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 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
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.