Interview with Pat Long – Changed Stars Kickstarter

When you meet with someone who is truly passionate about their project, their exuberance is contagious. Thus was my meeting with Patrice “Pat” Long, illustrator and co-system/lore creator of the Kickstarter project Changed Stars. Although I’ve bounced into a few of their streams about the game and had read about it a bit, I was looking forward to interviewing her about this project so that I could learn even more about it. Most roleplaying games seem to focus on a post-apocalyptic, post-ruin world, where there are very few “good guys” (characters usually included). The grimdark rules Kickstarter, it seems. When I started looking into RPGs and talking to content creators on Twitter, I was quickly aware that Changed Stars (and Pat herself) were something different in a beautiful way.

Set in a more “utopian” universe, Changed Stars most certainly turns the norm on its head, and in a good way. With compelling artwork, easy to follow rules, and a beautiful layout even in the quick start guide, it is clear that a lot of work went into this project. More than queer friendly and somehow more than feminist, Changed Stars embraces the change that sci-fi and RPGs so desperately need to see. 

Kickstarter Link Here!

Now, without further ado, my interview with the lovely Ms. Long:

Is this the first project you’ve worked on?

Yeah, this is not the first project I’ve been involved in, but it is the most major and the first thing that I’m creating. I’m the lead creative mind behind it. So, I’ve done a number of projects in the past. I’m mostly an illustrator, so I’ve illustrated for a few products that Diesel Shot has put out, just some minor stuff, like you know an adventure here and there. Probably mostly D&D stuff. A lot of my old sketch art went to that. The biggest recent thing that I’ve done before this was the Descendants of Darkness, which is a Kickstarter that launched during the Zine Quest period and we got the total was around two to three thousand dollars, so it wasn’t major like what I’m…it was major, yes, but it wasn’t what I am aiming for with Changed Stars. I’m actually still on the hook to perform my duties for that Kickstarter, as well. So, I’ve got two in the hole right now. It’s the story of, I’m not sure…it was spearheaded by a member of the Garblag Gaming Community, which is a Twitch channel, much like Diesel Shot, and a kind of company slash group of friends, which is how a lot of these things tend to be in the community. It was spearheaded by a world builder who brought me on as a full-time partner when we reached a certain stretch goal, which was really nice of them. And, so, it’s about telling stories where you’re an other-worldly woman, someone born with fae or celestial or demonic ancestry and contending with that as well as the shitty world in which they live. 

Tell us a little bit about your project, Changed Stars

It’s very forward on the queer. And Changed Stars is kind of a cathartic game compared to a lot of the games that are queer-focused, I would think. A lot of them deal with-and this is absolutely something that needs to be delved into, and it’s a very compelling narrative, and it’s something that I personally enjoy playing in-but a lot of the queer themed games out there focus in on overcoming the oppression of your surroundings. You know, the fighting, the homophobic men or, you know, being empowered woman taking down patriarchal societies. And I love that. That’s absolutely great and crucial to tell those stories. Changed Stars takes place after that, in a post-patriarchal woman, it’s not considered “normal” to be heterosexual. It’s just one of the many manners in which you can express your sexuality. There’s no focus on it at all as being the normal. It’s a post-patriarchal, post-heteronormative society, and it’s where, it’s not perfect, but it’s where people like myself and like a lot of folx at my table can feel a degree of comfort with the society that they’re potentially expected to work within.

Cool! Is that kind of what brought you to create it?

It’s definitely one of the main reasons. It’s not that I’m trying-there’s a lot that went into creating Changed Stars as a concept. I based it more on what my own group of friends and my table wanted to play in, wanted to live in. It’s funny, actually, the way that Changed Stars started. I wanted to try a system I hadn’t tried yet. Alien RPG (great system, by the way) and my players didn’t want to play that setting, so I pitched them an entirely new setting that used the same rules. It came-I gave them a couple of different options in a poll, and we had a couple ties, and a few different polls. Basically, how that grouping of polls and questions was the foundational setting of Changed Stars, which is especially funny because the entire setting that night did not pertain to the setting at all, they just crashed on a planet, but I’m so dedicated to world building that I couldn’t like not create something that they could say was their home after they got off the planet.

So, did you use your group to kind of play test the beginning?

Oh, yeah! My group has seen all the iterations of Changed Stars as a setting and a setting. It didn’t start exactly as it is now. It was a wee bit more dystopian in a direction, opposite of a lot of dystopian sci-fi. Then I kind of reined it in, and I thought it was more important to tell a story in which the society was not evil, for once. I think a lot of sci fi deals with a lot of very evil societies, even if they are optimistic. Like Highlands shit, which depicts a very evil society every single time. But he’s in favour of it, which makes it worse. Changed Stars is very an anti-Heinlein game. My statement that I’ve made a number of times is that this is not a game that tells you you’re a member of humanity and humanity’s at war, go kill the bugs. That is not Changed Stars.

I was going to ask-Utopian is not the thing right now. Dystopian is more the thing. There’s a lot of hope and positivity in Changed Stars. It’s refreshing, especially after the last year. It sounds like that was an evolution rather than where you started?

It was an evolution, but it was a quick change, within the first 8 games. This has been going on more than a year now, we’ve had waaaay more than 8 games. But within the probably the first month of Changed Stars being a thing, I rather quickly pivoted away from the little bit darker to a little bit more hopeful. I would not say Changed Stars is inherently– it’s not a full utopia. The idea is that we are closer to one. It’s supposed to be kind of optimistic realism as opposed to a full-on utopian setting. There’s still a myriad of problems, both social and practical. There are no replicators for food, so, you know, people still need to do farming on planets and there’s all sorts of different challenges that still need overcoming. One of the biggest logistical challenges is the mess that the human empire left when they fell. Human settlements spread far and wide across the stars and there are not enough ships to regularly ship them the things that they need. That’s the biggest kind of struggle in Changed Stars– kind of contending with the dark legacy that this new, hopeful society has left.

It’s really amazing. I like that it kind of evolved from there. So, you said it took more than a year. How long overall-what kind of work went into something like this. This is a huge project.

Yeah! It didn’t start as a project of the same sort. I literally just made this as a setting to play with my friends. I had done this in the past with a setting called Whismore that we put on Diesel Shot which was kind of a D&D 5e setting, which was kind of a grim dark, spooky kind of world. Changed Stars started as another kind of setting I wanted to play with my friends, and it kind of evolved out of that as we kind of realised we had something that was an individual property sort of thing. We put so much world building into it, and the idea that we would make it a game that we would sell to people actually happened a couple of months after I made Changed Stars and coined the name and started hash tagging about it on Twitter. Lee and I – Lee, my collaborator, is the co-author of the book and the system creator. Lee and I were just kind of hashing it out and were like, this is cool, this is big, we’ve put a lot of work into this. Why don’t we put this out to the community? Let’s share this. Let’s do a Kickstarter. And it’s working out great!

This is a huge project. What would you say the biggest challenges have been?

The biggest challenge-oh gosh-I’m thinking, so, there have been a lot of hurdles and I don’t necessarily talk about the actual biggest problem, which is kind of more a behind the scenes thing–just logistics getting it out to Kickstarter and putting out the advertisements and figuring out what it takes to make a Kickstarter happen. That was the biggest challenge realistically.

But it would be more interesting to talk about the various hurdles that we had to overcome. I have – so for instance, Lee has made a system before. Lee has created a game called Ackroyd Diesel age as well as a number of different things. He’s a writer and a system developer more so than me. And Lee had to come up with a new simple system for Changed Stars based on some of the Year Zero Engine stuff, you know, making our own – I don’t want to say improvements – Year Zero Engine is great, and ours is designed to have a similar feel, and coming up with that was a challenge. 

On my end, getting to where I am as an artist has not happened overnight. I have worked tirelessly to become the artist that I am today, and to be proud of the professional quality of my work and, you know, offering something to the people who are purchasing this that they will enjoy and cherish. Getting myself to where I am as an artist is probably one of the biggest hurdles.

That’s one of the things that really stands out about Changed Stars. The artwork! You really went out there with the different species and the artwork-one thing I found interesting is the system. Anytime you immerse someone in a world like that, you expect them to kind of pick up on the world and having to also pick up a system is sometimes a barrier for some, and the system that you guys have created is really easy to follow, like I can see that being something that works just about anywhere. That’s amazing.

Thank you so much! We really wanted to get a very simple and straightforward system. The game is designed to be played. The game, as far as my input on making the game, was that we need to have this be a simple game that people will be able to pick up, have one shot of, and, if they like it, have as many as they like. Or expand beyond just a one-shot and create a campaign for themselves, but it’s a game that I want people to play and enjoy and understand. That was the communication between me and Lee while we were making the system. I’m not really a system junkie, unfortunately, I’m a little bit more on the artistic side rather than the crunching numbers side, and so-it was a collaborative effort. But that one was mostly Lee, and Lee did a freaking amazing job! 

I think most projects work better if you don’t decide to do it all yourself because everybody has their different skill sets.

Absolutely! The collaborative team that I’m working with is amazing. I would definitely not be able to do this on my own by any stretch of the imagination. I’ve come up with a lot of the lore and dig deep into the world building and created conlangs and do all the art and all that – I provide direction and everything, but, you know, I would not be able to create the amazing system that Lee has and do a lot of the brunt work on the writing and coming up with the tables and everything. I mean, you know, I could hypothetically do that-but it would take a lot longer! But we’ve also had an amazing team behind the scenes doing a lot of the design work and layout stuff.

Quick shout out to Casey, who is kind of our lead graphic designer, followed by Luc Byard, who is also kind of a co-graphic designer. Both of them worked together to make the logo in addition to all the various Kickstarter assets and the really cool, shiny shit we’ve got to show off. Also, a shout out to Palace, who is our other graphic designers and the layout guy, he’s just been amazing. The whole lot of the team has been amazing. Knock Fenix, a member of the roleplaying community helped make our roll20 sheet. It’s just been an amazing collaboration and I love the hell out of everybody on the team.  

It’s handy when everyone gets along. Were they people you’d worked with before, or gamed with before?

Yes! Diesel Shot is a team of creatives and a team of amazing people, but we’re also a team of friends. Lee and I obviously are very long-term collaborative partners at this point. We have great working rapport. Luc Byard knew me before I knew Lee. We met in a Lego forum where my character was like this evil science lady and Luc’s character was a cool kind of space trucker. It was like a roleplaying game in a forum called Eurobricks. It was a great time and we just kind of stayed in contact after that. Now he’s designing logos and stuff for us. It’s amazing. Lee – sorry, Palace and Casey are both members of the Diesel Shot community and players on our channel and just amazing people to be working with and to know. 

Are you guys planning on doing anything like this again? 

[Nods emphatically] So, our main focus right now is putting Changed Stars out. We’re not talking about new projects until we’ve dropped this book on as many doorsteps as we can. We’re working on making sure everything is perfectly lined up and the papers all ship around January, when we are planning on making our delivery date. We want everyone to have their pdfs and their hardcover books and their art assets and their electronic albums. Sorry, I haven’t given him a shout out, but Cole made a soundtrack to go along with Changed Stars, which is part of the Kickstarter, which is just amazing. It’s a synthwave soundtrack – sorry, we have a synthwave song track as a leitmotif for every species in the game.

So, we are planning on doing more projects after Changed Stars is delivered. We are thinking–we have a number of ideas–we’re definitely planning on putting out expansions. There’s more to the lore than can fit in one book, and I’ve already discussed that there are other species and other aspects that we just won’t be able to fit into one book. The goal is to keep expanding the lore. 

In addition to kind of expansions, like Changed Stars 2, Electric Boogaloo, we’re definitely going to put out some adventure paths within the setting and a variety of other supplementary content, as well. And after we’ve put out a good bit of Changed Stars content, or while we do that, we have other games and projects that we have in mind. I don’t necessarily want to tell you all of our plans without getting the consent of my collaborators before explaining what we have even further in the future, but rest assured, we have some other games that we want to hone and get to a place where we can put them out, too. Diesel shot is a gaming company now. We’ve got an LLC. We’re going to be there and continue to put out content for the foreseeable future.

And what is the best way for people to follow so they stay up with all of that content?

Following myself and my collaborator Lee on Twitter. My Twitter is @long_spider – Spider Queen Long, and Lee is @quadkorps on Twitter. We’re just very talkative on Twitter and we’re very easy to contact there. In addition to that, we also have a Facebook page for Diesel Stars. There’s a Twitter page, as well. I think it’s @stars_changed. We also have a discord that we are very communicative in. Changed Stars also has a webpage of its own, as well as a Tumblr. I don’t remember if Diesel Shot has its own page–I think we used to, but we don’t anymore. We also have a Discord that we are very communicative in. 

Twitter, Discord. Those are the easiest places to reach us. Facebook. A number of other places. We’re out there. 

Look for the following installment, all about the Changed Stars universe! 

Forbidden Island Review and Gameplay

Game tiles and pieces

Forbidden Island has been around for awhile–long enough that I kind of forgot that it was a game I could review! There have been iterations since, but Forbidden Island remains my favourite of the GameWright cooperative “we’re all going to live or die together” games suited for children. Today, my students pulled it out to play during their social-emotional time, and I was immediately transported back to when my own children couldn’t get enough of this game. 

Winning multiple awards and even coming in as a Spiel des Jahres finalist in 2011 (losing to Qwirkle, which is no shame!), Forbidden Island clearly had people’s attention. Today, it is still a great game, with plenty of qualities that make it a go-to for families and schools. It is inexpensive, with pleasant and high quality game pieces. Kids need to work on strategy and talking amongst themselves as they share treasure cards to come to a positive conclusion. Also, as I’ve found out more than once, GameWright has fantastic customer service, and has even sent me new game pieces when ones went missing after particularly rowdy game days. 

The premise is simple. You are attempting to rescue treasure from the “forbidden island” before the water overtakes it–or you–and escape with it. Kids easily get into the idea, and the disappearing tiles cause just enough stress to keep players completely in the game. Unlike some other children’s games that last about 20-30 minutes, I don’t see kids wandering away or losing attention. They are completely engaged in the concept and the game play, shooting ideas back and forth. 

Game play is similarly accessible. Each player picks a role that gives them a special ability. Players take turns engaging in up to three actions – you can “shore up” sinking tiles, move, grab a treasure by turning in four matching cards, or pass a card to another player. When actions are completed, the player gets two treasure cards. They then draw the appropriate number of “flood” cards based on the water level marker. If the player draws a “Water’s Rise!” card, the game gets much harder. It also gets that much more exciting. The stack of drawn flood cards is shuffled and placed back on the top of the deck, increasing the likelihood that those particular tiles will “sink.”

Game box

As we play this game, the kids talk strategy. The one complaint that I have with the game is that it is very easy for an alpha player to take over, but that’s also one of the benefits. You can talk children through correct strategy, and they can work together, but can still be successful by listening to other players. The rule that we have put into place to assure that no student dominates is that the player whose turn it is has final say. They can listen to everyone’s options, and then we have a 30 second timer of silence for the child who is playing to think about what they want to do. In so doing, my children work on all kinds of social skills that are very important.

Although I’ve largely focused on how well this game can be played by tiny humans, this game is great for adults, too. The game scales in difficulty accordingly. It is a good “bridge” game between more common games and more strategy-based games. Every time I’ve played with other adults, I’ve found it interesting how invested everyone gets in the game. There’s an honest level of stress as someone draws a “water’s rise!” card and you have to adjust strategy accordingly. 

Overall, this game has a great deal of challenge for all players. As long as you manage the “alpha player syndrome”, it has great playability among a wide variety of play groups, which, as we all know from my previous reviews, is what really makes a game stand out to me. 

Game Review: MonsDRAWsity!

I’m always on the lookout for new games to play with my students that will stretch their minds. Today’s fun board game was MonsDRAWsity by Deep Water Games, created by Eric Slauson. I ordered it on Amazon on sale, and think the on sale price point is probably the right one for this game, given the components included. 

MonsDRAWsity plays 3-8 players, and really does better with 4 and up. You could easily add more, in my opinion, though we kind of threw the scoring rules by the wayside because of how I was using the game in my classroom. The box lists a 20 minute play time, but it’s one of those that you can play for longer or shorter if you so choose. 

Photo courtesy of student “VR

This game focuses on one of the creative thinking strategies that we use frequently in my class and that I really love. One person describes a card that no one else can see. The others draw it. Then everyone votes on which is the closest interpretation of the card. I’ve done this with many groups, both of children and adults, and it’s a great way to see how other people think. The results can be very humorous. 

What really makes this game something different than just a thinking exercise is the truly creative artwork. Because I don’t wish to spoil the game for anyone else, I’m reluctant to post any of the cards, but you truly need to think outside of the box to describe these cards. The monsters can be mashups of robots, animals, bugs, humans–really anything. Or sometimes nothing at all. The kids had a great time just giggling over looking at the card itself, and the most common response to a new card was “what the heck?!” 

The other thing I really liked about this game was how practical it was. I have a couple of kids who are very good at art, and some who are still working on basic fine motor skills. Although my kids who struggle in that area were reluctant to play at first, they quickly jumped in when they realized the point was to get as close to the drawing, not the “best drawing”. I’m not great at drawing, either, and my stick monsters certainly helped build confidence! 

Photo courtesy of student “AnimeBOI”

Additionally, we figured out how to play this on Zoom with literally no extra steps. I sent the describer into a breakout room and came in to show them the card on camera. Then we went back to the main group. The one brief downside was that not everybody had paper, but the kids worked that out without a hiccup: they decided they just wanted to take turns drawing instead of playing the game the way the instructions described. They did best of three “rock-paper-scissors-lizard-Spock” and whoever won got to screen share their whiteboard. While that child drew, the others gave advice for how they thought it should go if it differed, or offered encouragement if they thought the drawer was on the right track. Since this is my social and emotional learning class, I often sit back and let them troubleshoot problems, and was truly impressed at how quickly they caught on to how this would work so that everyone could have a good time. 

Overall, this is a really fun game and well suited to both a classroom and to a fun game night with others. It works well with a mix of ages and ability levels so long as the groundwork is laid from the beginning. My only complaint is that the whiteboards needed more than the erasers on the dry erase markers, but that’s always an issue with things like this, and was quickly solved with some wet wipes. 

Introducing Kids to RPGs

When most of the role-playing community think about the player base, they usually think of teenagers and upwards. The argument is typically that there is adult content in many of the books and that younger children will not be able to follow the often complex rules. However, children are literally made to play pretend. 

When I first set out to teach my own children role-playing games, I first thought about over-simplifying. I’ve written previously about No Thank You Evil and that was certainly helpful–but we only played this after we’d already played a lot of Dungeons and Dragons! I really think that most people can make roll playing games accessible to kids. For the purposes of this article, I’m focusing on Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition, but can be generalized for your role-playing game of choice. My only caveat is that certain worlds and systems are designed to be incredibly dark and not accessible to younger people. You could certainly alter the world to make it more child-friendly, but why? Unless you created the game or have not played any other systems, it’s far easier to use a world that can be made PG more easily. 

New to RPGs Yourself?

For those who have never played before, my first piece of advice would be to familiarize yourself with the rules. Read through at least the Basic Rules, and it’s better if you can pick up the Starter Set or the Player’s Handbook. Read through it. Make sure you understand at least the basics before you introduce the idea to your children. Kids don’t like to think about the rules; they just like to play. There are also a number of guides to help streamline the rules for both you and them once you get started. You need familiarity. But don’t get so bogged down on the specifics of the rules that your kids get bored. Remember that the story is the most important part. 

Once you have achieved basic familiarity with the rules, it’s time to run. I recommend using some of the pre-generated characters at first if you’re not used to the rules, or use “standard array” to get the scores for your ability stats. There are literally hundreds of free and inexpensive modules to use, but you’ll want to choose something quick and fun for kids for your first couple of sessions. Make it fun. This is a game, after all. If you forget some of the rules, no big deal. I also recommend having a cheat sheet for your players. This website also has some great cheat sheets and basic rules specifically designed for younger players or players with special needs.

If you are really stuck, there are a few board games you can play that are basically an introduction to RPGs. Legacy of Dragonholt is a great one, as is No Thank You Evil. It’s out of print for now, but my son started on HeroQuest.

Veteran Gamer?

Gaming with kids is a little different than gaming with your friends. Well, sort of. The side conversations, snacking, general feeling of herding cats–that’s all still there. However, I find that most kids really enjoy the imagination portion and take to it much more naturally than adult gamers. Although there are always some exceptions, they are fast and light with the rules. They have shorter attention spans than most adults, and understand social etiquette and turn taking less well. 

None of this means you cannot game with children. It simply means that you should not expect them to do what their brains are not yet ready to do, and you should expect them to do what they are hard wired to do. Most kids benefit from visual structure that lets them understand things better. Having cheat sheets or more visually appealing and easier to follow character sheets can be helpful for many children. Do not drop them into an overwhelming world. Children think in terms of their immediate surroundings. Even more than adults just beginning a campaign, kids will not care who was the ruling emperor of a neighboring country three hundred years ago. They probably will want to know the specific names of people in the town and what they are up to more than many veteran gamers might. 

Therefore, I tend to build the village and print out or present the map with names of places right from the beginning. I make sure that the NPCs are well fleshed out. I do voices more frequently with kids than I do with adults, in part because it’s much harder to feel embarrassed around children. For monsters, I usually show them the pictures of what they are confronting or stick to things they know (dinosaurs, dragons, zombies, skeletons). 

For Everyone

Switch up action with talking. Make sure your players are all active and participating. Although D&D only gives turn rules for combat, I recommend with a group of kids making other sections turn based, as well. I have also gamed with children with autism to build social skills. Even more visual structure is necessary, and we actually have a timer for that group. 

We also have the “nope” rule. If something is too scary or too much, a kid can nope out. This is an idea unabashedly stolen from Monte Cook Games, but it was such a great idea, I knew we had to use it. We have index cards with an “X” written on them that the child can just hand to me to avoid a big conversation, and I simply help redirect away from that topic. This also works for adults, by the way, and helps keep your table safe and fun for everyone.

I also try to keep sessions shorter than I normally would. Stop while the kids are still having fun and leave them wanting more. If you let things drag or wait until they are bored, they won’t want to come back again. I probably over-utilize the cliffhanger with kids, too, but they seem to love it. 

I have printed pictures of the monsters they face so they understand what they are facing each time, and also include pictures of important places. I do not have a lot of artistic talent, and this is for private use, so I will typically just look up pictures online. If I’m planning to post in a location that others can see, though, I will use pictures I have the rights to, or have a friend draw up what I’d like. 

I use map creator tools like Inkarnate to help the kids visualize the immediate terrain. Again, just like with the rest of the campaign, they prefer to think on a smaller scale than a lot of adults, so I have more focused village maps, and often even maps of their homes or immediate area within a village or city. I have a map for my own use that shows the full continent, but I don’t recall ever showing this to the kids; they have never cared to see it, because they simply do not think that way. If they want to see, or if you have a particular child who enjoys that kind of thing, though, that’s helpful to have. Even just putting it on paper is handy if you don’t want to worry about learning new tech or just want something handy to have. 

In Summary

Above all, remember that this is meant to be fun. Keeping things shorter than you would with adults, using cheat sheets to remember the rules, focusing on making sure that the kids feel safe and supported, and having visual guides to what’s happening–these are all ways to get your kids started in role playing games. Have fun! 

No Thank You Evil – Introducing Kids to RPGs

One question I see asked constantly on both parenting boards and on gaming boards is “what game can I use to introduce my children to role-playing games safely?” For me, the obvious answer was “Dungeons and Dragons” because I am a long time DM and did not have any qualms about creating a campaign specifically designed for young children and did not have any difficulty walking them through character creation and how to play. However, many other parents are not able to do this for a variety of reasons. Besides,it is also nice to just open up a game and have it explain exactly how to play. Gaming should be accessible, after all. 

My number one recommendation for these parents and gamers is No Thank You Evil. Designed by Shanna Germain and Monte Cook and published by Monte Cook Games, the game itself has a lot of experience behind it. The art work is cute and colorful, designed to engage children and draw them in. It certainly does that! Germain had the game out to be played at GenCon several times, and my own children could not walk past it without wanting to play, even though we had a copy at home. 

The game comes with ready-made characters and easy stats that can be navigated even by non-readers. There are adventures already set up for the Guide to walk the players through. It is pretty much ready to play out of the box. Players create their characters. The Guide tells the story with the help of the players, who describe their actions and use that character’s abilities to impact the story and how it will go. The Guide can also create their own story if they do not wish to use the pre-generated ones. 

Each character has 4 pools: Tough, Fast, Smart, and Awesome. They also have special skills and a companion animal who can help them do things.

As characters describe what they want to do, the Guide decides if it is super hard (8) all the way down to super easy (0). The player rolls the dice. They can choose to “try harder” by using points from one of their four pools until they do not have any more points. If they beat the goal, they succeed. If they don’t, they fail. It’s just that simple. I love the simplicity and the way that it starts introducing children to the idea that they roll the dice and may or may not be successful in their chosen actions. The Guide is encouraged to make it exciting, just like a GM or DM would in another roleplaying game, and the players are able to see how their choices impact what happens. It is easy to use the concepts learned in No Thank You Evil to introduce kids to other roleplaying games because it is so similar, yet simplified so children can understand it easily. 

However, my favourite part of this game is the same thing the game is named for: “No Thank You!” 

Many adult gaming groups have implemented a session 0 where players can discuss things they do not wish to see in the game, perhaps because they find it triggering or too frightening, or just uncomfortable. But it is absolutely impossible to cover every single thing that may come up during game play. Therefore, some groups (including Monte Cook and Germain’s various groups) have developed ways to discretely tell someone that a topic or storyline is too much. No Thank You Evil, taking into consideration that children are even more apt to be frightened by stories, gives each player a token. If something in the game becomes too frightening, the player can simply put the token on the table, and the Guide knows to steer away from that topic as quickly as possible to assure that everyone at the table is having a good time. 

Overall, this game is beautiful, engaging, and a wonderful way to get kids into roleplaying games. Although my own children started with Dungeons and Dragons and Pathfinder, they were equally excited about this game and the way it was written and drew them in. The creators have the breadth of experience from years of game development and being gamers themselves to know what works, and definitely put a lot of thought and effort into this. The roleplaying world can always use new gamers, and this is a great way to get your kids started without needing to know a lot about the games yourself. Similarly, it is so well done that even veteran gamers will have a good time. My kids quickly started playing this by themselves, and that transferred into confidence to GM in other systems for my two older children. I definitely recommend this game to anybody who has children who want to play roleplaying games. 

Arkham Horror 2e Review and Gameplay

It was the waning moments of the year 1920, and a young man known as H.P. Lovecraft struck his pen to paper in what, unbeknownst to him, was to become a pivotal action for the future of board gaming. The Picture in the House, the first mention of Arkham proper, provided the precursor to many of Lovecraft’s tales. Now public domain, Lovecraftian horrors abound in books, movies, and games. Many of these fall flat, bemoaned by those consuming them as trite or uninteresting. The sheer quantity alone causes many to turn away. 

However, one board game stands above the rest as the longest running board game featuring Arkham. Now owned by Fantasy Flight Games, Arkham Horror first edition spawned from Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game in 1987. Today, we are on the third edition, which looks very little like its precursors. However, today I will review Arkham Horror Second Edition, since it is the game that is most recently on my mind. 

This is not a small game, and requires a great deal of table space, particularly if you are playing with a full cohort of investigators.

Playing Arkham Horror involves a great deal of time, particularly in set up. First and foremost, assure that you have sufficient table space. Spread the board out, leaving plenty of room on all sides. Defeating the Ancient Old One and his monsters is never easy, and requires tons of components! To set up, you will need to lay out the 9 location decks, the gate deck, the mythos deck, the Ancient Old One sheet (and doom tokens, of course), the monster cup, the clue tokens, and the various tokens/markers related to gates. You will also need the various item and ally decks (separated out), the investigator card decks, your sanity and stamina tokens (if necessary-more on this later) and money tokens. 

Each player chooses an investigator card. Here, we have decided that using the sanity and stamina tokens is not for us, and we use a red 10-sided die (d10) to denote stamina and a blue one to denote sanity, with the current sanity and stamina amounts face up. It is just one less piece to keep track of. Players receive their starting items (noted on the investigator cards) and place their character piece at the starting location noted on their investigator card. The players choose an Ancient Old One to battle (each has its own stats and requirements to defeat). 

Clues are placed at each of the 11 unstable locations (red diamond) spaces on the board. These are locations where gates are most likely to open. Investigators are placed at their starting locations (also noted on their cards). 

A mythos card is drawn and resolved, and the game begins with a chosen first player.

Game play is in five phases. At each phase, each player in clockwise fashion completes all necessary activities of that phase.  Upkeep, which includes setting stats by moving their sliders the amount of their focus (unless character abilities dictate otherwise) and any other upkeep needs based on various item or investigator cards. During the Movement phase, each player moves their speed, unless they are in the Other Worlds (in which case they can move only to the next section of the Other World, regardless of movement). If a character is prone, they can only stand up this turn. Next, is the Arkham phase. Each character in a location (not on a street or in another dimension) will draw a card and have an event based on that location. Different locations have higher probability of certain types of events, which are depicted in icons on the locations, but it is no guarantee. Certain locations also have alternative other events that can be chosen, such as the hospital or shop, in lieu of drawing a card. 

Jenny Barnes, ready for action

Once the Arkham phases is completed, the Other Dimension phase begins, and characters who are in Other Worlds will draw cards for their locations. These are based on colours rather than on actual locations. When they have completed their turns, the Mythos begins, with all monsters moving according to shapes on their tokens, and a card is drawn to determine what Mythos event will occur. This is very rarely good. 

In fact, I have discovered that, when in doubt of the rules for Arkham 2e, go with whatever seems the least likely to be beneficial for the players, and that is likely to be the actual rule. And always beware being lost in Time and Space. Unless you’re a Dreamer. Then go there as much as you like.

Arkham Horror 2e strove to encompass the true essence of Lovecraft in a way at which other games have only teased. Expansions are available which make game play even more difficult and dismal for the players. Therefore, it is one of my favourite games of all time. Although this is an American game by Fantasy Flight, it has as many pieces and moving parts as many Eurogames and requires almost as much to keep up with the game play. Things can turn rather suddenly from “this is an easy win!” to “oh, wow, we’re all dead now.” There are many ways to lose, and only two real ways to win (only one if you choose certain Ancient Old Ones) –either close gates permanently or fight the Old One and win (except the ones where, once they awaken, you automatically lose). 

This game has endless replayability, though expansions certainly add to the experience. Personally, I really enjoy cooperative games that have a high level of difficulty and a high likelihood of loss because I find them challenging and interesting. The writing for the cards and the story within is intriguing for those who enjoy Lovecraft and for those just starting out. My gaming group has also purchased the newer version of Arkham Horror, but it can hardly be called the same game. Many, many rules have been changed. The quality of the pieces is perhaps a little better in the newer edition, in my opinion, but I feel that my game shelf has room for both games. In addition, Arkham Horror can also be played as a single player game. I have spent many sleepless nights embracing the darkness by pulling this game out.

This past Halloween, we played in cosplay with the full cohort, and had a great deal of fun with this game. Several players who were new to the game joined us, and had very little difficulty following the rules with help from players with experience (depicted here).

Although certainly not for everyone, Arkham Horror 2e is a great game for the gamer who likes a good story, high replayability, and a true challenge. The game scales very well for a single player and for up to 8 investigators (though time to play increases proportionately). It does have a high likelihood for an alpha player to take over if players are not cautious, however, and remembering that there is no one true avenue for success in this game, and there are countless avenues for loss, will be beneficial in ensuring that everybody gets to have their voice heard at the table is important. The miniatures are fairly high quality and fun to paint, as well.

Miniature painted by Jason Horner

Arkham Horror 2e is a classic game that has a place on many shelves. I highly recommend this game. 

Planet in sight. Preparing for arrival…

Terraforming Mars is not a game that a novice board gamer can easily teach themselves…unless they get the digital version. My husband and I blithely attempted to play the physical board game, thinking that we’d just read the rules then play. [Insert slightly hysterical laughter] Instead we spent a frustrating day googling and attempting to play, and after many hours—and with a very long list of questions still unanswered—we gave up. I laid the game out a number of times after that, watched videos, and attempted to get some grasp of the basics. Inevitably I’d draw a card that raised some question for which there didn’t seem to be any answer available. Then I’d feel a momentary flash of rage for every experienced reviewer who scarcely spent any time on the cards because they were so “simple”, “easy to understand”, and “obvious”. I kind of wanted to slap them. But mostly I felt this sort of sinking despair. I really, really, really wanted to like this game, but I couldn’t seem to figure out how to play it, or enjoy what little I did figure out. There were so many things to keep track of—and to do—that playing the game felt more like a chore than something that would ever be fun. (Six resources which you must track changing amounts of both production and amount available for every generation, terraform rating, generations, oceans, oxygen, temperature, victory points—which don’t actually assure you of victory—and I-don’t-know-how-many tags on cards which sometimes need to match up with requirements, and sometimes do other things, plus special actions that are triggered by blue cards, as well as all the other miscellaneous iconography and symbols on cards, and the conversion of resources to tiles which must be placed according to both the layout on the board and the tile placement rules.) To say the game is complex is something of an understatement. If one doesn’t have a lot of experience with contemporary board games and the style of game often called a “eurogame”, then it’s bewildering. Neither my husband nor I had ever seen anything even remotely like this. Even if we weren’t in the pandemic lockdown, we didn’t know anyone who knew how to play, so there was no chance of anyone being able to walk us through it and answer individual questions. It was over our heads and likely to remain so.


So when the digital version turned up on sale for half-price on Steam I hesitated. On one hand, I’d had good luck teaching myself a simpler digital board game on Steam, but on the other hand, it seemed a bit like throwing good money after bad, as the saying goes. I felt like this was both my last and only hope to learn the game…and gameplay seemed like it was so laborious and overwrought that I wasn’t sure I’d enjoy it even if I learned how to play. But I got the digital version anyway. I had to try. The tutorial was well-done and reiterated what I’d already dimly grasped, as well as the ten million other things I needed to learn. I wondered if I would be able to remember everything.


I needn’t have worried. The digital board game is in many ways everything the physical board game is not. It’s easy to play, easy to understand, and gameplay is super-smooth and enjoyable. Why the big difference? It’s baked right into the whole idea of making the game digital. All of the things that seem like insurmountable obstacles to a novice board gamer when they look at the sprawling bits of the game spread out all over the dining room table are things that digital games excel at handling. Both production of resources and amount of each resource is automatically tracked and laid out simply. Ditto for all those actions on the blue cards. It tells you how many you have, and which you can use. It shows you where you can place tiles. You can even look at your opponent’s resources, just as you can in a physical game. There’s no figuring out if a play is legal, or accidentally playing a card that you can’t yet play. The game will not prevent you from making stupid mistakes in strategy or gameplay, but it will prevent you from accidentally doing something you aren’t allowed to do. I learned how to play the game by playing it. I picked it up surprisingly fast, within maybe two dozen games. (Your mileage may vary; I’m a novice gamer.) That sounds like a lot if you’re thinking about bringing a physical board game to the table, setting it up, then putting it away, and doing that weekly or maybe twice a week, especially if you’re thinking about spending whole afternoons playing with a gaming group. That many games would take a lot of time on the calendar. But that’s another way that learning the game digitally really shines. There’s no setup. You can start a game and quit and the game will be saved, so you can literally play almost anytime. The AI plays fast; it’s not going to spend minutes pondering its next move the way a human would. My first game against the easiest AI lasted about an hour—and that was with me dithering over what I should do next. Also, there’s no reason you should finish every game if you’re just playing to learn; you can forfeit a game at any time or forfeit a saved game. I said two dozen games…I had already won a couple of games by then even though there were still strategic things I hadn’t quite gotten the hang of yet. Play 2-3 games in a row—and take it from me, that’s very easy to do—and you’ll know everything you need to know in a matter of days, add another week of obsessive play and you’ll be racking up wins more often than not! The digital version of Terraforming Mars is probably the fastest way to learn the game, and it works great even for the totally clueless!


There are three levels of AI one can play against, and you can add AIs and human players besides yourself if you want to play with other people in your household, and there are online games against real people, too. Playing against an AI isn’t the same as playing against real people, but it serves an excellent purpose for learning the game. You are playing with an experienced player. You can observe how they use certain cards, and if you don’t understand exactly what a particular card does, well, just try it and see. If I misunderstood what a card did playing against my husband, who knew no more about the game than I did, then the two of us might be making all kinds of illegal plays without ever being the wiser. Playing against the AI, one can learn how things are actually supposed to work. It was utterly painless to learn and more than a little addictive. There’s a number of variations besides just mixing it up with AIs; there’s a solo version which is a very different experience than playing solo against an AI. You must win in 14 generations against a “neutral player” who passes each turn. You also have all the other options of the board game. You can play as a Beginner Corporation or choose one of two randomly chosen corporations. You can choose to play a standard game or use corporate era rules and cards. You can also turn on the draft variation.

I can’t speak for the digital versions on other platforms but there are achievements on Steam and I’ve gotten them all except the one for winning 10 online games. I haven’t yet played against people yet. (I keep hearing Han Solo in my head saying “Good against remotes is one thing…Good against the living, that’s something else.”) There are both Android and Apple apps if you’re not on Steam. Neither the apps, nor the game on Steam are free. Cheaper than most video games or board games, but some may balk at the price. I wish there was some basic version (maybe Beginner Corporation only, no Corporate Era, no solo version, no draft variation, or higher level AIs) which people could play for free because this is such an excellent way to learn this great game that it would be beneficial for gaming groups to be able to have players who were unfamiliar with the game learn it via the app/digital game before introducing it to the table at a game night. The learning curve for the physical board game might not be that steep for an experienced gamer, but everyone is a novice gamer when they first start playing board games and it’s not friendly or pleasant to be thrown in over your head, not to mention teaching the game takes time. I’ve watched gameplay videos of Terraforming Mars, but none of those really made the game click like playing the digital game did. Binge-playing the digital version for a bit is, in my opinion, a much better way to learn to play the game. It’s got everything the physical board game has, only streamlined, compact, and smooth. It’s such a compelling playing experience that I’d recommend the digital version for that alone, but as a way to learn the physical board game, it is unparalleled.


Women Designers in Board Gaming

Inclusion has historically been difficult in board games and board game designs, despite the overwhelming participation of women as gamers throughout history. Representation of non-binary and women characters remains very low, and very few women or non-binary designers make their way into the top 100 of board games. Given that the name of our blog is Girls Who Like Board Games, I have no interest in discussing the reason behind the lower representation or why it occurs. Our blog has made our case abundantly clear: We support people of colour, we support women, we support non-binary and abinary folks, and we support their inclusion in board gaming in every facet in which they wish to participate. 

Therefore, this article attempts to highlight board games designed by particular women and non-binary designers in the hopes that more people will seek out these designers and play their games. There are many more, but these are a few that I have personally played and enjoyed. Comments with additional ideas are encouraged! 

Susan McKinley Ross has developed Qwirkle, which won the Spiel de Jahres in 2011. Qwirkle is a game published with Mindware that is easy enough for small children to play but complex enough for adults. You match colours or shapes in lines to obtain points. By placing your blocks strategically, you can score points to ultimately win the game. This game, with thick and colourful shapes on a black background, is visually appealing to players and can be used for simple shape and colour recognition for younger children or for people with disabilities. This is really where Ross shines; she makes games that children and adults both love and want to play together. Qwirkle is, in my opinion, her best, but her game Hoot Owl Hoot also deserves a place on the shelf.

Rachel (Bowen) Simmons is a transwoman who created The Guns of Gettysburg and Napoleon’s Triumph. Both of these games bear mention for being nominated for a small pile of awards and for their outstanding gameplay. Those interested in war games that simulate these time periods will enjoy these games quite a bit. Even as a mostly non-war gamer, I found Napoleon’s Triumph extremely enjoyable and interesting to play, to the point that it really sparked my interest in wargaming in general. This game specifically recreates the Battle of Austerlitz by Napoleon and really brings home that battle in a way that I truly appreciated. 

Grace Holdinghaus works for Fantasy Flight games and co-created Mansions of Madness 2e. This game holds a special place in my heart due to my time spent with friends playtesting it and some of the expansions. Mansions of Madness manages to take the overextended Lovecraftian Mythos and make them interesting and playable in ways that few other games have managed. The pieces are solid and beautiful, it comes with miniatures (always a perk!) and runs off of a well designed app that allows all players to play together in a cooperative adventure. 

Nikki Valens also works for Fantasy Flight games. Although they also worked on Mansions of Madness, I feel their inclusion here is most necessary because of Legacy of Dragonholt. First, I don’t think enough people have heard of this lovely game. My children and I had the pleasure of playtesting this game, and have subsequently bought copies for others (as well as for ourselves). My oldest daughter specifically wrote to Valens to exalt the beautiful storytelling while we were involved in playtesting for this game. As an introduction to RPGs, this game really excels. In some ways, Dragonholt is a fantasy based choose your own adventure cooperative game, but it goes far beyond simply that. We also learned that much of the game can be completed (so long as you have someone who can read) on long car rides, so it’s 10/10 for entertainment value based just on that!

One of the most beautiful games that I’ve ever played is Lotus, designed by Jordan and Mandy Goddard. This game is simplistic in its beauty and design, and somehow managed to recreate the feeling of cultivating a flower garden using beautifully rendered cards and a handful of colourful, insect-shaped wooden pieces. Lotus lists itself as appropriate for ages 8 and up, and it is truly one of the most calming games in my collection; it’s a game you can pull out as a palette cleanser between heavier gaming sessions, as a last game of the night, or even just in its own right as a light but thoughtful game. I particularly enjoy playing this game with my children as we talk about heavier topics; the beautiful artwork creates a zen-like atmosphere that makes those discussions go smoothly.

Having had the pleasure to meet Shanna Germain in person a few times, I can say that she has always seemed to me to be one of the most enthusiastic game developers I’ve known. Like many of the other wonderful women developers here, Germain has seen her name on several big name games, but I’m going to focus on one of her lesser known delights. For Germain, this is No Thank You, Evil. This RPG designed for children is a fun and upbeat way to show kids how RPGs can be as much fun as you’d like. It also introduced to our gaming group an extremely important point: the “No thank you, evil” trump card, whereupon a triggered or upset player can put down a “Nope” card to indicate that they do not wish for the continuation of a current point on the table. As older gamers, we sometimes see that certain topics are off limits to certain players. Session zero often takes care of the big topics, but what if you absolutely forgot something that might trigger a sensitive player that you never dreamed happening in Session Zero. And every Game Master knows that players are absolutely notorious for taking the game beyond what you ever dreamed at the beginning. Having the ability to subtly but firmly take something out of the game if it is unduly upsetting is something that gaming groups really need more of if the point of the game is to be fun for everyone.

I have plans for other writers and developers for tabletop games, but couldn’t possibly cover all of the wonderful women, non-binary and transfolk in one article. Please feel free to comment if you have an idea for someone who you feel should be included in future articles. 


Writing for Girls Who Like Board Games

The Mighty Microblog

20200614_164208Girls Who Like Board Games is a international group of women with a presence on various social and game platforms. I stumbled across them and loved the vibe of the group. I have to say I feel more comfortable chatting with them than other board game groups I’ve tried out. I’m not sure if it’s because the gender identity of the group is female or if it’s just the chemistry of this particular group. When they said, “It’s time to start a blog, who’s in?” or words to that effect, I raised my hand: “me, me, me, me, me!” The group blog was launched and my first piece was published yesterday: Horrified: A Review with a Village Full of Monsters. They liked it so much they’ve asked me to be a regular contributor to the blog.

I’m not a super-experienced gamer with floor to ceiling shelves packed with hundreds of…

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