Saturday, December 4, 2010

Comment Moderation

Comment moderation is off again. I was hit by a pretty aggressive spammer (named "stalin," of all things: I hate communists more than chiggers and cold oatmeal combined), so I had moderation on for a time. He seems to have moved on to another purge or show trial, so I'm turning it off.

I also started to have a debate with someone on my charity post, until I realized it was a spambot which was tasked with posting a vegan screed whenever anyone mentioned or linked to Heifer International. Apparently Heifer is an evil entity because it gives poor and starving people meat rather than soy milk and tofurky.

Friday, December 3, 2010

PUZZLE: English into French

My Editor-in-Chief at Games, Wayne Schmittberger, sent me this puzzle from Martin Gardner's final, posthumously-published Colossal Book of Word Play (Puzzlewright, $8.95).
What English word when spelled backward becomes its own French plural (i.e., the plural of itself translated into French)?
Answer: STATE (ETATS) [ignoring that etat has an accent aigu on the e]

New From ThinkFun: Chess, Knots, and Patterns

I've been getting so many new games over the past couple of weeks that my crack play-testing team can't keep up with them all. I'll start with quick impressions today and then write  longer reviews as I put in some real play time.

First up are three fine products from my friends at ThinkFun, the people who made Rush Hour and all its multiple sequels and variations.

Solitaire Chess
This is a great little combination teaching tool and puzzler. It comes with 2 pawns, 2 bishops, 2 rooks, 2 knights, 1 king, and 1 queen, all in blue plastic. There are 60 puzzles on double-sided cards, each depicting a 4x4 chess board and the starting positions of certain pieces. The goal is to capture all the pieces so that only only 1 remains. I've already spent a bit of time with this, and I'm loving it. The early puzzles are pretty easy, but there are some real challenges here.

I haven't had a chance to test this one yet, but it looks promising. It's a game for 2-4 players in which you place tiles to complete shapes for points. Using four different Trango tiles, each player attempts to create a particular shape, while other either work on their own shapes or try to block.

Knot So Fast
This one is going to be a big hit at our Scout meetings. Seriously, if ThinkFun isn't heavily marketing this to the Boy Scouts of America, then they're missing a golden opportunity. The game comes with ropes, a scoring device, a timer, and 40 different knot-tying challenging. The game is a race to see who's the fastest at tying the knot shown on the card.

State of Play's New Domain

Since I appear to be sticking with this whole blogging thing, I've purchased the domain. It shouldn't make any difference for you, since both the old blogspot links and the new stateofplayblog links should work fine. Please let me know if anything is broken or otherwise missing.

App O' The Mornin': Words With Friends Review

Grade: A
Price: free and $2 versions

After doing the news post on Zynga's acquisition of Newtoy, I realized I'd never done a full review of Words With Friends. I don't play it that much, simply because I'm pretty wired into Scrabble and its ability to allow play from iOS to Facebook. That's not to say I don't like it: I do.

Words With Friends is a very good game, with effective matchmaking and connectivity. The interface works well, and the game loads quickly and functions smoothly. Unlike some of the confusing setup issues with Scrabble's matching system, which requires you to begin creating a new game in order to continue an old one, Words With Friends just pops you right into the action.

You can get into a game almost instantly with either friends or strangers. There's an integrated text chat system, and the ability to play 20 games simultaneously. These don't have to be "live" games: push notifications let you know when your opponent has made a move, so games can be played over the course of minutes, hours, days, or even weeks.

The bonus square distribution is different in Words With Friend than it is in Scrabble, which requires an adjustment in strategy for those of us hardwired into Scrabble. My style tends heavily towards board management and blocking, and the WWF layout is different enough that it takes some time to adjust. The point values are also different in places, with J worth 10 points in WWF rather than 8 as it is in Scrabble.

Some pretty obvious features are missing. A point count for the letters in your current move is mysteriously absent. Sure, you can do this in your head, but why should you have to? There's also no shuffle button for your tray. I like Scrabble's ability to just shuffle your tiles around as you look for ideas. Words With Friends allows you to shake in order to shuffle, but this is needlessly awkward when a button would do fine.

For multiplayer word gaming, Words With Friends does work better than Scrabbles multiplayer functions, and perhaps the new connection with Zynga will bring a WWF app to Facebook.

NOTE: The free version is burdened with an aggressive advertising feature, which is removed in the pay version. 

Evilcorp Acquires Words With Friends

I've made my disdain for FarmVille creators Zynga pretty clear, and now the thing I feared is beginning to happen. Zynga is using their money and power to scoop up good companies. Newtoy, creators of the popular Words With Friends and Chess with Friends, is the first victim. Zynga promptly renamed them Zynga with Friends. I only wish I was making that up.

Zynga head Marc Pinkus allegedly considered renaming them Zynga With Friends With Benefits, but nobody could figure out what the benefits were, or how many Zynga coins they'd cost.

Newtoy also made their own FarmWille ripoff called We Rule. Compared to other compulsion loop games, it really wasn't bad, in the same way that Attack of Clones wasn't as bad as The Phantom Menace.

The Games With Friends network created by Newtoy is the most popular social gaming system on iOS systems, and Zynga has the most popular social gaming titles on other systems, so it's a pretty natural match. No word on whether the Zynga model (Step 1: Steal, Step 2: Lie, Step 3: Screw your customers) will be applied to the "With Friends" line.

Maybe we'll have to buy some Zynga coins in order to get a "Q". Or perhaps come back in 15 minutes to see if our "Z" is ready.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Giving: Mercy Corps

One charity I forgot to mention in my Getting and Giving post was Mercy Corps which, like Heifer, does tremendous work around the world. They have a special gift program that allows you to make donations for specific things, such as outfitting a classroom, planting a field of rice, or giving someone a sewing machine. A card is then sent to the recipient notifying them what was donated in their name. It's a concrete symbol of something good, and beats the hell out of that sweater you were looking at.

It's like The Human Fund, only for real.

Jane Austen's Word Game

In Chapter 41 of Jane Austen's novel Emma, several of the characters use an impromptu game of anagrams to convey thoughts and feelings they cannot express. In the case of Mr. Churchill, he offers a kind of oblique apology to Miss Fairfax by spelling the word "blunder," in acknowledgment of his mistake, and then proceeds to taunt her by spelling "Dixon," the name of another young man.

The game is played with "letters" used by Emma's young nephews for their lessons. They are probably not children's alphabet blocks, but more like Scrabble tiles. They work well for playing anagrams, which was a favorite parlor game of the English middle- and upper-classes, who delighted in puzzles and wordplay. 

Anagrams was a simple game of turning the letters of a word into another word. The characters in the novel create their words in secret, then scramble the letters and pass them to another person, who has to discover the original word. 

It's remains an easy filler game to play while waiting for others to join a game of Scrabble, or just as a fun way to help children learn their words.

Here's the entire passage from Emma, with the rest coming after the break.
"Miss Woodhouse," said Frank Churchill, after examining a table behind him, which he could reach as he sat, "have your nephews taken away their alphabets -- their box of letters? It used to stand here. Where is it? This is a sort of dull-looking evening, that ought to be treated rather as winter than summer. We had great amusement with those letters one morning. I want to puzzle you again."

Apture Bar

Some browsers may be showing a little bar at the top of the page. This is an Apture bar that allows people to search and share from within a post. I have no idea if it's useful or annoying, so if you have any feeling about it one way or another, please let me know.

App O' The Mornin': Numix Review

Grade: F
Price: free

In a career spent writing about games, you come across plenty of bad games. Most of them are badly executed, tasteless, or defective in some particular. Some are actually bad in concept (as in: who on Earth thought this was an entertaining idea for a game?), but those are fairly rare.

Numix is my new baseline for "What were you thinking?" games. Let me describe the gameplay in Numix, and see if you can find the entertaining part.

At the center of the screen is a graphic that mystifies me. It looks kind of like melted chocolate gum. My wife thinks they're supposed to be stylized mathematical symbols: plus, minus, equal, and approximately equal. That's as good a guess as any, although I'm not sure why the symbols are lodged in the middle of the screen like the wreckage of a surrealist parade float built by the MIT mathematics deparment after a wild night of psilocybin mushrooms. Oddly enough, figuring out what they were supposed to be occupied me longer and was more entertaining than the game itself. WIN!

Here's the game: numbers appear in a line at the rate of about 1 every 2 seconds. A box in the middle of the screen displays a single digit number that you can adjust upward or downward by pressing an up or down arrow. When  the number in the box matches the first number in the line, you press the "hit" button to make that number disappear. Then you .... do it again.  And again... And again...  If the line fills up, you lose.

That's it. That's all you do. I've had more fun picking ticks off my dog. Hell, at least the dog is kinda grateful afterwards, and if there's a campfire nearby you get the pleasure flicking the tick into the flames and hearing it pop. Man, that never gets old.

Numix, on the other hand, got old in about 20 seconds, which is how long it took the number line to fill up. Even the icon is ugly. It looks like a maggot puking up a dandelion.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Gameloft's Advent Calender UPDATED

UPDATE 12/2/10: Gameloft clarified today that their Advent Calendar is NOT a free game every day. It may also include links to promotional videos and other things, which makes me wonder if the Gameloft people understand this whole "gift" idea.

Gameloft is counting down the days until Christmas with a free app each day, which you can follow over on their Twitter page. Today's free game is Driver, which regularly sells for $5. A different app will be free for 24 hours each day for the next 24 days.

Crack! Bam! Dot?

photo from Project Mah Jongg
Cliches and stereotypes almost always evolve out of some truth, and such is the case with the image of the mah jongg-playing Jewish housewife. An exhibit called "Project Mah Jongg" traces this connection, and it will continue to run at The Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York into January. The exhibit website is quite good, and has an large gallery of period photos as well as a schedule of special events at the exhibit.

The game was brought from China to America in the 1920s, and by the 1930s it was a genuine fad. It's difficult to trace exactly why one culture adopts a game so passionately, but there's no question that mah johngg was deeply entwined with the Jewish diaspora in America by the 1930s. The National Mah Jongg League was founded by a group of Jewish women who wanted to create a standard set of rules, and after the game's popularity faded in the rest of America, the Jewish community kept it alive. Meredith Lewis has written an article explaining the connection, which you can find right here.

Melissa Martens, curator of "Project Mah Jongg," narrates an excellent 5-minute video that summarizes the growth of the game and the ways in which is became enmeshed in Jewish-American culture.

Googling "mah jongg" can, unfortunately, lead to page after page of links to Mah Jongg Solitaire, which is a stacking game played with the tiles. It has little to do with actual mah jongg, which is really just a card game played with domino-like pieces. If you'd like to learn a bit more about the game, the wiki entry is as good a place to start as any.

App O' The Mornin': La Briscola Review

Grade: B
Price: free

Yesterday, I wrote about the popular Italian trick-taking game called Briscola. I won't rehash the rules, which can be read here. Go head, read them. I'll wait here for you.

As you can see, it's a pretty easy game to understand. If you want to test out this whole Italian playing card thing without spending any actual scratch, then Out of the Bit's simple port of Briscola is the place to start. I'm not quite sure why they added the definite article in the title, but the App itself is called "La Briscola," which means ... "The Briscola." (The word "briscola" may mean something, but the Italians aren't telling. It's the whole omerta thing.)

The port does its work and stays out of your way. There's a help file that explains the rules, and a few configuration options, but by-and-large this is a simple cards-on-a-table game with everything laid out cleanly and logically. You have three cards in front of you, a draw pile with the trump visible beneath it, three hidden cards in front of your opponent, and small area where tricks are played.

One nice feature is the array of card designs: Bresciane, Milanesi, Romagnole, Siciliane, Napoletane, Piacentine, Trevisane and standard Poker decks are all available for play. This doesn't change the game, but it does show you a nice range of traditional Italian deck designs, and really helps get you familiar with their appearance and value.

There are three difficulty levels, but I really couldn't distinguish among them. Four backgrounds are also available, and one of them isn't even hideous.

The game is free, with banner ads occasionally occupying a bar along the top of the screen. I'll never understand why publishers don't offer ad-free versions: I'd pay a buck to get rid of ads.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Gift Ideas: Getting and Giving

I use the Amazon widgets to recommend products because it's convenient, and the Amazon Affiliates program is this site's sole support. However, I also like to encourage people to buy locally when they can, and consider searching out some independent retailer. Here are a few other places to consider when you're searching for just the right gamer gift.

TaroBear's Lair: I only discovered Gary Brunger's mail order business a few weeks ago, but I'd definitely recommend it for anyone searching for imported playing cards. TaroBear stocks French, Italian, Spanish, German, Austrian, Swiss, and Tarot at reasonable prices for imports. Everything in the store is marked down until 12/23.

All Things Fun (South Jersey): This is my local game store, and they have a good stock of games and maintain a large space for gamers. Dina & Ed run a great business, located in West Berlin, NJ. If you live in Philly or South Jersey, you should check them out.

"Play in Public" Swag: Kevin Schlabach's Play in Public campaign has really taken off. The idea is to introduce people to Eurogames by playing them in public places like bookstores and coffee shops. It's a great way to get Eurogames out in the mainstream world, and now your game group can all have matching shirts so you can find each other more easily and really complete the geek tableau. (I kid, I kid...)

Great Hall Games: A reader sent me a link to this store in Austin, Texas. I've never ordered from them, so I can't vouch for their service, but their stock is quite interesting. They have a lot of pieces and historical reproductions, and a big historical miniatures business. The photos of the store make me wish I lived closer!

Funagain Games: It's hardly a small independent business, but if you can't buy local and won't buy from Amazon, then Funagain is the premier site for getting all kinds of games. They always have some sales, and their prices are usually pretty reasonable.

Games Magazine: Every Games Magazine comes with a color section of features, news, and reviews, and a newsprint section of pencil puzzles. It also gives off a pleasing scent of jasmine and lilacs, and plays Bach's Fifth Brandenburg Concerto when the pages are riffled correctly. Please subscribe, so they can pay me. 

If anyone wants to give a shoutout to any other local game stores or small online retailers, feel free to use the comboxes. Spammers, of course, will be defenestrated. 

The truth is, we all have too much stuff already. You know it, I know it, and the people you're shopping for probably know it, even if they don't always admit it. People are suffering right now, and the best gift you can give is hope and love to another, particularly if that person is a stranger. 

Child's Play: Penny Arcade's charity provides money, games, and toys to children's hospitals throughout the world, and has become the largest charity in the game business. My children have been in the hospital, and the ability to play games was one of the best medicines.

Heifer International: One of the best charities out there, Heifer allows you to buy farm stock for poor people all over the world. Instead of just giving people money or even food, Heifer gives them the animals they need to make a sustainable living. It's a wonderful way to give.

Catholic Relief: I'm linking to Catholic Relief because I'm Catholic and they do good work. The Church remains the largest provider of charitable goods and services on the planet, and Catholic Relief gets the money where it needs to go without a lot of waste on overhead. Other religious charities, such as Samaritan's Purse and local St. Vincent de Paul Societies, are also on the front lines working with those in need.

These are just a few ideas. I'm sure you all have charities that you trust and support. I'm always inclined to give to places with the lowest overhead, or the ones closest to those in need. I never give to any group whose main function is to "raise awareness" about some pet issue, but instead focus on those who actually can make a difference. I've volunteered with the St. Vincent de Paul Society, for example, and we actually went to the homes of people in need, gave them vouchers for food from our thrift stores and pantries, helped them get housing and furniture, and paid their utility bills. In the midst of the Second Great Depression, that's where the real need lies.

Gift Ideas: Board Gaming

Here are my recommendations of board game gifts for Hanukkah and Christmas this year. (NOTE: I'm including the base set of Heroscape because this will be the last time you'll be able to buy it. The series has been discontinued.)

As always, good playing cards 1) make great stocking stuffers for any age and 2) don't have Hannah Montana on the backs.

UPDATE: Some browsers may not display the widget that's embedded above, so here's the list, in no particular order:

Dominion: Prosperity (requires Dominion), Scrabble Flash, Telestrations, Lego Creationary, Castle Ravenloft: The Board Game, Betrayal at House on the Hill, Small World: Be Not Afraid (requires Small World), Hersocape: Swarm of the Merro, and Solitaire Chess. They can all be found at Amazon, or wherever better games are sold.

Direct link to list.

Gift Ideas: Electronic Gaming

Here are my recommendations for electronic gaming purchases for Hanukkah and Christmas this year.

UPDATE: Some browsers may not display the widget that's embedded above, so here's the list, in no particular order:

Epic Mickey, Kirby's Epic Yarn, Super Scribblenauts, StarCraft II, Civilization V, Halo: Reach, Donkey Kong Country Returns, Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, an iPod Touch 4th Gen, Microsoft Kinect,World of Warcraft: Cataclysm, and the Halo Encyclopedia from DK Publishing. They can all be found at Amazon, or wherever better games are sold.

Direct link to list.

Italian Card Games: Briscola

If you buy a deck of Italian-suited cards, Briscola should be the first game you try.  Its simplicity gives you a good chance to learn the suits. It's easy, fun, and plays fast: all characteristics which have made it very popular in Italy.

There are versions for 2-5 players, as well as regional variants, but I'm just describing the 2-player version today. As with all card games, rules can be fluid, so I'm not attempting to offer a definitive version of the game: just a common one.

The Cards
Briscola is played with an 40-card Italian deck in suits of cups, coins, swords, and clubs. It may be played with an Anglo-French deck by removing the 8s, 9s, and 10s, but it loses a lot of its flavor in the process.
King of Coins: 4 points
This is a point-trick game, meaning you play to win tricks, and then add up the values of the cards you've won.

Cards have the following value:

Ace: 11 points
Three: 10 points
King (Re): 4 points
Knight (Cavalier): 3 points
Knave (Fante/Donna): 2 points
all other number cards: 0 points

The Deal
Players take turns dealing. Three cards are dealt to each player, face down.

A 7th card is placed face up under the pile of remaining cards (the stock) so that its suit can be seen. This is the trump suit.

The Play
Non-dealer leads the first trick with any card of his choosing. The other player can choose to follow suit, play a trump, or simply lay off junk (such as any number cards with a zero value). It is not necessary to follow suit, even if you can. This is an important rule to note, since it runs contrary to most American trick-taking games.

The winner takes the cards and places them in a pile on his side, then draws a replacement card from the stock. The loser also draws a replacement card. Each player should always have 3 cards in hand until the stock is depleted.

The winner of one trick leads the next trick, and so on until the stock is exhausted. The final player picks up the face-up trump card from the bottom of the deck.

Winning Tricks
Tricks are won according to the following rules:

Highest point value card in the same suit wins. If the cards are worth nothing, then highest number card wins. (This means that a 3 beats a 7, but a 6 beats a 4. Remember: a 3 is worth 10 points, while a 7, 6, or 4 are worth nothing.)


Highest trump wins.

Here are some examples, with Cups acting as trump:

Player A leads with a King of Clubs. Player B follows with a 3 of Clubs. Player B wins because the Three is worth 10 points, while the King is only worth 4. Thus, B has the higher value card.

Player A leads with an Ace of Swords. Player B follows with a 2 of Cups. Player B wins because card value doesn't matter: high trump always wins, and B has the trump.

Player A leads with a 7 of Coins. Player B follows with a 5 of Coins. Player A wins. (Although both cards are worthless, the 7 is higher than the 5.)

When you've played through an entire deck, add up your points. It's easiest to sort cards by value, setting aside the worthless number cards and placing point cards (known as "counters") in piles according to their worth.

There are 120 points in a deck, so the person with 61 points or more is the winner.

This is a simple, fun formula with a lot of subtly to it. Finding ways to capture the opponent's cards, as well as to hold onto your own high-value cards, requires some strategy and careful timing. With only 3 cards in hand at a time, your options are limited, and the constant drawing means you never quite know what your opponent is holding.

American card players will find a certain freedom from not having to follow suit, a convention that opens up new strategic avenues. Those who value the probing, calculating element of standard trick-taking games may have trouble adapting to this more free-wheeling approach, but there's no doubt that it creates a vigorous game with more surprises. On the other hand, Cribbage players may enjoy the combination of chance, point counting, and 2-handed play.

3D Nine Men's Morris

The great game inventor Robert Abbott (Eleusis, Ultima, Epaminodas) sent along some very kind words about State of Play, as well as this illustration from a 3D Nine Men's Morris set he acquired years ago.
Click to view full size.
3D board games can be notoriously unsatisfying, but Bob says this one not only works; it's actually fun. I can see that from the illustration, which shows the traditional mills expanded into a series of nested wire-frame boxes. This is a clever design, with a logical application of dimensionality to an abstract board game. 

Not every classic game survives this kind of dimensional experimentation. 3D Chess, for instance, is not a particularly logical use of dimensionality. Adding two more planes of movement upsets the delicate balance of strategic planning and tactical maneuver that defines chess. Rather than adding complexity, it merely muddies the waters. If chess is a game of military precision, then 3D chess is more akin to a soccer scrum. 

Wayne Schmittberger, the editor-in-chief of Games Magazine, tried to solve the problems inherent in 3D chess by modifying the componants into Parallel Worlds Chess. Instead of trying to approximate chess in three dimensions, Parallel Worlds emphasizes the chaotic elements to create a deliberately crazy game. For example, every piece on the second level can move like a Queen, but they can't capture or promote. The result is entertaining, which is more than you can say for Tri-D Chess.

App O' The Mornin': 123 Pop Review

Grade: C
Price: $1

I'm little slow getting back into the swing of the app thing since my Thanksgiving recess. My device is now crammed with wonderful stuff, courtesy of the Black Friday deals that lit up the App Store like a Christmas tree. I've been skimming through so many titles, however, that I didn't get to burrow deeply into many of them, so I'm covering a simpler game today .

And 123 Pop is definitely simple. This was probably intended as a kid's game, but there's enough here for adults to find it appealing as well.

There's only one game mode, with three difficulty levels. Numbers float around outer space inside little bubbles. You tap two numbers, and then a third number that is the sum of the first two. Rockets and stars add bonus points. The goal is to get the score as high as possible in 60 seconds.

This would seem to be a pretty thin reed upon which to hang a game, but 123 Pop actually works fairlywell. My young daughter thought it was incredibly addictive, and even I enjoyed it. It's not just a simple math drill: the bubbles bounce around with a bit of physical modeling, and as they begin to crowd the screen things can get pretty tricky.

The grade of "C" isn't meant to indicate an inferior game: just one that could have used a little something more. It would be easy to improve with the addition of other forms of math, larger numbers, variable play times, and more items to mix up the action. The formula, however, is quite sound, and it makes an entertaining math driller for kids, and a light puzzler for adults.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Fantasy Flight Game Sale

There's a crazy sale going on over at the Fantasy Flight web site, with deep discounts on over 150 items. You'll find games like Age of Conan marked down from $80 to $25, and Tribune reduced from $60 to $15.

Italian Playing Cards: Regional Map

Modiano, the major producer of Italian playing cards, offers this handy map of the various regions and their cards. At the very top of the map, in Northern Italy near the border with Austria, you can see a single region using a "Salzburger" deck. These use the German-style suits of hearts, bells, leaves, and acorns for (respectively) the hearts, diamonds, spades, and clubs of the Anglo-French deck. On the western side of Italy, you're more likely to find cards based on the familiar Anglo-French suits.

The Siciliane deck described in this post is shown on the eastern side of the island of Sicily.

Italian Playing Cards: Modiano Siciliane

The "standard" Anglo-French-suited playing cards have eclipsed many of the regional playing cards common throughout the world, along with the games played with those cards. Yet in certain places, regional decks are still very popular, and provide a fascinating (and largely unexplored) new wellspring of cards, games, and lore. I plan on diving deep into this wellspring, beginning today with a look at an Italian Siciliane deck produced by Modiano.

First off, you need to understand that there is no monolithic "Italian" deck. There are about 16 different regional decks, some with 40 cards, some with 52. Southern Italy favors the Spanish style which I'm about to describe, while the North has its own style. French and German suits are also used in certain regions of Italy. Even this is kind of fluid, and each regional deck has its own peculiarities.

The pictures below are from a deck common in Sicily. The most striking element of these cards are their unique suits. In the picture below (beginning at the upper left and going clockwise) we have the 3 of : Clubs (Bastoni), Coins (Denari), Swords (Spade), and Cups (Coppe). These replace Clubs, Hearts, Spades, and Diamonds of the Anglo-French deck.

There are no numbers on the cards, but there are 7 number cards in each suit, ranked 1 to 7, plus 3 court cards per suit. In many games, the 3 is of particular value, with cards ranking (high to low) Ace, 3, Courts, then numbers. (Numbers often have no value at all.) Here are what the aces look like. (Left to right: Swords, Cups, Coins, Clubs.)
Click to embiggen
Finally, there are the court cards, which are ranked Fante/Donna (a footsoldier, knave, or young woman), Cavallo (cavalier, or knight), and Re (King), the equivalent of our Jack, Queen, King.

The cards are small and slightly stiff, but the art is extremely appealing, with bold colors favoring yellow, blue, red, and green. The backs are ornate, featuring a Sicilian Triskelion (three legs around a head, usually Medusa). I bought mine from TaroBear's Lair, which provides prompt service and reasonable prices. I'm going to be talking about different games which are played with these decks, and even point you at some apps to help get you started. 

Board Game News for the Week (11/26)

Kevin Schlabach of Seize Your Turn continues to do an excellent Twitterstream digest, linking to all of the relevant board gaming news and reviews for the week. Check out the links for the final week of November.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Rabbi Simcha's Dreidel Spinning Tips

Rabbi Simcha spins a mean dreidel, so go and learn from the master.

When I was a kid, I attended a Jewish day camp during the summers, which probably wasn't a common occurrence for Catholic kids growing up Union County New Jersey during the 1970s.

To make matters even more entertaining, it was run by enthusiastic Zionists, so we began each day lined up in front of American and Israeli flags, first saying the Pledge of Allegiance, and then saying something in Hebrew which I always assumed was some kind of Israeli equivalent, but could have been a wicked recipe for kasha for all I knew. (The Jewish kids always complained because they had to attend Hebrew School. I just thought it was cool that they were learning a Secret Language none of us could ever penetrate. That's probably why I teach my kids Latin: it's the Secret Language of Catholics.)

I always wondered how the Jewish kids were consistently able to skool the silly goyim at dreidel spinning. Thirty years on, Rabbi Simacha finally provides the answer.

h/t: Kathy Shaidle.

UPDATE: I forgot to mention that Rabbi Simcha wrote a book with one of the greatest titles of all time: Up, Up, and Oy Vey: How Jewish History, Culture, and Values Shaped The Comic Book Superhero.

'Tis the Season

Tomorrow, I get back to blogging on my regular schedule. It was nice to have a week off, but it also made me realize that I’ve made this blog thing a part of my routine, and I kinda missed it.

I’ll be back tomorrow with the App O’ The Mornin’, as well as a new series on European-suited playing cards and the usual odds and sods. My Xbox is still in the shop, so I’m horribly behind on new titles. Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood continues to sit there, mocking me.

On the positive side, I’ve been able to get Betrayal at House on the Hill to the table, and we’re liking it a lot. Plus, I’ve learned the Italian card games Briscola and Scopa, which are a blast.

With December comes Hanukkah and Christmas, both of which I’ll post about from time to time. I realize some people get bothered when even the mention of religion flickers across their consciousness. Some may well believe that faith should be shut inside a tiny little box and kept away from the eyes of impressionable types less they get the vapors, but it’s not a belief I share.

Judaism has played an important part in my life and forms the foundation of the Christian faith. My Jewish brothers and sisters begin Hanukkah at sundown on Wednesday, December 1st. My fellow Papists and I begin Advent tonight. Thus, for part of both this week and next, Catholics and Jews alike will be lighting candles in remembrance of miracles.

In addition, Hanukkah recalls the rededication of the Temple and the miracle of the oil, as mentioned in First and Second Maccabees. Although most Protestants consigned these books to "apocryphal" status during the Reformation, they remain part of Catholic and Orthodox Bibles, and thus these festivals have significance for us as well.

Holidays bring play, as well. I hope to get some directions for group games posted throughout the month, to help fill the longueurs in between the flurry of package opening and the moment when your eggnog buzz finally kicks in.

Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) lights a menorah