Friday, February 11, 2011

A Closer Look: French Tarot: Trumps 3 & 4

Click to enlarge
All of the images in this deck tell little stories, usually as a pair. The third trump for instance, shows a lady catching the eye of a man in conversation with some friends, while the flip side shows a girl sneaking a glance at an officer passing by. (At least I think it's a girl: she looks a bit like Eric Idle in drag.)

No. 3 Trump: detail

Click to enlarge

Number 4 shows a home scene, with mom distracting the baby while her husband conducts important man-talk in the sitting room.

No. 4 Trump: detail

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Digits in a Box

Because my mind tends to run in fairly dark grooves, my first image when I heard the name Digits in a Box was a box full of fingers.

Alas, the digits in questions are plastic numbers, and the box in question is just the right size to fit them in.

Digits is the work of Eric Harshbarger, who designed our March cover for Games Magazine. This is a 3D manipulative puzzle originally designed by Eric for the 2007 Nob Yoshigahara Puzzle Design Competition. He's been selling them himself for a little while, but this year Popular Playthings is bringing out a retail version.

The puzzle is quite clever, and one enterprising blogger calculated the number of possible configurations at 4239. There are ten digits--zero to nine--crafted from hard plastic. They're angular and uniform in size, and thus may be fitted together to form a cube that fits snugly in the plastic box.

As if...

Obviously, there is a solution, since the pieces came out of the same box, but no one at Casa McD has been able to figure out how to get that last little half-inch tucked inside so the box will close firmly. It's not for lack of trying. The kids and I have all been able to get it down to just one tiny edge, but no further.

Confession time: I never solved a Rubik's Cube. I never really even tried all that hard. 3D puzzles were never quite my bag: I respect them, but I have no aptitude for them.

That said, I'm enjoying Digits. It's clever, well made, and different. Once you start fiddling with it, it's almost impossible to stop trying new combinations. You think "if I just move the "3" over here and the "1" over here ... That's the sign of a good puzzle.

The Death of Music Games

There was a time when your game was nothing if didn't come with a large plastic peripheral that was hard to store. Music games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band soared to the top of the charts, racking up $1.6 billion in sales in 2008 alone.

Gamesutra charted the decline back in November, but the final numbers were much worse than expected. The sales for 2010 wound up somewhere around the $250 million mark. That may sound like a lot, but given the huge production and licencing costs involved with these products, that's not enough money to keep the lines profitable.

That's why, at the end of last year, Viacom listed Harmonix (the creators of the original Guitar Hero and Rock Band games), as a "discontinued operation" and put them up for sale. Two short years ago Harmonix was at the top of the mountain as a game developer and now they no longer exist. I've never actually seen a development house fall that far, that fast.

Now comes word that the Guitar Hero series has been axed, at least for the foreseeable future. Activision CEO Eric Hirshberg explained it it this way:
"Demand for peripheral-based music games [has] declined at a dramatic pace. Given the considerable licensing and manufacturing costs associated with this genre, we simply cannot make these games profitably based on current economics and demand. Instead, what we'll do is focus our time and energies on marketing and supporting our strong catalog of titles and downloadable content, especially to new consumers as the installed base for hardware continues to grow."
Short version: everyone has all the plastic guitars, drums, microphones, and zithers they'll ever need or want, so we're just going to sell songs online.

And that's actually completely reasonable. Given the declining sales, retailers were sure to balk at giving floor space to more big-box games, and producing the instruments isn't cheap. Licencing and selling new song packs, however, is as close to pure gravy as you're going to find. Although it's a bit surprising to see the "collapse" of an entire genre only a few years into its existence, I'm not sure I read this one as a collapse. The games and downloads continue to be fairly popular: people just don't need the big hardware and annual software updates anymore.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

If you have any interest in recreational mathematics, you should make Ed Pegg, Jr's a regular stop. Ed has a lot of news, comments, links, games, and puzzles. Since he's been doing this for 10 years, he also has a deep well of material on this site. Check it out.

A Closer Look: French Tarot: Trumps 1 & 2

This is an ongoing series looking some of the art which is unique to a French Ducale Tarot deck.

The Number 1 trump shows two different clown characters: an Italian Pagliacci, and a French jester holding his ninny stick.
Click to enlarge

No. 1 Trump: detail.

The Number 2 Trump shifts the focus to scenes from childhood.

Click to enlarge

No. 2 Trump: detail

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The French Tarot

Tarot cards were not created for "divination," but to play games. Some people dispute this, claiming that the trump cards of a tarot deck (called the "Major Arcana") can be traced back to Jewish Cabbalism or ancient Egyptian mysticism.

"Fool" (click to enlarge)
This is the worst kind of pseudo-history, and yet another example of new agers inventing ancient "sources" for modern practices in order to give them a patina of credibility. There is no evidence at all that the Trumps were adapted for fortune-telling purposes before the 18th century, while the cards themselves date back at least several hundred years earlier. Any person or source that claims otherwise is just making things up.

That's not to say that the more familiar "Major Arcana" images used for the Trumps do not have an historical or philosophical aspect. Carl Jung wrote extensively about their meaning and relevance to analytical psychology, tying them to his theory of archetypes. Catholic mystic Valentin Tomberg wrote an entire book, Meditations on the Tarot, that used their symbols as a point of departure for a series of meditations on Christianity. This is because symbols have power, and the images used in the Major Arcana evolved from a Catholic culture that was rich in symbolism. The Major Arcana are clearly derived from a mixture of folklore, courtly culture, and Christianity, and thus offer a kind of cross-section of the secular and religious world of the 15th century.

The word "tarot" comes from the Italian version of the cards, which are called "tarocchi." This in turn may be a reference to the Taro River, or may be derived from an Arabic word. The decks vary from region to region, but the most common deck consists of 78 cards: four suits numbered 1 to 10, 4 court cards in each suit, 1 fool, and the  21 illustrated trump cards.

Valet and Dame (click to enlarge)
These trumps, plus the fool, were later adapted as the "Major Arcana," but in gaming they function as permanent trump cards valued from 1 to 21. Our current standard decks dropped this trump suit, but kept the idea of assigning one of the standard suits as a "trump" for trick taking games.

Deck design can vary greatly, and as I begin rolling out a series on the French Tarot, you'll see just how the images were adapted for various times and cultures. The deck I plan to post is a standard Ducale French Tarot set, which are a complete departure from the more traditional Italian tarot. Based on the clothing and the utter lack of religious symbolism, these particular designs date from the 19th century or later. (Post-revolutionary France made a concerted effort to expunge religious symbolism from the culture. Oddly enough, they kept the courtly symbolism.)

Thus, the images on the Trumps are not the more familiar Arcana, but rather scenes taken from everyday life, showing peasants, laborers, members of the middle and upper classes, military, and typical bucolic scenes. I'm starting with the court cards today, but I'll post some art of the Trumps over the next few days.

Cavalier and King (click to enlarge)

Sword & Poker Series is Available Again

A couple months ago, I learned that the wonderful Sword & Poker games (which I review here) had kinda sorta disappeared from the App Store. I checked, and they hadn't actually vanished: you were simply unable to complete a purchase.

Then they vanished.

Now they're back.

My understanding was that the company that made them, GAIA Co., had gone under and that was that.

These games may not be around for long, so grab 'em while you can. They really are a lot of fun.

And, yes, the App O' The Mornin' will return soon. As I mentioned, I did over 100 app reviews in a very very short period of time, and then my brain went pfffft. I just needed an app break. Also, the flow of apps that allowed for me to say interesting (or at least amusing) things kind of slackened after the Christmas release blitz. I'll be back at it again soon.

Monday, February 7, 2011

The FCC: Stuck in Neutral (Maximum PC, March 2011)

This month's "Game Theory" column for Maximum PC has generated some wider interest, but it is not yet on the magazine's site. Since I've been asked to make it available, Max PC has allowed to me to publish a slightly longer version here. 

“FCC seeks internet control” was one of the main themes of tech reporting in 2010. The first thing that surprised me was that an agency created in the 1930s to regulate the radio spectrum was attempting to exert their nonexistent authority over the entire internet.

The second thing that surprised me was that the FCC continues to exist at all. Like the Federal Reserve and the Departments of Education, Agriculture, Homeland Security, and Health & Human Services, it’s a useless, self-perpetuating bureaucracy that does more harm than good. The courts have already told the FCC where to step off, but the Obama administration won’t let it rest.

This is no place to hash out the arguments for and against so-called “net neutrality.” Simply put: I’m agin’ it. It’s one of those things that sounds perfectly reasonable (we need to protect open access to the internet!), but in fact addresses a nonexistent problem.

Worse, it just let’s the camel’s nose under the tent. In this case, the nose is the FCC and their regulatory power, and the tent is the entire internet. If you think the 5 appointed political hacks on the Commission are just the people to tame the wild internet, then your naïveté is kind of sweet. It’s also infantile.

But how does any of this impact gaming, you may ask?

Well, online gamers may well be targeted as “bandwidth hogs” as ISPs try to accommodate growing demands for bandwidth. The rapidly increasing demands for streaming video and online gaming are certainly going to require a better infrastructure. Free enterprise will realize there is a buck to be made, and step in to increase that capacity, or restructure their fees so that people who use more pay more.

I’m fine with that. I don’t see why my parents’ household (which uses their internet access mostly to forward chain letters and long-debunked urban legends) should pay exactly the same fees as mine (which regularly hoovers up a couple hours of Netflix and a few more of online gaming per day).

In truth, games aren’t a vast bandwidth drain. Some estimates put World of Warcraft, for example, at less than 5MB per hour, and a little higher when more characters are involved in an event. A shooter, however, might eat anywhere from 40MB to 300MB per hour, depending on the game, size of the session, and other factors.

Government regulation cannot increase the bandwidth we need for our games. Only private industry can do that, and the one thing guaranteed to slow that growth is more regulation.