Sunday, September 12

Summer Board Gaming: Long Distance

I started a new job recently, which had me staying in San Francisco for two weeks. To stay connected, Cait and I tried playing some board games together online. We used because it has a wide variety of games that play asynchronously. Due to the time difference, it wouldn’t have been very practical to carve out a chunk of time to play in real time.

Asynchronous gaming has its challenges; not every game adapts well to the format. Certainly nothing where players are directly negotiating with each other, though at least that mechanic is rare in two-player games. The most fitting games are ones where:

  • One player can take an entire turn without any interaction with the other.
  • Turns are on the longer side, or at least have some interesting decisions.
  • Strategies are either obvious enough or non-existant enough (i.e.: pure tactics) that there isn’t anything to forget between play sessions.

Stone Age is our favorite of the games that Yucata has available, so we went with it first, but we gave up after trying a round or two. The game has so much back and forth each turn as you alternate placing your meeples. Since your actions over the course of the turn tend to be pretty coordinated, we couldn’t imagine playing it effectively with so much time between each move.

Thurn and Taxis was the next one we tried, and it fit the playing model perfectly. You have enough to do on each turn, you can play independently, and your current route is always there reminding you of what you were trying to get done from the last time. Unfortunately, playing asynchronously just highlighted how much Thurn and Taxis is multiplayer solitaire, a race to the end without one player affecting the other. Being non-realtime actually exacerbated this: at least face-to-face you can see your opponent take the card that you really wanted. With hours between turns, you tend to forget which cards were face up the last time you played, so you tend not to miss any that were snatched away before you could get them. We played two games of this, but didn’t think it worth starting another. There was no feeling of actually playing against the other person.

Carcassonne: Hunters and Gatherers was the best of the games we played. Though Carcassonne has low interaction (at least when we play it we don’t do too much stealing), the amount that it does have survives online, unlike with Thurn and Taxis. Though it requires many short turns to complete a game, each of those turns is nice and discrete: you look at your tile and play it. You know it won’t take you very long, and there’s nothing to keep in your head for when you next go back.

Wednesday, September 8

My Blog vs. Cait’s on Google Instant

I showed Cait Google Instant this evening, and, as befitting a blogger, her first search was a vanity one. Her blog title was picked up after just “vast pu,” which I think is fairly respectable.

Here’s my attempt:


Wait for it…

That’s right: “Did you mean: frogmaster

Wednesday, September 1

Summer Board Gaming: Newport

When Cait and I vacation together, we’ll tend to get a comfortable hotel room (hot tub if it’s available), poke around a bit in whatever town we’re in, and spend the majority of the time playing games.

Our recent trip to Newport was just such an excursion, except that we also stopped in at The Game Keeper in Pawtucket to stock up. Though it’s exceedingly hard to find (you have to know it’s in the converted mill building; there are no signs) it may be the nicest game store I’ve ever been in. While it lacked the selection of, say, Games of Berkeley, or the obvious-that-it’s-hereness of The Games People Play, it had a friendly store owner and a nice depth of titles. Games were displayed facing front on nice racks, and were well-grouped (sometimes by theme, sometimes by mechanic). We had a lot of fun browsing, and walked away with a bit of a haul.

The clear favorite was Empire Builder, which is the first in a long-running series of “crayon rails” games. In these games, you have to develop a vast railroad network starting with nothing more than a few (million) bucks, a train, a crayon, and a dream. Over the course of the game you make money by moving goods across the country to fulfill “demand” cards (such as: $39 million to sell coffee in Los Angeles). The routes, however, are entirely of your own devising: the only track on the board is that which you buy and then draw with your crayon, making lines between dots laid out in a hex pattern.

One could consider Empire Builder as a much more advanced version of Ticket to Ride. It shares the building-routes-to-satisfy cards aspect, at least, and the getting-in-each-other’s-way level of player interaction. We enjoy the challenge of optimizing your routes to best meet your demands (pick up something in the east to sell in the west, then get something in the west you can sell in the south) and the constant balance between spending your cash to build new routes versus hoarding it for the $250 million win condition.

Credit goes to The How To Play Podcast for making me aware of this game. It was host Ryan Sturm’s favorite two-player game in the “How to Choose the Right Game” episode.

Tuesday, August 31

Summer Board Gaming: Maine

Earlier this summer Cait and I spent a week and a half in Maine with her family. We stayed in cottages instead of the usual camping (a concession to her pregnancy), so we were able to pack and play a wider variety of games than normal.

Ticket to Ride was the absolute breakout hit of the vacation, as befitting its “gateway” reputation. It was slightly surprising to me, since we were not a crowd that would shy away from direct confrontation in general, and none of the new players seemed to maliciously block (though there were instances of speculatively grabbing some valuable short routes, particularly the midwest north-south ones). The tension of getting everything built while not knowing how well your opponents are doing was enough to keep us engaged. It didn’t hurt that you can explain the rules in five minutes, either. We’re planning on picking up either Europe or Märklin for the holidays, though, as Cait and I are not sure how many more rounds of the USA map we’re interested in playing.

I was happy to try Nuns on the Run with more than two. That definitely improves it. We liked it well enough, though we had some trouble seeing how to win as the Abbess/Prioress. I worry that it’s a bit too fiddly given how much you actually do on each turn. The dice rolling, counting, and token placing dominates the play time.

We were subjected to an evening of Contract Rummy at one point, which I’ll admit was not the most exciting game experience ever. In later rounds it devolved into drawing cards one-at-a-time until you got all the cards you needed. My guess is that the game would be somewhat improved by jokers, since throwing wilds in there would reduce the number of times you’d need to draw to get what you needed, but I don’t see myself playing again to find out.

Friday, August 13

Wednesday, August 4

The Rise and Fall of My Chumby

I got a Chumby over a year or so ago. Internet-connected doohickey! Cute personality! Fun for everyone! I was excited.
  1. Chumby unwrapped, set up, and put on my nightstand/lamp. Numerous Chumby widgets installed.
  2. I find myself mostly just waiting for either Chuck Norris Facts or the current time, each of which comes around every five minutes.
  3. Chumby upgrade includes Pandora as an alarm! Excitement builds again.
  4. Pare down widgets to clock, weather, and news photos.
  5. Captions on news photos are so truncated that they just become pictures of random strangers I feel like I should recognize.
  6. Waking to Pandora becomes problematic, since if I don’t like the song I’ll turn it off and go back to sleep.
  7. Decide to switch alarm over to NPR! I like NPR. Choose local NPR station.
  8. Internet-connected doohickey reduced to functionality of a clock radio that I could poke for the weather / random strangers.
  9. iPad becomes source of weather information.
  10. Changing the time on the alarm is such a painful, multi-screen process that I leave it off and just use my iPhone.
  11. Internet-connected doohickey reduced to functionality of a clock.
  12. Chumby is crowding out nightstand / lamp room that I’d rather use for a tea mug. Chumby moved up one shelf level.
  13. Chumby’s limited viewing angle renders its “Night Mode” unreadable from eight inches below, such as where my head is when I’m in bed.
  14. Internet-connected doohickey reduced to functionality of a smooth piece of slate with a little rubber cloud hanging off of it.

Sunday, July 4

“And the rocket’s red… oh dear God that’s close”

The neighbors at the cottage we’re renting brought some fireworks, so I got a chance to do more long-exposure shots. These are also straight from the camera, except for one which I straightened because my tripod is kinda impotent.

Wednesday, June 30

Night Photography

Discovering the fun of long (10–30s) exposures at night. Misplaced my Gorillapod, so these are from railings and tops of cars, straight from the camera.

Tuesday, June 15

Not for 2 Players: Nuns on the Run

Third in my little series of games that say they play with two but really don’t is Nuns on the Run. It’s a chase game, somewhat akin to Scotland Yard, but in reverse: most of the players are moving secretly about the board, racing to pick up objects and return to their cell, while one player, controlling the Abbess and Prioress pawns, tries to catch enough of them to win.

Given that we’re fans of Scotland Yard, the mechanics of this game are very appealing to us. They could even be said to improve on Scotland Yard as they allow several players the thrill of trying to evade capture at the same time. Unfortunately, what would likely be a lot of fun when several novices are running about in the abbey is fairly lifeless when there’s just one.

Since the novices are typically hidden (players mark their location on secret notepads), the Abbess/Prioress player’s only hope is getting one of his characters near enough to a novice to overhear her or, even better (but less likely), see her. While there’s some strategy to getting the Abbess and Prioress into likely positions, there’s a lot of luck, too, especially since they have to follow paths visible to the novice player.

At higher numbers of players, the novices’ advantages are balanced out by there being more of them to stumble upon. A single novice is very much a needle in a haystack. While in our games she ended up being spotted once or twice, in the end it was too easy for her to slip away without getting caught.

I’m very eager to try this with enough players, since the core of the game is pretty solid and enjoyable. We likely won’t give it a go with two again, though, at least not with one of the proposed variants that gives the Prioress some freedom of movement. Otherwise, it’s far too unbalanced.

Monday, June 14

Not for 2 Players: Slide 5

Slide 5 (a.k.a. 6 Nimmt!) is another recent game acquisition that somewhat falsely claims to be playable with two players. While Bohnanza mostly failed to live up to its promise, Slide 5 is just plain bad with only two.

I picked up Slide 5 because of its reputation as a good filler. It’s quick, it scales to as many as ten people, and its rules can be explained in about three minutes. I’m expecting that it may go over well during an upcoming family vacation (five or six players), but in the meantime it will sit on the shelf.

For a full rules description, watch Tom Vasel’s fairly positive review. For our purposes, it’s enough to say that players simultaneously reveal cards from their hand, which get played to the four stacks of cards on the table. If a player causes one of those stacks to exceed five cards, he must take it, which gives him points (which are bad).

From what I can tell, the joy of this game comes from the unpredictability of where cards will be played, and therefore which stacks will “avalanche” at six cards. With enough players, that could be any one at any time, but with only two cards coming out a turn it’s a rare, predictable, and annoyingly-unavoidable occurrence.

In his review, Tom Vasel mentioned that some players even claim that Slide 5 actually has no strategy, but they enjoy playing and tossing out random cards anyway. Cait at least felt that after five rounds she had no more idea of how she should be playing than when we started.

In a social setting, I can understand how the chaos and the laughter and the oh-no-I-just-got-screwed gameplay could be a lot of fun. With the right crowd at the right time, I’d definitely like to try it out. While I think that there are some plays that are better than others, the decisions are light enough and the deal of the cards is influential enough that two players are probably better off playing War. It at least won’t discourage them with the pretense of choice.

Sunday, June 13

Not for 2 Players: Bohnanza

The entertainment of choice around here has swung back to the tabletop, sparked by our recent hot-tub-and-board-games vacation to Newburyport, a weekend session of Battlestar Galactica, and some Amazon gift certificates. Cait and I have gotten a small handful of new games, some of which are listed as playing with two but, on closer inspection, really aren’t.

The first of these, and probably the best with two, is Bohnanza. I learned about this from the quite interesting Hobby Games: The 100 Best book, where it was described thusly by essayist Mike Selinker:
Bohnanza is the best card game ever written. And it just happens to be about bean farming.
Bohnanza is a set-collection game where your cards represent beans of various amusingly-illustrated types, which you plant and then harvest for money. (The money is tracked by coins on the backs of the cards, a dual-use mechanic that guarantees one or two points in Cait’s book.)

While the official two-player rules maintain some of the game’s distinctiveness, such as the requirement that you keep your hand in the same order you drew it, it eliminates trading between players that seems to be a core part of the game’s charm. Again, from Mike Selinker:
Bohnanza sets you up to be underwhelmed — “I’m sorry, the game’s about what now?” — and then overwhelms you with its simplicity, elegance, and lightning-fast interactivity. It’s everything that the classic Pit wanted to be when it grew up. If you liked saying “I’ve got two! Two!” as a kid, you’ll like saying “Who wants my kidney bean?” just as much as an adult.
The lack of trading is understandable for two-player rules: any trade will benefit one player more than the other (and enough information is public that it’s pretty obvious in each case), so the player getting the worse deal just won’t agree. Two-player Bohnanza tries to fill the whole with a draft to simulate getting cards you want, and an optional discard to get rid of cards you don’t, but it feels like a poor substitute.

With two players, Bohnanza offers some enjoyment, but enough is lost that it’s appeal for us stems largely from its novelty. Nevertheless, I look forward to trying it with three or more. Played as it’s meant to be played, with the wheeling and dealing that makes games like The Settlers of Catan so appealing, I think it will be a lot of fun.

Monday, May 24

New Fonty Goodness

Vollkorn, by Friedrich Althausen
Just a quick update to note that I’ve changed this blog’s header and title to use Vollkorn, a new font from the Google Font Directory.

Installation on Blogger is straightforward if you’re up for Edit HTML (and the consequences of forking your template). It would be pretty silly, though, if we didn’t make it a bit easier one of these days…

Tuesday, May 11

Not blogging on account of iPad

I posted recently about my disappointment in the available iPad-compatible blogging solutions. This has hampered my own blogging in two significant ways:
  1. Since the iPad is still the shiny fun toy I want to play with, I haven't wanted to pull out my laptop in order to blog.
  2. I've been spending a good deal of time and attention trying to rectify the problem by building a native client of my own.

This isn't anything official, and I might not even finish it, but for now it's been a fun way to develop Cocoa Touch skills and get some experience in engineering a client app in something other than JavaScript or GWT.

Things I like:
  • I can make apps that run on the iPad, which is, as previously noted, shiny.
  • The challenge of figuring out a new system and getting it to work.

Things I miss:
  • Java, Eclipse, and static analysis. The tools available for Java just seem to be able to do more: easier (in some cases real-time) refactoring, auto-filling of methods (e.g. to satisfy an interface), and syntax highlighting of uses and errors come to mind.
  • Open source everywhere. When a library is behaving curiously, I'm used to being able to Control-click in and poke around to see how it's doing things. Not so with Cocoa, and I've already been bitten by two bugs in the frameworks that have required trial-and-error workarounds.

Things that are annoying:
  • Indentation to line up colons. Really? The aesthetic value of this escapes me, especially when coupled with the maintenance hassle.
  • Xcode groups not matching the filesystem. More maintenance. If decoupling these is even ever desirable it should be an option, not the default.
  • Categories. I haven't seen how these are particularly useful in practice, and currently seem to do little more than fill up the auto-complete menu with random, out-of-context methods.
  • The thesaurus. Maybe I'm just not used to the terminology, but the API authors like to use verbs that are a bit on the flowery side, which keeps me from ever remembering them. Modal views are not "shown" or "hidden," but "presented" and "dismissed." Okay, it has more character, but at a not-insignificant learning cost.

Things I couldn't live without:

Monday, April 19

Weekend Gaming: For Sale, BSG, ME2, &tc.

Some friends were in town for a wedding, and we got a fair amount of gaming done. Here are some capsule highlights:

In a blaze of foresight, I brought Guillotine along on our trip to Providence to see the Circle finale. We had about an hour to kill after dinner, so we got in three games. Guillotine was ideal because we had played it at PAX East last month, so there was no learning curve. Nevertheless, I’m starting to slightly sour on the game. I wish there was either more strategy or more of a “take that” element to the mechanics. With four players, you certainly can’t plan ahead to your next turn. It’s also pretty hard to set up an opponent to get a bad noble, since the chances that they’ll have a card that weasels out of it is pretty high.

On Sunday, I introduced the King of Fillers, For Sale, to universally positive reactions. I had only played it once before, but now I’m definitely going to push it harder. For such a short, simple game there’s a ton going on. I love how the property buying in the first round has such a direct, intense consequence for how the second round will play out, but, with clever play and good reading of your opponents, you can still overcome your previous mistakes. This keeps everyone fully engaged through the selling phase.

We played our first game of Battlestar Galactica, a game that both couples had sitting on a shelf for a long time, waiting for enough people and enough time. It’s a game that certainly looks more complicated than it ends up being, so I feel good about introducing others to it, especially if they’re hooked by the theme. We didn’t have too much in the way of accusations, as we uncovered the Cylon pretty quickly. Unfortunately, that Cylon was president Baltar, who held on to his office from the Brig, and was able to do quite a bit of damage before we were able to elect the VP to take over. BSG seems like it will only get better with more plays and more familiarity. I also can see how a fifth person would add a lot.

In the realm of video games, we played a bit of 4-player New Super Mario Brothers Wii. The getting in each others’ way was both amusing and annoying, but what was really frustrating was getting through castle levels with anyone surviving. I remember this game got universally positive reviews, especially with four people, but it’s clear to me that those reviewers were all much better at Mario than we were.

On my own I’ve been playing Mass Effect 2. Its siren song pulled me away from my resolve to finish Dragon Age: Origins, and I couldn’t be happier. ME2’s improvements as a shooter are more than welcome, and I love getting back into role-playing my character.

Tuesday, April 13

The Dark Knight / Toy Story Trailer

Apparently movie trailer mashups is a thing. This one is absolutely brilliant:

Saturday, April 10

It's from space, and also the future

Ok, I'm really not one for Apple unboxing porn, but the Magic Mouse packaging is amazing. 

Tuesday, April 6

Great Moments in Tech Journalism: HuffPost’s iPad Review

The review of the iPad published in the Huffington Post starts thusly:
I must admit I was skeptical about this product until I got my hands on it. I played with it for a good 20 minutes at the Apple Store yesterday…
I actually read on, convinced that this had to be the start of a satire, lambasting the habit of bloggers and tech journalists to form strong opinions about products with little-to-no experience with them.


Good job, HuffPost. Crack team you’ve got there.

Monday, April 5

Blogging from iPad: Edit HTML, BlogPress, but not Pages

The iPad is certainly a much better reading/watching device than an authoring one, at least in these early days. Still, its impressive portability makes me want to see how suitable it is for blogging. After all, the best blogging client is the one you have with you, and all that.

Also, I like to play with it. Magic space tablet from the future, take me away!

I wrote my last post in the Blogger editor (copying in bits that were written in iTunes), which was workable, but hardly ideal. Mobile Safari does not support rich text editing in HTML with contenteditable, so I had to settle for Edit HTML mode over Compose.

I'm happy to say that the toolbar works when you select text, so I didn't have to type in the bold or link tags myself. Scrolling, however, was pretty painful: though iPad often allows scrolling of overflow: auto elements using a two-finger scroll, this does not appear to work on a <textarea>. My only recourse was to drag-and-hold the insertion point at the top or the bottom and wait for the painfully slow scrolling to show me what I wanted.

The new editor's Edit HTML also lacks photo insertion, though with the lack of upload support in the browser I couldn't have done more than pick from Picasa Web Albums.

In all, the post editor is there, but you'd likely be happier e-mailing a post using Mail-to-Blogger unless you were really committed to a bit of formatting, linking, or adding an After the Jump marker.

Some iPad Software Reviews: ESPN, Marvel, Civ Rev, NYT Crosswords

I've been playing with my new shiny (spoiler alert: it's shiny) and trying to "give back" to the "community" with some "user generated content" in the form of reviews on iTunes of some of the iPad launch apps.

In the interests of obeying Robb's Law, testing out how Blogger works on the thing, and writing something, anything for this blog, I've copied the reviews in below. For fun, I'm composing this whole post on the tablet using Blogger's post editor, to see what it's like, so forgive the lack of direct links to the iTunes store.

ESPN ScoreCenter XL: It doesn't load (1 star)

Tried yesterday and today. Nothing loads except for the ticker at the bottom.

Don't waste your money until they get the servers sorted out.

Saturday, April 3

The Circle: Episode 2

Second episode of The Circle:

Episodes four and five are premiering April 16th!

Friday, April 2

“Mr. Fancy Pants” by Jonathan Coulton at PAX East 2010

The most entertaining part of PAX East’s Saturday night concert was probably Jonathan Coulton playing “Mr. Fancy Pants” on the Distract-o-tron.

I’m very impressed by how he’s able to keep the drum beat going throughout just by tapping on that thing.

(Many thanks to uploader acmidgett!)

Finally, a Wireless Reading Device

iPad hype (which I am absorbing as fast as possible) does nevertheless remind me of Ben Hoffman’s infoMania Tech Report on the Kindle:

Wednesday, March 31

I’m Totally Into My Blog Again

There are a few clichés about blogs. One is that they all have “musings,” “ramblings,” or “random thoughts” in the title or description. (Have more confidence, people!) Another is that the very last post on any blog will be the author’s resolution to start blogging some more.

I’m here to put a spin on that last one: this blog will continue because I have been blogging more.

I think I can trace this renewed — shall we say — fervor to a few recent events:

  • The Blogger template designer shipped, which freed up my available nights and weekend significantly, both to blog and to do a few things that are perhaps worth blogging about.
  • I got into a bit of social gaming after SXSW, which got me a bit into Facebook, and that, coupled with increased Google Buzz adoption among my contacts has made me want to blog and comment on my friends’ blogs and get comments in return.
  • Health care reform passed, so the polictical blogs are getting a bit dull. Rather than scrape around for stuff to read, I might as well be constructive and write something of my own.
  • It’s March Madness, so board gaming with Cait is more limited, as is using the TV for console games. I haven’t built up the resolve to go back into Ferelden, so, apart Alpha Centauri and reading, I’m looking for entertainment.
  • The Blogger template designer shipped, so I could play around with this blog’s template in a bunch of fun ways. What does my writing have to do with washing machines? The answer is irrelevant. I like the colors. And I’m happy to be able to chuck the labels and archives bits down into a multi-column footer, leaving maximum exposure for my blogroll and gaming badges. For the good of the product, I hope that other folks have similar experiences: happiness with the template leads to happiness with the blog leads to moar posting.
Somewhat ironically, my rekindled interest in blogging comes just as I’m leaving the Blogger team after a total of five years working on it, which have been by definition the best, worst, and only five years of my professional career. Perhaps being A User will give me perspective on the service, or maybe being A Former Engineer will just make me tolerant of its quirks. (Regardless, I’m not entirely done with it yet. I have a templates to finish documenting and a community to try and support.)

I’m curious about how “social media” ties into and supports personal blogging. I assume that most of my direct traffic will continue to come from search engines, as my posts are not frequent or consistent enough in topic to build up a following of anyone who would check back regularly. But the thought that people who actually know me will be presented with these posts in a convenient place is motivating.

If you are reading this post on Buzz or Facebook (not FriendFeed, though; I deleted that account after it tacodumped my entire Netflix queue into my FB news feed), click through to the post and check out the template. It has washing machines.

Then go start a blog, cuz you can’t make your Facebook or Gmail inbox this laundromat-o-licious. You can always link that blog so that it posts back to Buzz and Facebook. Gotta follow the readers, after all.

New iPhone to Blog Workflow Using Picasa Web Albums

Picking a photo out of the “Drop Box” album
While writing my last post about tactical card games I wanted to include my own photos of the cards to illustrate things. My iPhone was the handiest camera, but finding a cable and plugging it in and waiting for the sync and using Image Capture and then uploading via the web would be a bit annoying. But, since Blogger in Draft now has Picasa Web Albums integration, I was able to use a simpler flow:
  1. Take photo with iPhone
  2. E-mail it to my Picasa Web Albums address (learn more)
  3. Open the image picker on Blogger in Draft
  4. Pick the photo out of the “Drop Box” album
Surprisingly quick, easy (after setting up the address, which I suppose was also easy), and 100% wireless.

Tuesday, March 30

Two Tactical Card Games: Battleground: Fantasy Warfare and Summoner Wars

Good times at PAX East this weekend. I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of board gaming that went on there, since I was expecting things to be pretty exclusively about video games. Other than the lack of adequate table space (even given the eight or so available rooms), things were good.

I got a chance to get demos of two very similar games at publisher booths: Battleground: Fantasy Warfare (from FLGS Your Move Games) and Summoner Wars (from friendly but not local — and AFAIK not a games store — Plaid Hat Games). Given their common mechanics, distribution, and that I demoed both last weekend, I thought I’d write them up as a comparison.

Both games are tactical card games. Players control cards that represent units, and they move them around on the playing field, fighting nearby cards by rolling dice. Each player also draws from a deck into a hand of cards that can help them out in battle.

The representatives from Your Move Games and Plaid Hat Games were each very careful to note that their games were not collectable card games. Each game has a set of armies, made available in pre-constructed decks. Battleground also has pre-constructed reinforcement packs for their armies to add options for deck-construction. The longer-term business model of each game is to make you want to buy expansion armies for new variety. This model is reminiscent of Blue Moon — though, except for the Buka Invasion, that game was limited to the eight races that were designed together before any were released, a limitation that I don’t think either of these games intends to replicate — which is appealing for its convenience and value.

So, what are these games, and how do they compare?

Putting captioned images side-by-side in Blogger

Dealing with multiple images side-by-side is a long-standing and hopefully-someday-will-be-resolved feature request for Blogger, but you can do it pretty easily right now with Blogger in Draft and a tiny bit of playing with Edit HTML.

Here’s the result we’re going for:

Old design: Footer full of badgesNew design: Footer full of blog stuff

Playing Alpha Centauri on Mac OS X 10.6

As I mentioned a few days ago, forces have conspired to get me interested in the Civilization series again, and those forces compounded over the past weekend as Tracy brought her Civ Rev love up for PAX and 2K teased us with posters for (but not an adequate supply of) Civilization V.

All of this made me pine for the Civ game I have the fondest memories for, Alpha Centauri. But could I still play it?

Aspyr released Alpha Centauri for the Mac ten years ago. It was never officially released for Mac OS X, so, since Classic doesn’t run on Intel machines such as my MacBook, my hopes were slim. Nevertheless, with a bit of luck, Internet-searching with Google, Inc.’s titular search engine, and a beta release hosted on what I can only deduce is a former developer’s home machine, I was able to get things to run on Snow Leopard.

Monday, March 29

Jonathan Coulton and Paul & Storm play TMBG’s Flood

I saw Paul & Storm (very good) and Jonathan Coulton (very very good, especially in “Coultron” form with Paul & Storm and Metroid Metal’s rhythm section) play at PAX East this past weekend.

Little did I know that, with a little Internet digging, I could uncover videos of them playing They Might Be Giants’ album Flood, in its entirety, at a show in Chicago last year. I made a playlist so you can watch it all back-to-back:

Many many many thanks to uploader MrSctw.

I always thought of TMBG as just this weird (though awesome) niche band that I and some of my friends were in to, so it’s very odd (though obvious in retrospect, given their trail-blazing position) to see them as a point of reference for other musicians.

More Paul & Storm / They Might Be Giants stuff: It Might Be X-Mas, a Christmas album written in the style of TMBG. I recommend at least listening to “Christmas Eve Eve.”

Thursday, March 25

The Circle: Episode 1

I’m counting down the weeks until the premiere of episodes 4 and 5 of The Circle, a five-episode TV series that my friend Blackheart (née Daniel Byers) and pals made out of pirates, Tech House, and various other good bits of Brown University.

It’s a modern fantasy, fae-and-gas masks sort of story. Well done, and remarkably well done considering the resources they had to make it.

I’ll post the second episode next week and the third after that, though you can just go to and watch them now if you like. The 4th and 5th episodes premiere on April 16th as part of Brown’s prefrosh weekend.

Some Gaming Updates

PAX East is coming up this weekend! I’m looking forward to the premiere of Get Lamp and seeing Jonathan Coulton. I’m somewhat worried about overwhelming demand for the shinier panels and events, but we’ll see how it goes.

In the spirit of all of this, some short films about my recent gaming:

I had a whole lot of fun with Dragon Age: Origins, both in the gameplay and — surprising to me — the roleplaying. This is the first time I’ve ever played a game where I made up my own backstory for a character and tried to stay true to it. (My character’s primary motivation in becoming a mage was to learn how to turn into a bear to get back at the kids who used to pick on her.) I haven’t yet finished it (stuff got in the way) but I’m in the end game and am eager to finish it and then start over with a new character, a dwarven noble I’m basing on Mr. Bingley from Pride and Prejudice. I’m also eager to play the expansion. And eager to play Mass Effect 2. Might need to delegate some of this.

Uncharted 2 was amazing, a masterpiece by masters at the top of their form. Rick likes it, too. I’m going back through for treasures (might be able to platinum this one), and also playing co-op with friends (well, so far “friend”) whenever I can. Want to do more of that. Please seek me out on PSN (I’m OldMainstream) if you’re interested.

I had fun with Heavy Rain. Pretty good story and surprisingly immersive gameplay. They were incredibly successful at conveying both effort and action though the button prompts. Holding down buttons in an awkward order is actually very effective at making you feel the difficulty of, say, opening a glovebox when injured and upside-down. Getting the timing right during fights really gets the heart racing as well. My first playthrough gave me a nearly–mega happy ending, with enough that went wrong to make me feel like it was a real story. I’m going through again for trophies. It kind of breaks the magic of the branching narrative, but, hey: trophies.

Wednesday, March 24

Boys and Girls Singing Together

Five songs with alternating or overlapping male/female lead vocal parts:

Let me know what you think!

Honorable mention that Lala doesn’t have rights to: “Under Your Spell / Standing (Reprise)” from Once More… With Feeling.

Monday, March 22

Verizon Hates Trees

Not too long ago I noticed that I was getting a lot of junk mail from Verizon. I don’t check the mailbox more than once a week or so, but I felt like they were sending something at least once a month. Turns out it’s much more often than that.

So, to start a grassroots, groundswell, hopey-changey movement, I present: Verizon Hates Trees, my new blog (and Twittering at VerizonH8sTrees).

I’ll be posting a pic of every piece of junk mail I get from Verizon. I already have everything I’ve gotten since the beginning of February.

Hint: it’s kind of an alarming amount.

Saturday, March 20

Subtle Template Designer Feature: “overflow: hidden”

One thing that always annoyed me about Blogger’s old templates was the way that backgrounds and borders could look broken during page load:

Waiting for a sidebar widget to load…

Only now are the background and border complete.

This situation can arise when you have a widget that uses a <script> tag to pull in third-party data, especially if the site the JavaScript loads from is not particularly peppy. (Note that to make the above screenshots I inserted a blocking <script> tag from Steve Souders; I’m not blaming SocialVibe or calling it slow. It just happened to be the next thing in that blog’s sidebar.)

For the templates in the new Blogger template designer, we wanted everything to feel as fast as possible, even as the page loads. So, we fixed the problem. See how the border and background are in the right place even though the sidebar is incomplete:

The page background is consistent even as the sidebar loads.

This makes the page feel faster, since it looks more “finished” earlier in the load process. How did we do it? Boring technical explanation after the jump…

Wednesday, January 27

Blogger’s FTP Migration Plan: Tricky, Weird, But Effective

I was going to call this post “the worst FTP migration plan, except for all of the others,” but I was afraid that that would truncate poorly on Twitter. But that’s kind of where I’m coming from.

Blogger is turning off FTP publishing, which sucks in a lot of ways, but I think everyone will be better for it: bloggers will be happier with the performance and features of custom domains, and engineers will be happy not to have to support a creaky system that uses an even creakier protocol.

Though we’ve tried to put together a migration process that will work smoothly for everyone, I’m sure it won’t be perfect; there are too many moving parts in FTP publishing to guarantee that everyone will have a great experience. Nevertheless, I believe that our overall plan is sound, so I’d like to tell you about what we came up with, as well as some of the alternatives that we considered (and that might work better for you if you want to try them out).

Wednesday, January 20

Bird Song Trail: Tufted Titmouse and Chickadee

The first of three videos from our trip to the Mendon Ponds Park Bird Song Trail a few weeks back. This shows a tufted titmouse and then a chickadee eating seeds out of my hand.

We usually bring just sunflower seeds and get chickadees, but this year we discovered that the birds are crazy for peanuts. Besides the titmouse, we also had two species of nuthatch eating from our hands.

Update: Meh. Blogger video currently broken. Grumpy internal escalation initiated.

Update #2: Replaced with a YouTube video instead.

Sunday, January 17

Two Tolkien Games Part Two: War of the Ring

The other day I blogged about Lord of the Rings, a co-operative board game that was a failure of both theme and gameplay. Cait and I have recently played another Middle Earth board game, War of the Ring, and—contrastingly—it immediately became a favorite.

War of the Ring succeeds everywhere that Lord of the Rings fails:
  • It’s thematic. War of the Ring evokes Middle Earth with an intensity. Elements of the game tie directly to points in the story: if Merry or Pippen get attacked and have to leave the Fellowship, they survive because the orcs were told to take hobbits alive; if Gandalf the Gray dies he can come back in Fangorn as Gandalf the White; if Minas Tirith is under siege, Sauron can coerce Denethor into weakening its defenses.
  • It allows for choices. In the last post I lamented that, by sticking to a linear re-“telling” of the books’ events, Lord of the Rings denied the gamers the agency to explore other possibilities within the setting. While War of the Ring still matches specifics from the books (Gandalf the White can only pop up in Fangorn or an Elven stronghold, not just anywhere in Middle Earth), it nevertheless offers players a great deal of freedom to chart their own course: avoid Moria by taking the pass through the mountains? Ignore Rohan and hit Gondor directly? Keep the Fellowship together right up to the Black Gates?
  • It’s fun. Cait and I are both fans of Risk-like games such as this, where you pit forces against each other in battle and roll dice to see who dies. The game mechanics are concrete—move armies, move the Fellowship—and are therefore substantially more satisfying than the abstract discarding of cards in the co-op Lord of the Rings.

Tuesday, January 12

Two Tolkien Games Part One: Lord of the Rings

Cait and I recently played two of Lord of the Rings board games. One has quickly become one of our all-time favorites. The other, I don’t think we’ll ever play again.

That game is Lord of the Rings, a co-operative game from board game legend Reiner Knizia. Even though the experience of muddling though it was pretty lousy, it’s nevertheless worth reflecting on, since it raised a crucial and rarely-seen existential question: should this game have been made at all?

Lord of the Rings plays out over a series of four boards, representing Moria, Helm’s Deep, Shelob’s Lair, and Mordor. (Full disclosure: in our first—and only—game, Cait and I didn’t even make it through Helm’s Deep.) Gameplay is identical on each: players draw tiles that can trigger either generic or scenario-specific bad things, and then they advance pawns along the board’s tracks. These tracks confer tokens that are used to either activate Gandalf’s powers or keep the ring from corrupting the Fellowship. Track advancement and bad thing–prevention is done by trading in cards, which have symbols that represent friendship (a handshake), hiding (a bush), fighting (a sword), traveling (feet), or wild (a star).

I cannot describe the tedium of playing this game any better than BoardGameGeek user MontyCircus:
Player 1: "Okay I flip this. Darn. Does anyone have a bush? Or a star would work too."
Player 2: "I have a bush."
Player 1: "Awesome that you had that bush card."
Player 2: "Okay my turn. Flip this. Darn. Does anyone have a handshakey?"
Player 3: "I have a handshakey."
Player 2: "Good thing you had that handshakey. Okay I'm going to move this cone and take a ring."
This repeats until you get to the end of the fourth board or until the Sauron marker reaches all of the hobbit markers on the corruption track.

Does any of that sound like Lord of the Rings to you?

Lord of the Rings?

Friday, January 1