Wednesday, December 7, 2011

INTERVIEW: Alf Seegert Takes the Road to Canterbury

Alf Seegert and friend playing Road to Canterbury
I don't recall when I first heard about The Road to Canterbury, but I knew I had to have it. I'm a huge fans of Middle English literature in general and Chaucer in particular, and was a member of the New Chaucer Society for a time. There's something in the strange beauty of the language, at once alien and familiar, that makes Middle English remarkably appealing. The Canterbury Tales in particular pulse with life and meaning, capturing a huge range of styles and emotions from highly cultivated to utterly base. (If the language is a real obstacle for you, just pick up a decent translation, such as David Wright's from Oxford World Classics rather than the newer one from Burton Raffel. It's worth taking the time to learn the original language, but if it's between a translation and nothing, then read a translation.)

Regular readers of SOP will know that I've covered the game several times since I first learned about it, but I like to have a number of plays before I commit to a final review. Short version: it's very good! A longer version will have to wait until it gets to the table at least one or two more times.

Recently, I got a chance to sit down with designer Alf Seegert (and by "sit down" I mean that we were both sitting at our computers at opposite ends of the country doing an email interview) to talk about his career and his latest game.

Alf's first two games, Bridge Troll (Z-Man games, $25) and Trollhalla (Z-Man Games, $50), each made the Games 100, and his newest game, The Road to Canterbury (Eagle Games, $60) is heading for the list as well., Seegert, a professor of English at the University of Utah, started designing game 10 years ago, and five of his early designs were finalists at the annual Hippodice board game design competition in Bochum, Germany: The Vapors of Delphi (2nd place, 2004), Bridge Troll (end-round finalist, 2005 -- later published by Z-Man Games), Ziggurat (end-round finalist, 2005), Mont-Saint Michel (end-round "Recommended Title," 2007), and TEMBO (3rd place, 2008 -- later published by Z-Man Games as Trollhalla). With Road to Canterbury, Seegert finally gets to merge his love of literature with his love of gaming, offering a unique take on Chaucer’s famous tales of garrulous pilgrims on their way to Canterbury.

Give us a bit of your gamer biography. What genres and styles have appealed to you throughout your life?

I didn’t become completely captivated by games until I was a teenager, when fantasy role-playing systems like Dungeons & Dragons and Tunnels & Trolls became a safe-haven for me. I loved Milton Bradley's electronic board game Dark Tower and in ninth grade I programmed a version of it into the high school mainframe computer (I used little monochrome ASCII characters to represent each player, the Tombs, the Bazaar, etc.). But except for an occasional session of the fantasy game Talisman, I didn't play many board games again until I hit thirty. I was spending a lot of time by myself playing computer games--and my girlfriend (now my wife) wanted me to play games with her instead. We did some research and stumbled on The Settlers of Catan, which proved a potent gateway drug into the brave new world (well, new to us) of Eurogames. Once we introduced Catan to our friends, Saturday nights quickly became a regular and much-anticipated “game night” event, which has continued now for over ten years.

What prompted you to make the leap from player to designer?

After encountering the brave new world of Eurogames, it wasn’t long before I felt compelled to take themes that interested me and make board games out of them. Sometimes it worked. Before long, I had several prototypes based on everything from geology to archaeoastronomy to ancient mythology to fairy tales. I sent some of my better designs to the Hippodice board game design competition in Bochum, Germany where several became finalists. With help from my fellow designers in the Board Game Designers Guild of Utah (www.bgdg.info), eventually I was able to interest major publishers in my designs and I’m on my way to my fourth published game as we speak.

Tell us a bit about your first published games, Bridge Troll and Trollhalla. How would characterize them, and what let to their development and publication? Also: what's with the troll thing?

I had encountered a sculpture in downtown Salt Lake City showing a Navajo woman leading sheep across a narrow bridge. I thought to myself how fun (and silly) it would be to put one of those wild-haired Scandinavian “Troll Dolls” beneath it, in homage to the fairy tale of “The Three Billy Goats Gruff.” Somehow the idea of actually playing one of these trolls became very appealing to me. In Bridge Troll you get to play as a troll who eats and extorts the travelers who try to cross your bridge. In Trollhalla I took these trolls out to sea where they became Viking-like marauders out to pillage and plunder islands full of pigs and peasants, nervous monks, and panicked princesses. Although these are both Eurostyle board games, they feel a bit like role-playing games to me because the players actually get to play the monsters. Part of my fascination with trolls was instilled in me during childhood by my Danish mother, who was convinced that scary trolls lived beneath the bridge in her hometown. Trolls are big in Scandinavia!

What elements of The Canterbury Tales made you think they might make a good theme for a game? Were you concerned that some might be bothered by the religious satire?

I grew up on British comedies like Monty Python and Black Adder, and I see both of them as inspired by Chaucer’s irreverence six hundred years on. In The Canterbury Tales, a company of medieval pilgrims journeys together from the Tabard Inn at the outskirts of London to the shrine of Thomas Becket at Canterbury, entertaining each other with stories along the way. Some of these tales are incredibly bawdy (and very funny). Many challenge existing social hierarchies and expose the hypocrisy of those who supposedly represent God and the church. Satire is a useful tool for cultural critique, and Chaucer was a Christian genuinely disturbed by religious corruption—and he found humor a better (and safer) vehicle for critique than direct denunciation. I thought it would be fun to make a humorous and “Chaucerian” game inspired by Chaucer’s own work. In The Road to Canterbury you play a greedy pardoner, and to succeed in filling your coin purse, you need to pardon pilgrims’ sins for quick cash. But to keep yourself in business you also have to tempt pilgrims to commit these very sins in the first place! You will bring along a special supply of bogus relics like “The Miraculous Moustache of Saint Wilgefortis” (a female, I might add) to help the pilgrim drive away unwanted sins and the like. So far, it appears that the theme of my game is sufficiently absurd that it draws more laughter than ire, even from the religiously inclined.

How does the theme mesh with the mechanics of play?

The game combines hand management, area control, and press-your luck mechanics: you must always make tough choices on whether to tempt a pilgrim to sin or to collect coins by pardoning sins in play. The catch is that the value of pardoned sins increases geometrically as the Sin cards accumulate, so you are “tempted” to let them really pile up—although doing so risks another player beating you to the punch! You can also cleverly play Relic cards to add some chaos to the game and deviously foil your opponents’ plans. I’ve put together a little Flash tutorial to help new players get a grip on how it all works at www.theroadtocanterbury.com

How did you choose the art and develop the aesthetic elements of the game?

A few years ago I stumbled upon Hieronymus Bosch’s tabletop painting The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things. Bosch’s deranged and demonic imagery and the rondel-style circle in the middle of the tabletop made me think that his painting might serve well as a game board, so I attempted a “posthumous collaboration.” It seems to have worked very well! Players say they love Bosch’s art on the board and on the Sin Cards, which give close-up images of Bosch’s representation of each individual “Deadly Sin.” I am a professor of English, so it was only natural to bring in seven pilgrims from The Canterbury Tales to create an unnatural Bosch-Chaucer hybrid. Each pilgrim has their own “favorite sin”: the Knight suffers from Pride, the Miller from Wrath, the Monk from Gluttony, etc., and for these illustrations Gryphon Games secured images from the early 15th Century Ellesmere Manuscript of The Canterbury Tales. The game’s “fine art” approach made it a suitable successor to Gryphon’s recent game Pastiche.

I understand you've achieved some measure of fame as a bad writer. What is the worst sentence you've ever written?

Well, my “claims to fame” in fiction writing are indeed all bad fiction entries in the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, where the goal is to compose the worst opening sentence to a novel. I have scored several “Dishonorable Mentions” so far. My most efficient example is this one:

“The Zinfandel poured pinkly from the bottle, like a stream of urine seven hours after eating a bowl of borscht.”

And here is my best attempt to write an entire story in the self-enclosing style of Borges in a single sentence:

“Wet leaves stuck to the spinning wagon wheels like feathers to a freshly tarred heretic, reminding those who watched them of the endless movement of the leafy earth--or so they would have, if only those fifteenth-century onlookers had believed that the earth actually rotated, which they didn't, which is why it was heretical to say that it did--and which is the reason why the wagon held a freshly tarred heretic in the first place.”





Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Lewis Chessmen in New York

The Metropolitan Museum of Art is hosting the Lewis Chessmen until April 22, 2012. Thirty of the 78 pieces will be on display in the Romanesque Hall at the Cloisters. It's rare for such a large chunk of the collection to appear outside of the UK.

The Lewis Chessmen are the most significant game pieces ever discovered. They almost certainly were made in Norway in the 12 century, and then shipped west for sale to the upper classes of the British Isles. Carved from walrus tusks, their beautiful craftsmanship and unusual designs have captivated people since their discovery in 1831 on the Isle of Lewis, Scotland. 

The figures were part of a hoard buried in the sand, and including pieces from at least 5 chess sets, pieces for the game of Tables, and a buckle. This Salon story plays up the "mystery" angle, but there really isn't anything mysterious about them. Beautiful? Impressive? Important? Yes. But there's no real need to turn it into a mystery story. The Baghdad Battery is mysterious. The Lewis Chessmen were cargo retrieved from a shipwreck, and perhaps buried with plans for later retrieval. All the other stories are purely for the tourists. 

My personal favorite has always been the berserker biting his shield (a Rook, shown above), his eyes wide with lunatic rage in the full fever of a battle frenzy. The pieces are the rarest kind of game art, mixing humor, pathos, stateliness, satire, and perhaps even political commentary. (This doesn't look like the image of a King which a king would endorse.)  

Then, of course, there's the Queen (shown at right). She's not sure why you just did what you did, but she's really disappointed with you.

We'll never know the name of their craftsman, now dead and forgotten nine centuries ago, but he was an artist of the first order. Get to the Met and see for yourself. It's a rare opportunity.

H/T: Thanks to the Accordeonaire extraordinaire Gary Chapin for the tip.






Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Comments Temporarily Turned Off

An aggressive twit has been carpet-bombing my site with spam all morning, so comments are turned off for now. Sorry for the inconvenience.

And a special message to my friendly spamming weenie: every single thing you posted is gone, so you'll have to haunt somewhere else to shill your casino scams. I do have to admit that it was hard to delete such wonderful chinglish flattery as "Your work is very good and I appreciate you and hopping for some more informative posts. Thank you for sharing great information to us…"


Monday, November 21, 2011

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Ticket to Ride on iPhone/Touch

Up till now, the mobile version of Days of Wonder's hit train game Ticket to Ride has only be available for iPad, but today DOW is rolling out a tiny version for handheld iOS devices as well.

The new app delivers the original game with the US map, four AI opponents, and various achievements and leaderboards. There is no online mode, but pass-and-play and local multiplayer via Bluetooth or WiFi is included, and functions among all iOS devices.


Sez the Official Press Release: "The distinctive feature set we developed for this Pocket version makes it the definitive way to enjoy Ticket to Ride as a ‘spur-of-the-moment’ mobile gaming experience," said Eric Hautemont, CEO of Days of Wonder. "The new local network play also makes Ticket to Ride Pocket the perfect companion for Ticket to Ride for iPad customers eager to play with family and friends in the comfort of their home or while traveling."

T2R gets a heavy workout here, and remains the bridge game we use to introduce noobs to the world beyond Monopoly. Now Ticket to Ride is in my pocket, and I am glad to see it. I hope to get it soon and post a full review.

REVIEW: Gubs



GameWright Games
Price: $12
Players: 2-6
Ages: 10+
Time: 10-20 minutes

The first layer of family game testing here at Casa McD is the hardest. New titles are subjected to rigorous examination and play-testing by a team of the best 10-13-year-olds money can buy. If your family game doesn't pass muster with them, it will certainly be given further consideration, but it will have an uphill battle.

Gubs is the first game since Sleeping Queens to hit the tables and become a hit immediately. We began with a dozen 2-player hands, and spent the next few days demanding everyone else give it a try. Even normally jaded gamers (and I'm not singling out teenagers here ... no, wait, I am) managed to bestir themselves from their usual indication of intense approval ("yeah, it's fine") to call it "really addictive" and demand more hands. That's a pretty clear indication that GameWright has another success on their hands.

Gubs is credited to Cole and Alex Medeiros, with fantastic artwork by Israel Woolfolk. On the website, Cole tells the story of the game's evolution from a homemade project for family and friends, to self-publishing, and finally to the slick treatment given to the game by GameWright. Everything from art, to rules, to card design, to fun-factor, to play balance is spot-on. It even comes in my favorite packaging: the compact embossed tin.

A "gub" is kind of a bug-like fairy creature. They ride toads and giant moths, hide behind mushrooms, and face threats from all manner of fey creatures. A feather is enough to dispel a powerful attack, but a soap-bubble can trap them. The world and the characters mines the same kind of lore which made Spiderwick such a success, placing players in a charming world hiding just beyond our gen.

Gameplay
Gubs is a card game, and the goal is to collect as many gubs as possible before you draw a final letter card spelling out the word "G-U-B". Play is from a single deck of 70 cards, with each player starting with a hand of three cards, and one free gub face-up in front of them.

A gub must be played to the table to count for points, and each one may either be free, barricaded, or trapped. A free gub is just a gub card on the table, with nothing on top of it. These may be lured away easily by other players to become part of their gub lineup. If player places a barricade (toad, moth, or mushroom) on top of the gub, then that gub cannot be lured away. Gubs may also be "trapped" by gold rings or "sud spouts." Trapped gubs do not count towards the final score, but they also cannot be lured away once trapped.

These fundamental elements are put through myriad modifications by event, hazard, tool, and interrupt cards.

  • Event cards are unique, changing the game suddenly by adding dangerous events to play. A Rumor of Wasps may force all gubs on toads back into the deck, while the Travelling Merchant forces everyone to pass their hands (except for one card) to the right. 
  • Hazards are the cards that can change the balance of play in an instant. A lure, for example, allows a player to take an unprotected gub from another player, but a super lure allows a player to take all free and protected gubs from another player. Cyclones can clear all the barricades from a target player. Lightning can kill the Esteemed Elder, the only gub in the game that can't otherwise be stolen or killed. These hazards are what give Gubs its unique feel and create radical, rapid turns of fortune. A player can go from leader to nothing in a single card.
  • Interrupts are what make the vicissitudes of hazards bearable. These cards can be played at any time to negate an event or hazard, and are the key to a good defense.
  • Tools are ways to manage your hand and your gubs, allowing you to break the ring enchanment, retreat all gubs and barricades back into your hand, sneak a peak at the deck or another player's hand, or even kill a gub.

Verdict
Despite the diversity of cards and card types, this is not a hard game to teach or learn. The basics can be grasped in a couple of minutes, while the subtleties and tactics become clear after a few hands.

Everything about Gubs just works. The art, rules, and flavor text quickly convey the appealing, fun, magical world of the gubs. With just a hand of cards, you're drawn instantly into the life and challenges of a hidden world. The sudden turns of fortune can be maddening, but the balance of cards makes it quite fair. There's a brutal quality to way cards can be lost or stolen, and this can really irritate younger players, right up until they get to do it to someone else.

This is the kind of light, fast game that some call "filler," but I don't think that's quite fair. Filler games are usually warmups before or between bigger, better games, but Gubs stands well on its own and demands repeat play. We've gone through 8 hands in a single sitting, in part because it can play very quickly, but also because the mix of cards provides a fresh experience each time. This one is going to have a long life.



Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Quoits: It's Not Horseshoes, Really (English Pub Games Series)


The complete story of English pub games will appear in the March 2012 issue of Games Magazine.

Quite a few traditional pub games involve hurling potentially lethal objects through the air while consuming large quantities of alcohol. Take quoits, for instance. The first thing to remember is that quoits is not horseshoes, even though they look similar. Unlike darts, quoits actually does have a fairly ancient pedigree on English soil, dating at least to the Middle Ages. King Richard II banned it 1388 because the lower classes were playing it rather than working themselves death. Edward III and Henry V also banned the game, with a punishment of six days in prison for violators.

(One curious pattern in English gaming culture is the way certain games are banned from play by the laboring classes, while permitted for the upper classes. This happens over and over again, with almost every pub game banned some point, and many of the laws written to specifically exclude “gentlemen” from the ban.)

The earliest version of quoits involved simply throwing an object at a target on the ground, with victory going to the person nearest the target. The game really took off in the early 19th century with the growth of industrial labor, and the pubs began maintaining quoits greens and organized league play. In 1881, an amateur association created a semi-standard set of rules that was adopted by most of England. Naturally, these new rules were promptly ignored by the Scots and Welsh.

The basic “northern game” of quoits is played with a heavy, round steel disc, open at the center and weighing 5 ¼ pounds. Spikes (called “hobs”) are set 11 yards apart, with tips protruding three inches above a clay bed. A ringer scored two points, while the nearest quoit scored one point.

The Scots and Welsh stuck to their “long game,” which was played at a distance of 25 yards with quoits that could weight upwards of 15 pounds.

When thrown, these rings tend to imbed themselves in the clay, leading to unusual landing configurations and strange leaning positions requiring careful judging by officials. The game has more room for depth and strategy than horseshoes, in part because the flared circular shape allows for various kinds of hand holds with exotic names like The Frenchman, push pot, and face gater.

In Cornwell, people played a version of quoits called “kook,” with the objective being either to throw the ring father than the opponent, or closer to the target. In loggats, another regional variant, people threw smalls logs or bones at a stake planted in the ground, with the winner being whoever hit it or got closest. Henry VIII banned it, perhaps because he wasn’t yet finished with the bones. Hamlet mentions the game as he observes the gravedigger disinterring Yorick, asking, “Did the bones cost no more the breeding but to play at loggats with them?”

Kindle: The Next Front in the App War?

I wasn't too surprised to learn this morning that Amazon is highlighting gaming and multimedia potential of their new Fire device. That's one benefit from making an Android compliant product. Today's press release  highlights the enthusiasm of the game companies:
“EA is proud to be part of Kindle Fire,” said Bernard Kim, Senior Vice President & Head of Global Sales and Marketing at Electronic Arts. “On Kindle Fire, we're offering some of the world’s most popular titles with incredible gameplay and breathtaking graphics that anyone can play and enjoy anytime, anywhere.”
"We're excited to be bringing our massively popular games to Kindle Fire," said Andrew Stein, Director of Mobile Product Management at PopCap Games. “Kindle Fire is a great gaming device, and consumers will love the touch-screen optimized adaptations of top titles such as Plants vs. Zombies.”
And so on. Thus far, Android has not proven itself as a strong gaming platform to the same degree as iOS has. Amazon is positioned to change that. I've read a lot of tech pundits dismissing the Fire because it's less powerful than an iPad. This is a mistake. The low cost of the Fire and its double-duty as an kind of e-reader is exactly what should make it successful. The power of the device is secondary. If it feels sturdy (as Kindles all do), runs Angry Birds, provides a decent web experience, and allows people to download and read books, then that's all it needs to do. The price--not the processing power--is the biggest feature.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

DC Universe Online Goes Free

Sony Online Entertainment announced that players can now download and play its massively multiplayer online (MMO) action game DC Universe Online (DCUO) for free. Starting today, all PC and PlayStation®3 computer entertainment system players can create their own hero or villain and join forces with their favorite DC Comics characters. Here's what they have to say about it:
There are three access levels in DCUO: Free, Premium and Legendary. All three levels will provide access to the game and include all game updates and fixes to the game, with each level offering differing game options and features. DLC content and features will also be included for Legendary players, and can be purchased by Free and Premium players. The levels include:

Free Access: New players now have access to the base game content in DC Universe Online, including Gotham City, Metropolis, and all current raids and alerts outside of DLC packs. Free Access provides players with the ability to create two characters, join a League and many other benefits. Free level players can also purchase DLC packs, additional character slots, and more in-game.

Premium Access: Any player who has spent at least $5 USD (including former paid subscribers and new players who have purchased $5 of in-game items) qualifies for the Premium Access level. Premium level players have more benefits available to them than the Free level player, including additional character slots, additional inventory slots, and higher cash limits. DLC packs, additional character slots, and more can be purchased in-game. All previous subscribers are granted Premium Access automatically.

Legendary Access: Legendary Access provides the most content, features and benefits of the three access levels. Loaded with enhanced features, Legendary Access is available for a $14.99 USD monthly fee (multi-month discounts are available) and includes access to all DLC packs at no cost, more than 16 character slots, over 60 inventory slots, the ability to form Leagues, and many other benefits. 

REVIEW: Space Marine

When my son started going to Games Workshop stores about a year ago, I thought: "This is what happens when you're not careful about what you leave lying around the house." Fortunately, he was satisfied with a single set and didn't start buying $40 figures and giant foam terrain blocks. He's moved on to D&D, which has a different type of geek cred and is far less expensive.

Why yes, I am raising nerds. You got a problem with that?

You see, the “Warhammer” system isn’t just a game: it’s a lifestyle choice. First introduced by Games Workshop in 1983, the series provides rules and settings for tabletop miniature wargames. Set in a fantasy universe heavily derived from the work of JRR Tolkien, the initial Warhammer Fantasy series pitted humans, “Orks,” elves, and other typical fantasy races against each other in epic battles carried out with little painted models. Five years later, Games Workshop projected their entire system 40,000 years into the future with Warhammer 40,000, creating an even more popular science-fiction universe.

The model-building element, combined with the constant additions, upgrades, and rules changes, makes Warhammer an expensive and labor-intensive hobby. Entire stores are dedicated to selling products, running tournaments, and providing gaming space.

In the decades since its creation, the Warhammer worlds have spawned an immense amount of published material, adding extraordinary layers of detail and baroque flourishes to these imaginary worlds. They have provided the setting and inspiration for a number of excellent games on both PC and videogame consoles. The latest, Space Marine, is an unusual extension of the popular Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War strategy games into the realm of third-person acting gaming.

The Dawn of War titles are the work of Relic Entertainment, creators of inventive computer strategy games such as Homeworld, Impossible Creatures, and Company of Heroes. These real-time strategy games allow the user to command Warhammer armies in a series of mission-based battles set within a narrative framework. One of the appealing qualities of Dawn of War is the ability to zoom out to a view of the entire battlefield to make command decisions, and then zoom down to ground level to watch the soldiers as they fight.

Essentially, Space Marine removes the strategy element and puts the gamer at ground level for a more intense, wholly action-driven experience. In the process, Relic has stripped out all the depth and finesse that characterizes their best work to focus solely on melee combat and gunplay. The result is a fairly exciting game, but one that misses multiple opportunities to create a deeper, more fulfilling gameplay experience.

The game follows the exploits of Captain Titus and two other soldiers as they attempt to fight back an Ork invasion of a “forge world”: a planet comprised solely of factories turning out vital military equipment. There is a narrative of sorts, but its primary purpose is to glue missions together and imbue them with some sense of urgency. Peripheral characters merely exist to swoon over the awesomeness of the Ultramarines, or to kill and/or betray them. On the positive side, the production values are very good, with strong voice acting from the leads and effective cinematic sequences.

The gameplay features somewhat simplistic third-person action fare, with endless waves of expendable foes and a minimal level of sophistication. Gamers proceed on a very linear route through various locations in the forge world. Along the way, they gather new weapons and ammo and utterly obliterate everything in their path.

The primary enemy is the Ork, a green-skinned brute that comes in various shapes, sizes, and threat-levels. In the world of Warhammer, Orks are a genetically engineered fungus imbued with a rudimentary intelligence. This means that they attack every situation with thousands of shock troops, attempting to make up in sheer quantity what their soldiers lack in quality.

Ultramarines cut through this canon fodder like butter with a weirdly implausible array of weapons, such as giant shock hammers and chainsaw-bladed swords. This close-in combat is the heart of Space Marine, allowing gamers to string together attacks in order to chop through the onrushing wall of murderous monsters. New guns are collected as the gamer proceeds, adding more strength or new features to the available firepower.

It’s hard to deny the visceral appeal of the combat. The Ork blood and gore is so extreme that it verges on parody, like the encounter with the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Nevertheless, the violence is brutal, constant, and vivid. It is the entire point of the game, and thanks to the squishing and crunching sound effects, it’s not for the faint of heart.

Late in the game, a new enemy emerges: Chaos marines, accompanied by hoards of demonic shock troops. These require a subtly different strategy to fight, but they don’t change the equation all that much. The game is at the end what it was in the beginning: pure hack-and-shoot action. Since Captain Titus is always accompanied by two other Ultramarines, it would have been a simple matter to add a tactical control element to Space Marine, thus giving the game the depth it’s sorely lacking.

The game plays fairly well on Xbox, but is a wretched, glitch-filled, completely unacceptable experience on PC. 

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

National Gaming Day Is...

... November 12th. The American Library Association is promoting a day of gaming at more than 1100 libraries across the country. Sponsor FamilyAndPartyGames.com is donating 3,000 copies of Loaded Questions, Awkward Family Photos, The Greatest Day Ever Game, and Loaded Questions Junior for the event. Various libraries will host board games, video games, and RPGs. Check the site to see if your library is participating. 

Oil Springs of Catan and Ethical Gaming

Catan: Oil Springs is an impressive, free-to-download variant to the Mother of all Eurogames. Settlers on the island of Catan have struck oil. This new resource can be used like gold, or added to other resources to upgrade a City to a Metropolis. Its use, however, comes with a price: for every five oil used, an environmental disaster strikes. Based on the roll of the dice, this could be the removal of coastal settlements or the pollution of tiles so they no longer produce resources.

I won't pretend to agree with its anti-oil politics, but I have to give the designers credit for turning out an intelligent variant for Settles of Catan. The scenario is the work of Erik Assadourian and Ty Hansen, and was developed as part of Transforming Cultures Project of the Worldwatch Institute. Clearly, it was created with an agenda, despite protests to the contrary:
While taking on issues of pollution and climate change, we strongly wish to emphasize that we do not see this as a polarizing political effort, but simply as a way to draw attention to the tradeoffs inherently embedded in the usage of natural resources such as oil. The use of oil has brought with it great benefits, and it is not our intention to condemn its use in a general sense. However, science has shown that its overuse is now having a destabilizing effect on our climate, and responsible use has become more important than ever before. Our intention with this scenario is to draw attention to these challenges in a way that is both educational and enjoyable.

Given the design of the game, this claim is just silly. Using oil wipes out settlements and turns the landscape into a wasteland, which kind of makes it a "polarizing political effort" even for those of us who support common sense solutions to sustainability. I have no problem with that, mind you. If you have a case to make, make it boldly. Just don't pretend you're not creating a fairly obvious piece of anthropogenic global warming propaganda.

Those issues aside, I like it, with minor reservations. The new rules radically change the dynamics, forcing people to interact at a different level to make decisions about exploitation of oil. I'm not sure how much life it will have, since its agit-prop origins give it the grim, "eat your peas" tone of a lecture. The balance of the game is a bit off. Environmental catastrophe is an inevitable byproduct of using oil. This is only slightly mitigated by the ability of players to "sequester" oil, which involves shutting down oil production. (Do this three times and you gain 1 victory point.)

Thus, the game functions more like a social experiment, as players try to convince others not to pull the oil trigger even though it could mean victory. Since the point of playing is to win, this isn't really a reasonable approach from a perspective of pure gamesmanship. Opting out of a game-winning strategy in the interest of burnishing your environmental credibility in front of three-to-five other people shifts the focus from "game" to "social statement."

The issue of ethics and moral decision making in gaming is a deep and fascinating subject that has played an increasing role in computer and video game design over the past few years, but hasn't really made an impact on conventional gaming. This is largely because board games lack the character and narrative elements that make moral choices possible. With Oil Springs, some of that ethical decision making comes to Catan, but not quite as effectively. Video and computer games almost always provide a balanced approach to moral decisions: good or evil choices produce different results without stopping the game cold. There's less of that balance in Oil Springs. Evil has a name, and it is Oil. Every disaster roll produces a disaster. Catastrophe is inevitable. This changes the gaming dynamic from "dialog" to "lecture," with a pre-ordained outcome.

You can print out all the rules and pieces for free. Attach them to card stock or cardboard for better play. 

Aunt Sally: More Things to Knock Down Without Spilling Your Beer

Aunt Sally was the inspiration for my research into English pub games. The game was featured the British detective series Midsomer Murders, which regularly explores the bizarre festivals and customs of rural England. We couldn't tell what in the world the characters were doing or why, since we'd never seen anything quite like it. A little digging uncovered not only the rules and origins of Aunt Sally, but also the wonderful and weird world of traditional pub gaming. 

The complete story of English pub games will appear in the March 2012 issue of Games Magazine.
Photo from www.joinersarms.com
The Encyclopedia of Traditional British Rural Sports calls the origins of the skittle-like game Aunt Sally “obscure,” but offers several possibilities for its mysterious name. “Sally” is a dialect word for “hare,” and throwing-sticks were sometimes used to hunt hares in the 19th century. A more likely explanation is that “sally” means to pitch forward, and “aunt” is a reference to the vaguely feminine shape of the target. The French name is the far more evocative Wholesale Slaughter (“jeu de massacre”), which is just plan odd.

The modern version involves throwing six sticks 18 inches long and 2 inches round at a target. A pole, four feet tall, is set into the ground, while a fat white skittle with a bulbous head perches on the top. The goal is to knock this doll from its perch, with a point scored each hit. Players throw their 6 sticks in 4 rounds, for a maximum total of 24. It’s actually much harder than it sounds, and a score of 20 points is considered superb.

The game may have evolved out of a cruel bloodsport called “throwing at cocks”. A live chicken was tied to the top of a pole, and people took turns throwing sticks until someone killed it. The “winner” got to take the chicken home for the pot. It was usually played on Shrove Tuesday.

Joseph Strutt, in his 1801 book The Sports and Pastimes of the People of England from the Earliest Period, says that “Upon the abolition of this inhuman custom, the place of living birds was supplied by toys.” The game found its way from fairgrounds and fetes to the pub, where it shed its cruel heritage and became almost respectable as one of the “lawful games on licensed premises.” Local leagues are organized around pubs, and Championships are held in August and September. The game surged in popularity in the 20th century, with the Oxford League alone counting 120 teams, and six other leagues cropping up in pubs around the country.

In his definitive book Played at the Pub, author Arthur Taylor estimates that “come summer, over 2,500 men and woman can be found playing the game, usually on a Thursday night,” and indoors during winter. The popular British TV show Midsomer Murders even featured an Aunt Sally rivalry as a subplot in the episode “Dark Autumn,” which led to a minor resurgence of interest in the game. 

The game actually made it to American shores, and then migrated back to England in a new form around the year 1855. The American version involved throwing balls or batons at doll’s head affixed to a strike. The doll’s head had a pipe extending from it, and the goal was to knock the pipe off without hitting the head. In the game of Nacks, unique to Yorkshire, the target was a peg rather than a doll.


Wednesday, October 19, 2011

REVIEW: Deus Ex: Human Revolution

I've reviewed Deus Ex: Human Revolution twice now: from a secular perspective for Games Magazine and from a religious perspective for Catholic News Service. This review combines a bit of each.

When a playwright in ancient Greece found himself with an irresolvable plot problem, he would have a pagan god appear to set everything aright. Athena, or perhaps Apollo, would be lowered onto the stage by a crane (in Greek, “mechane,”) as though descending from the clouds. This “god out of the machine,” or “deus ex machina” as it came to be known in Latin, was regarded as a cheap trick even then.

In the modern industrial age, however, the idea of a deus ex machina takes on a new resonance, as men exploit rapidly advancing technology in an attempt to synthesize the creative and destructive powers of God himself. The nightmare of eugenics is already a reality; transhumanism -- the use of technology to fundamentally alter the human body -- is not far off. This is the dystopia proposed by the Deus Ex games, and Human Revolution shows us where it all begins.

The Deus Ex and Bioshock series are both the offspring of 1997’s System Shock, one of the most important titles in the history of computer gaming. All of these game share a few common traits. They allow players to customize their characters with various kinds of biotechnology; they provide a flexibility of play that enables gamers to approach problems through wits, stealth, or force; and they engage complex ideas in a depth rarely seen in the medium.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution takes place in 2027, 25 years before the events of the first Deus Ex game (released in 2000). Biomechanical augmentations, originally developed to replace limbs lost on the battlefield, are becoming mainstream accessories used to enhance human abilities. They can make you stronger, faster, smarter, more persuasive, invisible, and deadly, and not everyone is happy about it.

Sarif Industries, a leading producer of augmentations, is under intense pressure from political leaders, activists, and militant anti-augmentation groups to slow down and consider the implications of a world in which human evolution is altered and accelerated in such a radical way. David Sarif is not a typical evil CEO. He believes he’s helping humanity, and may well be oblivious to the shadowy forces seeking to exploit his technology for their own reasons.

The plot is heavily populated (perhaps overpopulated) with conspiracies and double-crosses. Rival corporations, crime lords, and even the Illuminati are attempting use this new technology to control people as a means to power. Meanwhile, a fringe group of anti-augmentation activists wages a guerilla war in order to end this new age of augmentation.

The game begins with an attack on Sarif’s headquarters that leaves Adam Jensen, head of security, in pieces and near death. Although ambivalent about augmentations, Adam awakes to find himself heavily augmented with the latest Sarif technology. The game allows the user to shape Adam’s character through his reactions and responses. He can be reluctant and unhappy about the alterations done to his body without his consent, or fairly pleased about his new superhuman abilities.

The gameplay itself may unfold in myriad ways depending upon the preference of the player. Although the core experience resembles a standard first-person action role-playing game, the element of choice allows players to tailor the approach that best suits them. It is possible to pass through the entire game as an unstoppable killing machine, but it’s also possible complete the game without killing anyone at all, aside for a few select set-piece battles.

This is accomplished by allowing players to choose their augmentations by spending “Praxis points.” Praxis can be purchased, discovered, or earned by leveling up. These points allow you to enhance computer hacking skills, physical features, stealth abilities, or any combination of these elements. There is a huge amount of hacking in the game, so a minimal hacking level upgrade is essential. Most players, however, will find a balanced approach works best. Someone who has placed all their points in hacking will be at an extreme disadvantage in certain parts of the game, as will people who put all their points into combat or stealth.

Combat is still a part of the game, but it doesn’t have to be a huge part. You can play the game all-guns-blazing and wind up with an experience not unlike any other first-person shooter, but that’s hardly an ideal way to approach a game with such a rich level of content. The game actually rewards the player more for leaving an enemy alive than for killing him, which makes the inclusion of several set-pieces (known to gamers as “boss battles”) rather mystifying. These battles always end in the death of an enemy, with no other option. At one point, Adam is asked if he will save the life of a defeated foe. Adam says he’ll think about, and then leaves her to die.

There are two problems with this. First, you are encouraged to develop a character with no combat abilities at all, and then placed in a heavy combat encounter. Second, Adam’s choice of mercy may be exercised throughout the game, but not at some of its most important moments. This is simply a missed opportunity.

Human Revolution is a game with serious issues on its mind. With a running time of about 30 hours—and more if you explore all of the sidequests—it has a lot of space to develop these ideas. Cinematic sequences, writing, animation, and voice-acting are all top-notch. Adam Jensen sounds (and looks) and little like a young Clint Eastwood, and his quiet authority and strong character provide a strong grounding for the game. As the world starts to come apart and powers realign themselves, you start to get a sense of how the landscape of the original Deus Ex was shaped, and wonder how much worse it would have been if not for Jensen’s efforts.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Skittles: Knocking Stuff Down Without Spilling Your Beer

This is part of my ongoing research on traditional British pub games. The complete, expanded article will appear in the March 2012 issue of Games Magazine, available wherever quality publications are sold.

The phrase “life isn’t all beer and skittles” seems a bit mysterious to American ears. When I first heard it as a boy, I wondered why anyone would want to mix a fruit-flavored candy with beer.

To British ears, however, the image of “beer and skittles” is one of leisure time at the pub spent enjoying an adult beverage while playing a game with friends. Its first appearance is in The Pickwick Papers, by Charles Dickens, when Sam Weller remarks “It’s a reg’lar holiday to them — all porter and skittles.” (Porter is a dark ale.)

The saying would have made a lot more sense if Americans realized that skittles is a pub game that we’d lump together with bowling, since it involves knocking down pins with some rolled or thrown object. In England, however, ten-pin American-style bowling, “bowls” games, and skittles are all considered distinct and unique games, each with countless regional and historical variations.

Thanks to all these variants, and the lack of an authoritative governing body, coming up with a single definition for the entire class of skittles games can be tricky. Wikipedia takes off in the wrong direction by calling it a “European lawn game,” even though almost every notable version of skittles is played not on grass but on purpose-built alleys or hard floors. You could almost argue that a defining character of skittles that sets it apart from bowls is that it’s not a lawn game.

Perhaps the best place to start is with the most basic description. Nine pins are set in a diamond pattern at one end of a long, narrow, slightly raised surface that serves as an alley. Players stand varying distances away from these pins, and then attempt to knock them all down with a variety of projectiles in a variety of ways. A common version uses heavy, solid disks made of lignum vitae, a class of extremely hard, heavy, dense wood. These disks are called “cheeses” because their shape is similar to that of a round of cheese. (“Cheese” is now a generic term for any thrown object in skittles, regardless of shape.) Points are awarded for knocking each pin down, with an extra point awarded for knocking them all down. A set of throws is called a chalk, and three chalks make a game.

Within this basic framework, skittles has spun off a baffling array of variations. The pins may be long, short, thin, stout, big, small, rounded, squared, or any one of several shapes. Nine pins, arrayed in three rows of three pins each, form the most common layout, but there may be more or less. Pin layout may be a diamond, or something else entirely. You might have to knock down all the pins in any order, or just some of the pins, or perhaps knock some down in a specific order and others not at all. Pins may be numbered, with only certain numbers qualifying for scoring. The thrown object maybe a heavy disc, or a solid ball, or a smaller solid ball, or a half a ball, or a barrel-shaped object, or a log. In some games you must roll the cheese and it can never bounce, while in others you need to bounce it once.

A set of instructions from 1786 shows a skittle-ground layout measuring about 17 yards by 4 yards. In this early depiction, the player needs to roll the ball along a narrow wooden plank, curving it to meet the pins without ever hitting the side boards. This is followed by a second throw, called “tipping,” performed directly adjacent to the pin layout. The player “tips,” or drops, the ball onto the layout, attempting to knock down a specific number of pins. He doesn’t score at all if he exceeds or does not meeting this number.

One remarkable version, called half bowl, involves rolling … yes, you guessed it: half a ball. Played where space is limited, half bowl uses twelve pins set in tight circle. Nine pins comprise the circle itself, one pin is at the center, and two more pins project outside of the circle in a straight line. The trick is to roll the half-ball around the two projecting pins and knock down the circle pins from the other side. Since the half-ball rolls on an extreme bias, the trick is to curve each throw just right so the pins are hit from the far side of the configuration.

In fact, the extreme rolling bias of almost all skittle cheeses is one of the key elements of the game. Balls are rarely perfectly formed, and they don’t have finger holes like conventional bowling balls. Some are remarkably heavy, weighing over 15 pounds. They don’t roll nice and straight. They can wobble and slide and do all kinds of things that would make a ten-pin bowler red with rage. Learning the bias of each ball is vital to mastering the game.

There have been dozens (perhaps hundreds) of versions of skittles, and some of them remain a mystery. We only know a few things about a skittles-style game called “closh.” It was probably like skittles, it was very popular, and it was widespread enough that special greens—called closh-banes—were constructed for its playing. We also know that it was banned repeatedly by the government beginning with Kind Edward IV in 1477, and seems to have been wiped out by the 17th century.

A cousin of closh was a game called kyles, which was a type of skittles played with a stick rather than a ball. It may have been played with nine pins arranged in a straight line, which would make them devilish hard to knock down. Recorded as early as 1325, it, too, fell to the ban of 1477.

There is also a large class of games called table skittles, which takes several forms. The most common version features a ball hanging from a chain or rope attached to a pole, much like a tetherball. The pins are laid out on a raised platform, and the player swings the ball in an attempt to knock down as many pins as possible, with all the expected regional scoring variants. It’s also called Devil Among the Tailors, with the devil being the ball and the tailors being the pins. (There are a few different origin stories for this name. None of them are plausible.)

Another version of table skittles is “hood skittles,” or “daddlums.” These games are distinguished by their unique tables, with hood skittles played on a low table with padded uprights on three sides, and daddlums played on a smaller table with a slightly different configuration. In either version, nine pins are set in a classic diamond pattern. Players stand a certain distance away from the table, and toss small, hand-sized cheeses in attempt to knock down the pins.

In the 1970s, Aurora/Marx marketed a large and successful line of “skittle” products in the United States. They were heavily promoted by Get Smart actor Don Adams, complete with ads and TV commercials that haunt YouTube to this very day. Skittle Bowl (classic table skittles), Skittle Pool, Skittle Poker, Skittle Tic-Tac-Toe, Skittle Bingo, Skittle Scoreball, and Skittle Horseshoes all used the standard “ball dangling from a stick” mechanic.

Is that Uncle Leo in the background?

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Dwile Flonking: More Fun With Beer

In 1967, an ancient pub game was brought back into the light, complete with the discovery of an old text—the Wavenly Rules of 1585—to bolster its legitimacy. Dwile flonking had been played since the 16th century at least, and now was at last returned to its rightful place among the regular pub games of Suffolk.

Except that it was all hoax. The game was invented in 1967 in an attempt to draw attention to a village fete in Beccles, Suffolk. Creators Andrew Leverett and Bob Devereux created the imaginary “Wavenly Rules” with plenty of pseudo-old-English terms and traditions to give it a veneer of age. Despite these dodgey origins, dwile flonking actually caught on and became an actual tradition. After more than 40 years of continuous play it can be considered “aged” if not “ancient.”

In dwile flonking, a group of festive drunks link arms and dance in a circle to traditional music. At the center of the circle is a bucket of beer. Inside the bucket is a beer-drenched rag and a stick. Outside the bucket is another drunk, called the flonker. The circle begins moving counter-clockwise at the referee’s command of “Here y’is t’gether,” while the flonker turns in the opposite direction. The flonker lifts up the dripping rag with his stick and flings it at the circle, attempting to nail someone with several ounces of warm, flat beer.

Different hits score different points. A head shot (or “wonton”) is worth three points, while a torso hit (or “morther”) is worth two and a leg (or “ripper”) is worth one. A flonker gets two or three tries, but if he misses all three he has to gulp a pot of ale in the time it takes to pass the dwile all the way around the circle. If he can’t finish in time, he looses a point.

The game has plenty of colorful terminology to go with it. The stick is called a “driveller,” or sometimes a “swadger” (provided by a “swadge-coper” sold by the “tardwainer’s nard”). The circle is called a “girter” and the referee is a “jobanowl.” Other people call the whole thing “nurdling” rather than “dwile flonking.” Of course, there is a Waveney Valley Dwile Flonking Association, as well as competitions.

You can watch a Pathe News reel about dwile flonking here, and a more recent video below.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The iPhone Not-Quite-5

By now, you're probably aware that the Big Apple Announcement was not an iPhone 5, but an iPhone 4S. That "S" stands for, "So ... that's all you got for me?"

What's this mean for gamers? It means an A5 chip, same as the iPad 2, which adds up to a significant performance bump for games. 

The bigger news was the central role played by Siri (click this link to watch the video of it in action) in the presentation. Siri is voice recognition software, and it isn't new at all. Apple bought Siri and is integrating an improved version of it right into the OS. You can already use voice commands to do searches and the like, but the new Siri integration seems to take that the next logical step, with almost complete voice automation. It can read your emails aloud in that creepy GlaDOS voice, and then let you dictate a reply. If I asked it to open the pod bay doors, do you think it would?

It's certainly a more robust integration of voice recognition, but hardly the stuff of Apple's legendary press conferences. On the other hand, it was probably a smart move not to call it an iPhone 5, because if they did people would say, "Well, really, this doesn't feel like a generational upgrade, more like an iPhone 4 with a random letter after it."

Skynet goes online in 5...4...3...2...

Monday, October 3, 2011

The Game of Trussing

We found this one in the American Boy's Book of Sports and Games (Dick & Fitzgerald, 1864), and thought it sounded like the kind of weird fun kids just don't do anymore, probably for a good reason. (Although I think we may try it at a Cub Scout event.) I decided to call it by its alternate name rather than its original name ("cock fighting") for obvious reasons. The prose of the Boy's Book is worth quoting directly:
This game, which is productive fun, is a trial of skill between two players. It is also called "trussing," The players are made to sit down on the ground, and draw their legs up, clasping the hands together below the knees. A stick is then passed under the knees, and over the elbows of each player, as shown in the cut; and then the two players, being placed face to face, try to overbalance each other, by pushing with the points of their toes. Of course, the hands may not be unclasped; and when a combatant rolls over, he lies quite helpless, until set up again by the spectators, or by his backers. The cock who overturns his adversary twice out of three times is considered to have won the fight. 
The interesting part about this description, by some unknown and long forgotten writer (only the illustrators and the engraver are named), is the notion of "backers". Was there some kind of underground Trussing Syndicate?

Friday, September 30, 2011

Boardcrafting: For the Catan Fan Who Has Everything

Tile-shifting can be moderately annoying when playing Catan, so a San Francisco craftsman is creating wooden tile sets and frames for the basic, 4th edition game, 4-player version. These handsome, laser-cut tiles can be bought in a variety of configurations from the Boardcrafting Kickstarter page, which has already attracted enough support to get the project off the ground. 

H/T Kevin Schlabach

Les Osselets (Knucklebones)

 "Les Osselets" (The Game of Knucklebones)
by Jean-Baptise-Someon Chardin, 1734
A little bit of art for your weekend. This painting is called "Les Osselets," by Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, and currently hangs in the Baltimore Museum of Art. The titles translates as "The Ossicles," which really doesn't help us much, because in English "ossicles" are the little bones in your ear. In French, according to my little dictionary, an ossicle is supposedly a knucklebone, which gets us closer to the meaning of this painting.

The young woman is tossing a ball in the air while four knucklebones lie on the table. Knucklebones were a common game element dating back to ancient Greece and Rome, where they may have been a precursor to dice. The bones are long and wide on two sides, long and narrow on two sides, and short and narrow on two sides. They are sanded down to allow them to land on different edges when thrown, and various games have different names and scores for each landing configuration. Also: they're not actually knucklbones: they're the ankle bones from a sheep.

The game usually is played as it is here: as an early version of jacks, with the bones collected before the ball lands. The other way to play was to toss the bones in the air and try to catch them on the back of the hand. Wiki actually has a pretty good summary of different ways to score in some versions, but some of their historical data is off. (Plato mentions dice and checkers in the Phaedrus, not knucklebones.)


Thursday, September 29, 2011

Masskrugstremmen: The Sport of Beer Holding

"Masskrugstremmen" means "beer-stein holding," and it comes from the wonderful land of Bavaria, home of Werner Herzog, the Pope, and 25% of my ancestors. You have to hold a beer extended at arm's length for as long as you can. (Then you get to drink it. Duh.) Legend has it one might man lasted over 20 minutes. Seven feet tall he was, with arms like tree trunks! Went by the name of Homer.

We need more sports like this. Onward to the Olympics!

H/T Sean P. Dailey



Wednesday, September 28, 2011

I Think They Mean It

"What's all this then?"



From the curiously titled Children's Games With Things, by Iona and Peter Opie

Can Amazon Produce an iPad Killer?

Time will tell, but Amazon and Android converging for a new touch device called the Kindle Fire could alter the gaming landscape yet again. (It's being altered radically about once a year.) The Fire is certainly attractively priced at $200, and the feature set looks good on paper. Expanded Kindle and multimedia features, plus the ability to play Android apps and cloud streaming, could be a complete game changer across all media. It all depends upon the technology, which looks like it will be less robust than iPad2. But at $200, how robust does it need to be for people looking for an entry-level tab/reader?

I'm putting the full press release after the jump. It describes all the new models of Kindle, which is probably one model too many. Consumers get confused over too many price points and model variants.

You can order today:






Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Diablo is in the Details

New column at Maximum PC. Excerpt:
Online communities need an outrageous outrage every once in a while to give the forum jockeys some opportunity to vent. The latest tempest in an A-cup is Blizzard's decision to give Diablo III an "always online" DRM system, meaning you need a live Internet connection to play the game. People were reacting to this with the kind of disbelief, betrayal, and fury usually reserved for something like Neville Chamberlain signing away Czechoslovakia.
You cannot fathom my indifference to this issue. I play everything on Steam, and my connection is always on. Yes, I know I am fortunate and that some people have bad (or no) internet connections. They're already missing out on all kinds of great things like cute puppy videos and an uninterrupted Twitter streams, so they must be used to the poignant sting of disappointment by now. I don't know why "always on" DRM for Diablo III should really wreck their day. It's not like there's really a shortage of ways to waste your time in the modern world.

Complaints against the column seem to come down to 1) the industry totally exaggerates piracy losses, and it's really no big deal (which explains why they spend millions on loss prevention), or 2) I totally don't mention mods (which I totally don't mention not because I forgot or was covering up for Blizzard, but because I really, truly don't care), or 3) I've been bought off by Blizzard (in which case my check is way overdue).

I've got the Diablo III beta all loaded up and ready go, but I haven't been able to spend any time on it thanks to a) the flu (in case I haven't told you, immunosuppressants really suck), and b) Space Marine, which I need to write up this week. (Advance tip: DO NOT play Space Marine on PC. It's a mess.)

So, if you want kvetch, go on over to the Max PC forums. They love that stuff.

Friday, September 23, 2011

The Elder Scrolls: Bound

As anticipation for Skyrim, the latest game in the Elder Scrolls series, reaches a fever pitch, one loyal fans has created the ultimate ES: Oblivion labor of love. He has formatted, printed, and bound all of the texts from Oblivion into one massive volume

Bethesda's series is famous for peppering their games with hundreds of pages of eldritch tomes, most of which I scan with faint interest before moving on to kill something. Well, reddit user "notadoctoreither" has collected them all for easy reading, and even made his print files freely available so you can make your copy. It's a handsome piece of work, but not, technically, a scroll.


Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Mad Science Fold-ins

This is a draft of a story I'm working on for Games.

There are things artificial intelligence just can’t do, and protein folding is one of them. That’s why Fold.it and other resources are drawing on the puzzle-solving skills of a network of gamers to solve complex problems in protein folding. It’s an approach that is finally yielding its first concrete results.

To understand the nature of this challenge you need to understand a bit of biology. Proteins perform the vital tasks necessary for any living object, be it a human being or a plant. They carry oxygen, transport nutrients, power muscles, and speed up chemical reactions. They do all the work that keep organisms alive and functioning.

Each protein is a chain of linked amino acids. There are twenty different kinds of amino acid, with each defined by its particular combination and arrangement of carbon, hydrogen, sulfur, nitrogen, and oxygen atoms. These atoms come together in an unbranching chain to create a protein. Each main chain functions like a backbone, while each amino acid also has some dangling atoms, which form side chains.

These chains don’t like to just hang about in a single line. They tend to compress into a blob through a process of “folding.” The aminos for each different type of protein fold into the exact same configuration every time. Some amino acids are kept on the inside of the folded protein, while others remain on the outside. Some amino acids need to be near a particular type of amino, while others need to be kept apart. Each protein assumes the most efficient folded shape possible. When proteins fail to form correctly they can’t do their job, resulting in diseases like cancer, Alzheimer’s, and HIV/AIDS.

Proteins can assume incredibly complex structures. A simple one may have a chain of a hundred amino acids, while a complex one may have a thousand. Each amino has to find its place in a correctly-folded chain in order to work. Untangling this knot has proven difficult for computers. Folded proteins are three-dimensional objects, and the number of potential variables is so high that computers are simply inefficient or ineffective.

Humans, however, have an innate, almost mysterious, intuition for pattern recognition and puzzle solving. A computer can only run through every variable, evaluate them all, and try to choose the best one. Puzzle-solving humans don’t do this. We don’t run through every possible version of a puzzle to solve it. We use observation, deduction, intuition, and spatial reasoning skills to evaluate the puzzle, then attempt to find the solution. It’s a vastly more efficient method of problem solving.

The University of Washington’s Center for Game Science decided to tap that power by creating Fold.it, a free game that challenges people to fold protein chains into the most efficient possible shapes. The game begins as a serious of tutorials to introduce the tools and the concepts for protein folding. Each puzzle consists of a 3D representation of a known protein.

The goal is threefold. First, you need pack the protein folds as tightly as possible to eliminate any gaps. Some aminos need to be touching water (hydrophilic) and some need to be protected from water by other aminos (hydrophobic). Thus, the second goal is to place the hydrophilic/hydrophobic aminos in their proper place. Finally, you need to eliminate the “clashes,” which are the places where aminos occupy the same space, or are merely too close together.

The first goal of Fold.it was to see if humans could properly solve protein folding problems. The proof-of-concept trials went well, so Fold.it presented puzzles that were challenging the current automated folding software. People could compete, alone or in teams, for “high scores” by folding proteins in the most efficient manner.

Fold.it had its genesis as an experiment in distributed computing, with people volunteering their computers to aid in the complex calculations needed for protein modeling. The participants would see a screen saver that showed the progress of the automated models, but those watching the screen quickly noticed that the automated modeling was not efficient. That’s when the team created Fold.it to allow people to modify the protein models themselves.

The breakthrough came when the gamers were presented with the Mason-Pfizer monkey virus (M-PMV) retroviral protein, which cause a form of simian AIDS. In an article in the journal Nature Structural & Molecular Biology, the Fold.it team observed that “retroviral proteases (PRs) have critical roles in viral maturation and proliferation and are the focus of intensive antiretroviral drug development work.” Various software models were unable to resolve the structure of the M-PMV retroviral protease. Gamers were provided with a variety of unsatisfactory M-PMV PR models, and then challenged to create a better one. Scientists had been struggling with the structure of this protein for over ten years. When the models were made available on Fold.it, a group of gamers on three continents were able to collaborate and solve the problem in a matter of days.

With the input of human problem-solving, the software modeling suddenly improved. After 600 gamers on 41 teams submitted 1.25 million solutions, the team was able to narrow the field down to 5000 by comparing the models against x-ray data. One team, “The Contendors,” submitted a model that aligned perfectly with this data, and the Fold.it team knew they’d cracked the code.

As the authors write in their Nature article, “The critical role of Foldit players in the solution of the M-PMV PR structure shows the power of online games to channel human intuition and three-dimensional pattern-matching skills to solve challenging scientific problems. Although much attention has recently been given to the potential of crowdsourcing and game playing, this is the first instance that we are aware of in which online gamers solved a longstanding scientific problem. These results indi­cate the potential for integrating video games into the real-world scientific process: the ingenuity of game players is a formidable force that, if properly directed, can be used to solve a wide range of scientific problems.”

And thus the Fold.it experiment continues. You can join the process as http://fold.it.

A Couple of My CNS Stories

As I've mentioned, I'm now contributing to a new game review/news department for Catholic News Service (CNS), a wire service with several hundred outlets. Mt first two pieces are on the wires now.

The first one is merely a general survey of video and computer games, and is meant to introduce readers to the new service.

The second is a recap of the important Supreme Court decision which struck down a ban on sales of violent games to minors. So far it's only up on a few sites. Both should start appearing in newspapers and magazines over the next few weeks.


Friday, September 16, 2011

The Road to Canterbury Arrives

To my house does The Road the Canterbury wend. As a lover of all things Chaucer and Middle English, I've been following Alf Seegert's The Road to Canterbury since I heard about it earlier this year. Alf was kind enough to have an advance copy of the game sent along, and it looks terrific. The art is derived from Hieronymous Bosch's famous Table Top of the Seven Deadly Sins and Last Four Things, as well as medieval illuminated manuscripts. Components are very well made and solid, although cards are a little small.

The gameplay, as my daughter remarked, is "EEEEEVIL." We did one full trial playthrough and enjoyed the mechanics, even though we made a rules mistake that we didn't catch till half-way through.

The game has you playing as The Pardoner, the cynical and corrupt churchman from The Canterbury Tales.  The Pardoner peddles forged indulgences and counterfeit relics in order to fleece the pilgrims. In this role, you draw a combination of Sin, Pardon, and Relic cards, which are played to various pilgrims from the tales. Sins are pardoned in sets, earning influence (known in the game as "corruption") as well as coin for the Pardoner. It's a pretty unique mechanic, and we need to run it through a few more test plays to see what we think, but first impressions are positive. As the daughter said at the end of the first test game, "It's still evil, but fun."

Monday, September 12, 2011

Settlers of Catan: The Novel


Yep, it's for real. I remember reading about it when it was published in Germany a few years back. Now it's set for an English-language translation and publication on November 15th. Let's let Amazon explain the rest:
Wind howls through the village. Swords clash. Voices call desperately for help. It's the year 850, and the people of the small coastal village Elasund are feeling bitter. Hostile nations are attacking, taking everything and even murdering women and children and cattle. The village Council consults the runes and determines the clan's future: Candamir and his followers will build ships and head west to find a new home, leaving Osmund and his loyal ones in the north. After much effort, the settlers arrive in legendary Catan. But instead of their dream of island tranquility, fraternal strife threatens the entire community from the beginning... In this vivid depiction inspired by the wildly popular Settlers of Catan role playing game, Rebecca Gable takes readers on a journey that will feel at once familiar and fascinating to Catan’s many fans.





App O' The Mornin': Gesundheit!



Grade: A
Price: $1

I imagine there are quite a few people who won't be able to muscle past the premise of Gesundheit! in order to enjoy the treasures of the gameplay itself. Their loss. Sure, it's a game about a little green pig whose allergies are so horrible that he sneezes giant globs of snot across the landscape. And, yes, said landscape is populated by monsters who find these globular goodies so unbelievable tasty that they'll ignore that temptation to eat fresh green pork, at least for a few seconds. But once you get past all the booger blasting and snot snacking, you'll find a game that's not only fun and clever, but even charming.

Much of this charm comes the visual style of Gesundheit!, which is striking, colorful combination of storybook backgrounds and and child-like drawings. The music, animation, and art are all the work of Matt Hammill, while the game itself is made by Revolutionary Concepts. Thanks to the graphics, none of the mucous mechanics ever come off as all that gross. Believe me, I've seen apps that go for the gross-out just because that's the only arrow they have in their quiver, but Hammill isn't working that side of the street. His sneezing piglet is just a cute little outcast who turns his problems (horrible allergies) into an asset, making him a kind of superhero of snot.

The game is comprised of 40 single-screen levels, with gameplay that combines puzzle solving with some stealth-strategy elements. Each level has a monster (or monsters), and the now-ubiquitous triple-star challenge. The goal is to collect as many of he stars as possible before trapping all the monsters inside monster-eating traps. This is done by luring the monsters into different areas of the maze-like map with your gourmet nose nachos. Simply tap the pig, draw back to choose force and aim, and fire away. If your loogie lands where a monster can see it, he'll ignore you and run straight to his favorite snack, even if it's inside a trap.

Lacking a snack, the monster will run straight for you, and you need to shake him by sneezing, or try to just lose him in a maze. The trick is luring monsters away from the stars without letting them walk over the stars, which they'll crush. And then luring them to the traps. And then not gettin' et.

As triggered obstacles, multiple monsters, superpowered mucous, teleporters, and other challenges are added, things start to get pretty tricky. Not long into the game you develop the ability to create a snot-slingshot (snotshot?) that catapults you from one location to another. It's kind of like Tarzan swinging on horizontal ropes of phlegm

Although there are puzzles I still haven't been able to solve at the 3-star level, basic level-completion is only moderately difficult, making this a good choice for both kids and adults. There's a timed element to the game, and you'll need to think pretty fast on your feet in order to escape certain monsters.

This is a wonderfully weird and appealing little puzzler with some genuine challenges. Don't be put off by the theme. Within a few minutes, you'll forget you're defeating evil by wielding the mighty power of boogers and just lose yourself in the clever puzzles and wonderful graphics.