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second-best since Cantor

Category: playing

Summary of RED TIDE sandbox-creation method for fantasy RPGs.

Kevin Crawford’s Red Tide (self-published under his personal imprint, Sine Nomine) is the best RPG sandbox-creation guide I know of: inspiring and evocative, yet succinct and laser-focused. The steps are step-sized. For new DMs in particular I think it’s unbeatable. Here’s Crawford’s high-level process for kicking off a sandbox campaign:

  1. Campaign folder: People, Places, Encounter, Chronicle, Maps (81)
  2. Create two home bases: city and borderland (83)
  3. Additional sites: court + ruin for each of two home bases (sufficient for first session)
  4. Generate initial adventure for group
  5. Between sessions: expand outward a few hexes from current location (84)

The golden rule

Don’t prepare it unless it is fun to make it or you expect to need it for the next session. (84)

Court sites

  1. Choose court type (e.g. noble court, extended family, business): in essence, the type of social network encountered (85)
  2. Define 1-3 people of importance (useful to have different levels of authority for varied PC access)
  3. Give each important person a couple of details and a power source
  4. Identify conflicts discoverable by PCs (e.g. adultery, treachery, theft) (86)
  5. Loose ends: what happens if conflict resolved? rewards? leadership changes?

Court types are listed on pp87-89.

Borderland sites

  1. Choose site type (e.g. estate, delve, village, etc.) (90)
  2. Select tags (92). Consider blending two
  3. Select sub-tags: Enemies, Friends, Complications, Things, Places (1+ of each)
  4. Determine services/available funds: most border sites have a smith. 2x prices for adventuring goods for outsiders. 20% of priests have minimal clerical powers, 10% of villages have 1st-lvl magic user. Most villages can buy 5gp of plunder per inhabitant; larger requires city.
  5. Where is nearest Cure Disease/Remove Curse/Raise Dead cleric?
  6. Stat up NPCs (Enemies especially)
  7. Rough map, more specific if fighting likely
  8. Couple of adventure hooks. Local colour important. Hint at tags to draw PCs in

Borderland tags are listed on pp93-102.


Crawford’s ‘tags’ might just as easily have been called ‘tropes’ or ‘setting elements.’ For an idea of the level of detail he finds useful, here’s a sample borderland site tag:

Corvee Demand

The settlement’s ruling authority demands that the locals perform some sort of labor for their rulers, providing their own food and shelter while at work. Most credit old customary laws requiring such service, but the laws may have fallen into disuse or be fabrications. Peasants hate corvee labor, as it takes them from their fields, and other settlements often resent the demand for their unpaid work.

Enemies: Grasping local official, Cruel corvee taskmaster, Greedy merchant who misdirects the labor to his own profit. Friends: Angry peasant elder, Historian who remembers the old laws, Magistrate who feels the labor is being misused. Places: Sullen labor site, Empty fields, Tavern with knots of angry men. Complications: The corvee is actually a legitimate demand, The corvee is being used to build some vital infrastructure, The corvee was supposed to be paid work. Things: The pay that was supposed to be given to the workers, Proof of the demand’s falsification, Evidence of corrupt redirection of the corvee labor

City sites

  1. Physical: 12K people reasonable, scale as you like. Walled. Water. Districts, internal walls. Local colour (104)
  2. Social: legal authority. Profession/class/ethnic/religious faultlines. Status of adventurers (105)
  3. Select tags — can be used per neighbourhood/district (105)
  4. Rumours/events per tag to act as hooks
  5. Sub-tags: Enemies, Friends, Complications, Things, Places (1+ of each)

City tags are listed on pp106-110.

Ruin sites

  1. Ruin type (e.g. delve, mine, wizard tower) (114)
  2. How was it ruined? (115)
  3. Choose 1+ inhabitants (116)
  4. Treasure available, twists (117-134)
  5. Stock the site (keyed map)
  6. Typical day? Expected reaction to PCs?

Antagonist groups are listed on pp117-134.

Echo, Resounding sandbox instructions

In An Echo, Resounding, Crawford presents more detailed instructions for building domains suitable for high-level play:

The following system of region generation is intended to allow you to create a large chunk of adventuring terrain in an afternoon, along with its corresponding political structure. You will lay down the major population centers, important ruins, significant monster or bandit lairs, and areas of vital resources. You’ll establish the major political domains in the area and pick out a half-dozen significant villains or antagonists that could serve to occupy more powerful PCs. By the time you’re finished, you’ll have a good bare-bones framework that you can then elaborate in the ways that you find entertaining or useful for your next session. (9)

The process generates a square-ish region 300mi on a side. Each location (village, temple, mountain pass) has Military, Wealth, Social values, traits (like mini-tags: origins, activities, etc.), obstacles to PC control (penalty to location values), and assets.

Here’s Crawford’s domain-savvy process:

  1. Pick a spot and start a map, 200-300mi to a side
  2. Place 1-4 cities (fewer for borderland) spaced out, 10-15K pop in each, near water (17-19)
  3. Place 4 towns per city, 1-2K pop (mercantile centers: villages, fisheries), can be further from major waterways. Blank spaces fine: there be dragons (orcs, plague, etc.) (17-19)
  4. Place 5 ruins per city (1-3 were major human habitations) (20-23)
  5. Place resources equal to number of towns, equidistant (23-24)
  6. Along each land/water route, place a lair near middle (‘the wicked and the bestial, dens for the bandits, monsters, renegades and savages that scourge the wilderness’) (25-28)
  7. Place 3-4 lairs w/access to remote or poorly defended resources
  8. Place lairs in barren areas
  9. Start naming locations and assigning each one traits
  10. Place obstacles: 1+ for each city, town, and resource (29-37)
  11. Optionally assign site tags from Red Tide to cities and towns (might inspire obstacles). This is almost certainly worth doing (RT93-102, RT106-110)
  12. Start outlining domains: unified polities. City-states, fiefdoms, priestly domains, etc. Choose settlements to be their capitals. Neighbouring pairs/triads to generate conflict
  13. Hall of infamy: pick a major regional danger (lich, tyrant, etc., expected capstone lvl of campaign)
  14. Place two name-level (lvl9ish) threats: criminal organizations, cults, major monsters. Attach to cities/lairs/ruins
  15. Place four mid-level perils: warbands, warlords, wizards, etc. Can attach to lairs — any lower-level threats don’t need to be placed in advance, since they’re local enough to be reasonable as surprises
  16. In play, remember to add repeat/significant locations to map

Detailed instructions for more realistic demographics (e.g. city/town pop are 5% of total in region) are found on pg16.

The process for fleshing out cities, towns, ruins, obstacles, and lairs expands on the Red Tide material: city/town origins and activities increase location values, and obstacles play on specific values. The domain management and mass combat rules take up about a quarter of Echo‘s 100+ pages, and a system for integrating PCs into the domain and combat systems takes another five pages. The balance of the book presents introductory material, helpful sandbox advice, and an evocative miniature setting (The Westmark) about 50×50 hexes.


Crawford’s sandbox systems emphasize simple gameable abstractions and story-building over, say, the well intentioned economic simulationism of Adventurer Conqueror King or the well intentioned accountancy of the Rules Cyclopedia, and his thumbnail geo/demographics bypass altogether the well intentioned ‘realism’ of Rob Conley’s method. And he can write!

Even better, every one of his medium/large products offers a comparable collection of tools for procedurally generating your own SF/F gaming materials. I recommend Stars Without Number, Other Dust, and his many supplements without reservation to ‘trad’ gamers of every experience and ability level.

Kudos to him.

Cubes or GTFO.

My son has gotten really into playing with his 2x2x2 and 3x3x3 Rubik’s Cubes — though I’ll note that they’re not strictly Rubik’s, but rather third-party cubes designed for speed-solving. They are in every respect better, I think, than the Rubik-branded cubes, and no more expensive.

My son’s six years old. He can now solve one face more quickly than I can, though he’s not yet pushing ahead to the next level of the problem, i.e. he doesn’t yet have an orderly approach to solving and isn’t interested in solving (e.g.) a ‘layer’ instead of a face. I’m interested but disorderly, though I’m a bit further along cubewise than he is. Still, I didn’t dive into trying to figure the Cube out for myself until I’d spent some time looking at algorithms — which isn’t ‘cheating’ if you’re interested in the Cube as magic rather than as party trick —

Speed-solvers look at the cube, figure out which series of steps to implement given the pattern of colours they see, then rapidly execute a kind of ‘macro’ from memory. It’s nothing like what you or I would do; the ‘solving’ part of the term ‘speed-solving’ refers to a kind of mastery of self rather than of the mathematical puzzle of the cube. Turns out I have no interest in that — the mystery of it, the sense of enormous complexity undone stepwise by brainpower, is what draws me.

So anyway I can’t solve a Rubik’s Cube without instructions and neither can my son, not yet, and I’ve determined empirically that following a strategy guide to solve the Cube is boring after the first or second time.


For those of you interested in getting better at solving a Rubik’s Cube but uninterested in the (to me) somewhat narrow task of ‘speed-solving,’ I recommend Douglas Hofstadter’s Scientific American columns on Rubik’s Cube, reprinted in his superb collection Metamagical Themas. (Link goes to full text at archive.org.) They’re light on low-level strategy but long on inspiration and analytical cleverness — fans of Hofstadter’s singular body of work already know what I mean, those new to his writing have a treat in store.

Bombs away!

‘Design philosophy’ is a smokescreen: initial point.

A habitual point-misser at rpg.net — a guy who was banned for threadshitting about a game he doesn’t seem to play, returned weeks later, and still can’t resist the urge to insert himself into every thread on that subject — said this in a thread about D&D 5th edition:

I just feel like there is a really deep, philosophical difference between what 4e does, within its niche, and what 5e does, within that same niche, and that it’s unusual for someone to like such significantly different takes within such a narrow space.

Maybe my issue is more that I see “I like 4e” as saying more than simply “when I play 4e, I have fun.” I see it as affirming support for a thing behind the game–hence my repeated references to design philosophy, and my comparison to a philosophical difference in literature. Because, by the latter definition, I literally like all TTRPGs I’ve ever played, because I’ve had fun while playing them. Even games I would never actually say I like.

He talked about Disney’s Sleeping Beauty and Game of Thrones, and about C.S. Lewis and Ayn Rand, and how he doesn’t understand how someone could claim to like both paired terms, for ‘philosophical’ reasons.

And I think this in response:

4e and 5e don’t do the same thing. They don’t really try. This is one source of your confusion. One is an anime-superpowers ‘cinematic’ fighty minis game, one is a streamlined modernish take on 80s D&D.

But even if they aimed at the same genre, there’s this: almost no one cares about ‘design philosophy,’ and talking about it (even on nerd fora) is often a smokescreen. The stable sensible adults I know don’t find it unusual at all to like very different takes on the same material. When I read Game of Thrones, I dig its vastness, its human-scale history, its grim postapocalyptic antiwar outlook, its conspiratorial complications. when I watch Disney’s Sleeping Beauty with my son, I dig its grand primary-coloured good’n’evil story, its desperation, the courage and terror and childlike wonder of it. I like The Wasp Factory and Catcher in the Rye (‘sourly funny adolescent works through emotional issues’ stories), I like Tolkien and Moorcock (and both understand and disagree with Moorcock’s ‘kill mommy’ bashing of Tolkien), I like Pynchon and the faintly embarrassing sub-Pynchon pretentious sex-comedy of Illuminatus!, I learn something from Tony Judt’s Euro-cosmopolitanism and John Gaddis’s unabashed USA-triumphalism, and none of the philosophical ‘contradictions’ between these works are as important as what I (you) take from them in the moment.

Justifying your affection for some popcult thing by talking about the ‘principles’ it embodies is the same lazy identitarian bullshit that


and if you can’t stretch yourself a tiny bit to see and enjoy things on their own terms, and to empathize with others doing the same even with texts you ‘don’t get,’ then don’t be surprised when sane sensible adults politely show you the door.

The deeper point here is that consumers who talk about ‘design philosophy’ are for the most part just borrowing hip terminology to mark themselves as above the material they don’t like. You get the same from the dilettantes and status-seekers in ‘Apple punditry’ and the gadget press, acting as if they’ve intuited the deeply admirable design principles behind a gadget which (coincidence!) happens to fill a need for them.

Fear of pleasure, lack of empathy, and ignorance about process: these are, you will hopefully be unsurprised to hear, problems. We will talk.

From the annals of brilliant marketing…

My 6-year-old son and I were at Pandemonium Books & Games today, poking around the X-Wing/Pokémon TCG stuff. While my son cavorted and browsed, I complained to the guy at the counter: ‘Pokémon isn’t a very good game.’

‘Nope.’ He looked kinda bummed out by the game’s popularity. I don’t blame him. Pokémon is fine for little kids, but it’s not very rewarding for grownups.

Me, wistfully: ‘But I feel like Magic is a little over our heads.’

‘It’s not.’ He said this without the tiresome, clueless, aggressive insistence that tends to characterize nerd-store employees. This endeared him to me.

He rummaged around the shelf behind the counter and brought out two ‘Welcome Deck’ boxes. Each contained two playable 30-card mini-decks. He handed them to me.

I was touched, not realizing that these are in fact the cleverest imaginable promotional items. The first taste, as they say, is free…

He said to come on back after we’d tried them out, and he’d rustle up the others (there are five such Welcome Decks, one for each of the game’s Land types).

As it happened, my son and I ended up visiting my wife — she’d spent the day working alone in her office, because she’s both (1) extraordinarily devoted and attentive toward her clients, genuinely desiring to help them out of a jam, and yet also (2) a terrifying obsessive — and didn’t go home to get the Pokémon decks we’d planned to bust out this afternoon.

So we gave Magic a spin, using these little 30-card single-color (or -colour) decks.

It was his first game, my third, though I’ve read a lot about it over the years.

It’s weird to think that the two greatest tabletop games of the 20th century — Magic and Dungeons & Dragons — are published by the same company.

(Yeah yeah, Cosmic Encounter and Advanced Squad Leader and Third Reich and Dominion and Bridge and blah blah blah. We can argue about this some other time.)

NOTE: The rules insert in the Welcome Deck is totally inadequate if you’ve never actually played or watched the game before. The 16-page basic ruleset PDF, eminently googleable, will suffice for beginners. The comprehensive ruleset runs to more than 100 unnecessary-for-normal-people pages.

Campaign inspiration.

Lilacfairybook00lang 0011Universalgeograp12recl 0047Mouthofhell mnsterbrainsSecret of kells
MtStMichel avion

Nightmares of mine.

Heros quest dangerousplace1

Lately, insomnia.

Of a peculiar sort: I fall asleep reading with the light on around 9:30pm and wake up ‘refreshed’ at 2:30am. Most nights I’m in and out of sleep, or at least half-awake hallucination, for a couple of hours after a prolonged period of tossing/turning — and then up for good by 6am.

Three nights ago I slept seven or eight straight hours and was so happy when I woke that I cried.

Two nights ago, back to the usual.

Last night — last night the almost-usual. No return to sleep after the 2:30 awakening.

On the plus side, I’m getting some reading done in the middle of the night. I’m nearly finished with Charles Mann’s expertly assembled (if slightly repetitive) 1491 and have gotten into the more than slightly repetitive middle section of Graves’s Greek Myths.

On the minus side, insomnia.

Here’s how I ruined any chance of getting back to sleep tonight: I thought about the alleged string of recent clown hoaxes. Do you know? You know: idiots dressed as clowns hiding in the woods in order to mess with people.

You almost want to blame it on Trump or global warming.

In the dark in bed I imagined myself riding my bike and coming across an idiot dressed as a clown. I imagined myself jumping off the bike and beating the clown to death. I imagined myself on a bike path, and riding up to some jogger asking them for help because a clown was walking slowly imperturbably after me. I imagined that person, my last hope, turning into a clown, and then everyone else on the bike path transforming too.

Then I decided I wasn’t likely to sleep, and it was time to go downstairs and talk to you.

hungry wolves are not to blame

I opened the good ol’ reliable ~/Downloads folder to find a subfolder called ‘dragon wars,’ which contains a copy of a computer game I used to play as a kid. It came out in 1989. This is what the world once was: the credits page at the front of the manual lists one programmer, two designers, one visual artist, two producers, a design consultant, a music designer, Boris Vallejo on cover art duties, and two people writing the manual.

More people worked on the user manual than programmed the actual game.

How is this possible? I’ll tell you: the manual contains 19 pages of instructions and a map, followed by 23 pages of ‘Dragon Wars Paragraphs’ — read-aloud text which constitutes the bulk of the description offered by the game. You couldn’t play, in other words, without several thousand words of this sort of thing:

137) Bound in chains upon this lonely Isle of Woe you find the dark queen Irkalla, Mistress of Magan. The chains are made of enchanted silver, and she is unable to move. “Topsiders!” she snarls when she sees you. “It’s always the same. The water level rises, your toilets back up, and everyone rushes to the Underworld for help! Well, I have problems of my own, as you can see. That filthy halfbreed Namtar chained me here, and gave the key to the one creature who owes me no favors.”

Irkalla regards you. “Perhaps you could be of some use,” she says, her tone suddenly becoming incredibly seductive. “Find the Silver Key and” (etc. etc. etc.)

The programmer’s Afterword, which follows the warranty at the end of the manual, begins: ‘Imagine my surprise when my boss told me I had to create a top-notch fantasy role-playing game in four months and four disk sides…’


I didn’t make it very far in Dragon Wars as a kid. Looking at this image I remember the Jail Keepers, and I remember the game having a certain austere quality which — historical note — characterized so many early fantasy/SF computer games for primarily technical reasons. (The magnificent desolation and loneliness of the hugely influential Zork games, say, isn’t just an aesthetic choice; in a text adventure, crowds of NPCs don’t play quite right.) I didn’t know the word ‘austere’ then, but I knew Zork, which was a lot better than Dragon Wars. Though maybe if I’d finished…?

Now it’s 5:52am. Yesterday I wrote a long forum post but didn’t share it — as I finished up I realized that I was in danger of becoming a person who shares long forum posts. After closing and saving the file I realized that’d happened ages ago; spirit crushed, I retreated to bed, where…well, you know how the story begins.

What’s troubling the villagers?

(Roll d30, season to taste)

  1. traveling circus freaks cursed by witch-child to wander forever
  2. kobolds in heat seek willing sheepdogs
  3. shapeshifting bears
  4. rogue cops seeking reputed nearby bandits (not necessarily for justice)
  5. mage-acolytes collecting material components
  6. mummified grey aliens roused by scanning signal from distant star
  7. escaped experimental subjects trying to get home, maddened and starving
  8. moth-women experimenting w/deposed wizard’s breeding-vats in nearby floating castle
  9. hallucinating archaeologists
  10. a regiment of vampire soldiers coming to aid of prophesied infant messiah
  11. acting troupe lost in time; century of origin TBD
  12. undead construction slaves seeking supplies for project 1,000 miles away
  13. mercenary company bearing pretender-prince, bivouacked in haunted castle
  14. hedge wizard’s henchmen trying to confirm success of spell
  15. ghostly rat-catcher escaped from stage play
  16. plague of mechanical locusts under control of malicious child-psychic
  17. liberated pseudodragons establishing colony in nearby wood
  18. colossal blind earthworms building bunker to escape predicted worm-holocaust
  19. alien oozes harvesting humanoid heads like coffee beans
  20. misinformed treasure hunters
  21. well informed treasure hunters
  22. ogres searching for kidnapped/stowaway ogre-youth
  23. bards
  24. a trove of buried statues coming to life seeking bloody vengeance on every living dog
  25. resumption of transmissions from a long-lost alien radio
  26. weeklong sacrificial ritual to restore dead village god
  27. druidic civil war sparked by villagers’ encroachment on ancient druidic sex-magical restoration ritual
  28. every 50yrs myconid gathering fills air w/hallucinogenic spores
  29. earthquakes caused by nearby weeklong stone-giant bacchanal
  30. cursed sentient scrying-money spent by profligate visiting noble

Some games for kids, September 2016.

Pokémon Trading Card Game

Much simpler than Magic, but for players who aren’t already TCG/LCG experts — especially kids — there’s enough tactical business to make for a satisfying experience. The biggest flaw in the game might be its presentation: the prebuilt ‘theme decks’ are essentially useless. I’m offended, frankly, by the difference between casual ‘just got a theme deck for my birthday, let’s see what this game is’ play and actual Pokémon-as-she-is-spoke. Decks are divided into Pokémon (cute monsters that attack and take damage), Supporters (which modify attacks, allow extra card draws and actions, etc.), and energy (which you attach to Pokémon in order to attack); the theme decks include tons of Pokémon because that’s what little kids like, and very few functional but uninspiring Supporter cards. As a result, beginners end up sitting there waiting for the right cards to pop up in the deck. Meanwhile, advanced players will have loaded their decks with draw/shuffle cards to ‘accelerate’ play, without which strategy isn’t actually possible.

Even my son, at five years old, picked up on the overimportance of luck in theme-deck-only play — but once I bought a few hundred random cards online, including lots of Supporter cards, we felt like we were playing a proper game, and both strategic (deckbuilding) and tactical choices began to matter.

If your five- or six-year-old reads well (lots of technical jargon on the cards) and likes the silly characters, this is a perfect starter card game; if nothing else, it’s fun to collect the stupid little Pokémon themselves, as the popularity of the Pokémon Go ‘game’ demonstrates. Be prepared to do some shuffling for your kid, and consider spending $4 on some sleeves to extend the life of the cards. Unlike Magic, you won’t still play this one in ten years, though plenty of kids certainly will.

Catan Junior

Exactly what it says on the tin: a subtly re-themed version of Settlers with essentially no strategic choices.

  • no variable probability for the hexes (only one die is rolled)
  • no random hex placement
  • no strategic pregame settlement/road placement (starting locations are fixed)
  • no stealing with the Pirate/Thief
  • much looser constraints on building (Lairs/Settlements can share a hex side)
  • no long roads
  • no Cities, just Lairs/Settlements
  • …and in the basic rules, no p2p trading — there’s a clever market/stockpile trading setup to replicate the use of ports in Settlers

So what’s left? A couple of paths to victory pretty dependent on luck, lots of social interaction during play, and that ol’ familiar feeling of mounting excitement as your settlements generate wealth. Oh, and no reading! Not a factor for my son but kids who aren’t yet comfortable reading will appreciate the design.

Is it a good game for kids? Well, look again at the changes Teuber made to his basic design: changes to setup mean you can’t essentially lose before the dice start rolling as you might in Settlers; no stealing and close-together Lairs means fewer hard feelings, and the clever ports-only trading setup smooths out the social dynamics at the table. Luck plays a big part as in the original game, but the Junior rules mitigate its most frustrating effects. It’s a thoughtful and intentional kids’ design.

If you love Settlers, you’ll get a kick out of this miniature variant edition. Our son (age six) enjoyed our initial play. This is a lightweight German game aimed at kids, much less demanding than Settlers and nowhere near as satisfying, but it does what it sets out to do — and it really does seem to be a perfect introduction to Teuber’s canonical original game. In fact, it made me want to play Settlers right away.

Carcassonne (plus expansions)

Honestly, I recommend Carcassonne over Catan Junior for kids who’ve played a couple of games beyond Candyland (which, for all its miserable determinism, is still a superb teaching tool). No reading in this classic game either. And best of all, the only subtle strategic decision — whether and when to join the ‘farmstakes’ — can simply be taken out in favour of a dead simple introductory game that more heavily weights randomness: just do cities, roads, and cloisters, and don’t bother with farms. Easy sneezy. The only remaining planning elements, then, are:

  • how many meeples to keep in hand
  • how many construction projects to focus on at a time
  • how far in advance to start the endgame, where you’ll deliberately leave projects unfinished

Attention spans matter, of course; my son can’t be bothered to attend to the difference between finished and unfinished cities in terms of endgame scoring, and plays tactically rather than strategically (we use the full rules). But tile and meeple placement are addictive and easy to understand, so you can play Carcassonne as a super-casual kids’ game with almost no strategic decision-making if you like.

The expansions are not equally fun. I’ve only played two with my son:

Inns & Cathedrals is to the original as Dominion: Intrigue is to Dominion: a subtler, more powerful version of the base game. An essential expansion, though the big meeples will take a little explaining. The Princess & the Dragon, on the other hand, is more like the Possession card in Dominion: Alchemy, adding a strategy-wrecking element (the dragon, which eats meeples) and making the game more cutthroat. My son loves it, but it makes the game…nuttier, and if the dragon ends up eating the wrong meeple, you risk tears. The River isn’t terribly exciting (we haven’t bothered with it) but it takes nothing away and essentially divides the ‘farm stakes’ into — pardon the metaphor — wholly separate Westeros and Essos games.

I used to like Carcassonne a lot — it’s a fun, relatively light game suitable for non-gamers — but with my son joining in, I’ve come to love it. We’ve got a couple more expansions (The Count, The Tower) that I look forward to revisiting. My son doesn’t yet grasp the various strategic angles, but that’s mostly a matter of him sitting still and paying attention — in terms of cognitive load, the full Carcassonne experience seems readily available to a bright six-year-old.


At this point, my son has played the following tabletop games (in addition to Candyland-style trivial games and some young kids’ games I can’t remember the names of):

  • King of Tokyo (heavy reading, simple math)
  • King of New York (heavy reading, slightly less simple math)
  • Carcassonne (no reading, little to no math)
  • Catan Junior (no reading, no math)
  • Munchkin Treasure Hunt (no reading, simple math)
  • Pokémon TCG (heavy reading, some math)
  • X-Wing Miniatures Game (heavy reading, complex dynamics, math)

We’ve played King of NYC, Munchkin Treasure Hunt, and X-Wing most, and unsurprisingly he’s best at those. MTH has no real strategy to it — it’s meant as a gateway to the not-terribly-deep Munchkin card game — and while it’s a good deal more involved than Candyland (which isn’t a game, strictly speaking), its only real demand on kids is basic arithmetic. An easy recommendation for step two in board-game education. King of NYC is a more involved game that my son seems to have a firm grasp on; he doesn’t play optimally, but his main failing at King is his stubborn refusal to leave Manhattan, which I totally understand. Anyhow, I assume most young kids will wanna be boss monster too…

(King of Tokyo is a simpler game even better suited to kids’ play — indeed I recommend it for families looking to move on to lightweight German-style games — but my wife, son, and I all enjoy NYC more.)

X-Wing is a really great minis combat game, but too complex in its complete form (i.e. including ships and cards beyond the Core Set) for five-year-olds. My son and I have been playing it for months, but I have to help him manage his upgrade cards and special abilities, which are the heart of the expanded game. That said, my son can now plan his moves a turn ahead, which is thrilling to see — I’m proud that he regularly beats me, and no I don’t always give him a squad-points handicap either. This fits well with my first impression of the game: flying awesome spaceships is X-Wing‘s immediate attraction, and the easiest part for little kids to grasp.

Anyhow, the upshot here is that parents looking for interesting games to play with their kids have a wealth of good options today, and I’m really enjoying raising my son to be not only an adventurer, artist, writer, athlete, sage, badass, scientist, engineer, pirate, destroyer of worlds, trustworthy friend, cool easygoing brilliant robot-making dweeb…but also a proper gamer.

Briefly praising the ENCYCLOPEDIA MAGICA.

The Encyclopedia Magica, in four volumes, is the quintessential D&D book. The idea of a complete and definitive listing of D&D magic items is, of course, stupid. The items are totally inconsistent in tone, backstory, and magic-system implications — not to mention stats. The only place you could possibly use the whole collection is in a deeply relaxed/ridiculous D&D game; ‘it’s just D&D’ is the only way to explain both the existence of the book and the magical nonsense inside it. It’s tacky. It’s beautiful, in its way.

And it’s the perfect guide to the whole glorious patchwork ‘expanded universe’ mythos of D&D. Two decades of unfashionable creativity, most of it written dirt cheap or on spec by daydreaming obsessives and dweebs building a shared private universe. It’s like every time someone asked ‘Hey what if…?’ over a set of funny dice, they then wrote down the answer, and bound it up like a multivolume grimoire because why not. It gives you a taste of every D&D setting ever squeezed between two covers. You can open to any page (that’s a hell of a lot of pages, too) and find a night’s worth of adventure, or a year’s.

It’s the record of an awkwardly passionate 20-year conversation between gamers.

More than the 1e DMG, more than any ruleset, it’s the meaning of D&D: the theme song, The Whole Point. At least for me. Every D&D player should be given a copy at birth.

X-Wing Minis Game after 10ish plays (with kids).

After 10ish plays, the X-Wing Miniatures Game goes from strength to strength. It’s easy to pick up, strategically deep, and tactically engrossing (there’s always something interesting to do, and no downtime) — better yet, there’s a vibrant community online and in person, and no shortage of interesting ‘metagame’ concerns, i.e. what the other nerds are flying these days, to occupy you when you’re not at the table. My son loves it, I love it.

It feels like the perfect starter miniatures wargame.

Read my earlier post so I don’t have to repeat the basics.


On the shelf, it looks like a dogfighting game, and it is; with most lists in a balanced game, you can’t win if you don’t fly skillfully. But it’s also a modern tabletop game played on a 3’x3′ area of your dinner table and aimed at kids raised on Pokémon — which means movement can only make so much difference, expert play is about synergy between ships and upgrades most of all, and building the right list for your playstyle (or adapting the latter to the former) makes all the difference to your chances.

What we’ve bought

There are three factions: the Rebels, the Empire, and ‘Scum & Villainy’ (bounty hunters, smugglers, ne’er-do-wells of every stripe from the Expanded Universe and games). If you’re just dipping your toes into the game and wanna go beyond the Core Set, buy a small number of Rebel/Imperial ships and leave the smaller, less immediately recognizable Scum faction to the hardcore.

The Core Sets include an X-Wing and two TIE Fighters, which is a pretty even match; there are subtle differences between the original box and and the Force Awakens box. If you’re thinking of trying the game, grab the TFA box, which runs $25ish on Amazon ($40 in stores) and gives you three useful ships, up-to-date rules, and damage cards; the original box includes Luke’s T-65 X-Wing, which doesn’t see much action in organized play — but then c’mon, it’s Luke Skywalker for heaven’s sake! You’ll do well either way.

If you want to move on from the Core Set, buy a second box — if you have the TFA box, grab the original, and vice versa. (Though goofy, this is standard advice for new players.) Here’s why: you’ll need more dice than a single box contains, and the Core Set is an extraordinary value for the money. Plus you’ll be able to fly a swarm of four TIE Fighters against Poe and Luke. If you like Star Wars, that should set your heart racing.

My son generally flies Rebels. We’ve bought a couple more ships this week, and now have the super-maneuverable but lightweight A-Wing, a wonderfully robust B-Wing (both from the Rebel Aces set), an E-Wing (the maneuverability of an A-Wing on an X-Wing-like frame), a sturdy reliable Y-Wing, and of course Han Solo’s YT-1300. The latter two fly differently from the other dogfighting ships: both feature turrets which fire in a 360-degree arc, which makes life much easier on a young pilot. I’ve decided that the Falcon is an ideal ship for kids, because while it’s not very agile (i.e. it’s bad at avoiding damage through defensive dice rolls), it can take a pounding and keep flying, and it can be flown right through the middle of the battle without too much fancy stickwork. The Y-Wing takes more thought to fly skillfully.

I think our Rebel ships are a little more forgiving for young kids than the Imperials — low agility (defense dice) but high shields (hit points) makes for an exciting health countdown but decent survivability.

I’m usually playing the highly maneuverable but generally more fragile Imperial fighters. In addition to the Imperial Aces set (two wickedly fast, fragile TIE Interceptors), four TIE Fighters (Poe was right: they really move, and a swarm of TIEs is a magnificent sight on the table, but a single well-timed shot can turn them into dust), and Boba Fett’s surprisingly fleet large ship Slave-1, we’ve picked up the TIE Advanced package, which gives you Darth Vader, who gets two actions per turn and is in theory an absolute terror. Only ‘in theory,’ though, because The TIE Advanced is considered ‘broken’ without the point-cost fixes included in the $100 Imperial Raider set — we’re not obsessives, so for casual play just implement the fix yourself without buying the damn cards. What’s the point of a Star Wars game without its iconic villain, after all?

Initial purchases: casual vs competitive play

If you’re just starting out, buy the ships you like and don’t worry about what’s competitive! That stuff only matters if you’re heading out to the local game store for a tournament or open play night.

The Core Set(s), the Falcon, a Y-Wing or B-Wing, and a couple of TIE variants (e.g. the Imperial Aces set) will make for a good time and give you a variety of choices to make on each side. Large ships handle differently from small ones, but the mechanics of maneuver-template placement are the same — it’s an easy jump, even for kids, who’ll likely prefer the big ships anyway. I’d stay away from the TIE Phantom at first, especially if you’re playing with kids; its cloaking device will frustrate young players and adds a decent amount of mental overhead for whoever’s flying.

Don’t bother with huge ships (the Blockade Runner, the Rebel Transport from Empire Strikes Back) unless you’re an obsessive collector; they hardly see organized store play, add a bunch of additional rules, and really want an extra-large table space anyhow.

If you know you’re going to compete, there are plenty of ‘What to Buy First/Next’ guides online — ‘Bell of Lost Souls’ and ‘Team Covenant’ are good strategy sites (here’s an example of a deep dive on list-building from TC), and there’s a very helpful Reddit guide on this score. But so’s you know, diving in for competitive play means buying something on the order of $150-200 worth of expansions just to get the Ideal Mix of Pilots and Upgrades; some of the most desirable upgrades, for instance, come with Scum ships, and even if you’re not flying a Scum list you’ll end up buying one or more of several ships you won’t end up flying.

This is a very expensive game for hardcore players.

For everyone else, I recommend doing what my son and I did: buy what looks cool and don’t try to optimize for competitive advantage. Maybe grab the Aces expansions, which are good values at two ships apiece, and/or a large ship on each side. (The VT-49 Decimator is an Imperial answer to the Falcon, with no defense dice — it can’t dodge hits without help from the cards — and huge hit points. But it’s less iconic than Slave-1, so maybe less fun in that sense.) Stay away from the Lambda-Class Shuttle at first; it’s a utility vehicle rather than a primary attack ship, and calls for a subtler approach than run’n’gun Imperial ships.

If you’re like me, eventually you’ll want duplicates. (I haven’t yet succumbed.) Swarms of A-Wings in tight formation, a trio of B-Wings looping through enemy airspace, Luke/Wedge/Biggs/Porkins bearing down on a flight of TIE Fighters…if those words don’t give you a tingle than you and I were brought up differently. In terms of point costs (not dollar value), Z-95 Headhunters and A-Wings make for cheap swarms, and six or seven TIE Fighters are still dangerous (chewing up opponent actions with a hail of concentrated attacks), while you wouldn’t field more than a couple of TIE Interceptors at a time. Don’t start buying duplicates until you’ve gotten good use out of your Core Set(s), though.

‘Action economy,’ strategy, investment

The term ‘action economy’ comes up often in nerdy game chatter. Broadly, it refers to the dynamics of player actions per turn. The Tutorial rules for X-Wing only involve moving and shooting — but once you’re into the full game, and especially once you start piling up upgrade cards, action economy is everything.

(Historical note: the most popular and influential example of this style of game design is Magic: The Gathering, with its dead-simple basic mechanics and synergizing cards which break a rule or two apiece, but the crazy grandpa of M:TG is Cosmic Encounter, a highly social strategy game and one of the greatest entertainments known to our species. If you’ve never played Cosmic with three or four friends and several bottles of wine, you owe it to yourself to seek out that experience.)

In X-Wing, each ship gets one maneuver, one action, and one shot per turn as a default. Because a ship’s combat effectiveness doesn’t diminish as it takes damage, this means you’ll always concentrate fire on individual targets when possible; it’s much better to aim four guns at one target and take it off the board, reducing the enemy’s ability to return fire, than to spread damage out over four targets and still take four shots on the next go-round. Moreover, say you’re in a 3-on-3 match, and you point all your blasters at one enemy ship: unless she’s got some way of passing actions between ships, she can only alter one defensive dice roll with a token — having spent it, she has to survive the other two attacks with unmodified dice, while the attacking ships’ll be using target locks and focus tokens to improve their odds of hitting. Concentrating fire is one simple way of playing to the action economy. It’s wargaming 101.


Individual pilot/upgrade cards ‘break’ the action economy rules in small ways, and a lot of tactical play revolves around manipulating your opponent’s action economy or your own. Vader, for instance, gets two actions per turn, but it’s sometimes more useful to pass that spare action around with the Squad Leader upgrade. The B-Wing ‘ace,’ Keyan Farlander, gets to convert his stress tokens to focus tokens when he attacks, so he effectively gets an extra action every time he makes a high-stress maneuver like a 180-degree turn, which would normally prevent the pilot from taking an action that turn. That’ll change the way your B-Wings fly relative to other ships. The Fire Control System upgrade allows a ship to acquire a target lock (which can be spent to reroll attack dice) immediately after shooting — a free action which frees the player up to concentrate on ‘focus’ (boost hit/evade chances on attack and defense rolls) and ‘evade’ (extra defense) actions. Push the Limit, a very popular upgrade card, lets you take a stress token to buy an extra action right now, altering the turn-to-turn flow of the game.

And it gets more complicated if your pilot’s special ability triggers an upgrade card which generates an additional action which allows a nearby ship to take another action which…

If you watch videos of high-level X-Wing play (which is more fun than it sounds), top players are routinely averaging more than one action per ship for long stretches. That’s one big reason why competitive play is so different from casual — the action economy is central to, as they say, ‘the maths,’ and addressing probabilities directly by manipulating the flow of player actions is levels beyond the standard fly/focus/fire of beginning play. This is where the money goes, really: into powerful ship/card combinations which allow you to play a qualitatively different game from your opponent. An ‘arc-dodging’ ship with a bonus action can boost (take an additional short banking turn or forward move) and barrel roll (slide sideways) to get out of enemy firing arcs. A hit-point-heavy tank can combine focus and evade tokens to ensure near-invulnerability under heavy fire. A support ship like the Imperial shuttle (or ‘space cow’) can hang back and soak up allies’ stress tokens, granting them the rough equivalent of a boost action each turn and making the entire fleet more maneuverable at low cost.

This stuff isn’t in the rules anywhere, and it’s not obvious from looking at the most basic cards — the opportunities for ship/card synergy only become clear when you look at multiple sets at once.

Which is why X-Wing gets much deeper and more enjoyable the more you invest in it — ‘invest’ here meaning both time and money. This is the great innovation of ‘German-style’ board games and M:TG-descended American games: the idea that very simple rules, graspable by kids, can support complex strategies and a long learning curve without requiring the gigantic player buy-in of, say, classic hex-based wargames of the 70s and 80s. That mix of immediate playability and serious depth, characteristic of the best games of the last couple decades, is one reason why X-Wing seems to be the bestselling minis game in America right now — the others being the Star Wars name, obviously, and the fact that you don’t have to paint the gorgeous minis to start playing.


Speaking of those minis: I bought these two Stanley organizers from Amazon and a 2-inch sheet of Pick’n’pluck Battlefoam at the Compleat Strategist in Boston. (The foam is too tall for the short organizer, almost certainly taller than I needed, but it’s what they had.) I grabbed a bunch of tiny compartments from the shallower organizer to hold tokens during games, picked’n’plucked foam like a madman for an hour or so, and ended up with a superb organizational solution that keeps the ships well protected, easily stores every card and token and movement template etc., but — this is a small thing that does, I confess, matter to me — still looks cobbled-together and not particularly nerdy.

Pick’n’pluck foam is incredible. It just works. Caveat: make sure you spend some time laying out your minis to get a dense packing arrangement.

I considered buying a proper battlemat, which is essentially a 3′ square mousepad, but decided that $40-50 was too much to spend. Instead I found an extra-large yoga mat for just over $20, cut it carefully in half, and made a ‘starfield’ with a silver Sharpie. Looks good, works vastly better than a bare tabletop (no sliding or bumping), and cost half as much as a proper mat. The surface is less perfect for the task than the expensive mat, but I’m totally satisfied.

Be warned that X-Wing requires a large table space! You need a 3’x3′ space for the mat itself (that’s the size of a proper game), with probably 6″ of clearance on two sides for cards, templates, tokens, whiskey, etc.

Our local nerd store has smallish tables to accommodate M:TG play, but they offer huge portable minis tabletops for 40K and such, which are ideal. If you have a small table, this lightweight foldable presentation board is a near-perfect solution, except that it’s so light you’ll surely bump it around, and will therefore need to think about how to keep it stable. (Ask your local science grad student where she got her display board.)

Actually I’m gonna buy one of those boards this week.

Examples of play

X-Wing videos are a great way to figure out the dynamics of the game. Team Covenant has the best production values and surprisingly charming, earnest announcers. (OK now look. There are very very few women in the X-Wing community. The TC announcers are very much dudes, which is fine — dudes are people too — but when it comes to the speech patterns and inflections of nerdboys, forewarned is forearmed. That said, announcer Zach Bunn is particularly knowledgeable, and the hosts’ periodic outbursts of gratitude and affection for the X-Wing community are heartwarming.)

Here’s a 2015 World semifinals match. The three-time champ, Paul Heaver, is extraordinarily good at every aspect of the game. In this video he’s flying a ‘stress hog’ Y-Wing, piling stress onto his targets and interfering with his opponent’s action economy. The challenger, Jeremy Howard, is flying a ‘Palp Aces’ list — two high-pilot-skill Imperial aces and a shuttle with Emperor Palpatine to soak up stress tokens and modify attack dice left and right. Just look at how many tokens all the ships have the whole game — these are carefully optimized lists.

Here’s a mirror match from the 2016 Hoth Open (I think it’s the USA national championships) between Palp Aces lists using Whisper, a cloaking TIE Phantom that gets a focus token after every hit. Superb piloting here, and a handy demonstration of the importance of both human error and ‘pew pew’ noises.

And finally, Nathan Eide, a 16-year-old(?) kid, flying a triple Imperial Aces list against three Jumpmaster 5000 behemoths. From my viewing, Nathan is the best tactical pilot on the scene — younger and more error-prone than Heaver, not surprisingly, but vastly more entertaining to watch. I don’t care for Jumpmasters, but honestly I don’t have a sense of what it takes to fly them well, whereas the dynamics of Imperial aces make sense to me. Either way, this match features two very different lists, which is handy.

In sum

Buy the Core Set. It’s a blast. My wife likes it, my son loves it, and I — well, we’re well past 5,000 words on the subject. You know what I think.