wax banks

second-best since Cantor

Category: playing

Some game reviews and recommendations for Christmas.

Christmas shopping? Some games to think about:

Dominion

Progenitor of the ‘deckbuilder’ genre and, like designer Donald Vaccarino’s even more abstract followup Kingdom Builder, essentially a kind of dynamic multiplayer puzzle. Players begin each with a barebones deck of cards, mostly providing money, and use that money to buy from an always-available common pool of more interesting ‘kingdom cards’ — which in turn grant additional money, actions (card plays), and buys per turn. Purchased cards go into the discard pile; when your draw pile is empty, your discard pile gets shuffled and replaces it. At some point you start buying victory points, which clot the deck but are the only way to win.

Yes, it can be ‘simultaneous solitaire’ at times, but that mostly manifests in groups of uneven skill.

Dominion‘s basic rules are quite simple, but each spread of ten kingdom cards presents a variety of strategic possibilities, and if you include even a couple of the many expansions, the range of kingdom spreads is for all practical purposes inexhaustible. (The expansions range from pitch-perfect to game- and mind-breaking, but every single one is worth getting.) Vaccarino’s core design takes the epochal innovation of Magic: The Gathering — streamlined tactical card play using custom decks built away from the table — and essentially ‘gamifies’ deckbuilding, making a 30-minute competitive game out of that away-from-table activity.

Dominion is a work of genius; everyone who’s ever had to sit through a game of Monopoly must try it.

Settlers of Catan

The game that kicked off the ‘eurogame’ craze and today’s boardgame renaissance is secretly a brilliant do-over of Monopoly with considerably greater strategic depth, more meaningful p2p trading, and (as a result of the trading and resource-generation mechanics) no downtime. Dead simple to learn — as with Carcassonne, the core game is streamlined enough that the kids’ version is unnecessary — it’s still one of the friendliest introductions to modern boardgames, but the random/asymmetrical setup and steadily ratcheting tension give it plenty of replay value for any but the most pedantically analytical gamers. Its ‘kingmaker’ problem, and the high likelihood of untutored players shooting themselves in the foot with a bad opening play, now mark Settlers as an imperfect game, and among boardgame nerds it gets less play than it used to. But ignore jaded gamers who say it’s no good. It deserves its reputation.

Greedy Greedy Goblins

Generally fast-paced simultaneous tile-placement for humans 6 and up, recommended for families who enjoy cartoonishly stressful play situations.

Designer Richard Garfield’s basic idea is clever: each goblin (player) draws one facedown tile at a time from a common pool, looks at it, then adds it (still facedown) to one of several mines. Repeat, as impulsively or carefully as she likes. At some point in this process, she uses coloured discs to claim up to three mines, which then no longer receive tiles. With all mines claimed, they’re scored: points for every gem tile in the mine, double points for gems matching your goblin’s colour; some tiles give special power cards to use while scoring; one stick-of-dynamite tile doubles point value of mine, two sticks triples it…and the third blows up the mine, yielding a total of -5 points. First goblin to 100 points wins.

So we’ve got bluffing, a mildly harrowing push-your-luck mechanic with incomplete information for all, some quick mental calculations to do in a rapidly changing environment… Some rounds GGG is a slow-moving game of careful moves and countermoves, sometimes it’s a frenzied free-for-all. You’ll have much more fun if you enjoy seeing plans (fail to) survive contact with the interfering dunderheads around you (cf. Space Alert, below), and you’ll do better if you keep your head a little, but there’s something to be said for bringing a little anarchy into the other goblins’ lives by spreading your tiles willy-nilly throughout everyone’s mines.

Garfield’s recent career turn has been interesting — King of Tokyo and King of New York are consistently fun little lightweight/flyweight games, respectively, aimed at kids but rewarding for adults. GGG is in the same class as King of Tokyo, but the realtime simultaneous-action approach opens it up to players with less taste for strategy while specifically testing everyone’s sang-froid during an ongoing crisis — and their visual information-processing speed.

Summoner Wars

A fun sort of customizable chess++ game with short playing time and a gorgeous core mechanic.

You’re trying to capture your opponent’s Summoner, a powerful back-row piece (card, actually), by summoning fighters to the gridded board; the fighters hit or shoot, and have special effects and hit points. Ho hum, but summoning cards takes magic, which you generate in one of two ways: killing the other guy’s cards, or discarding from your hand…which means every single turn of the game presents you with interesting, tense choices, and the more you strategize, the better you’ll get. The summoning mechanic is the game’s heart (it’s right there in the title) and the source of its reputation.

Combat is simple — roll Nd6 where N’s the unit’s attack value, each die ≥3 is a hit, run out of hit points and you’re dead — but because you can only move and attack with three units a turn (you might have six or eight on the board at once), the nearly abstract gameplay does generate some pleasant tension. And because each player’s deck is small, there’s always the looming threat of simply running out of reinforcements and needing to, say, kill your own soldiers to generate that final burst of magic.

Fans of Summoner Wars insist that the deckbuilding aspect is part of the game’s appeal, but I gotta say, I’ve never felt the slightest urge to customize my army.

My 7-year-old son and I get a kick out of this one — we were both surprised last time by how quickly it played — but Summoner Wars isn’t a top-shelf game in our household despite its streamlined elegance. On one hand, the entire ruleset fits on an index card(!); on the other, there’s a lot of pointless theme slathered on top of what’s basically an elegant abstract strategy game, setting up quite the wrong expectations. It’s not a wargame! The existence of Mage Wars, a thematically similar but totally mechanically distinct customizable card/board game, further confuses the issue, as searching online for this game will turn up unhelpful comparisons.

Best enjoyed as a featherweight abstract game with oddly representational art rather than any kind of tactical combat thing — and if you come to it with the right expectations, Summoner Wars holds some lovely surprises. This might just be a great game.

N.B. You have several ways in to Summoner Wars: starter sets, the Master Set, the Alliances edition. If you’re dipping your toe in, grab a starter set. If you like it, pick up one of the two big boxes, and some ‘second summoner’ expansions on clearance. You should be able to find secondhand copies of most of the cards online.

Magic: The Gathering

Certainly the most important and quite likely the best tabletop game idea anyone’s had since Dungeons & Dragons — dead-simple card play using homebuilt custom decks, where each card breaks the rules in ever-more-complex ways — and after a quarter-century its worldwide playerbase is still growing(!!) as the design continues to evolve healthily. At its best, Richard Garfield’s first collectible card game offers the definitive CCG experience: an all-time classic game that’s also a license to print money.

About that money, though…

…at high levels, paper/rock/scissors deck matchups and the publisher’s exploitative random-blind-boosters economic model wash away the simple pleasures of beginner play. In this age of gaming plenty, it seems to me that marketing M:TG to teenagers (kids) is unethical. And incredibly, M:TG isn’t even Garfield’s best card game — his sophomore effort Netrunner, in its ‘limited’ incarnation Android: Netrunner, is the deeper, more interesting game, even with its comparatively limited cardpool. Everyone should play Magic: The Gathering at some point, the same way everyone should hear the Rolling Stones. But I can’t in good conscience recommend that anyone invest real money in it. There’s a reason they call it a ‘lifestyle game,’ after all. If you like human beings, you’re better off getting good at chess. Or Netrunner, come to that.

Carcassonne

Another classic eurogame that serves as a fine introduction to the field. Very very simple: add square tiles orthogonally to a map; add meeples (‘guys’) from your limited pool if possible to claim features like roads and castles; retrieve meeples and score when features are completed. The larger the map feature, the more you score, but the longer it takes — and unfinished features (castles left open, cloisters never surrounded by fields) are penalized at scoring time.

It’s not the deepest game, indeed it’s suitable for bright 5-year-olds, but there’s a strategic angle: knowing which features to commit to, which to steal (by joining separate castle regions, say), whether/when to pursue short-run plans or make risky longterm investments in the ‘farm stakes.’ Strong players will outclass beginners nearly every time, but there’s enough luck to keep everyone interested; our family’s games tend to be close-fought affairs. The many expansions aren’t all equally essential, and some (e.g. Princess/Dragon) destructively or chaotically alter the elegant core game.

If you’re looking for a first ‘German-style’ board game for your family, this is an evergreen choice.

Space Alert

Difficult to describe, absolutely maddening to play, Space Alert has provided some of my best gaming experiences of the last several years. It’s an extremely hectic multiplayer cooperative simultaneous role-selection puzzle which delivers randomized realtime challenges by way of sound recordings, and…

Your best bet might be to watch a video, frankly, though your actual best bet is just to buy the game (it’s wonderful) and play it without knowing what you’re doing.

Space Alert is secretly quite a short game. You place your worker in one of six rooms laid out in a rectangle, representing the compartments of a spaceship. In each room is a task to be done — a valve to periodically turn, a key to regularly punch, lasers to shoot if aliens come near. You’re dealt a set of cards with actions on them, and using those cards, you choose in advance what you’ll do during each of 12 turns: walk east or west, take the elevator up or down, perform a task in your room. A certain number of routine tasks need to be accomplished in those 12 turns.

The entire game is just this — planning 12 actions. It takes about seven minutes.

Meanwhile, your teammates are doing the same, just calmly laying out their day.

Well, not calmly. During those seven minutes, an mp3 is playing. Sometimes it plays static, during which no talking is aloud. Sometimes a voice announces that at turn X, aliens will arrive, and someone will need to shoot them, and each turn they’ll press in and damage the ship if they’re not immediately dealt with. Sometimes the voice announces a malfunction to be fixed, an infection onboard ship, a new batch of cards to be dealt to each player… And even as you plan you see your carefully laid plans unravel, slowly at first, then with a kind of nightmarish inevitability, as the web of things-to-do grows and tangles and ends up a glorious mess.

But that’s only half the game — the playing bit.

Then, when the mp3 stops playing, you execute the 12 steps you’ve laid out, and you and your friends get to see how you’ve failed — slowly, clearly, the specific moments at which your plans were undone are revealed to you. And at this point there’s nothing you can do about it.

In other words, it’s realtime Pandemic, the perfect gamification of crisis-management, and if your group has a healthy social dynamic and one natural leader you’ll be just fine

I can’t recommend Space Alert highly enough.

Star Realms

A superb little $15 deckdbuilder from the local boys at White Wizard Games, emphasizing constant player interaction (combat!) and clever card synergies. Instead of Dominion‘s ten piles of cards, there’s a row of six singletons, replenished after each purchase from a deck of 120. (This was Vaccarino’s original idea for Dominion, actually, and is the core mechanic of designer Rob Dougherty’s earlier, uglier Ascension deckbuilder.)

We have two kinds of card: ships and bases. Cards generate money or combat, thin out your deck, alter the pool of available buys, or give you additional hit points; ships produce an effect and then get discarded, while bases stick around to block attacks until destroyed. Many cards can be scrapped (removed from game) for additional effects, and crucially, each ship and base has a faction (suit), which generates ‘ally effects’ when two or more cards of a faction are played. Each faction has a distinct personality and implied playstyle; knowing whether and how to mix and match is an important skill element.

You can learn Star Realms in five minutes or less, but it’ll take months to tease out its subtleties. I’ve now played close to a thousand games, mostly online, and consider it one of the most reliably fun games I’ve ever played.

The expansions — sold on the ‘limited card game’ model at $4/pack — are almost uniformly excellent. Better yet, the Colony Wars game offers a replacement core set at $15 MSRP, adding a single mechanic and generally dialing the intensity of the game up a notch. You can easily mix the two sets, along with any combination of expansions, and no two games will be exactly alike. The original is the place to start, though: perfectly balanced, an instant-buy for anyone looking for a quick filler game.

Advertisements

Fly slightly less casual: My second X-WING tournament.

Alright, enough effusion. I went to the weekly Pandemonium tournament, had a wonderful time, but screwed up: grabbed the currently popular Dengar/Nym Scum list and copied the cards manually into an online squad builder, but left Guidance Chips off both ships — yeah, I know. Always check your work!

Anyhow, that probably gave away 12-15hp over the course of the night. Can you goddamn believe?

I crushed a new player, drew even with a superior player (flying his own ordnance-laden Firespray/Nym list) in a match that ended with a genuinely dramatic nose-to-nose Nym joust, and got tabled by a Chewie/Leebo tank list. Here’s how bad that last match was: Leebo had a Range 1 donut, and I didn’t get inside it even once. Afterward Ian (the pilot) gave me good advice (I forgot I had Glitterstim, failed to set up an alpha strike, and sacrificed my most potent weapon by not keeping Dengar’s arc trained on the bad guys at all times) and nicely complimented my maneuvering, which made my evening despite how pissed off I was at my poor final-match performance.

In short: a fantastic night out, which was only possible because my wife handled childcare and housecare duties for the evening. Thanks love! May the Force beNEVERMIND

Fly casual: My first X-WING tournament.

I played in tonight’s X-Wing Miniatures Game tourney at my FLGS, Pandemonium Books and Games in Central Square. It was my first grownup X-Wing experience; until tonight I’d only played with my son and his friends, and he’s six. C’mon now.

I played two matches, then kibitzed awhile and headed home early. How can I put this? It was fantastic.

For the first hour it was as if I had loaded dice; for the second the godly favour went to my opponent, which seems fair. I went 1-1. And I loved every minute of it, except maybe the bit where my TIE Striker boiled away into space after taking a single desultory potshot.

Among the nerds

I felt incredible social anxiety about going, but as my wife could surely have told you well in advance, I needn’t have worried. The X-Wing community’s official motto is perfectly chosen, and they mean it: ‘Fly Casual.’ This manifests in big and small ways — casually lending out tokens, helping each other out with rules questions, trusting your opponent to handle maneuvers and check ranges on the far side of the table, not freaking out when ships and obstacles get bumped… This was a seriously nerdy crowd, man, with a full quota of fat pimply nerd dudes in ill-fitting Star Wars shirts, and everyone was incredibly kind and relaxed to the extent that he or she was physically able. (The one player with the offputting inability to modulate his facial expressions or tone of voice turned out to be an easygoing helpful guy able to laugh at himself.)

It was a young crew, mostly guys in their 20s (the organizer is a redheaded trans valkyrie named Cat), and the vibe was unfailingly supportive and relaxed — again, to teh extent that everyone was able. My second opponent was (1) socially awkward, no question about it, but (2) endearingly trying his best, meaning any lingering awkwardness was my problem not his, plus he was (3) super easygoing about rules and norms and chitchat once we got past my thoroughly unheimlich lack of preparation or sang-froid.

It was glorious. Am I making that clear? As I said to Cat on the way out, if I’d had a store like Pandemonium as a kid, a community of nerds like that one (this one), I’d have been a completely different human being. At a minimum, maybe I’d have been less of a teenage grump.

I can’t wait to bring my son back to fly as partners.

And — this should go without saying, but times being what they are, nothing wonderful goes without saying — I’m so grateful to my wife for clearing space for me to go out for the evening.

This bit’s for X-Wing types

Here’s my 96-point dogfighting squad:

Carnor Jax — PTL + Royal Guard TIE + Targeting Computer + Stealth Device (34pts)

The Inquisitor — Lightning Reflexes + Tracers + TIE/v1 + Shield Upgrade (32pts)

“Duchess” : PTL + Adaptive Ailerons + Engine Upgrade (30pts)

It’s a casual homebrew list, can you tell? I wanted to be dodging arcs all sneakylike and using Carnor to shut down my opponents’ action-economy tricks, but I kept failing to avoid jousts, which worked against an ARC/Y-Wing list but failed utterly against a tricked-out Ryad/Inquisitor/OmegaAce list. The Defender hits goddamned hard! That tractor beam is murder; I’m not sure how to neutralize it, and don’t want to read too much about strategy online.

I was flying three fragile ships, and even with Stealth and Shield++ on Carnor, I needed to be more detail-oriented, um, than is my wont. Hot dice bore me through a Y+TLT assault in the first game, but Carnor was up against three target-locked killers in the second.

If I go back next week, I’ll proxy some Autothrusters for Carnor, or else try out a Fenn/Manaroo list, which looks super fun (Fenn will give me the daredevil experience I like best about X-Wing, and Manaroo will force me to manage resources and fly like an adult). On the other hand, do we really need to see more toilet seats in competitive X-Wing?

C’mon now.

Summary of RED TIDE sandbox-creation method for fantasy RPGs.

Kevin Crawford’s Red Tide (self-published under his personal imprint, Sine Nomine) is the best RPG sandbox-creation guide I know of: inspiring and evocative, yet succinct and laser-focused. The steps are step-sized. For new DMs in particular I think it’s unbeatable. Here’s Crawford’s high-level process for kicking off a sandbox campaign:

  1. Campaign folder: People, Places, Encounter, Chronicle, Maps (81)
  2. Create two home bases: city and borderland (83)
  3. Additional sites: court + ruin for each of two home bases (sufficient for first session)
  4. Generate initial adventure for group
  5. Between sessions: expand outward a few hexes from current location (84)

The golden rule

Don’t prepare it unless it is fun to make it or you expect to need it for the next session. (84)

Court sites

  1. Choose court type (e.g. noble court, extended family, business): in essence, the type of social network encountered (85)
  2. Define 1-3 people of importance (useful to have different levels of authority for varied PC access)
  3. Give each important person a couple of details and a power source
  4. Identify conflicts discoverable by PCs (e.g. adultery, treachery, theft) (86)
  5. Loose ends: what happens if conflict resolved? rewards? leadership changes?

Court types are listed on pp87-89.

Borderland sites

  1. Choose site type (e.g. estate, delve, village, etc.) (90)
  2. Select tags (92). Consider blending two
  3. Select sub-tags: Enemies, Friends, Complications, Things, Places (1+ of each)
  4. Determine services/available funds: most border sites have a smith. 2x prices for adventuring goods for outsiders. 20% of priests have minimal clerical powers, 10% of villages have 1st-lvl magic user. Most villages can buy 5gp of plunder per inhabitant; larger requires city.
  5. Where is nearest Cure Disease/Remove Curse/Raise Dead cleric?
  6. Stat up NPCs (Enemies especially)
  7. Rough map, more specific if fighting likely
  8. Couple of adventure hooks. Local colour important. Hint at tags to draw PCs in

Borderland tags are listed on pp93-102.

Tags

Crawford’s ‘tags’ might just as easily have been called ‘tropes’ or ‘setting elements.’ For an idea of the level of detail he finds useful, here’s a sample borderland site tag:

Corvee Demand

The settlement’s ruling authority demands that the locals perform some sort of labor for their rulers, providing their own food and shelter while at work. Most credit old customary laws requiring such service, but the laws may have fallen into disuse or be fabrications. Peasants hate corvee labor, as it takes them from their fields, and other settlements often resent the demand for their unpaid work.

Enemies: Grasping local official, Cruel corvee taskmaster, Greedy merchant who misdirects the labor to his own profit. Friends: Angry peasant elder, Historian who remembers the old laws, Magistrate who feels the labor is being misused. Places: Sullen labor site, Empty fields, Tavern with knots of angry men. Complications: The corvee is actually a legitimate demand, The corvee is being used to build some vital infrastructure, The corvee was supposed to be paid work. Things: The pay that was supposed to be given to the workers, Proof of the demand’s falsification, Evidence of corrupt redirection of the corvee labor

City sites

  1. Physical: 12K people reasonable, scale as you like. Walled. Water. Districts, internal walls. Local colour (104)
  2. Social: legal authority. Profession/class/ethnic/religious faultlines. Status of adventurers (105)
  3. Select tags — can be used per neighbourhood/district (105)
  4. Rumours/events per tag to act as hooks
  5. Sub-tags: Enemies, Friends, Complications, Things, Places (1+ of each)

City tags are listed on pp106-110.

Ruin sites

  1. Ruin type (e.g. delve, mine, wizard tower) (114)
  2. How was it ruined? (115)
  3. Choose 1+ inhabitants (116)
  4. Treasure available, twists (117-134)
  5. Stock the site (keyed map)
  6. Typical day? Expected reaction to PCs?

Antagonist groups are listed on pp117-134.

Echo, Resounding sandbox instructions

In An Echo, Resounding, Crawford presents more detailed instructions for building domains suitable for high-level play:

The following system of region generation is intended to allow you to create a large chunk of adventuring terrain in an afternoon, along with its corresponding political structure. You will lay down the major population centers, important ruins, significant monster or bandit lairs, and areas of vital resources. You’ll establish the major political domains in the area and pick out a half-dozen significant villains or antagonists that could serve to occupy more powerful PCs. By the time you’re finished, you’ll have a good bare-bones framework that you can then elaborate in the ways that you find entertaining or useful for your next session. (9)

The process generates a square-ish region 300mi on a side. Each location (village, temple, mountain pass) has Military, Wealth, Social values, traits (like mini-tags: origins, activities, etc.), obstacles to PC control (penalty to location values), and assets.

Here’s Crawford’s domain-savvy process:

  1. Pick a spot and start a map, 200-300mi to a side
  2. Place 1-4 cities (fewer for borderland) spaced out, 10-15K pop in each, near water (17-19)
  3. Place 4 towns per city, 1-2K pop (mercantile centers: villages, fisheries), can be further from major waterways. Blank spaces fine: there be dragons (orcs, plague, etc.) (17-19)
  4. Place 5 ruins per city (1-3 were major human habitations) (20-23)
  5. Place resources equal to number of towns, equidistant (23-24)
  6. Along each land/water route, place a lair near middle (‘the wicked and the bestial, dens for the bandits, monsters, renegades and savages that scourge the wilderness’) (25-28)
  7. Place 3-4 lairs w/access to remote or poorly defended resources
  8. Place lairs in barren areas
  9. Start naming locations and assigning each one traits
  10. Place obstacles: 1+ for each city, town, and resource (29-37)
  11. Optionally assign site tags from Red Tide to cities and towns (might inspire obstacles). This is almost certainly worth doing (RT93-102, RT106-110)
  12. Start outlining domains: unified polities. City-states, fiefdoms, priestly domains, etc. Choose settlements to be their capitals. Neighbouring pairs/triads to generate conflict
  13. Hall of infamy: pick a major regional danger (lich, tyrant, etc., expected capstone lvl of campaign)
  14. Place two name-level (lvl9ish) threats: criminal organizations, cults, major monsters. Attach to cities/lairs/ruins
  15. Place four mid-level perils: warbands, warlords, wizards, etc. Can attach to lairs — any lower-level threats don’t need to be placed in advance, since they’re local enough to be reasonable as surprises
  16. In play, remember to add repeat/significant locations to map

Detailed instructions for more realistic demographics (e.g. city/town pop are 5% of total in region) are found on pg16.

The process for fleshing out cities, towns, ruins, obstacles, and lairs expands on the Red Tide material: city/town origins and activities increase location values, and obstacles play on specific values. The domain management and mass combat rules take up about a quarter of Echo‘s 100+ pages, and a system for integrating PCs into the domain and combat systems takes another five pages. The balance of the book presents introductory material, helpful sandbox advice, and an evocative miniature setting (The Westmark) about 50×50 hexes.

Recommendation

Crawford’s sandbox systems emphasize simple gameable abstractions and story-building over, say, the well intentioned economic simulationism of Adventurer Conqueror King or the well intentioned accountancy of the Rules Cyclopedia, and his thumbnail geo/demographics bypass altogether the well intentioned ‘realism’ of Rob Conley’s method. And he can write!

Even better, every one of his medium/large products offers a comparable collection of tools for procedurally generating your own SF/F gaming materials. I recommend Stars Without Number, Other Dust, and his many supplements without reservation to ‘trad’ gamers of every experience and ability level.

Kudos to him.

Cubes or GTFO.

My son has gotten really into playing with his 2x2x2 and 3x3x3 Rubik’s Cubes — though I’ll note that they’re not strictly Rubik’s, but rather third-party cubes designed for speed-solving. They are in every respect better, I think, than the Rubik-branded cubes, and no more expensive.

My son’s six years old. He can now solve one face more quickly than I can, though he’s not yet pushing ahead to the next level of the problem, i.e. he doesn’t yet have an orderly approach to solving and isn’t interested in solving (e.g.) a ‘layer’ instead of a face. I’m interested but disorderly, though I’m a bit further along cubewise than he is. Still, I didn’t dive into trying to figure the Cube out for myself until I’d spent some time looking at algorithms — which isn’t ‘cheating’ if you’re interested in the Cube as magic rather than as party trick —

Speed-solvers look at the cube, figure out which series of steps to implement given the pattern of colours they see, then rapidly execute a kind of ‘macro’ from memory. It’s nothing like what you or I would do; the ‘solving’ part of the term ‘speed-solving’ refers to a kind of mastery of self rather than of the mathematical puzzle of the cube. Turns out I have no interest in that — the mystery of it, the sense of enormous complexity undone stepwise by brainpower, is what draws me.

So anyway I can’t solve a Rubik’s Cube without instructions and neither can my son, not yet, and I’ve determined empirically that following a strategy guide to solve the Cube is boring after the first or second time.

SO!

For those of you interested in getting better at solving a Rubik’s Cube but uninterested in the (to me) somewhat narrow task of ‘speed-solving,’ I recommend Douglas Hofstadter’s Scientific American columns on Rubik’s Cube, reprinted in his superb collection Metamagical Themas. (Link goes to full text at archive.org.) They’re light on low-level strategy but long on inspiration and analytical cleverness — fans of Hofstadter’s singular body of work already know what I mean, those new to his writing have a treat in store.

Bombs away!

‘Design philosophy’ is a smokescreen: initial point.

A habitual point-misser at rpg.net — a guy who was banned for threadshitting about a game he doesn’t seem to play, returned weeks later, and still can’t resist the urge to insert himself into every thread on that subject — said this in a thread about D&D 5th edition:

I just feel like there is a really deep, philosophical difference between what 4e does, within its niche, and what 5e does, within that same niche, and that it’s unusual for someone to like such significantly different takes within such a narrow space.

Maybe my issue is more that I see “I like 4e” as saying more than simply “when I play 4e, I have fun.” I see it as affirming support for a thing behind the game–hence my repeated references to design philosophy, and my comparison to a philosophical difference in literature. Because, by the latter definition, I literally like all TTRPGs I’ve ever played, because I’ve had fun while playing them. Even games I would never actually say I like.

He talked about Disney’s Sleeping Beauty and Game of Thrones, and about C.S. Lewis and Ayn Rand, and how he doesn’t understand how someone could claim to like both paired terms, for ‘philosophical’ reasons.

And I think this in response:

4e and 5e don’t do the same thing. They don’t really try. This is one source of your confusion. One is an anime-superpowers ‘cinematic’ fighty minis game, one is a streamlined modernish take on 80s D&D.

But even if they aimed at the same genre, there’s this: almost no one cares about ‘design philosophy,’ and talking about it (even on nerd fora) is often a smokescreen. The stable sensible adults I know don’t find it unusual at all to like very different takes on the same material. When I read Game of Thrones, I dig its vastness, its human-scale history, its grim postapocalyptic antiwar outlook, its conspiratorial complications. when I watch Disney’s Sleeping Beauty with my son, I dig its grand primary-coloured good’n’evil story, its desperation, the courage and terror and childlike wonder of it. I like The Wasp Factory and Catcher in the Rye (‘sourly funny adolescent works through emotional issues’ stories), I like Tolkien and Moorcock (and both understand and disagree with Moorcock’s ‘kill mommy’ bashing of Tolkien), I like Pynchon and the faintly embarrassing sub-Pynchon pretentious sex-comedy of Illuminatus!, I learn something from Tony Judt’s Euro-cosmopolitanism and John Gaddis’s unabashed USA-triumphalism, and none of the philosophical ‘contradictions’ between these works are as important as what I (you) take from them in the moment.

Justifying your affection for some popcult thing by talking about the ‘principles’ it embodies is the same lazy identitarian bullshit that

POLITICAL/ACADEMIC/CULTURAL RANT REDACTED

and if you can’t stretch yourself a tiny bit to see and enjoy things on their own terms, and to empathize with others doing the same even with texts you ‘don’t get,’ then don’t be surprised when sane sensible adults politely show you the door.


The deeper point here is that consumers who talk about ‘design philosophy’ are for the most part just borrowing hip terminology to mark themselves as above the material they don’t like. You get the same from the dilettantes and status-seekers in ‘Apple punditry’ and the gadget press, acting as if they’ve intuited the deeply admirable design principles behind a gadget which (coincidence!) happens to fill a need for them.

Fear of pleasure, lack of empathy, and ignorance about process: these are, you will hopefully be unsurprised to hear, problems. We will talk.

From the annals of brilliant marketing…

My 6-year-old son and I were at Pandemonium Books & Games today, poking around the X-Wing/Pokémon TCG stuff. While my son cavorted and browsed, I complained to the guy at the counter: ‘Pokémon isn’t a very good game.’

‘Nope.’ He looked kinda bummed out by the game’s popularity. I don’t blame him. Pokémon is fine for little kids, but it’s not very rewarding for grownups.

Me, wistfully: ‘But I feel like Magic is a little over our heads.’

‘It’s not.’ He said this without the tiresome, clueless, aggressive insistence that tends to characterize nerd-store employees. This endeared him to me.

He rummaged around the shelf behind the counter and brought out two ‘Welcome Deck’ boxes. Each contained two playable 30-card mini-decks. He handed them to me.

I was touched, not realizing that these are in fact the cleverest imaginable promotional items. The first taste, as they say, is free…

He said to come on back after we’d tried them out, and he’d rustle up the others (there are five such Welcome Decks, one for each of the game’s Land types).

As it happened, my son and I ended up visiting my wife — she’d spent the day working alone in her office, because she’s both (1) extraordinarily devoted and attentive toward her clients, genuinely desiring to help them out of a jam, and yet also (2) a terrifying obsessive — and didn’t go home to get the Pokémon decks we’d planned to bust out this afternoon.

So we gave Magic a spin, using these little 30-card single-color (or -colour) decks.

It was his first game, my third, though I’ve read a lot about it over the years.

It’s weird to think that the two greatest tabletop games of the 20th century — Magic and Dungeons & Dragons — are published by the same company.

(Yeah yeah, Cosmic Encounter and Advanced Squad Leader and Third Reich and Dominion and Bridge and blah blah blah. We can argue about this some other time.)


NOTE: The rules insert in the Welcome Deck is totally inadequate if you’ve never actually played or watched the game before. The 16-page basic ruleset PDF, eminently googleable, will suffice for beginners. The comprehensive ruleset runs to more than 100 unnecessary-for-normal-people pages.

Campaign inspiration.

Lilacfairybook00lang 0011Universalgeograp12recl 0047Mouthofhell mnsterbrainsSecret of kells
MtStMichel avion
XgCdy
John109

Nightmares of mine.

Heros quest dangerousplace1

Lately, insomnia.

Of a peculiar sort: I fall asleep reading with the light on around 9:30pm and wake up ‘refreshed’ at 2:30am. Most nights I’m in and out of sleep, or at least half-awake hallucination, for a couple of hours after a prolonged period of tossing/turning — and then up for good by 6am.

Three nights ago I slept seven or eight straight hours and was so happy when I woke that I cried.

Two nights ago, back to the usual.

Last night — last night the almost-usual. No return to sleep after the 2:30 awakening.

On the plus side, I’m getting some reading done in the middle of the night. I’m nearly finished with Charles Mann’s expertly assembled (if slightly repetitive) 1491 and have gotten into the more than slightly repetitive middle section of Graves’s Greek Myths.

On the minus side, insomnia.

Here’s how I ruined any chance of getting back to sleep tonight: I thought about the alleged string of recent clown hoaxes. Do you know? You know: idiots dressed as clowns hiding in the woods in order to mess with people.

You almost want to blame it on Trump or global warming.

In the dark in bed I imagined myself riding my bike and coming across an idiot dressed as a clown. I imagined myself jumping off the bike and beating the clown to death. I imagined myself on a bike path, and riding up to some jogger asking them for help because a clown was walking slowly imperturbably after me. I imagined that person, my last hope, turning into a clown, and then everyone else on the bike path transforming too.

Then I decided I wasn’t likely to sleep, and it was time to go downstairs and talk to you.

hungry wolves are not to blame

I opened the good ol’ reliable ~/Downloads folder to find a subfolder called ‘dragon wars,’ which contains a copy of a computer game I used to play as a kid. It came out in 1989. This is what the world once was: the credits page at the front of the manual lists one programmer, two designers, one visual artist, two producers, a design consultant, a music designer, Boris Vallejo on cover art duties, and two people writing the manual.

More people worked on the user manual than programmed the actual game.

How is this possible? I’ll tell you: the manual contains 19 pages of instructions and a map, followed by 23 pages of ‘Dragon Wars Paragraphs’ — read-aloud text which constitutes the bulk of the description offered by the game. You couldn’t play, in other words, without several thousand words of this sort of thing:

137) Bound in chains upon this lonely Isle of Woe you find the dark queen Irkalla, Mistress of Magan. The chains are made of enchanted silver, and she is unable to move. “Topsiders!” she snarls when she sees you. “It’s always the same. The water level rises, your toilets back up, and everyone rushes to the Underworld for help! Well, I have problems of my own, as you can see. That filthy halfbreed Namtar chained me here, and gave the key to the one creature who owes me no favors.”

Irkalla regards you. “Perhaps you could be of some use,” she says, her tone suddenly becoming incredibly seductive. “Find the Silver Key and” (etc. etc. etc.)

The programmer’s Afterword, which follows the warranty at the end of the manual, begins: ‘Imagine my surprise when my boss told me I had to create a top-notch fantasy role-playing game in four months and four disk sides…’

8a2a69a2523ecf5a978dcefa841a092db2e2806f475d7b1b44266f82e1f5d117

I didn’t make it very far in Dragon Wars as a kid. Looking at this image I remember the Jail Keepers, and I remember the game having a certain austere quality which — historical note — characterized so many early fantasy/SF computer games for primarily technical reasons. (The magnificent desolation and loneliness of the hugely influential Zork games, say, isn’t just an aesthetic choice; in a text adventure, crowds of NPCs don’t play quite right.) I didn’t know the word ‘austere’ then, but I knew Zork, which was a lot better than Dragon Wars. Though maybe if I’d finished…?

Now it’s 5:52am. Yesterday I wrote a long forum post but didn’t share it — as I finished up I realized that I was in danger of becoming a person who shares long forum posts. After closing and saving the file I realized that’d happened ages ago; spirit crushed, I retreated to bed, where…well, you know how the story begins.

What’s troubling the villagers?

(Roll d30, season to taste)

  1. traveling circus freaks cursed by witch-child to wander forever
  2. kobolds in heat seek willing sheepdogs
  3. shapeshifting bears
  4. rogue cops seeking reputed nearby bandits (not necessarily for justice)
  5. mage-acolytes collecting material components
  6. mummified grey aliens roused by scanning signal from distant star
  7. escaped experimental subjects trying to get home, maddened and starving
  8. moth-women experimenting w/deposed wizard’s breeding-vats in nearby floating castle
  9. hallucinating archaeologists
  10. a regiment of vampire soldiers coming to aid of prophesied infant messiah
  11. acting troupe lost in time; century of origin TBD
  12. undead construction slaves seeking supplies for project 1,000 miles away
  13. mercenary company bearing pretender-prince, bivouacked in haunted castle
  14. hedge wizard’s henchmen trying to confirm success of spell
  15. ghostly rat-catcher escaped from stage play
  16. plague of mechanical locusts under control of malicious child-psychic
  17. liberated pseudodragons establishing colony in nearby wood
  18. colossal blind earthworms building bunker to escape predicted worm-holocaust
  19. alien oozes harvesting humanoid heads like coffee beans
  20. misinformed treasure hunters
  21. well informed treasure hunters
  22. ogres searching for kidnapped/stowaway ogre-youth
  23. bards
  24. a trove of buried statues coming to life seeking bloody vengeance on every living dog
  25. resumption of transmissions from a long-lost alien radio
  26. weeklong sacrificial ritual to restore dead village god
  27. druidic civil war sparked by villagers’ encroachment on ancient druidic sex-magical restoration ritual
  28. every 50yrs myconid gathering fills air w/hallucinogenic spores
  29. earthquakes caused by nearby weeklong stone-giant bacchanal
  30. cursed sentient scrying-money spent by profligate visiting noble