Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Review: Tzolk'in

Tzolk'in is a worker-placement set-collection game with a funny name from Simone Luciani and Daniele Tascini, published by Czech Games Edition. It's a more complicated version of the popular semi-gateway game Stone Age, aimed at heavy gamers. It plays up to four - and appears to be best with four or three - and is supposed to take 2 to 3 hours, but in our group took 4 or so hours each time. This was not a bad thing: unlike other games during which you want to claw your brain out with a dull spoon when the game goes on too long, this game was interesting the entire time. While waiting for my opponents to make their moves, I was thinking about my own moves. I couldn't completely plan my moves, since I could not know the moves that would be left to me by my opponents. And sometimes my opponents really did take too long.

Tzolk'in is played on an unusual board with interlocking rotating gears representing the Mayan calendar or something.

Pretty, huh? This gimmick is actually necessary. The gears are all rotated one notch each round, which would be too much bookkeeping otherwise. Here's the gist of it: The game has 26 rounds (as does the central gear). Four times during the game you have to pay maintenance costs on your workers.

On each round, each player places or removes workers from the gears, but not both. On each round you place workers on the lowest spots in any of the gears. You must take the lowest spots available on each gear if you place on that gear. Placing multiple workers costs an increasing amount of money, so it is cheaper in terms of money (but not in terms of time) to place less each round. If the lowest spot available is not the actual lowest spot, you again need to pay extra - this costs you money, but you will more quickly reach the positions with the higher payouts. After each round, the gears are rotated and the workers move up to increasingly higher payoff locations (unless they fall off the board, which never happens).

When you take workers off the board, you either get points, resources, more workers, or the opportunity to use your resources: move up in the tracks (in the above image, the tracks are on the top and center right) that give you higher payoffs on the gears or points or extra actions, buy buildings or monuments that give you points (in the above image, the buildings and monuments are on the bottom right) or reduced maintenance costs , etc.

Three tracks are scored twice during the game (including a bonus for first place on each track). One of the gears (the blue one above) has locations that score points during the game (each location on this track can only be used once during the game). Buildings you buy during the game score as you buy them. Monuments score based on items collected or board positions by the end of the game. Player with the most points wins.

There are five different resources and scant opportunities to swap them around. Maintenance requires you to constantly support your workers, but there are ample opportunities to get these maintenance costs, so it did not present the kind of difficulty that it does in Stone Age or Agricola. Getting at least one extra worker seems pretty important, but owing to the amount of money you have to spend to place them it didn't seem to be as critical to get all of your available workers as it does in Hansa Tuetonica. After two plays, it looks like there are different paths to victory to explore; we chose different paths but the top scores were not too far apart. And they were all challenging.

There is not much player interaction except taking the spaces that you know others want, but those are nearly always the spaces you want anyway. There is some competition for bonus points on the three scoring tracks, but again not too much. This could be because, as new players, we are still learning the systems, playing against the board rather than the other players. As the game becomes more familiar, competition for certain actions, tracks, and buildings are likely to heat up.

I highly recommend that you DO NOT play this game with new players or with casual gamers, as they are likely to be quite confused. For gamers, so far I like what I've seen. The theme is not entirely absent due to the artwork and the necessary gear shapes in the board, but it's also not too present (so I can ignore the supposed "gods" theme attached to some of the tracks) and I had no idea what my actions were supposed to represent as far as real world activities. It's just a series of systems of: place, collect, compete, and maximize your points.

In our games, Mace concentrated on the gear that gave out points during the game and I concentrated on buildings and monuments; both of our choices were influenced by our starting position bonuses. I lost to him by 7 point from a single track in the final scoring.

Friday, September 13, 2013


It's at times like this ... when I've just sold one apt and bought another, when I've just sold one car and bought another, when I've just had minor surgery (corrected a deviated septum) and it's made me fatigued the whole week, when I've just started a dizzying new relationship, when I've been told by one person that I'm the most religious person they typically hang out with and by another that I'm the least religious person that they typically hang out with, when I've just had several discussions analyzing the choices I have made with my religion and whether they are the right ones, and when I want to do what's right, do God's will, be a better person for myself, and be a better person for the rest of the world, that I need to take some time for reflection. And look at this: here comes Yom Kippur. Yehuda

Monday, September 09, 2013

Guest Post: Games and Jewish Education

The following is a guest post from JETS Israel:

What will Jewish education look like in the year 2020? No one can say for sure but if current trends hold firm more and more educational frameworks will integrate online game models into their core curriculum as well as their enrichment activities.

Teachers throughout the educational spectrum are increasingly incorporating games and other online tools into their lesson plans. The new media that is available on the web enables young learners to develop and sharpen their abilities, teach themselves and mentor their peers using any of the dozens -- even hundreds -- of online platforms and games. These activities introduce new subjects and reinforce previous learning as they encourage students to problem solve, engage in role-playing, and strengthen their knowledge.

The Jewish educational world has been slow to embrace the opportunities that multi-media, online games and other digital tools bring to the classroom. Every year however, more Jewish schools, both day schools and afternoon enrichment programs, integrate these distance learning programs into their curriculum. Online Jewish educational groups such as JETS Israel incorporate games in an online venue as a way of heightening the students' engagement with the subject material and reinforcing the learning.

One popular activity involves "twinning" kids in Israeli and North American and challenging them to collaborate with each other to complete assignments. The wikispace model is a particularly adaptive tool for this kind of instruction. Kids can play any number of games with their peers across the ocean which highlight the lesson's main points and support the learning model.

Since one of the objectives of the twinning project involves strengthening the language skills of both groups (strengthening Hebrew for the North American kids and English for the Israeli kids) many teachers use the vocabulary from the subject to create online word games such as word scrambles, crosswords and -- a particularly popular game, description detective. Each pair of students -- one from Israel and one from the North American classroom -- receives their own sub-Wikispace where they join forces to complete the assignment as they compete against the other student pairs.

iPad classes offer another opportunity to bring online games into the classroom. When studying Israel's history or geography students can time themselves while placing Israeli cities and other geographical locations correctly on prepared map and then count the number of events that occurred in each location that they can identify. A timeline game offers the same challenges.

The web-conferencing model presents a perfect forum for trivia games, whether the subject involve Torah, Talmud, history or current events. As the teacher moderates the trivia game from his or her station anywhere in the world the kids can compete in pairs, in groups or as individuals. This game works best when the kids are split into groups and each group is represented by a different student, with the role of group representatives revolving among the students. Multiple groups can compete and as groups are eliminated, the last group standing becomes the trivia winner.

Sunday, September 01, 2013

5 Movie Reviews: Elysium, Before Midnight, etc


Pretty much the defining standard of a badly written movie, this clunker is a mess of bad, unsubtle writing that drove me to distraction. You can see the script-writers behind every scene and every line of dialogue: "Here we need a scene that needs a female and a vulnerable child. Act vulnerable!" "Here we need a scene with tough guys in a poor neighborhood. Act tough!" And so they do, unimpressively and unmemorably.

A guy on Earth (all of whom are poor and live on a planet with no vegetation (where do they get oxygen?) is critically injured and so, like many others, makes a daring attempt to get to Elysium, a floating ring-world where all the rich people live in style and comfort with universal healing machines. Lots of punching, snarling, meanness, and crashes follow.

Like Skyfall and dozens of other bad movies that inexcusably didn't spend a teeny fraction of their production budget on someone who knows anything about technology, I was once again laughing out loud at the future of computer technology. I love when mankind's highest and most secure technology can be brought low by a couple of twisted wires (why are they still using wires, and why is every wire a universal access port to "the entire system", and why do all access ports universally use the same communication standard as every ad-hoc laptop brought to hack it?).

The basic plot points, while obviously supposed to have political metaphor, don't really make any sense; one example: healing technology is free, limitless, and consumes no resources; why keep it away from the poor people?


Before Midnight

This is a sparkling achievement that demonstrates that there is endless possibility for great movies, and they don't need a single special effect or action sequence.

This is the third movie in a trilogy from director Robert Linklater and actors/writers Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. I don't recognize Ethan from anything else, but I remember Julie from her equally fine performances in Kieslowski's great Trois Couleurs trilogy. All three of the movies in this trilogy (both trilogies, actually) are can't-miss movies, and they should ideally be seen in order.

The movies are sequences of long conversations, some of which take place in real time without a camera cut over the course of 15 or 20 or more minutes. They are daring conversations that present real conversations about universal issues while avoiding anything cliche. They succeed by bringing the individual and his or her perspective into the mix, so that the conversations don't use the exact words that we might use but they sure seem to cover the same ground.

They are insightful and thought-provoking, fascinating, captivating, and at times highly charged and emotional. One of these movies is worth the rest of the summer's multi-million dollar special effect comic book adaptations and Pixar sequels combined.

Must-see. Be warned that this movie contains an extended topless scene, but it's not very sexual.

The Lone Ranger

Speaking of overproduced multi-million dollar special effect movies, this one, like John Carter, was not bad, certainly not as bad as the critics and box office results would lead you to believe. This movie is mis-titled, since it's about Tonto (johnny Depp), with The Lone Ranger (Armie Hammer) thrown in as his straight-man sidekick. Depp is fetching and he has some good lines; a lot of it was fun. The plot is ok: something about railway companies and money; it's about un-trust-able companions really, since the plot is not important.

It tries a little too hard, perhaps. But it's still better than Elysium.

Meh. If you must go out and there is nothing else to see.

Monsters University

An entirely unnecessary prequel that is wholly unoriginal and just not that captivating. This may have worked as a Pixar short. It's a straightforward story about a band of misfits and the same type of moral lessons driven home by Monsters Inc, which was a much better movie. Mike and Sully meet; they are not natural friends, but circumstances require them to team together with a bunch of other misfits in order to graduate. Cue the unlikely victories over the more deserving but arrogant foils.

It's not a bad movie. At least the ending is not bad.

Meh. Skip.

The Great Gatsby

Watching this solidified for me the problem with a whole bunch of recent movies: a director with an over-inflated ego. In this movie, as in Anna Karenina and most famously (and, paradoxically, least problematically) in Moulin Rouge, the director is so in love with himself that he treats the actors like scenery on which to hang the score and visuals. Instead of the movie being about the characters and the dialog, it is whiz, flash, sparkle, moving cameras, mirrors, paintings, and basically anything to avoid a single real moment of human interaction. The characters, when they appear on film, drop lines like they are part of the sound effects.

The result is all style and no substance, and I hate it. It's tiring, obnoxious, and the exact opposite of what a movie is capable of delivering. Like Anna Karenina, I abandoned this about a third of the way through.