Saturday, December 31, 2005

Back in the T.X.A.S.

Flew in from California BOAC,
Went to bed on time last night.
On the way my laptop bag was on my knee,
Man, I had a direct flight.
I'm back in the T.X.A.S.
It's not quite NOLA but it'll do the trick
Back in the T.X.A.S.

Been away so long the cat hardly knew our face,
Gee, it's good to have wireless.
Already we have unpacked our case,
Four hours til 2006.
I'm back in the T.X.A.S.
It's not quite NOLA but it'll do the trick
Back in the T.X.A.S. Back in the T.X.A.S.

Well, the UT orange really knocks me out
I miss the Saints' black and gold.
It's New Years' Eve here in A-U-S-tin
In ten days I'll be another year old

Back in the T.X.
Back in the T.X.
Back in the T.X.A.S.

Friday, December 30, 2005

Four (or five) game reviews with non-gamers

Over the course of this holiday, I've had the opportunity to introduce a number of games to folks outside my normal game group.

We brought Apples to Apples as a default party game for people aged over twenty-five. Like most game geeks, I enjoy introducing new games to people, particularly if the players usually play nothing more exotic than mixing various editions of Trivial Pursuit. I'd say that the three separate groups of people enjoyed it immensely. Personally, I enjoy the game a great deal, and enjoy more watching players eagerly wanting to keep the game going after I step out. To me, that indicates that individuals enjoyed the game in and of itself, rather than just catering to me personally to play a given game.

If you don't know it, here's a brief rundown: Everyone gets seven Red Apple cards, which are things (Golf Ball Sized Hail, Japan, Hot Lava, Charging Rhinos, Cigarettes, Olive Oil, My First Kiss). The judge draws a Green Apple Card, which is an adjective (Sappy, Luscious, Temperamental, Nasty, Horrifying, Phony, Patriotic). Everyone lays down a card that they think the judge will decide is most like the Green Apple card. Whoever wins gets the Green Apple card and a point, then everyone draws a card and the next player is the judge. It's a good high-energy game that often turns hilarious and silly.

I like Apples to Apples. As a game, it works on many levels: virtually no set-up time, extremely accessible to non-gamers, strategically light, massive replay value, and it encourages and relies on player interaction. I know a few people who don't like it, mostly those who don't prefer party games, but I don't know anyone who hates the game.

None of the under-six crowd could play, though Out of the Box makes a Junior version for ages seven and up. I stepped out so the big kids could play and stepped into a two-player game of Operation with a five-year-old. Someone gave the child the game as a Christmas gift.

If you don't know it, here's a brief rundown: Everyone plays a doctor performing operations on a bedridden man. Like many mainstream American games, neither the art nor the gameplay has changed since the sixties. The game board consists of some thirteen holes into which little plastic bits (Water on the Knee, Bread Basket, Butterflies in the Stomach) fit into. Players must remove them depending on a random card draw. If successful, you get a dollar amount. This is a dexterity game, though- your little doctor tweezers complete a circuit when you touch the edge, causing a buzzer to sound and the man's red light bulb of a nose to light up. When this happens, someone has been dealt a random specialist card, and they then get a chance to perform the operation for double the money.

I last played this game a score or more in the past, so I particularly appreciated looking at this game with adult eyes. As a game, it pretty much sucks. Too much randomness combined with zero strategy (other dexterity games have some modicum of strategy, so I don't want to hear it), numbers too large and pieces too small for a child, and seemingly arbitrary scoring conditions equal not much fun. Most notably, it went on too long for two players, and we quickly abandoned the cards and money and just took turns performing operations. From a production standpoint, the production value particularly torqued me off- the "deck" of twenty-six cards includes two extra DO NOT USE cards as a printer's leftover. The cards and money both consisted of thin cardstock and paper, and didn't seem likely to stand up to the rigors of play.

Later in the week, we played the CSI board game, based off the popular TV show. Cat's parents had received it as a gift. Boy, am I glad they didn't pay for this stinker.

If you don't know it, here's a brief rundown: Up to eight players take on the role of the characters from the Crime Scene Investigation television show- the first one, set in Las Vegas. The game comes with eight mystery stories to play (yes, they sell an expansion pack with more stories), each consisting of some 27 cards (on extremely cheap cardstock- almost paper) and a few pages in the manual. The game (such as it is) consists of the players racing around the board (using a single d6 for random movement), reaching each of a number of departments for clues in three levels. Individual players must read all of the clues in each level before moving on to the next. Landing on another player lets you sneak a peek at one of the cards they've already seen. Various Disclosure spaces on the board lets you draw from the Disclosure deck for different effects- usually show players one of the evidence cards you've seen or look at one that another player has seen. In this mystery game, you must prove Motive, Means, and Opportunity for one of three suspects.

With four players, it took us about an hour to make it through Level one, playing by the rules. We quickly got sick of the lack of excitement, the frustration of random movement, the dragging sense of play, and lack of real competition. I think the dissatisfaction generally stemmed of the requirement that players must get all of the Level one and Level two clues before even attempting to guess the truth. Mid-game, we changed the rules to more cooperative play and started to have more fun- even so, I felt we had more of a chore than a game. At one point near the end, we had all guessed most of the crime, but decorum dictated that we continue through the motions and get everything before attempting the win. I don't think the mystery story itself had any inherent failings- one suggestion on Board Game Geek for recouping some fun from this game dispenses with the board completely, playing only with the cards. Do not get this game, even for a die-hard CSI fan.

A day trip to a Monterey game store (yes, there's a beach in the city, too) yielded a number of other purchases. For purposes of this post, I picked up the Party Crate edition of Apples to Apples and Dragon Delta. Mmmm, gift cards.

The Party Crate edition has more than a thousand cards and comes in a nifty wooden case. I'm glad we got this- The sturdy crate, card shoe, and the extra cards really are worth it.

Dragon Delta is a game I've wanted to lay hands on for some time now. I last played it more about three or four years ago, ostensibly as part of game research for developing a MMORPG for a startup.

If you don't know it, here's a brief rundown: Two to six players are competing in a race across a river by building bridges across the many small islands in its middle. Unlike many other race games, this has no random element. Each player has identical cards representing the various potential orders (move one or two, lay one or two stones to support planks, lay one or two planks, pick up a stone or a plank, hop over another player) plus dragon cards to cancel other players' actions. Each lays down five orders, then each card in turn is revealed simultaneously. Yes, you can use other players' bridges, and the start and end positions are designed such that players are virtually certain to cross paths. First player across the river to their goal island wins.

This went over well, thankfully. Strategy-wise, I'd rate this as medium-heavy, leaning towards light. I like the non-randomness, I like the player interaction, and I like the fact that when another player plays against you, you're more set back than screwed. A player almost always has choice and options, a very good thing says I. I really look forward to getting in a six-player game of this once we return to Austin.

Left edge of the country

That tiny figure in the distance is Cat. I'm looking out at the Monteray coast. Forgive the low picture quality, but it came from my cell phone. I'll do a big photo dump later.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Nickel Tour: Madagascar (2005)

Here's the nickel tour:

More of a two-cent tour, really. Madagascar is a Dreamworks animated feature. We're talking Shrek and Antz, not Toy Story or Finding Nemo. As such, the picture includes many sly references just for the adults. I saw the "Madagascar Penguins" in a short before Wallace & Gromit and the Curse of the Were-Rabbit, but I hadn't seen the original movie until now. I don't think I've even really seen it now, either. Evidently, Americans put video entertainment on the magic moving picture box in order to placate their young and keep them quiet. Interestingly enough, the cult of the Great Glowy Box doesn't appear to care what sort of active colorful shapes appear on the video screen, much less what kind of musical noise or vocal antics come out of the speakers. As long at the tube engages the brain (or should I say disengages the brain?), the content is virtually irrelevant. The medium matters more than the message. To wind up my rant, I only caught some of this movie as it performed its baby-sitting duties in the background. What I saw, I liked. I give it a "I shall Netflix this so I can actually watch it."

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Day of the Foodie

food·ie n. (informal) a person with an ardent, refined, or particular interest in food; a gourmet.

I had five kinds of apples over the course of the day: Red Delicious, Fuji, Granny Smith, Ambrosia, and Braeburn.

Breakfast included some kind of extra-tasty bagel; it had a thicker, crunchier crust, so I can only presume that the bagel-maker boiled it a little longer than your off-the-shelf grocery bagel. I topped it with some kind of gourmet chive-and-onion cream cheese.

For lunch, I had a leftover salad made of organic mixed greens, chunks of gorgonzola, asian pears, and honey roasted walnuts in some kind of mild vinaigrette. I may have also snuck a bit of Gallo Italian dry salami.

Dinner. Ah, dinner. We went to a place called Tarpy's Roadhouse. I can't speak to the wine, but we had two kinds of bottled water- still and fizzy. Evidently the water here is so hard, not only can you eat it with a fork and pick it up with a magnet, you'd overall rather drink bottled water.

One of the back waiters brought the table some extremely creamy and tart butter for a half-loaf of very fresh sourdough. The fantastic waitron, Lara, brought us our appetizers "family style," so the kitchen placed each of our appetizers (Calimari, fried artichoke rings, five spice asian barbecue ribs that literally fell off the bone, and bruschetta with garlic spread and goat cheese) on a central, raised platform.

After that, the main course arrived: Venison in a cherry-port reduction, a mound of mashed potatoes with garlic and chives, and a handful of very crisp asparagus with a smidge of butter. I had never had venison before, and I loved it. I could instantly taste the distinct flavor and understand why folks hunt deer, though I don't think I could put my finger on the precise difference in the meat. It reminded me somewhat of the flavor of buffalo, only leaner in texture and somehow with a harsher taste. I've heard people talk about "the wild taste" when talking about venison before, but I don't have anything else to compare it with... yet.

Desert appeared in the form of a Tres Leches cake with cream and sliced strawberries. If you've never had this kind of cake, imagine a moister, creamier pound cake- almost the density of sponge cake with a thick, rich texture reminiscent of flan or creme brule.

All in all, a most excellent day for the palate.

Monday, December 26, 2005

A Mo-wha?

It's called a modem, little Johnny. It's short for modulator/demodulator, and it allows nice clean digital signals to pass over dirty analog lines- typically to push beautiful ethereal TCP/IP over clunky POTS (Plain Ol' Telephone Service) lines.

What this means to you the reader is that I'm trapped on the other side of a dialup connection in a strange land lacking an abundance of wireless.

I suppose that I could attempt to compose a blog post offline. The muse may not favor me without a live distraction to the intarweb, however. We shall see.

Nickel Tour: March of the Penguins (2005)

Here's the nickel tour:

Narrated by Morgan Freeman (in one day, says the IMDb), this documentary shows the incredible lengths the Emperor Penguin goes to in order to breed and reproduce. In a nutshell, the species walks some 70 miles day and night across Antarctica, mates, lays eggs, then the mother walks back the 70 miles to eat, then back to feed the chick while the father walks the 70 miles to feed himself. All this happens in the freezing and the occasional dark and the barren, frozen, wasteland of Antarctica. The Wikipedia mentions that the Religious Right used this movie to support their views on conservative family values and intelligent design. However, in captivity, the Emperor Penguin displays extremely nonconservative sexual behaviors. Furthermore, the oddity and the odds against the chicks in the rookery speaks against intelligent design. Regardless of the implications, the film is beautiful and moving. I give it a "Definitely worth watching."

Saturday, December 24, 2005


Cat got me a new didj for holiday/birthday/anniversary!

The instrument pictured here comes from Marko Johnson, creator of the compact Didjboxes. Instead of hauling around a five foot piece of wood (and try explaining that "club-like object" to the TSA) while globetrotting, you can use a 16-inch long traveling didj instead! The Mindblower, which I now have, measures about 9 x 5 x 2 and can easily fit into a laptop bag. It gets its name because of its awesome sound from the player's perspective. The top has three holes- the center is intake, the other two function as outtake- one for each ear. Imagine a letter M, if you will. The musician (that's me) plays the center point of the M, and the sound ricochets back along the legs of the M and towards the ears. Stereo, baby! I play more sidesaddle than straight-on, but I can really hear the difference. That doesn't totally alleviate the bizarre sensation of playing a didj the size of a cigar box that actually sounds like a didj.

My second blogworthy present came from my brother. It's a TV-B-Gone, a keychain-sized device that acts like a remote control with one function- it turns off televisions. This genius little gizmo has a database of IR power off codes for most every make and model of television. You press the button, it starts transmitting these codes. The practical upshot of all this is that it lets you turn of virtually any television from 20-50 feet away. Mischief and distraction-free restaurants are in my future!


Tomorrow will find me hurtling through the air at some tens of thousands of feet toward the Left Coast of our nation. Have a good weekend and a happy holiday, folks.

Friday, December 23, 2005

This one's for you, mom

Today I went to one of the weekly meetings of the Launch Pad Job Club, a local-to-Austin networking organization for job seekers. At the first meeting I went to, the organizer hosted a speaker who talked about various non-Meyers-Briggs personality types and how they work and communicate together. Naturally, I thought about applying this real-world semi-scientific data towards gaming, but the overall thrust of why different people communicate at different levels sunk in on a professional level.

Today, my second meeting, the organizer gave out door prizes for the holiday (I got peach jam) and had each of us introduce ourselves and state a company where we would like to have an in or a contact or a foot in the door. As it turns out, one member works for Apple, so I'll soon get in contact with her and see what happens.

I had an interview earlier this week with a non-profit organization for a part time teaching gig. Part time on the order of a couple hours per week; gig on the order of a couple three months. I think it went well, but I need a full time job.

If anyone knows someone in the Austin area who could use my IT, writing, communication, people and/or game design skills, drop me a line and I'll shoot you a copy of my resume.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

I cried when Floyd died

"Video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control. ... I am prepared to believe that video games can be elegant, subtle, sophisticated, challenging and visually wonderful. But I believe the nature of the medium prevents it from moving beyond craftsmanship to the stature of art." -Roger Ebert

"Games are popular art, collective social reactions to the main drive or action of any culture. Games, like institutions, are extensions of social man and of the body politic, as technologies are extensions of the animal organism. Both games and technologies are counter-irritants or ways of adjusting to the stress of the specialized actions that occur in any social group. As extensions of the popular response to the workaday stress, games become faithful models of a culture. They incorporate both the actions and the reactions of whole populations in a single dynamic image." -Marshall McLuhan

"I think the real indicator [of gaming's success as an art form] will be when somebody confesses that they cried at level 17." -Steven Spielberg

"I don't know anything about art, but I know what I like." -Gelett Burgess

Floyd asks if you want to play Hucka-Bucka-Beanstalk. -Planetfall

From the fanboy department

I just saw the trailer for X-Men 3. Kelsey Grammer is the Beast, and the guy who played Claire's boyfriend (not Gabe, the blond guy) on Six Feet Under is Angel.

Furthermove, they're remaking The Producers with Nathan Lane, Matthew Broderick, Uma Thurman, and Will Ferrel as the Nazi.

Also a new trailer for V for Vendetta.

So much entertainment, so little time.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

It was a good day

My day began with a Dr Pepper.

No ordinary Dr Pepper, mind you, but the rare and wild Imperial Cane Sugar variant, also known as Dublin Dr Pepper. Short story: Blah blah corn syrup blah blah cane sugar. Real story: In the 1970s, everyone started switching to the cheaper corn syrup for their carbonated beverages. Those stubborn (and right-thinking) folks from Dublin, Texas refused to convert over their Dr Pepper plant to the new-fangled nonsense. In short, when you drink an Imperial Cane Sugar Dublin Dr Pepper, you're drinking pretty close to the more than 125-year-old recipe. And damn, does it taste good, with a wonderful rich smooth flavor. Thanks to the power of the Intarweb, you can buy it online. No, I'm not shilling for the company, I just want to spread the goodness.

After dropping off Cat to intern as a locksmith, I watched Rob Zombie's great little horror movie called House of 1000 Corpses- Never fear, there's a Nickel Tour in the near future. (Mom, don't watch this movie.)

Next, I dropped my car off at the brake shop. I actually had a decent customer experience in a mechanics' shop, can you believe it? My wallet didn't fare as well as my morale, but better to spend a little now and fix the problem than a lot down the line to fix a bigger one, right? Thank you FEMA money! Wheee! Trivia: One of the mechanics told me that he once had a $9,000 brake job on a truck of some kind. I think at that price point, I'd start thinking about a new car.

While waiting for the brake technicians to finish, I met Francois and had Indian buffet for lunch. I also got to geek out a little about games. Huzzah! Mmm, Beef vindaloo and naan.

My local gaming shop also called to let me know that my Fudge dice had come in. Yipee! Funnily enough, I had once tried to order these from another game shop, and to this day, I'm convinced the clerk thought I meant dice made from a yummy confectionery, instead of for the Fudge RPG.

After picking Cat up, I came home to find that my print copy of Dogs in the Vineyard had arrived via USPS. Here's a big shout out to Vincent- Hooray!

To wrap up the evening, I went to a coffeeshop, had tea, and got to geek out some more with Scott. Hoody hoo!

I didn't even have to use my AK.

Nickel Tour: Lifeboat (1944)

Here's the nickel tour:

It's 1944. The war is on. A U-Boat attacks an Allied ship; both sink. Eight survivors make it to a lifeboat. They soon pull one more man from the water, and he's a Nazi. All in all, I found it an interesting character drama, but not as compelling as I had hoped. John Steinbeck wrote the story and Alfred Hitchcock (spot the cameo) directed. I give it a "Dated but kicks Gilligan's ass."

Character creation

I recently accepted an invitation to join another roleplaying group. They meet weekly and alternate between two GMs and two games- Living Legends and the Serenity Role Playing Game. I've just made characters for both systems, and they present an interesting contrast- I doubt the games could be more different.

Living Legends, by Jeff Dee (incidentally also the GM), is superhero game that says it follows in the footsteps of Villains and Vigilantes. I haven't played V&V, but Jeff wrote both, so I expect he knows whereof he speaks. The manual is oddly dry, containing almost nothing about the setting. True, "it's comic books!" and there is a little bit of setting online, and UNI Games does have more product coming out, but nonetheless I missed seeing some setting in the main book.

Physically, it's a Lulu book with black-and-white comic book art. System-wise, it's pretty crunchy. Jeff told me that he was a pretty hardcore Simulationist GM, and it shows in the game. Nicely, he has random character creation alongside a choose-your-own method, so the nefarious Dr. Random can always supply some needed inspiration in a pinch.

As a superhero game, I've only really got Palladium's Heroes Unlimited and GURPS Supers with which to compare, having never played Brave New World, Capes, Champions (does Fuzion count?), DC Heroes, Marvel Super Heroes, Mutants and Masterminds, or With Great Power. I like my character concept for Jeff's "Monstrous Heroes" game, so I slogged through character creation. Eventually I had to resort to a provided spreadsheet when I discovered that I had purchased everything incorrectly. Nothing wrong with nonrandom character creation.

Serenity, by Jamie Chambers (incidentally not the GM) working with Margaret Weis Studios, on the other hand, is based on the movie of the same name. (Insert Firefly rave here.) I've ranted previously about the poor quality of the production, but physically, the book is solid. Much like the original West End Games d6 Star Wars, the book is very pretty- hardcover, glossy pages, photos from the movie, etc. Serenity (the RPG) has a whole licensed property it can build from. On the one hand, you can just refer back to a scene in the movie or an episode, and chances are that players will know the deal. (I don't have to describe a Stormtrooper.) But on the other hand, players will demand all sorts of game details that the original creator just didn't spell out on the big screen. (So, okay, the Hulk and the Thing get into a fight. Who would win? Who's stronger?)

System-wise, it's pretty light. Players can make up many of their skills, and with a good concept, you can finish a character in less than fifteen minutes. The haphazard and graphically-heavy user-supported forums make mention of a great idea I intend to steal- the 3x3x3. Basically, each player creates nine NPCs for the GM- three Allies, three Contacts, three Enemies. As a player, I like the power and control over my character's story. As a GM, I appreciate delegating some GM duties, getting a better handle on what a player wants out of the game, not to mention new sticks and carrots. The Serenity system also makes use of Plot Points to allow players to gain narrative control and fudge die rolls.

So I've got a very crunchy simulationist indie supers game completely in the hands of its creator versus a medium light narrative big-name-but-still-small-press licensed property game in the hands of a fan. I game in interesting times, in the Chinese sense.

This article inspired this post. In a nutshell, the article promotes random character creation as a means to better roleplaying. Worth reading. Contrariwise, Ron Edwards' article on Fantasy Heartbreakers notes that "in old D&D, rolling 3d6, in order, to determine one's one's attributes was a near-guarantee of a really shitty character."

Time to percolate. I hope you do the same.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Flood Washington

The Gulf Restoration Network has an campaign to generate 300,000 email messages — one for every displaced Louisianian — demanding category 5 protection for New Orleans and Southern Louisiana.

I don't like to bring politics here too often, but the President stood in Jackson Square three months ago and swore that "this great city will rise again." Three months later, much of the city still has no power and most of the people have yet to return. This form will send an email to your congressthing for you. Please take the minute or two and participate.

If you'd rather buy swag, check out:
Proud to Swim Home
Those Bastards (scroll down for Nagin and FEMA)

There's tons of stuff on CafePress: Got mold? Still proud to call it home, FEMA Trailer Trash... it's all good.

Post-Katrina humor

Natives go read The Creole-Tomato, right now. I had to subscribe.

Everyone else: well, like it says, "IF YOU AINT FROM HERE, YOU WON'T GET IT" (sic).

You'll have to read and hopefully understand the importance of the article on the endangered wild Turducken, nod sagely at the Op-ed piece by The Special Man, and hungrily read recommendations on where to eat in Baton Rouge.

But once you non-natives read the statement from the Pave Our Lake spokesman ("Told You So."), you might just get it.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Roast beef poboy, dressed, no lettuce

Today I ate well.

Lunch found me at Gene's New Orleans Style Poboys & Deli, very near to a friend's house. I absolutely envy the ability to walk a block or two and get a poboy any time you want. Gene's a New Orleans native and an Austin resident some five years and change. Pre-Katrina, he made trips back to the city to get ingredients. Maybe next time I'll get breakfast and sample their grits.

I had coffee at Flightpath later- they make a blended beverage from CDM coffee & chicory. The barista who served me used to live in New Orleans, though I think he moved here before Katrina. I mentioned to him that I finally had a decent poboy- and of course, we started talking food- but he first asked the telling question of a New Orleanian and their poboys: "How was the bread?" A poboy ain't a poboy unless it's on real French bread. It's just not right on subway-style bread. The crunch in the crust is part of the overall aesthetics of the sandwich.

Gene got good bread. I'm ready for another one.

The Economics of Disaster

I just read a Forbes article about how The Red Cross has had to borrow money for the first time in its 125-year history.

Quick data points from the article:
The Red Cross took out a $1 billion line of credit.
In two months, they raised $1.3 billion for Katrina. September 11th prompted $1.1 billion of donations in four months.

In the past, I didn't really donate. Maybe I'd drop a bit of change in a Salvation Army kettle, or give a dollar to a street musician. Sure, I thought about donating to public radio, but I figured that others would cover it. Now I'm in no position to donate anything other than my time. Soon I can donate blood, though.

If you haven't yet given money, and you can, the Red Cross has a page for Katrina donations. For another lean-back approach, many of the Coinstar change machines you see in grocery stores accept donations.

A few days ago, I noticed a PayPal-run "Tip Jar" over at Waiter Rant. I started to look into getting such a button of my own over in the sidebar. Right now, I don't feel so good about doing that. So this holiday season, give a little if you can.

Okay, soapbox over. My birthday is next month, so you can make it up to me then. :)

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Nickel Tour: The Lonely Guy (1984)

Here's the nickel tour:

Steve Martin (you know him, you love him!) plays the titular character, a "lonely guy" in New York in the mid-eighties. Amazingly, Charles Grodin is funnier as the supporting lonely guy. One commenter on the IMDB observes that Martin suffers for playing the straight man in a comedy, and I agree. I didn't laugh as much as I wanted to, and most of my grins and chuckles shared time with blank stares, counting the seconds to a knowing payoff, and eye rolling at this dated film adaptation of a surely even more dated book. Some of the sight gags worked well, despite being cliched- Martin opening curtains in a potential apartment to reveal an underwater vista with live fish, but wait for it, a tire floats by. A lot of the film comes off this way- not a one-two punch of comedy, but rather more a feeling of desperation in making sure the audience gets the joke. I give it a "They should've called it The Lonely Film."

Monday, December 12, 2005

A full weekend

Even unemployed, weekends have meaning.

Friday night, I ran my first game of Dogs in the Vineyard for the so-named "Renegade Roleplayers of Austin" group that I've pulled together. All in all, the players had a good time, and I believe I finally laid to rest any lingering doubts about roleplaying frontier Mormons with a different name. I figure the gang of four got through my town in about five or six hours- we broke around 2AM. If I do up the notes for the town or create an Actual Play post over at The Forge, I'll let my loyal readership know.

Saturday was a day of Netflix. Between the Simpsons and the Family Guy movie, I had a cartoon-riffic day. I also caught up on my sleep.

On Sunday I played Serenity. This session really came together- partially because we played twice in a row with the same players and partially because we removed an in-game complication allowing us to make choices and decisions.

I had a little bit of heaven for dinner, as Cat had made red beans and rice. Believe me when I say that you missed out.

After that, I hung out a bit with Francois and discussed 1984 Prime, New Orleans, publishing, and game geekery in general. I feel the motivation to start selling or -dare I say it?- even playing my game. During the course of the evening, Greg Costikiyan's insightful article I Have No Words & I Must Design, came up in conversation. If you haven't read it and you care about games, I encourage you to give it a read.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Frozen water

Yestermorning, I woke up to 21-degree weather. Cat and I had to de-ice the school bus before it went anywhere- about a quarter-inch of ice. This marked the third time in less than twelve hours that I needed to remove ice from my car before driving it anywhere. I've seen ice before, of course. In New Orleans, I've seen frost and a thin layer of ice on my car and on the grass, but it usually melts as soon as the sun comes up. I've never had icicles hanging from my car, nor nearly slipped on patches of ice on the ground, nor needed to run the car and heater for about ten minutes before the ice had warmed enough to scrape it off with a combination of a spatula, a shop rag, and elbow grease.

Today, however, we enjoyed a balmy 29. No ice.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Happy Birthday!

Today is my brother's birthday. Why don't you give him a present and click on one of his ads?

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Police Action

Monday, I witnessed part of the manhunt for a local serial armed robber.

I had contacted a fellow named Russ via craigslist about buying some wargaming and roleplaying books. We met at a coffeeshop, Texpresso, near the Alamo Drafthouse to geek out and haggle. We wound up talking more about languages, local restaurants, and international travel than games or computers.

About five minutes after he left, patrons in the shop started noticing about a half-dozen police cars in the parking lot. Cops started milling about- most had their service revolvers out, but I saw three with readied rifles. A few minutes later, someone said that it looked like they cops had started to block off the parking lot. I very nearly left when Russ did, but I wanted to hit the net and try one of Texpresso's signature and eponymous drinks. A patron came in and told us that someone had robbed a bank, and the suspect had locked himself into one of the women's restrooms. Ah, Dame Rumor!

I sometimes have my digital camera in my laptop bag. Monday, I didn't. As fortune had it, my new whiz-bang Nokia 3220 (it's like a rave in your pocket) with a camera and a stock and this thing that tells time had just run out of juice. I had enough power to make a call, but not enough to run the camera. Shades of Apollo 13!

I started reporting to Judson via IM all of the developments. His first question? "Where are you in all this? You sitting on the floor? Assess your cover." Despite sitting near to a large glass window, I felt secure. Not only was I out of the line of fire, I could reach much better cover into the cafe and behind the counter very quickly. And who says that roleplaying games don't prepare you for real life?

I didn't want to leave the cafe, as I had two file boxes full of games, plus my laptop bag. I felt that the police would take a dim view of an unidentified man carrying two suspicious-looking white boxes into this situation. Also, one officer had stationed his car directly behind mine, using both my car and a white pickup as cover for his car, which he then used as cover. I did have a good view of his little staging area as he searched through the weapons in his trunk. "Great," I thought. "With my luck, a shootout happens and Progressive doesn't cover bullet holes. The city better buy me a new car."

About this time, speculation had it that the bank robber had hostages. People came out of the Drafthouse in ones and twos, and cops escorted three cooks out, frisked them, and let them go. I saw one woman sobbing into a man's arms about thirty feet past the window. By this time, the cops had largely holstered their weapons and had a much more relaxed attitude. Two Feds or detectives had pulled up and started talking to the civvies outside. Shortly after this, the office moved his car from blocking mine and I took the opportunity to leave and go have lunch.

When I got to my car, I plugged in my phone and took a poor-quality-at-a-distance shot of the restaurant draped in crime scene tape; I'll try to transfer it off my phone and have it available here for the teeming masses.

To see the shopping center where this all went down, check out these two Google Maps. Hope this helps!

Winter comes to Austin

It's 22 degrees right now. That's ten degrees below freezing. The little school bus (aka Blueberry aka my Saturn aka the car) had ice over the windshield, roof, rear window, and trunk. What's next? "Snow?"

It's despicable.

Monday, December 05, 2005


I stumbled across Darren Lock's review of a new remaster of Queen's A Night at the Opera for the 30th anniversiary of the. The new album also comes with a DVD of the tracks remixed in 5.1 surround sound, plus videos and audio commentary by the band.

Yes, I just added this to my Amazon wish list. I may buy it before the holidays, though.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Nickel Tour: The January Man (1989)

Here's the nickel tour:

I've seen this movie before, and I remember really liking this movie. It used to stand up to the Kevin Kline Moustache Theory of Comedy. You know the one. If Kevin Kline appears in a movie with a moustache, it's funny and good and all is right with the world. January Man has Kline as an ex-firefighter returned serial strangler catcher. The supporting cast is okay, Alan Rickman rocks, Danny Aiello is a New Yorker, Rod Steiger yells and screams, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio is the female romantic lead, Susan Sarandon doesn't act like Janet Weiss. Plotwise, I nearly fell asleep. Maybe I'm watching too much CSI, or Silence of the Lambs changed everything, but I just want more out of a police procedural/serial killer flick. I give it a "Not as good as I remember."

A brief personal computing history

Today I realized that I haven't purchased a computer for myself since around 1997.

At some time in the mid-eighties, our family had a TI 99/4A computer. I don't really remember using it for much beyond playing games, though I know that I learned a little bit of programming on it. I know that the New Orleans Central Library did not consistently title books on the system, as I had to search for "TI 99 4A," "TI 99/4A." "TI 99\4A," and "TI 994A" to find books on the subject. At the time, the price point for getting network access prevented me from any online research.

In 1986, my grandmother bought me a Commodore 64. I distinctly remember purchasing a 1200 baud modem from Toys R Us for $89. With this modem, I connected. I couldn't afford Q-Link, the pay-per-minute online service that eventually became AOL, and my parents wouldn't let me make international long distance calls (much less any other long distance calls), but I did have my own phone line. In New Orleans, I belonged to several of the dozens of BBSs, and even ran one of my own for a while. I had many happy years with my Commie, joining my first user groups, pirating my first software, doing my first hardware hacking, the list goes on and on.

I bought my first computer sometime in the early nineties, before I left high school. I paid about $1,200 for a 386 IBM clone with a 100MB hard drive, both kinds of floppy drive (remember those?), and probably about 16 megabytes of RAM- though it could have had only eight megs of RAM. It came with MS-DOS version 5. "Lazarus," as I eventually called the machine, stayed with me throughout several incarnations. I upgraded it first to a 387, then to a 486SX, and eventually to a 486DX. At some point, I bought the MS-DOS 6.22 upgrade (the last pre-Windows version). I most commonly played StarCon and Civilization one, used WordPerfect 5.1 for papers and stories, and good old Telix for modem work. I had Windows 3.11, but most of my applications (and games) lived in DOS. Lazarus and its 100MB hard drive still functioned pre-Katrina, though it basically existed to test some extremely low-end floppy-based Linux distributions.

Shortly after college, in 1997, I had the opportunity to make use of one of two laptops a roommate had- I called them "Black Box" and "Beige Box." Both systems had 486 processors and awful battery life, but the Compaq-branded Beige Box had more memory and a trackball built into the right-hand side of the screen, with its buttons on the back. I still miss that ergonomic design, which allowed full keyboard access while mousing, something that many modern trackpads interfere with. I still used Lazarus as my primary system, using the laptops for lightweight tasks in more comfortable locations. Both systems had Windows 95.

In 1998, I purchased my first laptop, Digital Equipment Corporation's HiNote VP 717, for $900 from a friend. I eventually dubbed this system "Barnacle" due to its tenacity. At the time, a good friend had almost convinced me to purchase one of the new fruit flavored iMacs. If I had purchased one of those systems, I likely could still have used it actively as an OS X machine. As it happens, you can still buy one of those iMacs for $100-$200. The HiNote won't fetch more than $20 even if it worked. Barnacle represented my first foray with Linux, as I flirted briefly with Red Hat Linux version 6 around 1999. I successfully got an external ZIP drive and my wacky PCMCIA modem working, but video problems plagued me, and I eventually went the Windows 98 route, going back to Eudora for email. Major games included SimCity, but not the Sims- poor Barnacle didn't have the speed to run it. In mid-2000, I dropped it while moving a desk and broke the screen. I continued to use my laptop with an external monitor, effectively turning it into a desktop system. Around 2003, I found a replacement screen on eBay for $25 (as opposed to $500+ when it broke), installed the part, and Barnacle became a Linux test box for lightweight distros, such as Damn Small Linux. Its battery eventually gave out, and I did not salvage it from New Orleans.

In early 2001, I did some work for an architect friend of mine I met doing tech support for a friend. She paid me in cash, as well as with an old computer she no longer used. This system, now dubbed "Fornit," started life as a Red Hat 8 system for Cat, as she hadn't had a computer of her own in ages. Fornit stood about three feet tall, had a plastic foot bezel for support, and weighed a ton. I consider it my first real in-kind gift.

In mid-2002, I received a free system as a gift from my then-employer. "Sandbox" cost $300 and came with Linux. A low-end Wintergreen system with an 1100 MHz Athlon processor and a 10 GB hard drive, Sandbox became my primary gaming and web-goofing system, as most of my work happened on my Linux system at work. Eventually, its CPU fan clogged with dust and stopped, leading to a fried processor. A good man from the New Orleans Linux Users Group gave me a spare proc he had lying around. Eventually, virtually every part on that system failed: its memory, its hard drive, its proc, its power supply, and I think its optical drive.

Sometime in 2003, I did some more in-kind work for a lawyer friend of mine and got another cast-off system. This timed nicely with the death of Sandbox. I never gave this system a name. Mostly I played emulated and older games on this system- C64, SNES, DOS.

In mid 2004, while at Tulane, a student gave me a semi-dead G3 iBook for parts. Its optical drive broke when she dropped something on it while open, and it had a flashing question mark indicating that it couldn't boot- a dead hard drive. Before the holiday season, I had repaired it to usability. "FrankenMac," my current system, has had more surgery and more invasive surgery than any other system I've owned. I've replaced its 20GB hard drive, its optical drive twice (first a combo drive, then a plain CD-ROM), and a reed switch in the display. I also scrounged a power adapter. All told, FrankenMac utilizes parts from six different machines.

The two Windows boxes I evacuated from New Orleans need to go back to their owners. I may buy a cheap Dell for games. Right now, unemployed, I have no line on donated systems or acquired pieces parts. Rumor Control says that Apple plans to release a new, Intel-based line of iBooks come the end of January.

Thanks for listening.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

"Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night..."

"...stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds."

So spake Herodotus, as we all know. The United States Postal Service's unofficial motto sort of applies here. Well, apart from the fact that hurricanes trump "swift completion."

Today, the 3rd of December, I received two Netflix movies that originally shipped on the 30th of August.

According to a spokeswoman from the USPS, "a letter mailed across town now must travel to Baton Rouge for a postmark, then to Houston to check for forwarding addresses, back to Baton Rouge, then on to St. Rose to be sorted for delivery and back to the appropriate local post office."

I'm honestly not complaining to receive mail. On some level, I'm amazed that our postal system works as well as it does.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Nickel Tour: Dead Calm (1989)

Here's the nickel tour:

In this installment of "Eighties movies I've never seen before," we touch on a thriller that launched Nicole Kidman's career- she still has he kiwi accent as the wife of Sam Neill in the middle of the ocean on a boat with a crazy man, Billy Zane. Even though this movie had some obviously dated plot points, it captivated me almost from the opening shot through the end. As always, Neill does a wonderful job going slightly mad. Zane, while almost too pretty to play a lunatic, also convinces. And Kidman does quite well with the script she has. The isolated environment of the ocean and the limited cast (three, plus a dog, not counting characters seen on a videotape) really work well for this sort of story. I give it a "I really want to see a remake of this, set in space."

CNN talks about the didgeridoo

The Famous Didjeridu Mailing List (Remember those? LISTSERV, anyone? Anyone? Bueller?) sent me a link to an article about didj crafting at CNN. Once you've digested that, you can find out more starting at the Wikipedia. If you want to see and hear real didjs for sale, check out L. A. Outback and the Didj Shop.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Games, games, good for the heart

For the last few days, I've been digesting The Essential 50, a nearly year-long series of articles on the top fifty most important games ever made- in chronological order. This exhaustive list starts with Spacewar in 1962 and finishes up with Halo in 2001. I definitely had a trip down memory lane with this series. Each article touches on a single game and presents a brief history of the game and its developer. The article also touches on why the game merits inclusion- a good game alone doesn't cut it. Each of the games on this list represent some kind of revolutionary turning point or important step in the evolution, culture, and history of video games. I've played about thirty or forty of the games on the list, most when they came out. Not only did I have a wonderful stroll down memory lane, I also got to look at many of these games in context and through adult eyes. Fascinating.

The rest of me has been dealing with the latest chapter in the amazing Fallout series, Fallout: Brotherhood of Steel, a PS2 game. Sadly, this one does not live up the standards set in Fallout, Fallout 2, Fallout Tactics, or even the design docs for Fallout 3. The original Fallout games had style in spades- those of you who have read the award-winning 1984 Prime can guess the influence it had on me. The first Fallout games rank among the best CRPG games I've ever played. I still have the original CDs and have bought Fallout 2 at least twice. F:BOS just isn't all that. It's basically a run 'n gun with Fallout window dressing.

Rumor Control says that Bethesda now has the license has Fallout 3 under active production. I'm keeping my fingers crossed, but I'm also going to check out some of the Fallout 2 mods on one of the fan sites.

For those of you just tuning in: This game I loved, they made a new one. It's exactly like vegan cheese. Sure, it looks like cheese, and maybe it even tastes a little like cheese, but all in all, it's a pale imitation that leaves you wanting a nice sharp cheddar at the very least. I might even say it's like water for chocolate.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

It's a school night

My mom can't be the only one who ever called Sunday through Thursday evenings "school night." School night means you can't stay up late and you must be in bed on time to catch the bus in the morning.

Fast-forward twenty years or so, and it's a school night again. Cat's off to locksmith school tomorrow morning, bright and early, and I'm the bus. Some school supplies include construction paper, paste, or a protractor and a set of crayons. Cat's school supplies include a ball peen hammer and a wood chisel.

In other news today, two different people asked me the time within twenty minutes while I pondered the Austin job market at Mojo's today. Do people these days just not have watches? Almost thirty years after the Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and I still think that digital watches are a pretty neat idea.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

It changes your whole day

Today, once again, I joined my brother for our daily stroll. As luck would have it, we had the opportunity to lunch together, and I got to try out a Middle Eastern place near campus called Kismet. I enjoyed my gyro and kibby immensely. So far, the best Middle Eastern I've had in Austin, though I've not gone to many restaurants yet.

I knew we would stroll near campus today, so I sort of intentionally wore my "Miskatonic Culinary School - Serving humanity since 1620" T-shirt. In case you don't know, Texas really loves their football, and Austin really loves their Longhorns. Some parts of the city have a burnt orange patina that stretches for miles. Well, blocks. I saw my Misk U. shirt as a reaction to the completely pervasive school spirit, and sort of looked forward to some guy coming up to me and saying, "Your school sucks!" Then I'd have the pleasure of explaining how a fiction school causes comedy.

Post-lunch, post-stroll, and post-air hockey tournament (Josh won one, I won one), we strolled back to Mojo's for some mutual jobseeking. I hit Craigslist, Indeed (a meta-search for jobs, very cool), UT Austin, and started to go through Dice. I did find one or two possibilities, but most everything game-related wants either artists or developers and most IT positions want programmers or people more alpha geek than I. All in all, I found the experience a little disheartening.

While at the coffee house, three people in two separate encounters commented on my shirt and how much they liked seeing Miskatonic apparel. Those comments totally put a smile on my face and reaffirmed my faith in geek chic. I marvel at how we can affect others' lives with the smallest of acts.

Go Pods!

Friday, November 25, 2005

Nickel Tour: 11:14 (2003)

Here's the nickel tour:

We picked this up on a lark using a free movie coupon. Like many other movies, 11:14 features an ensemble cast and multiple, out-of-order stories. I don't know if the stock has grown to having its own genre yet. I can't believe that nobody did it before Tarantino and Pulp Fiction, but I can't think of a better example. 11:14 features five interconnected stories of sex, murder, mayhem, love, and crime in a small town at the same precise moment- forty-six minutes to midnight. I don't want to reveal much more than that, but consider this an indie black comedy so you know what you're getting into. I give it a "Surprisingly solid."

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Happy Thanksgiving

Today is Thanksgiving, a day of dual consuming and gratitude.

I have many things to be thankful for, not the least of which is my life and the lives of everyone I know and love. Most every year around this time, one runs through the regular "There but for the grace of god go I" litany. I have a roof, I have food, I have my health, I have friends and family and my stuff. Everything from now on gets viewed through the lens of Katrina- not just my own situation, but the lives of hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people. When the planet reaches out and smacks you, I think it wise to listen.

Hence my plan for preventive hurricane measures by airlifting icebergs into the path of a hurricane to cool the water and disrupt the weather system.

I naturally mean "consume" in both senses: food and commerce. Some time back, I read in an old humor magazine a description of the two most effective exercises when it comes to holiday overindulgence. (Stop me if you've heard this before. No, wait- you can't.) One: You push yourself away from the table when you feel full. Two: You shake your head from side to side when offered seconds. Try these simple activities and I guarantee you'll see results.

If you have every worked retail (or still do), you know that tomorrow marks BLACK FRIDAY, the busiest shopping day of the year. You're either up to hit a department store that opens at 4AM or hiding in your closet, safe and secure in the knowledge that you are more elite than the bourgeois consumer.

On the entertainment front, today is also a day for the most excellent sequel to Katamari Damacy, We love Katamari. I've long had the first one, but I picked up the sequel yesterday from Fry's- my Geek Buffet of choice. This strange and addictive Japanese game of rolling stuff up merits its own non-Turkey Day post. Suffice it to say that I think this PlayStation 2 game rocks so much that I think you should purchase it before you read my review. And if you purchase it using the below links, you support a Katrina evacuee.

Don't forget, you can shop online and not worry about traffic or parking. :)

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

News from home

My mom sent me this story from USA Today, describing a block of Banks street about two blocks from the house that Cat and I almost moved into.

I don't like to forward an email without a personal message of some kind, even if I just type "FYI!" at the top. By the same token, I don't want to post a link here without giving it some context. Hence, the before and after photos. I took the before photo about two weeks before Katrina. The second photo is three weeks old today. That's about two and a half months between the pictures.

And now, off to watch Cat can sign some paperwork for her locksmithery next week.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Morning Routines

Like most of us, I have a morning routine to help me start the day. I don't have anything overly crazy or obsessive, but pre-quatrain, my morning routine would consist of a Dr. Pepper and perhaps a dozen webcomics that I'd read via an aggregator called dailystrips, which consists of a clever Perl script and the cron scheduler.

I haven't felt the need to read cartoons for quite a while.

Today, however, I woke up with the need for humor. I will shortly look to putting dailystrips on my laptop for future entertainment.

One more bit of normalcy falls back into place.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Nickel Tour: The Gingerdead Man (2005)

Here's the nickel tour:

Got a pizza the other day. Got two coupons for free movies. Went to Block****er.


The guy that killed Jeremy and your daddy, that you helped send to the electric chair, Millard Findlemeyer, has come back, from the dead to get revenge on you, inside a cookie?

Did I mention that Gary Busey plays the eponymous titular character?

I say we take this thing on Leno, Letterman. Do you know how much dough we can make off a talking cookie? (laughs) Dough. Cookie. Get it?

Did I mention that all the characters' names are silly? Sarah Leigh is the heroine. Amos Cadbury is the funny one. The token Latina is Julia. This movie was so bad it wasn't even as bad I wanted it to be to make more fun of it. At least it was short. I give it a "That's 71 minutes of my life I'll never get back."

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Playtesting home-brewed games, buying new ones

I had a grand ol' time during Friday's playtest. We played four unpublished games and I picked up four new ones.

First, we tried an unnamed pre-alpha adaptation of Civilization. I don't know if the guy wanted to adapt Sid Meier's or Avalon Hill's version, but I presume the latter. The was extremely early in the design process, almost to the point of unplayability, though I saw some interesting possibilities in the card transformations he used. I'll leave the idea to percolate.

Next, we played "Productivity," a game of corporate project management. I had fun playing a complete game, as well as giving feedback- I think we made generally worthwhile suggestions overall, though I know well the feeling of "get the hell off my game" when you have too many cooks on a game. Regardless, I look forward to seeing the next revision of the game. Things to remember for a playtest: have multiple copies of your rules.

Next, we played a game of my own design- "Caffeine Dealer," a working title. It's an epic masterpiece of mind-boggling complexity, brain-tickling simplicity, and raw fun that will shake the heavens and bring the gaming world to its knees. Ahem. In all seriousness, some of you may recall this game of coffeeshop mayhem that grew out of the Dvorak concept. I took a page of advice from Monkey Man Dan, and stripped the game down to its base rules and concept. I think I definitely have a good working beta at this point, though I still need to tweak the scoring to streamline it. Anybody have an in with a major coffeeshop? I'd like to license the final design.

Finally, we played Dan's untitled post-apocalypse salvage game, pictured above. For the record, the players in the photo are (clockwise): Me, Dan, David, and Danny. Taking his own advice, Dan stripped the game down to the core game mechanic, partially to prove that the mechanic works, but also to clear out bloat and cruft. I think he took it too far, but I understand the design process. Oddly, it somehow reminded me of Cosmic Encounter, though likely only because of the level of abstraction and the potential for expansion.

I picked up four new games: 221 B Baker Street and a case expansion, Blood Feud in New York, the Hollywood! Card Game, and Let's Kill.

221B Baker Street is one of the classics that I've never played. Originally released in 1975, players take on the role of Sherlock Holmes, matching wits against each other in an effort to solve crimes. Unlike Clue, where "mysteries" consist of random who-where-what, 221B comes with twenty different written-for-the-game-by-mystery-writers cases, as well as selling additional cases separately. Cat played this game as a kid with her parents, so I picked it up primarily on her recommendation.

Blood Feud in New York looks like a Mafia-themed Axis and Allies. That is to say that it looks like a simple wargame with units a la Risk, but different units have different abilities. In Blood Feud, you've got hitmen and helicopters, thugs and limos, henchmen and speedboats. The color alone in this game makes the purchase worthwhile, plus the ideas gleaned for my own secret nefarious projects, not to mention scratching my Mob itch perpetuated by the Sopranos and Tony D's Complete Mafia for d20. I'll post a more complete review once I get a chance to play it.

Buy Blood Feud from Funagain!

I picked up Hollywood! on a lark. Basically, the game store employee had a new shipment open for pricing, and I picked up a new game for seven bucks. Hey, can you blame me? This actually looks very promising- one of those simple games that suggest the possibility for deep strategy. On the one hand, I had hoped for something a little lighter and sillier (like Pimp: The Backhanding), but it looks like the game's theme functions primarily as window dressing, and the real game of returns on an investment fits right in there with Titan/Colossal Arena, Modern Art, and Lost Cities. Interestingly, while looking up the links for those three games, I noticed that Reiner Knizia designed all three. So I realize that I've given Hollywood! some severe praise there, and I have to state the disclaimer that I've not yet played this game. Such is the curse for purchasing a game that requires three players.

Buy Hollywood! from Funagain!

Let's Kill, on the other hand, completely falls into the category of light beer-and-pretzels games. It's a card game about serial killing with creepy stick figure art. This one probably works better with more than two players, but Cat and I still had fun. Contrasting this with the previous game, this proves that theme and window dressing can carry a game far.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Why I love digital projection

As you know, I saw Harry Potter. You don't know that I saw it digitally projected at the only theatre in Austin with a digital projection system. Evidently, the next closest such setup is in Dallas.

Dude, it was totally awesome.

Here's why:

  1. No projector sound.
  2. No audible reel changes.
  3. No visible reel changes.
  4. No scratches, hairs, or other marks upon the film.
  5. Perfect digital sound.
  6. Amazing, perfect, crisp color and images.
  7. Twice the resolution of HDTV.

In short, one can enjoy a film without the film getting in the way. The message without the medium.

Nickel Tour: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005)

Here's the nickel tour:

Unsurprisingly, if you like Harry Potter, you'll like this movie. I must tip my hat to anyone who must reduce a 734-page book into a movie that contemporary audiences will sit through. Even so, the film runs two hours, thirty-seven minutes and has a lot of material to cover. They cut a fair amount of material (as they must), and I hadn't read the book in a while, so I felt like I got to watch the film without the book influencing me overmuch. Still, I enjoyed seeing the translation from print to film- Shades of Laocoön. Overall, the film really works as a film. The drama and comedy really come through in a way that pleasantly surprised me. As the franchise's first PG-13 movie, it continues to him home that Rowling does not write "children's books" in the traditional sense. I give it a "Already want to own it."

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Cellular Housekeeping

I have a new cellular device.

Sadly, I don't have a better way to transfer my addressbook between my old phone and my new one beyond my thumbs. In the future, I would like to sync my phone and my computer automagically with Bluetooth and iSync. I know in my heart of hearts that personal area networks will feature prominently in how we live out lives in my lifetime. RFID be damned, I mean decisive, planned, controlled actions between a watch, a cell phone, a PDA, the house computer, your glasses, your car... the potential uses look like a huge exciting playground of possibilities to me. Blah blah caveat emptor blah blah security blah blah Windows blah blah ineffectual government lackeys.

By hand, I now go through my old phone and transcribe numbers into my computer, all the while making the decisions about whose numbers to keep. Even Pre-Katrina, this process forces a person to mentally go back to grade school and distinguish their best friends from their fourth best friends. Post-Katrina, I can't guarantee that a 504 area code still works, much less the person still has that number.

Now I have a 512 area code and one more piece of home is gone.

Austin remains weird

I haven't seen a cockroach in more than two months. Snakes, yes. Possum, yes, Deer, yes. Armadillos, yes. Giant mutant crickets, yes. But the state bird of Louisiana is nowhere to be seen.

I live in a desert.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Nickel Tour: Lost in La Mancha (2002)

Here's the nickel tour:

Terry Gilliam. Just saying his name brings all of the imagery of Time Bandits, Brazil, Baron Munchausen, the Fisher King, and 12 Monkeys leaping through my head. Like most of us, I have a Lottery List for what happens should a stupid amount of money fall out of the sky. On that list, I have charities to donate to, projects to sponsor, and movements to lead. Of the artists I wish to sponsor, Gilliam is the only director who gets a check. Most of the others I'd prefer to work with to realize some vision or another.

Terry Gilliam has wanted to make a movie of Cervantes' Don Quixote for more than a decade. The most recent attempt, The Man who Killed Don Quixote, starred Jean Rochefort as Don Quixote and Johnny Depp as a modern day ad exec in the past, playing the role of Sancho Panza.

Lost in La Mancha documents the disasters around this production. In less than a week of production, weather ruined the oudoor set and the lead actor, Don Quixote himself, suffered a herniated disc. Don Quixote, the knight error, could not ride a horse. Watching the documentary (originally produced as a "behind the scenes" extra for DVD or whatever), I really felt the sinking desparation of the production. The same guys who made The Hampster Factor for 12 Monkeys also made this, and their craft showcases Gilliam's plight, insight and lunacy perfectly.

Terry, if you read this and I have zillions of dollars, call me.

"Productivity Software"

God help me, I'm using a spreadsheet.

Like most folks in the world, I have a spreadsheet set up as a poor man's database. I don't plan to do any real analysis of the data or the numbers generated, nor do I want to produce any charts (pie, bar, nor line) of my figures. Instead, I want to take some real-world ideas and organize them. A spreadsheet has a low barrier to entry, much lower than a real database. Perhaps, as I take this game design further, I will switch to a real database. But for now, a spreadsheet.

For the record, I do not use Microsoft Office. As I hear it, Office for the Mac kicks the bits out of Office for Windows. I've installed NeoOffice, the Mac implementation of OpenOffice, the free office productivity package. Yes, they have a Windows version. Yes, it's free- free as in beer (gratis) and free as in speech (libre). I know a good deal of you have either paid for or pirated Microsoft Office. Why?

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

The American Consumer

Today, Cat and I made a Wal-Mart run. We haven't entered a Wal-Mecca in about a month. Boy, does it feel good.

Both of us had a "This is Austin" moment. She on the way to the store, I within it. While looking at video game materiel, I thought about calling the guys and playing some Halo (or whatever). The sameness of the Wally World dulled me into forgetting my location, and I thought myself back in New Orleans (okay, Harahan).

Inside, the couple behind us had their pre-adolescent child with them. Now, I don't know about you, but my ass had a curfew on school nights. I never went to the store past midnight during the week. What's wrong with people today?

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Saturday games for two

Saturday, Dan hosted a game day focusing on two-player games. Sadly, nobody attended besides myself. (Dan and his wife were very gracious hosts.) On the bright side, it did give me a chance to focus on two-player games, which have their own quirks both in terms of playing and designing.

The roll call:

  • Lost Cities

    Designed by the inimitable (and prolific) Reiner Knizia of math and game fame, Lost Cities puts you in the role of financing expeditions to recover the eponymous lost cities. We get this jewel from Rio Grande Games under their "Kronos" imprint. It reminds me of a probabilities dice game for the Palm called Sigma. For each of five cities, the deck has three "investment" cards plus "explore" cards numbered one to ten. Players take turns either investing in a expedition before exploring, or laying down increasingly larger expedition cards. You score based on the cards you lay down, multiplied by investment cards. Here's the kicker: Each expedition you embark upon starts you off with negative points. Both players compete together and each explore card is unique, so card-counting (as in Spades) helps a great deal. Like many of these two-player games, several rounds are played before tallying the final score.

  • Ticket to Ride

    2004's Spiel des Jahres. There's a lot of this going around. Ticket to Ride (obligatory Beatles joke) is not just another train game. Like many train games, players compete to build rail connections between various cities that they keep secret from each other. But unlike many train games, players don't need to worry about cargo, just building a continuous line of their track from city to city. The routes on the board have various colors, and you must lay your trains by playing X number of like-colored cards at the same time. Most routes require a certain color, but some routes have uncolored spaces. So if you want to connect, say, Oklahoma City to El Paso, you must play five yellow cards. However, Phoenix to El Paso requires three of any color. The deck also has wild cards.

    I also appreciate the nearly language-free (How do you say "Las Vegas" or "New York" in say, Portuguese? You don't have to.) board and cards, facilitating the translation to other languages.

    There also exists Ticket to Ride: Europe, which I haven't played yet.

  • En Garde!

    A new game from Slugfest Games, En Garde! recreates classic swordfighting duels. In my humble opinion, the game has three major things going for it. One, there's no hit points or wounds or whatever- just Poise. A successful strike causes the target to lose poise, and certain cards require you to spend Poise in order to play them. After all, it's all about appearances. Two, attacks are dealt out as a holistic challenge with a semi-rigorous structure to laying out the cards in a challenge: attack - response - press attack - counter attack - fancy move ("You see, I am not Left-Handed!). This structure really presses home the feel of a duel. Three, the cardstock is truly excellent. Heavy and glossy, well-suited to taking punishment. I missed these guys at Dragon*Con. They're also putting out a Kung Fu fighting game, likely using the same mechanics. Now that's the thing to do.

    You can buy it direct from the publisher.

  • Tally ho!

    Another showing from Kosmos via Rio Grande. In Tally Ho! (subtitled "Who's hunting who?"), in this tile-flipping game one player takes the role of hunters and lumberjacks, and the other player takes the role of foxes and bears. Both can move the bewildered quail or the smug ducks. Foxes can eat quail and ducks; hunters can shoot bears and foxes, but only in the direction they face (they don't rotate!); bears can eat hunters and lumberjacks; and lumberjacks eat trees. Play two rounds, with each player taking both roles, and score points based on your prey.

    The art suits the light-hearted game perfectly.

  • The Legend of Landlock

    I really have a beef with the art for this game. It's cute. Too cute. Deceptively cute. Disarmingly cute. Cute enough to make you disparage the game and not take it seriously. But then, the underlying strategy leaps out and shakes you, making you realize that this charming little game of gnomes, tussocks, rivers and paths won the Mensa Select award in 2002 and made the Games 100. One player is land, the other is water. Each is trying to connect their pathways to all four corners of what will become a 6x6 grid. You score points for drawing a tussock, the cute little animal tile through which no passage runs, but you also score points for closing off your opponent and building islands or ponds. Landlock costs less than $15 retail, plays in about fifteen minutes, and has a nice undercurrent of strategy.

    You can buy it direct from the publisher.

  • Gone Fishing

    And speaking of currents (rimshot). Gone Fishing, also from Kosmos/Rio Grande, physically resembles Tally Ho- same size box, same nice durable thick pressboard tiles. Even the art seems a little reminiscent of the other. Once again, one player is the humans catching the animals, and once again, both players play both roles. The main board consists of sixteen lake tiles that only the fish player can see- about half are fish and worth points, with the rest is garbage and serves to ridicule. The angler player has a bit of shell game to play, as the fish player will move some of the tiles after each catch. The social aspect must not be ignored, as the fish player has a fair bit of psychological tricks to employ in order to convince the angler to catch the junk and not the fish. Piece by piece, the fish player reveals a tile at a time to the angler player, so memory plays a larger role than initially expected. This game definitely pleasantly surprised me with the depth of strategy.

    It's way more fun to be the fish.

  • Stratego

    Yep, Stratego. Dan's copy came out of a garage sale and easily dated to the early sixties. I had never played this before, but I had heard a great deal about it. I had rather low expectations, all things considered. After all, Stratego comes from the Milton Bradley generation that put out Candyland, Monopoly, and the Game of Life (forgive the inaccurate dating), right? These games are to be scoffed at by modern game design. But the Wikipedia tells us that Stratego in its modern form was patented circa 1908, and is in fact based off older Chinese games.

    At its heart, Stratego is little more than a game of Capture the Flag, with higher-ranking pieces capturing lower ranking ones, except that the single lowest-ranked piece, the Spy, may capture the single highest, the Marshall- and is the only piece that may do so. The six Bombs function as land mines, capturing any piece to move on one, expect the rank-8 Miners. Here's the kicker: all pieces are hidden from the opponent, only revealing when a capture attempt is made.

    Very tense, and very tasty. Both memory and psychology play as much a role as initial placement. I'd buy this now, but I'd rather either a nice collector's edition or a vintage one. eBay, here I come!

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Nickel Tour: The Machinist (2004)

Here's the nickel tour:

I don't know why I had this in my queue. Possibly someone suggested it to me, or I just grabbed it because of its description, or possibly Netflix itself suggested the film. Premise: Christian Bale is a (you guessed it) machinist who hasn't been able to sleep for a year. The character has lost a lot of weight, and Bale looks like a skeleton. According to the IMDb trivia, the man lost some 63 pounds by eating an apple and a can of tuna per day. The movie definitely has a few good weird moments, but I felt the payoff was not worth the setup. It also uses a certain plot twist that seems fairly obvious. Although I won't spoil it overtly, let's just say that Twelve Monkeys and Fight Club both handled the ideas better. I give it a "Slightly let down."

If you like, buy it:

OS X 10.4.3!

I live life on the bleeding edge of technology.

Well, software releases, anyway. Back in my iRev2 days, I upgraded KDE about as often as they released it.

Apple recently released the latest update to OS X Tiger, 10.4.3. Fixes, fixes, fixes, fixes, fixes and features. Who cares? It's new and shiny and out of beta.

If you don't use a Mac, we can talk later. If you do, welcome to the fellowship, brother.

Play to Learn

Tonight's gaming update:

  • Played TransAmerica, a game of building railroads. Unlike other (very popular and rightly so) train games, that take hours and often require a good deal of housekeeping, TransAmerica takes less than a half hour with six players- each player tries to connect their five cities across the nation, building off each others' tracks. I find it a very light and accessible game, particularly for kids and non-gamers. Plus it teaches geography! Teachers, you know you want it.

  • Played San Juan. Based off of the heavier Puerto Rico, San Juan is a card-only adaptation- each player wants to construct buildings worth the most points, but each round has players choosing the different roles to play, so the strategy lies in playing not only with your given cards, but also within the restrictions of the actions chosen by the other players. I lost, but I felt the larger sense of the game coalesce around me. This definitely needs a second (or third, or fourth) play.

  • (Interestingly, both San Juan and Trans America came in as Spiel des Jahres finalists in 2002.)

  • Played a coffee shop game prototype of my own. Some of you may recall this game fondly. I wanted to know how the game played with strangers, with folks who don't get the in-jokes or had contributed previously. I felt a little self-conscious, but as the game started, I felt more embarrassed by the alpha quality of the game. The hand-drawn art and PG-rated crude humor actually did not contribute to that feeling- just the gameplay and the various loopholes. The three victims game some very good feedback, not only regarding individual cards but also as to the overall structure. Dan "the Monkey Man" offhandedly mentioned something that I really need to take to heart- basically, don't cling to a bad design.

I realize that a few days ago I mentioned the importance of alphas. Coincidence?

After this evening's entertainment, I added a few more games to my Funagain wish list. Now I'm a little homesick.