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.

Friday, November 11, 2005

A late-night quickie

This weekend promises gametastic fun. Friday, open board games at the Austin Stink. Sunday, more Serenity/Firefly roleplaying. (Why the Austin Stink? Well, evidently the collective noun for gamers is a "stink." A pride of lions, a murder of crows, a gaggle of geese (on the ground), a skein of geese (in flight), a stink of gamers.)

Expect another cinematic Nickel Tour™ sometime tomorrow. I'm still mulling.

Your tax dollars at work: There exists such a thing as a National Emergency Grant from the Department of Labor, et al. Cat wants to use it to become a locksmith. I'm considering learning 3D Studio Max, an animation package.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Nickel tour: Frailty (2001)

Here's the nickel tour:

Bill Paxton directs a movie. Game over, man! This movie presents as a crime drama with supernatural overtones- a "Thriller," to use the vernacular. The movie opens with Matthew McConaughey telling an FBI agent that his father and brother acted as the "God's Hand" serial killer. Flashback, flashback, current event, flashback, flashback, twist, revelatory ending. Frailty left me wanting- I even predicted the twist, which I'm notoriously blonde about not doing. I kept thinking of the not-too-shabby Stir of Echoes, which is a solid ghost story weakened by a contemporary release. Frailty, on the other hand, is one of those movies that improve if you tell the plot to someone, but I won't go so far as to say it's a great premise that was poorly handled. I give it a solid "I've already forgotten it."

I'm paid to blog

...or at least, I will be.

On a lark, I checked my AdSense stats today. According to Google, I've earned $2.56 total. According to the inimitable Don Knuth, that's one hexadecimal dollar. According to my calculations, that's something like a nickel and a half per post. According to my ego, this means that I rock.

When was the last time you got paid to do something you enjoy?

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Movie Juxtaposition: Jarhead (2005) and Hudson Hawk (1991)

Today I've seen two movies: Jarhead and Hudson Hawk.

Here's the nickel tours:

JARHEAD: A marine, Anthony Swofford, wrote a memoir. Sam Mendes, director of American Beauty, directed the movie based on the memoir. Cat, Josh, Codename: ELROD, and I all saw said movie today. Very very pretty in places, and quite engaging in others, with some marvelous cinematography. One scene has the Marines standing under a rain of burning oil. That image just sticks in my head. A few comedic moments, mostly in boot camp, echo the inimitable Full Metal Jacket. Scenes in the desert next to blasted civilians and their vehicles certainly effectively creeped me out with a casual morbidity. But by and large, the movie runs too slowly for my taste- I found myself looking at my watch a few times near the end. Like the Viking Game, I wonder if the imperfections remain on purpose as a lesson- in this case, war is a tedious hell. Overall, I give it a "Not bad, don't need to see it again."

HUDSON HAWK: Bruce Willis wrote one screenplay, and this is it. Reminds me of the old saying. You know the one- "There are two kinds of people in the world: Those who love Hudson Hawk, and those who are content to watch recycled mediocre garbage regurgitated by a Hollywood more content to remake old sixties television shows instead of producing something fresh and original." Hudson Hawk still makes me laugh out loud. It's a dated (on purpose, I'd say) action adventure with comedy. You've got cappucino jokes before most of the audience knew the drink. You've got killer butlers with forearm blades. Singing and dancing. A crazy plot by a psychotic American corporation to make use of an alchemical machine by Leonardo da Vinci. You've got dick and fart jokes, Nintendo jokes, sight gags and cartoon slapstick. You even have "Old CIA, new CIA" jokes. In short, I would love to see a sequel. Overall, I give it a "Glad I own it."

The joy of video gaming

Once again, I've found a new addictive game to keep me up til past sunrise.

Escape Velocity: Nova, the most recent retooling of the classic Escape Velocity by Ambrosia software, is available for Windows. I do most of my work (and not-so-work) on my beloved FrankenMac iBook, but I prefer to keep my games on a Windows box. I know, I'm a Philistine, but ultimately the user inside of me doesn't care about the OS, he just wants his apps. Because the apps are games makes no difference.

EV:N is a space sim game, where you start with a tiny shuttle and work your way up trading resources between systems, upgrading your ship, and generally exploring the plot of working for various factions. Sid Meier's Pirates! is somewhat similar, if you look at the broad picture.

I found another equally addictive little twitch shooter called Warning Forever. It distills shooters down to just you, the big boss, and thousands of tiny little exploding things to avoid.

Carnegie Mellon University sponsors an actual class semester for credit called Experimental Gameplay. Students are expected to produce a working prototype of a computer game in a few short days (yes, DAYS) while incorporating a certain theme- "Gravity", "Swarm", "Chains" to name a few. I played perhaps a dozen or so of these tiny (fit-on-a-floppy) games. As expected, Windows only, but overall, the games were of decent quality. Granted, somewhat less quality than a big budget production, and all of alpha- or beta- grade software, but almost all of them worth playing. Certainly, these games serve admirably as "prototypes" for their designers.

How does all this apply to the game designer on the street? For starters, it teaches you how to figure out if your game is fun and worth further development. Look at the movie industry- they've used storyboards for ages. With recent CGI development, "animatics" also play a huge role in development. Pixar, as I recall, will do their whole movie in-house as a series of animated storyboards with voice-overs by the writers or staff.

The 24-Hour RPG phenomenon also produces alpha games- and there's nothing wrong with that. In a very real way, an alpha is the cutting edge of development. You can work out ideas and try things before running back to the drawing board. What works? What doesn't? Why?

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Sailing into the black

I got to roleplay today. w00t!

Most of you know about (or have heard me talk about) Firefly, the short-lived TV series with a large cult following. If not, here's a quick synopsis: The show blends of sci-fi and western themes and has some nice character drama. They only made fourteen episodes, but only broadcast eleven in the States. Unlike other cult classics, Firefly has decent production value and people actually acting. Sales of the DVD boxed set are at something like a half-million units. And if you buy it from Amazon, I get a cookie. Due to a large grassroots movement and the sales figures, they made a major motion picture, Serenity. You can likely catch it still in theatres. Overall, the movie gets a "see it" from me, but loses something out of context of the series. After all, you must please both the fans and the mainstream- a tricky proposition.

They made a roleplaying game out of it. Overall, not bad. The book has some horrendous editing issues- typos, misused homophones, a table of contents out of whack with interior page numbering, no character sheet, and the like. I understand they needed to rush production in order to get the game out on time for the movie, but please! Mistakes happen, I know and I'm guilty, but I'm not charging $40 for a color hardcover of a major licensed property. Beyond that, the system is decent enough- stat plus skill versus a target number, and everything is rated in die steps: d2, d4, d6, d8, d10, d12. See the photo or the Wikipedia article on dice if you need more information. The system makes use of Plot Points as a metagame mechanic to not only allow players to modify die rolls, but also to actually modify the story by introducing complications or plot elements. I like seeing a mainstream game take a nice narrative/authorial stance. I often run and play from that stance, so it's very natural for me as a GM or a player to invent on the fly.

I managed to get involved in a group starting up a new campaign, and we played this afternoon until early evening. Overall, a decent first session with some promising happenings.

And now, I get Ovaltine and homemade carrot cake. Envy me.

Outsourcing to a new level

I'm not a developer. I don't do code. I don't write programs. Normally, when folks talk about outsourcing jobs overseas, or if I read an amusing article on a guy who got outsourced and lost his job, I don't really think too much of it. I know we live in a free market, and if businesses can get cheaper labor overseas they'll use it, and (generally) pass the savings onto the consumer. Because of this, we live in a rich nation and have a disposable culture when it comes to goods. Because of outsourcing, we can buy a $40 DVD player in Wal-Mart and toss a broken one- it just makes sense and often costs less than getting something fixed.

Regular readers (I loves ya!) know that I went to a gaming convention just before Halloween. In flipping through the convention program, I saw an advert for a miniature painting service. "How cool," I thought. This means I can track down a copy of Space Hulk and get it painted by someone else."

Now, I've nothing against wargamers. Minis aren't my primary scene. I generally prefer more unit-based skirmishes than large battles with dozens of units. Of course, that won't stop me from stooping to play Risk 2210, as I did yesterday, and will rant about later. I also don't want to get into the hobby of painting figs and carting around lead. I simply don't have the time, inclination, nor the disposable income to pursue said hobby.

I took a look at the service in question, and their prices seem quite reasonable. "But where are they located?" quoth I. "As a sponsor of the con, they might be local, which would save on shipping."

The company is in Sri Lanka! Sri Lanka, the other hemisphere Sri Lanka, not Sri Lanka, Texas the little known suburb of the East Houston Sprawl!

So, should I want to follow through with this plan, I'd need to track down Space Hulk on eBay, separate out the figs from the sprues, pack them securely in a box with plenty of foam padding, call DHL of all people, SHIP MY TOYS TO SRI LANKA, and wait six to ten weeks.

I think I'll seek someone local instead.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Ask and ye shall recieve

I previously lamented the fact that Wiz-War, an awesome beer-and-pretzels game first published circa 1985, is still out of print.

Lo! and Behold! The very next day, the inimitable Tom Jolly posted a partial card listing for the forthcoming 8th edition to a Wiz-War fan site. He says they hope for a January release.


I long consideredmaking my own set- though maybe not out of Legos. Until then, I'll make do with my set in a Ziploc.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Like a bite of heaven

Kudos and thanks go to the inimitable Kevin Kreamer. On his suggestion, I went to a local Jason's Deli and had a muffeletta.

Of course, they did ask me if I wanted turkey or ham on it. I gave them a blank stare. Turkey?! On a muffeletta? Scandal!

Not as good as Central Grocery, Frank's, or Franky and Johnny's, but still very tasty. I think my tongue had a small orgasm and I briefly lost consciousness.

50K words in 27 days

November is National Novel Writing Month, aka NaNoWriMo. Those wacky folks have a project to get folks to write a complete novel in 30 days. Yes, that's something like 2,000 words a day. Yes, participants write a lot of crap. Yes, some folks get published as a result of their achievement. Yes, the only prize is bragging rights.

I have a good track record for writing under deadline.

Since today is the fourth, I've lost a few days should I decide to step up to the challenge. Time to percolate.

Thursday, November 03, 2005


Some things in life are just fantastic.

One of these things is eating breakfast at two in the morning. Bonus if you get delicious, greasy fast-food egg-cheese-sausage-tortilla, hashbrowns and OJ. Further bonus if it's at a joint that you never grew up with- for me it's Jack in the Box, Whataburger, or Waffle House. Double points if you get to break your fast with your brother.

My brother reads more than I do. If you're not in the loop, Delicious is a social bookmark manager. You throw a little bookmarklet into your browser, and when you click "remember this," you get to describe and name your bookmark, plus tag it without retriction. In other words, Bob may bookmark my blog and tag it "cool funny blog" whereas Fred might tag it "insightful to_read_later weblog neworleans" and Fritz may tag it "blog peopleiknow blogger blogs funny interesting neworleans" and all three of them plus everyone else can look up and see what they've bookmarked and how they've taggeed it. So you may want to see what's shaking in terms of puppies, say:, and you can see what others think.

It's really cool and I don't utilize it fully.

A recent bookmark sent he (and I) to 30 Days to Success by Steve Pavlina. Here's the concept in a nutshell. Remember shareware? The old try-it-for-thirty-days-and-if-you-like-it-send-me-twenty-bucks plan to get people to use software? The idea first happened back in the early eighties and is still rocking all these years later. (Windows users, I know you haven't paid for WinZip yet!) Steve takes the shareware concept and applies it to picking up new habits. So you pick something you want to do but don't want to do, and commit to doing it for thirty days. If you actually don't like the habit, drop it. If not, it's easy as falling off a log to keep up the habit, and bam- you're doing your thing.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Job search, day n



Work in Texas?!

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

iBook surgery successful

This is a thorn in the paw of my iBook, lovingly known as "FrankenMac." FrankenMac was originally resurrected from the dead and now contains parts from six different laptops (hard drive, optical drive, main guts and screen, miscellaneous internal bits and bobs, power adapter, and the new part- detailed below).

What you're looking at is a gizmo called a reed switch. There's another part to the part, but it's not relevant. A reed switch connects when it comes in contact with a magnet, allowing all sorts of useful applications, like, say, putting an iBook laptop to sleep when I close it. When this part is busted, the iBook, she no goes to sleep. She also wakes up at inopportune times, much like a naughty parakeet. Except this parakeet sucks battery and keeps its hard drive spinning while in motion and is generally in a poor state. I'd say I dealt with the problem for a week or two.

I had gotten two and a half quotes on the work. Happy Mac, in Austin, quoted me two hours at $50 for labor if I supplied the part. The Computer Shoppe in New Orleans quoted me a $99 service charge for out-of-warranty work, plus the cost of the part for $29.95 or so. Compuzone, another Austin joint, wanted me to leave the machine with them for two or three days just to evaluate the issue that I'd already diagnosed. I didn't bother asking their rates.

I read some forums and did my research and found the replacement part at the awesome Small Dog Electronics, which gives you a free small dog with each order. I spent quite some time with FrankenMac yesterday. All told, I needed to more-or-less completely disassemble the entire laptop in order to replace a $20 part. The whole process took on the order of four hours, give or take. Hooray for the very calming Riven soundtrack.

Now I have a happy laptop.