Saturday, September 25, 2010

This Week in Review

Chinese checkers at the beach. (
A Closer Look: Hoyle Maverick
What's Been Coming to the Game Table?: A few early impressions.
Labyrinthe Aventure: The world's largest natural maze. (Frozen Jack Nicholson not included.)
Robert Abbott's Alice Mazes
Friday linkaround.

Trivial Pursuit
Reiner Knizia's Poison
Pocket Frogs
Race Results
Logogriphs: The original post and the answer

This was a pretty light week for State of Play. Writing the February issue of Games, completing a newspaper story, and dealing with a bad asthma flareup consumed too much time. More to follow next week, including, perhaps, an announcement about our next contests.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Friday Linkaround--Items of Interest

Go. Now. Watch.: The most amazing ten minutes of game video you will see this year. Period. Subject closed. (M-rated content.)

What Has It Got In Its Pocketses?: Well, a brand new game from Reiner Knizia, that's what. The designer of the co-op Lord of the Rings game is tackling The Hobbit in a new title from Fantasy Flight. A more complete description of the game is found here.

This is Why You Don't Play High-Maintenance Games: I remember thinking what an awful idea Tamagotchi was: when gaming becomes work it ceases to be gaming. Will Farmville gamers learn the same thing from the Great Crop Failure of 2010? Probably not.

This Day in History: Hardcore Nintendo fans probably already know that the company began as a playing card manufacturer in the 19th century, but for those who don't, Wired has a good summary of its origins. This week marks their 121st year in business.

Man, That Guy Must Have Had a Lot of Resource Cards: Catan champs rolled the bones in style at the Worldwide Catan Championship Tournament, which was held this year in Burg Wildenstein Castle, Leibertingen, Germany.

Chess: The week in Chess.

App O' The Mornin': Aftermath Review

As I'm writing this, Aftermath is still in the app store for free. I'm not sure how long it will stay that way, so scoop it up while you can.

I've been done with zombies for a long time now, but they're in vogue again and just won't seem to go away. Well, I guess that's zombies for you: always just outside the door, scratching to get in while you pretend not to be home. They're so popular someone even removed George A. Romero from deep freeze and gave him actual money to make some truly horrible new zombie movies, thus reminding us all that Dawn of the Dead was a really long time ago.

Zombies crowd the App Store like it's the Monroeville Mall and there's a sale on ironic post-modern commentary about American consumerism. They've already gotten the kiss of death for any movie monster: they've become overly familiar. Yet they can still rise to the occasion and deliver a few shocks given the right trappings.

Aftermath gets zombies right by doing a few simple things. The developers made the zombies fast, dumb, and plentiful; they keep the lights down low, the music moody, and the gore copious; and they ditch any pretense of narrative fuss and get right down to the shoot-'em-in-the-brain part.

This is a spin-shooter with a bit more finesse than most. In fact, it's not so much a spin-shooter as a running game. You actually don't fire your weapons at all: you just point your light in the direction of the shambling dead and back away while Mr. Automatic Weapon does all the heavy lifting. The twin stick control works just fine, and the entire game boils down to keeping your distance from the zombies while controlling the direction of the fire.

The game is full of weapons, but you really only wind up using a few of your favorites. It also looks quite good, making the most of its simple 3D structures through moody lighting. The only problem is its brevity. It can be knocked out in no time at all.

I'm guessing that a sequel is in the offing, so TwoHeads Games is making the original free in order to drive up the brand recognition. It's a smart move for them, and it gives you a chance to play a bloody good spin shooter.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Logogriphs (ANSWER)

I didn't post yesterday's piece on Logogriphs as a "puzzle" because it was just too obscure for modern readers, but I did hold back the answers in case anyone wanted to take a stab at it. Here is the poem again, with the answers at the end of each line. The Master word is LARGE.

What to the king alone pertains; [REGAL]
And what respect in gen'ral gains; [AGE]
A title English nobles bear; [EARL]
And what a farmer's horses wear; [GEAR]
What fictituious ne'er can be; [REAL]
With what betokens poverty; [RAG]
A word that has an angry cast; [RAGE]
Another, that we use for last; [LAG]
What in a dish of souse is good; [EAR]
A limb, when lost, supply'd with wood; [LEG]
A wind, of brisk yet gentle fame; [GALE]
A Yorkshire river's ancient name; [ARE]
And 'last, not least,' the spacious whole
Will lead you to the wish'd-for-goal. [LARGE]

Robert Abbott's Alice Mazes

Robert Abbott has done some great work for us at Games. Although he has created a number of card and board games, he's probably best known the inventor of the "logic maze." This is the basic "maze with rules" that's a popular feature at the magazine. It adds a depth and complexity not found in standard mazes.

Some of Abbott's best work is found in the Alice Mazes, shown in an example above. You start at the red square, and follow the arrows to reach the goal. These start out deceptively simple, but can get incredibly complex. Some have 60 or more moves, any one of which can send you down the wrong path.

Abbott designed and programmed a set of 20 of these mazes in Java (included the one shown above), and they're playable at his web site.

App O' The Mornin': Pocket Frogs Review

Some things will forever remain a mystery to me, and social network gaming is one of them. I'm certainly not alone in my contempt for We Rule, Farmville, Mafia Wars, Zombie Farm, and all the other "freemium" social games, but for some reason I keep reading otherwise sensible people who think, "Oh, but Pocket Frogs is different!"

Not, it's not different. It has frogs, which makes just about anything 19% better. It also has frogs mating, which makes just about anything 8% less better. Look, I have a tank full of frogs (African clawed frogs, if you really must know) and mating frogs are not cool. They're actually kinda gross.

But I really can't see how the admittedly impressive production of Pocket Frogs overcomes the fact that this is, at its core, a bog-standard compulsion-loop game.

The game certainly has a greater aesthetic appeal than any similar title, and makes an effort to break out of the strip-mining gameplay of its social networking cousins by adding some slight minigames and other features. You begin with a frog in an environment, which can be customized as you level up and earn more coins. (Coins again! Couldn't it at least have been ReptoMin pellets or flies or something less closely associated with the the sulfuric cloven-hoofprint of Zynga?)

It's possible to take this frog to the pond, where you make him hop from lilypad to lilypad catching dragonflies until he's "trained," and then catch more dragonflies and sometimes pick up nicely wrapped presents (??) left behind by benevolent Froggy Gods. Every once in a while, you'll come across another frog. It will play hard to get and jump away, but if you pursue it insistently you'll wind up with a little froglets (just like real life!), and thus begin the whole bleedin' process all over again. Hatch frogs, bring frogs to pond, sell frogs, decorate your little terrain, buy more frogs, on and on, world without end, amen.

The only part that might be considered passably interesting is the frog breeding element. Frogs are distinguished by color, pattern, and pattern color, so if you mate frogs with various patterns, the offspring will have a distinct color palette. And if that's the kind of thing that excites you, please drop on by my house any evening and sort my tube socks by toe-thread color. (Some have blue threads, and some have red. Maybe if I put them together I'll get socks with purple threads!)

Something like half a million people downloaded this sucker in five days. Why?! I mean, I understand the power of a compulsion loop. That's why it's called a compulsion loop.  What I don't understand is why anyone willing enters one.

As with all "fremium" games, you have the option to play for free and just let the game slog along at a snail's pace while you catch flies and watch frogs snog. Or, you can give the publisher a handy credit card number and buy more (wait for it .... WAIT FOR IT!) coins in order to speed the process.

This is what game reviewers will be doing in hell.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010


A logogriph is a kind of anagram puzzle. Clues are given to words that can be made from the letters of a single master word. The goal is to uncover that master word.

Here's a simple example to illustrate the concept. Both the clues, their answer, and the master word are provided:

  • anger (IRE)
  • personal pronoun (ME)
  • desperately urgent (DIRE)
  • hitchhiker's goal (RIDE)

The master word for this would be MIRED. (RIMED is also possible.)

A masterpiece of this form appeared in The Masquerade, A Collection of New Enigmas. Logogriphs, Charades. Rebusses, Queries, and Transpositions, a popular book of puzzles published in 1797. I did not solve this one (my version had all the answers embedded in the lines), and I believe some of the references are archaic or obscure enough to make solving a long shot for any modern puzzler. There are at least two lines in this which I know I would not have figured out unaided.

I considered giving the answers outright, but I thought ambitious readers might just want to take a stab at it first. I'll post the whole solution tomorrow if no one gets it.

Remember, each line is a clue to a word, and all the answer words are made from the letters of one other word. The last two lines function as a couplet, and provide a clue to the whole puzzle.

What to the king alone pertains;
And what respect in gen'ral gains;
A title English nobles bear;
And what a farmer's horses wear;
What fictituious ne'er can be;
With what betokens poverty;
A word that has an angry cast;
Another, that we use for last;
What in a dish of souse is good;
A limb, when lost, supply'd with wood;
A wind, of brisk yet gentle fame;
A Yorkshire river's ancient name;
And 'last, not least,' the spacious whole
Will lead you to the wish'd-for-goal.

Labyrinthe Aventure (Evionnaz, Switzerland)

Mazes are tough to do on a blog, but when I find something tool cool to ignore, I'll try pass it along.

The "Labyrinthe Aventure" of Evionnaz, Switzerland is beyond cool. In fact, it lives up to its claim as "est la plus grande maquette du monde" (the largest model in the world). It is the world's largest natural maze.

The official site is in French, but it's easy enough to see that this is a kind of maze/theme park setup, with massive slides 100 feet long and plenty of activities for children. The thing sprawls across a mile and a half and the maze itself is made of 18,000 Thuja trees, which are a kind of cypress.

I love mazes, but this just gives me the willies. All I can think of is being frozen to death while chasing my family with an axe.

App O' The Mornin': Underworlds Review

I’ve been avoiding writing about RPG apps until I had really spent some time with them. I’m an RPG player from way back. The first game I ever wrote about was Eye of the Beholder, and I’ve kept apace of the genre for the past 20 years. I came of age along with the original D&D and SSI Gold Box games, and I still think it’s probably the most potent genre in all electronic entertainment. Not all of the developments were to my liking (Diablo never quite twirled my baton), but it’s one my favorite types of game.

I wasn’t quite sure about app RPGs when I first started playing them. The form-factor seemed incompatible. By that I mean the physical structure of the device and the primary control input (onscreen touch controls using your thumbs) took a little time to get used to. I’ve gotten used to it, but it still doesn’t feel like a natural way to interact with this kind of game. This, along with the reduced size, is one of the trade-offs with mobile gaming. I get that.

Although I’ll eventually write about some other RPG apps, I’m starting with Underworlds because it’s the one I’ve spent the most time with. This is a Diablo-clone, with no pretentions to being anything else. PC gaming has been full of them for years now (my favorite is Torchlight) and they’re almost a genre unto themselves. The pattern is essentially action-RPG: push a button to kill, grab the stuff that drops, and move along. It’s a loot and level formula that has a simple, visceral appeal, and its very simplicity makes it a good fit for mobile devices.

Underworlds is developed by a company called Pixel Mine, based in Austin, Texas, which is the former home of Richard Garriot’s Origin Systems. I would not be at all surprised to learn that some people from the Ultima team worked on this game, since it has that kind of visual style. It looks good for an mobile isometric RPG, with a wide field of view and nicely detailed levels.

You work your way through the game by picking up quests, defeating monsters, and gathering stuff. There’s some dialog and a rough stab at a narrative, but this is mostly just to provide color and context for the slash-n-hack gameplay. It does its job by providing the atmosphere and then staying out of the way. It’s not a particularly long game, but it should provide a few hours amusement.

The real problem is that it’s locked into a fairly narrow format for an RPG. There’s really no class or character development, and no ranged weapons. This in itself reveals a problem with the smartphone format, since I haven’t really seen an RPG that handles ranged weapons well. Solomon’s Keep does an okay job, but it still has an awful lot of “spray-and-pray” thanks to the dodgy aiming of its ranged combat.

Underworlds compensates for this lack of class diversity by providing state upgrades for strength, dexterity, constitution, and intelligence, and a set of “feats” which give you special attacks. By deciding where to spend your points, you customize your character to fit your play style. It may only be a choice between a character with high health who can endure longer skirmishes, and a character with a better kind of attack, but it’s something.

Pixel Mine has made an interesting first step into the world of RPG apps, and I’d like to see them take it further. Underworlds is entertaining but limited. Along with some other strong titles, it shows the potential for RPG games on this platform. I’m hoping they’re working on a sequel that’s longer and has a more full-blooded character and class system, but for now, this is a darn good way to get a taste of RPG action on the go.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

PUZZLE: Race Results

Six people ran a race: Agatha, Bertie, Cyril, Daphne, Edwin, and Freddy. Can you tell what order they finished from the following clues?
  • Bertie was behind Florence.
  • Edwin was behind Cyril.
  • Agatha was ahead of Cyril.
  • Cyril was ahead of Daphne.
  • Agatha and Bertie were tied.
  • Edwin was behind Agatha, but ahead of Daphne.

A Few Early Impressions

No, this isn't the point in our blog in which I bust out my killer impersonation of Apu from The Simpsons. I've just been cranking through a lot of games lately, but not in the depth needed to deliver a full verdict, so here are a few quick glimpses of what's been coming to the gaming table.

I really wish Hasbro would contact me before naming their games. That way, I could have warned them that this sounded like "Fungus," and that people generally don't like to play games they associate with something you need to get rid of with an ointment. The game is mostly a giant box of 120 tiles, each one bearing a single word, with words divided into different categories by color. You place these words on a frame to describe a person, place, or thing, and everyone else has to guess what you're trying to describe. It's charades with words, and it actually has the makings of a pretty good party game. I've only done a couple of small sessions with this one, but it's been fun, and not just because I'm one fungi. (I'm sorry. I'm so so sorry for that one.)

Sorry Revenge
I hate hate hate Sorry. The only thing I hate more is Trouble, and that's because the sound of a Pop-o-Matic is the Devil's own heartbeat. With that out of the way, I can now do my deep breathing exercises, calm down, and move along to say that Sorry Revenge seems okay. It's a card game with a bit of 21 and a dash of Uno tossed in for good measure. It's slight, but seems enjoyable. Again, I've only done this with two people, and I plan to try it with 4 before I write more about it.

Castle Ravenloft: The Board Game
I did one pass through the first, solo adventure. I like the mechanics. A lot. So far, however, the solo game seems to be "spawn monster, move to new tile, kill monster, repeat." I suspect this pattern shifts radically when more people are added to the mix, so I'm eagerly awaiting a chance to recruit a Coalition of the Willing to test this more fully. Stay tuned.

Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions
I'm just plain enjoying this one. It has a very tight comic-book look, with bold lines around the edges of objects, a vibrant color palette, and a four really distinct visual styles for the four different worlds. With a few exceptions, Spider-Man has always had good fortunes in his video and computer game adventures.

Batman: The Brave and The Bold
Yeas: Great approximation of the look, sound, and style of a great TV show. Nays: Feels like a really elaborate Flash game. More play is required to be sure.

Legends of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole
If you put a bunch of random words and letters into a computer and had it come up with a title guaranteed to make my skin crawl, it would look something like the above. I haven't even cracked the shrink wrap on this one, and thus far I'm keeping it sequestered from the other games just in case its taint is contagious.

Yes, I've heard that it's based on a popular young adult book series about owls wearing armor or something, but that's such a catastrophically stupid idea that I hoped someone was pulling my leg....

Nope, there's an owl wearing a helmet on the cover of the book. It looks every bit as dumb as it sounds. Is this the new formula?: animal [cat, bear, owl, three-toed sloth] + cheapjack ersatz Tolkien nomenclature and fantasy hoo-ha = BESTSELLER FOR 12 YEAR OLDS! At 12, I was reading Conan Doyle, Burroughs, Lovecraft, and Poe, like any American boy with his head on straight.

Gamespot gave it a passable review, so I'll give it a shot. Since I have a pair of YA readers in the house, maybe I'll recruit their expert opinions. They haven't read the books, but they have a good eye for cynical corporate-manufactured media tripe.

App O' The Mornin': Reiner Knizia's Poison Review

Reiner Knizia’s Poison, a 2005 card game later re-themed as “Baker’s Dozen,” has been given a fairly plain port by Griptonite Games.

The game is solo-only for one player and 4, 5, or 6 AI opponents. Right off the bat Griptonite missed the boat by leaving out multiplayer elements, which are precisely what this game needs to give it some spark. The AI only has a single setting, and that setting is “always choose the right card.”

The game is played around three cauldrons. Each player has a clutch of cards in red, yellow, and blue, each with a number value: 1, 2, 4, 5, or 7. The goal is to shed all your cards to the cauldron by playing on matching colors, without pushing the total number value over 13. If you do exceed 13, then you claim all the cards in that cauldron, earning one point for each card. Since the game is won by the person with the lowest score, you want to avoid taking piles whenever possible.

There is also a green “Poison card” which can be played to any pot. It has a face value of 4, but counts as 2 points when calculating the score.

This is an interesting riff on Hearts and other trick avoidance game, and a has similar strategic element. As he often does with Rummy games, Knizia has taken a familiar theme and put an interesting spin on it. The app version is a competent implementation of the game, but it’s rather short in the feature department. It's certainly a good way to play an interesting game: it just doesn’t play like a $3 app.

Monday, September 20, 2010

WIN!: Custom Bicycle Playing Cards

This is the final prize in our month o' Bicycles. The fine folks at the US Playing Card Company have provided us with 2 sets of Bicycle Personalized Cards. Each set comes with a code that allows you to create a FREE deck of Bicycle cards with any card-back image you want. Standard poker or jumbo index faces are available. Each deck normally sell for $20.

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 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 24th, 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.

Hoyle Maverick: A Closer Look

Mavericks are another brand that USPC acquired from Hoyle, and one of the few that's not made in the USA. These come from China, and are generally not up to the quality of other USPC cards. They just feel ... ordinary.

The reason I'm including them is because they really are an odd cultural relic. When I first started looking at them, I noticed they had a western theme, from the Maverick font, to the horse on the Joker, to the stylized Ace.

That's because Mavericks almost certainly entered the market as a tie-in (either official or unofficial) to the James Garner TV show of the same name. Since Bret Maverick was a card sharp, cards featured heavily in the show, so it was natural tie-in.

The show began in 1957 and went off the air in 1962, which means that this is a pop culture artifact that survived 48 years longer than the show it was based upon. I just think that's cool.

Brand loyalty is the reason decks like Aviator and Maverick remain in print. As a company representative told me, "Each brand we manufacture has a deep history and avid followers. People remember playing with specific brands growing up and want to continue that tradition."

App O' The Mornin': Trivial Pursuit Review

I’ve been pretty pleased with most of the big boardgame adaptations coming from EA. In fact, it’s gotten a little monotonous. I love to kick a big-ticket title around now and then. It makes for a more interesting review.
I was hoping Trivial Pursuit would provide an opportunity for a little bag work, but it didn’t comply. It turned out to be a perfectly fine, feature-rich version of the mother of all trivia games.

Trivial Pursuit just keeps coming back, age upon age. Hasbro recently sent me two new editions: the new Master Edition and Bet You Know It, which adds a bidding element. I’ve put in my TP time (wait, that sounds wrong…) and every new edition seems to include way too many questions about some hit song I’ve never heard of from some pop diva I’ve never heard of. (I remember playing a 1980s edition once, and every other answer seemed to be either “co ndoms” or “Michael Dukakis.” Actually, that pretty well sums up the 1980s.)

The Trivial Pursuit app actually works dang well. The gameboard is simple roll-the-dice-move-your-mice stuff. Questions are answered via multiple choice, with an option for limited or unlimited answer time.Wedges ensue.

Single Player mode let’s you just move around the board answering questions all by your lonesome, or add an AI opponent. Yes, there’s only one opponent. At least I couldn't find a way to turn on more opponents. Since Trivial Pursuit is largely about the questions and not the competition, I didn’t have a big problem with only one AI opponent. Who wants to sit around waiting for 4 imaginary people to figure out what Britney Spears’ 2001 hit was. (No, I have no idea if Britney Spears even had a 2001 hit.)

The new addition is "Pursuit Mode," which offers a game board with a beginning and end. The goal is to make it to the end while missing as few questions as possible. This seems like a larval idea for another, better game. They got the basic premise correct by stealing a page from Mario Party's book: landing on certain tiles triggers special effects that can double your rolls or move you to another part of the board. It's a good idea, but something more interesting and colorful could have been done with it. As long as you're creating a TP Mario Party, go all the way and have some TP minigames or powerups.

Multipayer is perfectly fine via pass-and-play or Wi-Fi, but some internet matching service would have been welcome.

I like that new question sets are available as an in-game purchase for only 99 cents. I never play straight up TP any more, but with the right group I’m still willing to bust out a special edition focused on insanely obscure questions about, say, Lord of the Rings. This is because I know who Ghân-buri-Ghân is, and like any opportunity to lord this useless knowledge over people with actual lives. We take our pleasures where we find them.