Monday, September 29, 2008

Happy New Year

It's Rosh Hashana time, again. High and low holidays abound over the next few weeks, so who knows how often I'll get a chance to post, let alone think about topics that may interest you.

Let's all have a happy and healthy new year. This year, let's make peace with those with whom we've been meaning to make peace. This year, let's forgive those who don't deserve it, but against whom holding a grudge is doing more harm to us than to them. This year, let's start and finish at least one of those things we've been meaning to: a game, a story, a trip, a proposal, a business, a move, a routine.

This year make the world better. Start with yourself. Then your family. Then your block. Then your community. Then your country. Then your planet.

Bless you.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

10 Stupid Must (Not) Buy Toys for Christmas

Lots of stores are jumping on the Christmas bandwagon already. In September. So I figure, why not me? I can be just as crass, commercial, and annoying as they can. So here's my list of must (not) buy toys for this Christmas (yeah, I'll give you a real list later).

It's easy to find joke and gag toys, or adult toys from novelty stores. That's no challenge. The trick is to find real toys that might actually fall into the hands of unsuspecting children.

1. Sweeney Todd: Razor Prop Replica - "Slice and dice with Sweeney Todd! Lifesize prop replica from the Oscar-winning film! Your friends will think you're really sharp when you flash this authentic prop replica of the singing barber's straight razor..."

This is made out of "real metal". Yes, a real (but dull, I hope) metal razor for your young'un, so he or she can pretend to be the demon barber who slashes throats.

2. OCD Obsessive Compulsive Action Figure - I'm guessing that this one is a joke, but I can't tell for certain. If it's a joke, I don't get it.

3. Trailer Trash Doll 12" in Collector's Box - See, this one I know is a joke. Only it's based on an old joke called "Trailer Park Barbie", which some company used as inspiration to make the actual doll.

4. AVENGING UNICORN PLAYSET - Feeling petulant, and don't have a voodoo doll lying around? This play set comes with a boss, a hippie, and a mime for impaling on your pretty play unicorn (with interchangeable horns).

5. Billy Bob Lil' Vampire Pacifier Headband Combo Pacifier - Dress up your baby with this hysterical pacifier that makes him look like a vampire. Comes with matching headband.

If this isn't weird enough, the same company sells buckteeth, piglet, and other pacifiers.

6. Pee & Poo Plush Dolls - Set - Supposedly a lighthearted set of dolls meant to prepare your child for potty training.

7. Giant Microbes The Clap - Gonorrhea (Neisseria gonorrhoeae) Venereals Plush - As long as we're on the subject of plush toys, who can resist this lovely plush gonorrhea doll? You certainly can't resist the real version!

You can also catch Chlamydia, Herpes, Syphilis, and lots of other great diseases. Trade them with your friends!

8. Good Bye Kitty! - Dead Pets: They'll Never Run Away - Completing our plush series, this fine plush dead roadkill cat, complete with tire tracks.

9. Dead Duck - Continuing with the dead animals theme, I suggest replacing a kid's real rubber duck with this one while they're not looking. Then tell them that they killed the duck. Yeah, they'll cry for a few hours, but deep down they'll think it's pretty funny.

10. Hog Wild Pro Thumb Wrestling - Changing gears, here's a candidate for dumbest toy ever invented. I'm wondering about the market research that went into this one. By the time you find it in the drawer, the match is over.

11. Super Soaker Oozinator Blaster - I believe this was featured once on The Daily Show, where Samantha Bee called it "Junior's first money shot".

Friday, September 26, 2008

10 Ways to Know If You Are a Hack Game Designer

Are you a hack game designer? You are, if, in order to win your game, players must:

01. Roll Better Numbers

Where I come from, we call this gambling. Is this appropriate for little kids? Or a one hour board game? No, it's appropriate for a 30 second dice game with bets.

If you think your game is cool because it has a track, dice, and cards that tell you what to do when you land on a space - in other words, if your game design consists of graphics with thematic elements or questions - you're a hack game designer.

02. Pick Better Cards

The sister-problem to the previous entry, if the person who wins is the one who picks all the "Collect $300" cards, while the person who loses is the one who picks all the "Pay $50" cards, you're a hack game designer. The same thing if the winner gets all the "collect 5 resources" and the loser all the "collect 4 resources".

03. Play the Math

If your players have to add or multiply numbers, and then always take the option that yields the highest return, you're a hack game designer. Adding math and a choice to a game is not good design, if, after the math is calculated, there is always one right choice and a lot of wrong choices.

04. Play the Odds

If your players can calculate the odds of each play, and the winner over many games is the one who always plays the best odds, you're a hack game designer.

Poker isn't a good game because you can pick better cards or have to calculate odds; it's a good game because there is always the possibility of a bluff. If everyone simply play the odds in every game, the game reduces to one right play and lots of wrong plays, in which case see the previous entry.

05. Play the Winning Sequence

If the players can't win unless they take a certain sequence of actions, and this sequence is a substantial part of the game, you're a hack game designer.

Forced plays can exist in a game, but it can't be the bulk of the game. If a sequence of plays is mandatory, have the game do it automatically, and make the play about something else.

06. Wait for an Opponent's Mistake (Turtle)

If the winning play is to wait for your opponent to mess up, while you sit back and build resources or just maintain your position, you're a hack game designer. Risk and Abalone come to mind; I don't think the designers of these two games are hacks, but you are if you haven't learned from their mistakes.

07. Lay Low

If your players win by whining - convincing the other players not to pick on them - you're a hack game designer.

Werewolf is the definitive party game that uses this mechanic. Diplomacy is the equivalent in board games. Your game can use this mechanic, but not as the core mechanic that determines winning or losing the game; if it does, you're just copying these games, and they did it better.

Worse, your game is subject to the annoying kingmaker effect, where one player determines who wins between two other players. The guy or gal everyone likes is always going to win, anyway.

08. Play First or Last

If your game gives a clear advantage to a player based on the player's starting position, you are a hack game designer.

Ask yourself: if the winner gets $1,000, and you were given first choice of seat position, what position would you choose? If the answer is not "it doesn't matter", fix the game. Find the appropriate balancing mechanism for each position. You may give starting player a little less money, or last player an additional card.

09. Play Against Theme

If your players don't win by maneuvering their tanks cleverly around the hill, but by using a special rule combination to pick 20 cards instead of 1 on their turn, you're a hack game designer.

You may think of the cards as "events" or "resources", but your players will think of them as "what I need to win the game". If there's a way to abuse the rules, your game will no longer be about WWII, it will be about who can find the card combo or be the first to get "trench coats" or whatever.

The solution to this is playtest, playtest, playtest. Not by you; you play by the theme. Give the game to people who don't know you, and never heard you explain the rules or the correct way to play. They'll find the holes in the rules soon enough.

If the fun in your game depends on players playing the theme, or doing suboptimal plays in order to keep the game fair, you're also a hack game designer. Yes, games are more than about winning. But players will always play to win. That's inherent in games.

10. Pretend to Enjoy Themselves

If your game is really about the text on the board or cards, and not about game play, you're a hack game designer.

I don't care that you have a thoroughly researched paragraph on the history of slavery in Eastern Missouri on the game card. That's not a game; the people who are going to read it are the people who want to please you while you're looking at them. Everyone else is going to play the game, but only if the game itself is fun.

If you want your game to be educational, it still has to be about fun. The history lessons have to be part of the game play: a simulation the players re-enact via play, or the elements against which they strive. Or at least, really good or funny trivia questions.


Roundup: Three Years of Thirty Ninth Week Posts

As a byproduct of some research I was doing, I listed 3500 game jobs I found on game web sites. There are probably 70,000 new jobs just lying around on these and other web sites.

The first mentions in the NY Times of specific games (goes back to the mid-1800s)

About thinking a long time before your moves in games. Not about AP.

A little meta-humor cartooning

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Review: Reels and Deals

I received the game free from Agman Games to review.

Reels and Deals is a light card game with a movie making theme. The core mechanic of taking scripts and adding directors, actors, and effects to them before releasing them for points is like Traumfabrik. Like Traumfabrik, people come in star and non-star versions.

There are six types of cards: Scripts, Directors, Actors, Actresses, Producers, and Enhancements. In M:tG parlance, Producers are Instants, while Enhancements are Enchantments.

Each player starts with $12.

Each round you have three actions, which can be any of: draw and play a script (once per turn), draw another type of card, play a person (costs $2-$8), toss a person into the common talent pool (gains $2-$6), auction a person in the common talent pool (blind bids), play a Producer or Enhancement, or toss a card for $1.

Unlike Traumfabrik, you don't play people directly onto scripts. You accumulate them in your private pool. Only when you cash in a script do you decide which people to use to fill its requirements. You must spend all three action points to cash in a script, which nets you usually between 20 and 60 points, as well as $0 to $15.

Producers gain you points, money, steal money or points, draw extra cards, interfere with other player's actions, and so on. Enhancements must be played either on a specific type of person or on a script, and generally add points to the value of the item on which they are played. Each person added to a completed script adds points to the net value of the completed script.

The people and scripts are all thinly-veiled parodies of real people and movies, which some people might enjoy. Nadine found some of the illustrations and captions sexist, stereotypical, and mildly offensive.

The game is played until one person completes his second script, at least one of which is a "feature" script. Each other player then gets one bonus turn to play.

Reactions: While seemingly insubstantial, RaD is actually a fairly nice game, a solid filler. The core mechanics are fun. The decisions you need to make are not terribly difficult, but they are meaningful. You have to keep track of a lot of interacting parts and things change quickly. It's a card game: luck plays a hefty role. This keeps the game moving. All in all it should take about 30 minutes to play for three players.

We only played once, so it may be that we don't know exactly what we are doing. But there were a few problems.

The biggest one was that the vast majority of points will be scored from your two scripts. And the game ends one round after someone plays his second script. And you have to use your entire turn to cash in a script. So if your second script isn't ready to go the moment someone else cashes in his, you've lost. That's not really an enjoyable way to end the game. It may be that we undervalued playing even bad cards to our private pools, just so that we could be ready for such an event.

A few of the cards were not well balanced. One card stole 3 points from every other player and added it to your score. In a five player game, that's a 15 point swing on a random card. Another card let you draw two cards. Since you paid an action to draw that card to begin with, it seemed like a waste of a card. I would have made it draw three cards.

A few of the rules also needed clarification. For instance, some scripts included "an enhancement" as a minimum requirement for release, but we weren't sure if that meant an enhancement played directly on the script (probably) or if you could count an enhancement played on one of the people used in the script.

The game would also be more challenging if, when playing a person, you had to immediately choose to which script to play him. A private pool didn't seem to be as interesting.

Lastly, I don't mind keeping score on paper, but to keep track of money I brought in some generic coins I have lying around, since you can't really do blind bidding without holding out the coins in your hand.

Session Report, in which we play two new games

The latest Jerusalem Strategy Gaming Club session report is up. Games played: Reels and Deals, Verrater, Puerto Rico.

First plays and reviews for Reels and Deals and for Verrater.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Review: The Player of Games by Iain Banks


The Player of Games by Iain Banks is a sci-fi novel about culture, temptation, sexism, and deception, but most of all about the mind of a gamer. A few weak spots don't detract from the otherwise well plotted enjoyment.


The story takes place in Banks' universe, a utopian civilization of several races mixed with AIs both equal to and superior to it's "humans". Everything imaginable is available, and humans can mold their own bodies or secrete internally produced drugs at will or heal themselves with no cost. As a result, there are virtually no laws, leaving all beings to pursue what pleasures or activities they desire so long as they don't disturb others; rare severe abrogations are dealt with via isolation and enforced robotic supervision.

Jernau Morat Gurgeh is a player of games, possibly the finest ever living in the 11,000 year old Culture. He's looking for something new, and the Contact arm of the Culture's AI interests him in the game of Azad, a complexly structured game played in a non-Culture empire whose members invest so much importance in it that one's standing in the game determines one's profession, all the way up to emperor.

When an additional and rather contrived blackmail plot is added to encourage his leaving, Gurgeh accepts the invitation to play the game, resulting in a full-fledged culture clash between the utopian views of the Culture and the more dystopian medieval Earth-like empire of Azad for the benefit of the reader. Gurgeh exceeds expectations (natch) and gradually discovers that his own involvement in the game is just one more pawn in a larger game between civilizations.


The Player of Games is a fine novel which should appeal to lovers of all genres of fiction. His Culture is a bit hard to believe: AIs superior in intelligence to "humans" but still maintaining a human-centric society; lack of any personal or passion-driven conquest or strife; and so on is all too nice to ring true. But, given this reality, he populates the universe with a fine array of complex characters in a serviceable plot that moves well.

He handles the interactions between human and AI, and human and alien with a deft and smart touch. Like all sci-fi, facets of human nature are revealed in the process.

One scene in particular was near-epic in scope. Having accepted a bet with an empire opponent, the loss of which will result in mere inconvenience for him but devastation for his opponent, Gurgeh is near to resigning the game when an AI takes him on a Dante-like journey through the underworld of the empire. The scene functions as an exaggerated examination of our own world's underbelly, and is quite moving.

While not entirely a surprise, the whole sweeps to a tight and satisfying conclusion.

The weakness of the book is that it is written by an author whose talents are merely forming. The blackmail scene is handled crudely, Gurgeh's inevitable success at each turn is not at all surprising, and scenes which are supposed to elicit emotion merely elicit interest. It's not an exceptional book, but it is a good read. And it gives promise that later works by Iain, should he develop his talents further and not rest lazily on his laurels, may be significant indeed. Since this book is twenty years old and already followed by half a dozen others, this may already be the case.

Of course, my special interest is in the attention paid to games and Gurgeh as a gamer. The thoughts and feelings of Gurgeh will be familiar to any board or card gamer, and these often take center stage. He alludes to a myriad of games without actually describing them, both within the Culture and the empire. The games are too vaguely described to be of any real game design value, but are interesting to fathom, nonetheless.


Well worth picking up, especially if you are a lover of games, The Player of Games is a good start for a talented author, and will be enjoyed by both lovers of sci-fi and lovers of general fiction alike.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Hungary Photos 5

The last set of photos from Hungary. Still around the Lake Balaton area.

A catheral on Tihany, the two towers are visible for some distance.

I honestly don't remember where this was taken, but probably in Tihany.

This is one of those places where we ended up finding something nice after getting lost.

Hidden around Lake Balaton on the north shore are a series of hiking trails, marked out with painted colors, just like the marked national trails in Israel. We saw the red, green, and blue trails, and occasionally signs for orange or yellow.

To find the above trail, we drove up a ridiculously narrow road near Tapolca until it was clear we couldn't go any further, and we parked in front of some farm gate. Then we walked up to an abandoned house, behind which was this trail. This trail leads up to 40 meter basalt columns near the top of the hill, otherwise known as the church organ.

We caused 40 EUR worth of damage to the underside of the bumpers of the rental car turning the car around to get back down.

At the foot of the columns.

The basalt columns.

The view from the top.

Hevitz. Near the southern tip, near Keszthely, Hevitz is one of those places that everyone comes to, as it has the largest natural hot lake in Hungary. As such, the lake is surrounded by a fence and it costs a decent amount to go in. But the walk around the fence is nice.

Here's a random monument near the lake.

The lake, as seen through the fence.

The lake from the other side, as seen through the fence.

In many small towns, the streetlights are adorned with red flowers around their midriff, like this one.

A wood carving on the outside of a small museum in Hevitz. Inside were several exhibits, including one by a Jewish woman about Jewish ritual scenes and synagogues, but it wasn't that good.

Paprika, one of thousands of such stands you can see across Hungary.

A Roman ruins we found in the back of Hevitz.

Goats and sheep we found at the back of our resort.

A horse at our resort.

Some sort of farming equipment displaying an elegant design.

A bicycle renter in Keszthely.

A native of Keszthely.

A tourist replica of a steamship in Keszthely. You would have to be a pathetic tourist to want to get onto one of these things.

My parents on the steamship replica. The ride takes an hour, and is supremely boring. A tape blasts information about the lake in Hungarian and German, and then 3 minutes of English at the end (all numerical information about the lake).

Train access to Lake Balaton is ok at the towns that abut the shore. Here is an old-style train station on the south shore.

Poseidon on the south shore.

Rachel considering, and rejecting, swimming in the lake.

Statues in Dozsa, south of lake. A sleepy town.

A wooden building in Dozsa. Some sort of exhibition hall.

Crafts hanging on the walls of the exhibition hall. Dozsa has nice fabrics, but the townspeople know it and charge tourist prices for them.

More crafts on the wall.

Cloth cuttings on the wall.

Outside, some of the villagers saw us arrive and brought out cloths to show us. They never stopped moving. No sooner did this woman wave and drop one piece that she picked up some other item half hidden below it and waved it and dropped it on top of the previous one, and then again.

They didn't speak any English. Whenever we so much as looked at one of the cloths, one of them held out a certain number of fingers to indicate the price (in thousands of forints), and then held out her forearm and wrote the price out with a finger. The prices were not outrageous, but they were not bargains.

The cloths were quite pretty. As soon as they realized we were not interested, they got somewhat grumpy and began folding up all of their wares again.

In a small store outside a nearby cloth museum, another clothmaker selling wares made by her and her mother. We bought a painted egg.

Bye bye, Balaton.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Buying Games in Jerusalem

People often ask me where they can buy games like Settlers of Catan or Puerto Rico in Jerusalem, and, until now, I thought that they couldn't. You can get some decent Foxmind and Winning Moves games in most toy stores. But for the biggies, you have to order them through an Israeli retailer, such as Baduk or Tactica.

Well, it turns out that I was wrong. You CAN get some of these games in Jerusalem.

One of the main importers, Hakubiyah, has a list of stores that carry their games, including the Settlers series and many others. The stores are listed on their web site, and include:
  • Monster Gaming: Mercaz Rannanim, Modiin, 077-7123415
  • Dani Books: Even Yisrael 3, 02-6248293
  • Rosenfeld Toys: Jaffa 34, 02-6240854
  • Tamir Books: Beit Hakerem 29, 02-6511926
  • Liborato Books: Hapalmach 42, 02-5661311
  • Books in Rechavia: Azza 34, 02-5665658
The other main importer that I know about is Silver Stars, and their site lists a nearly identical list of retail stores in Jerusalem.

As far as I know, each importer has exclusive license for any particular game (usually a company's entire line of games), so you're not going to find the game cheaper in one store than another. Look at both sites to see the list of games that the retailers may stock. Then call ahead to see if a particular store has a particular game in stock.

If you don't know the games, email me for suggestions.

I called Rosenfeld Toys today to see if they carried Settlers of Catan (for a gift), and they let me buy it over the phone with my credit card, and then delivered it to my house after business hours completely free as an added service.


Hungary Photos 4

Some pictures outside of Budapest. As I said, the Balaton region is rather dull; it's the standard against which all other vacations spots should exceed. Were there no other places magnificent, exciting, or spiritual, Balaton would be a fine place to visit. And as I also said, even Balaton is endurable if you get lost off the guide book.

Many houses are made of thatch roofs. They now have plastered undersides. This is a ceramics house outside of Keszthely, on the south side of Balaton.

Here's the potter, working on a bowl.

These kitchy mushrooms are kinda cute.

These are hand painted egg shells. Similarly decorated shells can also be located in other stores in the area.

Examples of his ceramics.

More examples.

More examples.

Across the street from the ceramics shop is a furrier. This stuffed fox stands watch outside the shop.

The furrier shop.

A view of Balaton Lake. The water is somewhat greenish and slimy. There are places where it costs money to access the shore, and places where is costs money to park near the shore, but we found a place off the main track (in Balatongyorok) with both free access and free parking.

Ducks resting on the shore, nearby.

Ducks in the morning, ducks in the evening, ducks in the summertime.

Wildflowers near the shore.

A snake near the shore. It moved once, so I know that it was alive. I didn't know whether Hungarian snakes are poisonous or not, so I didn't disturb it.

Another potter at his craft.

Nearby to the potter was a glazier, another craft at which Hungarians in the area appeared to be proud.

A castle in Keszthely. Part of the castle has been turned into a hotel. The grounds were open, but the castle was closed.

Back of previous castle.

Rachel on an old fort, overlooking Lake Balaton.

A medieval fort at Szigliget, near the lake, but still being restored so not in the guidebooks. The castle was built in the 1200s, and then handed to different families as gifts throughout the ages, staying in the same family for a hundred or two hundred years at a time.

In 1698 the ammunition stocks were struck by lightning and the whole fort destroyed in the ensuing explosion.

A door in Szigliget town.

An unfathomable thing behind Szigliget. Is it a swing? An upside down boat?

View of the lake from a cafe near some artist's workshop.

Rachel at the cafe.

A peninsula in the lake near Tihany.