Saturday, August 21, 2010

State of State of Play

Since today marks one month since I started this blog, I thought I’d take stock and give you some idea of what I’ll be doing going forward.

I didn’t know what to expect when I began a blog, and I wasn’t sure I’d be able to add a whole new layer of work to what I already did. So far, it’s working out pretty well, so I plan to stay with it and gradually increase some of my coverage. In the first month, I managed 93 posts and 5,000 page views, which seems like a good start. I hope to expand that audience, and I hope you’ll help by sharing links on Facebook, reTweeting, and perhaps even accessing Amazon through my links at the right.

So here’s the State of SOP:

App O’ The Mornin’
It’s been remarkably popular, so it will continue just as is: one App a day posted Monday through Friday at 5:00am. Some might be shorter, others longer. I’m not going to feel bound by my usual length restrictions (which can very particular in magazine publishing). I’ll just use as many words as I need to. That’s kind of liberating. Check out Apps here.

I began posting logic puzzles to provide steady content while I was away, but it has also become somewhat popular, so I’m going to continue it, twice a week a first, and more if I have the ideas. Check out Puzzles here.

I’ve done far less coverage than I had planned to, so expect that to change. I hope to post steadily on Eurogames from the perspective of a fan and player. I don’t plan to do heavy coverage, news, or reviews, but rather commentary pieces on the entire range of adult boardgames.

Cards are also a popular subject here, and I plan to do multiple posts throughout September. (Believe it or not, the phrase which has led to the most Google search hits is “Autobridge board.”) As my family discovers all the old card games, I’m beginning to realize how much this wonderful pastime has faded in popularity. I’d like to help turn that around. I’m not just going to talk about individual games, but also cards themselves: their design and quality. Part of this is linked to my next bit of news, which is…

That pack of Bicycle cards in my header image isn't just there to fill space. I’ve made no secret that I *heart* the US Playing Card Company and their Bicycle and Bee cards, so I decided to drop them a line. They’ve agreed to sponsor a series of giveaways throughout September, and have generously provided various prizes for my readers. I’ll let you know the details as I begin the card posts next month.

Electronic games

Apps aside, I’ve done very little on the subject that’s kind of my area of expertise: video and computer games. I’m not sure how much that’s going to change. A great deal of my writing on this subject gets directed towards my various print publications, and there’s never a lot left over. The whole point of this blog was to fill in the gaps, covering things I knew about and loved but didn’t get to write about. If something interesting pops up, I’ll certainly post it, but I have no plans to really increase this side of the blog. (Also, as per my usual experience, critical coverage of electronic games draws the most … exuberant people out of the woodwork, and I’m just not that interested in feeding the trolls on my own little corner of the web.)

The next few weeks should also feature some items I collected during my trip to Virginia, including a series of posts on games that were popular in Colonial America.

Personal posts
I haven’t decided on how to handle the personal end of the whole blog thing. I tend to find more personal posts interesting when I read other blogs, so I might do one O/T post on weekends. I’ll see how it goes. Yesterday's post, Math and Me, was kind of a first step in this direction.

Facebook, Twitter and RSS feeds are a blogger’s best friends, and I’m always looking to grow my rolls. Please follow SOP on your medium of choice, and share links to help spread the love.

By all means, if anyone has any comments or suggestions, just fire away. I’m still trying to find a “blog voice,” and expect it to take some time.

Speaking of time, I want to thank you all for taking some of it to visit here. I have always written for a specific audience, but this blog is meant to be different. I’m kind of writing it for myself, and hoping there are enough people out there who find that interesting. Time is one of our most valuable commodities, so I appreciate that you use some of yours to stop here. Thanks for your continued patronage.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Weekend Post: Math and Me

I’m about as far from being a mathematician as one can get while still being able to add 20% to a restaurant check. Math was my bane all throughout school. I hated it and held it in contempt. I failed Algebra I … twice. That takes a special kind of stupid.

I know my subjects: literature, art, history, philosophy, and theology. But the math thing always bugged me. I didn’t like the fact that I’d let it defeat me, and suspected I had done so for bad reasons, such as arrogance and laziness.

About ten years ago, I decided to do something about it. I bought a couple of “teach yourself” books and began with straight mathematics and “pre-algebra” and then did a full course of algebra self-study. It was hard going, but eventually I began to listen to the numbers like I could listen to words or music or rhetoric. I realized that they were a language and I just needed to let the numbers speak.

And, finally, I understood it. I’m still no mathematician, but I get it now. I can follow problems and see the special beauty in numbers.

My faith had a lot to do with helping me clear that hurdle. I study a particular stream of Catholic philosophy known as Thomism, which is a rigorously logical approach to all the questions of Creation. St. Thomas Aquinas was my first big personal “discovery” since college, when I first dug deeply into Plato. He opened up a doorway to a vast storehouse of logic. It was not merely a belief system, but a way of approaching any question in an orderly way, giving equal time to contrary arguments, assuming nothing, and testing everything.

Logic is at the core of Creation, just as it is at the core of all good gaming. Games and puzzles are logic made manifest. They are concrete. They can be cracked open and understood. I was always good at pattern puzzles, conundrums, riddles, and lateral thinking. But with St. Thomas in one hand and a new respect for math in the other, I started tackling the kind of puzzles and problems I used to avoid.

I’m still not all that great at them, but I like to think I understand them and appreciate them better than I used to. I also think they are terribly important, particularly in the education and parenting of children. We live in a world where extravagant emotion always trumps logic and plain old common sense. We could do with a little more logic and a little less hysteria. We’ve spent several generations nurturing our inner child, when we should have been nurturing our inner Mr. Spock.

Games and puzzles are almost always intertwined with mathematics, and all of them taken together sharpen the mind. They help us understand ourselves and our world. They form a language with its own poetry. We have to make sure the next generation knows how to listen to that poetry.

Spreading the Joy About Cribbage

My online pal Julie D. at Happy Catholic got inspired by Cribbage Friday, and has rediscovered an old favorite, as she explains in this great post.

Thanks also to the awesome Anchoress (Elizabeth Scalia) for giving me a nice shout-out. I think Elizabeth is one of the best essayists on the internet, and I'm honored that she published one of my pieces at Patheos.

"Cards are war."

Cards are war, in disguise of a sport.
  Charles Lamb

Thursday Puzzle SOLUTION: Startling Subtraction


See the comments on the original post for some alternative solutions. 

About Puzzles

I had fun preparing the puzzles for the past two weeks. A lot of them are classics, since even the master puzzlers didn't invent most of their own puzzles: they just reformulated them. Some I did from memory, and some were drawn from my collection of puzzle and math books. I only botched one answer, which my astute readers quickly caught.

This was never meant to be a regular daily feature, but I will continue to post puzzles, maybe a couple of times a week. As I said in a previous post, I'm about to disappear into the thickets of a massive special supplement for Games Magazine, but will continue to post an App O' The Mornin' and whatever else I can until I complete it sometime in the next two weeks.

I also plan to post something about the future of the site. It's about to be one month old, and I've been steadily populating it with posts. It will continue, and begin to take shape as I explore this whole blogging thing.

Thanks to the regular puzzle solvers, especially Eye of the Frog, who answered every one correctly, which puts him one-up on me. I think I posted today's "1105" puzzle just to see if I could stump him. I hope to heck I can get it right.

Friday Puzzle (Bonus): A Riddle

And now for a riddle:

What can go up a chimney down, but can't come down a chimney up?

Friday Puzzle (Hard): 1105

Let's finish off two weeks of puzzles with some challenging math and a more gentle riddle.  First, the math:

The sum of the squares of two consecutive numbers is 1105.

What are the numbers?

App O' The Mornin': Solebon Solitaire

The unquestioned king of solitaire is Solebon. Card Sharks is a good general collection with a lot of solitaire variants, but as the menu screen itself says, Solebon is “for refined solitaire players.”

Developed by Smallware, Solebon has migrated through various systems since 1998, when it was first launched for the Palm OS. Thus, it has a long pedigree not only as software, but as software designed primarily for mobile use. The version for Mac, called Solavant, contains 242 different solitaire versions and variants. When you consider that the authoritative book on the subject, David Parlett's Solitaire, details 400 versions and variants worldwide, you'll get an idea just how thorough the Mac version is.

Solebon Solitaire manages top bring a hefty chunk of solitaire to iPhone and other Apple portable devices. It includes forty games, ranging from the familiar (Klondike, Free Cell) to the exotic (Honeybees, La Belle Lucie). The interface is quite effective, using a double-touch system rather than gestures. You touch one card, and then touch where it should go. Card Sharks uses drag-and-drop. It's a matter of preference, but the double-touch is a little more precise and easy to use.

The graphics are crisp and easy to read, and the entire look of the game is subdued and appealing. The only flaw is the lack of a landscape mode. The screens are certainly optimized to handle the vertical layout, but solitaire is a game that benefits from a horizontal spread.

That minor point aside, this remains the premium solitaire experience in the App store.

List of titles in the game:
Accordion, Aces Up, Agnew Sorel, Ambrose, Askew, Baker's Game, Baker's Game Easy, Beleaguered Castle, Blind Alleys, Bouquet, Colorado, Creepy Crawly, Demon, Doublets, Eight Off, Eight Off Easy, Fanny, Fortune's Favor, Four Seasons, Fourteen Out, Free Cell, Free Cell Easy, Golf, Honeybees, Klondike Deal 1, Klondike Deal 3, La Belle Lucie, Lady of the Manor, Monte Carlo, Penguin, Provisional, Pyramid, Pyramid Easy, Russian Revolver, Scorpion, Spiderette, Spiderling, Spiderling 2 Suits, Triple Mulligan, Yukon

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Back From Vacation

I've actually been on vacation for the last couple of weeks, and had only intermittent internet access. Part of the reason I introduced two weeks of logic puzzles was to provide structured content while I was gone. (Blogger allows you to create all of your content at once for posting at a later time.)

Although I'm back, I'm about to go straight into finishing the December issue of Games Magazine, which includes the Games 100. It's a pretty exhaustive (and exhausting) 15-page supplement detailing the 100 best conventional and electronic games of the year.

My trip included a lengthy stay at Colonial Williamsburg, where the Founding Fathers were avid gamers and gamblers. This is in contrast to the Founders from Massachusetts, for instance, where playing cards and other forms of gaming were banned due to the Puritan influence. Virginia was a royal colony, and thus officially under the Church of England, which had no problems with cards, draughts, or similar frivolous activity.

The picture at the right was taken at the recently reconstructed R. Charlton Coffeehouse, which is  across the street from the capitol where Patrick Henry urged the Virginia House of Burgesses to "Give me liberty or give me death". The Coffeehouse was a favorite gathering spot for legislators. They served strong coffee, even stronger unsweetened hot chocolate, and plenty of liquor, and games were a favorite past-time. It's strange to imagine the founders playing Whist, Shut-the-Box, or Checkers while slamming back hypercaffeinated cocoa and talking Revolution.

Thursday Puzzle: Startling Subtraction

Take a look at the 9-letter word below:


It is possible to remove a single letter at a time, forming a new word each time, until you have formed a total of 9 words (including the starting word). The letters cannot be rearranged. Each time one letter is removed, a new word must be formed.

What are the words?

[Adapted from Martin Gardner, though I don't think he originated it]

Wednesday Puzzle SOLUTION: The Bookworm

UPDATED:  I've often used this puzzle to stump people, and this time I fell into my own trap. I tried to create even numbers for easy mental calculations, but I kept changing the numbers of volumes. In typing up the solution, I got sloppy and forgot that the central trick of the puzzle is that there are TWO FEWER BOOKS  eaten than would appear to be the case. In my original solution, I only calculated one.  Thanks to readers Eye of the Frog and Ethan C. for catching the error. This post has been revised to correct the mistake. (I plead exhaustion: aside from the puzzles that are directly quoted, I wrote the last two weeks worth of material from memory in a single sitting. No, Martin Gardner would not have bought that excuse either, but it's my story and I'm sticking to it.)

58 inches

Remember, if a set of books is in order on a shelf, the first volume will be the furthest book on the left. This would place the first page of that book to the right of that volume. The front cover of each book (except for the last) touches the back cover of the next book in line. The back cover of the first volumes touches nothing.

Therefore, a worm starting on the first page of the first volume will not need to eat through the first volume. It only needs to eat through the cover.

Since it's only going to the last page of the last volume, it doesn't need to eat through the front cover or text of volume 26.

24 volumes at 2 inches each = 48 inches

50 covers (front and back for volumes 2 to 25, plus the front cover of volume 1 and the back cover of volume 26) at 1/5th of an inch each = 10 inches

Culbertson on Cards

A deck of cards is built like the purest of hierarchies, with every card a master to those below it, a lackey to those above it.
 Ely Culbertson

App O' The Mornin': Monumental

What the?! Knizia again? Is he trying to corner the App market?

Well, if he is, he's doing a bang-up job, because even the relatively flaccid Knizia Apps (Poison, Robot Master) are still pretty good.

Although the Mayan graphics and exploration theme of Monumental call to mind Lost Cities, the game is a completely new design by Knizia for the iPhone/Thouch. Yes, it’s another set making game, but Knizia always manages to do something fresh with the format.

Monumental uses a mechanic that would be difficult to recreate in a conventional card game. Two sets of 12 empty spaces (3 columns by 4 rows) are split by a column of 4 tiles. As you slide each tile into one of the empty rows, another falls. The goal is to make sets of tiles matched by rune design, number of ruins, color, or any combination of the three, with more points award for more complete matches.

Although it’s a simple design, maximizing points requires pre-planning and a steady pace, making it a thinking person’s alternative to Bejeweled.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Wednesday Puzzle: The Bookworm

If you've read many puzzle books, you've probably come across this one in some form. Everyone takes a stab at their own version sooner or later, so here's mine:

A 26-volume encyclopedia set is placed, in order, on a single shelf. Each volume is 2" thick. Each cover is 1/5" thick.

If a book worm starts on the first page of the first volume, how far will he have to travel to reach the last page of the last volume.

Franklin on Games

Games lubricate the body and the mind.
  Benjamin Franklin

Tuesday Puzzle SOLUTION: Matchstick Fieldgoal ... Intercepted

Push the horizontal matchstick over, and then move one upright to reform the goalpost.

App O' The Mornin': Scrabble

With the demise of the unofficial "Scrabulous," the official EA/
Hasbro version of Scrabble became the only online version of this classic game. It's already a huge hit on Facebook, and has also made a successful jump the the App store, featuring multiplayer support that is among the best for any turn-based game.

The support for play across multiple platforms is, in my experience, unique among Apps. (And, no, I am not counting Farmville and Mafia. If you consider those “games,” you’re probably at the wrong blog.) I can start a game with the App, invite players via Facebook, and then anyone playing can continue the game either via Facebook or the App. This is a fantastic feature that needs to be implemented in more games.

The software passes the new moves fairly quickly, and App connection failures are rare. (The Facebook side of the equation is a little more fussy, often requiring repeated screen reloads.) This kind of offline multiplayer is ideal for mobile devices, since it allows people to make moves at their own pace. Because of this App, I now play Scrabble every day, and it’s so easy to use that a move never takes more than a minute or two.

On the downside, it could use a more diverse set of customization options and faster load times. Although the app will send push notifications when a new move from an online opponent is received, you have to restart the app, sit through the logos, and wait while it finds your games. Updates seem to have improved this since the initial release, so we can hope that it will get even better.

Those reservations aside, it’s still a fine implementation of Scrabble for $5.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Virtual Museum of Games

Another great collection of game art and information can be found in the Elliott Avedon Virtual Museum and Archive. This site reproduces the collection that was once housed in a museum at University of Waterloo, Ontario. The museum has closed and the collection was moved to the Canadian Museum of Civilization, but the site documenting the collection's treasures has been left up. It has some terrific images and text.

Life, or Chess?

Chess is like life.
 Boris Spassky

Chess is not like life. It has rules!
  Mark Pasternak

Chess is life.
  Bobby Fischer

If Chess is a science, it's a most inexact one. If Chess is an art, it is too exacting to be seen as one. If Chess is a sport, it's too esoteric. If Chess is a game, it's too demanding to be just a game. If Chess is a mistress, she's a demanding one. If Chess is a passion, it's a rewarding one. If Chess is life, it's a sad one.

Life is a kind of Chess, with struggle, competition, good and ill events
  Benjamin Franklin

Tuesday Puzzle: Matchstick Fieldgoal ... Intercepted

The opposing team made the mistake of building their goalposts out of matchsticks. (They're really tiny football players).

A ball (the match head) is about to pass through the uprights.

See if you can make this fieldgoal an incomplete by only moving two matchsticks. You must still have an intact fieldgoal at the end. The ball must be completely outside of the goalposts.


Monday Puzzle SOLUTION: A Lady Never Tells...

Mrs. Perkins is 45. Her husband is 54.

UPDATE: Reader "Eye of the Frog" posted an excellent solution to this in the comments of the original puzzle.

App O' The Mornin': Ingenious

I could write about only Reiner Knizia Apps for two weeks and still not cover them all.  The man isn't just a prolific designer, but his games and uniquely well-suited to the App format.

Among Knizia’s dominoes variants, Ingenious is probably the most famous. Tiles are comprised of two conjoined hexagons, with each bearing one of 6 colored symbols. Players earn points by laying tiles on an Agon board to create lines of matching colors. The unusual scoring mechanism means that “highest lowest score” wins. Thus, the person with the highest score for their weakest color is the victor.

For instance, if your lowest scoring color is green with 5 points, and someone else has a lowest scoring color of red for 6 points, then they win. This creates unusual strategies for tile placement and even blocking.

The iPhone/Touch version is a straightforward and effective port of the original game, with an AI that should give even seasoned players a fine challenge. A solitaire variant is also included, as you compete against yourself for highest score.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Dr. Johnson on Cards

"I am sorry I have not learned to play at cards. It is very useful in life: it generates kindness and consolidates society."

Samuel Johnson, from Tour to the Hebrides (November 11, 1773)

Monday Puzzle: A Lady Never Tells Her Age

One day at the hairdresser, a beautician asked stately Mrs. Perkins how old she was. Mrs. P. glared at the woman over her glasses, and said "If you reverse the figures of my husband's age, you shall have mind."

This didn't satisfy the young woman at all, who said, "I don't know how old your husband is."

"I am younger than he. The difference between our ages is one-eleventh of their sum."

Mrs. P. thought this would confuse the hairdresser so much that she'd drop the subject, but the young woman did some quick calculations, smiled, and said, "I wouldn't worry about it, dear. You look very good for a woman of your age."

How old is Mrs Perkins?

App O' The Mornin': Carcassonne

Among Eurogame-to-App conversions, Carcassonne now leads the pack. I still have some serious Catan-love, but there’s no denying that Carcassonne is the most feature-rich and wholly satisfying port of a classic design.

The feature-set reads like a wish-list of everything you’d want in this kind of App. There are 8 different AI players, a new solitaire mode, local network play over Bluetooth or Wi-Fi, Internet multiplayer via live-gaming sessions or email, a matchmaking service, an Elo ratings system, and in-game chat. If it added app-to-Facebook support (a la Scrabble) I’d probably never stop playing it.

This is precisely what every game should offer: a full suite of single- and multiplayer options, smoothly integrated with the game and the device. It works like a dream. You can connect to someone with a local device, or someone who’s on the internet. You can even hop into the lobby and it will match you with another player, often in less than 30 seconds. This is awesome squared.

The implementation of the game itself is also quite strong. Carcassonne was always going to be one of those games that challenged the small screen of a mobile device. Its tendency to spread across the table makes it though to fit in a small space. The App version does a fair job of managing this, by zooming in and out, and clearly marking any block where tile placement is legal. Each fresh tile appears in a little banner to the right of the screen, and after it’s placed you have an option to put a follower in any legal space. Tile sprawl simply never seems to be a problem, since you can view the board at different sized, and easily move the screen around.

Players new to Carcassonne won’t have any trouble learning it from the App. There’s a complete rules set for both standard and solitaire versions, as well as narrated interactive tutorials. The initial release is still plain-vanilla Carcassonne, but there’s no reason at all that the multiple expansion packs and variants couldn’t be added at a later date. I’d pay for them. (Well, some of them: you can keep Catapult.)

The App was developed by The Coding Monkeys, and you can bet I’ll be looking for anything they do in the future.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Another Neat Item From The Games We Play

I have a few items like this in my collection. Books of etiquette and decorum always explained how to amuse guests in socially acceptable ways. Most their ideas were utterly daft.

I like "Third, That the real object of the amusement shall be gained, namely, that all shall be amused." (Click on the picture to see it full size.)

(From Louis, S.L. Decorum: a Practical Treatise on Etiquette and Dress of the Best American Society. New York: Union Publishing House, 1882.)