2009-08-29

Hops: First Harvest

I picked my first batch of hops last week. I tried to get all the big ones and leave the small ones, but it's a bit of a pain in the butt to be that picky.

After drying, I ended up with just under 2oz. of hops. That's more than last year already, but I doubt I'm going to get this much again from the plant.

I expect if I want a lot more, I'll probably have to put up a taller pole. I should probably also chop off some of the bines early on instead of trying to train them all, since "everyone" seems to suggest this is the best way to do it.

2009-08-27

Randomness in Games

Most board and card games contain random elements that affect the outcome of the game. The random mechanics used varies widely from game to game, and only some of these mechanics feel "fun," or feel like a positive contribution to the game.

At one extreme, "pure chance" games whose outcome is completely out of the control of the players and which require no decisions to be made by players are completely broken. War, Chutes and Ladders, Russian Roulette, and similar games are not worth playing even with young children, and should be avoided at all costs. There are much better games to teach basic game mechanics such as "roll and move," drawing cards, and "don't shoot yourself in the head", so I really see no redeeming quality in games which foster competition while leaving no control of the outcome in players' hands.

At the other extreme are "pure skill" games such as Go, Chess, Checkers, Mancala, and Roads and Boats, which use no randomness in the game mechanics, but count on changing player strategies to provide variety when the game is replayed. Successive plays will always have identical results if the players take the same actions each game. While some of these are interesting to me, there is no randomness provided by the game itself, so it's really not what I'm talking about right now.

Between these extremes, randomness can fill a greater or lesser role in determining the outcome of the game. More importantly, randomness can feel like it's affecting the outcome of the game more or less. Often, I find games more fun when the player feels like they maintain control of the situation, even in the presence of huge random effects.

There are a few things I've noticed about how random effects are used in games, which I believe help explain the difference between "good randomness" and "bad randomness." I do play games which I sometimes consider "too random" or to have what I'd call "bad randomness," and I even have fun playing them. But I've noticed an overall pattern regarding how much I enjoy games.

Some randomness affects only one player or affects different players differently, but other random effects apply to all players equally. In a game like Poker or Magic: the Gathering, each player draws their cards separately, and each player's random draw affects only their own hand. But in other games such as Adel Verpflichtet, or Power Grid, the result of a card draw or die roll determines which resources are available for all players to use equally.

Sometimes, games where randomness affects players inequally can feel more random, because the game can seem to capriciously pick on one player turn after turn while leaving another player alone. In games where everyone is affected equally by random events, players are given the opportunity to bond together in their suffering when bad luck affects everyone.

Another way in which random effects are handled differently is whether the element of chance is applied before or after players make decisions. Wargames often use a die roll or card draw mechanic to determine the outcome of a battle after players have decided who's fighting and where: once the battle starts, the players are at the mercy of luck. But eurogames usually provide the random selection first, and let players react to this randomness.

Although I enjoy games in both of these categories, I often feel more satisfied when I finish a game that allowed me to make decisions in reaction to randomness, rather than allowing randomness to determine whether my actions succeeded or not. It's no fun when you lose to a bad die roll even when you had good plans and superior forces, but it's also not fun to beat someone in the same way.

Some games include mechanics that attempt to compensate for randomness or a string of bad luck on one player's part. For example, some wargames have game effects which allow players to reroll dice, or to otherwise react to a random outcome that you otherwise wouldn't be able to react to. These are typically one-shot deals and can help sometimes, but they often aren't enough to really make a difference in the outcome of a game.

Wargames involve a lot of direct player vs. player interaction (combat): that's the whole point, after all. Traditionally, these games typically use a die roll to resolve combat, combined with either a "combat results table" or a formula to decide who wins. This basically means that you don't know how well your forces will perform in combat, until you've already committed them to a specific battle. Good troops and a bad die roll can crush you and turn a "sure thing" into a sound defeat.

But not all wargames use this kind of combat resolution. Certain more recent games use card-based combat resolution. They allow decision making after random effects are applied by letting you hold at least some of your combat cards before you decide what attacks to make. This lets you know your troop capabilities before you decide what to do with them. Bad cards can still lose a battle, but if you have bad cards it's a good idea not to go looking for any battles at that point. This form of combat resolution works because you never know your opponent's combat effectiveness, only your own.

An example of a game which uses this kind of card-based combat resolution is Starcraft. Each player has a hand of 6 or more combat cards. When combat is started, attackers draw 3 more cards, and defenders draw one. The cards are keyed to certain troop types, so they decide which troop types are going to battle effectively at all. Each troop type has a range of typical combat results, but getting your cards ahead of time lets you know specifically whether you'll be likely to kill or not, or be killed or not.

Friedrich is another game we played that uses a pre-drawn hand of cards to decide combat. The combat mechanic works really well in this game, but unfortunately our gaming group's "groupthink" only came up with one winning strategy, and that strategy was incredibly boring to actually play! So we gave up on this one, but I'd like to see another title with similar combat resolution.

Wallenstein and Shogun (the new one) both use a novel randomization mechanic for combat resolution. It doesn't allow for decision making after the random effect is applied, but it does tend to balance out "bad luck" over the long run for every player. Combat resolution is done by mixing up small cubes which represent each player's troops involved in the battle, and dumping them into a tower which has many internal "floors" in it. Some of the cubes come out, and some don't. Some cubes already in the tower might also come out. Whichever player has more troops come out wins, and they both lose troops equal to the number of troops the loser got out of the tower.

In general, the loser ends up with more cubes in the tower, which gives them more chance of their cubes falling out in a future combat. If you "roll low" and get only a few cubes out of the tower, you have more in the tower, but you also reduce your opponents troops by less. If you get a lot of cubes out, but not quite enough, then you're unlikely to put many extras in the tower, but you do more damage to your enemy. In practice, it seems to work fairly well.

I'd like to try some more wargames which allow players to make combat decisions based on resources they already have on hand. I expect games like this using card based combat resolution might play a bit like a trick-taking card game during combat.

Just about what I expected...

Several years ago, they repaved Monongahela St. right at the end of our block. Shortly after that, there was a water main break or something, and they had to dig up the road to fix it. Of course, this left an annoying patch, which quickly turned into potholes.

The next year, they completely repaved Monongahela St. in the same block again. Once again, there was some kind of problem which required digging up the street a few months later, and once again, they patched the spot and it quickly turned into potholes.

I think they must've finally removed the trolley tracks there or something, because it's been a few years since they repaved there. But all around town, it seems like they're digging up the street for utilities only a few months after they do a complete repave of the street.

So, in early August when they decided to repave our block of McClure, I was cynical. It's a quiet block on a one way street, so they haven't repaved it in the 11 years we've been here so far. But it was full of patches and potholes, and I'm glad they kicked us off for a few days to repave.

I thought, "I should write a blog post about how they'll probably dig up the street next week." But that's not very interesting unless they actually dig up the street the next week, so I didn't write anything.

Well, less than 2 weeks after they repaved, our next door neighbor had some problem with their gas line, which required digging a big hole right in front of their house and patching it (quite poorly, of course). Gah!

It's annoying, but it's also just about what I expected. Sometimes it's no fun to have your expectations met.

2009-08-19

Game Review: Dominion

Dominion is a card game sold in a board game box. It's a Eurogame with many features of a typical collectible card game, without the "collectible" part. Our gaming group really enjoys this game, but I wouldn't recommend it for those who dislike games which could be described as "mutiplayer solitaire."

The basic idea of Dominion is to use the resources in your deck of cards, which somewhat abstractly represents your dominion, to increase the size of your deck. In the end, the player with the best deck wins.

There are three basic kinds of cards: treasure (money), victory points, and actions. Treasure is used to buy more cards, but is not worth anything at the end of the game. You win by having the most victory points, but VP cards are useless and use up precious card draws while you're playing. Action cards increase the effectiveness of your deck by giving you more things to do on your turn, but are also worthless when the game is over.

The basic gameplay is simple: play at most one action card; buy at most one card; discard all of your cards; then, draw up to a full hand of 5 cards. The rest of the rules are on the action cards, which let you do things like play more actions, draw more cards, buy more cards, and so on. Cards don't stay "in play" on a tableau, they're constantly cycled from your draw deck, through your hand, into your discard pile (which is reshuffled as needed: often).

Dominion does a fairly good job of capturing the deckbuilding aspect which is implicitly present in other collectible card games, but it's done during gameplay instead of between games. Most of the strategy is in deciding which cards to buy for your deck. You need to find a combination of action cards which work together while protecting you from other players' attacks, while maintaining a good balance of action and treasure cards and ensuring you have enough victory points to win the game.

The game comes with 25 different action cards, but only 10 are chosen to be available during each game. This greatly increases the replayability of the game. Acitons which seem useless in some games may be very important in others when different cards are in play.

As someone who enjoys playing CCGs, I find that Dominion provides many of the same small, enjoyable moments that CCGs do. There is the enjoyment of building a good deck, and the satisfaction of actually drawing the cards you need to pull off a "killer combo." You also cycle through your deck very quickly and discard your whole hand every turn, so it's easier to just do the best you can with each hand instead of having to decide which cards to use and which to save for later.

As I've said, player interaction is very limited in Dominion. There are a handful of "Attack" action cards which typically have a minor negative effect against all other players unless they have a "Response" card to prevent the attack. This method of interaction makes it impossible to take down a runaway leader, but it's also impossible for a third place player to play "kingmaker" and decide the match between the first two places.

The overall feel of the game is a "race to the finish" with no one around to spoil your plans: you just need to come up with the best plan to get there first.

Although the gameplay is very different, Dominion shares many traits with another card game we also like a lot: Race for the Galaxy.
  • Quick play time (usually under an hour for 2-4 players)
  • The basic gameplay is simple
  • Most of the rules are on the cards
  • Indirect and limited player interaction ("multiplayer solitaire")
  • Not much downtime between turns
  • Fun to play even when you lose
  • Enough randomness, but not too much
I highly recommend Dominion to players who enjoy CCGs or used to enjoy them before they went broke or finally kicked the habit. But even those who have no experience with CCGs will find something interesting here. Since there is so little player interaction, the game plays just as well with 2, 3, or 4 players, which makes it good for couples as well as game night.

I've played probably 20 times over the last few weeks, and plan to play even more. I'm likely to pick up the Dominion: Intrigue expansion soon, for more action card options and the ability to play with more than 4 players at once.

2009-08-17

Update: Starcraft

We've played Starcraft: The Board Game a few more times, so I thought I'd update my opinions of the game. Those of us who have played the Starcraft videogame enjoy the gameplay and mechanics well enough, but our overall feeling tends to be of disappointment once we're finished.

Reading the boardgamegeek.com forum discussions, there seem to be two main opinions about the game:
  1. "It just Ends all of a sudden..."
  2. "You're doing it wrong."
Well, we must be doing it wrong, because just when things start to get going, the game "just ends."

Those of us who enjoy it will probably play again, because it's still fun enough before it ends. Maybe we'll even start to "get it" and stop being surprised by the ending. Or, maybe we'll tweak the victory conditions to make it longer. However, the attic is Really Hot this time of year, so we may wait until it cools off for a while first.

The other problem we have with Starcraft is that it suffers a bit from Event Card Syndrome, aka "The Golden Snitch." The game progresses, and everyone is working towards their goal, when all of a sudden, Poof! An external force (an event card, or the golden snitch) comes along, and hands victory to one of the players arbitrarily, making the effort put into the rest of the game somewhat pointless.

We've managed to get the playing time down to a reasonable length, but since it's not really satisfying when the game ends, that may not be exactly what we're looking for.

Starcraft is a typical "Ameritrash" game: it's deeply tied to its theme or source material, and ends up being somewhat fiddly because of that. If you're familiar with the theme, this isn't necessarily a problem, but it's probably best to play with people who care about Starcraft the video game, or at least who have played it before.

2009-08-10

Live Music

The Internet Archive project is an online library dedicated to archiving media in digital form. One large collection they host is a Live Music Archive, which currently has over 67000 concert recordings available for free, legally, for you to download and listen to. Most of them have an in-browser music player available. All of them have documentation of the artists' permission to host the shows in the Archive.

There are some obvious selections: over 10% of the concerts are by The Grateful Dead. There are also some surprising omissions. Apparently Phish hasn't given permission for their shows to be hosted.

Besides these big names, I've found shows by many other artists I'm already familiar with, and discovered some new ones I wasn't familiar with. Here are some suggestions:
  • Yonder Mountain String Band played for free at Hartwood Acres last year, and also seem to have a large following on the road
  • Donna the Buffalo is another bluegrass band that appears every year at the Grassroots Music Festival
  • The Horse Flies are a somewhat more neurotic bluegrass band
  • Rusted Root is a local Pittsburgh band I listened to a lot in college, who have recently started touring again.
  • The Ditty Bops are a singer songwriter duet who did a cross-country US tour by bicycle a few years back
  • Soul Coughing is an excellent band, whose lead singer Mike Doughty is also on the archive
  • The first CD I ever owned was by Camper Van Beethoven. Some of their members went on to form Cracker and the Monks of Doom before CVB finally got back together again.
  • Mogwai is an interesting indie band which I always expect to be noisier when I listen to them.
  • I discovered Godspeed You... Black Emperor on the Archive, and I really enjoy their apocalyptic instrumental music.
  • Listening to GYBE led me to Explosions in the Sky
  • There aren't many Jim's Big Ego shows available, so if you have more, post them!
I've probably forgotten some other bands I've listened to there, and I'm sure there are others I know but haven't thought to look for yet.

What good live music have you found on the archive?

2009-08-05

Managers and Diplomats

"I had a dream last night, but I forget what it was
I had a dream last night about you, my friend
I had a dream--I wanted to sleep next to plastic
I had a dream--I wanted to lick your knees
I had a dream--it was about nothing"
-- Camper Van Beethoven
I had a dream last night. The pertinent part started when I found myself in a swimming pool, with about five other guys who were going to move into the basement of my empty house in South Side. (Don't ask me, it was a dream.)

But there were also a few young women in the pool. One asked, "Is there a manager here?"

It sounded more like "Is there a doctor in the house?" than "I'd like to speak to a manager."

"I'm starting a job as a manager tomorrow, and I have some questions."

I offered that I was a manager, and talked to her. It was immediately obvious that she was highly but awkwardly educated: she new all the words, but had no experience to give them any meaning in the real world.

The conversation seemed to turn into an e-mail exchange. She explained that her book said that managers were diplomats, but her glossary only contained a definition for "Diplomatic Palace," which referred to a building used in ancient Rome to house diplomats. She was confused because she wasn't really sure how that applied to her new job.

I agreed with her, and then woke up to the sound of trucks ripping the pavement off our street.

But I remembered my dream, and thought it made a good point. Although I am not exclusively a manager, some aspects of the managerial part of my job are very similar to what a diplomat does. Dictionary.com's second aspect of the noun "diplomat" is defined as "a person who is tactful and skillful in managing delicate situations, handling people, etc." This also applies.

As the head of my team, I have the job of interacting with representatives from other departments in the company. I have to negotiate solutions to their problems, while keeping in mind the restrictions and interests of the members of my team. I build a working relationship with the other departments, and learn to navigate their systems, so my employees don't have to. I maintain an alliance and friendly negotiations even if our departments decide they're at war.

The rest of my management tasks are just as the traditional aphorism describes: "Managing programmers is like herding cats." The key to success is finding well-behaved cats (and wearing claw-proof gloves).

2009-08-01

Middenheimers

I decided to try painting some miniatures again, to see if it would capture my attention as my next "thing to do," or not. The verdict is still out, but I did finish this batch of figures at least.

Here we have: one goblin, two treasure chests, and five Middenheimer warriors armed with axes, swords, and crossbows.

I never manage to take good pictures of my figures, most likely because I can't produce enough light.

I did an adequate job painting these, but not a wonderful job. They're fine for table gaming, which is all they'll ever see (if they're lucky). I haven't painted anything in several years, at least since Ezra was born, and these figures I've had sitting in a box for probably 5 years or more, waiting to be assembled.

I have no clue where the goblin came from. It's a random metal casting I picked up somewhere, not a Games Workshop piece. I started painting it last time I was painting, and decided to finish it while I was working on the rest, so it's really out of place here.

The rest of the pieces are plastic models from the Games Workshop game Mordheim. I like the "mix and match" and posing you can do with these multi-part plastic models. In Mordheim terms, these are human mercenaries from Middenheim, but I tried to make them passable as pirates as well. I chose a civilized blue and green color scheme: maybe they pirated a shipment of fine French high school band uniforms?

There's an equal likelihood that we'd play Blood and Swash with these. Martine's just getting old enough for this, so maybe my secret plans to create a new opponent will finally reach fruition? She can handle the rules, but probably won't like it when her guys start dying. Last time I tried playing with Martine, she convinced me the guys were going to start talking to each other instead of fighting. We're going to have to work on her social skills. *

Blood and Swash is always really fun at conventions. It's a simple, fast-paced skirmish scale miniatures game, originally designed for recreating barroom brawls in the age of Pirates. We played most recently on a regular Saturday game night, using some of Martine's Playmobil soldiers and terrain (after she was in bed: she didn't mind them dying when she wasn't around). It worked really well: when Andy and Theresa's guys died they took over a snake and a T-Rex, and chased Frank and I until we fled with the loot.

Blood and Swash has the fast gameplay of a miniatures wargame without any of the rules lawyering, combined with the open-ended nature of a role-playing game without any of the role playing (or rules lawyering); but the rules can be explained in 5 minutes and played by anyone who can count to 20. So it makes a great introduction to miniatures wargaming, but it can also be great fun as a light hearted wargame where how you kill someone is at least as important as whether you succeed or not.

It also doesn't require many figures per player, to get started. However, I could probably use a few more just in case...


* Just kidding. Remember that post where I mentioned I like to say obviously false things for ironic effect? Besides, I think she has become much more caustic since last time we played.

Sunflowers

Martine's birthday party last weekend ended up being a lot of fun for kids and adults alike. Between slaying the home made dragon piƱata with a sword I turned, and cutting the castle cake, Martine posed next to the ample sunflowers for a few pictures.

Yes, they're as big as they look: taller than me, anyway. They were volunteers, and they're sort of taking up all the sun. The flowers aren't all there yet, but they're getting there. We've had a lot of rain this week so they'll probably sprout up again.

Behind them, the hops are doing fine. They're not ready for picking yet, but some of the flowers are pretty close. I won't get the "average 1 lb" yield this year, but I wouldn't use that many hops in a year anyway.

The sunflowers are also obscuring our tomato plants, among other things. Those are getting too big for their racks again. It'll be gazpacho season soon.