Saturday, September 4, 2010

The Opening Video for Epic Mickey

I'm a big fan of classic Disney, so Warren Spector's Epic Mickey has been very high on my "must play" list ever since I heard about it. Now that I've seen the full opening cinematic and understand the story a little better, I'm even more excited.

In the game, Mickey has to save a world full of forgotten or rejected characters from throughout Disney's history. Both the Phantom Blot and his long-lost half-brother Oswald (yes: Oswald the Lucky Rabbit!) are key characters.

I think this is may be one of the best games this year. Spector (the creator of System Shock and Deus Ex) was given a high degree of creative freedom by Disney, as well as access to their extensive archives. Spector has been mining that history to create a game environment right in Disney lore.

Since the entire gameplay is based around Mickey "painting" with his magic paintbrush, Epic Mickey will be  Wii exclusive.

Check out the opening movie on YouTube.

Gamespot also posted a lengthy interview/walkthrough with Spector from E3, and it contains a lot of gameplay footage.

The Week at a Glance

Obituary: Charles S. Roberts, inventor of the modern wargame, dies at 80

Bicycle Rider Backs: A Closer Look

News: EA's Medal of Honor Banned From Military Sales

Contest: WIN: Set of Bicycle Cards and Dice

Card Corner: Prizes, USPC Cards, and More

Zombies Ate My Lawn--Plants Vs. Zombies swag from PopCap.

Essay: Bioshock and the Objectivist Dystopia

Links: Friday Linkaround

Colonial Gaming Series
Nine Men's Morris

Crayon Physics Deluxe
Epic Citadel
Mills and More
Apple iOS 4.1 and Game Center--software update and hardware news
Kamikaze Race

Machinarium--PC puzzle/adventure
Money!--Eurogame, card game

Cell Division

PUZZLE: Cell Division

A biochemist is cultivating living cells. Each cell splits into two cells after one minute.

One minute later the two cells split to make four, then the four become eight, and so on. Every minute, the number of cells doubles.

Assume that it takes an hour for one cell to grow until a bottle is filled. If a chemist starts with two cells, how long will it take to fill the same bottle.

This version is from The Tokyo Puzzles, by Kobon Fujimura

Friday, September 3, 2010

App O' The Mornin'--Afternoon Edition: Epic Citadel

Simply mind-blowing: that's the only way I can describe the interactive tech demo just uploaded by Epic Games. This Unreal Engine-based technology shows just what lies ahead for mobile 3D gaming: gorgeous interior and exterior environments with decent framerates and a good implementation of onscreen directional controls.

The demo is simply an exploration of a medieval town and the surrounding area. I'm not sure what they plan to put in that town, and right now I don't care: I just want it.

The techno demo is available for free. It's not a game: just a guided tour and a chance to wander through the best-looking environment ever created for a smartphone. The lighting, flowing water, textures, and distance rendering are all first rate.

This is not pre-rendered or re-touched: this is as it looks in motion on a last-gen iPod Touch.The pictures in this post were all taken in-game by me (even the ones with the Unreal watermark), using the built in screen capture utility.

Friday Linkaround

I'll Believe It When I Play It: I thought Duke Nukem Forever was a description of the development cycle, but it may actually release 13 years after I first wrote about it. Does anyone care anymore?

But Will Totoro Be In It?: Studio Ghibli (the animation studio responsible for the films of Hayao Miyazaki, among others) is collaborating on a game.

Sorry We Failed: Stardock apologizes for the horrible launch of their game, Elemental.

Carmack Does iOS4...: John Carmack's demo of RAGE ... on an iPhone. (YouTube video.) Great googly moogly.

...And Epic Responds: A look at Epic Games' Citadel tech demo, which you can download from the App Store right now.

Speaking of iOS4: Version 4.1 should be out next week, complete with new game features.

Dealing Death: Space Hulk: Death Angel is turning the classic over-priced alien-shredding space-marine battle game into a co-op card game. At least it will be easier to find than Space Hulk 3rd Edition.

Small World Gets a Little More Crowded: Some new races are coming to Small World.

No Medal of Honor in Military Shops: EA's controversial shooter gets a PX ban.

Footballville: Madden NFL Superstars finally launches on Facebook. This social networking game allows you collect cards to form a team and then simulate seasons. Money for the best cards can be earned from playing and winning or, of course, by giving them a handy credit card number. Great, now I'll get messages asking me to join someone's team along with to farm and mafia requests.Kill me now.

Gamebusters: Will MythBusters do a videogame episode? Looks like it! (Go to the 1:44 minute mark.)

Best Game Evah?: Mario Bros. is the greatest game ever, according to some dudes.

Chess: This week in Chess.

Giveaways: Don't forget to let me know if you've followed us or shared a link, so I can enter your name in the drawing for the Bicycle card prizes.

Bicycle Rider Backs (808s): A Closer Look

We’re beginning this series on playing cards with the most popular card maker and brand in history, the US Playing Card Company and their Bicycle cards. (Click on the images for higher resolution art.)

Corner detail
First, a little history. US Playing Card was founded in Cincinnati in 1867, Russell, Morgan & Co began as a general printhouse, but in 1880 they started making playing cards. New machines were designed, and about 20 employees set about making 1,600 decks per day.

The Bicycle brand was introduced in 1885, and by 1891 cards had come to dominate so much of their business that they changed their name to US Playing Card Company. They grew partly through acquisition, standing over several card companies with brands dating back to 1833, among them the famous Bee brand.

Detail: Naked Cycling Angel
Bicycle is the most recognized card brand in the world. Over the years the design has changed, but a few things have stayed common, such as the naked bike-riding angel on the card backs.

Why is there a naked bike-riding angel on the backs? It’s just one of the mysteries of the universe, so let us never speak of it again. (The angel was probably meant for luck, as a Guardian Angel, and the bike was possibly just an example of a piece popular technology from the time.)

There are a number of Bicycle versions, with different colors, different kinds of bikes, and different card back designs. The most ubiquitous are simply known as Rider Backs, or "808s” from the brand number, and are the standard poker-faced design. These come in numerous configurations, such as Bridge (smaller size), Pinochle (48 cards, 9 through Ace, doubled), Poker, and so on, but all share similar card back and face designs.

Joker Detail

The distinctive Ace, featuring a symbol of lady liberty, has it's own bit of lore, as USPCC explains:

The Ace of Spades served a famous purpose in the war in Vietnam. In February, 1966, two lieutenants of Company "C," Second Battalion, 35th Regiment, 25th Infantry Division, wrote The United States Playing Card Company and requested decks containing nothing but the Bicycle Ace of Spades. The cards were useful in psychological warfare. The Viet Cong were very superstitious and highly frightened by this Ace. 

The French previously had occupied Indo-China, and in French fortunetelling with cards, the Spades predicted death and suffering. The Viet Cong even regarded lady liberty as a goddess of death. USPC shipped thousands of the requested decks gratis to our troops in Vietnam. These decks were housed in plain white tuckcases, inscribed "Bicycle Secret Weapon." The cards were deliberately scattered in the jungle and in hostile villages during raids. The very sight of the Bicycle® Ace was said to cause many Viet Cong to flee.

Detail: Ace of Spades
Bicycle cards are cheap but durable. The basic cards are coated paper with a matte finish that offers a nice grip. They're not too slick, like Aviators, and they hold up reasonably well. They're easy to find for $2 to $5 a pack, and are made entirely in the USA. This is your basic deck of cards, and if you don't have some in your home, you really should.

I'm going to do some more of these detailed posts because I think these items are wonderful examples of the printer's art, but we often don't pause to really look at them. I've scanned these at a very high level, and adjusted the images to emphasize the lines and colors, so click on the images to see the details.

You can still enter to win two packs of World Series of Poker branded Bicycle 808s from State of Play.

App O' The Mornin': Mills and More

As part of my ongoing series on Colonial Gaming, I covered Nine Men's Morris over here. It's one of the classic abstract strategy games, with ancient roots and some intriguing elements of strategy.

There are several versions of Morris (aka Mills and Merrills) in the App Store, but I'm perfectly happy with Mills and More, from Antitalent Game Studio. It has simple touch controls for placing and moving markers, and clean, appealing graphics, with markers that look like Go pieces.

The Lite version includes the basic Nine Men's Morris in 1 and 2-player modes, with three levels of articifical intelligence and Bluetooth support.

The registered version adds Three Men's Morris and Six Men's Morris, and the developer is promising Twelve Man's Morris in a future update. The "flying" run can be toggled on or off.

Give the Lite version a try. If you like abstract strategy games, you might find this an appealing alternative.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

EA's Medal of Honor Banned From Military Sales

Kotaku is reporting that Medal of Honor has been banned from sale on American military bases worldwide because of a gameplay element in which gamers can play as the Taliban. This means that it will not be sold in any PX or on-base GameStop.

Army & Air Force Exchange Service's Commander Maj. Gen. Bruce Casella, told Kotaku, "Out of respect to those we serve, we will not be stocking this game.We regret any inconvenience this may cause authorized shoppers, but are optimistic that they will understand the sensitivity to the life and death scenarios this product presents as entertainment. As a military command with a retail mission, we serve a very unique customer base that has, or possibly will, witness combat in real life."

In an email obtained by Kotaku, Gamestop employees are involved that "GameStop has agreed out of respect for our past and present men and women in uniform we will not carry Medal of Honor in any of our AAFES based stores... As such, GameStop agreed to have all marketing material pulled by noon today and to stop taking reservations. Customers who enter our AAFES stores and wish to reserve Medal of Honor can and should be directed to the nearest GameStop location off base. GameStop fully supports AAFES in this endeavor and is sensitive to the fact that in multiplayer mode one side will assume the role of Taliban fighter."

Excellent work from Kotaku in reporting this story.

Card Corner: Prizes, USPCC Cards, and More

When I began this blog, I knew that playing cards and card games would be one of the things I wrote about from time to time.

There were a number of reasons for this: I’ve been rediscovering old games while I taught them to my family, I think social and family card games are worth reviving, and there was a general shortage of good writing about cards. Sure, Poker was covered (over-covered, if you ask me), but when was the last time your newspaper ran a Bridge column, or you learned how to play a new game?

Since cards are a very old and popular form of gaming, I suspected they had a rich history and lore. As I began reading more, I realized that this was true, and I’m particularly in debt to Pagat, writer David Parlett, and The International Playing Card Society for opening a fascinating window to this element of game history.

I also began to see an important artistic element to cards. I’ve been involved in printing and publishing for my entire adult life, so I’ve always had an eye for the aesthetic side of the graphical arts: color, form, design, typography, and the like. Some people find this boring, others fascinating. There’s an entire, highly acclaimed movie called Helvetica that’s just about a single font, so obviously I’m not alone in this.

For the month of September, I have a couple of things in store.

As I’ve said before, the only cards I use are from the US Playing Card Company, mostly Bicycles and Bees. When I got in contact with them last month, they provided me with examples from some of their others lines, and I was surprised to find distinct tactile, production, and design elements for each.

So, throughout September, I’ll be posting comments and detailed, high-res illustrations from each of these different lines. Take a moment and look at them. I’m going to pull out some visual details and talk about each and what makes them different. There will probably be about 7 of these posts, scattering throughout the month.

USPC was also kind enough to provide a few prizes for you, the readers. I’ll post the first of these later today, and explain how to enter to win. The first will be a set of World Series of Poker cards (2 decks, red and black) and a 5-pack of USPC dice.

Apple iOS 4.1 and Game Center

Apple's announcements this week brought the usual set of new products and general ballyhoo, but only a couple actually concern us here.

First, the iPod Touch is getting a full iPhone 4 upgrade for new models. The more powerful A4 processor, the 940x640 retina display, and video conferencing will be available in new versions of the hardware. For gamers, this means sharper graphics and greater processing power.

Second, Apple is getting ready to roll out their Game Center with next week's iOS 4.1 software update. The Game Center is an application that offers several notable features for gamers, including matchmaking services, friends lists, social networking features, leaderboards, and achievements.vGames can be downloaded and started from within the Game Center, which will function as a central hub for all your device's gaming elements.

Game Center could be a fairly huge upgrade for App gamers who like to use multiplayer features. It promises to bring a miniaturized Xbox Live experience to App smartphones and similar devices. The matchmaking feature (called "auto-matching" by Apple out of sheer cussedness) promises to turn devices into powerful multiplayer gaming centers.

Project Sword for iOS 4, from Epic Games.

As though to prove just what this might mean, Apple had Epic Games demo their new title, Project Sword. Built with a mobile version of the Unreal engine, it appears to be a full online third-person action game experience built specifically for mobile devices. Since I'm still not impressed with the efficacy of the smartphone as a shooter plaform, I'm hoping that a team with Epic will finally show us how it can be done.

App O' The Mornin': NinJump

NinJump is a freebie, which kind of makes this review utterly superfluous. You can download it yourself and see in about 5 minutes whether or not it's a keeper.

But I don't get paid to tell you to download stuff.... actually, I don't get paid at all, but that's beside the point. No, I get not-paid to review games, and I'm here to you: download this: it is not a waste of time.

NinJump is a vertical scroller like so many others we've seen, but this one actually has a bit of character and style to it. Your little Ninja is climbing a building, and jumping from side-to-side to a) avoid being killed by obstacles and b) slash stuff (birds, squirrels, throwing stars, and the like).

All you have to do is jump back and forth from wall to wall as your character climbs, and he does the rest. The trick comes from timing his jumps, and the more obstacles you find, the tougher it gets.

This isn't quite as good as Bird Strike, but as vertical scrolling obstacle games go, it's worth every penny.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Zombies Ate My Lawn

PopCap always delivers the swag, but this time they did something a little extra special to promote the Plants Vs. Zombies: Game of the Year Edition to the press. (We did, in fact, give it the Casual Game of the Year Award at Games Magazine.) They had Sam Gueydan of Moose Studios Pottery create a ceramic Zombie Defense Team, limited to 300 sets. It includes a sunflower, peashooter, and chomper.

Witness the awesomeness. (Click on the pictures to make them larger.)
The GOTY Edition also comes with this nifty 3" Zombie

Colonial Gaming: Nine Men’s Morris

Morris games are among the oldest known to man. Although claims for the most ancient examples are still subject to debate, there is little question that some form of the game existed at least as far back as ancient Roman. Some have dated it even further based on carvings found in Egypt dating to to 1400BC, but the carvings themselves are difficult to date with precision.

A Bronze Age board was discovered in Ireland, possibly brought by the Greek or Phoenician traders. Ovid may have mentioned some form of the game in his Art of Love (2 AD), a board was found with a Viking king buried around 900AD, and Shakespeare mentions the game in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

So: very old.

Morris is also known as Mills and Merrills, and there are a variety of similar games that share the name. All of them have a few things in common. They are played with pips, marbles, or checkers on a board. That board is comprised of crossing lines, with the markers moving from one intersection to the next. When a player aligns three of his pieces in a row, he may remove another player’s piece. The goal is to reduce the opponent to two pieces. The most common morris boards feature nested squares, with their corners and centers joined by lines.

Nine Men’s Morris is considered the standard version the game, and would have been the one played by Colonial Americans. Children may have drawn rough make-shift board on the ground and played with rocks, or draw them in chalk on a board, but dedicated wooden Morris boards, with checkers or marbles for pieces, were probably common.

Blue moves a marble to create a Mill, which allows him to remove 1 red piece
Players alternate placing their 9 markers on the board. There are 24 junctions on a Morris board and only 18 markers, leaving some junction empty. After markers are played, players take turns moving one a time to any free, adjoining space. The goal is to get 3 in a row, thus forming a “mill.” If a player forms a mill, he can remove a player’s piece. When a player is reduced to 3 pieces, she can “fly” to any place on the board, but when only 2 are left, the game is over.

There is a modest element of strategy in Morris that requires careful observation. Initial placement is key, as you try to set up future moves while also blocking your opponent. Placing a marker so that it can move repeatedly in and out of a move is the most common strategy, and is fairly infuriating for the person at the wrong end of the move. The “flying” rules creates an intriguing strategic shift, and some weakened may just bide their time until reduce to 3 markers, and then fly into position and potentially win the game.

Morris boards are a common item in Colonial Williamsburg, and the one illustrating this article is fine example. It only costs $11, but is made of solid, durable wood. Marbles are store inside the board using plastic plugs, making the entire game quite portable.

App O' The Mornin': Kamikaze Race

This old warhorse has been creaking around on the internet for years. A basic Java version can be found here, and the gameplay of the App version is fundamentally similar.

Kamizkaze Race is simply a horizontal scrolling game with simple left-right controls. The goal is to weave in and out of traffic without getting creamed. That's not always easy, since the vehicles are different sizes, traveling at different speeds, and even in different directions (9 lanes on the right, 3 on the left). 

Despite its simplicity and familiarity, this is still a decent game to have on your device. It's one of those "I don't care if I'm interrupted" games that you can start without worrying that you may have to stop. The App graphics are significantly better than those found in the Java versions.

This one shows up for free now and then, but it usually costs $2. It feels more like a $1 game, but maybe I'm just a cheapskate.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

PC/Videogame Commentary: Bioshock & The Objectivist Dystopia

NOTE: From time to time, I may run one of my older print reviews that are not widely available on the web. This review/essay was one of several things I wrote about BioShock. I wrote it originally for Catholic Media Review, and was able to write at greater length than anywhere else.

Reading it 2 years later, I find that I still hold to my original opinions: BioShock is one of the best games of all time, and one of the few to really explore multiple complex issues with intelligence and wit. The sequel was also good, but lacked the original's satirical bite and philosophical depth.

This piece might also require some background. For many years (throughout most of my 20s and some of my 30s) I was a card-carrying, dues-paying member of the Libertarian Party. I never considered myself an Objectivist per se (Ayn Rand's deadly prose would be a cheap alternative to Ambien), but I found much in Libertarianism's doctrine of individual responsibility and freedom that appealed, and it still does in many ways.

As I read more and matured, I began to see the limits of Libertarianism in general and anarcho-capitalism in particular. I now believe that any entity (be it a State or a Corporation) can become large enough to threaten liberty. Obviously, capitalism is superior to socialism, but a wholly unrestrained marketplace is only slightly less dangerous than an unrestrained government. Both require limits. BioShock illustrates why, which may explain why it resonated with me so powerfully.

When game journalists and editors sit down to hash out an annual awards issue, the “Best Game of the Year” Award usually takes a least a little conversation and debate.

In 2007, the conversation was short: “Does anyone think any game other than Bioshock is worthy of Game of the Year? Anyone? Anyone? Let’s move on then.”

In a year flush with fantastic, smart, well-crafted games for consoles, computers, and handhelds, Bioshock stands out as one of the rare game games to transcend its format. Bioshock is a game, make no mistake: you run around collecting things, shooting monsters, enhancing your character, unlocking new locations, and performing all the other functions associated with a role-playing action shooter.

But there’s more here. Much more. Narrative complexity, character development, and even thematic depth are fairly common coin in modern game design, but Bioshock takes it further, probing issues of morality, bioethics, and the nature of the self, all within the context of a Libertarian/Objectivist Dystopia.

Those who follow computer gaming have been awaiting Bioshock for a long time. Its creators call it a “spiritual heir” to System Shock, a sci-fi game which remains one of the landmarks in PC gaming history. System Shock was a deep, first person experience that offered a vivid world and narrative, then let you progress through combat, stealth, puzzles, or any combination of the three. Bioshock’s developer, Irrational Games, is staffed with some of the original System Shock team, and several of System Shock’s core elements have been carried forth into a new and even better game experience.

Bioshock begins in 1960, as a plane crashes into the middle of the ocean, leaving only one survivor: you. Swimming through the burning wreckage, you encounter a strange kind of lighthouse rising out of the deep like some Lovecraftian monolith. Inside, a bathysphere takes you to the bottom of the ocean, and a city of wonder hidden there. This city is the work of a megalomaniacal visionary named Andrew Ryan, who named it Rapture.

Ryan is a radical Objectivist millionaire who seeks to create an anarcho-capitalist utopia, He’s Ayn Rand via Charles Foster Kane, with a bit of Howard Hughes tossed in for good measure. Rapture is his monument to narcissism. Its soaring architecture and burnished brass seem like set designs by Albert Speer for an Art Deco production of Atlas Shrugged. These are not mere monuments to the ego of one man. Although Ryan’s cult of personality is complete and smothering—his voice (acted by Armin Shimerman) blaring from loudspeakers, his mottos carved into stone—Rapture is designed to create an entire city full of narcissists. The worship of self is central, as Ryan makes clear in one of his many pronouncements:

“Is a man not entitled to the sweat of his brow? No! says the man in Washington. It belongs to the poor. No! says the man in the Vatican. It belongs to God. No! says the man in Moscow. It belongs to everyone. I rejected those answers. Instead, I chose something different. I chose the impossible. I chose… Rapture.”

What is the most vicious obscenity ever visited on mankind? To Ryan, it’s not slavery, the holocaust, Nazism, Bolshevism … it’s altruism. Altruism is the great lie that inverts the proper order of things. All the evils of the world are brought on because people are conditioned to consider the needs of the other. In Ryan’s (and Rand’s) philosophy, they should think only of themselves. Rapture was created so that scientists would be able to conduct research free of the ethical constrains of civilization, so artists would not be bound by outdated moral codes, where the only rule would be the Law of Thelema: “Do as thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.”

Ryan builds the city in secret, and populates it with his own special selection of handpicked “brights”. As you’d expect from such a libertarian wonderland untethered from morality or restraint, it doesn’t take long for Rapture to descend into utter chaos. When you finally reach it, it’s already a leaking husk overrun by genetic mutants as various factions fight for power. The story of Rapture’s collapse emerges piecemeal through messages and recordings collected in the course of exploration. It’s a technique used to great effect in the original System Shock, and it works even better here.

Rapture’s collapse is an object lesson in what happens when bioethics break down. The city is undone by genetic tampering, as people attempt to turn themselves into Gods with gene modifying drugs. God’s work is imperfect, people are told, so science must step in to improve it. At the top of the crumbling pyramid is Ryan, with his Godlike delusions and warped philosophy. He sees Rapture as a New Eden. Indeed, two of the gameplay elements are “ADAM”, a mutagen which allows people to modify their genetic structure to enhance certain powers, and “EVE,” the fuel for these genetic mutations. In order to get through Rapture, your character needs to become one of these mutants without sinking too far into madness. It’s a dangerous balance, and in the end only love is able to bring you back, if you choose the path of love.

As you need more and more of these drugs to progress through the game, you’re forced to make moral choices. You see, roaming throughout Rapture are a chilling pair of creatures: Big Daddy and Little Sister. Big Daddies are huge genetic mutants in heavily armed diving suits. Little Sisters are innocent looking little girls with ponytails, cute little dresses … and giant needles they use to suck the ADAM out of mutants after the Big Daddies kill them.

The Little Sisters are the work a female holocaust survivor, Dr. Tennenbaum, who creates them to produce ADAM. She thought the girls could be used without consequence, but didn’t count on them retaining their childlike characteristics. They’re still little girls, who sing, and laugh, and play. As Tennenbaum says at one point: “I look at genes all day long, and never do I see the blueprint of sin. I could blame the Germans, but in truth, I did not find tormentors in the Prison Camp, but kindred spirits. These children I brutalized have awoken something inside that for most is beautiful and natural, but in me, is an abomination... my maternal instinct.”

Life will find a way, however. Dr. Tennenbaum’s maternal instincts win out. She turns into the Sisters’ protector, and find herself on the run inside Rapture. She forces the player to make a choice. As the character, we have been told to kill the Big Daddies and suck the ADAM out of the Little Sisters, a process that will kill them. Tennenbaum begs us to save the girls. Through her process, a smaller amount of ADAM can be extracted, leaving the girls alive and freed of the drug’s control. In return, she offers a vague promise of some reward down the road.

Which do you choose? It’s just a game, after all. The choices don’t matter. Expediency should win out.

But time and again, when I’ve spoken to people about it, they always say they left the Little Sisters alive. Since doing so changes the way the game unfolds (and ultimately ends), some may go back and harvest just to see the alternate ending, but most feel uncomfortable with it. (Both endings are easily found on YouTube.) There’s a strange feeling of rightness that comes from healing the Sisters. It becomes a part of the risk/reward cycle of the game. It also leads to an absolutely boffo “good” ending. (Killing the girls results in a “bad” ending, making it clear just where the developers’ sympathies lie.)

From a pure gameplay perspective, Bioshock can be called a first person shooter, but that would sell it short. The combat elements are handled elegantly, with many ways to approach each enemy. As you progress, you pick up Plasmids and Genetic Tonics, which can be loaded into a finite number of slots on your character. These genetic modifications add different kinds of attacks, but also enhance various physical, engineering, and combat skills. By using special stations, you can customize your character with very specific attacks and skills, enabling each player to create a unique character. You can thus customize your character to approach the game in a variety of ways, with an emphasis on hacking, stealth, frontal combat, and so on. The game also incorporates System Shock’s “hacking” mode, which allows users to solve puzzles (styled on the Water Works tile game) to bypass certain obstacles or gain bonuses.

There is much more in Bioshock than this, and a simple listing of features always comes up short in conveying just how immersive and engrossing this game is. The world itself is a richly detailed art deco hell populated with a large cast of characters and creepy enemies. Narrative emerges through recordings and messages left behind, with both major and minor characters sketched through deft little clips pieced together along the way.

Bioshock shows us a stark picture of what radical Objectivism would look like in the real world. I spent ten years supporting the Libertarian Party through votes and donations before I finally grew up. Unfettered individualism does not lead to an Objectivist Utopia. It leads simply to Rapture, and the hell of a society filled with narcissists trying to make themselves gods. Bioshock puts you in the middle of that hell, and forces you to choose a side.

It’s the kind of choice a radical Objectivist like Ryan would believe is irrelevant to society, but it has an absolutely central effect on how the game plays out, leaving us with a very clear message about right and wrong and the place of the individual in society. Games just don’t get better than this.

App O' The Mornin': Reiner Knizia's Money Review (App Version)

Whenever I review an app version of a tabletop game, I plan to post a review of the game itself as well. I did this yesterday, in my coverage of Gryphon's reissue of Reiner Knizia's Money!.  (The exclamation point doesn't appear on the box, but seems to appear everywhere else.)

This is a pretty simple review, since the app is a straight-up port of the original game. It plays like a version of any common card game in the app store, with cards laid out on a green felt table and crisp, clear graphics. Your hand is displayed along the bottom of the screen, bids are made simply by touching the cards and hitting the "bid" button, and lots are collected by sliding your bid on top of the desired cards.

From the very beginning, I was pleased the look and control of the game. It offers a respectable AI with a choice of difficulties, and the option to play with 3 or 4 players. The screen layout precludes a fifth player, even though the tabletop game itself supports up to 5. The apps also lack any multiplayer features. It doesn't even have pass-and-play.

Even with maximum available RAM, the app can slow down at times, and has erratic pauses. It's otherwise stable, and I have not yet encountered any hard crashes. The developers used the same engine for their conversion of Knizia's High Society, and I don't find that game slowing down as much as a Money.

Despite these limitations, I still enjoy the Money app, largely because it's just a good game. If you're not sure about laying out the fully $25 for the conventional version of money, then $3 will give you a taste of what it's like.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Eurogame Review: Reiner Knizia's Money!

Reiner Knizia is so prolific that even great designs sometimes slip through the cracks. Case in point: Money!. Initially released in 1999 (by Goldsieber in Europe and Rio Grande in America), it didn’t really find its audience. A small Rummy/bidding game wouldn’t have attracted a lot of notice in a year that saw Tikal, Torres, Union Pacific, Lost Cities, and Ra (the last two being Knizia designs), and I honestly don’t remember even seeing the original version of the game.

We have to thank Gryphon Games for bringing it back into print as the first entry in their Bookshelf Series. They’ve provided it with a handsome production in a compact box at a reasonable price ($25), and even made it the flagship release for their line of Apps.

Since this is a set-collecting game with a bidding element, there are some mechanics that are familiar from other Knizia games. The theme is based on currency trading, as you try to build sets from among 7 different types of global money. The cards are designed to look like different real and imaginary currencies, with 9 cards in each set. These cards break down into different denominations: 3 each with a value of 20 and 30, and one each with a value 40, 50, and 60. One of the currencies represents Chinese coins, each worth 10.

Players have a starting hand of 7 cards, and turns are defined by bidding. Each turn, two new lots of currency go up for bid. There are 4 cards in each lot. Using the cards in hand, players can bid any amount for the right to choose the first lot. The high bidder can select either of the lots, replacing that lot with the cards from his bid. Second highest bidder chooses next, and so on.

Lots are replenished from a draw deck, and then the bidding cycle begins again. The goal is to focus on buying lots that will build a single kind of currency with a face value greater than 200. Any currency in which you have less than 200 points at the end of game results in 100 points being subtracted from your final score. Having all three 20s or 30s also helps, since they earn you a 100 point bonus.

The game is simple to scale from 3 to 5 players merely by removing 1 type of currency for each player below 5. It’s easy to teach, and plays in 20 to 30 minutes.

As in Knizia’s Lost Cities, Money! requires you to make difficult decisions. It all comes down to choosing the right sets to build, and unloading unfinished sets to avoid the point penalty. There isn’t as much room for pain in Money! as there is in Lost Cities. Start the wrong dig in Lost Cities and you’re going to feel the loss no matter what. Collect a bad lot in Money! and you can unload it in the next turn, and even benefit by allowing it to pad out your bid.

A number of factors have pushed this to the top of the pile during family game nights. Aside from a couple of scoring steps, there is nothing really complex about the rules. Anyone who knows how to play Rummy will figure it out right away. The bidding adds an interesting element of strategy, as you watch what other players are taking and try to place bids that will get bad cards out of your own hand without benefitting someone else.

The appealing theme, high production values, easy-to-learn rules, and a decent amount of player interaction make this one a winner. Tomorrow morning, we’ll take a look at the App conversion to see if it captured these qualities in handy portable form.

Charles S. Roberts, Inventor of the Wargame, Dies at 80

The obituary was headlined “Charles S. Roberts, train line expert, dies at 80.” You could read the entire story and not realize they were describing one of the most important figures in the history of gaming.

Charles S. Roberts was indeed an expert on trains, which were his passion. He had several careers in his long life, but his most enduring achievement was as the inventor of the wargame.

Yes: you read that right. Charles Roberts invented the modern wargame. Movement on a grid (and later on hexes)? Combat results tables? Cardboard counters representing military units? Paper maps? Variable movement costs for different terrains? The entire idea of a packaged boardgame simulating military history?

All of it these things were the invention of Charles Roberts.

There were other forms of military gaming before Roberts: miniature soldiers on table-top terrain, or the “Little Wars” of H.G. Wells. But the modern wargame emerged from a game called Tactics.

In Tactics, two players moved little cardboard squares over a map. A grid printed on top of this map (hexes came later) helped regulated movement, while different kinds of terrain slowed or sped a unit’s progress. A combination of dice rolls and reference tables determined the results of combat encounters.

Robert invented Tactics in 1952. When no one was interested in publishing it, he sold it himself out of his garage in Avalon, Maryland. In the process, Roberts and his Avalon Game Company (later called Avalon Hill) would create an entirely new kind of adult boardgaming: complex, detailed, and historically based.

Two years after founding Avalon Hill, Roberts invented Gettysburg: the first boardgame to simulate an actual battle.

The games sold well, but Roberts couldn’t keep ahead of the printing costs. By 1962, his printer, Monarch, took over his company as repayment for his debts. They would run it for another 36 years, until mismanagement finally took it down. Hasbro picked up the pieces, and continues to publish updated versions of Avalon Hill’s more mainstream titles, but the glory days of tabletop wargaming are gone.

Wargames have faded from popularity. At first, they found a comfortable home on computers, where the calculations and setup were automated. In time, even those faded away, and now only handful of dedicated hobbyists still play historical simulations.

That’s a shame, because wargames are history you can hold. When you game a particular battle, you understand it far better than you could by simply reading about it. It’s almost like role-playing, as you try to make the decisions faced by the great battlefield commanders, and see how they may have turned out differently. Wargames require time, thought, and study: things that seem in short supply these days.

If you were a certain kind of boy in the 1960s and 1970s, this was one of the things you did. Dungeons & Dragons changed all that, and most young gamers drifted from historical gaming to fantasy RPGs, myself among them. I believe that without Roberts laying the groundwork, RPGs never would have even happened. He created a new kind of gamer, and proved that there was a market for long games with complex rules and lots of numbers.

Charles Roberts never set out to create a whole new hobby. He invented his first game as a way to study military tactics in preparation for joining the military. He never did join the military, but his designs and the company he founded changed the face of gaming.

App O' The Mornin': Crayon Physics Review

Crayon Physics is a perfect fit for touch-based products. You can watch a video and download the PC demo at the official site, but for puzzle-fans, there's hardly any need. This is a must-buy.

This unique puzzler was one of the delights of the the 2008 Game Developers Conference and the 2008 Independent Games Festival, where it claimed the Seumas McNally Grand Prize for excellence. It took Finnish developer Petri Purho another year to finish it, but by the time he unleashed Crayon Physics Deluxe on both PC and the App store, it was an even more polished and addictive puzzler.

The game allows you to draw any shape on the screen, and then gives that shape physical properties. The screen looks like a sheet of folded paper, and the graphics nothing more than crayon lines, making the entire game seem like a child’s drawing come to life. The visual style, coupled with low-key music, gives the game a gentle tone that belies its challenging content.

The gameplay is somewhat reminiscent of The Incredible Machine, as you create simple shapes that move and trigger other shapes into movement. You need some pretty good mouse skills to make this one work on a normal computer (the video shows it being used with a Tablet), but on an iPhone the touch controls are a perfect fit. You simply draw with your finger, and your objects take on a life of their own, be it a simple ball or a car rolling on donut wheels.

Physics games are a dime a dozen on the App store, but Crayon Physics was one of the pioneers of the genre, and it's still one of the most accomplished puzzlers on any format.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

PC Game Review: Machinarium

Animata Designs

Machinarium emerged from the 12th Annual Independent Games Festival with a well-deserved Excellence in Visual Art award, and after three years in development by a small group of self-financed Czech developers, it’s finally ready.

The first thing that strikes you is the art design, which is somberly beautiful, wonderfully detailed, and utterly central to the gameplay. Your character is a little robot dumped in the trash, and he must solve various puzzles in order to return home, get the girl, and beat the bad guys. There is no spoken or written communication anywhere in the game, and sounds are limited to effects, ambiance, and music. All of the robot’s thought are conveyed via cartoon thought-bubbles.

The robot has limited powers: he can change his height a bit, pick up things, carrying objects, and combine items to make new objects. In the tradition of classic puzzle adventures, he searches each screen for hot spots and items, then uses them in clever ways to bypass an obstacle.

Some of the puzzles are absolute brain scramblers, but there is a helpful hint system built right into the game. The hints can be fairly oblique, merely giving you a nudge in the right direction instead of an overt answer. And, even if you think you are the master of all things puzzling in adventure games, you WILL hit that hint button at least once. This is an unapologetically smart and challenging game, and I mean that in the best possible way.

The website,, has a nice little free flash demo that gives you a good idea of the look and gameplay, without even requiring a download. You can buy the full game from the site for $20, or on services such as Steam, Impulse, and GamesGate.