Friday, February 25, 2011

REVIEW: Stone Age (Rio Grande Games)

Rio Grande Games
2-4 players
ages 10+
60-90 minutes
Originally released: 2008
Designed by Michael Tummelhofer

The conversation went something like this:

ME: I got a new game and we're going to try it out tonight. It's called Stone Age.
FAMILY: Yippee! Sounds good! Battling cavemen! Wooly mammoths!
ME: Well, no, not really. Actually, it's what's called a worker placement game.
FAMILY: [blank stares]
ME: No, really, it's a great kind of game. You have little guys and they're, um, your workers, and you place them on the board and collect stuff, and then, well ... you place them again, but maybe in different locations on the board to get different kinds of stuff.
FAMILY: [uncomfortable glances at each other]
CHILD A: Placing workers is not fun. It's not even a game.
ME: Oh, yes! It's a very rich class of game! There's Agricola, and-
CHILD B: Can't we just play Dominion again?

Needless to say, we played Stone Age, much fun was had by all, and I learned a valuable lesson: never, ever use the phrase worker placement game among children or people who are not familiar with Eurogames. Seriously: kiss - of - death. Maybe call it something else, like a "Resource Acquisition Simulation".

In Brief
In Stone Age, players try to sustain and improve their tribe by gathering food and resources, adding new members, making tools, increasing their agricultural output, constructing buildings, and enhancing their civilization. This is done through a very simple mechanic that involves placing workers on certain spaces on the board and then resolving the actions for each of those spaces. Victory points are earned in several different ways, and the person with the highest number of victory points wins.

This is the usual sturdy, well-crafted product from Rio Grande. The board condenses an immense amount of information into a limited space without making it seem crowded. There are 40 wooden people and 68 wooden resources (brick, wood, gold, and stone), as well as tiles for huts, food, and tools. The art is good and does a lot to extend the theme.

There's a lot of dice rolling in this game, so something really needs to be said about the Stone Age dice cup, a "leather" cup which is designed to look primitive. It is, without question, the worst-smelling game component in history. There may have been that one time when Sid Sackson dropped a copy of Acquire in his septic tank, but ... no, the Stone Age dice cup is worse. It smells like someone left a skinned polecat in a car on a 100-degree day with the windows up.

Stone Age is a hard game to summarize. Although it's fairly easy once your grasp the essentials, there are a lot of choices and resolutions for each turn. I'm just going to run through the basics.

You begin the game with a tribe of 5 workers, a bit of food, and a player board representing your village. People take turns placing these workers in specific locations on the main board. Each location yields some different result during the resolution phase. Some spaces have limited slots for workers, so people may be competing for a choice job during any given round. The locations break down like this:

The notorious Stone Age dice cup
  • Hunting grounds (any number of workers): Gather food, which is used to feed your tribe during the feeding phase.
  • Four different resource areas (up to 7 workers each): Gather wood, brick, stone, or gold, which is used to buy civilization cards and buildings.
  • Tool maker (1 worker): Make 1 tool. Tools are used to increase the total value of your dice rolls.
  • Hut (exactly 2 workers from a singe tribe): Add 1 worker to your tribe,
  • Field (1 worker): Move your marker 1 space up on the food track. This automatically gives you 1 extra food each turn.
  • Building tiles (1 worker per building tile): You pay for a building tile with resources, and then immediately add a certain amount of points to your total score. The building tile is moved to your player board. You can only buy 5 buildings in the course of the game, so plan wisely.
  • Civilization cards (4 cards are laid out on the board, and you can place 1 worker per card): Once a card is paid for, it is taken by the player and replaced from the stock. These cards provide two kinds of bonus during the final scoring phase. Cards with culture symbols (writing, healing, pottery, art, and music) are worth 5 points for each unique card, while cards depicting different kinds of workers will add multipliers. For instance, if you have civilization cards depicting a total of 5 tool makers, and you have 4 tools, you earn 20 victory points at the end of the game. 

Food and resources are calculated by rolling dice, with 1 die rolled for each one of your workers placed on that resource. For instance, if you have 4 workers on the hunting grounds, you roll 4 dice. The total value of these rolls is then divided by various numbers to determine the total yield. (Food rolls are divided by 2, wood by 3, brick by 4, stone by 5, and gold by 6.) Thus, a roll of 24 on a food space would give you 12 food, while a roll of 24 on a gold space would give you 4 gold.

Each turn is played in rounds. First, everyone takes turns placing workers, then everyone resolves their workers' actions, then everyone feeds their tribe from the store of food. Food is measured simply: 1 food for each member of your tribe. If you don't have enough good, then your start paying out resources or even losing victory points.

The game ends when 1 stack of building tiles is exhausted, or when you cannot fully replenish the civilization card layout. People calculate their final score, and the winner is the person with the most victory points.

Food tokens
This is a great worker placement game. It's a bit easier than some, which makes it perfect for families, but there's still plenty of room for strategy and planning. There isn't a great deal of player interaction. Other players may take some spot you want, but other than that there is no trading or real competition, except for points.

There is a lot of dice rolling and simple math in the game, so if you fear the dice, you might want to give this one a pass.  (Seriously, though: don't fear the dice, people!)

Strategy comes from finding the right balance between sustaining and growing your tribe, and earning enough for the point-generating cards and tiles. It's very hard to judge who's winning at any given point, since cards can remain hidden until the final scoring phases. Someone lurking at a 100-point deficit can suddenly lap the track once they calculate all their multipliers.

This points up one weakness in the game: the score can go very high, but the track only goes up to 100 points. That means you will almost always lap the scoring track, sometimes more than once. There's no simple way to mark which pieces have lapped the track, unless you put a coin or chit under their markers. It's not a big issue, but it's something we had to account for.

The theme works well with the mechanics, but I imagine you could place this in any number of settings with few changes. It could just as easily be themed to Colonial America or Ancient China. The stone age setting adds some flavor, but it's not integral to the design.

The design, however, is quite strong, with everything coming together nicely. It's a colorful, entertaining take on worker placement.

Kasparov on Watson

In my post about the Jeopardy-winning supercomputer Watson, I remarked that Chess Grandmaster Garry Kasparov "wouldn't last five minutes against Ken Jennings." That was no slight against Kasparov, who may well be the finest player in the entire history of Chess, and is proving to be a charismatic political figure in post-Communist Russia. It's just that the skill set and knowledge base needed to succeed at Jeopardy is far more diverse and complex than that required to succeed at Chess.

Although Kasparov won his first match against IBM's Chess-playing computer Deep Blue, he lost the rematch, and didn't handle the loss very well. Obviously, he's thought quite a lot about the man-versus-machine contest in the ensuing years, and he offers some interesting comments about Watson in The Atlantic:
My concern about its utility, and I read they would like it to answer medical questions, is that Watson's performance reminded me of chess computers. They play fantastically well in maybe 90% of positions, but there is a selection of positions they do not understand at all. Worse, by definition they do not understand what they do not understand and so cannot avoid them. A strong human Jeopardy! player, or a human doctor, may get the answer wrong, but he is unlikely to make a huge blunder or category error—at least not without being aware of his own doubts. We are also good at judging our own level of certainty. A computer can simulate this by an artificial confidence measurement, but I would not like to be the patient who discovers the medical equivalent of answering "Toronto" in the "US Cities" category, as Watson did.
Read the whole thing.

h/t: My wife (again).

Playing With Your Food

I'm not really that big a fan of Angry Birds, but I love how it's creeping into so many corners of society. Here's a guy who made a playable--yet wholly edible--Angry Birds birthday cake.

And here are the instructions for how to make your own.

h/t: My wife.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

PUZZLE: Musical Letters

It's been a while since I posted a puzzle, so let's try some word playing.

Using just the musical notes--C D E F G A B--what is the longest word you can "play" on the piano? You can play the notes as many times as you like, but they have to a) make a single word and b) not require any letters but these seven.

There are multiple solutions.

Guitar Hero's Death Spiral

Joystiq charts the grisly toll following the death of the Guitar Hero franchise, and it's not a pretty picture. By the time the music game genre is finally laid to rest, the jobs lost actually may be in the thousands, once you add up development, marketing, and manufacturing.

In game development, it's not at all unusual to see cycles of hiring and firing. Companies swell with employees when they need to get a product out the door, and then sometimes shrink in the lull between its completion and the start of the next project.

Due to the size and rapid growth of the series, however, this is a bloodbath. The only Guitar Hero company with a real track-record is Neversoft (creators of the Spider-Man and Tony Hawk series), and they seem to have survived in some reduced form. Vicarious Visions also has some history, mostly working with Neversoft on ports and sequels, and it looks like they're going to survive as well.

On the positive side, a lot of people (including store owners, software developers, and factory workers) made a lot of money in a very short time. On the downside, it's left behind a sobering scene of wreckage that impacts real lives. These boom and bust cycles are the Gold Rush of the digital age.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Wrath of Ashardalon (Wizards of the Coast)

The new Dungeons & Dragons board game, Wrath of Ashardalon, is now available. This one slipped under my radar. Unlike its predecessor, Castle Ravenloft, it didn't seem to generate a lot of buzz, perhaps because it leans more towards fantasy than horror.

Like Castle Ravenloft, this looks like a chunky box full o' stuff for cooperative, boardgame-style adventuring. D&D purists seem to be turning up their noses at these, but my few sessions with Castle Ravenloft have provided a bit of that RPG flavor without the lengthy play, prep time, or need for a dungeon master. In other words: it's a way to play an RPG without it becoming an entire lifestyle.

This time, the Big Bad is a dragon rather than a vampire, and there seems to be a bit more complexity to the experience. The box is stuffed with plenty of dungeon tiles, hero and villain figures, cards, tokens, markers, and everything else a body needs to the D&D thing without a DM. It's listing for $65, and if I get a chance to look at it, I'll do a full review.

REVIEW: Funglish

2+ players (the more the better)

I assume that Hasbro spends millions of dollars on R&D each year, and millions more on market research. Thus, it seems odd that they released a decent little party word game with that title that sounds like the word "fungus."

Despite the mushroomy name, it's still a lot of fun. Here's the gist: Funglish is charades with words. Not words you speak, mind you. Absolute silence on the part of the clue-giver is still required. The words are on little tiles, and you must assemble them on a frame in such a way that they describe a certain object, place, person, or phrase.

The game comes with 120 descriptive tiles, each bearing a single word. The tiles are divided into various types by color: black tiles are colors and patterns (green, striped, colorful), puke-green tiles are negative traits (evil, sour, ugly), gray are materials (wood, fabric, glass, etc), yellow are shapes (thin, wavy, round), blue are related to origin (such as African, fiction, British), red are states of being (manmade, living, dead), beige are general adjectives (scented, moving, liquid), orange are sets of antonyms (hot/cold, old/new, smooth/rough), and green are positive attributes (lovable, happy, glamorous).

The other components are fairly simple. There's a frame that allows you to set the tiles in place in one of three rows: "Definitely," "Kind of ," and "Not," as well as a set of cards with words, people, places, phrases, and various object to describe. These can range from "toast" and "silk" to "Led Zeppelin" and "Al Capone."

One person chooses a clue from the card, and then selects words that best describe it. The tiles are all laid out on a table, grouped by color to make it easier to assemble a description. Thus, if you pulled "honey," you might put "sticky" and "yummy" and "sweet" under "Definitely," "yellow" under "Sort of" (since honey is more gold than yellow, but there's no gold among the color choices), and "furry" under "Not." (If your honey is furry, it's probably time you cleaned out your pantry.) People then have to guess what the words describe, without any acting or verbal input from the clue-giver.

There's a timing element and a way to score points and determine a winner, but frankly the gameplay, win/lose aspect is a lot of hooey. This is less of a game and more of a social lubricant to get people thinking, talking, and laughing. As such, it's actually a lot of fun. The cards have some insane clues (How the heck do I describe Led Zeppelin with a random clutch of adjectives?), and always seems to lack just the word you need. I have a feeling that's on purpose, since a wider range of words might make it too easy to create very precise descriptions.

$23 seems a tad on the high side given what's in the box, and the components won't win any prizes. The tiles are thick and sturdy, but the frame likes to fall apart at random intervals. That said, it's a nice little word game that is quite a bit of fun with the right crowd. It gets people thinking in words, and helps them make interesting connections between words and the meaning they convey. I could also see it being an excellent addition to some classrooms.

Recession Buster Version!
In these troubling economic times, shelling out $23 for a party game just may not be in your budget. It is, however, relatively easy to make your own version of Funglish by printing words on card stock, or writing them on index cards. That way, you can also choose your own words and use different colors of paper for different classes of word. You won't get the frame, but since we've already determined that the frame is about as useful as a screen door on a submarine, I don't think you'll miss it much.

PS: The writer of this review wishes to confess that he tried to work the phrase "Fun Guy" into this piece. He is currently hanging his head in shame.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Great Gatsby: The Long-Lost NES Game

Kotaku pointed me at a "lost" gem of the classic Nintendo Entertainment System days: the 8-bit adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby.

Writer Michael McWhertor fills in the details of just how lead developer Charlie Hoey created a spoof of the iconic Great Gatsby cover art done in an 8-bit visual style. It was such a good idea they decided to turn the whole thing into a flash videogame done in the classic NES style, complete with a period advertisement and scans of the "real" insert for the original cartridge.

There's a certain mad genius in the game, a classic platformer in which Nick Carraway hops around Gatsby's mansion and other locations, collecting money and martinis while dodging flappers, Wilfred the butler, and other foes.

You can play the game online at Can a version of Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel, complete with avenging ghost of Ben Gant, be far behind?

A Closer Look: French Tarot: Trumps 5 & 6

Many people are familiar with the standard Tarot suits (the "Major Arcana") used for "divination" purposes, but they're less aware that Tarot cards were created for playing trick-taking games and have a rich and diverse design history. These images are part of an ongoing series highlighting the art of a single deck used in France.
Click to enlarge

Trump No. 5: Detail

Click to enlarge

Trump No. 6: Detail

Minecraft Documentary in the Works

2 Player Productions has created a 20 minute proof-of-concept video for a feature-length documentary on Minecraft and its creator, Markus Persson. It's a remarkable story--one man creates a genuine PC gaming phenomena--so it should make for a good show.

The filmmakers are trying to raise funds to finish Minecraft: The Story of Mojang, and they've created a Kickstarter page to get the ball rolling.

Here's how they describe it:

For the first time, viewers will be given an in-depth look at both the triumphs and the challenges faced by a studio during their first year in existence. We will analyze the unprecedented success of Minecraft, gain insight into its impact from journalists and industry professionals, and meet the fans whose lives have been changed by the game.

The video embed was cluttering up my site with a lot of autorunning ads, so just click on the widget or link to see the full excerpt.