Friday, August 27, 2010

Weekend Post (O/T): Wanton Media Consumption

I am an avid consumer of all forms of media. I'm either reading, watching, playing, or listening to something. Here's a rundown of some of this week's highlights for the weekend off-topic post.

After reading the obituaries for Maury Chaykin, I realized that I'd only see one episode of A&E's Nero Wolfe, and that one long ago. We watch a lot of British mystery shows at Casa McD, but I was curious how the Americans would handle a classic literary mystery adaption like this. The answer is: pretty darn well. Tim Hutton is a snappy Archie Goodwin, and Chaykin is volatile and neurotic as Wolfe. The oddest part is the use of an ensemble cast in different roles each week. Aside from a few repeating characters, all the other actors play a different character in every mystery. It's a very good American take on the classic British lit-mystery format (Sherlock Holmes, Poirot, Marple, Midsomer Murders, etc).

As for Chaykin, the thing from him that I still remember best is "Mr. Potatohead! Mr. POTATOHEAD!" Can you name that movie?

Gillian Anderson as Lady Dedlock
Bleak House has been an ongoing project for the past two months. I'm always reading a few books at once, so a 1,000 page Victorian novel is going to take a little bit of time. Fortunately, Dickens wrote it to be read that way, since the story would have originally been printed as a serial. (That's why all his characters had certain phrases or characteristics that were always repeated: to help people remember who they were from month to month.) This may not be the best place to start with Dickens if you've never read him before (Great Expectations or Hard Times are probably a better first experience), but it's certainly the best writing Dickens ever did. If you've never seen the most recent adaptation (with Gillian Anderson and Charles Dance) make sure you do. I think it's still on Netflix streaming, and it's superb.

Solitaire by David Parlett. Parlett is the best writer on cards, period. Alas, I think his book on Solitaire is out of print. That's a shame, because it's not just a collection of 400 games and variants, but also a thoughtful look at the game of solitaire itself. Parlett categorizes the games, ranging from simple games of luck and patience, to logic problems that require as much thought as chess. This book desperately needs to be back in print. No one has ever written a better book on the subject.

Memorize the Faith (and Most Anything Else) by Kevin Vost. I teach religion to 8th graders, so I was looking for some interesting new techniques in this book. The author's method is based on the ancient "method of loci," which associates certain facts with different discreet locations, such as rooms and objects in a house. I'm not far into it, so I'm not sure what I think of the method. I've worked with teenagers for many years, and their retention of rote facts is very poor. While rote learning was probably over-emphasized in the past, it is drastically under-emphasized now. I'm 42-years-old, and I can still recite poetry and facts I learned at their age. (I had a classical education that emphasized that sort of thing.) I'm looking for any method I can use to help them retain hard knowledge. This may or may not be the method, but it's certainly a different approach.

Killer Cribbage by Dan Barlow. I've read half of this book, and my 9-year-old daughter still took me to the cleaners ... twice. (She said, "I don't think that book is working.) Maybe all the best secrets are in the second half? Actually, it's a very good book that offers some excellent advice, My daughter is simply a card shark. I'm so proud.

I've mostly been listening to Old Time Radio. The site has a complete collection of Gunsmoke episodes in perfect sound quality. This is some of the best entertainment you'll find, and it's free! Load up your iPod with OTR and you will not be disappointed.

The Week At a Glance

App Reviews
Chain Link Pro: puzzle, dexterity
Netflix: utility
Reiner Knizia's Samurai: strategy, boardgame conversion
Spite & Malice: two-handed solitaire
Theseus: puzzle, maze

EA's Medal of Honor Courts Controversy
The Bible as an MMO?

Cheap Labor
Games Magazine puzzle contest (off-site)

Colonial Gaming
Introduction to the series
Put and the lower classes: How to play the Poker of Colonial America
I catch you without green: A medieval game survives in the Carolinas.
Cards of the Colonial period

The Games 100
Dominion Prosperity Preview (off-site)
Friday Linkaround

Friday Linkaround--Random items of interest

New Content for Snoopy: Joystiq is almost correct: Snoopy Flying Ace is the best flight game of the past several years, and now it has new downloadable content, called Suppertime of Destruction. Must ... have... kamikaze .... woodstocks ...

Angry Birds: The Movie?: Are we witnessing the birth of a franchise with the Angry Birds app? Is this a good thing, or a bad thing?: discuss.

Through The Ages App: It's one thing to shrink Roll Through the Ages down to App size, but the original, very large and complex Through the Ages game? Apparently someone is trying.

Batman Redux: We're going to have to a wait a full year for the sequel to last year's Game of the Year.

The Making of Tichu: I'll be reviewing the new Tichu app soon. In the meantime, programmer Steve Blanding explains how he did it in this detailed, geektastic developer diary at BGN.

Little Plastic Dudes Fight Evil: Axis & Allies: Europe 1940 is finally out.

Move Along, Nothing to See Here: Sony is already trying to talk down expectations for the Move. I guess the "It's an expensive peripheral that does kind of what the Wii always did" narrative is not working.

5 for 5: 5 boardgames that are good for 5 players, at

What the World Needs is Another Videogame Movie: Will Brad Pitt star in Red Dead Redemption: The Movie? (Red Dead Redemption is one of the finalists for the Games Magazine Game of the Year.)

Speaking of Videogames Movies: Halo: Reach semi-live-action trailer. (No real word yet on when we can expect a live action Halo movie.)

Bring Out Your Dead: Target joins Best Buy in offering a hardware trade-in program.

News From the Chess World: Chess links for the week.

PUZZLE: Cheap Labor

Huey, Dewey, Louie, Donald, and Gyro are each working on a single day this week guarding Uncle Scrooge's money bin.

Huey is working as many days before Louie as Dewey is after Gyro.

Donald is working two days before Gyro.

Louie is working on Wednesday.

When are the other four working?

App O' The Mornin': Netflix App Review

No, it's not a game, but I'm giving myself a little topic leeway on Fridays, and I've been waiting for this one for a year. (Also: it's relevant to Apps, Xbox, and Wii.)

I'm a huge Netflix junkie. Back when DVD was first launched, I wrote quite a bit about the format and the technology. I published a lot of reviews and amassed a fairly large collection (about 1800 discs).

The flatlining economy has largely ended my days of DVD collecting, but Netflix has jumped in to fill the gap. I'm a big fan of their "Watch instantly" option, which offers a sizable chunk of their content as streaming video. When this was just possible via my laptop, I didn't really bother. But when they added streaming to televisions through any Xbox Live Gold account, it became far more appealing. (You can also stream through Wii, but the resolution is not as good.)

Since Netflix hadn't created their own app, I was still unable to manage my queue via the iPod Touch, but I assumed they'd get around to it eventually. Boy, did they!

Now I know what took them so long. Not only does the new Netflix app (just released yesterday) allow you to browse, add, and delete titles from your instant queue, but it streams the instant queue straight to your device! Sweet gorilla of Manila!

Screen capture from iPod Touch running Netflix app
Now, my entire instant queue can follow me anywhere I go. I'm not a huge fan of watching video on tiny screens, but I know others are, and I'm simply amazed that Netflix was able to include such a powerful feature.

Now for the negatives: am I missing some hidden feature, or does this App not allow you to manage your regular queue at all? I also can't find any information on what has shipped, what's been returned, and other account data. This needs to be fixed.

The App is free, and simply ties in to your existing Netflix account. The queue features work fine, and the video streams without any hitches. If you have a Netflix account, then this will be one of the most powerful media apps on your device.

UPDATE: I'm reading through the reviews for this, and some people are complaining about crashes and skips. This hasn't happened once to me. I suspect these are users who have minimal free memory. You can't run a heavy media application with 20 MB of free RAM. Use an app like "Free Memory" to see how much memory is available, and close some background apps.

My experience was based on watching video via a WiFi connection. Obviously, variations in cellular signal strength will effect streaming.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Colonial Gaming: "I catch you without green!"

During my research on Colonial gaming, I came across a bizarre item that I had to share.

In the late-19th century, folklorists discovered an unusual children’s game that was found in certain areas of North and South Carolina, and nowhere else.

William Wells Newell describes the game in Games and Songs of American Children (1888):

In parts of Georgia and South Carolina, as soon as a group of girls are fairly out of the house for a morning's play, one suddenly points the finger at a companion with the exclamation, “Green!” The child so accosted must then produce some fragment of verdure--the leaf of a tree, a blade of grass, etc.--from the apparel or else pay forfeit … It is rarely, therefore, that a child will go abroad without a bit of ‘green,’ the practice almost amounting to a superstition. The object of each is to make the rest believe that the required piece of verdure has been forgotten, and yet to keep it at hand.

When researchers dug a little deeper, they realized that they were seeing a version of a game that was unique to France, and popular from the 13th to 14th centuries. (It was even mentioned by Rabelais.)

Newell describes the original French game as one played by adults during Lent, after the singing of the Angelus. It went like this:

If any lady accost you and shows you her bough, you must immediately exhibit yours. If you have not such a one, or if your green is of a shade less rich than your adversary's, you lose a point; in case of doubt, the matter is referred to an umpire.

The phrase said to the loser gave the game its name: “I catch you without green!” (“Je vous prends sans vert”).

The punishment for losing was to have a pail of water dumped over your head, or else a pay fine. (Money from the fines was supposedly deposited in a fund to provide a “merry repast” for the village.)

How did a medieval French game survive only in scattering of counties in the Carolinas from the Colonial period to at least the late 20th century?

Simple: some Huguenot families left France and settled in that region of America during the 18th century. The custom had survived in their region of France, and crossed the pond to take root in the New World. American culture and language are full of things that survived here after they faded away in their country of origin.

The Bible: Soon to be an MMO game?

I thought someone was having fun with me when I first got this link, but now I think it's for real.

A German company called FiAA is planning to release The Bible: Chapter 1--The Heroes as a new massively multiplayer online game.

A story running on BusinessWire says that "players slip into the role of Abraham and his descendants and have the opportunity to reenact and witness the incidents of their times.

"As the leader of their tribe, players have to construct their villages, manage resources and the budget. They will have to decide between diplomacy and warfare. However, players do not stay in one place. They will go on a quest to go to the Promised Land. Leading Abram's tribe from Ur to Haran and finally to Canaan, players and their heroes will face many challenges before reaching their goal.

"The game also offers role playing elements. The birth right system introduces Abraham's successors Isaac and Jacob. Side quests allow users to experience less known stories of the Genesis."

The screenshot that's circulating have an Age of Empires feel to them.  The browser-based game is set to start rolling out in early September, with full English-language support promised by the end of the year.

Actually, The Bible and gaming seem like a natural fit. I'm just not sure how they're going to make it into an MMO.

App O' The Mornin': Chain Link Pro Review

Chain Link Pro is a game that kind of sneaks up on you. It's a simple concept that would appear to have limited appeal., but it turns out to be a keeper.

The screen displays different shapes around a swirling vortex. You have use your finger to select one shape, link it with any similar shapes, and drag the whole floating chain into the vortex without touching any other shapes.You can't move to fast, or your chains will swing around and hit the edge of the screen, shattering.

This starts out fairly easy, and after a minute or two you may be tempted to drop it altogether. Stick with it: there's actually nice balance of strategy and dexterity here. Powerups help you pump up the score when making chains, or altar the way the shapes react.

The levels get progressively more challenging, but not so much that you're hurling your device across the room. Three different modes of play mix things up a bit. In Static mode, the shapes don't move, in Timed mode, you're racing against the clock, and in Arcade mode, you have to avoid moving objects. It's a small game, but one that's a good pick-up-and-play addition to your iPhone.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Dominion: Prosperity Preview

Boardgame News has a terrific preview of the new Dominion: Prosperity set due from Rio Grande next month. The link will take you to a detailed post by Dominion designer Donald X. Vaccarino, complete with images of the new cards and some interesting comments on how they work. I'm looking forward to getting my hands on that "Forge" card.

Colonial Gaming: "Put" and the Lower Classes

"If you want to be robbed, my son, play Put in a tavern."
   Captain Crawley, The Card Players Manual (1876)
   [via David Parlett]

Put was the Poker of Colonial Virginia: a disreputable game of luck, bluffing, and wagering played in taverns by members of the lower classes. (The middle and upper classes preferred Whist and Loo). It followed the English colonists to Virginia, where it became very popular.

At first glance, the rules seem positively primitive. Three cards each are dealt to 2-4 players. Players take turns putting down cards to win tricks, with the rankings 32AKGJT987654.  I've seen no explanation why 3s and 2s are high, and have to assume it was simply some quirk of the rules dating from the game's origin in the 1600s.

High card wins each trick, regardless of suit, and there are no trumps. Each trick is worth 1 point, and game is 5 points.

This seems to make the game merely a mindless bit of trick-taking for money, but the "Put" rule is where it turns into a bluffing game. At any point, a player may say "Put" before playing the first card in a new trick. This is a shorthand version of the phrase "I put it to you that my card can beat your card." Maybe it can, maybe it can't. If the non-putter refuses the put, the putter gains a point. If the put is accepted, then the winner of the trick jumps to 5 points and wins the whole pot.

I tried a few hands of this with my son. It sounded boring and pointless, but after a couple of rounds, we started to find some definite strategies and a very interesting element of bluffing. By the end of several hands, we were finding it quite enjoyable.

It's a great game to introduce to kids to give them a taste of the taverns where the Revolutionary War was incubated. (Beer is optional.) They might also find it interesting how a game that was probably played in the time of Shakespeare migrated to the New World.

A couple of descriptions of Put can be found at Pagat. The authors of Pagat note that Charles Cotton (author of The Compleat Gamester in 1674) calls it "'the ordinary rooking [fleecing] game' of every place, and devotes much of his chapter on it to describing various common methods of cheating by marking the cards, introducing cards from another pack, and so on. He also explains 'The High Game,' in which the cards were stacked so as to deal the victim a three and two twos while the dealer dealt himself a two and two threes. The non-dealer would put, and perhaps agree some extra wager on the game, which the dealer would then see and win. Cotton remarks that you cannot get away with this more than once against the same player"

The Electronic Games 100: Done

The annual Games 100, our guide to the best games of the year, is finally locked down. The awards are picked for Electronic Game of the Year and Runners Up, and category winners for Action, RPG/Adventure, Sports/Driving, Strategy, and Apps are selected.

This is my biggest job of the year. The final text comes in at 11,000 words, which is about 15 pages in the December issue. The Traditional Games 100 list will fill the same amount of space. I believe this is the 30th Games 100. I've done the last 10 or so, and worked on it with the late Burt Hochberg for 5 years before that.

As we get closer to street date (late October), I'll talk a little bit more about what's in it and why we made the decisions we made. Last year was a bit of an upset, with the top electronic award going to Batman: Arkham Asylum, while the traditional game award went to Small World. If you haven't checked them out yet, you really should: both are excellent games.

App O' The Mornin': Reiner Knizia’s Samurai Review

Samurai is one of Knizia’s more popular designs. Along with Tigris and Euphrates and Through the Desert, it’s part of his “tile-laying trilogy,” all published in 1997 and 1998. Although some of his other games featured similar tile-laying mechanics (most notably Ingenious), these three had a different feel to them, if only because they replace abstract design with historical themes.

In fact, theme doesn’t matter all that much in Samurai, except to lend the game some flavor. This is a pure area control game, with up to four players taking turns laying hexagonal tiles on a map of medieval Japan. The goal is to exert the most influence on map areas bearing figures representing religion (a Buddha), the military (a helmet), and labor (a peasant). It works this way:

Players get a selection of tiles, and draw more as they expend this selection. Each tile has an image and a number from 1 to 4. The image represents the kind of influence that tile exerts (religious, military, or labor), and the number represents the strength of that influence. Samurai tiles are wild cards that can influence all three types of figure.

There are also “fast play” tiles, depicting a ship for control of sea hexes, a ronin to act as another (albeit weaker) wild card, and a “figure-exchange” tile to move figures on the map. You can place one standard tile per turn, and any number of number of fast move tiles.

The goal is to place tiles to surround the figures. When the figure is totally surrounded, the person with the most influence captures that figure. Influence is measured by the total value of matching or wildcard tiles that are surrounding that figure.

For instance, you place a samurai worth 3 and a ronin worth 1 next to a helmet figure. Your enemy places a samurai worth 2 and a ship worth 1 next to the same figure. Since you have more influence on that figure, you capture it and add it to your final total.

The game is played until all of one type of figure are captured, or there are four ties for figure control.

If all of that sounds a little fussy and complicated, have no fear. The App comes with a terrific little three-part tutorial that explains everything, as well as complete rules. Since it sets everything up and helps direct you towards legal moves, it’s all very easy to learn.

The graphics are quite nice, and the interface manages to compress a lot of control and information into a limited space. Four players can compete, either a single player with 2-3 AI opponents, or humans. The app has a full range of multiplayer features, including pass-and-play and turn-based online with push notifications.

All-in-all, a great new addition to the Knizia library.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Games Magazine: Online Puzzle (Contest)

A new puzzle is up at the website. This is a tough one. I didn't create it, and I doubt very much that I can solve it.

If you can solve it, you might be among the five lucky winners who get a free one-year subscription to Games Magazine.

Please follow the instructions on the website when submitting entries. I'm turning off the comments on this one, since my sharp puzzle-solvers usually slice through challenges like this in mere minutes, and publicly posted answers would invalidate the contest.

Oregon Trail: It's What's For Dinner

If she does, then a black cake with green icing isn't going to help matters.

H/T Failblog.

EA's Medal of Honor Courts Controversy

As I've said in the past, I have serious problems with the nihilistic, excessively violent, and anti-American elements in Modern Warfare 2. From both a gameplay and content perspective, I prefer the Battlefield series made by DICE and released by EA.

I was glad to see that EA was resurrecting the Medal of Honor series and turning it over to the DICE team. I suspected that they might try to top the excesses of Modern Warfare, but I haven't seen enough of it to know either way.

Neither has Britain’s Defence Secretary Liam Fox, but that hasn't kept him from voicing an opinion based on minimal evidence. He told the Telegraph that he was "disgusted" that such an "un-British" game was being released, and called for retailers to refuse to sell it, adding "It's shocking that someone would think it acceptable to recreate the acts of the Taliban."

Secretary Fox is referring to unsubstantiated reports that the game, set in contemporary Afghanistan against the backdrop of the War on Terror, would allow people to play as the Taliban and kill British soldiers. Obviously, with soldiers still fighting and dying in that theater of war, this was going to be a sensitive subject. Although I haven't seen the finished game, the "play-the-Taliban" idea seems in poor taste.

EA says that "British troops do not feature in the game." They are not denying that you can play as the Taliban, however, pointing out that someone has to be the bad guy.

It's always a mistake to offer an opinion about something that does not, technically, exist yet. The game may be as awful as Secretary Fox says it is, and he will have been well with in his rights to urge customers and retailers to shun the game.

Nota bene, he did not (as of this writing) talk about using the force of law to ban the game, which is an important distinction often lost in these debates. He urged retailers to "ban" the game by not selling it. We call that "free speech," and even British Defence Secreataries are entitled to it, even when they say things you don't like. Especially then.

Even the military mother quoted in a widely circulated story said she didn't want the game banned, just perhaps shelved for a couple of years until our boys come home. That won't happen, but it's not an unreasonable request.

Some gamers have a habit of screaming "censorship" anytime someone expresses disapproval of their chosen form of entertainment. DEAR GAMERS: NO ONE HAS TO LIKE WHAT YOU DO. They don't even have to approve of it. When you have this kind of content, you need to expect criticism.

People may get on TV and say it's awful and it shouldn't be sold. They may organize boycotts to keep it out of local stores. Bill O'Reilly may even write a sharply worded Talking Points Memo.

Good. That's what they should be doing. Free and open debate is the sign of a healthy society. Unless the State is kicking in your door and heaping copies of Medal of Honor on a bonfire, you aren't being censored. America, at least, is not in danger of tipping over into Fahrenheit 451 anytime soon.

Obviously, I'm going to reserve judgment until I see it. I'm hoping that DICE (a team for whom I have immense respect) will handle this kind of challenging material with good taste. I have serious doubts that this is even possible.

Some inside EA are pointing to the horrible "No Russian" level of Activision's Modern Warfare 2 as some kind of precedent, which is entirely the wrong point to make. That level was rotten gaming, not to mention artistically juvenile and offensive merely for the sake of being offensive.  Supporters of the game are also pointing to war movies like Hurt Locker to justify what they're doing.

This comparison to games as an art form like movies has to end. It's not only stupid, but it fatally underestimates the power of the medium. I remember being offended that Black Hawk Down was made into a game. People said, "Well what's the difference between that and the movie?"

I always find it funny when gamers complain about how ignorant non-gamers are about their hobby, because the movie-game comparison is flat-out stupid, and gamers say it all the time.

How can a gamer not understand the difference between the objective, passive experience of a movie and the subjective, active experience of a game. It's the reason they play games! In a movie, you may see atrocities committed, and even be made to identify with the people committing them, but you are not actively committing those atrocities yourself in simulation.

In other words: games are too powerful a medium to work by the same creative rules as movies. There are things that I may watch in a movie that I would never want to simulate in a game environment. Something like "No Russian" crosses the line for me: it's no longer fun. My fantasies don't involve being a cold-blooded terrorist. That's not a feeling or a role that I need to experience.

I sympathize with DICE and EA. They are trying to use a young medium to create a new form of entertainment, and feel that it should be as responsive to contemporary issues and realities as a book or movie. (And they want to make a pile of money while doing it.) The medium of gaming simply isn't there yet. It may never be, because of the subjective/objective split described above.

Developers need to use some discretion, have some empathy for people that are touched by what they create, and most of all, understand the raw power of their chosen medium. Just because you can do something doesn't meant you should.

NOTE: Whenever I post something like this, I get a load of commentators who send me emails or post comments saying that I'm some kind of drooling Jack Thompson-like censor. I do not believe in the power of the State to use force or the threat of force to control the freedom of expression. I do believe in citizens doing everything they can to make their voices and opinions heard. Game makers have every right to make what they like, but they have no implicit right to access to the marketplace. Citizens have every right to raise the roof and try to persuade people to deny the game makers access to the public marketplace. In other words, you may have a right to make something, but that doesn't mean Walmart has to sell it.

App O' The Mornin': Theseus

Robert Abbott is one of the masters of logic mazes, which add layers of complexity to the standard linear point-to-point maze. (You can find his home on the web here.) He does a lot of work for us at Games Magazine, including some fine cover puzzles. We even made an interactive version of one of his cover puzzles, called Starry Night, which you can try online.

One of his most enduring designs is Theseus and the Minotaur, which has evolved over several iterations, including pen-and-pencil, computer, Java, and the game Mummy Maze (PopCap), which belatedly acknowledged its dept to Abbott’s original concept.

It now finds a welcome home in the App store with a very simple, clean visual style and control system. Developed by Jason Fieldman, the app offers 17 levels in the free Lite version and almost 90 in the full $4 version. The goal is to maneuver “Theseus” (a blue ball) to the exit by first trapping the “Minotaur” (a red ball with horns) in one of the niches on the map. Since the Minotaur is always closing on Theseus with two moves to Theseus’s one, the trick is to find ways to trap him with his own rules of movement, which favor horizontal motion over vertical.

Although the rules are easy to understand, the puzzles get larger and increasingly complex, and some a real mind-benders. There are many maze games in the App stores, including rolling ball games that use the device’s motion control to emulate tilting mazes, but Theseus is the most clever. It’s a classic design done with a solid implementation.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Colonial Gaming: I. Hardy Cards

Cards were far and way the most popular pastime for people of all classes and genders in the 18th century. Records show tavern keeps buying dozens of packs of cards at a time.

As far as we can tell, all of them were imported from England, with heavy tariffs on each pack. The English cards were printed by woodblock on heavy stock, and then hand painted. There were no card "backs" as we know them today: the opposite side of the card was simply left blank.

One deck that survived was the "Great Mogul" deck made by I. Hardy in England 1765. An original resides in a museum at Colonial Williamsburg, but just about every vendor in the town carries a handsome reproduction set.

In this deck, the suicide king has already lost the head of his axe. The court images are fairly rough, as you might expect of wood-block prints. The lower ranks have no numbers: only pips in suit. People must have held their cards differently in the 18th century, since you can't form a standard fan and still read the rank and suit.

Particularly of note is the wrapper, which had to seal each new deck of cards. (Some version of these wrappers were actually still used in Great Britain until 1960.) It bears an embossed Royal seal, and the words "£10 penalty selling any Playing Cards unlabel'd. £20 penalty selling or buying any Label or Wrapper used before. Seller or Buyer of Label or Wrapper used before informing will be indemnified." Each pack required payment of a duty.

The inner wrapper bears the more extreme warning "For exportation. 50 pounds penalty if relanded and 20 pounds if sold in Great Britain." 50 pounds was about 20 pounds more than the annual salary of a member of the American middle class at the time.

In other words, you'd be punished for not having properly labeled cards, for reusing the wrapper, or for trying to bring the cards back to Great Britain. And you had to pay a duty on each deck. Every wrapper was a reminder of the hated stamp act. It's easy to imagine card-loving Virginians getting irritated every time they opened a new deck.

Sometimes it's the little things that lead to Revolutions.  

Update: I understand that some people have found these offered on the internet as originals, sometimes even looking worn down and "aged." The likelihood of real sets of these cards popping up on eBay is almost nil. If someone is offering them as originals, you are being hoaxed. They have also been passed off as period reproductions of Civil War cards. Civil War era cards would have looked nothing like this.

App O' The Mornin': Spite and Malice (Two-Handed Solitaire)

I was surprised to find this game in the App store, since it's fairly obscure. Oddly enough, my wife had just asked if there was such a thing as "two-handed solitaire," so I was in the process of learning its rather unusual rules.

Spite and Malice, also known as Cat and Mouse, is indeed an oxymoron: solitaire for two. It's worth checking out if only for the unique play. A variant of the game is marketed under the title of Skip Bo, but why buy special cards for something you can play with a couple of standard decks?

The regular game is played with two 52-card decks. The goal is to be the first to deplete a "pay-off" pile of 20 cards. This is done by playing solitaire to the center of the table, where either player can unload cards by playing sequences from Ace to Queen, Kings wild. When a sequence is complete, it's removed from the table and another can take its place. Up to four of these sequences can be played simultaneously.

Players draw 5 cards each to form a hand from a common stock, building whatever sequences they can, and drawing on the pay-off pile whenever possible. Each turn ends by playing a card to a side stack, which is a holding area for cards that might be needed later.

The full rules can be found at the inimitable Pagat.

The App from Trivial Technology is a completely straightforward version of the game. You get a few options, but no real surprises. It does the job quite well, providing a decent challenge and usable controls.

For a buck, it should be an easy call for anyone who likes unusual card games.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Gaming in Revolutionary America

As I mentioned last week, I spent part of my vacation in Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia. Although I always keep an eye out for games when I travel, I didn't have to look far in Williamsburg: the place was positively full of them.

If Colonial household inventories are any indication, then Colonial Virginians were positively mad for their games. They were played by families, as part of social gatherings, and in taverns and coffeehouses. Checkers, chess, dice, cards, Fox and Geese, Nine Men's Morris, Shut the Box, the Game of Goose, and others were common items in homes and public places. This was in marked contrast to some of the New England colonies, which still banned almost all such activities due to the lingering Puritan influence.

Over the next couple of weeks, I'm going to post photos and scans of some of the items I picked up, and talk a bit about the games being played in America as we headed towards Revolution.