Friday, February 29, 2008

An Update About Me

This post is an update about my blogging, game design, and financial status. It won't interest you at all.

Last June I decided to give some combination of game design and/or blogging a chance. I quit technical writing with a few months of money in the bank.

As far as game design goes, it's harder than you think. Ideas are ridiculously easy; and even making a basic game from an idea is easy. It's knowing when to stop and try the game out that's hard. I haven't seriously given it the attention that it deserves.

The guys with the license to Hebrew Apples to Apples asked me to make them cards and promised to pay me for each card that I made and which they accepted. I made several hundred red and green cards, but haven't succeeded in getting in touch with them, even though they wanted it done by last September. I think they might be scatterbrained, or just very heavily busy.

As far as blogging goes, there are several ways to earn money from blogging, one of which is to hire yourself out as a corporate blogger. The day that I quite my technical writing job I got an offer to be a corporate blogger for an online entertainment site. Unfortunately, they had no clue as to what a blogger really does, and I didn't know enough to tell them before I started working. As a result, that didn't last more than two months.

I got another corporate blogging job right after that one, this time for an online game site. With my new experience I ensured that they knew what I wanted to do before they hired me. It all sounded good on paper, and I was promised that I would start blogging as soon as the site was up.

Unfortunately, I was told that the site would be up every two weeks, only to discover after two weeks that it would be another two weeks. In the meantime I was asked to do marketing material, web content, letters to potential partners, Power Point presentations, and so on. All of which I could do but basically detested.

After four months of this, I quit. Even as I was quitting I was told that I shouldn't quit because I would be blogging Real Soon Now. Well, it's eight weeks later and they still don't have a real web site up.

Now I'm back to where I was when I first quit technical writing. I have enough in the bank for a few months. I have this blog which doesn't look like it's ever going to earn massive amounts of money because it's too unfocused and not in a high paying niche. Right now it makes about $100 a month from ads and affiliate income plus a few free games and a lot of nice friends and contacts. No donations.

I have a new blog on game news, Purple Pawn, which I want to build into a kind of 1UP/Boing Boing for tabletop games, if I can just get a few more editors and then start getting some inbound links; I've got a few guys helping me right now who are doing a great job.

I have to pursue the Hebrew Apples to Apples just to put it at rest. And I have to look for more corporate blogging jobs.

I just need to prioritize: I'll concentrate on some game designs and a few good articles for this blog. Then I'll look for corporate blogging positions. If I don't get one by Passover, I'll go back to technical writing.

Yehuda

Roundup: Three Years of Ninth Week Posts

A typical shabbat conversation with my guests while waiting for Rachel to return from synagogue

Some of you may have seen this one: a continuously updated list of every single Monopoly version ever created (version, not edition; I don't count different editions of the same board). Latest count: 1369 versions.

Why approaching business like an absolute game of winners and loser is a Bad Thing

In my 1000th post, I gave out to my readers all the money I had earned on my blog up to that point.

There is a myth that some games only have a single path to victory

I was a passenger in a car with a driver who wouldn't take a red light at face value

Words that come from games

Thursday, February 28, 2008

More Decadent Days and Nights of Toronto Culture

In two weeks I've been to three plays and two nights of music. I'm feeling very decadent.

One night of music was in Tampa, and was described in an earlier post.

Three Musicians

Hugh's Room is an awesome folk and blues music club in Toronto. The list of performers who have played there is a Who's Who of folk music. Look at the calendar on their site to see who's coming up.

What's most amazing is that a) there's no smoking, and b) the prices are usually really good. We paid $15 each for a night of great music, although sometimes it can climb to $30 or $40 for some performers.

Last time we went we heard performances that blew us away. This time wasn't up to that level, but was still a great night out.



Up first was Lori Yates. Lori is a solid country and folk performer with a string of good songs that she sings nicely. She has a great on stage personality. She just released her 6th CD, The Book of Minerva.

While good, sometimes very good, I wouldn't call any of her songs truly exceptional. Don't get me wrong, I could listen to her perform every week and would be happy to have her sing at my party. It just didn't blow me away.



The best part of her performances was her accompanying guitarist, David Baxter. He is also the arranger and producer (?) for both of the artists who were performing this night. While Lori played straight rhythm, David played the melody an did the solos. He was exceptionally good. I wanted to hear him do his own solo set.



The second performer was the young Treasa Levasseur. She plays uptempo blues rock with an accompanying band and a gospel influence that can only come from a (self-styled) lapsed Catholic. She's small and thin, but belts out clear and confessional songs in a powerful voice full of love and anguish.

Nearly all the songs were from her new album, Not a Straight Line. She sounds something like an angry Eva Cassidy. It wasn't exactly my style, but it was enjoyable.

Three Plays

Palace of the End: I saw this listed online and passed over seeing it, but Rachel got us tickets on the recommendation of someone else. I had very low expectations. The play was by a Canadian on the subject of the Iraq war, told through three voices.

I know Canadians, and amateur far-left bleeding-heart Canadian playwrights are not known for their balance regarding American politics any more than they are for their impressive screenplays. So I expected to be upset. And, of course, I was biased. But the play managed to be even worse than my expectations.

The acting was fine; it was the only thing I don't have any complaints about. Just everything else. The screenplay was unbelievable.

The history of the characters squeezed into the half hour alloted to their monologues jumped back and forth in behavior in an unbelievable manner. It was supposed to give a sense of internal conflict, but instead gave a sense of confusion, and a pandering to a sense of balance (without actual balance).

Emotions from the actors jumped back and forth in an instant from paragraph to paragraph, again quite unbelievably.

The play incorporated real-world events that happened to real-life characters, but the dialog was made up to suit the needs of the playwright as were many of the facts. The characters said things that made them suddenly obviously good or bad in ways that characters don't. And somehow, the American government was to blame for everything, no matter what happened. I'm fairly sure that the real-world versions of these characters would strongly disagree with their portrayals.

First play that I actually walked out of in the middle of the production.

As You Like It: This was a phenomenal professional production of Shakespeare's classic comedy. The acting, the direction, and the production were all not only first-rate, but intelligent and interestingly arranged.

Through careful direction, the actors were able to convey many extra emotions and interactions through non-verbal means. The comedy was just enough to be both warm and funny, and the love portrayed with delicate poignancy.

Can't recommend it enough. Can't recommend the theater troupe enough.

Chaim's Love Song: I tried to lower my expectations after having just seen As You Like It, since this was being performed by an amateur theater group.

The story is about an old Jewish man who strikes up a conversation with a young American Irish newlywed woman. Through a series of flashbacks, he recounts many events in his life and the lives of his wives, children, and friend. She tells a but about her new husband an how difficult she finds it to talk to him.

In fact, the production was amateur, but the play was done very well. Much of the first part of he script includes Jewish jokes you may have heard. In fact, the lines were all delivered as if they were being delivered inside a Jewish joke, which was irksome. The delivery didn't have to be that way, however.

Some of the younger actors couldn't act, or weren't directed properly. But the older ones carried on quite well. As the play moved on and the story elements began to come together, the play became pretty engaging. It was more than I expected, and quite worth the attendance.

Yehuda

Session Report, in which everyone ties in Power Grid

The latest Jerusalem Strategy Gaming Club session report is up. Games played: R-Eco, David and Goliath, Power Grid, Bridge. It's a short report from Nadine while I'm away.

Yehuda

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

How To Edit a Blog Post

-1-

This is a sample paragraph demonstrating how I edit my blog posts. The point is to show how I start writnig just about anything I feel without worrying about spelling, order, sense, or tightness, and then move on to reeidt my writing. Sometimes I'll throw out entire sections of what I write because they are unnecessary. Sometimes I'll reorder whole sections, or break them into pargraphs. I might add or remove commas, reorder parts of the sentences to make the commas unnecessary. The point is that writing doesn't just fall out of my head onto the screen. Good ideas might, but writing always requires editing and tightening. I hope you do the same; writing doesn't just come to people it takes practice and judgment. Don't let fear get in the way, but don't expect to just write anything and get away with it.

-2-

This article demonstrates how I edit blog posts.

I begin by putting words down. I then go over them, tightening up:

- Spelling
- Sentence order
- Structure

and so on.

I may throw out or reorder unnecessary sections or break them into smaller paragraphs. I may reorder sentences in order to remove commas. I may add points of explanation that I forgot the first time through, or remove points that distract from the central message.

My point is: good ideas may be instantaneous, but good writing isn't. It requires editing and tightening. It requires punch.

Ideas can't always be taught, although you can lay the groundwork for them. But good writing is just a matter of practice and judgment. Don't be afraid to write just because your writing isn't good; you will need to get through a lot of bad writing before you are comfortable with it.

-3-

Good writing requires practice and judgment. Don't be afraid if your writing isn't yet good; you must continuously practice it until you are comfortable.

This article demonstrates how I write. Through each iteration, I tighten the spelling, sentence order, structure, and so on.

I reorder words, sentences, or sections as needed. I throw out unnecessary words and break larger paragraphs into smaller ones. I add points as needed, and remove points that distract from the central message.

Good ideas may be instantaneous, but good writing isn't.

Yehuda

Celebrate the Mundane

What Defines a City?

Imagine that you had to rebuild your city or town. What elements would you need to add so that the resulting city felt like "your" city?

Change the design of the streetlights, the taxis, the street cement, the garbage bins, and the traffic signs, and your city is no longer the one you started with. But Toronto would still be Toronto without the CN Tower. Some might say no; but New York City is still New York City without the Twin Towers.

A town is defined by its daily elements, not by its tourist attractions.

Residents and visitors interact with the mundane elements of a city far more than they do with the "features". The landmarks bring in tourist income, sure. Some attractions are even useful to a city's residents, like an art or history museum. But pleasant streets, lights, garbage bins, signs, and services do more for a city than an attraction can.

My eye always finds the mundane elements of a city when I travel. Who designed them? Why? Do they work? They're what makes the city.

What Defines a Company?

Following this line of thinking, your company is a city that attracts visitors and inhabitants. Too often the focus of a company is on special attractions: special discounts, special offers. Perhaps at least as much time should be spent focusing on the mundane: Does the mail get to the customer? Are the products easy and reliable? Is the customer service helpful?

Both special attractions and basic services bring in money; but some money is just passing through looking for the next best attraction. Better money wants to live there and keep on giving.

What Defines a Game?

The same can be said for game design. The special attraction might be the big boss, the mousetrap, or the funny card. But these don't make for replayable games. You've seen it, you laughed, what's next?

If you want your players coming back, put effort into making the mundane elements of your game enjoyable: the moving, the turns, the decisions. Enjoyable mechanics provide constant challenge and fun every time they're played.

Yehuda

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Two-Player Puerto Rico With Rachel

I hope it's not too disconcerting to read about games on a game blog. I haven't played any in a week or so, until today.

I did some game design one afternoon last week. I'm working on a game about education. It has public and private schools, specialized student skills, good and bad teachers, good and bad neighborhoods, good, bad, and no school programs, zoning and busing, lobbyists, changing school admission and school board criteria, scholarships and awards given at the end of twelve years of education.

Actually, it's a rather depressing game. I'm not sure whether to make it a cooperative or competitive game, or something in the middle. I'm not sure what the goals of the game are, yet. I hope I can get my group to play-test it.

In the meantime, I got in a two-player Puerto Rico game this afternoon with Rachel. When I travel, I dissect Puerto Rico and take everything I need in a ziplock sandwich bag.



Of course, we also play with our favorite specialized buildings:

- Assembly Line (instead of Small Market): All your production buildings can hold an additional colonist.

- Small Fashion District (instead of Construction Hut): Trade indigo at +2.

- Commodity Exporters (instead of Office): Ship indigo or sugar at +1 VP.

- Discretionary Hold (instead of Large Warehouse): a) Store up to 3 barrels. b) place barrels onto full ships for +1 VP; each full ship can hold only 1 extra barrel.

- Large Business (instead of Harbor): a) -1 cost to building. b) +1 VP during Captain phase (not per goods shipped).

- Large General Workhouse (instead of University) w/2 circles): produce any goods with the corresponding manned plantations.

- Private Boat (instead of Wharf): ship any four barrels.

- Cathedral (instead of Guild Hall): +1 VP / 3 red VPs (from buildings)

- Fairgrounds (instead of Residence): +0/1/2/3/5/7 VPs for 0/1/2/3/4/5/6 types of plantations.

In addition, you may move one of your colonists onto Hospice when you buy it.

A really broken building you discover within a play or two. The subtly powerful or underpowered ones can take several plays. We've played with these building hundreds of times now, so we put them through the ringer.

Recently we began to suspect that Commodity Exporters was overpowered for its price in a two-player game. This game cemented that suspicion.

Rachel took it early in the game (Indigo, Sugar, Commodity Exporters). I had more money and more control, I took an early Large General Workhouse and a Large Business. I nearly took Factory, but my cash situation was already good - I had monopolies on both Tobacco and Coffee for much of the game. So I let Rachel take it.

I don't think I made any mistakes, but neither did Rachel. She was still ahead a good 6 points in shipping near the end of the game, even with my blocking boats. And I wasn't that far ahead in building. Eventually I had enough to get a second big building that she couldn't, but I couldn't man it unless I let the game go another round.

In the last round, Rachel had to choose between letting me ship and gain around 6 points on her in shipping, or let me Mayor and gain my big building. She let me ship, and I ended up ahead two shipping points. But when the dust settled, she was two points ahead in building points. And she ended with goods and money where I didn't. So she won on the tie.

Another exciting Puerto Rico game. And I'm going to have to tweak Commodity Exporters.

Yehuda

Monday, February 25, 2008

Tampa is Great, Once You Get Out of It

Where We Were

The Tampa Day's Inn is clean and comfortable enough. If you're planning a cross-country trip and just want a bed and breakfast, motels like Day's Inn are good enough.

There was something unusual about the breakfast at this Day's Inn: it is nearly entirely kosher. Quite by accident.

One expects a few kosher things at an American hotel breakfast: cereal and milk, fruit, yogurt, and some drinks. Bowls and spoons won't be kosher, but if the food is cold it's not a problem: not ideal, but doable. So you just have to avoid bacon, eggs, breads, pastries, unknown drinks, cheeses, fish, and so on. Some of these may have some kosher basis, but they must generally be avoided.

Thus it was a surprise to see the following at breakfast: cereal and milk - kosher. Blueberry muffins from a box - kosher. Quaker oatmeals. Fruit. Coffee and tea. Bagels. All from boxes or bags marked kosher. All dishes and utensils were disposable. And kosher syrup, cream cheese, butter, margarine. And so on.

In fact, there was nothing not-kosher in the entire place. They even had kosher waffle mix which you could pour into waffle irons; stricter people probably would have avoided these because who knows what someone could have put into a waffle iron, but I'm pretty sure they were used for nothing but waffles.

Nevertheless, although it was cheap, clean, comfortable, and weirdly kosher, the place is situated on the intersection of two busy highways. It is crowded and noisy with other low-budget travelers, and it is in a bad and ugly neighborhood. In other words, hardly the stuff that vacations are made of.

Where We Are

Rachel's University was paying for our trip until now, so we hadn't spent any money. We had arranged to stay until Monday afternoon. Since this was a place to stay, but not really nice, we decided to look for something nicer for Sunday night. And we found it: The Resort and Club at Little Harbor.

The Resort is not that expensive (through various online sites) and it's several miles south of Tampa. It's beautiful. It's situated between a harbor and beach, with heated pools, outside games, huge rooms tastefully decorated with everything including a microwave. Simply gorgeous, out of the way, and quiet. It's like we're in another state.

As I swam in their outdor heated pool and sat in their outdoor jacuzzi, I saw the most beautiful rainbow arch across the sky, solid and brilliant.

Big Top Flea Market

Around the Day's Inn and along many of the roads near USF are trailer parks and other distressed living areas. There are also handfuls of flea markets. The biggest one is called the Big Top Flea Market. It has over 1,200 vendors/stands.

The vast majority of these are dollar store equivalents and other assorted trash. But a big place like this had to have something nice tucked away somewhere. It has lots of nice books at $1 each, some really gorgeous antiques mixed up with thousands of trashy ones, and sports card stands. Some of the latter carried CCGs, but none carried Magic. One carried Jyhad. There was also a stand with some beautiful Vietnamese clothing.

Hillsborough River State Park

We stopped in here on the way out of Tampa to Hillsborough River State Park. Outside of Tampa, it is a treasure of forests with drooping moss and a river which winds through it. The hiking is easy and the paths are spotless. It has one drawback: swarms of mosquitoes.

The park gives you only a single page photocopy of a rough trail outline when you arrive. No information about the park, plants, animals, etc. Furthermore, there are no signs or trail markers on the trails. It's not hard to see that there is a trail, but no indication of where it is going or which way is the exit.


Stumps of trees on the riverbank


One of the few flowers blooming at this time of year


Another one


Red lichen on a tree


Twisted roots in the river


An alleygator sunning in a brief spot of sun


A crane looking for his alleygator


Rachel and I on a bridge

Skipper's Smokehouse

Our last stop before retiring was some Southern Rock and Blues at Skippers Smokehouse. On set were the opening band Raiford Starke Band and the main set Paul Thorn.

Skipper's Smokehouse is a rambling series of roofs, bars, and stage. The food smelled good (not kosher). It was lit up with lots of different types of lights and hand painted signs. While a blues establishment, it seemed more like a Hippie establishment. The attendees were split between those who looked like Hippies and those who looked like your basic Southerners. One thing of note, however: of the 400 or so people there, they were all American white. No blacks or otherwise foreign looking people in the audience.


Family dancing at Skipper's Smokehouse


The RSB was something between southern and psychadelic. Raiford himself was a good guitarist, but their songwriting and music arrangement was dull and uninspired. They were unable to establish a relationship with the audience, even though the audience brought them back for an encore or two.


Paul Thorn, on the other hand, was a great singer-songwriter in Southern Blues Rock. He was witty and engaging, with music and arrangements that should have earned him hits, if they haven't already. Worth catching if you like southern rock.

Yehuda

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Jewish Merchants and Cuban Revolutionaries: The Princes of 7th Avenue in Ybor

For background on how I started off on Friday, read how I was feeling about Tampa on Friday morning. I.e. not too positively.

I needed something to do while Rachel was lecturing at her conference, and there didn't look like there was much to do in Tampa that didn't require a chunk of money (Busch Gardens and the like) or the loss of one's brain (Hooters?). Research discovered two historical areas, Channelside and Ybor. Channelside's main attraction appeared to be restaurants, which was useless for me. So I decided to try Ybor.

At this point in time, I knew nothing about what there was to see in Ybor, why I was going, or even what it was, other than that it was a place to see. I didn't know why, or what I'd find.

I managed to find something called Ybor and followed a twisting and inconsistent path of signs to parking. I passed nothing of significance as I was driving; lots of dull suburban house and empty lots. I got a familiar sinking feeling that I was wasting my time.

I parked and asked the attendant what there was to see and he handed me a map and directed me to Ybor Centro, a block away. Ybor Centro was a movie theater, a video arcade, an ice cream stand, a Victoria's Secret store, and a Scientology center.

Wow. Time to leave?

There had to be something else here. I hoped. So I looked at the map and walked a block or two past nothing interesting to the Ybor information center and museum. I would find out what else there was and then leave.

The woman at the desk told me that there was a three dollar fee to walk around the exhibits and also the preserved building next door. And by doing so, I could learn about the history of Ybor and its cigar manufacturing.

What? I came all the way here to learn about cigars? I hate cigars! What am I doing here?

"What am I doing here?" I asked her.

She said that I will also learn about the interesting immigrant communities and the progressive industry Ybor ran. Also, how the community was a mix of Italian, Sicilian, Spanish, Cuban, and Jewish immigrants, and how they all supported each other.

...

*ding*

"Wait a minute, I said. Jewish immigrants?" There was a Jewish immigrant history in Ybor significant enough for this woman to mention it?

Yes, she went on. The Jewish immigrants to Ybor were a significant part of the immigration mix. They were Romanian, Russian, and Spanish. While the main workers in the cigar factories were Cuban, Spanish, and Italian, the Jews ran many of the local businesses.

I was starting to get interested.

"Go on," I said.

Apparently, the immigrants each had their own cultural centers which supported them from cradle to grave with health insurance, activities, and so on. Not only that, the cultures supported each other. For instance, when an Italian group went on strike, the Jewish merchants extended them credit to buy good for their family during the strike, without which they couldn't have fed themselves.

But it gets better. The father of the Cuban revolution, José Julián Martí Pérez, lived in Ybor. The cigar factory would send secret messages inside the cigars organizing the revolution. When the time was ripe for revolution, the prominent Jewish merchant Isadore Kaunitz helped arrange the funding for the Cuban revolution and helped support the Cuban families while the men went off to fight. This was because the Jews, themselves subject to discrimination and subjugation, were sympathetic to the Cuban cause. Isadore was given some sort of recognition after the revolution.

I watched the 18 minute movie in the museum, and it mentioned the Jewish immigration along with the other immigration population very respectably. While I was watching it, the museum's manager handed me a photocopied twelve page article "The Princes of Seventh Avenue: Ybor City's Jewish Merchants" from The Sunland Tribune, Vol XXVIII, 2002. In it, Yael V. Greenberg-Pritzker writes all about the history of Jews in the Ybor area, from the earliest immigrants until today.

Armed with this information, it was with a new eye that I walked down to 7th Avenue, a block from the museum, and began to see the remnants of Jewish heritage that pervade the area even today.



The original stores are gone, but along the tops of the buildings you can see the names of the original builders. Along 7th Avenue, many buildings bear the names of the original Jewish merchants from the area.



In the 1980s and 90s, these stones were added to the street by locals on various occasions. They line 7th avenue. Some bear the names of the original residents or children thereof.

And that was my unexpected find on an otherwise dreary Friday in Tampa.

Yehuda

Friday, February 22, 2008

Roundup: Three Years of Eighth Week Posts

My most popular session report about a game of Settlers of Catan with rather interesting co-writers.

50 Steps to a Healthy Gaming Life

Are Blogs Art?

Want to know more about Canadian copyright? I did the entire thing as a poem: the Canadian Copyright Code in Verse.

On a similar subject, I am reminded that (almost) Nobody Ever Pays for Content.

12 Games With No Components for Large Groups

One Step Over the Guardrail

The area in Tampa in which I'm staying may not be the ugliest place in the world. I believe that this area was probably used as a first draft for ugly places and then discarded.

I haven't seen the rest of Tampa yet. All I've seen is the area between the Days Inn at 275 and Fletcher and USF Tampa. Driving down the flat roads with not a hint of life or style. Nothing but cables and wires and signs for fast food joints mingle together in a receding horizon of despair. Gray concrete and expansive parking lots. Flat roofs and miles of soulless American trash. My God. Even I would turn to drugs if I lived near here. I think I need heroin tracks up my arm to fit in.

We're staying at one of a hundred inns and motels that line the highway. It's clean and comfortable enough. In my brief look at the university I saw wide streets and traffic lights, vast parking lots, and enormous buildings, each of which could fit a football stadium. Some of which are football stadiums: Go Bulldogs, or whatever. And not just the football stadium, but the rec center near it, the library, and other buildings beyond my vision horizon lean like mammoth droppings from some dud alien bombing run.

I was looking forward to going to the kosher restaurant; I found four potential kosher restaurants in Tampa area. One turned out to be the same as the second. The other two no longer exist. I found out this afternoon that the one that is two lost its kashrut license recently. So instead, I found food to eat in a local supermarket. There is still a lot of kosher food in American supermarkets.

There's trash on the TV; you may think that that's a given, but I'm actually used to finding one or two good shows here or there. It's like they excised anything with intelligence from the TV stations here. There's trash on the radio: redneck country, weak pop music, a Jesus station, and NPR.

There's a pool at the motel; it's small, shallow, cold, and grungy, and situated in the middle of the parking lot. There's coffee in the room; it's bland. The promised free wireless keeps crashing.

Taste, sense, consciousness, and sanity have fallen over the guardrail. There's nothing to see here, people. Keep moving.

Yehuda

Thursday, February 21, 2008

A Book Signing with Guy Gavriel Kay

Guy Gavriel Kay is one of my favorite fantasy authors. I got to hear him speak briefly about his latest work, Ysabel.

He writes long and well-researched books with juicy detail and well-drawn characters. Sometime his books have extended downtime sequences, but mostly they are engaging. In fact, despite many other lofty intentions for his works, he said that his main purpose in writing is to keep you reading until 3 am.

Of his books that I've read,my favorites are Tigana and The Lions of al-Rassan. I've also read a number of his other earlier works. I haven't had a chance to read any of his books from the last decade or so.

Today's lecture was in an ongoing series of February lectures of authors in Toronto. This was the only "speculative fiction" event, and Guy appeared together with another writer, Nalo Hopkinson. Nalo read a passage from her latest book, while Guy simply discussed what went in to writing Ysabel.


Guy Gavriel Kay

Guy is very funny and has great presence. He started off by noting that this is the second time he has been sent on a book tour through Canada in February while his publisher has gone off to the Caribbean.

As for Ysabel, Guy noted that it draws extensively on some little known but important history in Southern France, namely the meeting of the Roman and Celtic empires over two thousand years ago. It conveys themes about the past meeting the present; about the differences in attitudes to childhood then and now; and how personal and world histories intertwine.

Guy said that he adds fantasy elements to his books simply to prevent someone from reading the book and saying "Oh, that's just a book about the period so-and-so," which would cause a distancing from the narrative.

I asked him what he thought of the term "speculative fiction" versus "science fiction" or "fantasy", and he said that all he really wants it to be called is "good fiction".


Nalo Hopkinson

Nalo was also charming and her book sounded lovely.


Last night I went to a play which was fairly bad. Well acted, but very poorly directed and scripted, in my opinion. And tomorrow morning we're off to Tampa.

Yehuda

Session Report, in which they play Notre Dame three times

The latest Jerusalem Strategy Gaming Club session report is up. Games played: R-Eco, Notre Dame x 3, Tower of Babel, Puerto Rico.

I wasn't there. Nadine wrote a short report; thanks Nadine!

World Monopoly Update: All towns now listed as just city names.

Yehuda

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

From Hasbro, regarding removal of "Israel" from World Monopoly vote

Hasbro's response to my question as to why they suddenly removed Israel from the Jerusalem entry in the World Monopoly vote:
Parker Brothers, the makers of board game Monopoly has embarked upon an exercise to find the world¹s most popular cities as voted for by the public. It was never our intention to print any countries on the final boards and any online tags were merely used as a geographic reference to help with city selection. This is clearly stated in the terms and conditions of our campaign.

We would never want to enter into any political debate. We apologise for any upset this has caused our Monopoly fans and hope that they continue to support their favourite cities, all of which are deserving of a place on our final board - Monopoly Here and Now : The World Edition which will be released in Autumn 2008. The 20 pre-selected cities with the highest worldwide votes on February 29 2008 will make it onto the board. Plus voters will have from February 29 to March 9 2008 to vote on the most nominated Wildcard cities. Only the top two will make it on the board.
I replied that the decision to leave Israel or remove Israel is in any case a political decision, and I would just like to know the impetus behind the decision to suddenly remove it. Awaiting an answer.

Update: Their answer:
All country tags are currently being removed from the websites (there are 37 translations and it takes a while) ­ cities will only be represented by their common name as they will appear on the board. I hope this does not stop you from supporting Jerusalem a very worthy and wonderful city.


Update: According to Hasbro, the decision to pull Israel was as a result of complaints by Palestinian activists. The decision was made by a mid-level employee without consulting upper management. The later decision to rectify he situation by pulling all country names was made as a result of pro-Israeli complaints.

According to Hasbro, the countries were added in the voting for clarity purposes, but were never going to be on the final board in any case.

Further information.


Update: Hasbro has apologized.

Yehuda

Hasbro doesn't think Jerusalem is in Israel

Something I just noticed: all the cities on the World Monopoly vote have a country attached to them, e.g. Montreal, Canada.

All the cities except one, that is.



Yehuda

P.S. Meanwhile, Israeli residents are trying to get Sderot into a wild card slot for political purposes.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

This is Your Last Chance to Live

I saw a sign on a subway that read "Like Hell Money Can't Buy Happiness / Get debt-relief by calling ..." Who first said "Money can't buy happiness"? Is it a cultural touchstone in all cultures or just English-speaking ones?

"Like Hell Money Can't Buy Happiness". "Like Hell" is modern phraseology, both in its brazen language and it informality. It could have said "We don't believe that money can't buy happiness". Or it could have said "Actually, money CAN can buy happiness". Is the tone evoked through the use of the word "Hell" supposed to engender sympathy with the anguish felt by someone in debt?

I saw a safety message near a call button on a subway that read: "Push for Fire, Harassment, Illness, Accidents, Vandalism, Threats to Customer Security" What a list. Think of everything left out; however did they narrow it to these items?

Is each of these really a separate category? Fire is usually the result of an accident or vandalism, I would think. Not to mention that it constitutes a threat to customer security. Push intercom for vandalism? Who is going to be doing this pushing? The vandals? Or those who want vandalism?

If I had all the time in the world, and a much longer life, I would spend hours every day just shooting each one of these text and image balloons fighting for the attention of the dispassionate masses on public transportation systems. Each one has so much to say about its origin, the culture, the audience, and all of life.

Every advertisement inspires my curiosity. Every public safety message. Every moving or stationary part. Every person. I want to photograph and analyze each one.

No one can prove that there's more to your existence than this life. This is your last chance. Your only chance. Learn from everything. Be inspired. Make it. Write about it. Share it.

Yehuda

Political Correctness at the Ontario Science Center

Guerrilla Advertising



From "whybecauseisaidso.com". For more info, click here.

The Forest Fire Game

First part of the day was at the Ontario Science Center. My family came when I was 13, and we ended up spending multiple days. They have a huge assortment of hands-on exhibits on all sorts of physics and biology related subjects. You get to roll the balls around, shock yourself, walk through optical illusions, and so on.

My favorite part during my first visit (1982) was an arcade-like game they had about forest fires. A square of forest fire started somewhere on a screen that represented forest, river, rocky areas, and a nearby town, all randomly generated. You had to put out the fire before it engulfed the nearby town. At your disposal were nine things: three water drops, two clear cutting teams, two fire brigades, and two something else's. Each time you deployed one of your things, you had to wait about 10 seconds while it did its work before you could deploy it again.

There were three ways to play the game. The first way was to quickly move your trackball to the forest fire. If you were fast enough, you dropped two water drops right onto the fire and that was it. One wasn't enough. As I played the game, this soon became trivial

The second way was to try to contain the fire: drop all sorts of things in the eight squares surrounding the fire. Since a single water drop wasn't enough to stop a fire, only delay it, the fire tried to spread through it into neighboring squares. If you were fast and lucky, you might be able to recover your other items and get them to surround the fire in the direction it was spreading. If you could, it would die out. This was sometimes challenging, depending on how hot was the original fire.

The third way was to just try to clearcut and soak a firebreak around the town. You had to get this done before the fire could reach any part of it. In this scenario, you happily watched the fire destroy the rest of the world, but that's ok because your town didn't get burned up. This was a challenging approach, since the town area usually took up a good quarter of the board.

I played it for hours.

The second time I came to the OSC was around 9 years ago at age 29. I came with my new wife and kids. My kids were so thoroughly misbehaving at the time that the entire experience was ruined for us and we had to leave early. In any case, they no longer had the forest fire game, but they had seemingly the same exhibits, which were still cool. We also saw Cirque de Soleil as an IMAX movie.

Gadgets and Gizmos

Monday was Family Day in Toronto, a brand new holiday that doesn't seem to have any particular point. The OSC was crowded with families. The lines getting in were like lines into an amusement park. I talked to a few of the families.

Every one that I talked to, including the kids, told me that they came on average once every nine months to the Center. The main attraction for repeat visits seemed to be the kids area, which is a lot like an amusement park / playground filled with things you can climb, build, drop, roll, and so on.



This is just one small part of one of the structures there. It is a vast Rube Goldberg device where you drop balls into various parts and watch them circle around, rise, fall, jump, spin, clatter, and so on, until they eventually come rolling back to you.

I can see the appeal.

As for myself, I think I've run my course on the experience, as too much of the center is too familiar to me.

They have special exhibits, such as the currently running Titanic exhibition, which I skipped. I came especially to try out a one-day only "Gadgets and Gizmos" workshop. It was disappointing. At 10:00, they provided scissors (not enough of them), stapler, a plastic cup and a pencil, and instructions on how to build a whirligig. And at 2:00 they provided scissors, cardboard, and string and instructions on how to build a spinning disk.



My tablemate building a whirligig



My spinning disk

Both of these were fine gadgets and gizmos, but I was kind of hoping for about fifteen to twenty things like this happening in constant time and at different table, not just one thing to do for around ten minutes and then you're done.

PC at the Center

I amused myself watching parents react to their kids as they wandered around the beginning of the human reproduction area, which had pictures of the internal workings of reproductive organs and videos on birth control, STDs, and safer sex.

Some of the parents yanked their kids away from the area and hustled them on to other locations while saying that they were too young. Some just looked around while their kids looked around and then walked away. For their part, the kids poked and spun and moved the things just like they did in all the other areas of the center and then moved on.

Then I hit upon a new exhibit which kind of annoyed me. I have no problem with exhibitions on racism and prejudice, but I'm kind of mystified as to what one is doing in a science center. The overriding theme seemed to be one about how people don't know what they think they do and that truth is subjective.

They had objects showing acupuncture and that no one knows exactly how or if it works. But the points in the body corresponding to the "chi" also seem to have increased nerve endings. They had one on how the skin color of people is determined by only one gene out of thousands, and not really an important guide to comparing people's genetic makeup.

Then there was one which displayed the writings of "western" philosophers and showed how, despite whatever good things they may have written, they wrote a lot of prejudiced and sexist material as well: "The scientific achievements of the western world are rooted in the writings of great philosophers. But these philosophers were human, and despite their greatness, they were biased. Their ideas mirrored only the beliefs of European culture." And goes on to knock Darwin, Hegel, Plato, Nietzsche and twenty other philosophers with their various quotes about woman and blacks.

I'm guessing that the exhibit was supposed to be cautionary about the limits of scientific knowledge and reliance on culturally-normal ideas. But it seemed more appropriate for a museum on tolerance than one on science.


After the museum, I hit a used book store near Yonge and Eglington, picking up a few books on games and comics (some cheap ones the guy let me have for free; nice). Then kosher food shopping, then home.

Yehuda

Monday, February 18, 2008

In Toronto

So I'm in Toronto. And I'll be in Tampa, Florida this coming Thursday to Monday, and then back in Toronto until Mar 3.

Gaming prospect suck. Toronto is having its yearly TABScon but it's on Saturday, Mar 1. On shabbat, in other words. There's no way that I can get to it.

The regular game group meetings don't seem to be happening, maybe because of the con. I see that the Thursday meeting this week is going ahead - when I'll be in Tampa.

There are a few gamers in Tampa, but the two that I contacted are both out of town for the entire weekend. Sigh.

Hopefully I'll get in a few games of Puerto Rico with Rachel.

Tomorrow I hope to go to the Ontario Science Center which is having a day event called Gadgets and Gizmos; sounds cool, although it may be only for little(r) kids.

Wednesday (this week or next) Guy Gavriel Kay is signing and talking at some library. Otherwise, I'm just taking in the snow and the music of the city.

Visit my new Game News blog: Purple Pawn. It could use a little link love. It's also looking for contributors. I'm hoping to make it a major force in the game news world. Come be a prt of it.

Yehuda

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Weekend Gaming

For lunch I invited Elijah and his family, as well as Nadine. They're all game players. After lunch, we played You've Been Sentenced!.

The basic play: Each card has five words (usually related by root, such as game, gamer, gaming, ...). Everyone picks ten cards. All look at them at once. First to play down a sentence with between two to ten of his cards starts the timer. Everyone else has until the timer runs out to place their own sentence.

Each player reads his or her sentence, which must be grammatically correct. If not, they score no points. You score the points corresponding to each of the words you used. 10 point bonus for using all 10 cards or for being the first to put down. Discard all cards and draw 10 new ones. Play to 200 points.

Or, at least, that's how play is supposed to go.

We did the first round more or less like that. Arranging the cards is lots of fun, and the sentences we came up with were all wonderfully wacky.

However, it soon became clear that there is a huge difference between a grammatically correct sentence and a sentence that actually makes sense. "Magoo climbed chilly pancakes nervously standing on the humming car" is grammatically correct; one can invent a story in which this sentence makes sense with a bit of stretching. But one can invent a story in which nearly any sentence makes sense with a bit of stretching.

We had fun putting the sentences together, but it soon became clear to us that the timer, the turns, the scores, the bonuses, and everything els just weren't that interesting. It makes for a fun activity, but I doubt that I will ever play it with adults. I might toss it at kids and let them have a go, but they're more likely to just ask for Apples to Apples.

As a side note, the Reader's Digest Word Power expansion deck was a great diversion for my daughter and her friend. Each of these cards holds five high-level vocabulary words. We passed an hour or so while I was preparing lunch learning some new words (I learned one or two, they learned a bunch).

After this, one group broke off to play Winner's Circle, while Nadine, Elijah, and I played Cosmic Encounter. Winner's Circle seemed to go over well; the 8 year old won, I believe. In Cosmic, I compromised both of their hands on my first two turns, ended up with junk I couldn't get rid of, and never recovered. I actually managed a slight comeback to where we all had three bases at one point, but that was it. Nadine went for the win soon after, Elijah found a way to thwart her, and then they shared a joint win against me.

I had a nifty combination: Seeker / Skeptic. The Seeker can ask "Do you plan to win?" and if receiving a negative answer, the Skeptic can assert "I don't think you're going to win".

Ozvortex mentioned my game on his blog; thanks Oz.

In other news, since I'm trying to get Purple Pawn going, I don't think I'll be going full-fledged Off The Grid this week after all. But if you don't hear from me often, it doesn't mean I don't love you!

And I'm out of work, again. So feel free to click an affiliate link, buy my game, or throw a little love my way (PayPal on the sidebar).

Off to Toronto tomorrow morning ...

Yehuda

Friday, February 15, 2008

Roundup: Three Years of Seventh Week Posts

The structure of turns, rounds, and phases in Is it My Turn?.

A nostalgic look at some of my favorite game components from childhood.

How to ruin your son's computer games.

What happens to a war gamer when he first plays a Euro game? I wrote a little story about it called Meanwhile, Out in the Field.

My thoughts on poker and gambling.

Nomic games are games where the rules are made as you go. The definitive nomic game is simply called Nomic (at least, it is when the game starts).

A little moralistic rant of mine on the subject of privacy.

In my series about winning, I declare that winning is incompatible with (just about) everything.

I created a proposed promo poster for Judaism.

A Kit an' Kaboodle from McNeill Designs

I gave the game You've Been Sentenced a brief mention and link on my blog a few weeks ago. As a token of thanks, the publisher McNeill Designs told me they would send me a copy of the game to review. I just got it.

But not only did they send YBS, they sent all five new YBS expansion sets, as well as another new game of theirs, Reader's Digest Nation Word Power Challenge: Set 1. That's their entire catalog, pretty much, except for a Go Fish-like kids game Twisted Fish and a family chore assignment spinner called Wheel of Chore-ture.

YBS is a sentence forming game. It consists of a boatload of pentangular cards, each side of which hold a word and a value. Each round, you get ten cards and have a short time in which to form them into grammatically correct sentences. A player can challenge your sentence and the other players then vote on whether or not to accept it.

You get the point value of your words, plus a bonus for forming your word first and another bonus for using all ten cards. Rinse and repeat up to 200 points.

It actually looks pretty good. One of the major advantages of a game like this for me is that it doesn't require writing so can be played on shabbat.

Along with the already voluminous amount of cards in the original set, I also have all five current expansion decks, each of which adds an additional 80 cards around some theme, such as sci-fi/fantasy, cooking, entertainment, etc...

A little plus: McNeill Designs donates part of their proceeds to Success Won't Wait, a non-profit literacy program. I don't play party games too often, but I'm looking forward to giving this one a try.

The Reader's Digest game is really just plain old Go Fish. The box claims to be Set 1 of a series and comes with three decks of cards. Each deck contains 64 cards, 4 cards in each of 16 sets, and is its own game of Go Fish around a certain theme.

The quirk is that each 4 card set is a word from one of Reader's Digest's Word Challenge columns, and the four parts you need to collect are its definition, origin (e.g. Latin root), synonyms, and Fill in the Blank, the latter of which is a sentence with a blank where the word goes.

On your turn, you ask for a card whose [part] is [part answer], e.g. "I'm looking for a card whose synonyms are adjacent, next to, and near".

I'm not going to play this, but some grade-schoolers might get enjoyment from it. I king of think they would learn more playing YBS, and one of the bonus card sets for YBS is a Reader's Digest Word Challenge deck, anyway.


Shabbat's coming, and I need to get going. See you on the other side. And then Sunday, I'm off to Canada.

Yehuda

Thursday, February 14, 2008

The History of the New Games Foundation

Play Hard. Play Fair. Nobody Hurt.

"New Games" was a movement which began in the late 1960s. New Games encompasses a number of diverse philosophies that once challenged many old traditions about games. Some of these philosophies include:
  • Play and physicality were as important to adults as they were to children
  • Competition and cooperation should co-exist; but while competition can be important, winning and losing is not
  • No one should be left out, eliminated, or unable to play
  • Games are living culture, adapted and changed as required
  • Play should require no or little equipment
  • The rules should be dirt simple and fun
The guiding philosophy infusing all of these was: Play Hard. Play Fair. Nobody Hurt.

The New Games Foundation was founded to promote these philosophies after several New Games events were held in California in the early 1970s. It prospered for a while, producing two successful books: The New Games Book and More New Games.

Eventually, the changing times, differences in which philosophies to stress, and some financial setbacks brought the foundation to a close in 1990 (**).

While the foundation is gone, the philosophy of New Games lives on in modern cooperative games, team building activities at workplaces, and other formats. Several of the original directors and trainers continue to promote New Games activities in their current lines of work.

Origins

The origins of both the New Games movement and the New Games Foundation can be found in the first book, The New Games Book. It began with Stewart Brand.

Stewart was a member of the Merry Pranksters, Ken Kesey's communal, hippie, drug-using group made famous by Tom Wolfe in his book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Stewart published The Whole Earth Catalog, something of a hippie's bible containing tools and ideas that were supposed to serve you throughout life. Stewart's later life achievements also include founding The Well (Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link) online community.

When an anti-war group in 1966 asked him to create a public activity to oppose the war, he created the game Slaughter. Slaughter was a game of no-holds barred physical combat with nearly no rules except: throw everyone else out of the ring, and dunk the six foot ball over "the other side of the field".

Slaughter was a game of intense physicality and competition, which was almost a slap in the face to the event organizers who preached non-violence. On the other hand, the actual experience of Slaughter was art. The ball was painted like a small Earth. It was impossible for everyone not to be involved. Teams were not declared, they simply formed. But interestingly enough whenever the ball got closer to one side of the field, people spontaneously switched sides to defense.

There were the two "teams", who were really one team, pushing the Earth in different directions for no apparent reason, but switching sides to help out when the other side was losing. If that's not art, nothing is.

Out of this experience, Stewart teamed up with George Leonard, a famous Aikido master and proponent of Eastern thought, and Pat Farrington, a community organizer, to propose the first New Games weekends in October, 1973. 6,000 people showed up.

Stewart's idea was that people needed to play, and that play could suit everyone's needs. George brought the notion that playing creatively and hard did not necessarily imply having to win; he believed that cooperation was a key step to moving society forward. Meanwhile, Pat was a key proponent of the idea that cooperation, inclusion, and trust were essential ingredients in these new games.

Stewart went back to his own work, while Pat stayed on to help organize the next New Games tournament with the help of Ray Murray, who worked with San Fransisco parks. The events were held in the outdoors; a major part of the philosophy included the idea of getting back in touch with the outdoors. Several thousand more people came to this event, as well as the third and fourth ones.

The magic of the events was that everyone was included. Some of the games were old standbys, such as Tug of War, only with several hundred players all playing at once and switching sides whenever one side was winning. Some of the games were totally new. Organizers showed a group how to play by gathering and playing with them. Then they picked someone else to organize the next group. So players became organizers, and organizers were players. A few people circulated reminding people to play hard, play fair, nobody hurt. The rules changed as necessary to accommodate different numbers and types of players.

Most of the games required no equipment, but some special equipment was used for some games: a large rope for tug of war; giant six foot cloth-covered and painted Earth balls for cooperative or competitive ball games; and parachutes for an assortment of cooperative activities and games.

The New Games Foundation was born along with the second event. The second and third events received national mainstream media coverage (e.g. Time Magazine's 1978 article). Organizations, schools, and communities across the United States, and eventually around the world, began asking for help running their own events and workshops.

Work

The Foundation's founders were good at their vision, but not always as good at their business. "Successful" events sometimes left them in debt. They couldn't always take salaries. The first book almost didn't make it to print.

The first book, The New Games Book, was edited by Andrew Fluegelman. It contains dozens of games for two to two hundred or more players. Most of the games have rules that are a sentence or two long. Many are what I would consider activities rather than games. But many are highly intense, physical, and competitive.

The book also contains a history of New Games up to that point, ideas for how to form and run New Games events, and articles by Stewart Brand, George Leonard, and Bernie DeKoven. Bernie was, as he still is today, something of a hippie, a game designer, and a play facilitator.

After the fourth tournament, Bernie (a co-director), along with play enthusiast John O'Connell (also a co-director), and the Foundation's executive director Burton Naiditch, developed training programs in New Games. They guided, or trained others to guide, hundred of sessions and tens of thousands of people in several countries; one of whom was Dale LeFevre (see below). This was the bulk of the Foundation's work, much of it based on Bernie's professional play training experience at the Games Preserve. Bernie left in 1979.

The second book, More New Games, follows the same format as the first one, but subtle changes were already taking place.

The new book wasn't edited by one person, but by a board that included Nancy, Pam, Ray, and Bill Michaelis. While not devoid of physical activity and competition, the tone of the games and the editorials in the second book place far more emphasis on cooperative feel-good activities. There's a lot more chanting, group circles, and so on. It seems to my untrained eye that the direction of New Games had shifted away from the no-hold-barred physicality originated by Stewart and George.

According to John O'Connell, by the mid-1980s the first book had sold 750,000 copies and the second 250,000.

Decline (*)

The 1980s brought about a radically different culture from the 1970s. The "Me" generation were less into cooperation and more into personal success.

Meanwhile, the loose, change-the-rules culture that worked so well for New Games was not always as successful at the Foundation. Groups usually got their training and equipment, but it wasn't always easy to keep track of who had what, how much came in, and whether or not the insurance was paid last month.

A few nasty incidents occurred. In one particular case, an Earth Ball, often sold or rented out by the Foundation, may or may not have been lent to a certain college in Ohio for a New Games event. A passerby saw the ball and tried to climb up and balance on it. He broke his neck. He sued the college, the Earth ball manufacturers, and the Foundation for good measure.

While the Foundation did, in fact have insurance to cover this suit, the policy had been misplaced. The director spent three years covering lawyers fees out of the Foundation's money as the case dragged out. The drain on the Foundation's finances was only topped by the drain on the spirit of the members. In the end, the insurance policy was found and all money recouped, but it was too late to restore the Foundation's spirit. And this was not the only personal injury lawsuit the Foundation had to endure.

Furthermore, the philosophies of New games take many forms. Some are more competitive and physical, others more cooperative and peaceful. Some are into international world-changing, others into local community-building. Some wanted to use the game format to engender change in other areas of life, while others wanted to stick specifically to games. The board, the directors, and the trainers began to drift their separate ways.

Finally, the Foundation was closed in 1990 (**). According to John, all assets, as well as rights and licenses, were sold to the YMCA. I couldn't find any reference to this on the net or on YMCA's site.

Aftermath

The Foundation was closed, but the idea of New Games lives on in corporate team building exercises, camp activities, cooperative games, and other places you might not expect.

As an example, John O'Connell and Bill Michaelis were approached by NBC before the start of the Survivor TV series to join on as possible consultants. After all, Survivor is a bunch of people playing cooperative physical games. It was a tempting offer, but the direction the TV studio wanted to go was too far from the New Games principles, according to John. There was no way (initially) for the viewers at home to participate, which made it more spectator than sport. And elimination is fine for a game when there's no strong consequences for being eliminated; if you're playing for a million dollars, it's no longer play for play's sake.

I occasionally run across academic reference to New Games, such as this paper (PDF) on how to bring New Games concepts into the digital age. The paper equates the cooperative and game changing elements in some online games with those of New Games (and also recounts a New Games seminar taught by Bernie in 2004).

I asked John the same question about how New Games might apply in this world of modern video games, and he also pointed out the cooperative aspects of many MMOGs. He couldn't say much more about it as he doesn't play these games, although his son does.

Where Are They Now?

Many of the original figures of the New Games Foundation are still involved with promoting the aspects of New games that most interested them:

Interestingly enough, I asked Pat Farrington what's up with her and New Games and she wrote back that she was never more than on the periphery of the movement.

There are a couple of sad notes. Burton Naiditch passed away twenty years ago or more. Andrew Fluegelman developed cancer and his car was found near the Golden Gate bridge in 1985. He has never been seen since and is presumed by his friends and family to have committed suicide.

In 1982, John and Bill Michaelis started an annual program with city of Pacifica, CA which is running until today. Every September they get 50 to 100 participants in New Games activities, although they need to limit it to 75 due to space constraints.

John still does training sessions sometimes on request. His main work now is corporate team-building exercises. John and Bill also wrote The Game and Play Leader's Handbook in the 1990s.

Bill teaches New Games here and there (at the University of San Francisco, department of Recreation).

Dale LeFevre runs a site INewGames, using the terms, branding, and trademarks of the New Games Foundation; I don't think with permission, but I'm not entirely sure. I was unable to contact Dale or the other contact person listed on the website via email, nor was my call to the telephone number listed on the site returned.

Dale wrote a number of new books on the subject of New Games, including: New Games for the Whole Family (which uses the same look and feel as the two Foundation books; the subtitle implies that the book is a Foundation approved book, which I don't think is the case), Best New Games (with Todd Strong), Parachute Games (with Todd Strong), and The Spirit of Play, as well as several videos, DVDs, CD-ROMs, and so on with the New Games logos and branding.

Todd Strong's main field is Juggling, Dice Stacking, and other physical body tricks, for which he has produced a number of books and videos.

Bernie DeKoven is well-known. Aside from his excellent blog and his long-running Major Fun awards, he also pushes his own play philosophy, which he calls "Deep Fun" and is described in his books The Well-Played Game and Junkyard Sports.

I asked Bernie how his Junkyard Sports relates to the work of New Games:
Glad you asked that. It's one of my favorite questions. The one aspect of New Games that we had the most difficulty communicating was the idea that people could create their own. The New Games movement largely became based on a fixed, and eventually closed repertoire of games. That was very much contrary to what we (and certainly I) wanted to communicate. The most luck we had was when, during the New Games Trainings, we asked people to try to combine two sports and see what they came up with. It seemed to work well. They came up with some original games, some of which eventually became part of the New Games repertoire. Junkyard Sports is built on the kind of pick-up, informal sports that kids play - usually with the "wrong" equipment (junk), in the "wrong" spaces (on the streets, with the "wrong" people - neighbors. Here is a great resource describing games of that ilk. So, Junkyard Sports built on that tradition, to embody the spirit of New Games (Play Fair, Play Hard, Nobody Hurt), and inspire people to carry it forward with their own myriad of player-made games.
Bernie still runs New Games seminars and other play and game events; you can see videos of some of some of his sessions on his website. He and Todd are coming out with a new book, soon.

I think that the philosophy of the modern Euro-games I enjoy also embody some of the New Games philosophy. The Settlers of Catan is as much about cooperation as it is about competition. And challenging cooperative games like Lord of the Rings and Shadows Over Camelot exemplify the ideas of hard, fun competition without too much worry over winners and loser.

Yehuda

(*) Much of the remaining information came from personal conversations with John O'Connell and Bernie DeKoven, as well as other research.

(**) Update June 17, 2012: According to updated information from Bernie DeKoven, who received updated information from John LaRue and John O'Connell, the foundation was actually closed in 1983.

Session Report, in which I win another Magic game

The latest Jerusalem Strategy Gaming Club session report is up. Games played: Mr Jack, Notre Dame x 2, Magic: the Gathering x 3.

Yep, we played Notre Dame twice.

Contributors Wanted!

I need You! I need contributors for Purple Pawn, my new board game news blog. Find me stories or contribute whole articles. Any number and type of stories, as long as they deal with table top games: card, board, war, ccg, rpg, electronic, whatever.

If you think you can contribute one news article a day, I'll make you an "editor"; especially if you can "take over" any of the major topics. Does the name "Chess Editor" appeal to you? Or "Poker Editor"? Editors may one day share revenue, should there ever be any.

My Travels

I'm leaving on Sunday for Toronto for 2.5 weeks. I'll also be in Tampa for 4 days during that time. I may take off an entire week from posting during that period. I'll let you know more on Saturday night.

Yehuda

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Guide to Board Game Tutorial Videos

I found a series of videos explaining how to play Jacks at Expert Village. 16 videos, on such esoteric topics such as "How to bounce the ball" and "How to drop the jack on the floor". They're quite, uh, quite.

Expert Village also has video instruction for dozens of board and card games.

Of course, the slickest and best video instruction on board games comes from my friend Scott, aka Board Games With Scott. He hardly needs introduction, being far more famous than I am in and out of the board game world.

I was going to compile a list of additional resources on video tutorials, but I see that an attorney who goes by the name dominojones on BGG has already done so in a Geeklist: The Definitive List of Board Game Videos and Interactive Tutorials. Enjoy.

Yehuda

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Skill and Luck and Card Driven War Games

In this post, I look at luck and skill, particularly in card driven war games.

Previous Articles

I've written a number of times before about Luck:

In Luck vs Randomness, I define randomness and that which occurs randomly during a game, and luck as the amount of control one has to react to these random events.

For example, if you flip a coin and call heads while it is in the air, your winning the coin toss is entirely luck. This is because the random event happens after your decision has been made. You cannot react to the event, which decides the winner. On the other hand, if you can call heads or tails after the coin has landed, the same random event occurred, but your ability to win is no longer luck. That's because you make the decision after the random event, as a reaction to it, and you have the capability of winning (saying "heads" or "tails") regardless of what event occurs.

In Luck, I note that just because a random event happens after the decision, doesn't mean that your decision is entirely lucky. If there are three balls in a drawer, and two are red while the other is black, and you must declare which color ball will be drawn first from the drawer, victory is not entirely a matter of luck. One choice has greater chance of success than any other.

I then go on to riff that once the decision has been made, drawing the ball has become irrelevant if you play games in order to test your own performance rather than to win.

In More on Luck, I look at the middle ground of random events that sometimes give choices, sometimes constrained choices, and sometimes no choices.

The Luck in All Games

Some would argue that there are games of pure skill have no luck. E.g. Chess, or the 100 Meter Dash. In fact, many elements of luck enter into these games.

First, there are the meta-game elements. Take Chess. People are born with stronger or weaker capacities for the game. People's environments are more or less conducive to becoming better at the game: time for practice, role-models, access to literature, and so on. As a result, your ability to win a game of Chess vs a random opponent is largely a matter of luck. I.e. your skill level is based on predisposition, opportunity, character, and fortitude, all of which are largely a matter of luck.

OK, that nearly defines skill out of existence. To keep things meaningful, we will ignore situations of birth, character, and circumstance. These two guys are sitting down to play Chess. In fact, the very concept that they chose to play Chess (assuming they did) preselected them from the small pool of players with favorable circumstances. The game is now pure skill, right?

Well, you have the situation of the player at that time. Is he ill or healthy? Did he just break up? With his opponent?! Who was cheating on him with his boss, who's also a Russian hit man!!!??? Bad luck!

OK, let's ignore the meta-game elements surrounding this particular match that don't involve any actual in-game decisions. The rest is pure skill, right?

Well, no, not really. I may have studied 9,999 Chess openings and my opponent just happens to hit me with the 10,000th that I never saw. I still have to rely on my skills, but not my "memorized opening skills" but my "capacity to wing the opening skills". Assuming that my opponent chose a random opening, isn't my opponent's choice of opening bad luck for me?

While this type of situation won't happen every game, it certainly happens. Your opponent hits to your blind side, or your good side, unknowingly. If your opponent knows exactly what your strengths and weaknesses, then it's not luck hurting you but a well-prepared opponent. Unless it's just by chance that he knew ...

And then, in a Tennis game, there is the bad luck of twisting your ankle. You've done that dive successfully so many times, only this time something went wrong. Bad luck? Or poor skills?

Skill vs Luck

There's skill in performance on comfortable ground and skill in moving the field in that direction. There's one skill vs one type of strategy and a separate skill vs another.

Most importantly, there's the skill to handle whatever comes as best as you can.

Luck can still overturn more or less of the work your skill achieved, or restrict or even deny you any capacity to utilize any further skill.

Card Driven War Games

This topic came up as a reaction to my session report on Dungeon Twister. Some people had compared the game to Chess-like; I said in my review that the game is not Chess-like because, at the very least, the battle cards introduce an element of luck that isn't in Chess.

The battle cards work as follows: you have several player pieces, each of which has a battle value of 1 to 4. If you choose to attack another player, you move your piece next to theirs and attack it. On your turn, the decision to attack is entirely yours. As the defensive player, your options are only to leave different pieces at different locations on the board on your previous turn, making it more or less difficult for your opponent's pieces to attack you on his turn.

If an attack occurs, players select one of their battle cards and place it face down on the table. They have free choice among all of their cards. Cards contain a battle value from 0 to 5.

Players simultaneously reveal their cards. Add your piece and card's battle value for a total value. The higher total value wins. The win or loss of a pieces is highly significant to the game (not like Stratego, for instance). Battle cards are discarded after use, except for the 0 card, which you can play as often as you like. And will have to, if it is your only remaining card to play.

Some comments on my review disagreed with me and said that the cards are 0% luck. I was astonished; I'm still astonished. But they tried to defend themselves.

Now to me, for the battles to be "0% luck", the rules would have to be changed as follows: the attacking player selects a card and places it face up on the table. The defending player then selects a card and places it face up on the table. Continue.

There you go: 0% luck.

How can you argue that the blind bidding version is 0% luck? One commenter wrote:
What I think you're failing to realize is the intrinsic link between character positioning, abilities, dungeon rotation, and combat. All three are so intertwined that you can't focus on any one aspect of the game and analyze it in isolation.

Before combat, players analyze the situation at hand. You also analyze what combat cards you and your opponent have access to. You then take your analysis into the combat draw. That's the short version.

In the scope of the larger game, available combat cards (even outside of combat) influence the game tremendously. Players have to be very mindful of this when they go into combat. As part of your analysis of what combat cards to pull and what will be pulled on you, consider the greater impact on the game of the combat being won either way. The insight you gain from your grand analysis will not only tell you what card you're best off playing, but what your opponent is best off doing as well.

Therefore, it's not luck at all. The player who has the best grip of tactics and most successfully analyzes the whole situation is going to have the most positive outcome.
and another wrote:
I agree: Combat is bluff, hand management and calculation, but certainly not luck. If your combat cards are depleted, you'll have a tendency to avoid the fighting. If you have a strong hand and your opponent already has depleted his hand, you will be able to fight more often. If you attack a character for no reason and the opponent cleric is not far behind, you're just stupid... Of course, the bluff element plays a lot. If you play poker, you probably know that. Poker gamers make great DT gamers. But that's no luck: as attacker, you know that you take chances if you play a combat card that can result to the loss of the fight.

...

On the defender side, most of the time, you'll play a +0 combat card, because if the attack is declared, you have already lost the fight. The attacker won't attack if he thinks he will lose (it can happen if he doesn't remember which combat cards have been played, or if he wants that you play your highest card so he is dominant in that area, but that's another matter). So most of the time, you play +0. Sometimes, the situation can be so interesting for you if your character is not wounded that you will sacrifice your highest card, and hope your opponent plays to even the score. But against experienced players, this tactic doesn't succeed very often: chances are that if you have seen a good action to play, they have seen it too...
Aside from the statements to the effect that the battles are "not luck", I agree with most of what was said by both of these commenters.

Yes, the structure of the battles, your positions, and all the other facets of the board affect both when you battle and how you battle. In fact, they affect all your non-battle decisions, as well. But to say that the battles are not luck? Still no.

Regardless of situation, there will be battles in the game, sometimes ones you initiate, and sometimes ones that you don't. Furthermore, unless you will win the game shortly before or after your first battle, and therefore the path to victory is now clear, you do not know how many battles will occur, nor what future battle situations will be like. Therefore, you do not know with complete certainty during a battle if you can or cannot afford to lose the battle, but more importantly, if you can or cannot afford to lose a particular battle card.

Game Theory and the Example Battle

Suppose that you are attacking with a 4 battle value playing piece versus your opponent's 1 battle value playing piece. Each of you has 6 cards valued 0 to 5.

You are guaranteed a victory in the battle; you can easily select your 5 battle card, for a total value of 9. In fact, you need only select a 3 value battle card in order to total 7. Now you know that you can save your 4 and 5 cards with impunity.

Meanwhile, your opponent can only muster a total value of 6 if he plays his highest card of value 5. Your opponent knows that he can't win if you play your 3 or higher. Therefore, why waste his 5? So your opponent gives up and plays his 0, losing the battle but retaining his better cards for later battles.

But you're not dumb. You know very well that your opponent knows he can't win. You suspect that he will play his 0 for a total value of 1. If you know that your opponent's total value is going to be only 1, then why waste your 3 card? You can safely win the battle by playing your 0 card as well, saving your higher cards for later battles.

But your opponent's not dumb. He knows very well that you know that he knows he can't win. He knows that if he plays his 0, then you'll win the battle cheap with a 0 card. So he has the bright idea of playing a high card in order to snatch victory from you! In fact, since he suspects that you'll be playing a 0, he need only play his 4 card to win the battle, saving his 5 card for later.

But you're not dumb. You know he suspects that so you'll play your 2 just to ensure victory if he plays his 4, but he'll play his 5 just to ensure that you tie. But you'll play your 3. But he'll play his 0 again.

This is a vicious cycle in game theory that has no end. Your choices are between your 0, 2, or 3 cards, and all have the potential of winning or wasting resources. Your opponent's choices are between 0, 4, or 5 with the same criteria. Both of you need the higher cards for later, and both of you would like to win the battle now, too. But neither of you can do both. Which is the correct play?

The answer is that any of them are the correct play. The right card is the one that exactly trumps the card played by your opponent. And, unless you have insight into the psychology of your opponent, you have no way of knowing what he will play. (What if he simply takes three cards, mixes them, selects one at random without looking at it, and then lays it face down. Now what?)

You still have to choose. As attacker, your choice is between certain victory and loss of a middle card, versus possible victory and saving a resource. As defender, your choice is between certain defeat but saving a high card versus possible victory.

You can choose the path that offers no luck and is entirely predictable, but you can also gamble on luck. If you select a card that gives you a chance of victory, you will win or lose by luck. In fact, you may just have won or lost the game due to luck.

And that's in an uneven battle. You may find yourself each at 4 points (game is 5 points). Your opponent is going to win on his next turn by gaining his last point. Both of you have identical battle cards and two of your playing pieces with a battle value of 1 are next to two of his with the same values. You only have to win one of the battles to win the game. You attack twice. You win the game if you play your highest card in the battle in which he doesn't. If you both tie both battles, he wins the game. You select the card for your first battle ...

Can anyone show me a comparable situation in Chess?

The game is not 100% luck, of course. But saying that the battles are 0% luck is simply absurd.

Yehuda