Saturday, March 28

infoMania is Amazing

Not much more to say than that. If you like the Daily Show, watch infoMania on Current TV. Thursdays at 10, or clips on the InterYouTubes.

Wednesday, March 25

Legend of the Seeker

Just caught this promo on Hulu. I think that there is a land even beyond self-parody.

Wolfenstein 3D iPhone control scheme

John Carmack’s excellent Wolfenstein 3D Classic developer notes led me to check out the game on the iPhone. (app store link)

The writeup is a great read. Carmack obviously excels at writing video game engines, so it’s interesting from a programming standpoint, but I was pleasantly surprised by his game design insights. (Also, his bit about starting up quickly should be adopted by every iPhone game developer. Your stupid intro logos waste my time.)

The game itself is enjoyable, even though I don’t have any particular nostalgia for it. I’m only about three levels into it, and have been enjoying this look at first-person shooter roots.

What took a little while, though, was finding a control scheme that I was comfortable with. Wolf3D on iPhone began, as Carmack says in his notes, as a proof-of-concept for shooter control on the iPhone, so they offer a fair amount of customization.

As I don’t have prior familiarity with Wolfenstein, I’m not sure how it’s “best” to play it, but for my FPS comfort I was basically looking for a way to circle-strafe reliably.

I think the ideal layout would be a forward/backward and turn on one side, and a strafe (with fire icon?) on the other side. Since that’s not available, I came close by turning on tilt-to-move (and cranking it up all the way to 100%) and upping the thumb sensitivity a bit to 60%. This got the strafing and turning speeds about in line for a circle-strafe.

Nevertheless, the controls still don’t work for longer than maybe 15 or 20 minutes at a time before my hand needs a rest. The gripping and sliding on the glass just wears my thumb down too much before long.

Tuesday, March 17

Probably Our Last Game of Java

I was able to convince Cait to give Java one final play tonight. I think it was our last.

I find Java’s presentation incredibly compelling. Take a look at this picture from the Geek. Java has heavy cardboard hexes that you arrange and stack to build villages and jungles in a Indonesian valley. The verticality plays into the game mechanics: you move your builders around to jockey for the highest position in a village, and you can use tiles to cover up and join or break apart existing villages.

Java is curious for giving you rules but actually no indication for how to play the game. On each turn you have six action points (a hallmark of the Kramer / Kiesling “Mask Trilogy”) to spend on moving workers, placing tiles, drawing cards, and building palaces. Each of these can be used to score points of various amounts, so when you first start playing Java you have little sense of the overall flow of the game. You do stuff randomly to try it out, and since scoring comes regularly, a few points at a time, there isn’t any good feedback built into the system to tell you that you’re playing it “right.”

I squeezed one last game from Cait after going on BoardGameGeek and finding reviews and forums that actually explained how a game of Java should proceed. Specifically, the first several turns of the game should be spent placing the irrigation tiles and grabbing their easy points. Then, since you cannot place the jungle/village tiles on top of the irrigation tiles, they have effectively defined the board that you’ll play on for the rest of the game.

Knowing this, we tried once more and definitely had a better time of it. Getting irrigation tiles out early gave the session a guiding arc. The later moves, constrained by the irrigation tiles, felt less random. Cait’s still not a fan, though. She compared the dribbling out of bits of points here and there to playing basketball with just free throws. I’m enamored enough of the physicality of the game to still enjoy the experience, but will admit that Java is hardly a favorite.

Nevertheless, I find Java’s failure to provide direction out of the box a fascinating case study in game design. It’s interesting to compare it to, say, Agricola, which enforces a designer-proscribed flow by only revealing one new action each turn, or Mystery of the Abbey, which is entirely open-ended about what questions you can ask (not to mention the several different decks of cards to choose among) but that only serves to make it more rewarding when the strategy starts clicking into place. Even after we learned “how” to play Java, it was still a turn-to-turn exercise in local optimizations, with nothing great ever gained or lost.

Friday, March 13

Worker Placement: Agricola, The Pillars of the Earth, and Stone Age

Cait and I just finished our first two matches of Stone Age, which is the most recent of the new triumvirate of worker placement games (the other two being Agricola and The Pillars of the Earth). We had fun, and probably place it between the other two in order of appeal.

Agricola our the favorite because building a little farm is just a lot of fun. It’s even more fun with the clay pieces that Cait made. At the end of the game you can look over your land and just feel joy at the accomplishment. This sentiment is so strong that I felt incredibly dissatisfied at one of my recent wins. Even though I came out on top, I did so with a cold stone house, too many children, and pastures that I fenced in at the very end. It was not a fuzzy, pastoral scene.

Agricola also has three decks worth of Occupation and Minor Improvement cards, which, beyond just introducing variation for variation’s sake, really let you come at each game from a different angle. Yeah, some of them are ludicrously unbalanced (I’m looking at you, Field Watchman), but that adds to the fun and luck.

Variation for variation’s sake is The Pillars of the Earth in a nutshell. So much of it is micro-randomized:
  • Only 7 of the 9 Resource cards are available each round
  • For each round’s Craftsmen cards, two are available for purchase in the draft and two are on the board
  • 4 Event cards are left out of each game
  • 2 Privilege cards are left out of each game
  • Turn order is determined by drawing master builder pawns out of a bag each round
I can sort of see where the designer is going with this, but it just gives the overall game a fiddly vibe. The randomness forces you very much into the tactical end of that infamous continuum, so, by the end of the game, I felt like I hadn’t really accomplished much.

We’ve only given Pillars a few plays, so I’m not necessarily going to judge it, but there’s definitely a reason why we’ve been unable to put Agricola away while Pillars just hit the table once. 

Stone Age has a lot of randomness as well, in that your resource acquisition is determined by die rolls (and also the cards and buildings come out in a completely random order), but it’s very much manageable luck. If you really need a type of resource, you just learn that you have to potentially over-allocate your workers to it to increase your chances of getting enough. The tools help a fair amount by boosting the die rolls that need it, and, if you do over-shoot, the game is forgiving of over-allocation. You’ll definitely be able to find a use for those extra resources on a later turn.

I’ve seen criticism of Stone Age that the winner is the one who rolls higher, but I definitely don’t agree. The randomness here adds more tension than anything, and over the course of the game the die rolls will tend to even out. And, if they don’t, and one player happens to dominate by continuously rolling 6s when panning for gold, that’s just an excuse to play it again. It can’t happen twice in a row, right?

Now that I’m starting to burn out a little bit on Agricola (Cait and I are at 22 plays), Stone Age is a nice bit of refreshing change. Cait has also recently figured out how to turn her Risk prowess into dominance at Nexus Ops, so I’m welcoming of a game where I have a shot at winning.