of a shot adds a lot to the fun; it seems to simulate superb players with terrible obstacles. One of my playtesters said he would rather see two or more dice used for more realistic odds, but I rather liked the one-die mechanic. It gives a springy, bouncy feel to the game that's not at all apparent from merely reading the rules. However, in the end, the rules are just too fiddly. They need a good edit pass. It's also interesting to note that CroquetForPiecepack is more of a simulation than a direct port, unlike every other game in the contest. It certainly took some imagination to port a lawn game, though.

6. Take Off, Eh, a port of El Grande, by ClarkRodeffer. "OK, so ten out of ten for style, but minus several million for good thinking, yeah?" -- Zaphod Beeblebrox. If games could win with theme alone, Take Off, Eh would leave the other entries coughing up blood in the dust. (Maybe the author was just pandering to the judge, since I enjoy Canadian comedy.) However, mechanics count too, and the mechanics to this game need more playtesting. One game of TOE! was enough to show there are some serious things wrong. In our game, for various reasons, the Queen hardly moved at all. Imagine if the King never moved in El Grande -- it would be a static, anticlimactic disaster for all players. We were all also put off by the incredible redundancy and clutter in the rules -- multi-page tables repeated multiple times at random intervals, and so on. The rules to this game are actually something like six or eight pages longer than the rules to the original when printed in the same typeface. The author jokes that the rules are redundant so they'll waste paper and support the Canadian lumber industry, but this is a case where form intrudes on function, and with respect to this bit of humour, my playtesters and I share the sentiment of the Queen: "We are not amused." Everyone who played agreed the game was fixable, however, and we have several suggestions.

7. TheWanderingMerchant, a port of Merchant of Venus, by JorgeArroyo. This game was pretty fun. One of my playtesters remarked he'd rather play it than the original. I might agree, once some basic problems are fixed. For example, the game claims to be for from one to eight players, but it can't support anywhere near that many. Every player needs a horse (Moon coin) to haul their cart, but there are only six Moon coins in the game, and some players can end up with more than one. Thus, the absolute maximum number of players is six, and even that many players will break one of the basic mechanics in the game, which is the competition for horses, since everyone will have just one horse and be unable to get another one. Another problem is with the theme of the game. The author transposed a science fiction setting of galactic trade to a fantasy setting, but while there are wizards and elves and dwarves and so on in the game, there's precious little magic. Why not set the game in the Wild West? They had carts and horses too. Summary: Has some basic problems, but will probably eventually be quite playable.

8. Pub sCrawl, a port of Senet, by JonathanDietrich. If Take Off, Eh is the thematic high point of the contest, Pub sCrawl is the low point. I personally found the theme, a drinking contest where players try to avoid vomiting on the steps of the frat house, distasteful to the point of causing me to procrastinate playtesting the game. However, when I actually played it, it was surprisingly enjoyable. The mechanics work quite well, especially for a roll-and-move game. They add some strategy to Senet with blind bidding for the initiative to move, and they speed Senet up with some mechanics borrowed from its descendant, Backgammon. The game also makes good use of the components of a single piecepack. This is the only port of an abstract game in the contest, and if it had stayed abstract, it would have scored a lot better. I would advise the author to lose the theme, and maybe reduce the number of rounds in the game (each round is equivalent to an entire game of Senet), or let the players decide how many rounds they will play. Removing or changing the theme would reveal another of the game's strong points: playtesters agreed that it would be an excellent game to play with kids, except for the inappropriate theme.

9. TempleOfGold, a port of Goldland, by JorgeArroyo. Another game that's basically OK, but badly needs more playtesting. The setup for the game is long and complicated, complicated even further by the fact that the setup rules are actually broken (they conflate the Suns and Summer suits once or twice, which caused much confusion). The rules need clarity, streamlining, and player aids, player aids, player aids (preferably with graphics). The treasure-finding "triangulation" mechanism is clever, but broken in at least two ways (the author did not seem to consider null tiles and edges). It would be nice if the game had a bit more intrinsic colour; it doesn't really stand well on its own but expects you to know all about what things are and why they work that way because you played the original game. As for Goldland itself as a choice of games to port, I enjoy it, but it tends to suffer from what I call the Golden Snitch problem (cf. Quidditch in the Harry Potter books): the only thing that really matters is getting to the Temple first, not the adventures you have beforehand. TempleOfGold seems to work (or not) the same way.

10. HumanHarvest, a port of Atta Ants and expansions, by ToddKrause. First, I think the choice of game to port here is brilliant. Atta Ants could have been an original piecepack game. The components map from Atta Ants to the piecepack nicely: tiles to tiles, ants to coins, and so on. That said, the game doesn't really gel. In the original game, the spiders move slower than the ants, so the ants can leave the nest and go foraging without constantly getting gobbled by spiders. In Human Harvest, the human militias (= spiders) move faster than the cyborgs (= ants), so the cyborgs are in a constant state of zugzwang ("Zugzwang means that one player is put at a disadvantage because he has to make a move — the player would like to pass and make no move."--Wikipedia). In short, it's never to the advantage of the cyborgs to leave the factory (= nest), and there is no rule (that we could find) that says you have to. I actually suspect that the author initially paraphrased the rules to Atta Ants and did a search-and-replace on them, because there's one place where the word "ant" is used instead of "cyborg". Anyway, I suspect this is a beginner effort, so please try again. Make the spiders slower! :-)

That's all! Thanks to Meredith "The Eradicator" Hale for all her help. Also, as usual, Marty Hale-Evans for her help and putting up with me. Thanks also to my playtesters Dave Adams, John Braley, Karl Erickson, Kisa Griffin, Mark Haggerty, Marty Hale-Evans, Gorm Nykreim, Mark Purtill, Tim "AlphaTim" Schutz, Chad Urso McDaniel, Steve Vallee, and Eric Yarnell.

--RonHaleEvans, 18 March 2007