Saturday, September 18, 2010

This Week at a Glance

This image comes from Project Mah Jongg, an exhibit most awesome at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York. (Warning: automatic audio at site.)

Castle Ravenloft arrives: one big box o' D&D fun
Insensitive jerk makes offensive game. Also: water found to be wet. 
Games Magazine: November issue now on sale
A Closer Look: Aviator Cards
A Closer Look: Hoyle Playing Cards
Media incompetence and gaming: perfect together
Review: Scrabble Flash
Off-topic post: a look at the Arkangel Complete Shakespeare audioplays.
This week's contest
Friday linkaround: items of interest

Word Squares--word puzzle
Isaac Newton's Gravity--physics puzzle
iBlast Moki--physics puzzler
Mancala--abstract strategy
Spikey's Bounce Around--physics/arcade puzzler
A note on App coverage


Word Squares
Sir Edwyn de Tudor

WEEKEND O/T POST: Arkangel Shakespeare

From time to time I run personal or off-topic posts on weekends.  The following review is something I wrote about the amazing Arkangel audio versions of the complete works of Shakespeare. I'm a complete Shakespeare nut, so when I discovered this series in the library I just devoured it. Thanks to my blogmother Julie D. for originally publishing a longer version of this at Catholic Media Review.

The genius of William Shakespeare is on full and glorious display in one of the most ambitious projects in recording history. In the 1990s, television and film producer Bill Shepherd (husband of actress Eileen Atkins, who turns in some great performances on the set) spearheaded the complete recorded plays of Shakespeare. Over 3 years and at a cost of $3 million dollars, all thirty-eight plays, complete with some 600 speaking parts and including a wide range of sound effects and music, were produced under the direction of Clive Brill. From the loftiest heights of Shakespearean majesty (Hamlet, Lear, Macbeth) to the furthest and most forgotten corners (Pericles, Timon of Athens, Cymbeline), every word of every play was committed to tape with a full cast of seasoned Shakespearean talent and even a few marquee stars.

It would be impossible to cover the entire set in any depth, but some performers and plays stand out. The greatest actor to work on the Arkangel Shakespeare was Sir John Gielgud, who was 94 when he recorded his two roles. Gielgud plays the narrator-poet Gower in Pericles, as well as “Time, the Chorus” in The Winter’s Tale. His fading voice in the Time soliloquies lends a particularly bittersweet poetry to the role. The speeches are long, and Gielgud is clearly at the end of his life. His majestic voice has lost much of its plummy tone, but he still delivers note-perfect performances.

The London Independent was present when the Gielgud recording was made, and noted how Sir John (who was paid a single day-rate like everyone else) asked if could also do the Chorus in Henry V. He was turned down because Brian Cox had already done it. “Oh well, he’s very good,” replied Gielgud. Although Cox is probably still best known to moviegoers as the original Hannibal Lecter in Manhunter, he’s also one of the premiere Shakespeareans of his generation, and turns in solid voice work on several of the discs.

Fans of Shakespeare in Love, in which Joseph Fiennes played Shakespeare playing Romeo, will be delighted to hear Fiennes in a complete production as Romeo, opposite Maria Miles as Juliet. Like most Romeos, he’s too old for the role, but he does a respectable job, only rarely letting some of the play’s more sticky sentimentality overwhelm him. Just watch out for the kissing scenes. They sound like someone got his lips caught in a bottle.

Simon Russell Beale does excellent work as Hamlet, with a performance reminiscent of Kenneth Branagh’s in his own film of Hamlet. No complaint there, since Branagh managed to bring out the bitter humor of the Prince without getting lost in the world-weariness that can easily overtake the character. Beale handles the play’s many abrupt shifts in tone with finesse, and he’s matched by excellent performances all around. Shakespeare’s finest play is the jewel in the crown of the set, as it should be.

Cieran Hindes (best known as Caesar from the HBO miniseries Rome) tackles the incredible poetry of Antony and Cleopatra with remarkable skill, playing a passionate Antony to Estelle Kohler’s steamy Cleopatra. Hinds also turns in a touching performance in the role of Leontes in The Winter’s Tale, handling the shimmering, mystical finale in whispered, delicate tones that would be impossible on a stage. For those who are less familiar with this, one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays”, the Arkangel disc is a great place to start.

The unity of the recording project gave the producers an opportunity for some interesting casting choices. Julian Glover plays Bolingbroke/Henry IV and Jamie Glover plays Prince Hal/Henry V throughout the history plays (Richard III, Henry IV 1 & 2, and Henry V). The father/son team might seem like stunt casting, but both are veteran Shakespeareans who acquit themselves expertly throughout. Jamie, in particular, makes a convincing transformation from the callow youth of Henry IV Part 1 to the stirring hero of Henry V. Some other notable performances include Rupert Graves in the difficult role of Richard II, Adrian Lester as Antony in Julius Caesar, Trevor Peacock as Lear, and Bill Nighy as Antonio in Merchant of Venice.

Not every performance works, but given the vastness of the project it’s surprising to see how few duds there are. I’ve listened to Harriet Walter’s Lady Macbeth many times, and the performance still doesn’t sit right with me. Her voice seems to high and quirky to pull off the role. Everyone around her, however, does a fine job, including Hugh Ross as Macbeth and three pitch-perfect witches.

The low point of the series is what should have been one its centerpieces. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a mess. The fairy voices are digitally processed and hard to understand, the music is terrible, and the Caribbean accents for Tatania and Oberon are reminiscent of too many gimmicky modern productions. If you want to experiment, Dream is not the place to do it. Bad artistic choices abound, from sound effects, to casting, to music. Brill got most everything right elsewhere in the cannon, so he must have saved up all his mistakes for Dream.

That’s really the only dud in the batch, however. The production values are spot on throughout, with Brill and his engineers creating an incredible sonic setting for the plays. A full range of sound effects is brought to bear, and these help flesh out the action which you normally either see in performance or read in the stage directions of the text. Whether it’s the opening storm of The Tempest, the battlefield of Henry V, or the grotesque torments of Titus Andronicus, the effects play a crucial role in bringing the plays to life. All of the productions are fully scored, and while some of the musical choices are simply puzzling, most nicely compliment the drama.

The cumulative effect of the entire endeavor is astounding. Perhaps the most exciting part is getting to explore those lesser known gems that are never performed on stage or in film. (For example, Cymbeline, a fairy tale with an absurdly labyrinthine plot, is a fascinating find.) The series is a treasure unequalled and, for many, still undiscovered. I only stumbled across them two years ago in the library, and was able to hear all 38 through the interlibrary loan system in my county. The complete set is available for $360 on Amazon, with individual plays going for about $14 (for 2 discs) to $17 (for 3 discs). More information can be found at

The Arkangel Complete Shakespeare is a Globe of the mind, where you can disappear into the words and performances any time you like.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Friday Linkaroud--Items of Interest

(c. Gettyimages)

"Good, Bad: I'm the Guy With the Gun": Ash is coming to the App Store S-Mart in a new Army of Darkness game from Backflip Studios.

Snakes & Lattes: I'm not sure if I wrote about this place already, but even if I did it's worth a second post. Snakes & Lattes is a boardgame cafe in Toronto. No, they don't have free Wi-Fi, but they have about 1,500 boardgames for the use of their customers. Wish I had one around the corner.

Maybe Cliffy B. Lost a Bet?: One of the semi-interesting news items this week was the collapse of the 3-month-old MMO APB (All Points Bulletin), which sucked its development house, Scotland's Realtime Worlds, down with it. APB failed for the most sound of reasons: it wasn't particularly interesting. Now the rumor is that Epic Games is buying the rights to APB. Maybe hugely successful companies need to inject a little FAIL into their corporate bloodstream now and again, just keep them on their toes.

This Was Probably Inevitable: And since I'm smart enough not to open a debate on the Israeli/Palestinian issue on my gaming blog, I'll just post a link and move along. 

"And Then the Captain of the HMS OpenFeint Saw Apple's Game Center Up Ahead and Yelled "ICEBERG!": Alas, too late. In a move that was surprisingly to absolutely no one, the suddenly-redundant OpenFeint has opened shop for Android devices. Apple's new Game Center community features are not yet up to speed with OpenFeint's, but they will be, thus making OpenFeint's future on Apple devices extremely sketchy.

Kegerator Not Included: Although this one looks cheaply made, I have to say the idea of a "Pub in a Box" set of classic English pub games is an idea whose time has come. (What, no dartboard?)

Propaganda!: The artists at Irrational Games have outdone themselves creating imaginary propaganda posters for BioShock Infinite, currently slated for 2012. They did their work well: I had to pause and work through the meaning they were trying to convey, alternately offended and impressed. It's rather nauseating to see symbols like George Washington, lady liberty, the Boy Scouts, and the cross used as grotesque nationalistic/racist propaganda. However, they seem to be a logical aspect of BSI's story, which posits a floating cloud city created by America  in the 19th century, which subsequently devolves into civil war. Irrational is walking a fine line here, but they've shown themselves up to the task of deftly handling complex and controversial ideas in the past.

News From 1910: I'd much rather live in a world where the top 3 news stories were these rather than these. I suspect that Mrs. Joseph Thomas was cut to the quick to read that her dainty Bridge luncheon, served at card tables, was only entertaining "informally." Also, why was the Domino Club meeting "unusually pleasant?" Did the last meeting culminate in a knife fight after Mrs. Daniel played Chickie Twos?

"Look, Larry... Have you ever heard of Vietnam?": Battlefield Bad Company 2: Vietnam is only being released as downloadble content. Hey, it worked for Battlefield: 1943.

Seize Your Tweets: The Twitterstream Digest compiled by Seize Your Turn provides an excellent compilation of the gaming news and blog activity.

Chess News for the week.

App O' The Mornin': Spikey's Bounce Around Review

This one was a bit of a surprise. Surprise is good in my line of work, because after you've seen the upteenth "run-to-the-right" game you begin to get a little cynical. (Have I missed it, or has no innovative soul yet broken new ground and made a "run-to-the-left" game? Please don't tell me: I just love the idea that it might exist.)

Spikey sat on my device for a long time before I played it, and for the most sound of reasons: I didn't like the icon. (Oh don't act like you never do it.) I also found the graphics unappealing. After spending time with it, I think the strange color palette and cutesy butterflies-and-flowers theme is maybe some kind of retro joke that eluded me at first glance.

At least, I hope so, because underneath its peculiar veneer is a puzzle game that actually does something different, and provides almost maddening degree of difficulty at times.The goal is to fire an alternately bouncy and sticky little ball in order to free butterflies trapped in glass jars. Flowers, vines, and other objects appear on the screen, and the more of these you collect, the higher your score. As you get deeper into the game, new factors are added, such as rubber bumpers, wasps, and other environmental elements.

You can't shoot Spikey quite all the way to the top of the screen, so you have to use his ability to stick to some surfaces and bounce off others in order to reach the tough spots. There are a limited number of shots per level, and creating the proper sequence of shots in the right direction can be almost insanely challenging at points. It's impossible to know how to do this from just looking at each puzzle, so you have to experiment in order to get it right.

I'm usually not a fan of puzzle games that require multiple trial-and-error attempts to solve. Spikey is a rank offender in this category. There are puzzles which can't be solved without nailing every shot, and sometimes failure to nail a shot isn't really your fault. Due to the structure of the puzzles and physics of the game, a simple mis-calculation can ruin an entire setup.

This didn't really bug me in Spikey. It simply adds an element of dexterity to the basic puzzle design, and gives it kind an arcade-puzzler feel. The challenge becomes not merely one of logically figuring out the proper moves, but also successfully executing each move. I'm okay with that.

Spikey's Bounce Around combination of ballistics, sticking, bouncing, and collecting--with things to avoid and limited shots--is not quite like any puzzler I've played. Sure, it's a variation on familiar themes, but it combines those themes in an interesting way, and fulfills the most basic requirement of any puzzler: it makes you want to keep trying and moving on to the next level.

There's a free taste available as a Lite version, and the full version costs $2. Give it a shot!

Hoyle Playing Cards: A Closer Look

Brown & Bigelow has been around since 1896, manufacturing various printed products and promotional items, primarily advertising. They started printing playing cards in 1927, and their Hoyle brand became so famous that they changed the name of the company to Hoyle in 1975. In 2001, USPC aquired the card line and the Hoyle series, which had grown to include a long-running series of computer and video games, books, and other products.

The main card bearing the name of Hoyle Playing Cards is an American-made card comparable to Bicycle in weight, finish, and durability. It's a good , durable coated paper card, and I can understand how it developed a solid following over the years.

Hoyle Playing Cards use a completely different set of face-cards, with a finer line and a more angular, modernist art style. Notice in the pictures below how the Queen of Hearts has squared fingers (as though she was drawn by Mike Mignola) and a more disapproving expression. The strong black outlines show an artist skilled with pen-and-ink, and capable of drawing an expressive line. (As a classic comic fan, I'm a huge admirer of artists with a strong pen line. I think the ink line of Charles M. Schulz is one of the high points of 20th century art.)

Hoye's have a distinctive card back depicting Poseidon with a trident and clam shell. There's no particular reason for this, but it looks dang spiffy.

Queen of Hearts: Bicycle (left) & Hoyle (right)

Corner detail

Thursday, September 16, 2010

In the Mail: Castle Ravenloft Board Game

Oh no! The Castle Ravenloft box threw up!

Man, this is one nice, big box o' D&D stuff. It looks like a very interesting game, and I hope to test it in the next few days and have some comments up by next week.

It also includes the worst smelling game components since the Stone Age leather dice cup. The smell dissipates after a while, which is good, because it was actually a smell worse than "Eau de Gamer". (I kid because I love.)

I'm very interested in this one because my son is heavily into D&D, but being a 42-year-old man, I don't really have the time for hours of prep and adventuring, and kids these days just don't get the finer points of RPGs. The goal of Castle Ravenloft is to provide a co-op, 1-hour-long D&D boardgame, with the game mechanics functioning as the DM.

I've read some bad reviews of this one so far, which seem to be complaining about it because ... it's a co-op, 1-hour long D&D boardgame, with the game mechanics functioning as the DM. How did they expect the designers to fit a D&D adventure into an hour with abstracting certain design elements and mechanics? Did they think every box came with a Space/Time Compression Generator?

Some commentators seem irritated because it's not Descent, which it didn't ever claim to be. I don't want to play Descent. It's a good game, but it takes too long. I wanted a dungeon crawl that could be played in a shorter amount of time. In other words: I wanted Castle Ravenloft. Let's hope it works as promised.

And I've left the best part for last: co-designer Mike Mearls has an unboxing video at the official Wizards website. It's a saucy (nay, almost provocative) undressing of the game, lacking only the thwacka-thwacka bass soundtrack. Are techies and gamers the only people who do unboxing videos? I mean, I love them too, but they just feel so wrong. So wrong ... but so very right.

A Note on App Coverage

Since my readership has gone way up since I first started writing about Apps, I should probably reiterate what I'm doing with the App O' The Mornin'.

This is not an exhaustive app news or reviews site. I don't think anyone does that job better than TouchArcade, and I don't see any point in trying.

This also isn't coverage of the latest and greatest in the App Store. It's not the "App O' The Mornin'" because it's an app released today. It's an "App O' The Mornin'" because I wrote about it this morning.

The items I choose for coverage are simply the items I'm playing at any given time. Some are brand new, some are old. If it strikes me as something I'd like to write about, then I'll write about it. This isn't a review site disguised as a blog. It's just a blog: a kind of running commentary on the games intersecting with my life on any given day. Since games are how I've earned my living since 1990, as well as my hobby, they're a pretty prominent part of my daily routine.

I've been leaning a bit heavily on classic, abstract strategy, puzzler, and boardgame apps lately because those are games I play a lot, and I think they're a great fit on the Apple smartphone platform. I like them and I'm good at them. I haven't reviewed driving games because I don't like them and I'm not good at them. I also haven't spent much time on shooters and action games because, thus far, I still think those are games best left to computers and consoles, although Epic Citadel gives me hope.

The age of a game is utterly irrelevant. I don't like The Cult of the New. Anything you haven't played is a new game to you. What difference does it make if it's two years old? And sometimes even an old game you've already played can be made fresh again if you look at it a different way.

If you'd like to get caught up on my app coverage to date, or check to find some older review, the Apps tab at the top is the place to go. Thanks for your continued patronage. If you'd like to help support the site, the best way is to just use one of the links to access Amazon when you shop there.

App O' The Mornin': Mancala Review

I'm surprised I haven't covered this one yet, since it's been on my iTouch from the very beginning. It's just a good game to have on your device for those odd moments when you want a quick abstract strategy game. You can blast through a round in a couple of minutes (tops), yet the game has enough depth to reward sound strategy.

Flipside's Mancala FS5 features the most popular version of Mancala, called Wari. (Mancala is a family of games, not a single game.) Although the oldest extant examples of Mancala-style games only date to the 7th century, I have no doubt at all that it's far older. Based on its continued ubiquity, in various forms, among contemporary primitive tribes, it seems likely that Mancala and similar "capture" games are one of the earliest stages in the development of the boardgame. Since these games were usually carved in the dirt and played with pebbles, ancient examples are simply less likely to have survived.

The game itself remains quite entertaining. There are 6 small depressions on each side (called "houses") and one large depression at either end (called "stores"). There are a fixed number of pips in two colors: enough to fill 6 houses per side with 3, 4, 5, or 6 pips each. (Four is the standard, but Mancala FS5 allows variable setups ranging from 3 - 6.) Players alternate "seeding" by taking all the pips in one cup and counting them out to the right, one pip per cup, including the stores. Pips that land in the stores are considered captured. If the last pip of your turn is seeded in an empty house, you capture all of the pips opposite that house. The goal is to capture the most pips. The game has some subtle strategies for seeding and capture, and repeated play reveals more depth than may be apparent at first.

Flipside's version of the game is my favorite, but it's not with problems. I like the board, mechanics, and feature set. There are variable setups, and strong 2-player support via pass-and-play, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, online automatic matchmaking, and AIM. I don't do much of the multiplayer, and I certainly don't pay any attention to the rating system, but I understand that rated play has problems with scoring. These problems are mostly attributed to a scoring system which fails to account for twits who bail out of games they are about to lose. These incomplete games leave the remaining player forced to forfeit, which negatively impacts their rating.

The free version is also well-nigh crippled by an in-game advertising system which causes 5-10 second delays between games. Even the $2 version includes some ads, albeit not as aggressively. (No paid app should ever include ads. Period.)

These failings are unfortunate, since the design of the game is very good, and Mancala is an abstract strategy game that is worthy of rediscovery by western gamers.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

I'm Searching My Constitution For the "Right Not To Be Offended"

... nope, still can't find it.

I know the US Bill of Rights doesn't extend to Canada. Maybe that would explain why their police would request that an American company remove a piece of software they don't like.

Some background: 4 years ago, there was a shooting rampage at Montreal's Dawson College. One student died and 19 others were injured before the gunman took his own life.

Four years later, an insensitive jerk decides: "Hm, that sounds like good fun! Let's make it into a videogame, and urge gamers to kill virtual students and cops!"  He makes a low-rent shooter called Dawson College Massacre and posts it to an American server. Outrage ensues, and the Montreal police ask the American internet provider to take it down.

We've been down this road before with reprehensible trash like Super Columbine Massacre RPG and V-Tech Rampage.

The men who make these games try to justify their squalid little pieces of propaganda as mere entertainment or social commentary or even art, but they display a level of creative skill and depth usually only found in a 14-year-old boy's Halo fanfic.I object to them because they're insensitive, crass, immature, exploitative, and morally repellent, but I don't see how that elevates them to a level of expression that needs to be policed.

Being an insensitive jerk isn't actually illegal in America. This is what bugged me about the reaction to the Koran burning pastor. I objected to what he planned on several levels, but it never even entered my mind that it should be illegal. Because, no matter what the worst justice on the supreme court says, it's not against the law, and it shouldn't be.

I don't like this kind of game, and I don't think it should exist. I also don't think people should deliberately offend someone's deepest beliefs, whether that means burning a Koran or a flag, or submerging a crucifix in a jar of urine. But I don't see how a truly free society can legally prohibit such things and remain truly free.

As for the picture that accompanies this post, it's of Anastasia Rebecca De Sousa: the only name I intend to use in this story, because hers is the only name that matters. She was 18 years old when the Dawson College shooter ended her life.

To the person who created Dawson College Massacre, I would ask: Does her death amuse you? If not, then how do you explain your game? If so, then how long have you been under the delusion that you are human?

GAMES Magazine: November Issue

The new issue goes on sale this week. I did my usual selection of reviews (including Snoopy Flying Ace: best Xbox flight game evah!), as well as a preview of Microsoft Kinect.

The issue has the usual array of news, features, puzzles, and pencil puzzles. Buy it wherever better magazines are sold!

I think this image of the cover puzzle is large enough, so here are the rules:

Bubble Trouble
The automated security system in this undersea lab is malfunctioning, trapping two scientists in opposite corners. To escape, they must meet in any “room” to use their security cards together; but the security system will only allow them to move from room to room if they both move at the same time—and each time they move, they must pass through rings of matching colors. Can you bring them together?

App O' The Mornin': iBlast Moki Review

iBlast Moki is everything that yesterday’s App O’ The Mornin’, Isaac Newton’s Gravity, failed to be. This is a chain-reaction physics game with visual appeal, 70 puzzles ranging from easy to “helpme!”, perfect controls, and a lot of charm.

The appeal of this game does not lie in its inventiveness or originality. We’d played games like this before. We’ve even seen elements of the visual style before. But rarely do they come together in a single app that delivers exactly what it should.

Mokis are little Kirby-like blobs with happy face that turn suddenly surprised when then find themselves in the proximity of a bomb. These bombs are your primarily tools for blasting Moki into a swirling vortex, which is almost always located in the most inconvenient spot on the screen.

When you place a bomb near a Moki, a little arrow gives you an idea of the trajectory that Moki will follow once the bomb detonates. You can also turn a dial on the ring that surrounds a bomb in order to delay the time until it explodes. Using these tools, you set up chain reactions that push the Moki towards the exit and victory.

Bombs are also useful for clearing away objects and triggering action and reactions, such as starting an avalanche or opening a gate. After the initial levels, balloons, ropes, and bridges enter the equation, and the potential variables for each puzzle grow exponentially. Some environments (such as water) also work under different gravitational rules, so you may find objects floating off rather than falling down. All of these factors keep the challenges in iBlast Moki continually fresh and interesting.

And if you thought 70 levels was the end of it, you thought wrong. iBlast Moki also comes with a full level editor and set of sharing tools. You can create your own level, or download new ones. Hundreds of levels are already floating around out there for download, and the tools make it easy for you to create and share new ones.

Yes, it has elements of Loco Roco, Lemmings, Kirby, Bomberman, and a number of other games, but so what? It takes those elements and makes them its own, creating something new and entertaining in the process. Of all the physics puzzlers I have on my Touch, this is the most polished, and the one I come back to again and again.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

PUZZLE: Sir Edwyn de Tudor

"In the illustration we have a sketch of Sir Edwyn de Tudor going to rescue his lady-love, the fair Isabella, who was held a captive by a neighboring wicked baron. Sir Edwyn calculated that if he rode fifteen miles an hour he would arrive at the castle an hour too soon, while if he rode ten miles an hour he would get there just an hour too late. Now, it was of the first importance that he should arrive at the exact time appointed, in order that the rescue that he had planned should be a success, and the time of the tryst was five o'clock, when the captive lady would be taking her afternoon tea. The puzzle is to discover exactly how far Sir Edwyn de Tudor had to ride."

from Henry Dudeney's Amusements in Mathematics

Aviator Cards: A Closer Look

Aviator: Then and Now
I'm glad that Aviators are still made. Even though they've been redesigned over the years, this is still the brand that was introduced in 1927 to commemorate Charles Lindbergh's trans-Atlantic flight. They've become somewhat hard to find in most stories, which is why I was surprised to walk into my local 5 & 10 and find a stack of them along with Bicycles and Bees. (Also: I'm continually surprised that I have a local 5 & 10, but that's one of the benefits of living in a small town.)

These are actually my least favorite card among the USPC roster. The faces are standard Bicycle-style art, and the backs are an elaborate design that seems purpose-made for card-marking. The feel is a bit stiff and slick. Some people like this, which is why Aviators have a devoted following. I personally prefer a more textured feel.

App O' The Mornin': Isaac Newton's Gravity Review

Namco is confusing me. I spent a couple of moments playing “Isaac Newton’s Gravity” and feeling a strange sense of déjà vu. Then my brain caught up and I realized that I was playing “Professor Heinz Wolff’s Gravity,”  a PC game from a couple years back. I guess Professor Wolff (who appears to be a real person, although the bow tie gives me some doubts) wasn’t enough of a marquee name, so he was bumped in favor of Sir Isaac for Namco’s mobile port of the game.

This a pretty straightforward “Incredible Machine”-style physics game. It has 50 puzzles, which is about half as many as the original game, and Isaac Newton providing some commentary. Visually, it’s fairly appealing, but the graphics are little more than nice backgrounds and the infrastructure for each puzzle.

These puzzles are clever, and some are very challenging. The object is to hit a button located in some awkward spot of the level. To do this, you have a limited palette of objects which need to placed to cause a chain reaction in order to reach the button. Place everything, start the ball rolling, and see if the chain reaction works. The puzzles require careful observation and planning, but seem perfunctory and almost cold. I never really felt the spry intelligence and wit found in the best moments of the “Incredible Machine” series, or the wild imagination on display in “World in Goo.” The puzzles in Gravity are just kind of … there.

The other problem is that it’s obviously a port from the PC, and thus meant to be controlled using a mouse. (Professor Wolff also made the leap to Wii and DS, but I never saw either of these, so I can’t compare.) It was not designed for smaller devices, and the port for iPhones and iPod Touch is problematic in places. Some of the objects are very, very tiny and almost impossible to place with any precision. Although I have very large hands, I’ve gotten used to working on the small touchscreens. Gravity, however, challenged and frustrated me more than once.

I imagine some of my problems with Gravity probably disappear when it’s played on the larger screen of an iPad. The small version, however, is a little too finicky for my taste.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Media Incompetence and Gaming: Perfect Together!

The actual SmallWorlds.
Look, I've been a career journalist for 20 years, and even I hate the media. Journalism has become a rank fever swamp of incompetence, mendacity, and bias. Look at the recent "Koran burning pastor" fooforaw. There was a time when a knucklehead with a congregation that could fit in my den would say something crazy, people would ignore him, and the press would do what they do best: pay no attention and go back to the bar. Now, they splash his idiocy all over the 24-hour news stream, and people die.

It makes me wonder if there ever was a golden age of journalistic competence. Was there a time when writers did the legwork and checked their facts? Or were they always phoning it in from the bottom of a glass, only we didn't know because there was no army of internet fact checkers watching the store? 

One thing always strikes me when I spot a piece of journalistic media malpractice on a subject I know (primarily history, religion, or gaming): if I can spot hard errors all the time in reports in which I already know the facts, how many untruths get by me on a subject about which I know nothing? 

Sorry, just had to bleat a bit before I got to the latest bit of media stupidity. Now go check out this story, and tell me what's wrong with it. Addicted to a fantasy world: Mother obsessed with computer game let her children live in squalor and left her dogs to starve to death

It's a tragic and horrifying story of a woman who lost her grip on reality. It's hardly a new story. People have suffered tragedy and spiraled into madness as long as there have been people, but when there's some clever "angle" for the media to play, suddenly human anguish becomes a spectator sport. It's grotesque.

If the writer of the story got the name of the game right, then it was an online game called SmallWorlds. It's a social network game made from bits of other games like Second Life, Sims, Farmville, Nintendogs, and so on.

But writer Jaya Narain couldn't be bothered to figure out that much. Not only is the entire story illustrated with multiple photos from Days of Wonder's Small World, which is obviously a board game, but super-journalist Jaya Narain actually smooshes together descriptions of SmallWorlds (the online game) and Small World (the board game) in the text of her story, creating nothing but a gibberish stew. The two games have nothing to do with each other, and have no common characteristics other than the word "game" somewhere in their description.

And as if to prove the old saw that a lie gets halfway around the world before the truth gets its pants on, CNET blogger Chris Matyszczyk glossed the story and failed to correct any of the errors. [NOTE: The CNET story was subsequently amended and the correct illustration inserted.] Since his spot at CNET is called "Technically Incorrect," maybe this is just some kind of ironic new-media meta-parody? I used to write for CNET. I remember them being a pretty tight ship. I guess standards have slipped.

Days of Wonder has already responded rather caustically, but as of now (9:00 Monday evening) the story has not been altered or corrected, leaving people with the impression that a charming and inventive board game is some kind of mindsucking epicenter of internet addiction.

Heck, I wouldn't even say that the online SmallWorlds (or any online game) is capable of that. In the electronic age, people who may have once escaped from mental suffering with drugs, alcohol, food, or any number of compulsive behaviors now find that escape in virtual worlds. It's no less tragic, but we need to realize that only the instrument of escape is new: the illness underlying it is the same age upon age.
Screenshot from original article

Scrabble Flash Review

Hasbro’s been expanding their core game lines for the past few years, beyond the unfortunate branded products that sprout around blockbuster licenses like crabgrass. These new games go far beyond merely slapping SpongeBob on the Operation table. Core brands like Monopoly and Scrabble are rebuilt into whole new games, many of them entirely new designs with a thematic connection to the original.

Scrabble Flash (Hasbro: $30) is one of those pleasant surprises, particularly since it’s a high-tech take on an appealingly low-tech game. My normal attitude is: electronics are good, and boardgames are good, but let’s just keep them apart, shall we? I may like chocolate in my peanut butter, but I utterly HATE electronics in my boardgames.

Well, I may have to change that attitude if Scrabble Flash is an indication of things to come. Really, though: it’s not a board game: it’s a whole new concept, and it’s pretty impressive.

Scrabble Flash is a set of 5 “smart” tiles. Each is 2”x2” square, and about 3/4th of an inch thick. The body is white and red plastic, and the face is dominated by a screen with a little input button at the bottom. Each of these screens is a liquid crystal display (LCD), unlighted and capable of fairly simple graphics. When placed next to each other, the smart tiles communicate via infrared (IR) technology, and thus begins the magic.

Once these tiles are placed in a row and turned on, they collectively show the startup screen, which allows you to choose from one of 3 game types: Scrabble Flash, Scrabble Five-Letter Flash, and Scrabble Pass Flash.

Games begin with each tile displaying a single letter. When you put those tiles into order and they form a valid world, the screens blink, the game registers your score, and you can form the next word. The word database is based on the official Scrabble list, which means it choked on the word WODE. (It’s a variant spelling of “wood” and the Middle English word for “madness,” and I always get ticked off when it’s rejected. What’s the point of knowing Middle English if you can’t throw down WODE?)

The three games run different variations on this format. Flash is a solo game that gives you a selection of 5 letters and 60 seconds to form as many 3-, 4-, and 5-letter words as you can. Each word is worth 1 point, and each 5 letter word adds 5 seconds to the clock. At the end, the game tallies your actual score, and displays the maximum possible score, just to rub it in.

Five-Letter Flash is similar, but you’re only making a single 5-letter word with each set of tiles. When you find that word, the letters change and you have to make another 5-letter word. This one is pretty frustrating, because often there’s only a single 5-letter word to make from a given selection of tiles, and if you don’t get that word, you wind up just running down the clock.

Finally, there’s Scrabble Pass Flash, which is the only multiplayer game. In this one, you make your 5-letter word, then pass the tiles to the next player. Players are eliminated when they can’t form a word, and the last player standing is the winner. There seems to be no limit to the number of players who can participate.

All three games are playable with only 4 tiles, as well: simple leave off one tile when you begin. The whole thing actually feels a bit more like Boggle than Scrabble. (NOTE: I just noticed that it’s called “Boggle Flash” outside of the US and Canada, which tells us a bit about which brand is more popular in the rest of the world. Also: I’m pretty sure Mattel owns the name “Scrabble” outside of the US and Canada.)

Everything about this game just works, right down to the packaging. A small plastic box holds all 5 tiles, and the instructions are even properly pre-folded to fit in the bottom of this box. This allows you to chuck the bulky display packaging and makes the game nicely portable.

I’m a Scrabble nut. I always have a game going via Facebook, and it’s the most used App on my iTouch. I’m not one of those people who gets all bugged out whenever someone alters a classic game (or movie). The classic is still there: no one is taking it away from you. This just extends the idea a bit, and when the gameplay is this fresh and fun, I’m not sure how even the Scrabble purist can complain.

Look, I may make fun of Hasbro when they tart up classic games with utterly superfluous branding, but they've also created some very clever and appealing variants on their amazing roster of games. Of all that I have seen to date, this is the most interesting.

WIN: Bicycle Poker Chips

Our next giveaway is a single set of Bicycle Premium Tournament Poker Chips. These are 8 gram, casino grade, clay-filled chips. (By comparison, the lightweight plastic chips found in most homes are only 2 grams.) There are one hundred chips in a plastic tray.

The process is the same as before. Please note: if you already follow us on Google, RSS, Twitter, or Facebook, just let me know that you'd like to enter, and please do a retweet or some other kind of link share.

All you need to do to be eligible is:

1. Follow State of Play and/or share a link via:
    2. Let me know you'd like to have your name entered. Do this 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!
    • You may enter multiple times, but no more than once a day.
    The deadline is next Friday, September 17th, 2010.

    And don't forget to visit the Bicycle web site and follow them on their Facebook page.

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


    Prizes have been provided by the United States Playing Card Company.

    App O' The Mornin': Word Squares Review

    After I posted yesterday's word square puzzle, I decided to check out the App Store, and lo and behold, a company called Imangi has created an app called Word Squares.

    I knew before I even clicked on the link that they would describe it as "Sudoku with letters," and sure enough, those were the first words of the description.

    The only problem is that, other than their shape, they really aren't like sudoku at all. There's a completely different skill set involved in creating a word square and solving a sudoku. (And, since I haven't said so on this blog yet, I might as well say it now: I don't like sudoku, and I'm frankly baffled by its success. The idea that they're replacing crossword puzzles as the favorite puzzle pastime is simply further proof of the decline of Western Civilization. But I digress.)

    Imangi's Word Squares is a nice little puzzler with 20 sample puzzles in the free version, and 1,000 in the $2 version. These aren't the kind of pure word squares about which I wrote yesterday: the vertical and horizontal words are different. This actually makes them easier to build but harder to solve, since finding 1 vertical word does not mean automatically finding 1 horizontal word. 

    The puzzles themselves range from 3x3 to 6x6, with the 6x6 providing quite a nice challenge. This is far more difficult to do than sudoku, since you're not merely finding the proper placement of each letter, but also creating actual words.

    The squares are quite easy to use. There are white letters and black letters. The white letters are fixed in their proper place, while the black letters are moved to form words. This is done simply by tapping two letters to exchange their place. If you get stuck, there's even a hint system that moves one letter to its correct place.

    There's quite a lot of puzzle play time in this app. Try the free version to see what you think.

    Sunday, September 12, 2010

    PUZZLE: Word Squares

    The Sator Square. (Ancient Rome, actual date unknown)
    A word square is made up of words, all the same length, that read the same across and down.  A simple one would be

    S A T
    A R E
    T E N

    The longer they get, the more complex and challenging they are to make. Even with the aid of a computer, it has proven impossible to create a "perfect" 10 letter/word square, meaning on made of complete words without any proper nouns. The only way to actually do it is to use tautonyms: word pairs that repeat a single word, such as "rangaranga."

    There are reportedly, however, about 900 9 letter/word squares, although they require some incredibly obscure words and names, so there may be proper nouns.

    Q U A R E L E S T
    U P P E R E S T E
    A P P O I N T E R
    R E O M E T E R S
    E R I E V I L L E
    L E N T I L L I N
    E S T E L L I N E
    T E R S E N E S S

    I've constructed a pretty simple one of 5 letters/words. Let's see if you can figure out the words from these clues. Remember, each word is 5 letters, and is written vertically and horizontally. I have not attempted to make it a "perfect" square.

    1. Kind of queen
    2. Repeated
    3. Town for a bell
    4. Not of age
    5. To worship