Saturday, October 9, 2010

What's wrong with this picture?

This is a screen capture from UGH Find It Lite, which is a "spot the difference" app that I downloaded for my daughter. I decided to take a look at it in case it was worth an App O' The Mornin', and found something ... odd.

Here's the picture, with the answer and some more pictures after the jump. Can you spot the difference?

Friday, October 8, 2010

Friday Linkaround

Plants vs. Zynga: The CEO of PopCap, Dave Roberts, recently took some time to smack around Zynga. Activity for the afternoon: compare/contrast the comments of Roberts (a man whose company makes actual games) with those of noted Force For Evil Mark Pincus. Remember to show your work.

It's the Catan App ... But Bigger: Catan HD is in the app store. This version for iPad appears to to spread out the screen a bit and allow users to move information boxes around. I say "appears" because I don't have an iPad, although I am willing to accept donations.

Incoming!: Be not afraid of the catapult in your mailbox. Due to a production error, the coveted catapult token for the Be Not Afraid expansion for Small World was left out of the package. Days of Wonder is fixing the error and adding 5 leader tokens in the leftover space on the punchboards. I'm already playing with this expansion, and I like it a lot.

SimTV?: IGN is reporting on a proposal for a TV show from Will Wright. The working title is The Creation Project, and the documents describe the creation of a TV showed derived from audience suggestions via online and mobile phone messages. Not only does that sound like a spectacularly bad idea for a show, but the participation of Will Wright raises the horrible prospect that Simlish might be involved at some point. Wright is one of the true geniuses of game design, but the entire The Sims line just a canker.

Taliban Removed From Medal of Honor, Military Ban Holds: EA announced that the opposing force in Medal of Honor will be called "Opposing Force," not the Taliban. This is a classy move on their part, but it doesn't change the fact that the game takes place in an current theater of war, which remains a sticking point for the Army & Air Force Exchange Service's commander. For this reason, the ban on on-base sales will remain in place. In any case, the game will probably be very popular among servicemen, many of whom are huge fans of military shooters.

Life Imitates Fallout: Kotaku has discovered that, mere miles from my home in South Jersey, the Army is testing wrist-mounted displays. As they note, these are essentially PIPBoys: "The organic light emitting diode display is mounted on thin, flexible metal foil, which in turn is mounted on a wrist-wrapping housing to create a fully functional display and communication device."

Enough With the Damn Zombies Already!: Now Red Dead Redemption, a truly excellent game, is adding a zombie mode. Look, folks: it's done already. The zombie thing is over. Let them die peacefully, and if they won't, then shoot 'em in the head. That's a sure way to kill 'em. If you don't, get yourself a club or a torch. Beat 'em or burn 'em, they go up pretty easy.

Twitterstream Digest: Board game news, courtesy of Seize Your Turn.

Chess: News from around the world.

App O' The Mornin': Axe in The Face Review

If you want to get me to buy your game, just go ahead and name it Axe in the Face. Works every time.

If you want to be doubly sure I'll buy it, make sure your main character looks like a tiny Viking Yosemite Sam, and have him in a perpetual state of axe-slinging rage as he tries to protect his well-tended bed of flowers.

Yes, that's what Axe in the Face is all about: a red-bearded, highly irritated little cartoon Viking determined to kill as many marauders as it takes to protect his daffodils. All he has is his axe, some fire, a couple of powers bestowed by the gods, and a heart filled with rage as he faces wave upon wave of foes. If any enemy gets past him and begins to trample the flower bed, the level is lost.

The control is based upon an effective line-drawing system to determine the throwing path of the axe. Just trace a line (however convoluted) and then remove your finger to unleash the axe. It follows its path and then returns. The blade cuts through enemies like butter, hewing head from torso. If the path passes through a fire, then you have a flaming axe, which is just the ticket for taking out enemies hiding behind trees.

Enemies move at different speeds, and some have different defenses, which makes timing each strike a tricky business. It also makes setting up and executing elaborate strikes quite satisfying when they mow down multiple enemies at once. The two god powers are lightning, which fries 3 foes at once, and ice, which slows the enemies.

Blue Carrot games has put out a first rate little app, with a good sense of humor and colorful art. There are 32 levels total, and they get challenging rather quickly. This is a fun game, but it's also a hard one.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

In the mail: Betrayal at House on the Hill & more

It's been kind of a slow week for games, but a couple of interesting items have arrived, including...

Betrayal at House on the Hill
Avalon Hill (aka Wizards of the Coast, aka Hasbro) has republished the classic 2004 haunted house game with some new features.  Just having it back in print is a fairly big deal, since I've seen copies of the original going for as much $150. The game appears to be largely the same, with new haunts and items, as well as some redesigned tokens.

Out of the the box, this one looks good. There are clear similarities to the Castle Ravenloft Board Game, with players "building" the house by laying down tiles as they explore. Once someone triggers a "haunt," one player becomes the traitor and the game turns into a fight against a diverse array of creatures. There's even a werewolf haunt that has the traitor infecting the others.

I have a giant stack of games waiting for their turn at the table, so a full review will have to wait, but after a read-through of the rules and a general fondling of the components, it looks promising.

Scooby-Doo! and the Spooky Swamp
Go ahead, laugh, but this looks like a great one for the kids. Good games for young kids aren't all that common, so it's nice to see a branded product with this level of quality. This follow-up to Scooby Doo: First Frights it pretty simple, and has a bit too much traveling back-and-forth, but it's well animated, has excellent sound (except for a regrettable decision to include a laugh track) and good content thus far.

My daughter is the World's Biggest Scooby Fan (seriously: we've even watched all of 13 Ghosts of Scooby-Doo, which no man would do but for love) and she's playing it right now. Her early verdict: "great!" That's usually about all I get out of her. I'll probably do this one for GAMES, so I'll be logging my own play time. (Although the thought of outsourcing some of my game playing to unpaid minors is tempting ... very tempting. "Please daddy, no more Ben 10: Alien Force! It burnses!")

Kindle 3 Games
A new Kindle is supposedly on its way, and I'm planning to see how well the new games work on it. I've gotten a look at a couple of free games, Every Word and Shuffled Row, and I'm kind of impressed they could pull it off. I'm a huge fan of Kindle, but I don't think "game platform" when I see one.

App O' The Mornin': Cut the Rope Review

Cut the Rope is one of the best puzzlers to hit the App Store in a long time. If any game has the potential to knock those Angry Birds off their perch, it's this one.

The gameplay is based on an old physics-puzzle standby. Hanging objects function like pendulums, and you need to cut the ropes at precisely the right time and in exactly the right sequence to get the object where it needs to go.

In this case, the problem is how to get a piece of candy into the mouth of a voracious (yet adorable) little monster. The puzzles start out with a single element: a piece of candy dangling from a rope. It's directly over the monster, and a line of 3 stars are right below it. Cut the rope with a finger swipe, and the candy collects the stars as it drops into the monster's mouth.

The puzzles quickly add both complexity and new variables. Stars are spread around, multiple ropes are attached, and solutions become part logic and part dexterity. Bubbles lift the candy up, whoopee cushions push it around, new ropes pop up, and movable pivots allow you to shift the rope. Meanwhile, spikes, electrodes, and spiders appear as hazards. Every time you think you've got the game figured out, it adds some new and inventive element.

There are 4 sets of 25 puzzles each, with more to come. Each puzzle has one basic requirement for victory: get the candy in the monster's mouth. The tricky part, however, is to do so while collecting all 3 stars on every screen. Merely getting the candy where it needs to go isn't that hard, but you'll want to keep trying until you figure out how to pull it off while getting all 3 stars.

Like Angry Birds, Cut the Rope is from Chillingo. They obviously have a knack for combining excellent character and art design with horribly addictive gameplay. Get used to the sight of that little bug-eyed monster, folks: he's going to be sitting on the top-10 list for a long time.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

WIN! Plants vs. Zombies GelaSkins

I'm giving away a few Plants Vs. Zombies GelaSkins, generously provided by PopCap. They fit either iPhone 4 or 3GS/3G/original. They do not fit on an iPod Touch.

GelaSkins are protective coverings for you device. They cling to the surface to prevent damage. They sell for about $15 each.

To enter, all you have to do is:

1. Share a link (even this one) or follow State of Play via:
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.

2. Let me know you want to enter. Do this in any of the following ways:
  • Leave a comment.
  • 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!
The deadline is Friday, October 8, 2010. Deadline extended to Monday, October 11!

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


PUZZLE: Next-Door Neighbors

Here's a poser from Henry Dudeney:

"There were two families living next door to one another at Tooting Bec—the Jupps and the Simkins. The united ages of the four Jupps amounted to one hundred years, and the united ages of the Simkins also amounted to the same. It was found in the case of each family that the sum obtained by adding the squares of each of the children's ages to the square of the mother's age equalled the square of the father's age. In the case of the Jupps, however, Julia was one year older than her brother Joe, whereas Sophy Simkin was two years older than her brother Sammy. What was the age of each of the eight individuals?"

Puzzlewood: A Maze In Nature

If you don't yet have Atlas Obscura--"A Compendium of the World's Wonders, Curiosities, and Esoterica"--in your RSS feed, you should. Today they did an interesting writeup on Puzzlewood, a 14-acre stretch of the Forest of Dean near Coleford, Gloucestershire, England.

Puzzlewood is a mysterious and bizarre tangle of paths, caves, strange rock formations, and trees. The Forest of Dean was a frequent haunt of J.R.R. Tolkien, and some have suggested that the mysterious landscape of Puzzlewood was the inspiration for Middle Earth. There's no solid evidence for this, but it's a good story.

The strange combination of limestone caves, uplift, erosion, and pre-Roman open-cast mining have created a natural labyrinth. The effect was made more pronounced in the 19th century when the owner of the land laid down a mile of twisting paths. The proprietors have added a willow maze and an indoor "wood puzzle," which they describe as "a maze of secret doors, dead ends, ups and downs and rounds and rounds."

Puzzlewood is such a complete labyrinthine package that it even came with a treasure for those who braved its mysteries. Workers in 1848 found 3 jars hidden in the rocks. Inside were 3,000 Roman coins. No one has a clue why they were hidden there.

App O' The Mornin': BookWorm Review

PopCap smashed together Boggle and Bejeweled to create this obscenely addictive games about 7 years ago. Since then, it has been reinvented as BookWorm Adventures, and remains a popular fixture on mobile device, computers, and even the Nintendo DS.

The version PopCap brought to the App Store is the original BookWorm, rather than BookWorm Adventures. That’s a little disappointing, since Adventures added some great twists to the gameplay, and I hope it find its way to Apple devices soon.

That said, BookWorm for iPhone isn’t one you’re likely to pass up for a buck. This is one of the best casual word games of the past 10 years. Letter tiles are laid out on a grid, with each letter touching at least touching at least 3, and as many as 6, other letters. The board is cleared by linking letters to form words. When a letter is used, it disappears and all the tiles drop down to fill the space.

Naturally, longer words earn more points, while words that are too short generate burning tiles. These tiles must be eliminated before they reaching the bottom of the frame, or the game is over.

There are other scoring opportunities, such as special tiles and bonus words. Various “books” include particular word lists, such as colors or insects, and bonus points are awarding for spelling these words and completing entire books.

Gameplay breaks down into the classic game, which progresses through levels, and a timed games, which requires some speed spelling.

BookWorm is one of the classic casual games, and the App versions does a fine job of making it portable.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Review: Memoir '44

In preparation for reviewing the new Memoir 44 add-on, Winter Wars, I decided to do a full review of the original game. As I’ve said, age is irrelevant in determining what I’ll write about. Any game you haven’t played is new to you, and my goal is to get more people thinking of good games. Only time can reveal just what games have lasting qualities.

When Memoir ’44 came on the scene about 6 years ago, I gave it a pass. I’m an old grognard, which means a hardcore wargamer with a bookcase stuffed with high-complexity wargames from Avalon Hill, TSR, SSG, GMT, and The Gamers. A low-complexity historical wargame wasn’t to my taste.

Well, that was then. As I tried to nudge my son into historical wargaming, I used some standard introductory games, such as Gettysburg and Across Five Aprils, to introduce the concepts, but they failed to grip. He’d had a taste of Axis & Allies and various miniatures systems, and, being ten years old, he liked his bits and pieces.

So, I finally took a plunge into the wonderful world of Richard Borg, who has been refining an approachable system for wargaming for the past decade. What began with Battle Cry (Avalon Hill, 2000) has since grown into Memoir ’44 (Days of Wonder, 2004), Commands & Colors (GMT, 2006), and BattleLore (Fantasy Flight, 2006), offering combat gaming in, respectively, the Civil War, World War II, the ancient world, and a fantasy setting.

Memoir ’44 would prove to be the perfect gateway for historical gaming. It’s not a design that purists would recognize as a true “wargame,” because it doesn’t simulate combat with depth and accuracy, and it doesn’t always reward real-world tactics. That wasn't Borg's goal. It is, instead, a strategy game that uses the elements of wargames and history to provide a unique, completely entertaining, and very appealing experience.

The Elements

Memoir ’44 (Days of Wonder, about $40) stands out for its high level of production design, which is what you’d expect of a product from Days of Wonder. This is just a game you want to open, fiddle with, play, and collect.

The components break down into a few elements that provide a foundation for an incredible range of gameplay. The board depicts a grassy expanse on one side, and a beachhead on the other. Both side are marked with a hexagonal grid. The gameplay surface is created by placing tiles on this board to create a unique battlefield. Tiles may depict towns, roads, forests, water, bridges, and obstacles, thus allowing you to build any kind of battlefield you like. (Other surfaces and tiles, featuring desert and snow terrains, are available separately.)

The most striking element of the Memoir series is its miniatures, which make the experience akin to playing a wargame with little plastic army guys. There’s infantry, artillery, and armor, as well as hedgehogs, barbed wire, and sandbags to use as obstacles and defenses.

Players activate and move these figures by using command cards, which allow them to maneuver within certain limitations, and provide different bonuses.

The Play
The rules provide 16 scenarios, complete with unit setups, victory conditions, and historical background for 2 players. The focus is on D-Day and the battles that followed, with Axis and Allies forces clashing across a variety of terrain configurations. If you have two sets of the game, or 1 set of the game plus the Operation Overlord add-on, you can play gigantic battles with two teams of multiple gamers controlling various portions of the battlefield.

The gameplay is simplicity itself. Each player gets a certain number of cards (usually 5) based on the scenario. Most of these effect unit activation, allowing a player to move and fight with the units in a certain area of the board (left, center, or right). Units are placed on the board in groups: 4 pieces to represent an infantry unit, 3 for armor, and 2 for artillery.

Combat results are determined with a simple roll of the dice based on the kind of unit that’s attacking and its range from the target. For instance, artillery can attack up to 6 spaces away. For the 2 closest spaces, it rolls 3 dice; 2 dice for the next two spaces, and 1 die for the spaces furthest away. If any of the dice are a hit, the unit being attacking removes 1 figure per hit. When all the figures are removed, that unit is considered destroyed. Modifiers, such as terrain, obstacles, and cards, can effect the outcome in various ways.

The Verdict
Using these simple rules, Richard Borg has created an immensely satisfying gameplay experience. Much of this has to do with the tactile element: it’s just a fun game to set up and play.

But the gameplay itself is also appealing. It’s fast, flexible, and provides plenty of opportunity for smart tactics and decision making.

No, it is not a “real” wargame. There's too much luck involved, the combat results are too generic and the mechanics too abstract for any Memoir scenario to function as a historical simulation.

And so what? I was a wargaming snob to bypass this one when it first came out. It took playing it with my son and viewing it through fresh eyes to see its merits. My rules for what make a good game have grown simpler as I get more experienced. (“Experienced” is a euphemism for “old” in case you’re wondering). My basic rule for determining a good game is this: a good game is one you play. Faced with a choice between setting up Terrible Swift Sword and banging out a couple of Memoir scenarios, I’ll choose Memoir every time. When you continually return to a game, that’s a pretty good indication of its quality.

Memoir is fun, and as I’ve refined my reviewing criteria over the years, that’s become one of my baseline quantifiers. I know that "Fun" should seem obvious obvious element in a game, but “Good” and “Fun” aren’t always found in the same package. There are plenty of games with rock-solid design that I find about as much fun as gargling ground glass. On the other hand, some games have obvious flaws that I’m willing to overlook because the net experience is entertaining. Maybe my brain is getting softer or my time is just getting shorter, but I find myself liking simpler things.

I don't have to make such allowances with Memoir '44: the design is rock solid. This is a keeper, and it’s great from both adults and kids as young as 10. If you have a son and you want to introduce him to tabletop World War II gaming, this is the place to start. Forget Axis & Allies. It’s a good game, but it focuses on sprawling, high-level strategies. (It’s really just a jumped-up version of Risk.) Memoir is closer to the action, and has a more immediate feel to it. It also plays faster, has more flexibility and better components, and is easier to set up.

Thanks to the continued success of the Memoir system, Days of Wonder has been able to keep up a steady stream of products, with new maps, scenarios, units, and add-ons. They even make a campaign bag to store everything. (I gotta get me one of them.)
I plan take a look at the new Winter Wars add-on as soon as I get some table-time with it.

App O' The Mornin': Urban Ninja Review

Urban Ninja is a mixed bag. It offers some good platforming action, but includes a few niggling design flaws that diminish the effect.

The titular ninja is a pudgy little man in black, hopping from rooftop to rooftop on his way to grab a rope dangling from a helicopter. This is his exit point, but it’s not his only goal. Along the way he has to collect enough stars to make his exit, while avoiding various hazards and pitfalls.

When the ninja is on a flat surface, he can walk left or right. From any location, he can also leap with a simple touch-and-drag control. This allows him to jump over threats or onto nearby roofs, as well as grab onto walls and low-hanging objects. If he makes too many jumps, however, he’ll expend all his energy before he reaches the end of a level.

With these simple controls, the ninja can reach stars in out-of-the-way places, which is the whole point. The problem is with too many levels that have inconsistent design rules. Sometimes, you need to drop off the bottom of a screen to reach a place that hides essential stars, while other times dropping off the bottom of a screen simply results in death. There’s no clear distinction between the two situations.

Urban Ninja also doesn’t make the most of the situations it creates. There are some fine touches, like a bubble that allows you to float to higher levels; but just as many places where more could have been done. This is particularly clear with the rather random selection of monsters and threats, which don’t really add anything interesting except obstacles to be avoided. They’re just kind of there.

Across its 40 levels, Urban Ninja offers some diverting platforming action. For 99 cents, it’s passable buy. There are some good elements here, but also a few places where it just could have been better.

Monday, October 4, 2010

In the mail...

Small World: Be Not Afraid: An add-on from Days of Wonder Games Magazine's Game of the Year, 2010. Be Not Afraid adds 5 new races (Barbarians, Homonculi, Leprechauns, Pixies, and Pygmies ... hmmm, one of these things is not like the other) and 5 new powers (Barricade, Catapult, Corrupt, Imperial, and Mercenary).  

Small World: Necromancer's Island: This a free, limited-edition scenario available to people who buy the base game from various retailers or the Days of Wonder web store during November and December 2010, while supplies last. One player becomes the Necromancer, who turns dead units into an army of Ghosts. This is sure to become a collectible, so keep an out for it.

Memoir 44: Winter Wars--The Ardennes Offensive: I already discussed it here. I'm planning to do a review of the base game, and then follow-up with a review of this add-on.

Halo: Reach: I didn't have any time to spend with it until this weekend. (I'm long past being excited about a new Halo game. A new Arkham Asylum or Bioshock or Civilization? Yes. A new Halo or Call of Duty? Eh, no. Been there, done that, passed the t-shirt on to my son.) It's exactly what we expected: a very polished, very good continuation without a whole lot of surprises. Multiplayer has gotten almost absurdly over-stuffed with modes and variations: there's about 4 or 5 games worth of content in there.The differences between this and previous Halo games are merely of degree, not of kind. It's an excellent game, and like StarCraft II, it sticks to the formula that made it huge.

MySims SkyHeroes: The most I could get out of Daughter was "It's fun and cool," which means nothing considering that 2 years ago Winnie the Pooh's Rumbly Tumbly Adventure was described that same way. I'll have to put some actual time in if I plan on covering it.  (IF....)

I'll write some more about the new Days of Wonder stuff as I get them to the game table this week.

... And Poptober Begins

You know you want this.
And so we begin to pass out the PopCap swag throughout October.  Here's what we have on hand:
  • A rare, 10th Anniversary metal Bejeweled Photo frame
  • Plants vs. Zombies Gelaskins for your iPhone
  • A Peggle t-shirt
  • Plants vs. Zombies Game of the Year Edition, with a special zombie figurine.

I also have a variety of stuffed Chuzzles and strongbands, so I'll probably spread those around to various packages as I send out stuff.

First contest begins today.

Bicycle September Ends ...

I want to thank the United States Playing Card Company for sponsoring prizes for the month of September, particularly Jorie Livingston for making it all happen. Their sponsorship gave me a chance to look at a lot of brands I hadn't seen before, and even changed my mind on plastic playing cards.

I also want to congratulate our prize winners: Hillary, Gary, M&M, MJ, and Simon. Thanks for participating!

Playing Card Design Series
Bee Club Special
KEM Playing Cards
Hoyle Maverick
Hoyle Playing Cards
Aviator Cards
Bicycle Prestige
Bicycle Rider Backs

App O' The Mornin': Color Fill Review

My first impression of Color Fill was that it might break some kind of land-speed record for rapid deletion. The only thing that prevented that fate was my young daughter, who likes doodling and painting on the iPod Touch. It was kicking around there for a little while before I finally took a look at it, and was surprised to find an interesting take on the standard touch-coloring program.

This is really just a cubist coloring book with a puzzle element. You choose from a palette of 4 colors, and fill in all the shapes so that no two blocks of color touch each other. That’s it, but with variations and elaborations, it becomes pretty entertaining.

The puzzles get slightly more difficult as you go along, but none are particularly challenging for someone with any puzzle experience. Even the inclusion of a time-limit doesn't really add much to the difficulty level. More interesting are the way the solutions create interesting art as you go. Adults might not get a lot out of this one, but kids may find it more interesting.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

This Week in Review

And this week started out so well....

I've spent the past few days on my keister with my leg propped up thanks to what the hospital discharge papers dryly call a "crush injury with lacerations." It's what happens when a really heavy stack of shelves falls on your foot from a height of about 6 feet. I haven't seen that much blood since Evil Dead II. I've managed to tear through a couple of stitches since then, so the fun never ends. This is what I get for trying to install a new closet system.

Also, Vicodin didn't do a thing for me. It didn't even cut through the pain. Useless. It always seems to work so well for Dr. House. TV lied to me again! (Watching War of the Gargantuas, however, had a wonderfully numbing effect.)

Anyway, I'll be a little slow getting back to work this week, so please bear with me.

Froggy Launcher
Mr. Runner

REVIEW: Sorry Revenge
A CLOSER LOOK: Bee Club Special and KEM Playing Cards
GAMES WITHOUT PIECES: Ghosts and Superghosts
New contest sponsor: PopCap
Memoir 44: Winter Wars

Got a Problem?, Follow-Up, Answer
Sporting Chance
Big Cross-Out Swindle
The Blue-Eyed Sisters