Saturday, December 27, 2008

Betrayal at House on the Hill Review: Very Nearly Great...

This isn't so much a review, as an exploration of what I think is "off" with this game. Don't get me wrong though, I actually really like this game. (I tend not to play games dozens of times if I don't.)

I'll get back to the vaguely similar Arkham Horror in a future post.

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This isn’t going to be a detailed exploration of how this game works, or even why I think it’s good. I simply wish to explain why I feel it has the potential to be really fantastic, and why I think it falls short of this.

All things considered, I think BaHotH (worst acronym I have ever seen) is a very good game that definitely deserves a reprint, and if you have a chance to snag it for cheap, I’d go for it. There’s a lot of "game" in here, not in the sense that there is any real depth to the gameplay, but that you will have many very different experiences, and two games will virtually never play out the same way. That said, I feel that the game was designed in a rather silly way, which I think needs to be addressed for any potential reprint. Allow me to explain...

For the uninitiated, the way the game works is that, after exploring a creepy old mansion for a while, a "haunt" (scenario) will start, at which point one player will automatically and titularly betray everyone, and the remaining players will frantically work together to fight against some threat ranging from zombies, a giant spider, or even the whole house slowly sinking underwater.

Some scenarios are definitely more balanced than others, and the revised scenario booklet seems to be a bit better than what you get in the box, but as long as you are into the story and theme, and don’t take this sort of game too seriously, this shouldn’t be a problem. Personally I like being thrust up against impossible odds and desperately trying to prevail, though I did run into one scenario (with an alternate dimension and a lot of poisonous gas) which, if I read everything correctly, seems utterly broken.

The problem, for me anyway, is not in the game’s balance. Because the way that the game unfolds is always a little (or sometimes a lot) different, it would be basically impossible to make every scenario balanced for every setup, and I think this variability is a large part of the game’s appeal. The problem I have with the game is this: There are 50 different scenarios, yet only 45 event cards. For most games, the number of cards would be more than sufficient. The problem here is that, while you will only see one scenario, in each game you will see at least a dozen events.

I’ve probably played this game about 20 times, and I’ve never been bored by the scenario itself, but the buildup, where you explore the house drawing cards, begins to feel extremely stale. For example, in at least one out of three games you are likely to be menaced by the ghost of a gardener. When he’s already menaced you in five previous games, he ceases to be particularly threatening or interesting.

From a gameplay perspective, there isn’t all that much variation in the events, and adding more would be a bit redundant, but from a thematic standpoint, the limited number really begin to make the game feel all too familiar. The first 2/3rds or so of the game really isn’t about gameplay anyway; by exploring the house and drawing cards, you are basically randomizing and determining the layout of the house, and the items and stats every player will have when the "real" game starts. This could be done in a far less time consuming manner with some sort initial rolling and shuffling, but the point of it is that it is thematic. You are warily creeping around a house as the tension builds, waiting for the haunt to be triggered. It’s actually a lot of fun... the first couple of times. By the twentieth time it feels like playing a game of Candyland in order to randomize the map for Settlers.

Despite some balance issues, I congratulate them on managing to pack in 50 scenarios, but frankly the game just doesn’t need this many. I’ve played a couple of scenarios more than once, and I can say that they definitely didn’t play out the same way each time. (In fact, I think there’s a lot more variability between two games of Betrayal with the zombie haunt, than two games of Zombies!!!) As I said, I’ve played this game about twenty times, which means that I’ve only seen about a third of the scenarios in the book. Granted if the book were smaller I would have seen more of the same scenarios multiple times, but as I said I don’t see this as a problem. I’d love to face off against Crimson Jack again, but it’s very unlikely that I’ll end up with that scenario a second time. Sure I could simply choose to play that one, but my point is that less time should have been put into making scenarios, and more of it should have been put into making cards. Perhaps the cards were significantly more expensive to produce than pages, but then I say that more events could have been fit onto each event card, and you would have only one of them based on which floor your character happened to be in, like in Arkham Horror.

Personally I much prefer this game to Arkham Horror because it scratches roughly the same itch for me and is far shorter (about 45 minutes), but I say you should go even further. The rules state that the haunt starts after you roll under the number of revealed omens with 6 dice, but I say make it 5, 4 or even 3 dice. You may have to do something to help the good guys out in some way, as they won’t have as much time to beef up, but this will really cut down the tedious early game and get things moving along, and it is how I intend to play from now on. If a new edition is ever released, I hope it either has more event cards (and perhaps fewer and more playtested scenarios), or at least does something to accelerates the early game in some way.

All in all, I really believe that this game deserves a reprint. It has produced very memorable gaming sessions, and I’m very glad I decided to pick up a copy. The way the scenarios work, where the traitor goes off and reads a different set of rules from the good guys, feels very different from anything else I have played. The heroes might need to get a particular item and perform a ritual in a particular room, and the traitor likely has no idea. Maybe the zombies can be killed with the gun, but you won’t know until you try.

This aspect of the game is fun, but the concept of hidden rules has a lot of potential that isn’t fully utilized here, as anyone who has played Mao knows. You could have all kinds of stuff like maybe a witch who curses any player who says a certain word or who has their character pawn facing a certain direction. The possibilities with hidden rules are practically limitless, but the concept is utilized in fairly repetitive ways here. Generally the heroes have to perform one or more skill checks in one or more secret rooms, and the monsters have some stat or item weakness that is unknown to the heroes or the traitor. One of the reasons that there are so many scenarios is so that players won’t remember how to kill zombies, or in what room a ghost must be exercised, but I feel that if the concept of hidden rules isn’t going to be utilized to its fullest potential, these hidden factors might as well be determined through a separate deck of cards denoting particular items or rooms as being important. In this way, the scenario could simply be read aloud by everybody, and only the heroes or the traitor would be allowed to view the cards with the pertinent information such as which rooms were important. I’m not saying that it should have been done this way, I merely wish to reinforce my point that the huge number of scenarios is unnecessary.

Another area in which the game simultaneously succeeds and fails is in the components. They are rather nicely done, and quite durable and nice to handle, but there are also far too many little tokens. In fact, nearly every scenario utilizes a different set of tokens, so there are literally hundreds of little tokens to hunt through when you need twelve of the little round ones that say "Bat." There is nothing particularly thematic or menacing about a little cardboard chit with a word on it, and they all could have been easily replaced with two-dozen generic tokens of some sort. Instead of a scenario asking for some bats, it could simply ask for some of the generic purple triangles, and I assure you that this would be no less thematic. (Bats do not wear little "Bat" nametags in the same way that Radioactive Man does not wear a T-Shirt with his picture on it.)

By shortening the early game, and generifying your tokens so that you don’t have to hunt for the correct ones (or even have to bag them all in the first place), you can cut at least 10 or 15 minutes of fat from what is already an agreeably short meal.

All things considered, if you at least like the concept of B-Horror, and don’t take your lightweight gaming too seriously, BaHotH is almost certainly worth adding to your collection. I’m fairly tired of it now, but it was definitely a fun ride while it lasted, and easily worth the 40 bucks or so CDN I paid for it. There’s really nothing quite like it that I have ever played, and I hope that it or something similar once again sees the light of day in future. But now I have to go. As it turns out, I’m the traitor.:devil: Bwahahahaha...

Happy Haunting!goo

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Thesis and the Minotaur

I'm finally finishing up the first draft of my undergraduate thesis. There's definitely a different set of skills associate with writing a long document, specifically one which is non-fiction. A few times I've found myself explaining something which I then realized that I had covered in a previous section, and the question arises whether to take out or shorten one of the descriptions, or whether to go ahead and explain the same thing twice. Most books seem to go for the latter, which irritates me a bit. I don't need you to tell me the same thing five times, particularly if it's in the same chapter.

And if you are going to go ahead and state things multiple times, should the things stated more often be the things that are more important and/or confusing? I've encountered the same dilemma when writing rules. If one adopts a policy to restate everything until the ratio of concept-statement to concept-difficulty is achieved, the whole thing begins to resemble that Marx Brothers routine in which one side of a mustache is trimmed a bit too much, and then the other, until finally there is no mustache. I want my thesis to retain its mustache, damn it!

Oh, and I hadn't come across this game before, and found it rather interesting, though I mostly just wanted a pun in my title.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Gnome Man's Land - Explaining Das Book

I recently purchased a game called Red November about a group of drunken, communist gnomes on a flaming submarine. (You can go ahead and reread that last sentence.)

It's co-designed by Bruno Faidutti, one of my absolute favorite designers who also gave us Citadels and Mission: Red Planet, as well as many others. The theme for this one is great, and so far the gameplay seems top-notch as well, but sadly the rulebook is a little lacking.

Fantasy Flight Games does this a lot. They put out a good game with high production values, and then they apparently get a roomful of monkeys with staplers to organize the rules. I mean, I can see not wanting to hang around supervising the monkeys when there are staples and feces flying about, but when your rulebook is 40, or 80! pages long, it needs a friggin' index and table of contents, not a bunch of advertisements!

Luckily Red November's rulebook is only 23 very small pages, but sadly these pages appear to have been combined in a seemingly arbitrary order, making the learning of this otherwise fine game unnecessarily difficult. Therefore, I have taken it upon myself to basically rewrite the rulebook, and I have posted my extended explanation here. I didn't include it in this post because it's frackin' long and I don't particularly suggest reading through it unless you want to learn how to play the game or you suffer from insomnia and an excess of time. Instead I recommend silently making puns to yourself about gnomes for the next few minutes if you gnome what I mean...

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Mini Games: Unwarranted Experiments in Timesaving

I've started a geeklist with the intention of compiling a collection of variants for reducing the playing times of various boardgames. You won't get some of the in-jokes if you only play videogames, but lucky for you those never drag on.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008


So I got an iPod touch (2nd Gen. 8Gig), and after using it for about a week, I have to say that it is perhaps one of the greatest things ever created by man. I may be somewhat biased towards Apple, what with their products not constantly crashing, but this thing is an absolute joy to use.

The main thing is the touchscreen interface. When I think touchscreen, I think irritating bank machines that hassle me and beep a lot, but the touchscreen on the iPod and iPhone are a whole different animal. The thing always seems to know what I want it to do, and the touch keyboard is in a totally different universe than the awkward graffiti feature of oldschool PDAs. My personal favorite feature of the interface is that when you scroll past the bottom of a list, rather than just stopping, the thing carries on and then bounces back, as if to say "oop, that's the end of the list, but I cheerfully acknowledge your request to scroll farther and can fully understand why you might want to do so. Please have a pleasant day." Apple understands that controlling something directly feels inherently different than controlling it with a mouse wheel, which is something Wii developers need to learn one of these days.

When I do something like press a button or move a joystick or a scroll wheel, I know that I've done so and if I get no other feedback, I just assume that nothing is supposed to happen. But when I do something more vague like move my finger or swing a Wiimote, I need some sort of aknowledgement that I entered the command and that it didn't do anything. There is almost nothing more frustrating in videogames (and realize that I grew up in the days of Battletoads) than continually waving your arm to no effect and then finally realizing that either you're not doing it right, or that you can't do that action there. (But I'll have plenty to say about bad (and good) Wii controls in another post.)

Anyway, iPods and iPhones are all the rage right now, despite the questionable phone plan Rogers has for us in Canada, which led me to opt of the iPod. New games and apps are constantly flooding onto the device, and I am actually working on a game myself with some fellas in my dorm. I'll keep you posted when we get further along in development.

As with anything, 90% of all of these apps are presumably completely terrible, but luckily some of them are quite interesting, and a surprising number are completely free. There's also a handy ratings system to help sift through the muck and find the gems, and personally I think ratings systems should become a mandatory feature on every product. Like if you go to a restaurant, and look at the menu, and think 'maybe I'll get the clam risoto,' but then you look at some of the ratings, and one guy says 'was like eeting poo :p' and another says, 'CLAMB BIT ME!!!1!!' Maybe you want to consider something else, I mean sure, people who post comments on the internet are clearly morons who can't talk, but if you've got enough of them, they've got to add up to at least one functioning brain. That's right, I said it: the internet is like a hive mind of idiots. "We r teh borgz... u wil be asimalated tottaly pwnd... resistins is fewtilz ftw lol :D", soz aniwayz [cough] anyway. Being the nerd that I am, my favorite app so far is the amazing lightsaber app. Using the built in accelerometer, it turns your iPod/iPhone into a Jedi weapon of death. This thing is extremely cool. It just buzzes menacingly when you wave it slowly, and then makes clashing sounds when moved quickly, and features include optional Star Wars battle music. Plus, if you are using it with earbuds in, the buzzing and crackling actually plays louder out of one earbud or the other depending on which direction the thing is tilted in. This means that if you swing the lightsaber to the left, you actually hear the sounds coming from your left. I quality feature to be sure, but honestly I don't think I'll be using this thing with earbuds in very much. Some guy with earbuds swinging his phone around just looks like an idiot, whereas if everyone can hear why I'm swinging it around and grimacing fiercely, I come across as the suave gentleman that I am.

There's also a character creation option which I fully abused by creating the famous Jedi "Harry Potter." You see, when I was younger, I used to look frighteningly like Harry Potter, to the point where everyone would call me Harry and small children would ask me to lift up my hair in hopes of seeing a scar (oh, the state of today's youth). I actually won a copy of the fifth book for free in a look-alike contest. So I cut the face from an old Halloween picture (okay, first year), and voila! I also gave my Jedi a nice pumpkin-juice colored lightsaber, as well as a character bio:

"Working as an Auror for the Ministry of Magic, he rides across the galaxy on his Mellenium Firebolt, seeking out Sitherins wherever they may be and battling them with the lightsaber that once belonged to Godric Gryffindor himself." (that's "Sitherin," by the way. I realize that not all Slytherins are evil and need to be hunted down, but all Sitherins do.)

I would have made it longer, but I was worried that I was stretching the joke to the point of hemorrhaging. I also didn’t want to inadvertently spoil anything for the people who still haven’t read the last book as I’m sure they’d both be very upset with me. Of course, Star Wars is explicitly stated to take place “a long time ago” so none of the adventures of Jedi Potter necessarily have to take place after the end of book seven. He’d just have to use a time turner at some point. I’m not sure whether the wizarding world has any magic/technology capable of sending him to a galaxy “far, far away” though. By the way, I may have given this waaay too much thought.

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Okay, so how are the actual games on the iPhod, seeing as that is what this blog is allegedly about? Actually, they seem to be quite good. The accelerometer and the touchscreen open up a lot of new control options, and the complete lack of physical buttons force some much-needed innovation on the part of game developers. If you're one of those inconsistent people like me who is both cheap and also bought an iPhod, the best free game so far is probably Tap Tap Revenge, a rhythm game in the vein of Guitar Hero where you physically poke the notes as the reach the bottom of the screen.

The first minor gripe I have with this game is that you are supposed to touch the notes when they are too close to the bottom of the screen, so it is a bit awkward to hold the Phod and you are in danger of poking somewhere below the touchscreen (which, as you might guess, doesn't do a lot). You can poke farther up the string/fret, but then you end up obscuring the notes with your own fingers. I've found this is one thing developers are still learning with the iPhod, that you shouldn't have players doing things with the touchscreen that force them to hide the game from themselves with their own fingers. Sounds obvious but is more of an issue than one might think.

The other minor gripe I have with TTR is that some of the 'notes' require you to shake the Phod in one direction or another. You're gonna want to disable this as soon as possibly with the merciful options menu, because this feature just doesn't work very well, at least form me. It's not so bad on the easier settings, but if you want an actual challenge, you'll quickly lose that combo when the game asks you to shake the Phod left and then decides 'meh, that wasn't really left enough for me, not enough tilting. I'll just reset your combo there and -oh, was that supposed to be left again. That... I'm sorry, that was just dreadful.' If there was the option of just one 'shake' command, it would be fine, but the diections just make it far too picky. Luckily, you can turn it off and go back to being the pokeyman. Aside from these very minor complaints, the game is really a lot of fun. I'm not even sure why, but I just can't help grinning and bopping my head while I play it, and I don't even like most of the music. If it could somehow auto-generate notes for any song in your library, or had a built in level creator so you could make them yourself, this game would be frickin' epic.

I think racing and piloting games also have a good home on the iPhod. They use the accelerometer the way they are meant to be used, namely as a sophisticated detector of subtle movements rather than as an extra button (I'm still looking at you, third-party Wii developers). I bought Moto Chaser (upgrade to Moto Racer) at 99 cents, and it was worth every penny. Not really much to say about this game except that you ride a motorcycle really fast and hilariously punch people off of theirs, and that you are apparently trying to rescue a cat. Um, why not?

The third game I've been playing a lot is the fabulous Enigmo (I got it for 1.99 and I've just completed level 40). When I first started playing this game, the experience was absolutely sublime, somewhat vaguely akin to my first playthrough of Portal. I've really played nothing quite like Enigmo, and that's rare these days. Sadly, the novelty wears off after a while, but what you're left with is still a very solid game. I don't really want to say puzzler, because though there is certainly a puzzle element, there is also a large element of simply trying to rig up everything so that it works the way you've envisioned. I like this, because rather than in most puzzle game where there is only one correct solution, this game offers you a fair bit of creativity. It lets you use whatever crude or harebrained solution you want to so long you can actually get it to work.

This brings me to my only major complaint, which is that the touch controls are awkward. I don't care what anyone says, they could have been vastly improved if the rotation area for the objects was a bit larger. What often ends up happening is that you are trying to rotate a carefully placed object and end up dragging it across the screen instead. I've managed to cut down on this by zooming in on objects when I need to fiddle with them, but you shouldn't have to do that. Oddly, you can make the circles bigger, but this requires putting your finger on the circle (which is the hard part) and dragging it outwards, and after you let go, the circle returns to normal size. What's the point of that? The rotation circle pops up only when you select an object, so the game knows you are trying to manipulate that particular object, so why couldn't the circles be larger? For that matter, why do they need to get smaller when you zoom out? It's like if I zoom out on a page of text and the elevator bar shrinks too.

On the topic of object rotation, one place where this game really wins is by having real-time feedback as to whether you have the object rotated correctly. You see, the object of the game is to guide a stream of water to a destination, except that the water behaves like a bunch of little ping pong balls. Because there is a constant stream of these little guys, rather than having to estimate angles, you can simply place an object and then watch as the path of the 'water' dynamically changes with its movement or rotation.

The game is very good, but after a while the levels don't feel like they're throwing anything new at you. I think they could be using the temporal element a lot more, such as requiring more elaborate multi-step solution, rather than mostly just having puzzles that can be solved by plunking each object in a particular place. The somewhat awkward controls also hold the game back from being as relaxing and sublime experience as it should, though in all honesty they are quite good, and I am being fairly picky. It's just that when a game is this good and original, I really want it to go that extra ten percent and reach legendary status. As it stands, I don't think this game holds the meaning of life anymore, but then I haven't quite gotten to level 42 yet.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Polly Pocket Monsters (Call me, Mattel)

I wanna be the very best, like no one ever was. To catch them is my real test, to train them is my cause.
I will travel across the land, searching far and wide. Each Pokémon to understand the power that's inside.
Pokémon! Gotta catch 'em-just you and me. I know it's my destiny. Pokémon! Oh, your my best friend in a world we must defend.
Pokémon! Gotta catch 'em-a heart so true. Our courage will pull us through. You teach me and I'll teach you. Pokémon.
Gotta catch 'em all, gotta catch 'em all. Pokémon!

And I haven't seen the show in at least five years! This is all from memory! This is the legacy of a craze that captured the minds and wallets of a generation. And you know what? Rampant consumerism aside, Pokémon was pretty cool. (I may have some lyrics wrong; I didn't check them. Feel free to comment and correct me.)

Many people will reasonably object to me using the past tense, as the cards and games are definitel still coming (the latest being Pokémon Platinum for DS), and there are definitely still hardcore Poke-fans out there. I myself dropped out when the number of Pokémon was still at 151, and as far as I'm concerned, the 50,000 Pokémon that have come since are not cannon.

Okay, I do think a couple of them are cool. Cyndaquil is just so darn cute, and there are a few more that came out after I stopped collecting the cards that I do think are kinda neat, but I also think somewhere along the line it all started to get stupid. I mean, the whole idea was that these things were supposed to be like real-world animals but weirdly different, and in the first batch of 151 there were only a few archetypes missing: we didn't have any dolphin/shark/whale Pokémon, and we didn't have a penguin Pokémon. That was about it. Nintendo could have released a mini-expansion with these Pokémon and called it a day (haha, good one).

But noooooo, instead we now have a complete Pokédex of 493 different Pokemon! And some of them are just stupid! What, prey tell, is a Drifloon? What is it, and how did it get in my Pokémons? And this one, Luvdisc, this is just a shape! Or what about Ludicolo over here? It looks like something the Taco Bell Dog would have a nightmare about after eating some bad taquitos! My point is that the standards for becoming a Pokémon seem to have gotten a bit lax. I mean okay, I'll be the first to admit that the first 151 weren't all gems (Magnemite and Magneton were always a bit inscrutable, and Voltorb and Electrode were pretty much a Pokéball and then an upside-down Pokéball. Cool.), but most of them were cool, and what's more they embodied the innocence and simplicity that was Pokémon.

But I suppose it was to be expected. You can only expect a fan to buy so many Pikachu baseball caps, and eventually you want to introduce something new into the franchise. But that's the thing, the gameplay hasn't changed, the plot of the TV show hasn't changed, they haven't taken any risks or broken any new ground, they just keep pumping out new Pokémon. And you have to catch them all! With this simple mantra, Nintendo either brilliantly or unwittingly set the franchise up in a way that has allowed easy expansion with minimal risk. It doesn't matter if some of the new Pokémon are terrible (or are just shapes!), you have to catch them all.

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Alright, enough ranting. Chances are you either already know all of this or you don't care (or possibly you are plotting a death for me involving your stupid Nosepass or whatever), so I'll move on to what I think was cool about Pokémon and the stuff I sometimes get nostalgic about.

First of all, the concept is just so weird. I mean, I've come to accept that anime is weird, but although Pokémon wasn't the first Japanese cartoon to be shown on North American television, it was the first exposure that many of us had to it. The whole thing was so delightfully foreign. Videogames had sort of just reached the point where you could portray a living, breathing world to the player, and man was this one weird. This is the conversation I had in my head when I thought about how one might try to explain Pokémon to someone who had never heard of it before (though this person probably would have had to have been living in a fallout bunker with no contact with the outside world for the past twelve years or so):

"You see, Pokémon is like the real world except that you can capture animals and train them to fight each other... wait, you can do that in this world!"

I suppose in the real world that sort of thing is discouraged (for good reason), so in Pokémon the main difference is that the governments of the world condone this behavior. Also, there are magical devices called Pokéballs that you can put a Pokemon inside and release it whenever you choose. In real life we call them cages...

Oh, one more important point is that in the Pokéworld (Pokéworld?), when a Pokémon gains enough battle experience from knocking smaller animals unconscious, it "evolves" into a bigger, meaner version of itself. Just to make this perfectly clear: THIS IS NOT HOW EVOLUTION WORKS! I won't harp on this point, but sometimes I think it's things like this that lead creationists to disregard or misunderstand the theory of evolution. Charles Darwin did not go to the Galapagos islands and beat a turtle with a stick until it evolved wings and flew away. As far as I know, this has never happened.

So I think that we've established that Pokémon is kind of weird, but that was what was so neat about it. It wasn't your average kids fantasy story of brave adventurers fighting evil, it was a world eerily like our own but inhabited by a very different variety of fauna. And sure there were bad guys (Team Rocket or the rival trainer, I guess), but they weren't the center or the driving force of the narrative. It was all just a bunch of kids striving to become better and learning about themselves along the way. And there wasn't the imposed sense of authority you have in the real world. I could challenge you for your fire badge, and it didn't matter that you were older or bigger than I was, if I'd trained my Pokémon better than you and was better at deploying them, you had to give it to me. And if I hadn't, well that was that. I lost. No ifs, ands or buts about it. It removed all the grey area of the real world, and what's more it gave people an arena in which to solve their differences. There was no war in the Pokéworld, people solved their problems like gentlemen: with duels. Except that instead of the people getting hurt, just the animals get hurt... Okay, that suddenly seems bad again.

Point is, Pokémon was rad, and it will always have a special place in my heart. I may have outgrown it, but if they ever made a version of the game where I got to actually fight as the Pokémon in real-time, I'd buy it in a second. I also think the card game is quite good, mechanics-wise, and though I haven't played in years, I wouldn't turn down a game. (I also have a near-mint-condition Charizard from the first set, which could be my children's college fund some day if I can just convince the world that Pokémon is awesome again.) I never did manage to catch all 151 classic Pokémon, I only made it to 148, but I had a lot of fun along the way. Once I heard that if you catch them all, Satoshi Tajiri comes to your house and gives you a real-live Pikachu, but I'm pretty sure this is just hopeful speculation.

By the way, if you or anyone you know has Dragonite, Bulbasaur or Ivysaur, I want to talk...

Friday, November 7, 2008

Slices and Dices

Today I want to get a little philosophical with you. The topic: Friedrich Nietzsche's perspectivist views on secular morality... ...nah, I'm just kidding, the topic will be randomness in games.

Firstly, I'll just come out and say that I do not believe in luck. I'm always surprised by how many intelligent people seem convinced that the dice gods will bring them victory if they roll the one that hasn't run out of luck yet. Probabilistic math makes sense and is readily testable, yet the human mind is extremely good at crafting stories and taking everything as some sort of sign. Sure it's surprising to roll snake-eyes three times in a row, but if you are a gamer and roll 2d6 a lot, this is very likely to happen to you at some point, and it is not because God did not judge you worthy to blow up that tank.

I've seen people play sub-optimally in Settlers because "3s always seem to come up more than 6s in our games." That's because you don't notice the 6s! Nobody cares when you roll a six, but when you roll a three for the second time in a row, everyone feels as though they have been betrayed by mathematics. This is why they sell a deck of all the combinations of 2d6: not to ensure that every number comes up the right amount, but so that when the opponent whines that there were too many threes, you can point at the deck and say authoritatively "no there were not!" Of course, as a casual game, this probabilistic fallacy is I think a large part of the game's wide success; When you lose, you can blame the dice, and there is no one keeping track to challenge your claims.

If you yourself are designing a game, please, please defer to the actual laws of probability, and not who seems to get "lucky" in your playtests. Believe in whichever dice gods you want in your spare time, but please try to keep gaming secular.

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All that aside, it's hard to say whether there is actually any such thing as random chance in games either. Einstein famously said "God does not play dice with the universe" (as well as a number of other amusing nuggets), and at the moment this appears to be false at least at the level of elementary particles, but can rolling a die be truly random?

Nothing on a computer is actually random as it is all procedurally generated, so can we really say that we can achieve something a computer can't simply by throwing a dotted cube? Neither result is predictable, yet both derive from a starting point via a set of rules and a sequence of operations, though obviously the rules and sequence of operations involved with moving a human arm are vastly more complex than those which a computer uses to manipulate a set of numbers. But doesn't it all come down to a set of rules and starting conditions leading to a deterministic outcome? Or is the real-world act of throwing a die in some way affected by truly-random outcomes at a subatomic level which create ripples of randomness that are not felt in the simpler computative mathematical operations? Hell, I don't know.

Have you ever notice how you can flip a coin and be reasonably unsure of which side will land face-up, but yet it's really difficult to shuffle two cards and not know which one is on top if you saw which was which beforehand? With so few cards, it becomes obvious which procedures you are applying to them to get a "random" value (put this one on the bottom; now put it on the top again), but with the coin I think there's enough stuff going on that it doesn't feel like a procedural operation anymore. So where does it slide over into actual randomness? Is a deck of ten cards suddenly enough to be random? If it could eventually be proven that throwing a die is in fact not random, then I find Einstein's choice of words ironic.

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And why are there rock-paper-scissors tournaments! Do these people have nothing better to do with their time?! ...Okay, that was unnecessarily harsh. I suppose it is probably the purest distillation of human competitive psychology, and there is something almost primal about the game (though it must only date back to a time after scissors were invented which was 1500 BC according to wikipedia). Granted there must be some psychology involved, and acting truly random is rather difficult (we tend to switch more than we should), yet this sort of guessing-game still feels pretty random to most people when we encounter it in a game and we still feel it an acceptable way to determine who picks where to eat lunch even though something like skill-at-tennis-playing usually wouldn't qualify someone to choose. What if your friend is the world champion at rock-paper-scissors and he likes haggis or something?

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Barack Me Obamadeus [I didn't come up with that one]

It appears that Barack Obama has won the 2008 presidential election, and I heartily congratulate him. Luckily this is not a political blog so I am not required to say anything intelligent on the matter. I will however use it as a segue into talking about 1960: The Making of the President, a Eurogame about the presidential race between Kennedy and Nixon. (By Eurogame, I'm reffering to the style and elegance of its mechanics, because the game was in fact designed by a couple of Americans, hence the subject matter.)

I confess that I haven't played this game enough to really give a proper review, but I will say that the game's presentation is absolutely fantastic. I mean, I'm not a sucker for nice graphics or bits, but this thing just oozes '60s political campaign, from the little candidate pins, to the mugs and fake coffee-stains on the board (which makes my brain confused because usually the sight of any sort of stain or blemish on a game board drives me up the wall, but here it just looks so awesome). So far the game seems tight, and reviews are high, and I look forward to playing again, mostly so that I can practice my Nixon and Kennedy impersonations.

It makes me think though; There aren't a heck of a lot of strictly political games, and almost none that aren't boardgames. Sure there are a lot of games that involve politics to some degree, but "politics" usually just means that the players are allowed to make deals and gang up on each other. A couple of games like Twilight Imperium or Warrior Knights utilize a mechanic where players vote on agendas that will add to or change the rules of the game in some way. If you like this sort of thing, you could take it to the extreme with Nomic, a game about only this (well, there's also a die and a score pad in there somewhere).

So is Nomic the ultimate political game? Well, by some definitions, but it's not themed around any particular political setting either real or make-believe, and I have a hard time categorizing any abstract game as the ultimate example of a non-abstract thing. I mean, politics is a real phenomenon, yet rather than try to simulate it in a meaningful way, games try to shovel in truckloads of event cards corresponding to real-world events, even if the gameplay bears no similarity to the events supposedly being simulated. I can easily design a game about World War II where all we do is play events back and forth: Maybe I play the "Seize Czechoslovakia" card and then you play the "Declare War!" card but I cancel it with the "Neville Chamberlain's Wacky Appeasement Policy" card.

My point is that this game has nothing to do with World War II. It might have taken me hours of hypothetical research to write all three-hundred hypothetical cards, but this doesn't change the fact that we're really just playing an abstract card game because there is nothing about the gameplay itself that has anything to do with the Second World War.

Now despite this rant, I am not in fact criticizing the abundance of historical event cards in 1960: The Making of the President. I do not know enough about this election or the American electoral process to assess whether the overall gameplay is accurate, but it is quite possible that it is overall a fairly good representation, and more importantly it is fun and the mechanics are engaging and not just an excuse for historical flavor text.

No, my objection is that it seems like every time a game tries to incorporate "political" elements, it just adds a bunch of simplistic, politically-themed events into the mix and calls it a day. To me, this demonstrates a lack of understanding for the subject matter. Politics is at least as complex a subject as warfare, yet we have far more sophisticated mechanics to simulate that. (And just wait for my rant on how lousy I think most tactical war simulations are.)

So this is your challenge, game designers of the world: Start inventing more interesting political mechanics. They say Die Macher is the father of Eurogames, but it seems like nearly all of his children must be adopted because almost none of them seem to have gotten the interesting-political-simulation gene. Some day in the future, when I'm playing 2008: The Making of the President II, I want to have to think long and hard, and consider many interesting factors, before I decide to play the "Sarah Palin" card, and if I do, then I'll just have to hope that my opponent doesn't play this card.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation - Session Report

Here (and below) is my description of a session of a game I wrote a while back (I wrote the description, not the game). Like Loot, this is a Reiner Knizia game because, well, he seems to have designed pretty much everything. Seriously, this guy has something like three-hundred games under his belt!... And most of them are really good!

Anyway, this particular game is one of my favorites, and the particular session I wrote about was absolutely priceless. Also, the approx. 75% win-ratio cited below goes to show how AWESOME I am.

If you want a yet-more distilled version of The Lord of the Rings, go here. (Warning: spoiler alert... if you're weird and don't know what happens at the end of Lord of the Rings. Also, my session report might be counted as a sort of inverse-spoiler because that's not what happens.)

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Okay, so I just got this game and have played maybe a dozen times, and I LOVE it! This is quality two-player gaming. The two sides seem very well balanced (I have won roughly 75% of my games thus far as both sides, though it's a little early to give a final verdict on the balance). This is definitely what Stratego tried but never hoped to achieve. I must retail what is possibly one of the shortest and most epic instances of this game ever. We played with classic characters, but added special cards for the first time. Please excuse my cheesy prosesauron:)

A shadow was growing in the east; Gandalf could feel it in the very air around him. He had tried his best to rally the free peoples, and attempted to impart upon young Frodo the urgency of his task, but the enemy was already moving, and he came to the realization that he must act alone before all was lost. A dark force prevaded the passage through the Mines of Moria, and he feared it was one of the Balrogs of old. Wasting no further time trying to rouse his decadent allies, he set off alone into the mines to rid them of this ancient curse.

It wasn't until Gandalf reached the bridge of Khazad-dum that he saw not the adversary he was expecting, but rather a different, though no less deadly foe, the Witch King! Locked in an epic battle of steel and magic, both combatants were eventually hurled into the deep black of Moria.

But it wasn't the end. No, Gandalf's aid was still needed in Middle Earth. He felt himself rejuvenated, and stepped out onto the padded ground of Fanghorn Forest. He felt new life in him, but he could feel that time was short, and he had none to spare. He sensed the forest moving around him. Were these the great Ents? Perhaps they could aid him in his desperate push into Mordar. With solemn resignation, Gandalf realized that these were not the sights and sounds of Ents; the forest was alive with Orcs! They had swarmed around him, cutting off his retreat. There was nothing now but to face the onslaught. Gandalf stood alone as the tide of Orcs fell upon him...

"More tea, Mr. Frodo?"
Frodo had been absent-mindedly gazing out the window of his little house at Bag End.
"Sometimes I worry, Sam. What if we haven't taken this ring thing seriously enough?"
"That's silliness, Mr. Frodo," Sam replied resolutely, "You know how Mr. Gandalf gets worked up about these ancient prophesies. Next week those nails you ordered to fix the gate are sure to arrive, then we can go to Mordar. I'm sure there will be no trouble. Besides, even if there really is some army gathering in Mordar, we have men and elves on our side. They're nearly twice our size. There's really nothing to worry about."

At precisely that moment, as Frodo reached for a third biscuit, the roof to Bag End was rent asunder, and the terrible Balrog unleashed his blazing fire-whip on all that lay within.

Okay, so what actually happened. Black moves a piece over Moria. Meh, let's send in Gandalf, I can always resurrect him later. The Witch King, huh? "Noble Sacrifice!" (kills both combatants.) Hmm, the space in Fanghorn is vacant, and that might not last for long. Better rez him now. Hopefully he can tear up the opposing lines a little bit. Black's turn. Orcs! Well crap. A few uneventful turns pass. Then I'm feeling clever because I successfully snuck Gimli through the mines to dispatch the Orcs. (For anyone who hasn't played this, Orcs kill any single character they attack automatically, and Gimli kills Orcs automatically.) Unfortunately I foolishly left my lines open, and who does he manage to slip into the Shire undetected? The Balrog! Who's still in the Shire? Sam and Frodo! I don't remember the exact sequence of cards played, and whether the outcome was the result of my incredible stupidity, or because I'm forgetting another battle that happened somewhere in which I had used "Magic" (which would have saved me here), but the Balrog ends up crushing Sam, and then Frodo, under his big flaming hoof, thus ending the shortest and most awesome game of this I've ever played (I'm sure it clocked in well under five minutes, not counting setup). I look forward to many more memorable quests in the land of Knizia's Middle Earth.

Thank you and good night.


So my last name is really "Bishop"... as in the Chess piece. This is not some sort of cutesy pseudonym (or pseudoname), this is in fact my real name.

There was some study which showed that supposedly people are more likely to have names that relate to their chosen fields of work than chance would dictate, and apparently this holds true here. Now I just have to wonder whether my Great-Great-Great...Grandfather was a member of the clergy, or just someone who moved diagonally.

If you call yourself a gamer, you need to check out Zero Punctuation if you haven't already. I bring this up because Mr. Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw, genius though he is, apparently feels it necessary to artificially insert a game-related word into his name, while I find myself naturally equipped with one.

Not really sure where I'm going with this.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Loot Review: An Overlooked Gem

There's a nifty little card game I picked up a couple of years ago, and I've gotten around to writing a review of it, originally posted here:

The full review is below, but if you have a profile over at bgg, then head over there and give my review a thumb-up, and if you don't have a profile at bgg... ...well then I just don't know what to say.

(By the way, Loot is a card game where you attack merchant ships with pirates and yell "ARRR!" a lot. Perfect for Talk Like a Pirate Day or for teaching your child one part of the alphabet.)

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This game is great, and I’m sort of surprised that it hasn’t garnered more attention as a fantastic gateway game. I think the problem may lie with the fact that as a 2-player game, it is absolutely abysmal. Advertising it on the box as a 2-player game has, I imagine, probably hurt its popularity quite a bit because if anyone bought this on a whim (I got mine for $8) and then tried to play it for the first time with a single opponent, they would probably be inclined to deposit it promptly into the nearest trash bin and dismiss it as poor non-gamer fare. Indeed it was probably only The Good Doctor’s name on the box that encouraged me to try this sucker out with more than two players, and I am very glad I did because it is now probably my favorite gateway game, and a game I wouldn’t hesitate to pull out as a filler with gamers either.

Part of the beauty of Loot is its incredibly simple rules, which are as follows:

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Deal each player 6 cards and choose a starting player to begin. Play passes clockwise.

On a turn, you may:
1) Draw a card.
2) Play a merchant in front of you.
3) Play a pirate on any merchant on the table (with the bottom of the card facing you to show that the pirate is yours). If you had played pirates on this merchant on a previous turn, the card you play must be of the same suite (color), and other players cannot play pirates of this suite on this merchant. You may play pirates on merchants that are in front of you.
4) Play a pirate captain or the admiral on a merchant on the table. To play the admiral, the merchant must be yours. To play a pirate captain, you must have pirates of the same suite as the captain (there is one captain of each suite).

(You discard a card on your turn if the deck is depleted and you have nothing else to do.)

At the START of your turn, if you have more strength (skulls) worth of pirates on a merchant than any other player, or if you have a merchant in front of you that nobody played any pirates on, you claim that merchant into your face-down score pile for the number of gold (VPs) indicated on the card.

Pirate captains and the admiral are worth infinite strength; the player who played the last pirate captain or admiral on a particular merchant is considered to have more strength.

The game ends when the deck runs out AND a player has no cards in hand. Your score is the gold in your score pile minus the gold on any merchants still in our hand. The player with the most points wins.

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That’s it! This is not a summary; I’ve basically transcribed the entire rulebook (or rules pamphlet). It is exceedingly easy to teach because nobody whines about not understanding the rules. You play a merchant in front of you, you play a pirate on a merchant, or you draw a card. As soon as you can get over the hurdle of players claiming merchants only at the START of their turn and not, say, whenever they feel like it (this is apparently harder to grasp than it sounds), and as soon as they understand how pirate captains and the admiral work, it’s smooth sailing. Oh, you also have to make sure you mention and make known the rule that a player loses points for merchants still in hand at the end or you may wind up being keelhauled.

That’s all well and good, but is the game actually fun? Yes, it is very fun, and nearly everyone I’ve taught it to agrees, which is why I’m surprised that it has not gained more of a reputation, and has only achieved a score of 6.38 as of this writing (which is still quite admirable, or admiral-ble if you will).

There aren’t that many games that I can play with total non-gamers and have them immediately ask to play again, and a large part of this game’s appeal lies in its extremely reasonable playing time (roughly 20 minutes). You can easily play a few games in a row, develop some metagaming if that’s your thing, and you won’t really care when you lose, even if it was due to extremely bad luck.

And yes, this game certainly has a noticeable luck element. You can draw nothing but one-skull pirates of different suites while your opponents seem to get all of the captains and four-skull ships. But this is at its heart a trick taking game, and you simply have to figure out how far you can stretch the resources you are dealt.

I’m also impressed that drawing a large or small number of merchants simply means you have to adopt different tactics, you have to plan when to play which ones. If I have the hefty eight-gold merchant in my hand, I have to decide whether to play it at a time when other players are occupied and try to secure it for myself, or whether to use it as bait to distract players while I cheaply claim smaller prizes.

This game has luck, it has skill, and it has fun. Because the rules are so dead-simple, and because there is just one deck to worry about, the gameplay itself is extremely smooth and not at all fiddly. This allows players to hurl threats, belt out sea shanties, and generally act like idiots without even slowing the game down. And a large part of this game is the social aspect, even in a tactical sense. A lot of the skill is in reading people and guessing what other players will and can do, and also in convincing them to do or not do things. If you are about to attack my three-gold merchant, I can whine that the player to your left is about to get a five-gold merchant unless you do something. And when I attack a merchant, I might say, in a piratey growl of course, that there’s plenty more in my hand to back that up (though I may be lying through my silver-plated teeth).

And there is hardly anything in any game I have ever played to match the thrill of throwing down a captain after another player has already played a captain on that merchant. They are so sure that they have won, and then, with a triumphant “ARRR!”, you prove them wrong and claim the prize… unless someone else plays a THIRD captain! I have never seen four (or more) captains played on a single ship, but the resultant laughter would probably cause some sort of tear in space-time, resulting in Henry Morgan himself stepping into the room and asking if he could play too.

I have only played the team version once, and I didn’t really care for it because everything moved quite a bit slower, though this would be improved through familiarity and it certainly wasn’t as bad as the two-player version. Personally I’d say you want three to five players, and five is optimal; with three players, the game can be a bit simplistic (though still fun). I’d like to try the team play variant again with more experienced players though, as it seemed like it had potential.

Another thing to mention is that in the edition I have (Gamewright), a couple of the colors are a bit hard to distinguish (apparently this is better in other editions). It hasn’t really been a problem, but you might not want to play in low lighting, and you might take this into consideration if your group has trouble with this sort of thing, or if one of your players is colorblind, though you could probably get away with marking the fronts of some of the cards in some way. And did I mention I bought the game for eight dollars!

If you want a pirate game that is non-gamer friendly, plays in twenty minutes, and provides a lot of fun and pirate talk, as well as some genuine tactics and strategy, you won’t go wrong with Loot. I give it an 8/10.

Now cue bad pirate puns! :arrrh:

first post!!1!

Hello everyone out there who happens to be listening. My name is Orin Bishop, and I am a game designer and a game lover. As with my taste in music, my taste in games is diverse, and my only requirement is that whatever I am listening to or playing must be good. Particularly, I fell in love with Euro boardgames a few years ago with Settlers of Catan (and if you don't know what a Eurogame is, go over to boardgamegeek right now... seriously, right now; I can wait). Digital games can be great too though, Portal proved that.

As of this writing, I am an undergraduate student at the University of Waterloo finishing up a Bachelors of Independent Studies (go ahead, check it out; I can wait)
studying game design, and I am currently writing a thesis... on game design... ...Also, I like games.

Steve Jackson Games (... I can wait) is publishing a game I started working on a full five years ago. I won't talk about it right now because it hasn't been announced yet, but rest assured it will be awesome. I also have various other games in various stages, and I will of course try to keep everything updated here.

I'm new to this whole blogging thing, so I can't say too much about what the format will be. I just hope that if you are a gaming connoisseur like myself, you will find something of interest. I don't intend to delve too deeply into the actual design process (here, at least), I'll mostly just post random thoughts and links to interesting game-related things I find. I'll also post the occasional review, and I might even get whacky and occasionally review something completely non-game related (Van Helsing sucked... ...but not as much as Manos: The Hands of Fate).

I wanted to end with a quote, but I couldn't find an appropriate one, so I'll make my own:
- Orin Bishop (2008)