Ra!

My induction to boardgaming began early in 2004, when I started playing The Settlers of Catan. I’d played plenty of other traditional ‘boardgames’ before that point, such as Monopoly or Risk or the Game of Life, but after Settlers, I quickly realised that these weren’t real boardgames – they were ‘boardgames lite’. They were ‘roll and move’.

‘Roll and move’ is a disparaging but perfectly descriptive term given to games where you roll some dice and then move your piece. To the vast majority of people, that’s what a boardgame is – you’re represented by a counter and you move around the board by rolling. Occasionally you get to make a decision, like buying a house or changing course or answering a question, but it’s basically all ‘roll and move’. Why, most would ask, is that a bad thing?

Boardgame players would respond that ‘roll and move’ games are all about chance, and not about strategy. They would – and I would – say that they aren’t even that fun, not compared to other less popular boardgames, and in the case of games like Monopoly, just not fun at all. They’re overly competitive, pitting friends and families directly against each other, producing awful grudges, and often players will be knocked out of contention early on, leaving them at the sidelines for hours. How could that be fun, other than for what you get from the good company?

The solution, my friends, is Euro games. Euro games, as they’re termed in the boardgaming community, refer to ‘European style’ or ‘German style’ games (which means that many ‘Euro games’ are in fact designed by non-Europeans). Euro games are characterised by play that is not directly competitive, featuring deeper interaction and co-operation between players, and a higher emphasis on strategy. That does not mean that they are all impossibly difficult to play, or not fun. In fact, a recent Euro-style boardgame I played only took about ten or twenty minutes to learn – just about the same as any other boardgame.

That game was Ra. Ra is one of the most popular Euro-style boardgames and was designing by a guy called Reiner Knizia. As with most Knizia games, at its heart, it’s a bidding game, even though it pretends to be set in Ancient Egypt. The game is divided into three equal epochs, and every epoch, each player has three or four bidding tokens. The tokens are ranked, so no two are the same, which means that bidding is never deadlocked.

What you’re bidding on are tiles. At the start of each turn, a player will usually turn over a tile and add it to a pile in the centre of the board. The tiles are things like gold, or monuments or pharoahs. Individual tiles, or sets of tiles, are worth points. When someone decides the pile is appropriately big, they can call an auction, which everyone can take part in. This is where you use your bidding tokens, and basically, whoever places the highest bid wins and gets all the tokens.

Mixed in with the tiles are ‘Ra’ tiles; when you pick one of these up, an auction is called and the tile is added to the ‘Ra line’. When the Ra line is full up, the epoch ends, everyone adds up their points, resets their tiles, and starts the next epoch. And that’s it, basically. There are obviously other rules and subtleties – for example, every epoch you usually end up changing some of your bidding tokens – but it’s essentially a bidding game where you’re trying to get the best possible tiles in order to get the most points.

While the rules are just as simple as any other game, the reason Ra is so fun is because of the dilemmas and strategy that emerges from the rules. For example, when you bid for tiles, you obviously want to get as many as possible. However, if you don’t hold a high ranked bidding token, you’ll almost certainly get beaten if you try to bid on a huge stack. What to do? Well, a favourite tactic of many is to call auctions when there are piddling numbers of tiles available. In those circumstances, you are basically daring the other players to use their high ranked tokens. If they don’t, you can just scoop the tiles up for a pittance, and if they do, they waste a good token.

Another dilemma involves the use of your tokens. You only have three or four, depending on the number of players, so you can only win three or four auctions every epoch. When do you spend your tokens? Do you wait until everyone else has spent their tokens, in the hope of picking up some good, uncontested bargains at the end? If you do, then you run the risk of the Ra line being filled up and the epoch ending before you get to spend all your tokens, making things a complete washout. Or do you spend your tokens at the start, in the hope that a lot of Ra tiles will emerge and all the people hanging back will be forced to hurriedly spend their tokens on poor deals before the last Ra comes out?

In my games against my brother and his wife this Christmas (they got me the game!), the game would whiz by for the most part, but occasionally someone would become hesitant, look at everyone’s tiles and tokens, look at their own, and linger in a torn dilemma about whether to spend their ‘good token’ now or save it for later. Now that was fun. Importantly, Ra is short! A game only lasts 30 to 45 minutes, as opposed to the exhausting marathon-like durations of Monopoly or Risk. To be sure, there are Euro games that are longer, taking 90 to 120 minutes, but they almost always have set limits that ensure they don’t drag on forever.

The other thing fun thing about Ra was that everyone had fun right up until the end – no-one is ever knocked out in the game, and while a couple of front-runners might emerge early on, it’s always possible for lagging players to surprise everyone else and win right at the finishing post.

Now, when was the last time you played a boardgame like that? And imagine if every game you played was like that… Welcome to Euro games.

If you want to read more about Euro games, check out the Top 50 list at Boardgamegeek. It’s a great site for reviews and discussion of all boardgames, but inevitably most energy is directed to Euro games, since basically that’s what all the users like.

Barhah!

Like pirates, zombies are reaching the peak of their popularity. They’re cool. They’re in movies, books, videogames, boardgames and MMOGs. I’ve only played two MMOGs seriously; the first was about seven years ago, when I beta-tested Ultima Online (yeah, I’m that cool). The second is Urban Dead, a browser-based text MMOG that sees zombies and humans fight it out in a post-apocalyptic city.

I began playing it back in July, not long after it started, and even though my character is totally maxed out now, I still find it pretty entertaining, despite the absence of pretty graphics, or indeed graphics of any kind. There isn’t an awful lot to do apart from collect guns and ammo and blow up zombies, or get killed, become a zombie, and start eating zombies (and then get revived as a human, etc etc), but the roleplaying makes up for it.

Not the human roleplaying; that tends to be fairly dull, with the notable exception of the Malton DEA, who spend their time kicking doors in and killing their fellow humans. No, the guys who have all the fun are the zombies. It would be easy to assume that being a faceless zombie in Urban Dead wouldn’t be particularly interesting, since zombies are far more limited in their skills and abilities than humans, but inventive players have taken advantage of those limitations to make life much more fun.

Take speaking, for example. Humans can speak in Urban Dead perfectly normally. Zombies, however, are only allowed to use the characters ‘zhrgbmna.!?-‘; all others are stripped out*. Along with a few other rules governing zombie speech, all of this was supposed to make the zombies ‘realistic’ in the sense that they not supposed to be able to say anything comprehensible apart from groan.

(*Even to get those characters, you have to gain the Death Rattle skill. Until then, you’re limited to a choice of only a few preset phrases, including ‘Graagh!’ and ‘Mrh?’)

For the first couple of months, the zombies didn’t bother speaking much, what with the strict limitations. A few shorthand rules were used, wherein a zombie saying ‘Mrh?’ was construed as wanting to be revived, but nothing particularly complex. Then, all of a sudden, they realised that they could speak – after a fashion – and not just speak, but do it in a immensely satisfying way.

Zombies became ‘Zambahz’. Humans became ‘Haman Hambargarz’. The word ‘gangbang’ was discovered to work within the speech rules, so often you’d read things like ‘Graagh! Barhah gangbang haman hambargarzzzz!!!’ shortly before being killed. Today, well-constructed and inventive zombie speech is savoured, like a fine wine. One particularly good exchange I’ve seen was this:

Zombie: Harmanz harm zambah! ZAMBAH BANG HARMANZ! BARHAH!

Human: BARHAH THIS MOTHER F**CKER!!! (whereupon the human killed the zombie with a shotgun)

I still can’t stop chuckling whenever I read that… There’s a bunch of other funny dialogues and debates on the zombie national anthem, Bananna Phone.

You might be wondering what Barhah actually means. As far as I can tell, it only started appearing a few weeks ago, but its meteoric rise in popularity coincided with the Stanstock ’05 festival, where over 1200 zombies and humans went on strike against the creator of the game for not giving zombies enough skills, thus unbalancing the game and making it less fun. It’s that sort of game.

Barhah is basically a zombie rallying cry, roughly translated as the ‘spirit of zombie warriors in brotherhood’. I don’t know how or why specifically Barhah was picked, but it’s clearly very suitable – short, original, funny, and it works within the speech rules. It’s very fun to see the zombies embracing their new culture, and during the Stanstock festival, a common refrain was “Marrah barhahzmaz, harmanz!”

Indeed, Merry Barhahzmaz to you all!

Holiday bumper issue!

Prepare for a special holiday bumper set of posts in the next few days! I’ve spent the last week or so getting up late, reading books and watching a lot of TV, which surprisingly has given me the time to think about a lot of interesting things, such as Sky Movies, zombie language, boardgames, the Xbox 360 retail performance in the UK and the Peloponnesian War…

One of the great things about being home is having access to satellite TV, and more specifically, Sky Movies. This is not because it lets me watch good movies – I can do that perfectly well via DVDs and my nearby cinema. It’s because there are nine movie channels on Sky, and on a given night, there are four or five reasonably entertaining movies showing between them in parallel. So for about two hours, I can sit down, flick between every five or ten minutes, and be sure to catch the best bits of all of them.

I know this sounds like a completely ridiculous thing to do, and it would be if I hadn’t seen any of the films before, but Sky Movies normally shows films that are 12 or 18 months old, which means I have seen them at least once, perhaps in the cinema or on a plane. I’ll usually buy a film on DVD if I particularly like it, but otherwise I won’t bother; however, this movie-surfing technique allows me to rewatch all these movies without all the tediousness of listening to the expository dialogue, and just catch the good scenes (by which I mean either good jokes, or things blowing up, or both).

The interesting thing is that even with DVDs and downloaded movies, I still can’t movie-surf on my computer; the selection just isn’t great enough, and there’s something about having a random selection of movies foisted upon you that’s refreshingly different from just watching movies you’ve picked out yourself. For example, a couple of nights ago, I was flicking between Minority Report, Independence Day, American Wedding, Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King and Mean Girls. What a choice! Certainly not one I would pick out myself, and they’re all films that I’ve seen before, but it was plenty of fun zapping between them. More on forced limitations tomorrow…

The cause of Type 2 diabetes

Why a fatty diet leads to diabetes – type 2 diabetes, specifically. This article at the Times is a surprisingly detailed report of how researchers at UCSD determined that hyperglycaemia suppresses the GnT-4a enzyme, which is basically a blood glucose sensor for the cells that produce insulin. Too much suppression results in pancreatic cell failure, and then type 2 diabetes.

Train Your Brain DS

After hearing so much about Train Your Brain, the Nintendo DS game that’s been developed to boost your IQ, I was pretty excited on obtaining a copy. The game has probably sold more than a million copies now, and that’s mostly to non-gamers, so it’s certainly an unusual hit ‘game’. Players are supposed to play a number of different mental test activities every day that ‘exercise’ various skills such as memory, arithmetic, language and visual perception skills. The game keeps a record of your scores over time so you can view your progress and IQ, which hopefully improves. Apparently it’s been developed by Touhoku University and they have some empirical evidence that works, which I don’t find hard to believe.

The Nintendo DS, for those who don’t know, is a handheld gaming console with two screens, one of which is a touchscreen. It’s the first mass market touchscreen handheld, and without the touchscreen I suspect the game simply wouldn’t work – using a pen as an input device is a very natural method that is bound to be attractive to non-gamers. It’s also probably the only way you can get people to input text, numbers and drawings without going crazy after a few minutes. Interestingly, you don’t need to press a single hardware button to play the game, which simplifies things a lot.

On starting up Train Your Brain, I was confronted by Japanese text. A lot of Japanese text. Make no mistake – there is scant English in this game, and it’s confined to the occasional title screen. As a result, much of the game is totally impenetrable… but not all of it! I managed to find my way through the tutorial screen and create a new user (each game can support four different users – a nice touch), mostly through bullheadedness and trial and error. When presented with an empty text and not knowing what to do, I simply wrote ‘poo’. This turned out to be the name field, and it was a while before I figured out how to change it.

Once I’d created my user, I embarked on today’s first tests – this button, at least, was helpfully marked out in English (although I don’t know why). I skipped about a dozen pages of exposition, and then started the first ‘game’. It was an arithmetic test; sums were presented on the normal screen, and I had to write the answers on the touchscreen. It sounds terribly dull but was actually quite fun – the novelty of having my handwriting being recognised and my answers being automatically marked was marvellous. I blazed through this test and the game duly put a (hopefully high) mark on a graph. The next test was to do with Japanese language. I don’t know what, exactly, because I can’t read Japanese. I later discovered that it was a variant of the Stroop test, where you had to read out aloud the colours of words.

Yes, the DS has a microphone and can do speech recognition. No, I cannot speak Japanese, so the test was a washout.

About half the tests required some knowledge of Japanese, and I won’t bore you with my depressing attempts at trying to get through them. I think one of them had something to do with memorising phrases and writing them out, though. Anyway, I quickly realised that my best bet was to try only the number-based tests; through trial and error, I found out that there is a dedicated button for such tests, and so I now avoid the language tests consistently.

One of the number tests I liked was a memory test. The game would present a number of empty squares on the normal screen, and then flash up numbers inside them. After they disappeared, the empty squares would appear on the touchscreen, and I had to touch them in ascending numerical order. This was a lot harder than it sounds, especially when the number of empty squares increased from four to nine. As you might imagine, the game is adaptive, so if you’re doing well, it makes things harder, which prevents things from getting boring. It was pretty fun and challenging, and I managed to get fairly good at it after a few tries. I could tell, because it seems to rank you according to methods of transport, so if you’re good, you get a car. If you’re OK, you get a man walking. If you’re great, you get a train, and if you’re rubbish, you get nothing. It took me a while before I realised there were any methods of transport…

Another test actually did depend on some knowledge of Japanese, but I figured it out after a few goes. In this test, the game presented a series of numbers on the normal screen, in different colours, and it would ask you the number of (say) red numbers on the screen. I would then write the answer on the touchscreen. This seems simple, and it was – after I memorised out the Japanese ideograms for different colours, that is. Again, this test was adaptive and things rapidly got more difficult, with the numbers zooming around the screen or rotating or changing in size in a very distracting manner. Occasionally the game would ask how many rotating or moving or size-changing numbers were on the screen, which also mixed things up. I wasn’t able to memorise the characters for those phrases, but I could always tell something weird was up when the question text was longer than normal…

And those are all the tests I could do. Despite my dismal showing of Japanese language skills, I found the game to be fascinating; it is frankly a great idea and much more fun than you might expect. Exercises that would otherwise be deadly boring are suddenly livened up by having a computer do all the drudgery of marking, turning pages and keeping records. Plus, I cannot overstate the novelty of having decent handwriting recognition on a handheld (never mind voice recognition!). Also, the tests are pretty decent as well.

I’ve only played it for a few hours, so I don’t feel well equipped to pass judgement. Also, I can’t read Japanese. Other than not being able to play most of the tests properly, this had the amusing result of me writing ‘poo’ three times in empty input fields after being asked to draw a giraffe, koala and Australia (the only reason I figured it out was because it presented the ‘real’ drawings next to my masterpieces afterwards). Having said that, I’ve already learned some of the colours… maybe it’s numbers next?

I have a few minor complaints: I can imagine the game would get boring eventually, but then again there is an intriguing ‘Download Play’ option which suggests some sort of expansion capabilities. Still, I imagine that the game won’t have as much to offer adults who are already good at IQ tests. Now, kids and the elderly, well, there’s a big market… The game also has a problem recognising my ‘5’s, but I think that’s more of a problem on my part than the game’s.

Finally, where is the English version? Apparently it’s being released in the US some time in 2006, but come on Nintendo, I’m sure you can translate it before I have to learn Japanese!

ARG SIG

All hail the Alternate Reality Games (ARG) Special Interest Group (SIG) of the Independent Game Developers Association (IGDA)! Yes, that’s the ARG SIG of IGDA. I’m happy to be a founding member, and I’m even happier to not be involved in the running of the SIG, given my vanishingly small amounts of free time. However, I’m looking forward to taking part, and I think that the SIG has the potential to truly improve alternate reality games. It really demonstrates how far ARGs have come in four years, that we have our own dedicated SIG for the genre now.

A Christmas Carol

The idea of Patrick Stewart doing a one-man production of A Christmas Carol was a surprising one, but also one that I felt knew what was going to happen. I presumed that he’d read the book out on his own, using his unmistakable voice to enliven proceedings; nothing terribly difficult, and not terribly interesting, apart from the fact that Patrick Stewart is doing it. Basically, the sort of thing Dickens would have done when he toured England. That was enough for my girlfriend and I to book tickets for the opening night’s performance at the Albery Theatre in London.

And indeed, Stewart came out striding onto the stage at the start, bearing a big red book. He opened it, said a couple of words, put it down on a lectern at the front and then didn’t look it at for the next two hours. Now, I know that good actors are supposed to memorise their lines well – it’s their job – but to see Stewart reciting practically the entire book from memory, with no prompting and only one break, was very impressive.

Reciting isn’t a good description. Acting is. Stewart played all the parts, from the narrator to Scrooge to all the members of the Crachit family, to random merchants in the street and little children. At first, this seemed rather odd and very occasionally confusing, since his switching between characters involved nothing more than perhaps moving a step or two and changing his voice (no changing clothes, for example). However, after a while it became completely natural and I forgot that it was Stewart out there, and instead really believed that he was playing the characters. My only other experience of this was watching Being John Malkovich and completely believing that John Cusack inhabited John Malkovich’s body by the end of the movie – it’s that sense of immersion that makes for a brilliant actor. You can perfectly visualise the Crachit’s Christmas dinner thanks to Stewart, despite the fact that the only things on the stage are a table and the Captain of the Enterprise.

A Christmas Carol features a lot of Dickensian humour. Many might believe that Stewart, being rather dour in most of his roles, wouldn’t be able to pull this off. However, anyone who saw him in Extras recently will know that he’s perfectly capable of being funny, and several people who worked on Star Trek: TNG have said that, of a cast full of jokers, Patrick Stewart was the biggest one. His humour really shined in A Christmas Carol – not merely for the bitingly sarcastic Scrooge, but also for Mrs Crachit and the various children, whom he often danced around the stage as.

Aside from Stewart, the only other person actually working on the show while it was running was the lighting guy. Since the set consisted of a chair, desk, table and lectern which Stewart moved about himself, the lighting had to indicate the setting, mood and time of day, which it did in a very good, very sparse manner. As for sound, Stewart handled that himself. Our first treat of this was of the bells ringing the time. While Stewart was curled up asleep on the table (which at this was representing a bed), he said ‘Guh-dooiinnngg’ twelve times. It seemed a bit stupid the first time he did it, but it rapidly became a running joke that Stewart exploited later on in a wink to the audience.

The final part of Stewart’s performance that impressed me was his ability to rapidly change roles and emotions. This exhibited itself best when he was playing Bob Crachit and crying over the body of Tiny Tim, and within a split second, he switched back to the narrator. Ditto for when Scrooge starts his hacking laughter towards the end; it’s not that he doesn’t do it well in the rest of the play, but at those particular points, he does it so quickly and dramatically that I was taken aback.

The show wasn’t perfect. Stewart did occasionally fluff his lines, and I felt that the ghost of the past and the ghost of the future were a little boring and indistinct (more than they were supposed to be). Other than that, I can’t think of any other problems, so I’m duty bound to recommend the show. I’ve seen a number of plays in London since I moved down here, including the excellent new production of Sweeney Todd, and this has probably been the best of the lot. A Christmas Carol is on until December 31st in London, and while it’s possible he might do it again next year, I wouldn’t count on it, so if you want to see it, get tickets now.

2005 In Review

A few weeks ago, Stuart from feeling listless emailed to ask if I’d like to contribute to a ‘2005 in Review’ thing he was doing at his blog. The idea was that contributors would write about:

“…something they’ve always wanted to do this year. It could be as simple as being able to see a film, trying a type of food or going to a concert. It doesn’t need to be a life changing event, but it really could be. It depends how open you would like to be. But what really counts is how it made you feel.”

It sounded interesting, so I said I’d write something. I thought about it on and off since then, and eventually came to the conclusion two days ago that I just couldn’t think of anything that fit the bill. I honestly don’t feel like I’ve done something I’ve always wanted to do this year. Under normal circumstances, I like to have at least two or three ‘projects’ on the go at once, from creating a new website to planning a conference; however, this year has been unusual and I’ve been pouring most of my energy into Perplex City.

So really, the one interesting thing I could write about was Perplex City. I wasn’t sure I liked the idea of this, though, because it felt too self-promotional. Stuart sensibly told me that all blogging is self-promotional in a way, and that I should just go ahead and write about it, and that’s what I did – check out my 2005 in Review. It’s the closest I’ll get to writing ‘The Making of Perplex City’ before I write a book on about it someday.