Saturday, September 11, 2010

This Week in Review

the game is Nirtz (from
Sword & Poker--RPG, poker
Puzzle Agent--Puzzle adventure
NCIS: Naval Criminal Investigation Services--mystery, crime
Monopoly--board game
Cross Fingers--puzzle, tangram

Colonial Gaming Series
Loo and the Upper Classes
How to Play Loo

Review: Singularity (PC, 360, PS3)
EvilVille: Zynga's Culture of Corruption
Card Design Series: Bicycle Prestige: A Closer Look
Friday Linkaround: Items of interest 
The Worst Day

Bathtub Boat
Labor Day Sale

About the game in the header picture: the game is Nirtz.

Friday, September 10, 2010

The Worst Day

This summer, we visited the re-designed Smithsonian Museum of American History. The new military history exhibit is beautifully done, conscious of both the role of warfare in our history and its cost.

But it was the end that stopped me cold. The final section covers the War on Terror, and includes a large chunk of the World Trade Center wreckage. Nine years later, it still brought me to tears. I should have known better than to think that feeling would ever pass. When you grow up close to New York, work there and go to school there, as I did, the Trade Center was always just there. I used the towers as a point of orientation whenever I lost my direction, because it was visible from almost anywhere. Seeing its wreckage as a piece in a museum, and knowing all that was lost with it, is a powerful thing.

This wound will never close. It's part of us now. Throughout my childhood, my parents would still speak about the trauma of Pearl Harbor and the war that followed (a war in which my father fought, as some of my friends now fight in a new war) like they happened the day before. I suspect I'll feel the same way about 9/11 when I'm 80, and it's probably best that way. We should never forget, even if the best we can do is just remember those who were lost, and pray for those left behind.

Click to see full size.

Friday Linkaround--Random Items of Interest

Company of Heroes Designer Killed: Brian R. Wood of Relic was killed, and his pregnant wife injured, when a 21-year-old driver under the influence of drugs hit their vehicle. Brian was the lead on Company of Heroes Online, and had worked on the original CoH, Axis and Allies, and Kohan II. He was 33. A trust fund has been established for his wife and child.

The Witness: A preview of the next game from the creator of Braid, which also has a nice development blog.

Oh, That Explains It: Gearbox (the people behind Borderlands, Brothers in Arms, and various Half-Life ports and expansions) actually bought the rights to Duke Nukem from 3D Realms. There had to be some explanation why we're suddenly seeing the most legendary piece of vaporware of all time: someone competent is now involved.

Descendancy: Nigel Buckle's alien combat & trading board game, Ascendancy, is no longer being published by JKLM/Prime Games, and is in search of a new home.

Flashing Scrabble: I'm always a little cautious about reinventions of classic games, particularly when they put electronics in my board games, but Scrabble Flash looks interesting. It's Scrabble played with "smart" tiles that change letters and "know" when allowable words are formed. Hasbro is sending one along, so I should I have a review up next week.

You Never Want to See the Words "Laceration Hazard" and "Toys" in the Same Story: A fact that Land of Nod is now discovering. Then again, somehow my generation survived Lawn Darts with most of our eyes intact. Bonus points for including the sentence "Consumers should immediately take the toy asparagus from children and return the product to the company for a free replacement asparagus."

Nostalgia For the 1980s Will Be Dealt With Most Severely:  Look, the 1980s spanned my youth from age 12 to 22. I won't say it was a complete wash: we had Ozzy going solo, video arcades, D&D, and Raiders of the Lost Ark. We also had Men Without Hats, Diff'rent Strokes, Temple of Doom, shoulder pads, mullets, leg warmers, and stuff like this. Yes, it's televised British Dungeons & Dragons gaming. It's as wonderfully horrible as it sounds. And it's still better than the Super Mario Bros. Super Show, which was just all kinds of wrong.

Chess: The week in Chess.

Bicycle Prestige: A Closer Look

I'm not a big fan of people fancifying my playing cards, so I never bothered with things like premium or plastic cards. I assumed all plastic cards felt funky, shuffled badly, and cost too much. I was a little dubious when USPC sent me some KEM and Bicycle Prestige, but after a lot of play time I have to admit that I'm convinced. 

Bicycle Prestige are made with USPC's "Dura-Flex" technology. I have no idea what that means, but it sounds better than "that machine we use to make them there plastic cards." The result is a card with a texture like paper, and an appealing springiness. These don't feel slick and stiff like some plastic cards. They actually shuffle better than paper, and retain their shape better.

Corner detail
Angel detail
Yes, they cost a lot. If I hadn't spent time with them, I'd be reluctant to shell out $10 for a single deck of cards. However, I've blown more money than that buying multiple decks that wore out or got damaged much faster. If you play in public, particularly in bars and restaurants where wet spots, food, and spilled beer are common, then this will actually be a money saver. They're harder to damage and easier to clean. You can just wipe them off with a wet rag. They even come in a handy little travel case, and, as you can see from the screens, have a handsome re-designed back.

If you're an occasional home player, I don't see a lot of point in premium cards. But if you're a little more serious, play with kids who are hard on paper cards, need some added durability, or play in public, then this is a good bet.

Final Day to Enter the Bicycle Contest

Today is the last day to enter the drawing for our first giveaway, courtesy of Bicycle playing cards.

If you didn't contact me somehow, either via Facebook (wall posting or messaging), Twitter (using @ or direct message), or email, then I won't know that you entered.

You should also check out Bicycle's Facebook page. They have a double-decker bus that travels to different regions and State Fairs, and this is the best way to track where it's going to show up next. (I need to get some of those t-shirts...)

The next giveaway begins on Monday, and there are no restrictions on entering again, even if you win this one. Next up: a set of 100 clay-filled tournament Poker chips with tray.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

EvilVille: Zynga's Culture of Corruption

This story in SF Weekly is a pretty thorough peek behind the scenes at a thoroughly disreputable company: Zynga, creators of Farmville and other tripe. The story pretty much confirmed what I'd long suspected: that it's a development house deliberately built by ripping off the work other developers. 

I can tell you one thing for certain: Zynga is despised by most people in the gaming industry, which is why company representatives never talk to the press.

The following editorial on social gaming in general and Zynga in particular is something I wrote last spring for Games Magazine.

I think all people of good will can agree on certain facts: puppies are cute, apple pie is tasty, and Farmville is a soul-sucking experience designed for maximum irritation of the highest number of people, even when those people are not playing the game. Anyone who uses Facebook must make an effort to avoid Farmville. It’s like crabgrass: kill it in one place and it pops up in another. Turn off the Farmville news feed and people send you invites and requests. Repeatedly refuse or ignore these overtures and people still post status updates reporting upon their barn-raising or sheep sheering or cow-tipping or whatever else they do in that sunken cesspool of dark and vitreous evil, deceptively festooned with pictures of cute chickens and happy little farmers.

Now you’re not even safe from Farmville when you go to buy a Slurpee. In an absolutely terrifying turn of events, Farmville publisher Zynga is looking to … (and I shudder as I even type these words) … extend the brand. First stop? 7-11, which is getting Farmville-branded ice cream and drink cups at all 7,000 of their stores throughout the busy summer months.

People, this is dire news. This prime branding spot is usually reserved for tent-pole Hollywood product like Spider-Man movies or Avatar. It tells us that Farmville is doing so well that we might just be stuck with the brand and its resulting toys, clothes, Happy Meals, and animated television shows, all of them promising codes for Farm Coins.

And Zynga is not a company you want to see with a lot of money and power. Their habit of plagiarizing games has been well-documented, costing them at least one 7-figure settlement. (Farmville itself is a straight steal from a game called Farm Town.) Their involvement in dodgy credit card and advertising schemes even generated a class-action lawsuit.

Zynga games are not designed with the player in mind, but the advertiser. The goal is to create games that need continual “servicing,” requiring users to check in frequently throughout the day and thus creating more opportunities for advertising and sales of premium content. The result is a kind of digital crack that has people actually planning their days around their beet-rotating and pig-tickling schedule, or whatever it is they do on their creepy little farms.

Some analysts are even pegging Zynga as a major economic player. A group of equity analysts called Second Shares, which estimates the values of private companies, places Zynga’s potential public value at $5 billion. This absurd number should serve as a timely reminder of the dot-com bubble, and the people (eg: equity analysts) who created it.

Granted, Zynga has about 240 million registered users on Facebook (50% of the market), but the second most successful company in the business recently sold for far less. That would be Playfish, which was purchased by Electronic Arts for $400 million. Even that amount was considered far too high by industry analysts, and merely a sign of EA’s willingness to throw a lot of money around in order to buy any kind of toehold in the social gaming market.

Zynga is certainly making money, but they’re also heavily dependent upon Farmville, which accounts for about 1/3rd of their revenues. The problem is that Farmville has almost certainly peaked, and the social gaming format is on shaky foundations. Most are barely even games: they’re graphical interfaces laid on top of rudimentary spreadsheets. In fact, even without Playfish, EA probably has a more lasting grip on social media and mobile gaming than Zynga. Their ace in the hole is the Hasbro/Milton Bradley catalog, which allows them to create social and mobile versions of Scrabble, Life, Monopoly, and other lasting brands.

For good or bad, the future of social media gaming is tied to the fate of Facebook, and even Facebook isn’t a financial rock. After 5 years of explosive growth, 2009 was their first profitable year. That growth has slowed, and will probably peak at 400 million users. Even with its current cultural ubiquity, Facebook hasn’t hit upon a reliable strategy for turning all those eyeballs into money. Games are certainly one potential source of revenue, but Zynga has already signaled their irritation with Facebook and their reluctance to share a piece of the pie. They even threatened to leave Facebook, which is ridiculous. Apart from Facebook, they have no future whatsoever.

Where is social gaming heading? It’s probably here to stay, and will become even more integrated into the Facebook experience. This is not necessarily a good thing, since most of the games are based on abysmal designs. Success will only encourage imitators, spawning even more inferior games. Facebook and other social media has some limited potential as a gaming medium (my wife and I always have a Scrabble game in progress), but no one has yet figured out how best to match that potential with a good design.

App O' The Mornin': NCIS: Naval Criminal Investigative Services Review

My original plan was review the new iOS 4.1 and Game Center for today's App O' The Mornin', but Game Center-compatible games didn't start appearing until late last night. I'm going to hold my comments on the new features until more developers release updates, which may take some time. Short version: it might be good. Or it might not. Sorry, that's all I have for now.

So, that leaves us with a big fat hole in our morning programming, which I'm going to stuff full of the new mystery/forensic game based on the CBS show NCIS: Naval Criminal Investigative Services.

This is a marginally competent little detection game based on the characters and themes of the show. It offers four "episodes," which are short mysteries that follow the format of NCIS and take about half an hour or less to finish. Gameplay is a mixture of screen searching, interrogations, and forensics.

Each case requires you to poke around a scene touching interesting objects in the wan hope that they're clues. The clues are fairly obvious, but there's still a fair amount of pixel hunting as you scan the scene for items of interest.

Items are taken back to the lab, where you can manipulate them, examine them more closely, match samples, and do other forensicy-type things.

Finally, there's suspect interrogation, which involves choosing the attitude in which you approach a suspect: neutral, friendly or hostile. At certain moments, you also need to show evidence to suspects. Choose correctly, and a little bar fills up. Choose incorrectly, and it goes down. The goal is to fill the bar and get the suspect to crack. This is mostly a matter of trial and error, and generally fails to grip.

The technical side of the equation is adequate. The music from the show is included, but none of the voices or sounds. No one is likely to be wowed by the stiff still images of characters with goofy little animated mouths and eyes, but the visuals get the job done. Still, characters seem to behave and speak like their TV equivalents, and the game does a fair job of capturing the tone, pace, and banter.

If it seems like I'm lukewarm about NCIS, that's because it's a fairly tepid game. Serious fans of the show may get much more out of this than I did. (Or maybe not: fans tend to be pretty picky about the way a show is handled in other media.) As detection games go, this is a fair example: no more or less.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010


Call me ... Pam

The invaluable David Parlett has helped to codify these rules for modern play based on a variety of sources. If you have even passing interest in the subject, his book, The Penguin Book of Card Games, is a must-have.

For a bit of history, read this post.

The first thing to understand is that 5-card Loo is not 3-card Loo with 2 additional cards. It has a few of its own rules and peculiarities.

An interesting feature of 5-card Loo is "Pam," which is the game's name for the Jack of Clubs. "Pam" beats any other card in the deck. Its name is short for Pamphilus (meaning "friend of all"), a rakish character of the middle ages. A popular comic poem about him was published in a slim book called Pamphilus, seu de Amore, thus giving us the word "pamphlet." Parlett considers "Pam" to be a predecessor of the latter-day Joker cards.

Both games are trick-taking games with a betting element, and have several particulars in common. Some kind of betting pool is formed at the center of the table, and people are dealt cards. After looking at their hands, players can continue or fold. If they continue, they must win at least one trick. The pool is split among the winners, and the losers (people who take no tricks) must form the pot for the next round.

With that out of the way, let’s look at how to play them both.

Loo  (3 card)

Number of Players
Three-card Loo can be played by as few as 4 or as many as 17 players, but the optimal amount is 5-7 players.


Everyone begins the game with an equal number of chits. Deal rotates each turn to Eldest (the player to the left of the dealer). The dealer stakes the pot with 3 chits, then deals 3 cards to each player and 3 extra cards to the “Miss,” which is an extra hand.

After the deal, one card is turned face up to determine trump.

At this point, players can opt to fold, continue with their hand, or take the “Miss."
  • If they fold, they incur no loss. 
  • If they continue, they contract to win at least 1 trick. 
  • The first player also has the option of discarding his hand and claiming the “Miss.” If he does so, then he may not drop out. Only one person can claim the Miss. If the first player declines the Miss, then the next player in turn has the option of claiming it.
At this point, if everyone passes, the dealer wins the pool. If everyone passes except the dealer and the person who claimed the Miss, the claimer wins the pool.

Eldest (the person to the left of the dealer) leads the play. If he has the Ace of Trumps, he must lead with it. If not, then he must lead with his highest trump or highest card.

Players follow in turn, and must play a winning card if they have one. In card terminology, this is called to “head” a trick, and it means that if you have a card that can win a trick (either the highest suit or trump), then you must play it.

The trick is taken by the highest card in the suit led, or the highest trump.

The other two tricks are played in the same way.

Each trick won is worth 1/3rd of the pot. The player or players loo’d (meaning they played out the hand but earned no tricks) has to pay 3 chits, which carry over to the next pot. Since each dealer in turn will also stake the pot, the pot can grow quickly.

Unlimited Loo Variant
The version most commonly played in the 18th century probably was "Unlimited Loo." In this version, each player who is loo'd must play the amount that was in the pot at the beginning of the hand. If there's only a single bet in the pot, no one can pass. Thus, if 2 players are loo'd in a 5-handed game, the pot doubles.

Loo (5 card)
Number of Players
Five to ten can play. Everyone should have an equal number of chits.

Same as 3-card Loo, with the following exceptions. The Jack of Spades is called "Pam," and beats every card in the deck.

As with the 5-card version, the dealer stakes the pot, only this time with 5 chits instead of 3. Likewise, he deals 5 cards to each player, then turns up a final card to determine trumps.

Play is conducted like 3-card Loo, with a few changes. 

As with 3-card Loo, players decide to pass or play. If they play, they must win at least one trick.

The biggest difference is that a flush takes all tricks automatically. (Pam may be used as a wild card in order to create a flush.) In the case of multiple flushes, the trump flush wins, followed by the flush with the highest card. The owner of the flush wins the pot without any tricks being played. The entire table is thus loo'd, and must pay the stake.

There is no Miss.

Before the first trick is play, players may discard and draw replacements. Play then proceeds to the left.

Players follow in order, and must play a winning card if they have one. If Pam is led, then they must play trumps if they have them. (Players can't just play their junk when Pam is led: they still have to play their highest appropriate cards, and must play trumps if they can.)

The trick is taken by the highest card in the suit led, the highest trump, or Pam.

The other 4 tricks are played in the same way.

Each trick won is worth 1/5th of the pot.The player or players loo’d (meaning they played out the hand but earned no tricks) has to play 5 chits to stake the next pot.

COLONIAL GAMING: Loo and the Upper Classes

Loo fish: the Poker chip of Colonial America

Young George Washington’s losses for an evening of Loo in 1749 totaled five shillings—an average expenditure from a sum that he periodically devoted to cards, theater tickets, and other amusements.
      Jane Carson, Colonial Virginians at Play

While Put was the favored gambling game of the lower classes, the Colonial gentry preferred to lose their money at Loo. Although George Washington’s later account books only tally his losses “at Cards,” his early account books actually mention Loo by name. For the years 1772-1774, as Revolution was brewing, he recorded £78.5 lost and £72.2.6 won at the card table, and we can assume these totals were probably from playing Loo. (This was a large amount of money, by the way: several years salary for some at the time.)

Loo is a tricky game to write about because there are two fairly distinct versions, and myriad variants and alternate descriptions. It emerged on the scene in England around the time of the Restoration (late 17th century), and had its origin in France.

From England, it followed the Colonists to the New World, and took hold among the upper classes in colonies where the Anglican English influence was dominant. (Card games didn’t take root in Puritan English colonies, and Dutch, French, Spanish, and German regions had their own games.)

By the middle of the 18th century, the game was so popular that special tables were designed. These tables were round and often included small depressions or grooves for holding the betting chits, which were made of ivory or mother-of-pearl. These chits were often shaped like fish, and thus the depressions came to be known as “fish ponds.” They were the precursor of the poker table, and no decent home would be without one. Some types of early card tables are still called “loo tables,” even if they don’t include the indentations.

When it comes to trying to convey a set of rules, Loo is a moving target. Fiddly details rapidly pile on and confuse the issue. This is made more difficult by the infinitely multiplying variants and additional rules that cling to this game like lampreys.

There are two main versions, a 3-card and a 5-card, and I will describe them both. It’s hard to say which of the two was dominant in Colonial America, but given the size of monetary losses recorded in association with Loo, they probably played 3-card Unlimited Loo, which is a more uncompromising gambling game.

Both games are trick-taking games with a betting element, and have several particulars in common. Some kind of betting pool is formed at the center of the table, and people are dealt cards. After looking at their hands, players can continue or fold. If they continue, they must win at least one trick. The pool is split among the winners, and the losers (people who take no tricks) must form the pot for the next round.

A looser is said to be “loo’d,” which is short for Lanterloo, the actual name of the game. “Lanterloo” is a kind of baby gibberish/lullaby sung to small children, akin to the “lully, lullay” refrain from “The Coventry Carol.” Most likely, it was meant derisively in the context of the game, particularly since a person who was repeatedly loo’d could find himself deep in the hole after only a few hands.

How to play Loo.

Sources: Parlett, David: Oxford Guide to Card Games. Carson, Jane, Colonial Virginians at Play.

App O' The Mornin': Monoply Review

I wasn’t sure about reviewing the Monopoly app, since Monopoly itself is pretty much review-proof. You either love or hate the original board game. Perhaps you merely tolerate it. But everyone has some history with it.

I’d managed to avoid playing actual Monopoly for years. Let’s face it: most game hobbyists faced with choice of playing Monopoly or nothing will usually choose nothing. A vigorous session of sock matching is usually higher on my list of things to do of an evening.

So imagine my surprise when I sat down with the app and found myself unable to put it down until I’d completed a full game, about an hour later: four hours less than an average Monopoly session.

It’s a remarkably sprightly adaptation, with unobtrusive animations that actually add to the flavor of the experience rather than just taking up time. All of those niggling little banking bits that usually drag on Monopoly like an anchor caught in the mud are handily automated for your convenience and protection. This has the pleasant side effect of speeding play and keeping the focus on the interesting bits.

The problem with Monopoly is not the game, per se, but the way most people play it (ie: all wrong). They keep finding new ways to flush money into the system by placing fines on Free Parking, and almost always forget to play the bidding element that gives the game a large jolt of energy.

Did you realize that when someone lands on an unowned property and declines the purchase, that property goes up for auction? Well, for years I didn’t. Like most people, I’d never read the rules: I’d just kind of absorbed them osmotically. (Please note: this is a metaphor: no osmosis actually took place.)

The Monopoly app models all these rules handily. Or not: it’s your choice. There are plenty of house rule options, which serve to either slow down a session, or speed it up. So, if you want to play the game all wrong, you can.

The game can handle up to four players, via AI (with three levels of difficulty) or pass-and-play. There are even four five different backgrounds, including a nerd-tastic faux-Enterprise bridge.

Look, this is Monopoly. If you already like the game, you should know that the app is an excellent version. If you don’t like the game, you should try it anyway. As with Life and Yahtzee, I found myself enjoying the app version more than the original game. Maybe I just needed to see it from a free perspective.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

REVIEW: Singularity (PC, 360, and PS3)

I’ve always had a soft spot for Raven Software. They don’t create technology and they don’t make particularly original games. They do, however, make fun games, and show a skill at design that often eludes some of the big boys.

Raven titles Hexen, Heretic, Soldier of Fortune, Quake IV, Jedi Knight II, and Wolfenstein are just plain good games, period. They have a knack for taking engines like Doom, Quake, or Unreal and making them do interesting things. That’s a rare skill. A company like Monolith can take the exact same technology and make a hash of it. I’ve never felt that way with Raven: I’ve always felt entertained.

There is no denying that the shadow of other, better games falls heavily upon Raven’s latest, Singularity. This is a game that takes BioShock, dumps the depth and narrative baggage, and just turns it into a wild, wonderfully ridiculous ride.

How much is this like BioShock? From the first moments, when your aircraft crashes into a mysterious island, you know you’re in familiar territory, and it just becomes more familiar from there. All of BioShock’s tropes are here: enclosed environment overrun with mutants, backstory told through recordings and notes, retro videos, voices guiding you forward, ghostly images of past events, the ability to modify a weapon fused to your body, weapon upgrade stations … well, you get the idea.

And you know what? There’s nothing wrong with that. If you’re going to pick a model to emulate, you might as well pick the best. Singularity wears these design elements more lightly than BioShock, without the portentous narrative and complex thematics of the original. It doesn’t really want to explore the nature of freedom and what makes us human: it wants to explore what a mutant looks like when he comes in contact with an explosive guided projectile. And sometimes that’s really all you need.

Singularity gives us a straight-up Cold War time paradox story. In the 1950s the Russians found a special element that would allow them to create powerful weapons and even bend time. A horrible accident destroys that experiment, but during a timeshift your character somehow changes the course of history. (How he does this is fairly obvious, but the reveal is kept for later in the game.) With the help of a scientist, a resistance group, and some nifty gear, you have to set things right, manipulating time in order to do it.

Although a standard assortment of military hardware is available (pistol, machine gun, shotgun, and sniper rifle), you only begin to wield serious power when you get the TMD (time manipulation device). This allows you to alter time in small areas of the environment. For instance, you can age something so that it decays and falls apart, or reverse-age it so that a broken object is knitted together again. This creates some impressive environmental effects, and when amplified allows you to temporarily restore huge locations. It also works particularly well on creatures: sometimes it just makes them slower, and sometimes it pulls them apart.

The TMD has other powers, such as power blasts, the creation of time bubbles, grabbing and throwing objects, and more. There are some echoes of an unjustifiably neglected 2007 game called TimeShift. Although it ultimately ran aground on ho-hum gameplay and level design, TimeShift has a very interesting time-manipulation element.

And for all the derivative elements in Singularity, there are touches that are undeniably Raven’s. Simple things like special effects, architecture, hand animations and the feel of ranged weapons call to mind games as old as Heretic and Hexen. Level design is fairly linear, but still interesting, and the pace is a perfect blend of onrushing action and more sedate periods of exploration.

Frankly, Singularity passed right under my radar. It arrive in July, and in the frenzy of reviewing titles for the Games 100, I just lost track of it. I’m not sure if it’s found an audience or not, but it certainly deserves one.

Singularity is rated Mature for some foul language, violence, and lots of gore. It is available for Windows PCs, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3. This review was done using the 360 version.

WIN!: Contest Deadline This Friday

Our first prize, provided by the US Playing Card Company, is

A two-pack of Bicycle World Series of Poker Tournament Edition Playing Cards (one red deck, one black deck), standard faces.


A set of 5 Bicycle Dice.

I have two sets to give away. All you need to do to be eligible is:

1. Follow State of Play in some way:

2. Share a link from the site (it can even be this one). Obviously, most forms of link-sharing are on the honor system.

3. When you've done that, let me know in one of the following ways:
  • Tweet me @StateOfPlayBlog
  • Post a message on the State of Play Facebook Page
  • Send an email to "" (replace the =at= with @) to have your name entered.  
  • Please don't forget to do one of these things or I won't know you've entered!

And don't forget to visit the Bicycle web site! They have a huge database of card games and rules.

Deadlines for the first set of giveaways are next Friday, September 10th, 2010.

I'll choose winners by the scientific process of writing their names on little pieces of paper and pulling them out of a hat.


PUZZLE: Bathtub Boat

This problem from Martin Gardner isn't really a puzzle, but I thought it was interesting:

A small boy is sailing a plastic boat in his tub. The boat is loaded with nuts and bolts.

If he dumps the nuts and bolts into the water, allowing the boat to float empty, will the water level in the tub rise or fall?

App O' The Mornin': Cross Fingers Review

Mobigame has turned out a real gem with Cross Fingers, a simple yet addicting tangram puzzle game.

Each of the 120 puzzles is played on a wooden-style board, sometimes shaped like an open square, sometimes with more diabolical patterns. Two different kinds of tiles need to be rearranged into a particular shape within the confines of this board. Beige tiles simply slide and stay and place, while orange tiles slide and snap back to their original location.

It takes some careful manipulation (and some tricky finger movements) to get the tiles their destination. Like Rush Hour and similar object puzzles, this one starts simple and gets progressively more challenging.

Two versions are available: Cross Fingers Free (free) with a limited selection of puzzles, and Cross Fingers ($1) with all of the puzzles plus an additional Tetris-style game mode after you’ve completed them all.

Monday, September 6, 2010

PUZZLE: Labor Day Sale

Amy, Betty, Carl, and Dan went to a four-story department store in New York City for some Labor Day shopping. Each did their shopping on a different floor, and each bought a different thing.

One person each bought an iPod, a digital camera, a book, and a lawnmower.

Amy did not buy a lawnmower.

Carl shopped on the second floor.

Betty bought a digital camera.

Amy shopped on the first floor.

iPods are sold on the fourth floor.

What did each person buy?

App O' The Mornin': Sword & Poker Series Review

The Sword and Poker series is Puzzle Quest using Poker instead of Bejeweled as a combat mechanic. If that doesn’t give you a certain tingle up your leg, then you probably missed Puzzle Quest for the same reason I almost missed it: because it sounds like a dumb idea.

The notion of a narrative fantasy adventure that drops to a thrilling game of match-three whenever it’s time to throw down with a monster just sounded all kinds of wrong when I first read about it. In practice, however, the Puzzle Quests games work like a dream, using a brilliant hybrid of RPG conventions and puzzle gameplay to create an insanely addictive gaming experience. It became a surprise hit and has spawned add-ons, sequels, and copycats.

Sword and Poker doesn’t quite reach that level of brilliance. It’s a simpler game, with a less complex puzzle combat system and a milder RPG element. The premise is simple: you work your way through various levels, meeting deadly (albeit cute) creatures, and playing poker in order to blast them back to the hell from whence they came (cutely).

Combat is turn-based, and takes place on a 5x5 grid. In the center of that grid is a 3x3 layout of cards. Each player is dealt 4 cards, and must place them at either end of a line in order to form some kind of 5-card hand. This can be as simple as low as a Pair, or as high as a Royal Flush. Each kind of hand is worth a certain amount of combat damage, with better hands worth more.

Players come to the battlefield/table with a fixed number of hit points. When those points are depleted, the round is over, and the survivor wins treasure, points, and any booty lying around.

These basic elements are modified by different weapons and spells, which allow certainly hands to do more damage or let you modify the game in some way. The layout itself becomes more than merely a place to lay cards: there is a significant element of strategy involved in where, what, how, and when you place your cards or activate your spells. There is a lot more below the surface than you might think.

There are now two games in this series: Sword and Poker and Sword and Poker II, and both come in full ($1) and Lite (free) versions. The sequel simply extends the original with more levels and stuff: it doesn't appear to change the formula.

This one took me completely by surprised, and I really recommend you at least play through the Lite versions to see what they have to offer.