Friday, December 31, 2010

PUZZLE: The New Year's Eve Suppers

Let's finish up the year with one of Henry Dudeney's classic puzzles.

"The proprietor of a small London café has given me some interesting figures. He says that the ladies who come alone to his place for refreshment spend each on an average eighteenpence, that the unaccompanied men spend half a crown each, and that when a gentleman brings in a lady he spends half a guinea. On New Year's Eve he supplied suppers to twenty-five persons, and took five pounds in all. Now, assuming his averages to have held good in every case, how was his company made up on that occasion? Of course, only single gentlemen, single ladies, and pairs (a lady and gentleman) can be supposed to have been present, as we are not considering larger parties."

Thursday, December 30, 2010

xkcd Does Games

xkcd is one of the best comics on the web.

About.com On My Colonial Gaming Story

My Colonial Gaming story got some nice comments from Erik Arneson at About.com. Subscribers should already have the March issue of GAMES Magazine, which should be on newsstands by January 4th.

The entire series, including some extra material, can be found here

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Mid-Break Gaming Update

We're sitting under a foot of snow out here in South Jersey, which of course means one thing: lots of game time! There was some new stuff under the tree, and we broke out some old favorites as well. Here are some quick takes on some new items. (Several of these will get more thorough coverage later on.)

Trango
This is a shape-making game from ThinkFun, in which everyone gets a pile of colored, interlocking triangular pieces. The goal is to places the pieces in order to make one of four scoring shapes. It's a neat idea, but thus far I've only played it with two people, and it seems like a game that will work much better with 3 or 4.

Space Hulk: Death Angel
My son is the Games Workshop gamer in the house. I can take it or leave it, and based on the huge expense of the hobby, I usually choose to leave it. Death Angel is much cheaper, card-based version of Space Hulk, the famous squad-based bug hunt game played with miniatures. (Space Hulk was even made into a halfway decent PC game back in the 90s.) The card game is burdened by disorganized rules, which make a fairly simple exploration/combat mechanic read like a Chilton guide to disassembling a Ferrari Testarossa. Once you digest it all, however, it's an interesting game with a pretty high body count. You control two men who are part of a co-op team fighting constantly-spawning aliens. Everyone picks one of three action types (basically: move, fight, or support) and then resolves them in order. Then the bugs get a chance to fight back. It's a decent enough game, but it could have been explained much more clearly.

Black Sheep
I found this old Reiner Knizia game at our local Borders (which was going out of business), and gave it to my daughter for Christmas. Players basically bid on fields of animals using poker hands. The little plastic animals in the field act like the flop in a hand of Texas Holdem: everyone combines them with cards to make a "hand," ranging from five of a kind, down through full house, pairs, and so on. The winner gets the little animals and scores their point values, but you have to watch out for the black sheep: they're worth negative points. I was expecting this one to be a lot lighter than it was. It actually requires a bit of strategy and takes some time to play a full game. We liked it, however, and we're looking forward to another round.

Small World
A game of Small World during our post-Christmas blizzard.
Since I picked up two Small World expansions--Cursed and Grand Dames--we had to give them a test drive. The White Ladies of Grand Dames are a bit hard to figure: so few units (only 2) with such a minimal racial bonus. The Kobolds are a good race for swarming, and the "white tower" ability of the Priestesses makes them pretty appealing. We were most surprised to discover that the "Peace-Loving" power (3 victory points for not attacking during a turn) is actually incredibly useful for a starting race, since it's not unusual to go a few turns in the beginning without attacking someone. Overall, these are a decent pair of expansions, although not quite as impressive as Necromancer's Isle and Be Not Afraid.

Chess
Chess Cafe's Club Combo
I picked up a new tournament chess set from ChessCafe: vinyl mat, triple-weight club-style pieces, and a durable carrying case. It's really quite nice, and only cost $20 after discounts. My daughter (the nine-year-old who regularly beats me at Cribbage) slapped me down on our second game. She takes these things seriously.

GoldenEye (Wii)
I haven't touched the single-player portion, but the multiplayer is great. You can play as dozens of characters from the entire Bond series, some with special powers. Our favorite is Oddjob with his killer bowler hat, but there's a lot to love here. I'm looking forward to digging in deeper.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I (Xbox 360)
I've only logged half and hour so far, and it is not impressing me. Repetitive rail-shooting sequences, pointless stealth missions, and a cover shooter all smashed together. My kids assure me that it gets better, but I have my doubts.

Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood (Xbox 360)
It's not new for Christmas, but I'm still logging a lot of time on it. I've upgraded all of Rome and I'm swimming in money, my assassins are all maxed out, and I've looted every piece of treasure I can find.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas Blessings

I wanted to wish all of you the blessings of a most happy Christmas, and thank you for spending some of your time here over the past six months. May the day find you, your families, and loved ones happy, healthy, and joyous.

And from my family to yours, a happy ABCDEFGHIJKMNOPQRSTUVWXYZ.
And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to be delivered. And she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
Botticelli's Mystical Nativity
And in that region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.
And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear. And the angel said to them, "Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger." And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased!"
The Gospel of Luke

PS: I must have read and heard this passage hundreds of times, and I still expect it to be followed by "That's what Christmas is all about Charlie Brown."

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Humble Indie Bundle: iOS Version

A group of iOS developers has banded together to offer the Indie iPhone Holiday Sale through the end of December. Six titles are now marked down to $1 each, with 1/3rd of the revenue going to the Child's Play charity. The 6 titles are Osmos, Canabalt, Spider: Secret of Bryce Manor, Eliss, Drop7, and Solipskier.  I don't ever remember seeing Canabalt on sale, so this is a good deal.

This isn't a "bundle." You still have to buy each separately.

And, yes, posting has been light of late. Christmas perpetrations + another cold = low blogging output. It will probably continue to be pretty light until after New Year's Day, but I'm still planning to pop in now and then if something interesting comes across my radar.

Monday, December 20, 2010

App O' The Mornin': Scarlet and the Spark of Life Review

Grade: B
Price: $3

Games like Scarlet and the Spark of Life are a perfect fit for the mobile devices, but developers are still searching for the best way to make them work.

Scarlet plays out like a single mission from a larger adventure game. In fact, I feel like I played this exact same sequence in a King's Quest game years ago. That's not a knock: it's been kind of refreshing to find good old fashioned adventure gaming making a bit of a comeback in recent years.

Scarlet has everything you remember from the old adventure games: long dialog sequences, a few locations that are traversed endlessly, objects to collect and use, puzzles to solve, and a bit of a story to tell. The dialog is the usual mixture of witty banter and lame jokes, but it's fairly well done for the genre and doesn't drag on too long. The puzzles are almost all object-based, and since you only have a few locations, you don't ever have too many objects to try out. Even so, one puzzle takes a bit of time to figure out: not because it's difficult, but because it's illogical. (Hint: use the bird's nest on the rocks.)

This is the only challenge that's a problem, however, and the rest are a fairly pleasing collection of object use, dialog, and single-screen puzzles. None of it will slow down an experienced gamer for more than an hour, and this is is where Scarlet runs into some trouble. Since this is subtitled "Scarlet Adventures: Episode 1," this first game is clearly intended as a sliver of a larger game. That's wonderful: I love that kind format, and would like to see more people implementing episodic gaming, with new chapters ever month or even every week.

A $3 price tag, however, is not going to work for this kind of format. I rarely balk at prices, since $3 is still plenty cheap for a decent game. But Scarlet needs to either be a little less expensive or offer a bit more gameplay for this to work, particularly if Launching Pad Games intends to release these on a regular schedule.

There are some illogical bits in the design, such as boxes of wool that don't quite work correctly and a bit too much back-and-forthing, but these are innocuous annoyances. Visually, the game is quite strong, with bright colors and whimsical designs.

Scarlet is a good 1 hour adventure game for fans of the genre, but it's a probably a better bet for tweens and pre-tweens. It's a good start to a series: it just needs to be longer or cheaper.

Friday, December 17, 2010

This Week In Board Game News -- 12/17

Seize Your Turn's Twitterstream digest dishes up the gaming links for the week that was. It's as thorough a roundup of news and reviews as you'll find anywhere.

Estonia Buys 500 Copies of Agricola

Yes, really. And at full retail price, rather than from an internet site where they could have saved a few thousand Euros.

The idea was cooked up by the Estonian Ministry of Agriculture, probably after a wild night of beer pong and herring burgers, in order to "promote farming and countryside life among the youth."

Agricola is a Eurogame in which players expand and improve their farms.

Says the Ministry's PR rep: “One of our biggest tasks is to promote country life and farming, especially among youth. We plan to hand out the board games and organize tournaments. It’s a marketing tool."

I'm sure this means I'm hopelessly provincial, but whenever I read "Estonia" I think "Elbonia," and now I'm imagining people up to their elbows in mud while playing a Minor Improvement.

Cosmic Encounter: Cosmic Conflict

 And while we're on the subject of Cosmic Encounter, there is a new expansion set due ... sometime. I didn't draw a Prophet power card, so I'm not sure when, but probably "some time in 2011."

The set is called Cosmic Conflict, and here's the official line:
In Cosmic Conflict, 20 new alien races explode onto the galaxy. Players will now shudder at the insidious kindness of the Empath, blink in confusion at the antics of the Lunatic, and howl in outrage as their planets are stolen away by the Claw.
Cosmic Conflict also makes the Cosmos even bigger, adding another player (and attractive black components) to the game. Cosmic Quakes will shake things up, ensuring that no player’s hand is truly safe. And as if that wasn’t enough, Cosmic Conflict introduces a new variant to the game – the hazard deck, which confronts the players with dangerous and amusing events that can crop up at any time.
Hazards are special game-altering conditions that bring exciting effects to your Cosmic Encounter experience. Special destiny cards, drawn during the destiny phase, display a “hazard warning” in the upper left corner; this indicates that a hazard card should be drawn.
Consisting of two types (temporary and permanent), these cards have a variety of wild effects. The Energy Fields hazard card, for example, lets each main player draw two free cards... but they must show them to the group first. And the optional “Extremely Hazardous Variant” will take you on a wild ride; it brings a new hazard card into play every turn!

VARIANTS: Powers Monopoly

Powers Monopoly is a variant that uses any basic Monopoly set and rules, but adds special rules to mimic the "powers" concepts of Cosmic Encounter.

The rules for Powers Monopoly were floating around the internet for a while, but seem to have disappeared. My copy of the rules credits Scott Weiss and Rick Rubenstein, but if that's an error please correct me. I think the only other place hosting it is Game Central Station.

All of the rules are the same as in regular Monopoly with the following exceptions:

1. Each player is given two powers assigned at random from the list below. Write each on an index card, or simply print the list and cut them into individual slips of paper, one per power. Then and have each player draw two from the pile. The powers give players unique abilities that allow them to subvert the normal rules in some way. Some powers require a marker to denote when they can be used (for example, once per trip around the board.) Use whatever you have handy.

2. A player may not use his powers while in Jail.

3. When a player lands on Free Parking, he or she receives a Zap (use whatever markers are convenient; just make sure they're different from power-specific markers.) The Zap may be played on any player attempting to use a power, thereby cancelling the power's effect. The Zapped player may not attempt to reuse any of his or her powers until the next player's turn.

As an optional rule, you can allow players to trade powers as part of a deal.

You can find the individual powers after the jump.

Settlers of Catan: 15th Anniversary Edition



The 10th Anniversary Edition of Settlers of Catan was an over-the-top, sculpted 3D version of the game stored in a treasure chest, and currently selling for $300 to $500.

The 15th Anniversary Edition is a still pretty lavish, with a hefty $150 price tag. This version is all-wood, including the box and the tiles.

It includes the following:
  • 52 map hexagons
  • 144 specially designed playing pieces
  • 6 hexagonal building costs summaries
  • 2 special victory point markers
  • 28 wooden number chits
  • 1 robber
  • 2 dice
  • 154 cards

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Mac App Store: Coming 1/6/11

TouchArcade has the news: the Mac App Store launches on January 6th, 2011. Apple knows a winning idea when they spot one, so they're rolling out direct delivery for computer software using the same model that drove iTunes and the App Store to success.

This is the future, people. I'm not pretending to be Criswell, but since my days on the US edition of T3 I've been saying that all hard storage media will die. Every bit of storage technology we've seen for the past 30 years was merely leading up to digital delivery. Floppy discs, CD-ROM, DVD, Blu-Ray: they will all fall. One day soon, they will seem as novel as 8-track tapes, just like the idea of going to a store to buy a game or any other piece of software.

PC gaming already has a proven model in Steam, but it's not the most intuitive system for buying and installing software. Apple has a particular genius for creating smooth edges and a consumer-friendly experience. Could they even attempt a PC App Store some day?

If you're a Mac user (and I'm not) watch this space. This is the future, and remember: the future is "where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives!"

Poker Blog

If you read some of my card game coverage, you probably get the idea that I'm not a huge fan of Poker. I appreciate it, I admire the subtle strategies and the psychological game, but it's just not something I return to by choice. When I do play, it's because my son likes the betting and bluffing element. He seems to think his Asperger's gives him a natural advantage in this area, because it's very hard to "read" a person with Asperger's. I could play it socially and enjoy it, but it just doesn't scratch my card-playing itch.

That said, I have to give a shout out to a terrific Poker Blog that I just found while stumbling around on teh interwebz. It's called Online Poker Blog, and it is just crammed full of the kind of stuff I like, including strategies, variants, lore, news, and more. This is just a good example of a single-topic gaming site, and it's worth a stop.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Twittering and Facebooking

I'm a reluctant Twitterer, and a fairly indifferent Facebookie, but I've found both are useful for two things: sending out links for new posts, and broadcasting price drops in the App Store and elsewhere.

I'm mentioning this because Roll Through The Ages is marked down from $3 to free for a little while, just like Axe In The Face went free for a short time last week. I only post these brief updates through the State of Play Facebook page and through the State of Play Twitter page, so if you're interested in that kind of information, you might want to consider following the site.

The Return of the Humble Indie Bundle

The Humble Indie Bundle is a set-your-own-price package of great independent games, and it's back with a second great offering this year. The titles in the bundle are a mixture of great games such as Braid, Machinarium, and Osmos, and works in progress, such as Cortex Command and Revenge of the Titans. Sold separately, they're worth about $85

At the Humble Indie Bundle site you can set your own price for the complete set of five games, with the money split any way you like. Sliders on the purchase page allow you to divide the money among the developers, between two charities (Child's Play and the Electronic Frontier Foundation), or any combination of these three and the Humble Bundle group.

In the first 24 hours, there were about 77,000 purchases for a total of more than half a million dollars. Markus "Notch" Persson (creator of Minecraft) kicked things into high-gear by paying $2000 for the set. Average selling price is about $7, which is a disappointment. Broken down across various systems, Linux users were the most generous ($13+ average), followed by Mac ($8), and finally PC ($6).

That's really not enough for this package, and if the average is that low it means some people are pretty much stealing the games. If people want indie games, they need to support indie developers, and the Humble Indie Bundle is a great way to do it while also supporting a couple of good causes.

App O' The Mornin': Braveheart Review

Grade: B
Price: $1 (lite version available)

I kept expecting Braveheart to turn into something interesting: a good Diablo clone, perhaps, or even a deeper version of a Solomon's Keep. When it didn't, I decided to just enjoy it for the slick bit of mindless mayhem it actually is.

That's kind of a shame, since the game is tricked out with all the trappings of a decent RPG app. The production is top-notch. The story, such as it is, is told via expertly drawn comic book panels with some brief flashes of wit. But the narrative doesn't ever add up to more than a clothesline on which to hang the levels, and the character you create never really develops into anything all that interesting.

Oh, the game has plenty of stats and things to buy. There are stats for your hero's two weapons (flail and crossbow) and well as for vitality (total health), mastery (I never did figure this one out), and wisdom. That's all well and good, and I dutifully allotted my points to various stats after each new level, but I couldn't avoid a sneaking feeling that none of it mattered all that much.

You can also buy different versions of the crossbow and flail, each with unique characteristics. There are potions, bonus and perks. Enemies drop plenty of stuff. Everything is here for an interesting RPG.

And then you spend level after level spinning in a circle mowing down waves of enemies and ... actually, there is no "and". That's what you do. And then you do it again. Sometimes you do it over here, and sometimes you do it over there. Sometimes there are slime monsters, sometimes there are tree monsters, sometimes there are wizards. Actually, the game doesn't skimp on the monsters. You get plenty of them, in various forms and types, but they all do one of two things: charge you at the center of the screen, or cast spells at your from a distance.

And it all boils down to making little circley motions with your finger. Your hero's main weapon is a flail, which he wields by spinning around and around really really fast. You draw circles to get him moving, and then using simple taps to steer him around the tiny level maps. After a while, he'll slow down and you have to spin him up again, but he's pretty much a whirling dervish of death, and any critter that comes within flail range is promptly pulped. You can also use a two-finger tap to fire off some crossbow shots, but this actually doesn't integrate all that well with the spin mechanic. You can make it work, but it's a bit awkward.

Don't get me wrong: this is plenty heaps o' fun. The combat is immensely entertaining for a while, but all the RPG paraphernalia kind of gets you hoping for something a little bit ... more. You're largely reduced to knocking off several waves of enemies, and then moving on to the next set. After a few levels, you open a new region, which gives you a new environment and enemies, but the pace and the gameplay never really varies all that much.

Even with these caveats, I'd still say it earn its "B" grade. It doesn't fulfill those initial RPG hopes, but when you get right down to it the spin-slaughter is fairly entertaining, in a mindless and visceral way, and the production is quite good.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Big Game Sales at Amazon and Chess Cafe

"Big" as in ...

$20 off Dominion: Seaside
$20 off House on Haunted Hill
$20 off Small World
$7 off Solitaire Chess
$10 off Axis & Allies 1942
and much more

And don't forget their 17 Days of Video Game Deals. 

Check it out!

Also, ChessCafe.com's $5 and $10 sale ends tonight, but their regular prices are usually pretty tight.  Check out this Tournament Chess Set for almost $20 off. 

Christmas Giving: One More Suggestion

I spent today at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), and they do incredible work. Everyone in the South Jersey, Philadelphia, and Delaware region is blessed to have such a remarkable pediatric healthcare system if, God forbid, they ever need it.

If you're still looking for some giving opportunities this year, then consider CHOP. You can either donate directly, or through the Child's Play charity established by Jerry and Mike of Penny Arcade.

Monday, December 13, 2010

App O' The Mornin': Free for Christmas!

Grades: A (Cut the Rope) & B (Ynth Xmas)
Prices: free!

I hope you've been watching AppShopper.com for all the price drops flooding the App Store throughout December. There have been some great deals, including Axe in the Face for free yesterday.

A couple of fresh freebies hit the shop this weekend, gifts from their respective publishers:


Cut the Rope: Holiday Gift: Om Nom is back with 25 new puzzles in this free gift box straight from Santa's Chillingo workshop. This is a fairly light collection of puzzles. They're all very clever, but only a few of them are particularly difficult. They do, however, add a terrific new feature: Christmas stockings! These aren't stuffed with oranges and coal, but with the ability to warp space.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

PUZZLE: Words From a Word

Eleven words hide therein,
Where they are clearly seen.
Ten lurk within the span of scapegoat,
In firestone, thirteen.

The letters are in order:
No anagrams allowed;
And finish up with usher:
With four pronouns it's endowed.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Gadsby: The Novel Without An "E"

A "Lipogram" is a written work--a sentence, paragraph, poem, or longer work--in which the author deliberately leaves out a particular letter, usually a vowel. ("Lipogram" is Greek for "missing symbol.") As Martin Gardner points out in the Colossal Book of Word Play, the most famous lipogram is the probably the first stanza of "Old Mother Hubbard."

Old Mother Hubbard
Went to the cupboard,
To get the poor dog a bone:
When she came there,
The cupboard was bare,
And so the poor dog had none.

But all writers, word buffs, and sane people must doff their hats to the man who raised the lipogram to unimagined heights. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Ernest Vincent Wright, who wrote an entire 50,000 word novel without once using the letter "E." 

The novel is called Gadsby, and although it's quite rare, you can read it all online thanks to Spineless Books. Here's how it begins:

Christmas Shopping At Amazon

Please remember that accessing Amazon through one of my links helps support the site. (And that's my last Amazon post for the holiday season. Honest and for-true.)


The Longest Palindromic Word Is ...

... well, I'll get to that in a minute. I've begun reading Martin Gardner's last book, the Colossal Book of Word Play. I'll pull out some good bits as I read along, and then write a full review. This is Martin's final work, gathered from a life-time of collecting wordplay, assembled with the help of Jeopardy super-winner Ken Jennings, and posthumously published by Puzzle Wright Press.

Anyway, back to the headline question. The longest single-word palindrome is, sadly, not in English, but in Finnish. The word is saippuakivikauppias and it means ... soap-stone vendor. This raises the question, "Why did they need a word for that?" (Actually, I'm guessing Finnish must be like German, which pushes multiple words words together, as in the German herzkreislaufwiederbelebung, which literally means "heart-circle-run-again-revive," or as we say in English, "C.P.R.")

Gardner also included examples of "whole-word" palindromes, in which a sentence can be read forward or backward word-by-word. For example: You can cage a swallow, can't you, but you can't swallow a cage, can you?



App O' The Mornin': App Store Reviews Review

Since this is my 100th app post, I'm going to do something a  bit different and review the reviewers; that is, the reviewers in the app store, who range in quality from quite cogent and literate, to almost bone-shatteringly stupid.

I'm not going to get into the thousands of poorly-spelled reviews that say things like "wont run" or "crashed evry time a started it u SUCK" or "fix this dostn work." There are, in fact, some games that crash because they are badly programmed or have show-stopping bugs, but not that many. I would put hard money down on the fact that the vast majority of people screaming about crashes and failure to run are working with about 8MB of free memory. Dear App Gamers: Your device is not a Nintendo DS. It's a tiny computer, which means it needs free RAM to run. Spend a buck on the FreeMemory app and quit yer bitchin'.

I'm also not going to belabor the countless reviews that say something like "sux" or "lame" or "4 loosers only." There's just no point.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Smurfberry Economy

Rather than fueling hyperinflation in a failed attempt to fix the economy, maybe Fed Chairman Ben Bernake should have just invested in Smurfberries. I hear they're a growth commodity, with China investing heavily in $59.99 wheelbarrows full of what they're now calling "blue gold."

It turns out that people are still a little bit fuzzy on the whole "in-app purchase" concept. Their first mistake was downloading Smurfs Village, Capcom's freemium/social-gaming mashup of Farmville, blue Belgian fairies, and raw sadism. Now is not the time for another rant on the evils of this particular compulsion-loop design motif, except to say that it's the worst thing to happen to gaming since E.T. on the Atari 2600. Except that E.T. didn't spawn any imitators. I guess that makes Farmville the worst thing to happen to gaming ever. Thanks again, Zynga!

Parlor Game: Alphabet Stories

Players: 2 or more

Equipment: None necessary, but if you'd like to randomize topics and starting letters, then have some paper and pencils on hand.

We've been playing this game around the dinner table lately, but it's also good for long drives or as a party game. It's adapted from other alphabetical conversation games in which you write down a series of subjects on slips of paper, choose one randomly, and then take turns having a conversation on that subject. The catch is that each new sentence in the conversation must begin with the next letter in the alphabet.

Alphabet Stories uses the same structure. If you want to keep it simple, you can just pick a subject, or you can write 5 or 6 subjects on pieces of paper and draw one randomly. These can be broad subjects like "Christmas" or "Summer" or "Harry Potter," or narrow ones like "Homer's Odyssey set in contemporary New York" or "Santa and the Easter Bunny go on a pro wrestling tour." The subject can be as broad or as specific, as serious or funny, as high-minded or immature as you like.

The idea is to use this subject to create a story, with each person taking turns adding a single sentence to the story. The sentence needs to connect to the previous sentence and must be on topic. It also needs to begin with a word that starts with the next letter in the alphabet. You can start anywhere in the alphabet that you like, going from A-Z, or from M all the way through and back to L.

For example, if we start with the letter "S" and take the Santa & Easter bunny idea, the story could go like this:

Player 1) "Santa entered the ring in his red tights, tucked his beard into his shirt, and looked dubiously at his new partner."

Player 2) "'This is gonna be a bloodbath,'" growled Jolly Old St. Nick.

Player 3) "Us Leporidae are natural fighters thanks to our giant feet," the Easter Bunny shot back, waving the appendage in question.

And so on.  You can set limits and rules so that people are "out" if they don't come up with a sentence within a few seconds, or if the other players think they aren't following the narrative closely enough. But, really, this is best played as a casual game, particularly with kids on a long trip. The stories get silly very quickly, and often take off on funny tangents. You don't need to set particular time limits, but do try to keep the game moving quickly: people come up with wilder ideas when they don't stop to think for too long.

App O' The Mornin': Aces Cribbage Review

Grade: B
Price: $1 (lite version available)

Aces Cribbage may well wind up replacing Cribbage King as my iOS Cribbage game of choice. So far, I'm really liking the look and layout, and the feature set has almost everything I could want.

I've already written about Cribbage, so I won't rehash all the details of the game. Short version: two people play cards for points which are tracked with a distinctive board-and-peg system. If you haven't yet taken the Cribbage plunge, do so immediately by trying the free Aces Cribbage Limited Edition.

Aces brings a fresh style to the party. It has a much better layout than Cribbage King, filling the entire screen with a handsome board, running point system, cards in play, and cards in hand, with the crib and cut card off to one side. Some might find it a bit crowded, but after the small board and large expanse of blank space in Cribbage King, I'm kind of liking it.

I consider manual scoring features to be mandatory in any Cribbage game, and Aces has a pretty efficient one that makes it possible to play with an optional muggins rule. There is a "slow count," in which you choose the different cards and their scoring category (15s, pairs, runs, etc), or a "fast count," in which you just add up your total score. The game never seems to miss a muggins, but that's okay. I did have a weird muggins error once, with the game taking 1 point when it should have taken 2, but otherwise I haven't encountered any persistent errors. Naturally, there's an option to bypass this and just let the game count all the hands to speed things along.

There are plenty of customization features, including various table, board, and peg styles; three difficulty levels; statistics; and Game Center support. It is, however, missing a couple of features I'd like to see, such as multiplayer support (even pass-and-play would be welcome) and variable card counts (5 and 7 card Cribbage variants are rare, but they do exist). Those reservations aside, I'd count this as my new favorite Cribbage app.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood First Impressions and a Bit of History

Sorry for the absurdly light posting week. I've been cranking out pages for Games and Maximum PC, and I also just got my Xbox 360 back from the shop. Losing one of my main reviewing platforms for the busiest three weeks of the gaming year is not cool, and I've been chipping away at a mightily impressive backlog.

First up was the game that's been taunting me for weeks now: Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood. I was a big fan of AC2, for the reasons outlined here. I've been looking forward to the sequel, but also a bit dubious about how the new features and multiplayer would come together.

I've read a number of comments complaining that this is just an elaborate set of downloadable content, little more than an add-on disk. Those comments are written by ... what's the word I'm looking for? .... oh, yes: morons. DLC doesn't usually come with 20 hours of gameplay and an entirely new multiplayer mode.

Rayman 2: The Great Escape App is Free Today

Gameloft's Advent Calender delivers a good value today: Rayman 2 is usually $5. Today it's free.

If, like me, you like to hoover up those free apps while they're free, there's an easy way to do it. Rather than messing about with individual "free app" apps like FAAD, just get the AppShopper app. It tracks all price shifts, updates, and new releases all day long, and the links work much faster than many of the individual free app apps.

If you prefer to download apps straight to your computer, you can use their web page to find the deals of the day.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

NY Times Science Section Writes About Puzzles

The Science section of today's New York Times ran a rather large selection of articles on puzzles. I don't quite know what prompted it, but you can check them out here.

GAMES Magazine: February 2011

This is going to be a light blogging week for me, since I have columns and pages due all week long.

I did want to mention that the new issue of GAMES is available, and it's a good one. The lead feature by Wayne Schmittberger is on chess variants, and includes photos of exotic boards from his incredible collection. It's a really good piece, and shows the amazing diversity of the chess family of games.

The cover puzzle (shown at right) depicts vanity plates for certain real and fictional people. For example, the one reading 39 STPS could be for John Buchan (who wrote the thriller novel, The Thirty-Nine Steps) or Alfred Hitchcock (who directed the movie).

It also has the usual assortment of news, reviews, and pencil puzzles. Buy it wherever better magazines are sold.

Monday, December 6, 2010

App O' The Mornin': Eden Review

Grade: B
Price: $3

Although my new column in Maximum PC is about Minecraft (PC/Linux/Mac),  I haven't written much about it here on State of Play. I played Minecraft Alpha a bit last summer, and decided to wait for it to develop a little further before I did much additional coverage. 

That's when I learned about it again ... from my son. Kids were discovering the game, and the work-in-progress nature of it was part of the appeal. Now my son and his friends are trading crafting recipes and tips, talking about their workbenches and adding new wings to their houses. They pour over the Minepedia like it’s the Dead Sea Scrolls and commiserate on the challenges of obsidian farming.

Minecraft is a world-building game in which you have an entire landscape to shape and develop using blocks and tools. The gameplay falls somewhere between a 3D Dwarf Fortress (albeit a version of Dwarf Fortress playable by actual humans) and the crafting element of certain MMOs, but done with vintage early-1990s PC graphics. That’s not a knock, by the way. Since the entire game is based around cubes and their manipulation, the blocky visuals actually suit the game quite well, giving it a consistent cubist aesthetic that’s oddly pleasing.
Eden for iOS is not Minecraft. It is a copycat that falls somewhere in the awkward lacunae between "homage" and "ripoff." Minecraft already made a brief cameo appearance in the app store via Minecrafted, a Minecraft client adapted for iOS, before being summarily yanked. 

But Eden is something different. It's an effort to recreate a piece of the "Minecraft Classic" experience for iPhone. As such, it does a good job, but falls well short of conveying the complete Minecraft Alpha experience. 

Eden is basically the building portion of Minescape without any of the other features.  There are three interactions: dig/destroy, build, and burn.  The dig & burn elements are self-explanatory, although it should be mentioned that neither yields any kind of useful secondary items. You don't get wood from chopping down a tree or charcoal from burning wood. The world is also completely lifeless, which means you can't punch sheep.

The build feature is the heart of the game. It provides a large palette of block designs which can be used for construction purposes. These are just standard blocks skinned to look like stone, brick, wood, and so on. One of the blocks is TNT, which can be used to blow things up real durn good. 

The movement and look-around controls work very well, and everything is put together nicely. There just isn't a lot to do in this world without the entire crafting/workbench/lava/zombie-pig element. Perhaps that's in the works. 

There is an integrated community function that allows you to upload and download your worlds, but beyond that Eden just feels like the initial steps of a better game. It's quite possible that new features will be added in future updates. It's equally possible that it will be yanked from the App Store for copyright infringements. Right now, it's a pretty nice way to carry a bit of the Minecraft experience around in your pocket. 

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Comment Moderation

Comment moderation is off again. I was hit by a pretty aggressive spammer (named "stalin," of all things: I hate communists more than chiggers and cold oatmeal combined), so I had moderation on for a time. He seems to have moved on to another purge or show trial, so I'm turning it off.

I also started to have a debate with someone on my charity post, until I realized it was a spambot which was tasked with posting a vegan screed whenever anyone mentioned or linked to Heifer International. Apparently Heifer is an evil entity because it gives poor and starving people meat rather than soy milk and tofurky.

Friday, December 3, 2010

PUZZLE: English into French

My Editor-in-Chief at Games, Wayne Schmittberger, sent me this puzzle from Martin Gardner's final, posthumously-published Colossal Book of Word Play (Puzzlewright, $8.95).
What English word when spelled backward becomes its own French plural (i.e., the plural of itself translated into French)?
Answer: STATE (ETATS) [ignoring that etat has an accent aigu on the e]




New From ThinkFun: Chess, Knots, and Patterns

I've been getting so many new games over the past couple of weeks that my crack play-testing team can't keep up with them all. I'll start with quick impressions today and then write  longer reviews as I put in some real play time.

First up are three fine products from my friends at ThinkFun, the people who made Rush Hour and all its multiple sequels and variations.

Solitaire Chess
This is a great little combination teaching tool and puzzler. It comes with 2 pawns, 2 bishops, 2 rooks, 2 knights, 1 king, and 1 queen, all in blue plastic. There are 60 puzzles on double-sided cards, each depicting a 4x4 chess board and the starting positions of certain pieces. The goal is to capture all the pieces so that only only 1 remains. I've already spent a bit of time with this, and I'm loving it. The early puzzles are pretty easy, but there are some real challenges here.


Trango
I haven't had a chance to test this one yet, but it looks promising. It's a game for 2-4 players in which you place tiles to complete shapes for points. Using four different Trango tiles, each player attempts to create a particular shape, while other either work on their own shapes or try to block.






Knot So Fast
This one is going to be a big hit at our Scout meetings. Seriously, if ThinkFun isn't heavily marketing this to the Boy Scouts of America, then they're missing a golden opportunity. The game comes with ropes, a scoring device, a timer, and 40 different knot-tying challenging. The game is a race to see who's the fastest at tying the knot shown on the card.






State of Play's New Domain

Since I appear to be sticking with this whole blogging thing, I've purchased the www.stateofplayblog.com domain. It shouldn't make any difference for you, since both the old blogspot links and the new stateofplayblog links should work fine. Please let me know if anything is broken or otherwise missing.

App O' The Mornin': Words With Friends Review

Grade: A
Price: free and $2 versions

After doing the news post on Zynga's acquisition of Newtoy, I realized I'd never done a full review of Words With Friends. I don't play it that much, simply because I'm pretty wired into Scrabble and its ability to allow play from iOS to Facebook. That's not to say I don't like it: I do.

Words With Friends is a very good game, with effective matchmaking and connectivity. The interface works well, and the game loads quickly and functions smoothly. Unlike some of the confusing setup issues with Scrabble's matching system, which requires you to begin creating a new game in order to continue an old one, Words With Friends just pops you right into the action.

You can get into a game almost instantly with either friends or strangers. There's an integrated text chat system, and the ability to play 20 games simultaneously. These don't have to be "live" games: push notifications let you know when your opponent has made a move, so games can be played over the course of minutes, hours, days, or even weeks.

The bonus square distribution is different in Words With Friend than it is in Scrabble, which requires an adjustment in strategy for those of us hardwired into Scrabble. My style tends heavily towards board management and blocking, and the WWF layout is different enough that it takes some time to adjust. The point values are also different in places, with J worth 10 points in WWF rather than 8 as it is in Scrabble.

Some pretty obvious features are missing. A point count for the letters in your current move is mysteriously absent. Sure, you can do this in your head, but why should you have to? There's also no shuffle button for your tray. I like Scrabble's ability to just shuffle your tiles around as you look for ideas. Words With Friends allows you to shake in order to shuffle, but this is needlessly awkward when a button would do fine.

For multiplayer word gaming, Words With Friends does work better than Scrabbles multiplayer functions, and perhaps the new connection with Zynga will bring a WWF app to Facebook.


NOTE: The free version is burdened with an aggressive advertising feature, which is removed in the pay version. 

Evilcorp Acquires Words With Friends

I've made my disdain for FarmVille creators Zynga pretty clear, and now the thing I feared is beginning to happen. Zynga is using their money and power to scoop up good companies. Newtoy, creators of the popular Words With Friends and Chess with Friends, is the first victim. Zynga promptly renamed them Zynga with Friends. I only wish I was making that up.

Zynga head Marc Pinkus allegedly considered renaming them Zynga With Friends With Benefits, but nobody could figure out what the benefits were, or how many Zynga coins they'd cost.

Newtoy also made their own FarmWille ripoff called We Rule. Compared to other compulsion loop games, it really wasn't bad, in the same way that Attack of Clones wasn't as bad as The Phantom Menace.

The Games With Friends network created by Newtoy is the most popular social gaming system on iOS systems, and Zynga has the most popular social gaming titles on other systems, so it's a pretty natural match. No word on whether the Zynga model (Step 1: Steal, Step 2: Lie, Step 3: Screw your customers) will be applied to the "With Friends" line.

Maybe we'll have to buy some Zynga coins in order to get a "Q". Or perhaps come back in 15 minutes to see if our "Z" is ready.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Giving: Mercy Corps

One charity I forgot to mention in my Getting and Giving post was Mercy Corps which, like Heifer, does tremendous work around the world. They have a special gift program that allows you to make donations for specific things, such as outfitting a classroom, planting a field of rice, or giving someone a sewing machine. A card is then sent to the recipient notifying them what was donated in their name. It's a concrete symbol of something good, and beats the hell out of that sweater you were looking at.

It's like The Human Fund, only for real.

Jane Austen's Word Game

In Chapter 41 of Jane Austen's novel Emma, several of the characters use an impromptu game of anagrams to convey thoughts and feelings they cannot express. In the case of Mr. Churchill, he offers a kind of oblique apology to Miss Fairfax by spelling the word "blunder," in acknowledgment of his mistake, and then proceeds to taunt her by spelling "Dixon," the name of another young man.

The game is played with "letters" used by Emma's young nephews for their lessons. They are probably not children's alphabet blocks, but more like Scrabble tiles. They work well for playing anagrams, which was a favorite parlor game of the English middle- and upper-classes, who delighted in puzzles and wordplay. 

Anagrams was a simple game of turning the letters of a word into another word. The characters in the novel create their words in secret, then scramble the letters and pass them to another person, who has to discover the original word. 

It's remains an easy filler game to play while waiting for others to join a game of Scrabble, or just as a fun way to help children learn their words.

Here's the entire passage from Emma, with the rest coming after the break.
"Miss Woodhouse," said Frank Churchill, after examining a table behind him, which he could reach as he sat, "have your nephews taken away their alphabets -- their box of letters? It used to stand here. Where is it? This is a sort of dull-looking evening, that ought to be treated rather as winter than summer. We had great amusement with those letters one morning. I want to puzzle you again."

Apture Bar

Some browsers may be showing a little bar at the top of the page. This is an Apture bar that allows people to search and share from within a post. I have no idea if it's useful or annoying, so if you have any feeling about it one way or another, please let me know.

App O' The Mornin': Numix Review

Grade: F
Price: free

In a career spent writing about games, you come across plenty of bad games. Most of them are badly executed, tasteless, or defective in some particular. Some are actually bad in concept (as in: who on Earth thought this was an entertaining idea for a game?), but those are fairly rare.

Numix is my new baseline for "What were you thinking?" games. Let me describe the gameplay in Numix, and see if you can find the entertaining part.

At the center of the screen is a graphic that mystifies me. It looks kind of like melted chocolate gum. My wife thinks they're supposed to be stylized mathematical symbols: plus, minus, equal, and approximately equal. That's as good a guess as any, although I'm not sure why the symbols are lodged in the middle of the screen like the wreckage of a surrealist parade float built by the MIT mathematics deparment after a wild night of psilocybin mushrooms. Oddly enough, figuring out what they were supposed to be occupied me longer and was more entertaining than the game itself. WIN!

Here's the game: numbers appear in a line at the rate of about 1 every 2 seconds. A box in the middle of the screen displays a single digit number that you can adjust upward or downward by pressing an up or down arrow. When  the number in the box matches the first number in the line, you press the "hit" button to make that number disappear. Then you .... do it again.  And again... And again...  If the line fills up, you lose.

That's it. That's all you do. I've had more fun picking ticks off my dog. Hell, at least the dog is kinda grateful afterwards, and if there's a campfire nearby you get the pleasure flicking the tick into the flames and hearing it pop. Man, that never gets old.

Numix, on the other hand, got old in about 20 seconds, which is how long it took the number line to fill up. Even the icon is ugly. It looks like a maggot puking up a dandelion.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Gameloft's Advent Calender UPDATED

UPDATE 12/2/10: Gameloft clarified today that their Advent Calendar is NOT a free game every day. It may also include links to promotional videos and other things, which makes me wonder if the Gameloft people understand this whole "gift" idea.

Gameloft is counting down the days until Christmas with a free app each day, which you can follow over on their Twitter page. Today's free game is Driver, which regularly sells for $5. A different app will be free for 24 hours each day for the next 24 days.

Crack! Bam! Dot?

photo from Project Mah Jongg
Cliches and stereotypes almost always evolve out of some truth, and such is the case with the image of the mah jongg-playing Jewish housewife. An exhibit called "Project Mah Jongg" traces this connection, and it will continue to run at The Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York into January. The exhibit website is quite good, and has an large gallery of period photos as well as a schedule of special events at the exhibit.

The game was brought from China to America in the 1920s, and by the 1930s it was a genuine fad. It's difficult to trace exactly why one culture adopts a game so passionately, but there's no question that mah johngg was deeply entwined with the Jewish diaspora in America by the 1930s. The National Mah Jongg League was founded by a group of Jewish women who wanted to create a standard set of rules, and after the game's popularity faded in the rest of America, the Jewish community kept it alive. Meredith Lewis has written an article explaining the connection, which you can find right here.

Melissa Martens, curator of "Project Mah Jongg," narrates an excellent 5-minute video that summarizes the growth of the game and the ways in which is became enmeshed in Jewish-American culture.

Googling "mah jongg" can, unfortunately, lead to page after page of links to Mah Jongg Solitaire, which is a stacking game played with the tiles. It has little to do with actual mah jongg, which is really just a card game played with domino-like pieces. If you'd like to learn a bit more about the game, the wiki entry is as good a place to start as any.

App O' The Mornin': La Briscola Review

Grade: B
Price: free

Yesterday, I wrote about the popular Italian trick-taking game called Briscola. I won't rehash the rules, which can be read here. Go head, read them. I'll wait here for you.

As you can see, it's a pretty easy game to understand. If you want to test out this whole Italian playing card thing without spending any actual scratch, then Out of the Bit's simple port of Briscola is the place to start. I'm not quite sure why they added the definite article in the title, but the App itself is called "La Briscola," which means ... "The Briscola." (The word "briscola" may mean something, but the Italians aren't telling. It's the whole omerta thing.)

The port does its work and stays out of your way. There's a help file that explains the rules, and a few configuration options, but by-and-large this is a simple cards-on-a-table game with everything laid out cleanly and logically. You have three cards in front of you, a draw pile with the trump visible beneath it, three hidden cards in front of your opponent, and small area where tricks are played.

One nice feature is the array of card designs: Bresciane, Milanesi, Romagnole, Siciliane, Napoletane, Piacentine, Trevisane and standard Poker decks are all available for play. This doesn't change the game, but it does show you a nice range of traditional Italian deck designs, and really helps get you familiar with their appearance and value.

There are three difficulty levels, but I really couldn't distinguish among them. Four backgrounds are also available, and one of them isn't even hideous.

The game is free, with banner ads occasionally occupying a bar along the top of the screen. I'll never understand why publishers don't offer ad-free versions: I'd pay a buck to get rid of ads.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Gift Ideas: Getting and Giving

I use the Amazon widgets to recommend products because it's convenient, and the Amazon Affiliates program is this site's sole support. However, I also like to encourage people to buy locally when they can, and consider searching out some independent retailer. Here are a few other places to consider when you're searching for just the right gamer gift.

Getting
TaroBear's Lair: I only discovered Gary Brunger's mail order business a few weeks ago, but I'd definitely recommend it for anyone searching for imported playing cards. TaroBear stocks French, Italian, Spanish, German, Austrian, Swiss, and Tarot at reasonable prices for imports. Everything in the store is marked down until 12/23.

All Things Fun (South Jersey): This is my local game store, and they have a good stock of games and maintain a large space for gamers. Dina & Ed run a great business, located in West Berlin, NJ. If you live in Philly or South Jersey, you should check them out.

"Play in Public" Swag: Kevin Schlabach's Play in Public campaign has really taken off. The idea is to introduce people to Eurogames by playing them in public places like bookstores and coffee shops. It's a great way to get Eurogames out in the mainstream world, and now your game group can all have matching shirts so you can find each other more easily and really complete the geek tableau. (I kid, I kid...)

Great Hall Games: A reader sent me a link to this store in Austin, Texas. I've never ordered from them, so I can't vouch for their service, but their stock is quite interesting. They have a lot of pieces and historical reproductions, and a big historical miniatures business. The photos of the store make me wish I lived closer!

Funagain Games: It's hardly a small independent business, but if you can't buy local and won't buy from Amazon, then Funagain is the premier site for getting all kinds of games. They always have some sales, and their prices are usually pretty reasonable.

Games Magazine: Every Games Magazine comes with a color section of features, news, and reviews, and a newsprint section of pencil puzzles. It also gives off a pleasing scent of jasmine and lilacs, and plays Bach's Fifth Brandenburg Concerto when the pages are riffled correctly. Please subscribe, so they can pay me. 

If anyone wants to give a shoutout to any other local game stores or small online retailers, feel free to use the comboxes. Spammers, of course, will be defenestrated. 

Giving
The truth is, we all have too much stuff already. You know it, I know it, and the people you're shopping for probably know it, even if they don't always admit it. People are suffering right now, and the best gift you can give is hope and love to another, particularly if that person is a stranger. 

Child's Play: Penny Arcade's charity provides money, games, and toys to children's hospitals throughout the world, and has become the largest charity in the game business. My children have been in the hospital, and the ability to play games was one of the best medicines.

Heifer International: One of the best charities out there, Heifer allows you to buy farm stock for poor people all over the world. Instead of just giving people money or even food, Heifer gives them the animals they need to make a sustainable living. It's a wonderful way to give.

Catholic Relief: I'm linking to Catholic Relief because I'm Catholic and they do good work. The Church remains the largest provider of charitable goods and services on the planet, and Catholic Relief gets the money where it needs to go without a lot of waste on overhead. Other religious charities, such as Samaritan's Purse and local St. Vincent de Paul Societies, are also on the front lines working with those in need.

These are just a few ideas. I'm sure you all have charities that you trust and support. I'm always inclined to give to places with the lowest overhead, or the ones closest to those in need. I never give to any group whose main function is to "raise awareness" about some pet issue, but instead focus on those who actually can make a difference. I've volunteered with the St. Vincent de Paul Society, for example, and we actually went to the homes of people in need, gave them vouchers for food from our thrift stores and pantries, helped them get housing and furniture, and paid their utility bills. In the midst of the Second Great Depression, that's where the real need lies.

Gift Ideas: Board Gaming

Here are my recommendations of board game gifts for Hanukkah and Christmas this year. (NOTE: I'm including the base set of Heroscape because this will be the last time you'll be able to buy it. The series has been discontinued.)

As always, good playing cards 1) make great stocking stuffers for any age and 2) don't have Hannah Montana on the backs.

UPDATE: Some browsers may not display the widget that's embedded above, so here's the list, in no particular order:

Dominion: Prosperity (requires Dominion), Scrabble Flash, Telestrations, Lego Creationary, Castle Ravenloft: The Board Game, Betrayal at House on the Hill, Small World: Be Not Afraid (requires Small World), Hersocape: Swarm of the Merro, and Solitaire Chess. They can all be found at Amazon, or wherever better games are sold.

Direct link to list.

Gift Ideas: Electronic Gaming

Here are my recommendations for electronic gaming purchases for Hanukkah and Christmas this year.



UPDATE: Some browsers may not display the widget that's embedded above, so here's the list, in no particular order:

Epic Mickey, Kirby's Epic Yarn, Super Scribblenauts, StarCraft II, Civilization V, Halo: Reach, Donkey Kong Country Returns, Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, an iPod Touch 4th Gen, Microsoft Kinect,World of Warcraft: Cataclysm, and the Halo Encyclopedia from DK Publishing. They can all be found at Amazon, or wherever better games are sold.

Direct link to list.

Italian Card Games: Briscola

If you buy a deck of Italian-suited cards, Briscola should be the first game you try.  Its simplicity gives you a good chance to learn the suits. It's easy, fun, and plays fast: all characteristics which have made it very popular in Italy.

There are versions for 2-5 players, as well as regional variants, but I'm just describing the 2-player version today. As with all card games, rules can be fluid, so I'm not attempting to offer a definitive version of the game: just a common one.

The Cards
Briscola is played with an 40-card Italian deck in suits of cups, coins, swords, and clubs. It may be played with an Anglo-French deck by removing the 8s, 9s, and 10s, but it loses a lot of its flavor in the process.
King of Coins: 4 points
This is a point-trick game, meaning you play to win tricks, and then add up the values of the cards you've won.

Cards have the following value:

Ace: 11 points
Three: 10 points
King (Re): 4 points
Knight (Cavalier): 3 points
Knave (Fante/Donna): 2 points
all other number cards: 0 points

The Deal
Players take turns dealing. Three cards are dealt to each player, face down.

A 7th card is placed face up under the pile of remaining cards (the stock) so that its suit can be seen. This is the trump suit.

The Play
Non-dealer leads the first trick with any card of his choosing. The other player can choose to follow suit, play a trump, or simply lay off junk (such as any number cards with a zero value). It is not necessary to follow suit, even if you can. This is an important rule to note, since it runs contrary to most American trick-taking games.

The winner takes the cards and places them in a pile on his side, then draws a replacement card from the stock. The loser also draws a replacement card. Each player should always have 3 cards in hand until the stock is depleted.

The winner of one trick leads the next trick, and so on until the stock is exhausted. The final player picks up the face-up trump card from the bottom of the deck.

Winning Tricks
Tricks are won according to the following rules:

Highest point value card in the same suit wins. If the cards are worth nothing, then highest number card wins. (This means that a 3 beats a 7, but a 6 beats a 4. Remember: a 3 is worth 10 points, while a 7, 6, or 4 are worth nothing.)

OR

Highest trump wins.

Here are some examples, with Cups acting as trump:

Player A leads with a King of Clubs. Player B follows with a 3 of Clubs. Player B wins because the Three is worth 10 points, while the King is only worth 4. Thus, B has the higher value card.

Player A leads with an Ace of Swords. Player B follows with a 2 of Cups. Player B wins because card value doesn't matter: high trump always wins, and B has the trump.

Player A leads with a 7 of Coins. Player B follows with a 5 of Coins. Player A wins. (Although both cards are worthless, the 7 is higher than the 5.)

Conclusion
When you've played through an entire deck, add up your points. It's easiest to sort cards by value, setting aside the worthless number cards and placing point cards (known as "counters") in piles according to their worth.

There are 120 points in a deck, so the person with 61 points or more is the winner.

This is a simple, fun formula with a lot of subtly to it. Finding ways to capture the opponent's cards, as well as to hold onto your own high-value cards, requires some strategy and careful timing. With only 3 cards in hand at a time, your options are limited, and the constant drawing means you never quite know what your opponent is holding.

American card players will find a certain freedom from not having to follow suit, a convention that opens up new strategic avenues. Those who value the probing, calculating element of standard trick-taking games may have trouble adapting to this more free-wheeling approach, but there's no doubt that it creates a vigorous game with more surprises. On the other hand, Cribbage players may enjoy the combination of chance, point counting, and 2-handed play.

3D Nine Men's Morris

The great game inventor Robert Abbott (Eleusis, Ultima, Epaminodas) sent along some very kind words about State of Play, as well as this illustration from a 3D Nine Men's Morris set he acquired years ago.
Click to view full size.
3D board games can be notoriously unsatisfying, but Bob says this one not only works; it's actually fun. I can see that from the illustration, which shows the traditional mills expanded into a series of nested wire-frame boxes. This is a clever design, with a logical application of dimensionality to an abstract board game. 

Not every classic game survives this kind of dimensional experimentation. 3D Chess, for instance, is not a particularly logical use of dimensionality. Adding two more planes of movement upsets the delicate balance of strategic planning and tactical maneuver that defines chess. Rather than adding complexity, it merely muddies the waters. If chess is a game of military precision, then 3D chess is more akin to a soccer scrum. 

Wayne Schmittberger, the editor-in-chief of Games Magazine, tried to solve the problems inherent in 3D chess by modifying the componants into Parallel Worlds Chess. Instead of trying to approximate chess in three dimensions, Parallel Worlds emphasizes the chaotic elements to create a deliberately crazy game. For example, every piece on the second level can move like a Queen, but they can't capture or promote. The result is entertaining, which is more than you can say for Tri-D Chess.

App O' The Mornin': 123 Pop Review

Grade: C
Price: $1

I'm little slow getting back into the swing of the app thing since my Thanksgiving recess. My device is now crammed with wonderful stuff, courtesy of the Black Friday deals that lit up the App Store like a Christmas tree. I've been skimming through so many titles, however, that I didn't get to burrow deeply into many of them, so I'm covering a simpler game today .

And 123 Pop is definitely simple. This was probably intended as a kid's game, but there's enough here for adults to find it appealing as well.

There's only one game mode, with three difficulty levels. Numbers float around outer space inside little bubbles. You tap two numbers, and then a third number that is the sum of the first two. Rockets and stars add bonus points. The goal is to get the score as high as possible in 60 seconds.

This would seem to be a pretty thin reed upon which to hang a game, but 123 Pop actually works fairlywell. My young daughter thought it was incredibly addictive, and even I enjoyed it. It's not just a simple math drill: the bubbles bounce around with a bit of physical modeling, and as they begin to crowd the screen things can get pretty tricky.

The grade of "C" isn't meant to indicate an inferior game: just one that could have used a little something more. It would be easy to improve with the addition of other forms of math, larger numbers, variable play times, and more items to mix up the action. The formula, however, is quite sound, and it makes an entertaining math driller for kids, and a light puzzler for adults.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Fantasy Flight Game Sale

There's a crazy sale going on over at the Fantasy Flight web site, with deep discounts on over 150 items. You'll find games like Age of Conan marked down from $80 to $25, and Tribune reduced from $60 to $15.

Italian Playing Cards: Regional Map

Modiano, the major producer of Italian playing cards, offers this handy map of the various regions and their cards. At the very top of the map, in Northern Italy near the border with Austria, you can see a single region using a "Salzburger" deck. These use the German-style suits of hearts, bells, leaves, and acorns for (respectively) the hearts, diamonds, spades, and clubs of the Anglo-French deck. On the western side of Italy, you're more likely to find cards based on the familiar Anglo-French suits.

The Siciliane deck described in this post is shown on the eastern side of the island of Sicily.

Italian Playing Cards: Modiano Siciliane

The "standard" Anglo-French-suited playing cards have eclipsed many of the regional playing cards common throughout the world, along with the games played with those cards. Yet in certain places, regional decks are still very popular, and provide a fascinating (and largely unexplored) new wellspring of cards, games, and lore. I plan on diving deep into this wellspring, beginning today with a look at an Italian Siciliane deck produced by Modiano.

First off, you need to understand that there is no monolithic "Italian" deck. There are about 16 different regional decks, some with 40 cards, some with 52. Southern Italy favors the Spanish style which I'm about to describe, while the North has its own style. French and German suits are also used in certain regions of Italy. Even this is kind of fluid, and each regional deck has its own peculiarities.

The pictures below are from a deck common in Sicily. The most striking element of these cards are their unique suits. In the picture below (beginning at the upper left and going clockwise) we have the 3 of : Clubs (Bastoni), Coins (Denari), Swords (Spade), and Cups (Coppe). These replace Clubs, Hearts, Spades, and Diamonds of the Anglo-French deck.


There are no numbers on the cards, but there are 7 number cards in each suit, ranked 1 to 7, plus 3 court cards per suit. In many games, the 3 is of particular value, with cards ranking (high to low) Ace, 3, Courts, then numbers. (Numbers often have no value at all.) Here are what the aces look like. (Left to right: Swords, Cups, Coins, Clubs.)
Click to embiggen
Finally, there are the court cards, which are ranked Fante/Donna (a footsoldier, knave, or young woman), Cavallo (cavalier, or knight), and Re (King), the equivalent of our Jack, Queen, King.


The cards are small and slightly stiff, but the art is extremely appealing, with bold colors favoring yellow, blue, red, and green. The backs are ornate, featuring a Sicilian Triskelion (three legs around a head, usually Medusa). I bought mine from TaroBear's Lair, which provides prompt service and reasonable prices. I'm going to be talking about different games which are played with these decks, and even point you at some apps to help get you started.