Solo Play: Valley of the Kings Afterlife

Posted by barb on Jul 7, 2017 in Entertainment, Games

Valley of the Kings: Afterlife box

Up next on the solo-play list was Valley of the Kings: Afterlife. Valley of the Kings is a Egypt-themed deck-building game where you build-up your deck with purchases from a pyramid and then must destroy your deck strategically by entombing cards. Only cards in your tomb earn victory points.

There are three types of cards: starter cards, set cards, and unique cards. The starters are cards with low purchasing power but with actions that help you build up your deck with better cards. The set cards are cards have different themes, such as mummification, jewelry, and tomb art. Your score for each set is equal to the square of the number of unique cards in that set – duplicate cards are worth nothing. Unique cards are just that, one-of-a-kind cards available in the stock, each of which with it’s own victory point value.

In the solo variant, you play essentially as usual, but are attempting to entomb exactly a complete set of everything – your 10 starter cards, one of each of the set cards, and each of the unique cards. Any duplicates in your tomb count against you.

I came very close to winning, but I had one duplicate card in my tomb. It was my own fault. I made a conscious decision to have a duplicate because I thought I had a card that would let me essentially trade that for another card. Well, yes, I had such a card, but the duplicate that I put in my tomb didn’t meet the other conditions of the card that would let me trade it, so I was stuck with the duplicate entombed card.

It was a fun game; almost too easy. There is a harder variant, which I’ll likely try once I win the easy version once!


Solo Play: Lost Woods

Posted by barb on Jun 29, 2017 in Entertainment, Games

Lost Woods

Next on my solo-play adventure was Lost Woods. Lost Woods is a map exploration game where adventurers collect gold and unique weapons all while defeating monsters and trying to avoid gold-stealing gnomes.

In the traditional multi-player game, each player is trying to escape the woods with the most gold. There is a cooperative variant which has players working together to ensure all 6 adventurers escape the woods with a minimum amount of gold. The co-op game adds the element of food, which counts down each round – run out of food, and you lose the game. The gnomes steal food instead of gold, and adventurers who lose fights against monsters must wait to be revived by a fellow adventurer, rather than simply losing a weapon and returning to the campsite.

For the solo-play variant, it’s played as the cooperative game, with the player controlling all of the adventurers. The adventurers must find one of the woods exits, battle the exit’s guardian, and then they all must exit with a minimum amount of collective gold before food runs out.

Blank character cards

Adventurers ready to go

It’s a fun single-player game. The added element of the food, and the danger of losing a fight (especially before you’ve uncovered the “revive” spell) makes it a challenge.

I ended up losing, but just barely. Most of my adventurers needed just one more round to get out of the exit, but there was one pair who would have needed an additional round to get out. I should have kept them all together better, I suppose.

Adventurer cards at the end of the game

Final woods layout


Solo Play: Agricola

Posted by barb on Jun 20, 2017 in Entertainment, Games

Agricola box

My next solo game was Agricola. In Agricola, you play a farming family starting with a couple in a wooden shack on a blank plot of land. The goal is to feed your family while you upgrade your shack to a clay hut and ultimately stone house, fill your land with crops and pastures, acquire farm animals, install major and minor improvements to your house, and employ people to help out.

If you’re not familiar with the game check out a play-through.

In the solo play variant, the game is set up like a two-player game (so, there are no extra worker spaces on the board) and you start the game with no food. Otherwise, game play is the same as the multi-player game, with you just taking one turn after another.

Agricola set-up

As always, when I play Agricola, I feel like I just can’t make any headway. While in the end I had a full farm board, I had used all of my fences, and I have some leftover grain and vegetables, it was a struggle the whole way.

I’m not shy about playing hard games, but for some reason Agricola has just not resonated with me – I never feel like I’ve played a good game, even when I win the multi-player version.

I suppose this time was certainly easier, since I wasn’t fighting other people for prime positions, and I could plan a few moves ahead without suddenly compensating for losing the spaces I wanted. Playing solo also meant that the resources piled up until I grabbed them, meaning that I could get lots of anything at once, if I waited long enough. But even though that challenge was removed from the game, it was still challenging to build up my farm, make a family, get livestock, feed everyone, and renovate my wooden shack.

Agricola - final farm

I ended with a score of 35 – 15 less than the goal of 50 points. I would have had 41 if I hadn’t had to take the two begging cards, but still short of the goal.


Solo Play: Suburbia

Posted by barb on Jun 13, 2017 in Entertainment, Games


Next up was Suburbia. This is a tile-laying game where you try to build up your town into a thriving city. As you purchase civic buildings, housing, businesses, and industrial buildings, you adjust your city’s income and reputation to earn cash and population. The goal is to have the highest population at the end of the game.

Each tile you lay has the potential to help or hurt your income and reputation. It can also bring in cash directly. In the multi-player game, your tiles can also affect the income and reputation in other players’ cities. Finally, there are universal and individual goals in play to help players choose a direction for their cities (and make extra points!).

There are two versions of solo-play, I only played the first. In this variant, the game is set up as it is for two players, but no goal tiles are dealt out.
Suburbia set up

Differences from a typical game include the following:

  • No goal tiles in play
  • After each turn, a tile is discarded from the market – it’s the player’s choice, but if you pick anything other than the first two, you need to pay the cost of the market position
  • When the “one more round” token is drawn from the “C” stack of tiles, the game ends immediately
  • When your population crosses a red line on the score board, your income and reputation are each reduced by two, rather than one

Here’s my final city:
My final borough

And my final score:
Suburbia final score

Final score ranking

I’ll confess, I have this game on my tablet, so I’ve played some version of the solo game previously. However, the tablet also has a number of challenge modes – building a city with low reputation but high income, filling in a city from some pre-laid tiles, etc.

The game involves a lot of set-up, which the tablet eliminates, but I miss the tactile element of the physical game. I found I enjoyed this more than I thought I would.

Early in the game, the additional penalty for growing the population didn’t seem too bad. I was able to keep my income high and reputation modest, even with the penalty. Then, at some point, I couldn’t continue to overcome it, and ended up with several turns where I had negative income, reputation, or both.

It was a fast game, and I found myself eyeing the 60-population spot on the board, knowing that was the minimum I needed to not be in the lowest ranking. And while I enjoyed the game, I did miss the player interaction that comes from the multi-player game – thinking twice about buying another airport or housing development because I didn’t want to help other players with their income or cash-flow.


Solo Play: Wizards of the Wild

Posted by barb on Jun 6, 2017 in Entertainment, Games

Next on the list for testing out the solo-play variant was Wizards of the Wild. In this game, players are animal wizards who battle in a magic contest run by acolytes of the Lost Masters. Dice rolls determine what resources you have each turn, along with saved resources on your card. Collecting a carefully curated set of spells, you can set up combinations to supercharge each turn.

In the solo play variant, you play against a dummy opponent who starts with the standard starting set of resources and a number of points based your chosen difficulty. The opponent can lose resources and points, based on the spells you use and the “skull penalty” for each round. And you, of course, try to make as many points as you can in the usual fashion – through victory points earned on your turn using spells or overcoming challenges, bribing the acolyte, and end-game victory points on spells and challenges.

I’ve actually played the solo variant of Wizards of the Wild a few times before – I pulled it out when I first got the game so I could learn the mechanics and understand the types of cards.

Wizards of the Wild game 1 cards

Wizards of the Wild game 1 score

As with the multi-player version, the solo variant is quick and easy to play, and has great art to look at. The key is to find spells and challenges that work together to maximize the combinations you can make each turn – this seems even more true in the solo game. I’m not sure how often I’ll pull it out for solo play, but it was enjoyable.

I played twice, and finally won the second time. I think that’s the only time I’ve won the solo variant.

Wizards of the Wild game 2 cards

Wizards of the Wild game 2 final score


Solo Play: Mint Works

Posted by barb on May 30, 2017 in Entertainment, Games

Mint Works Tin

While I was home alone for a week, I decided to try out some of our games that have solo-play variants. First on the list was Mint Works. This is a worker placement game that fits in a mint tin. Each player is building a neighborhood in the city of Mintopia.

I’ll confess, I’ve only played this a couple of times before trying the solo variant. As a multi-player game, it’s a fun, fast-paced worker placement game. There’s more depth to the game than you might expect from something that fits in a mint tin. The “workers” are your mints, which double as currency, forcing you to balance how much you spend each round with how much you want to save to purchase better buildings for your neighborhood. You can check out a run through (from Rahdo), if you want to see more about the game play.

For the solo-play variant, you employ one of four AI opponents. They each have different special abilities, game mechanics, and card-buying preferences. The location cards (the cards with worker spaces) are places in a line with a specific order. The AI will always take the first available open worker spot, from the top down, that they are able to legally play. They would play until all of their mints were gone or until there were no more legal spots for them to go.

I played three games, the first two with one AI and the third with a different one. In the first two games, I added one of the optional advanced locations to game, and in the third I played with just the basic locations.

The first AI I played with, Sonic, always took 2 turns in a row, which meant he always had a ton of mints (the first location is a place to spend one mint to get two – he would always get to use that space twice).

In the first game I had the Recycler as the advanced location – if you use this location, you discard one of your plans or buildings in exchange for mints equal to the cost and “star” value (stars are essentially victory points). By following the rule that he plays until he doesn’t have a legal spot to play, he always played this location and lost whatever plans for buildings he had in his neighborhood. I won handily, despite his loads of cash.

Final cards in game 1

In the second game, I swapped out the Recycler for the Crowdsourcing location, which just got Sonic more cash. Since he wasn’t having to trash his plans and buildings, he won quickly. With all his mints, he could always buy the expensive plans, which are worth more stars.

Final card layout for my second game

In my third and final game of the evening, I swapped out Sonic for AI Justin. Justin blocks all other spaces on a location when he plays there and he starts with the start player marker. This meant I was always had an uphill battle to get mints – he blocked the Producer right away, which is the location where you exchange one mint for two. Justin he would go after the cheap plans, so we were fighting for the same plans. Then he built the Assembler, which allows a player to automatically build plans without having to visit the builder, at which point I was completely screwed.

Final card layout for my third game

Overall, I found the AI mechanic interesting. Since I always knew what they were going to do next, I could plan my moves to ensure I could block them when I needed to. However, since the order of the upcoming building plans was unknown, there was still an element of surprise and continued need to change strategy.

The mechanic was clearly broken for the Sonic/Recycler combination, and I would not recommend playing those together, unless you wanted a quick win. For the other two games, it felt almost impossible to win. I’ll have to play some more to see if that feeling is true. I understand that a solo game should be challenging, since winning every game gets boring. However, it still needs to feel winnable.

I’ll certainly pull this out again when I find myself alone and wanting to play a game.


Curator-led Tour of the Ocean Hall

Posted by barb on Mar 13, 2016 in Around DC, Recreation

Last year we bid on, and won, a curator-led tour of the Sant Ocean Hall at the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum during the National Zoo‘s Zoofari auction. And, today, we got to cash in our prize.

We arrived at the museum early so that we could have some time in the exhibit before the “hordes” arrived. We met Dr. Nancy Knowlton, a coral reef marine biologist and Sant Chair of Marine Science.

She and I had emailed a bit beforehand, and she had asked what kinds of interests our group had, so she could concentrate on those with her tour. Since we had all been through the ocean hall before, I suggested that she choose some of her favorite objects or objects with an interesting story.

After signing us in, Dr. Knowlton brought us to the entrance of the Ocean Hall. She took us to several things around the exhibit and we asked loads of questions. This included talking about cuttlefish camouflage, the Science on a Sphere, the coral reef aquarium, and the P-T extinction event.

A couple of the most interesting things we talked about were the fluid that the specimens are displayed in, the life in one square foot exhibit, shifting baselines, ocean positivity, and our behind-the-scenes look at the collections.

We stopped to look at one of the giant squid specimens, and Dr. Knowlton talked about the fluid that it is stored in. Originally, such specimens were kept in formaldehyde or alcohol. But, formaldehyde is toxic and that much alcohol in one place could destroy the museum if there was an accident. 3M created a different solution that wouldn’t be as dangerous. However, it turns out the solution is about three times more dense than water. When they put the solution in with the specimens, the specimens floated right up to the top! So, if you look closely at the specimens on display, there are cables and poles keeping them in place.

Dr. Knowlton describing her work

Dr. Knowlton had a chance to tell us more about her research when she took us back to the Life in One Cubic Foot temporary exhibit. She had developed a way to repeatably test the diversity of coral reefs. To do this, they place a stack of metal plates that’s about a cubic foot in volume. After about a year, they pick the stack up and catalog the large life within it. Then they scrape off the rest of the life and make a “smoothie” that they then identify the various DNAs present to get a catalog of life that’s present. The photographer that was involved in this project was inspired to look at what other life is in one cubic foot elsewhere in the world. This exhibit showcases some of those cubic feet.

We stopped in the fossil area to take our picture with the ancient shark jaws – a shark that makes a great white look like a guppy.

Group photo of the ocean hall tour

Then Dr. Knowlton brought us to a new education center at the museum – a center where they have a selection of the collection in drawers that visitors can look at, handle (in some cases), and get more information about. She showed us some of the ocean specimens behind the scenes collections at the museum, laboratory.

Finally, she took us back behind-the-scenes. Most of the collections have been moved off-site, due to the dangers of keeping that much alcohol and formaldehyde in one place. However, there are still a few things on the premises – we saw a huge bank of cabinets which held various plant life. She also brought us down to the lab where graduate students and postdocs work on identifying DNA strands of various animals.

To make the day’s adventures complete, we stumbled upon the St. Patrick’s Day parade in DC when we left the museum (on our way to the National Art Gallery to see the Greek Bronzes exhibition), so we stopped to watch.

Pot 'o Gold in the St. Paddy's parade

Dancers in the St. Paddy's parade

Bikes in the St. Paddy's parade


Kickstarter Games: Batting three out of four

Posted by barb on Sep 9, 2015 in Games

I rediscovered Kickstarter when the Veronica Mars folks were trying to fund their movie. I now peruse the games section regularly and put some money behind a new game every once in a while. In the past year, I’ve received four games that I’ve backed – Evolution, [redacted], Exploding Kittens, and Galaxy of Trian. I’m happy to say that three of them turned out to be pretty fun. Here is a quick review of each of them.


Evolution came about a year ago, and we’ve played it at our game nights a couple times. The game mechanics are fairly simple, and easy to remember once you play through a couple of rounds. In each round, you draw cards, then play one to the watering hole — these will be revealed later, but determine how much food is available to the herbivores. Then everyone plays at once (they recommend this for the 6-player game, but it speeds things up, so we do it for all games), playing as many cards as they want to do a variety of tasks: add a new species, add a trait to a species, grow the population a species, grow the size of a species. Then the food is revealed, and the players feed their species, going around the table starting with the start player. Herbivores eat from the watering hole, and carnivores attack other species as they can. The food is swept into a bag, and then the next round starts.

I liked this one enough to support the expansion Kickstarter this past spring – Evolution Flight. We haven’t played with the expansion, but will likely do that at our next game night this month.

Exploding Kittens

Exploding Kittens is a simple card game which caught my attention because one of the co-creators is the guy behind The Oatmeal. It’s easy to learn and quick to play. The art is a lot of fun (as expected).

Game play is simple, play some cards, then draw a card and hope it isn’t an exploding kitten. If it is an exploding kitten, hopefully you have way to defuse it, otherwise you are out of the game. The last unexploded player wins.

Since it’s fairly quick and easy to explain to newcomers, this is a great game to play on game night while waiting for another table to finish their game.


[redacted] came on Kickstarter shortly after Evolution, and it looked like fun, so I backed it. I received the game late last year (December, maybe?). After reading the rulebook, I had no clue how the game play worked – it felt like the rules needed another go-through by people unfamiliar with the game and maybe some reorganization. So, the game sat on our shelves for a while.

One of my game night regulars kept asking when we would try it out, but I hesitated to play it at a normal game night, because it would take a lot of start-up to figure out the rules. We decided to try it out with just four of us last week at a small game night.

I re-read the rules ahead of time, as did my husband. The game play itself sounds relatively simple – each player is a spy working with another player, but they don’t know who their partner is until they discover each other through interrogations. Each player moves through an ambassador’s house with a specific objective in mind, depending on the scenario being played. In our game, we were two teams of trainee spies trying to activate a computer virus, requiring one of us to find the right floppy disk and discard it in the computer room while another player is in the control room. Players take turns moving through the board, stopping when they reach a room they want to use or when they encounter another agent.

Each room has a different function or ability – from the storage rooms where agents can pick up new items to the X-ray room where an agent can look at other players’ items as they pass through X-ray-enabled doors.

However, the mechanics of the player encounters was confusing, game start-up was not well explained in the rule book, and it wasn’t clear when items were to be discarded. We had to consult the rules during every player’s turn, and often couldn’t find what we were looking for.

Expect we could watch the hours of online videos about the game to figure out the answers to our questions, but the game should be completely contained in the box. I shouldn’t have to have an outside source available to determine the rules. I don’t expect to try it again.

Galaxy of Trian

Galaxy of Trian was another that came on Kickstarter shortly after Evolution, but the game itself took a bit longer than the creators projected, so I only just got it about a week ago. However, I appreciate that they took the time to get the game right – the components are well-made and the rules are clear and well-written.

The game itself is a bit reminiscent of Carcassonne in that you play tiles with the goals of closing nebulae, connecting planets, walling off empty space, and preventing your opponents from doing the same. You have the option of playing an emissary on a tile as it is played, and those emissaries can occupy a nebula (and extract minerals once its closed) or a system of planets. The trick is that you have to have the most emissaries in a region when it is closed to occupy it. And, if the non-controlling player closes a region, your emissaries are stuck there for the rest of the game…unless they are in a position where you can play a teleport or exmitter on an adjacent tile AND you haven’t upgraded them to aa research station yet.

Andrew and I played a couple times. It will be interesting to see how it plays with additional players. The Kickstarter version I bought also came with a number of expansions, however, I want to try the base game a few more times before introducing those.

Galaxy of Trian player board Galaxy of Trian Tiles


Zoo Zoom 8k

Posted by barb on Nov 23, 2014 in Running


Sure, I completed a half marathon last weekend, so maybe I should have taken a week or two off from racing. But, I had wanted to do this race last year, but wasn’t able to, so I decided to go for it this year. I talked my friend Stef into doing it with me.

It was in the upper 30s when we got to the zoo — not the coldest I’ve run in, but not my first choice. Apparently it was in the teens last year, so we couldn’t complain too much. We tried to stay warm while waiting for the start.

Ready to race!

Here’s Stef crossing the start:
Go Stef, go!

I hung back a bit more, because I wanted to stay out of the way of the faster runners. The first part of the route went through Druid Park – near a lake, and the looping back to the zoo’s entrance.

Runners in the park

Andrew caught me near the zoo entrance:

Shortly after I hit the half-way mark, Stef was nearing the finish. (She used to race competitively…she tried to tell me how “slow” she would be in the race. She finished 7th in her age group, and pulled off 8:20 minute miles. Yeah…so slow!)

Stef nearing the finish

In Mile 3, the course plunged down a hill. I had fun running down the whole hill — my 30-30 intervals be damned! I knew I’d have to come back up it, walking, so I wanted to enjoy the downhill. I slogged up the hill, through part of the zoo, and into another uphill. But I knew the end was close.

I stopped to hug the penguin on the way to the finish.

Hugs for the penguin

Finish lin

Afterwards, we stuck around the zoo to say high to some of the animals.

Barb and the goats Stef and a new friend





Avengers Half Marathon

Posted by barb on Nov 16, 2014 in Running

Disney pulled me back in — I thought I was done with running half marathons, but then Disney goes and puts on an Avengers-themed race. (And a Star Wars-themed race, which I will also be doing in January.)

I started getting into the theme right away at the expo. Here I am with my new boyfriend:
Me and my new boyfriend

I stayed on East-Coast time, so getting up at 3:30 AM wasn’t TOO bad. I had flat Barb ready to go.
Flat Barb is ready

So I got up and ready in a flash.
Captain Barb ready to run

The hotel was fairly close to Disneyland (just across the street), so I walked over the start, dropped off my bag, and a that point the runners were being called to the corrals. There were lots of runners in costume all over. I loved this Tony Stark, playboy, though I can’t imaging running in a tux!
Tony Stark, playboy

Corral H, the last corral for those of us slow-pokes, was HUGE. It had more people in it than the first three combined (give or take). I made my way close to the front of the corral and seeing the rest of the people stream in over the next 30 minutes gave me hope that I’d have the extra time I needed to finish the race. I started chatting with a couple of other ladies – one of whom had followed me as I was threading my way through the people in the corral to get as close to the front as I could. It was their first half marathon, so I chatted about my experiences at my previous halfs, and I think it helped them feel a little better. If nothing else, it helped pass the time until we were able to move up to the start.

Start line

One thing I did this time that I forgot to do at Dumbo, was I enjoyed the course. I took the time to take in the sights and all of the other people in awesome costumes. Sure, I got into my own groove, focused on my intervals, and tried to keep up my pace, but I also remembered to look around. In particular, I remembered to look for the photographers, so I have a slew of decent race photos this time. (Though, I accidentally ordered them on CD, rather than as downloads, so I have to wait a couple weeks to get them.)

I didn’t stop much through the parks, but I had to grab a picture of the Haunted Mansion, all dressed up for the holidays.
Haunted Mansion dressed for the holidays

The parks took just the first 3 or so miles of the race. Once we got out of the park, it was much less crowded, making for easier running. But, around mile 5, the wind picked up. When I checked the weather later, we had been having gusts of 20-25 mph (!). Starting around Mile 5, many of the mile markers were down – we could see the clocks, but the rest of the signs were down.

The wind took out many mile markers

I kept up my running through the 6 mile mark, managing a negative 10k split. But then, the wind overtook me. Either that, or I had gone out too fast — my training maybe didn’t prepare me to keep up the pace I had initially set. I’m not sure which.

The other problem was that the course then turned onto the Santa Ana River Trail — a big dirt trail. Combined with the wind, it was hard to run. We were treated to the this street art, though:

Street art for the race

Around Mile 7-8, Disney had invited a cosplay club to cheer us on. I didn’t count how many were there, but it seemed like a lot. My favorite was Star Lord, who, sadly, I didn’t get a picture of.

Soon thereafter, we got to Angels Stadium. I remembered to enjoy this experience, which I’m not sure I did last time. Taking in the stands, and they had a marching band going on the field as we ran through.

Entering the stadium

I was excited when I passed Mile 10, because they tend to relax the sweep a bit at that point. Though, that was also when I noticed the pace bikes more and more, so I didn’t get too complacent. I was walking full time, but didn’t let myself slack.

The wind had not let up at all. There was a f–king tumbleweed rolling down the street. A TUMBLEWEED.

There was an f---ing tumbleweed!

I walked in the rest of the race, crossed the finish and got my medal. I managed not to cry after crossing the finish – that’s a first for me.

Finish line

The family reunion area was closed due to the wind, and I suspect they had taken down the backdrops for finisher photos (though maybe they didn’t have them to begin with??).

Turns out, I had a PR…by 8 seconds. Heh. Not much to write home about, but given the change in my training, I’m actually happy. This time around, I trained at a slower pace than my previous races. I think this strategy helped me avoid injury during training, but didn’t do anything for my confidence. I’m going to change up my training plan a bit for Star Wars, but I’m jumping into the middle of the plan, so I don’t want to do anything too radical.


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