Saturday, July 31, 2010

Chess Tweets

Now that I'm using Twitter I'm finding all kinds of interesting things, and one of the more intriguing is ChessTweets. This is just a darn clever idea: a tool that reinvents correspondence Chess by using Twitter.

This might require some explanations for any younger readers in the audience. Back when I was a young'un, people used to play "correspondence Chess." Lonely shut-ins would advertise for a partner in a magazine or newspaper, exchange letters, agree to start up a game, write down each individual move, and MAIL IT TO THEM. Using envelopes and stamps and mailmen and everything! Even when I was young, I remember thinking That's plain nuts. It would take months to play out an entire game. (What must someone have thought if they opened up a piece of correspondence Chess by accident, only to read a message saying Rxb7?)

With the advent of message boards, email, Java, multiplayer PC and console gaming, and the other tools of technology, correspondence Chess was significantly streamlined. Play-by-email and other formats allow people to make moves in their own time outside of a live online gaming session, and without relying on the U.S. Snail to stuff an envelope in your box.

ChessTweets is not only taking this to the next logical step, but putting an interesting twist on it. The site allows people to create games that can be played via Twitter. Each side tweets their moves back and forth using standard Chess notation. People can thus play a simple version of correspondence Chess using only twitter.

Even more intriguing are the "public games" hosted by Chess Tweets. During a public game, anyone can choose what they thing the next move should be. The game then uses the move with the most votes. The FAQ at Chess Tweets colorfully calls this a "hive mind" approach to gaming, but it's probably more accurate to call it plain ole Democratic Chess.

Friday, July 30, 2010

The Red Ring of Death

aka, The Red Ring of Doom; aka, The Eye of Sauron...

Every Xbox 360 owner fears it, and I just had my second one. Given the heavy-duty workout this unit gets (it's the original Xbox 360, provided by Microsoft about 5 years ago), I can't really complain.

Okay, I can complain. It happened right as I was beginning work on the Games 100, our biggest issue of the year. Also, and rather suspiciously, it happened only two months after I added an external cooling fan. Since I started using Netflix streaming regularly, I was worried about the wear-and-tear from extra heat. I'd heard complaints about the fans doing more harm than good, and I'm bit more inclined to believe that now.

There was a time when I would have just ripped that sucker open and fixed it myself.  That time is not now.

Microsoft is sending along a new unit for Tuesday, which will get me back in business to finish up this section. In the meantime, we've been using the Wii for Netflix, and it does a respectable job. It's a bit cumbersome, since you need to have a special disc in the drive (?), and the image isn't as good, but it gets the job done.

Parents Who Love Their Kids Don't Give Them Hannah Montana Playing Cards

I'm just sayin'.

Look, I have more than a few "novelty decks" in my collection: Elvis, Looney Tunes, Barbie Classic and Kicky Outfits (what the!?... how did that get in there?), Texas Chainsaw Massacre (yes, really; and don't ask what's on the Queen), more Elvis (there is no such thing as too much Elvis ... except in playing card form), Iraqi fugitives, World War II plane spotters and the like.

They all have two things in common:
  1. I didn't buy them and 
I keep them on a shelf in my library, like little trophies. When someone asks if they can use one for a game, I usually just say, "Oh no, that would ruin the resale value!"

The picture at the top of this post is what a Jack of Spades looks like. We'll talk more about playing card aesthetics in time. (Yeah, I said "playing card aesthetics." Anything that's a) designed, b) produced, and c) has a 600 year history is going to have an aesthetic aspect.) For now, let's just take it as read that this is what a Jack of Spades looks like, and what he should always look like. Each time someone lays out a Royal Flush, everyone shouldn't have to pause to figure out that Elvis 68 Comeback Special in Black Leather is the King, while Cilla is the Queen, and Elvis doing "Clambake" is the Jack.

Look, 9-year-old-girls have enough trouble telling between a small blind and a big blind or when to peg a crib. Don't make them have to learn that Hannah's "come hither" look is a Queen of Hearts ("'cause she's so cute she's the Queen of all our hearts!") , while Hannah singin' & spunky is a King of Clubs. (I'm just angry that I have to type the word "spunky" at all. As Lou Grant said: I hate spunk.)

As for the novelty cards people give kids to get them "into" cards: just don't. Give them their own deck of real cards and teach them what they should look like. They'll like the fact that they're playing with the same kind of deck Dad and his friends use on Friday night, while appreciating that they don't stink of stale beer, cigar smoke, and desperation.

They'll also learn how real cards should look and feel. Yes, many of the novelty decks are made by the US Playing Card Company (the finest manufacturer of playing cards in the world) to their usual high standards. Everyone else is making a buck from Hannah Montana swag, so they might as well get their piece. But that doesn't mean you have to buy them. Walmart sells a two-deck pack of Bicycle Rider Backs (one red, one blue) for $1.97. For a pittance you can place an actual slice of the adult world--one that is instantly recognized the world over, and can be used in hundreds of different ways--in your child's hands. Why pay a premium price for a card where most of the cost is for the product license? (As I mentioned in my entry on American-style games, a company will slap on a brand on anything they can.)

A deck of Rider Backs is one of the most ubiquitous pieces of pop art of our time: instantly recognizable and know the world over. A deck of Naruto-themed playing cards is an abomination.

PS: What the heck is on those Hannah Montana cards anyway? Pillows? Doilies? A two of spades on a DOILY? Are you KIDDING me?!

App O' the Morning: Roll Through The Ages

Roll Through The Ages is a game that benefits immensely from an App conversion. Although it loses the tactile element of dice rolling, it gains a lot from having the program handle goods management, which can be a be a little tricky to master in the original game.

I wrote about the tabletop version yesterday, so I’m not going to rehash the rules here. The app is an faithful conversion of the original, with a functional design and few audio/visual embellishments. There are options to play against AI opponents, or against any number of players using pass-back mode. (This means handing the device to the next player when it’s their turn.)

Each turn brings you to a Turn Order screen, which enables you to Roll, Build, Buy Development, and End Turn. Rolling is simple enough: push a button, click on any dice you want to save, and move on to the “Feed” stage when you’re done. If you’ve rolled enough food, or have enough banked, it’s automatically deducted. If not, you suffer a penalty.

This moves you straight to a Cities and Monuments screen, which looks like a color version of the paper scoresheet. Touch inputs allow you to check off boxes to assign workers, and separate buttons allow you buy developments and manage goods. When everything is done for one turn, you move right on to the next. This allows you to dash through a 10-round solitaire game in as little as 10 minutes. Even if you can’t finish a game in a single sitting, the App will save any number of games in progress.

On the downside, I thought that the flow from one screen to the next could be smoother and more logical, and not all of the feedback is helpful. (The main screen doesn’t tell you if you’ve assigned your workers or not.) Fortunately, the game won’t allow you to continue if you forget to complete a stage.

As a bonus, the Roll Through the Ages app offers the alternative Bronze Age variant, which adds some interesting items to the Developments menu, including an the “shipping” advance.

This a very plain port, but an extremely entertaining one. It loads fast, the controls are very simple, and it allows you to play a quick game of RTTA without any setup or fuss. I played the app version before the tabletop version, and found that it really helped teach the the game. If nothing else, it provides an excellent tutorial and practice mode for your live games.

Roll Through the Ages is available in the App Store for $3.  (Warning: this link will open iTunes.)

Thursday, July 29, 2010

REVIEW: Roll Through the Ages

Roll Through the Ages
Gryphon Games
1-4 players
ages 8 and up
30 - 45 minutes playtime

Tomorrow's App O’ The Mornin’ will be Roll Through the Ages, but I thought I’d get a jump start on that review by talking a bit about the original game.

Roll Through the Ages is a fast-playing, dice-based version of a very long, complex civilization game called … yeah, you’re already ahead of me on this one: Through the Ages.

Since I’ll bet hard money (or at least Monopoly money) that the majority of people reading this have not heard of, much less played, the original game, let me summarize Roll Through the Ages this way:

Yahtzee + Civilization = Roll Through the Ages

I am not one of those people who hate Yahtzee. It’s an okay game, and the app version can be addictive.

Roll Through the Ages, however, does something quite interesting with the dice rolling formula.

The game comes with 7 special dice. Each die has the following illustrations: 3 sheaves of wheat (representing food), 3 people (workers), a coin (7 gold pieces), a jug (goods), two jugs with a skull (2 goods + 1 misfortune) and 2 wheat with 2 people (you can choose 2 food or workers).

I’m not going to get into all the nuances, but the basic idea is this:

Everyone gets a score sheet that shows the cities, monuments, and developments that you either already have, or can build by rolling dice. They also each get a peg board (similar to a truncated Cribbage board) that allows them to track their goods.

Players start out with 3 cities, allowing them to roll three dice. They get three rolls each time, and can “save” good rolls, just like Yahtzee. They need to roll food to support their cities, workers to build more cities and monuments, and goods and money to buy civilization developments (which provide bonus points and in-game benefits).

As you build more cities, you get to roll more dice, up to 7 dice total. Each worker you roll allows you to check off various boxes on your score sheet. Check off enough boxes for a particular item (such as The Great Wall or a new city) and you’ve “built” that item. Although the rules for counting, spending, and discarding goods are bit tricky at first, they soon become second nature. Final points are scored based on monuments and other bonuses, with high score winning.

None of this should work at all. Even writing it down makes it sound more complex than it really is, and the idea of a civ-building dice game sounds loopy. The real accomplishment of designer Matt Leacock (of Pandemic and Forbidden Island fame) is taking the heart of the Civilization genre and, through some weird bit of alchemy, converting it to fast-playing, dice rolling fun. I know an innovative (and tricky) design when I play one, and this is as innovative as Pandemic, albeit in a subtler way.

It’s not a “simple” game, but my 9-year-old daughter grasped it perfectly well, and is even beginning to work out some advanced strategies. It can be explained to a novice group in about 10 to 15 minutes, and takes about 30 minutes to play, making it a great light game for both experience and novice gamers alike. It's also fine as a solitaire game.

UPDATED 6/9/11: This review originally included a photo I assumed was a publisher shot because of its professional quality, but which was actually created by a reviewer from BoardGameGeek named "EndersGame". I have removed the image, but it can be found here, along with many, many more detailed photos of the game. It's quite an excellent post, and well worth your time.

App O' the Mornin': Helsing’s Fire

This one took me completely by surprise. Expecting some kind of mindless action game or dungeon crawl, I instead found a remarkably clever and even innovative puzzle game with an appealing style and easy wit.

Helsing’s Fire pits Dr. Helsing (he’s lost his Van) and his Jeeves-like manservant Raffton against Dracula and his army of skeletons, werewolves, bats, robots (?), and other nasties. The visual style is so deliberately like the art of Hellboy creator Mike Mignola that it’s clearly meant as an homage, as is the dry wit and banter among Helsing, Raffton, Dracula, and the various minions they encounter. The narrative is just a linking device for levels, but it manages to be quite entertaining.

Gameplay is unlike anything you’ve played before. This isn’t an action game in which you dispatch foes with weapons and quick reflexes. It is, instead, a clever puzzle game that revolves around the correct placement of Helsing’s torch. Each level is see from the top-down, and consists of various solid obstacles, enemies, and bystanders. The torch throws a killing light across the entire map, except where obstacles create shadows. This light can also be modified by color potions. A colored torchlight will only kill an enemy with the same color. If it strikes an enemy with a different color, it raises a shield. If it strikes a bystander, you lose.

Since you have a very limited number of torches and potions (often one per level) the entire game is based upon finding just the right location to trigger the torchlight. It’s a remarkable, completely fresh puzzle mechanic. Torch placement and triggering is done with simple gestures, and each level can be defeated in as little as a few seconds. The trick is managing your resources and finding just the right placement.

Selling for $1, this gem from the publisher of Angry Birds and indie developer Ratloop easily earns its top-ten slot on the App Store

Direct link to the game. (Warning: this will open iTunes.)

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

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Definitions: Meeples

Meeples are, simply, the little wooden people used in Eurogames. If you hang around BoardGameGeek forums for more than five minutes, you’re almost certain to encounter the word. Since most people don’t hang around in BoardGameGeek forums, it seemed worthwhile to explain some basic terminology, and “Meeple” is one of the most common.

The most popular shape of meeple originated with Carcassonne, and has since been used for many other games. It has become an iconic image for Eurogames in general. I even tossed a couple into the photo I took for this blog’s header image.

There were even Meeples Choice Awards, chosen by polling the members of the Spielfriek discussion group. (“Spiel” is another bit of Eurogame lingo that gets tossed around. It’s German for “game.”) The Meeples Choice site claims that the word was coined (at least in its modern usage) in 2000 by a gamer named Alison Hansel, during a session of Carcassonne. In the absence of a better etymology, that’ll do me.

As symbols go, it’s a darn good one: it’s oddly appealing, identifiable in silhouette, and easy to draw. It’s also attracted a cult following all its own, as you can see by the products offered by

PS: Right now, Amazon is offering a terrific deal on the original Carcassonne (only $20, which is 45% off), so if you don't have it ... well, you really should have it. It's a core Eurogame and a great entry-level game, with countless expansions and variant editions. (Gamers love their expansions.)

World Boardgaming Championships

Run by the Boardgame Players Association, the World Boardgaming Championships attract about 1500 players a year to Lancaster, PA. The heart of convention is the tournament track, with more than 150 games for various skill levels from beginner to expert.

The 2010 WBC begins with some pre-gaming events this weekend, but the convention itself runs from August 2nd through the 8th. 

WBC also offers open gaming from a large game library, teaching demos for new games, and gaming opportunities for kids 12 and up. The vendor area attracts many of the major game companies, and an auction gives attendees a chance to pick up used and older titles. Eurogames, Avalon Hill titles, classic American-style games, and historical simulations are all represented.

For more information, check out the BPA website.

App O' the Mornin': Bird Strike

Bird Strike was on my Touch for a little while before I really spent much time with it. It seemed to a bit Doodle Jump-ish, and I didn’t feel a burning need for a bird-themed Doodle Jump.

In fact, it’s not much like Doodle Jump at all. Both fall into the brand-new App-created subgenre of Vertical Climbing Platformer with Tilt Controls (note: this is a not a real subgenre), but the similarities end there.

In Bird Strike, a rather nervous-looking blue bird named Gerald needs to be launched into the upper atmosphere, but he must find the rockets to carry him, grab the lemons suspended in midair, and dodge the obstacles in his way. It would have been easier to launch Gerald on his journey somewhere other than urban alleys, but not nearly as fun as dodging all of the construction, beams, laundry lines, and other obstructions on the way up--and then pulverizing it all on the way back down.

And please don’t even ask why lemons are suspended in midair, where they can be conveniently grabbed for extra points. If you have to ask questions like that, then you haven’t been playing enough apps.

Gerald begins the game perched on a wire, which you can drag down and then release to shoot him in the air. He only flies for a little while until gravity begins to take over, so you need to use the tilt controls to steer him over rockets. Each rocket is just powerful enough to propel him to another rocket. If you grab all the rockets, snag all the lemons, and avoid the obstructions, Gerald will make it all the way into space … where orbiting alien invaders shoot him with a paralyzing beam. He then plummets back to earth, trashing all the obstacles and racking up more points along the way.

There are four locations, and each location has three to four levels. Each level is like a high-speed horizontal obstacle course with an almost puzzle-like quality. The folks a PikPok have done a great job with this one, and appear to be supporting it with updates and extra levels, all for the low-low price of $1.

You can find it here. (Warning: link will open iTunes.)

UPDATE: An astute reader pointed out what your nearsighted reviewer missed: those are seeds, not lemons. Now that I look at it again, I don't know why I ever thought they were lemons.  Just because they're yellow?

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Nerd or Dork?: Watching Chess Match Replays

A friend thought that my mention (in the tChess Pro review) about "watching chess replays" buried the needle on the dork-o-meter. I realized that people who don't follow these things are probably imagining lengthy YouTube videos of men in tweed jackets smoking pipes and pondering the Blackmar-Diemer Gambit.

That would be incredibly dorky. Even I'm not that far gone. (Yet.)

I'm actually talking about PGN files, which I mentioned in the review without explanation. PGN stands for Portable Game Notation, and it's a file format that allows people to record games and then play them back on any device that supports the format.  Thousands of classic games from Chess history are thus preserved electronically, and can be played back, move by move (often with commentary or annotations) to help people study games.

Here's an example of a PGN report of Fischer V. Spassky 1972 Game 4. Put it in a text file with a .PGN extension, bring it into a piece of software that supports the format, and you can play the game back move by move.

[Event "Reykjavik WCh"]
[Site "Reykjavik WCh"]
[Date "1972.01.05"]
[EventDate "?"]
[Round "4"]
[Result "1/2-1/2"]
[White "Robert James Fischer"]
[Black "Boris Spassky"]
[ECO "B88"]
[WhiteElo "?"]
[BlackElo "?"]
[PlyCount "89"]
1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 d6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 Nf6 5. Nc3 Nc6 6. Bc4 e6 7. Bb3 Be7 8. Be3 O-O 9. O-O a6 10. f4 Nxd4 11. Bxd4 b5 12. a3 Bb7 13. Qd3 a5 14. e5 dxe5 15. fxe5 Nd7 16. Nxb5 Nc5 17. Bxc5 Bxc5+ 18. Kh1 Qg5 19. Qe2 Rad8 20. Rad1 Rxd1 21. Rxd1 h5 22. Nd6 Ba8 23. Bc4 h4 24. h3 Be3 25. Qg4 Qxe5 26. Qxh4 g5 27. Qg4 Bc5 28. Nb5 Kg7 29. Nd4 Rh8 30. Nf3 Bxf3 31. Qxf3 Bd6 32. Qc3 Qxc3 33. bxc3 Be5 34. Rd7 Kf6 35. Kg1 Bxc3 36. Be2 Be5 37. Kf1 Rc8 38. Bh5 Rc7 39. Rxc7 Bxc7 40. a4 Ke7 41. Ke2 f5 42. Kd3 Be5 43. c4 Kd6 44. Bf7 Bg3 45. c5+ 1/2-1/2

History and Assassin's Creed II

I wrote this "Game Theory" column for the March issue of Maximum PC, but with Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood on the slate for November, I thought it was worth re-printing here. I'm really not sure what I think about the multiplayer emphasis in Brotherhood, since I haven't had hands-on with it yet. It wasn't the stories (which were nonsense) or even the combat that made the first games stand out, but the environments, total immersion in history, and blending of disparate gameplay elements. It will be interesting how that translates into pure multiplayer action.

It’s wonderful that even after 30-odd years as a gamer, there are still gaming moments that can surprise and delight me. Assassin’s Creed II (finally available for PC this month) absolutely knocked me cold within the first few minutes of the Florentine sequences.

It wasn’t the gameplay. Although the movement and combat are certainly strong (and a clear improvement over the original), we should expect that. It’s 2010: We’ve had so many quality exemplars of stealth and fighting systems that a developer has no excuse not to do it right.

It wasn’t the premise, which is dumber than a contestant on Conveyer Belt of Love. All the memories of all my ancestors are encoded in my DNA? Really? Right there between eye color and height is a base pair of nucleotides recording my 24th great-granduncle’s encounter with a hooker on January 24, 1472? And Veronica Mars is capable of extracting that memory and feeding it back into my brain as a simulation? That’s your premise?

No, the real treasure of Assassin’s Creed II, the real magic that takes the breath away, is Florence itself, and later, Venice. This is why I still game, and why the art of simulation is so utterly unique to gaming. Film and prose are, frankly, better media for narrative storytelling. “Gameplay” can be found in sports, puzzles, and conventional games.

But only interactive entertainment can truly simulate an environment, and then draw the narrative and gameplay elements into that simulation. The Florence and Venice of AC2 are masterpieces of design. It’s not just the architecture and open-city design, but also the living environment down on the ground, as people go about their lives. Merchants sweep the street in front of their stores, courtesans beckon from corners, pickpockets work the crowd, and threaded throughout all of it is the tension, plotting, and power-politics of Renaissance Italy.

I spent a semester in college (and a great deal of time since) studying many of these places and the history surrounding them, and Ubisoft Montreal nails it. Viewing 15th century Florence from atop Brunelleschi’s gravity-defying dome, and then being able to drop down to ground level to explore the city is one of the most thrilling things I’ve experienced in a lifetime of gaming. Thanks, Ubisoft.

Why My Job is Never Dull

The FedEx guy always brings me something fun; for instance, Arc Rise Fantasia, a new Japanese-style RPG game.  Not only did I get the Wii version of the game, but also this handy guide to help me duplicate the hairstyles of the game characters.

If anyone has ever seen a character from a Japanese game, then they'll understand that such a thing will remain impossible as long as the laws of gravity are in effect. Still, that didn't keep the publisher from rounding up staffers and giving it their best shot, with helpful tips like "Obtain gooey styling substance to run through hair and pinch chunks of hair together to achieve piece-y look" and "relentlessly check various drugstores until you can find the hair color 'flamingo pink'."

I have to give the PR team kudos for creativity: it beats another t-shirt.  I will now always remember Arc Rise Fantasia.

App O' the Mornin': tChess Pro

Since Chess is going to be a subject here on State of Play, it’s best if I admit up front that I am a terrible Chess player. I’m fascinated by the game, enjoy playing it, and love reading about it and watching replays of classic games. Most of the time, I can tell a good game from a bad game. I can judge when someone makes a good move. I’m just no good at it in practice. I don’t have the kind of disciplined mind it takes to play a truly competitive game of chess.

With the caveat out of the way, let’s turn to Chess on the iPhone/iTouch, and see what’s available. Since Chess is heavily represented in the App Store, it can be hard to tell which version is best? Several contenders crowd the top of the list. Deep Green Chess, Fritz Chess, Shredder Chess, Caissa Chess, Glaurung Chess, and Chess Genius all have their pros and cons, and their passionate advocates.

But if I had to pick one well-rounded, feature-rich Chess package with a powerful engine and plenty of learning tools, we’d have to go with Tom Kerrigan’s tChess Pro.

It’s not the best looking app (Deep Green claims that honor), but its visuals and interface get the job done. Input is simple touch controls, with easy move takebacks for those times when you grab the wrong piece.

More impressive is what’s under the hood. The game comes in two versions. tChess Lite ($1) and tChess Pro ($8), and anyone serious about chess will want to skip straight to Pro. The basic engine is the same for both versions, with excellent teaching features and opening books. The Pro version adds an analysis mode, PGN support, a database of classic games, and other power user tools common to far more expensive chess software. PGN support is always a key feature for me, since I like to have a huge database of classic games to play back and study.

tChess lacks only online support for head-to-head gaming. That can be remedied by downloading, a free app from one of the leading chess websites. Since chess engines are a matter of fierce debate, it’s worth noting that several of these versions (including Fritz, Shredder, and Glaurung) come in Lite or even free versions, so you can try them all out. Since the apps are frequently updated, check back to see if some are adding new features, since most apps come with free updates. Fritz in particular is shaping up to be a real competitor for tChess.

Monday, July 26, 2010

The Suicide King

If you've ever looked at a King of Hearts, he appears to be driving a sword into his head, which is how this card earns its nickname: the Suicide King. (The name was even cribbed for a Christopher Walken flick.)

In fact, the King of Hearts was originally depicted wielding an axe, with the head of axe appearing on the left side of his head. Over time, either through careless printing or a deliberate design decision, the head of the axe was lost, and the King of Hearts' weapon evolved into a sword, which he now appears to be using to clear out some deeply embedded earwax.

He's also the only King depicted without a mustache. Folklore suggests that he's missing a mustache because, as the King of Hearts, he is without deceit, and mustaches suggest disguise. (Of course, he still has his beard, but nevermind.)

At one point, the French assigned real Kings to the suits: David (Spades), Caesar (Diamonds), Alexander (Clubs), and Charlemagne (Hearts).  Since Charlemagne was cleanshaven (so folklore goes), the King of Hearts had no mustache.

Um ...  nevermind (again).

The culprit, once again, is probably the vicissitudes of woodblock printing, since early playing cards were made by hand and not always to the highest standards.
King of Hearts (with axe) circa 1567.

Giant FedEx from Blizzard can only mean one thing...

My review copy of the completely over-the-top special collector's edition of StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty is here.

This bad boy is one solid brick of content for $100.  It includes:
  • a PC/Mac version of the game on DVD
  • a light-up 2GB USB drive designed to look like the main character's dog tags, and pre-loaded with the complete original StarCraft Anthology
  • Behind the Scenes DVD
  • soundtrack CD
  • comic book
  • hardcover book The Art of StarCraft: Wings of Liberty
  • exclusive in-game "pet" for World of WarCraft
  • free downloadable content from
  • 4 guest passes: 2 for World of WarCraft, and 2 for StarCraft II
Say what you will about Blizzard, but they sure know how to stuff a box fully of nifty swag.

Speaking of Gaming Photography ... Mancala among the Maasai

My daughter and I love playing Mancala/Wari. (There's a very nice Mancala app out there as well.) In fact, most western games billing themselves as "Mancala" are actually Wari. Mancala is a family of games, like Poker. Wari (or Oware) is a specific version, and the one with the most popular rule set.

After posting the story about the 3rd International Gaming Photo Awards yesterday, I remembered this picture, which I found on a Maasai tourism site. When I see photos like this, I'm always struck by the ways the world finds to play game. Dig holes in the dirt, collect some pebbles or pips, and start playing. Man, if Games Workshop got hold of this, they would slap some Space Marines on those pips, change the rules every two years, and sell them collectible figures and $4 bottles of model paint.

Having said that, I have no idea what these two dudes are doing. It's obviously a kind of Mancala game, but there appears to be at least four rows of holes. (?) Maybe it's a Special Edition Mancala Expansion Set, thus proving that the desire to make your existing games bigger is shared the world over.

App O' the Mornin': Hive

When John Yianni’s brilliant game of tile-laying and maneuver was first published in 2001, it introduced an interesting twist on the abstract strategy. The tabletop version features 22 hexagonal tiles made of sturdy Bakelite. Each player gets 11 tiles in white or black, with various tiles depicting a single kind of insect. Players take turns placing tiles so they form a continuous hive, and then move those tiles to trap the opponent’s Queen bee.

Each bug has unique movement rules: the Queen bee can move one space at a time, Ants can go anywhere around the edge of the hive, Grasshoppers can jump, Beetles can move one space and land on top of (and thus block) any other insect, and Spiders can move exactly three spaces around the outside of the hive. No piece may move if its movement will split the hive in two.

The main strategy of the game is control the outer edges of the hive, limiting the movement of the Queen in order to close the trap. You can try the game out using a Java version on the Hive website, which also includes some excellent tips and strategies.

The original Hive game
Thanks to the work of LotusLand studio, this innovative game has become a terrific app. LotusLand went the extra distance to offer a 3D engine that can be tilted, panned, or spun to view the playing field from any angle. It even offers different tile sets as well as the “mosquito” tile, which was initially sold separately from the original game. (A mosquito can take on the abilities of any tile it touches.)

The result is remarkably deep, with unique rules requiring the development of fairly elaborate strategies akin to chess.

The original games retails for $30 (about $23 at Amazon), while the app costs $2.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Pagat's Card Games

The name of the site is simply "Card Games," but everyone calls it Pagat. It's such a major clearing house for card game rules and instructions that future generations may replace the phrase "According to Hoyle" with "According the Pagat."

Bicycle Rider Back 808s: the only way to play.
Site manager John McLeod, along with contributors from all over the world, have spent years expanding the site to include rules and variants for countless games. McLeod estimates that Pagat's might have the rules for 30% to 50% of all card games on the planet. The site has rules for traditional card games, tile games, reader-invented games, commercial titles, and solitaire games, with plenty of international games, variants, and house rules.

Because card games are always evolving and new variants always being created, this feat is only possible using a web site. You may have some of the best card gaming books in print, and they will never be as complete and up-to-date as Pagat.

With Pagat's and a deck of Bicycle 808s (Bee, Aviator, Hoyle, and Streamline are also acceptable), your gaming needs could be met for life.

Picturing Gamers

When I saw the article on BoardGameNews announcing the 3rd annual International Gaming Photo Awards, my first thought was: that’s the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard.

Sometimes it’s best to ignore first thoughts. Although the idea of a photography contest featuring gamers seems absurd on the surface (quick: what’s the first image that comes to mind when you hear the word “gamer”), the photographs from the first two contests are often quite wonderful. Don’t think “snapshots of game tables at Origins,” but rather “National Geographic photos with people playing games.”

Here are galleries of finalists from the 2008 and 2009 awards. The site for this year’s contest can be found here.

 (H/T BoardGameNews)