Mar. 3rd, 2017 10:05 am
quarrel: Engraving of Thoth from the Luxor Temple. (politics)

I have a friend (I’ll call him D) who’s diligent about calling outlandish news story posts to task. Sometimes he bites off more than he can chew.

M: Pizzagate Arrests and Busts Occurring!
General Flynn's resignation possibly due to his authority and intention to destroy networks of sex traffickers…
[link omitted]

D: This is someone's personal blog. Smells fake to me. Are any of these stories being corroborated by other media?

M: I just learned a day ago about Pizzagate, and that it is really Pedophile-gate and reaches throughout even upper levels of government. I have been reading about such crimes over the years. So maybe "the swamp" of Washington D.C. includes this. I can get excited about that cleanup! Such is the protection for the trafficking through networks of individuals top to bottom: from the President, to the Justice Department criminal division, to the courts, to law enforcement and mental health institutions, to Child Services, and then to farms producing kids for sex slavery and places that hold or handle the slaves for pornography....

D: Uh...you know Pizzagate is fake news, right? One of the more ludicrous attempts to discredit Hillary.

M: i'm not swayed by the spin around Hillary. She didn't appear in my readings until the Cathy O’Brien and Mark Phillips book around the year 2000. I was doing street organizing with a War on Drugs campaign in 1984-1988 and saw the pedophile rings as part of the flow of laundered drug money, pornography, CIA and military secret experimentation to make child slaves into couriers, prostitutes, assassins, and super soldiers they could switch on and off at will. The Omaha, NE Strategic Air Command base was a reported covert location for mind conversions and coding of children back in 1984. That was the first I heard about the pedophile rings. The money flows were handled by the CIA, FBI, and individuals from the US General Staff and Federal Reserve Bank, especially after the Senator Church hearings in 1975 squeezed the CIA’s public budgets. People were co-opted and blackmailed by involvement in the pornography and prostitutes and escorts. Also, world events and treaties required lots of secrecy for back channel communication, and the mind controlled sex slaves served that covert role. Cash, cocaine and heroin travelled on cruise liners, military transports, Federal Reserve Bank security flights and other ways protected by individuals "above suspicion" with public official authority. So, my ears are open for all our usual "friends" in high places to get sucked into the current cleanup. The secrecy is so pervasive it's as tight as the UFO national security crisis, where nobody who sees one is believed, leaving the whole country vulnerable to a future false flag terror event using flying saucers and a ready-made story to disarm all our defenses. There cannot be integrity in public business with so many compromised individuals being part of these networks.

So, there is no need to pick on Hillary. Emboldening those who have seen things but not yet spoken may be enough to open the flood waters to drain the swamp across the USA... in my dream.

quarrel: (gaming)



Dire Wolf
The first physical board game designed by the video game studio that makes the digital CCGs Eternal and Elder Scrolls: Legends and is doing the digital port of the board game Lanterns. (In fact, they’re publishing Clank! through the company that published Lanterns. It’s sort of a mirror arrangement.)

It’s a deckbuilding game with a boardgame element. It’s the same general concept as Trains, although designed from the ground up rather than making shallow changes to Dominion and tacking a board game on. Players are thieves delving into a dungeon to skirt encounters, grab treasure, and get back out before the dragon kills them. They need to decide whether to build up their decks with movement, combat, gold, or VP depending on their approach to victory, which hallways they plan to take, how deep they’ll try to go, and what other players do. Some cards give you Clank! points, indicating that you made noise and attracted the dragon’s attention.

Supergiant Games
An upcoming RPG from the makers of Bastion and Transistor, with the same attention to art style and amazing sound design. Pyre makes an ambitious choice: the realtime conflict mechanic is closer to soccer than to swords or shootyguns. That’s daring considering how much of the video game-playing public prides itself on disliking sports.

Super Galaxy Squadron EX
A scrolling vertical schmup from a small indie company. Not innovative, but fun, with a difficulty and a control scheme that were tuned very well to my personal tastes (or maybe I simply picked a good ship option).


The American Dream
Samurai Punk
A tongue-in-cheek social commentary first-person shooter, chronicling the early childhood of a boy in 1950s America learning to grow up and use his guns for everything from eating to learning arithmetic.

Super Dungeon Tactics
A 1-player tactical game that’s a close implementation of the board game Super Dungeon Explore by Soda Pop Miniatures. 2D square-map-based fantasy skirmish combat, a la Krossmaster or Final Fantasy Tactics or the four D&D boardgames or… Nothing really new, but polished and colorful.

SIX (Seattle Indies Expo)


The standout title from SIX for me. It’s a simple, elegant, touchscreen-friendly puzzle game of the sort that epitomised the mobile platform when that hardware was still new. You have a 4x4 gridded field. Each square can hold one plant. You receive list after list of random plants and must plant them all, one per square. At the end of each list, you must reap one contiguous group of identical plants. Reaping a larger group scores more points and (more importantly) clears more room for additional planting. Complicating things further, each square has a color. Only groups that are all on one color can be reaped, and reaping cycles the land’s color. You play until you run out of room.

Bring Your Own Book
Do Better Games
Close runner-up for most promising game at SIX. A digital tool for playing their existing board game over the internet with the help of a mobile device. It’s not standalone — you still need a physical book. The app handles the random questions. Once you find an appropriate passage, you take a picture of it with the device’s camera and highlight the relevant phrase so player in the judge role for the round can read your entry from a single image rather than an audio feed.

Ghostlight Manor
Digital Future Lab
A puzzle game that takes the form of a turn-based shooting gallery. Ghostly forms follow a winding path down the screen in strict rank and file, while the player, in the form of a flashlight, takes actions illuminating a column of his choice. The first lighting reveals an enemy’s true form. The second one dispels it for points or some bonus effect. Skilled play comes from dispelling multiple foes in the same column.


Friday Night Bullet Arena
A competitive 2-player vertical-scrolling shmup. Both players fly on separate screens facing duplicate patterns of enemies. Performing well builds up combo points that you can spend to spawn extra obstacles on your opponent’s playfield or even temporarily morph into a boss that invades his screen and attacks him.

Stubborn Horse Studios
A 3D first-person puzzler involving time manipulation and sending multiple copies of yourself to do multiple tasks simultaneously.

Armour on the Wastes
Reluctant Koala Studios
A simple, top-down, 1-player tank combat sim. Combat against multiple AI tanks, with a basic story about trying to salvage the alien tech that’s crashed in enemy territory. Realtime, but old-school feel and grognardy.

quarrel: Engraving of Thoth from the Luxor Temple. (education)

Yesterday, I ran into a physical copy of something that I saw online…geez, I think I was still in college. It was the original writing guide for Star Trek scripts. It's something I originally recalled in the context of the whole Hugo & Puppies thing — yes, even I, someone who can barely read, saw problems with the claims they staked regarding the history, purpose, and proper judging criteria of science fiction.

What follows are the first two pages of the third revision, dated 1967. The full document can be found online.


The scene is the Bridge of the U.S.S. (United States Spaceship) Enterprise. Captain Kirk is at his command position, his lovely but highly efficient female Yeoman at his side. Suddenly and without provocation, our Starship is attacked by an alien space vessel. We try to warn the alien vessel off, but it ignores us and begins loosing bolts of photon energy-plasma at us.

The alien vessel's attack begins to weaken our deflectors. Mister Spock reports to Captain Kirk that the next enemy bolt will probably break through and destroy the Enterprise. At this moment we look up to see that final energy-plasma bolt heading for us. There may be only four or five seconds of life left. Kirk puts his arms about his lovely Yeoman, comforting and embracing her as they wait for what seems certain death. FADE OUT.


(   ) Inaccurate terminology. The Enterprise is more correctly an international vessel, the United Spaceship Enterprise.

(   ) Scientifically incorrect. Energy-plasma bolts could not be photon in nature.

(   ) Unbelievable. The Captain would not hug pretty Yeoman on the Bridge of his vessel.

(   ) Concept weak. This whole story opening reeks too much of "space pirate" or similar bad science fiction.


(   ) Inaccurate terminology. Wrong, if you checked this one. Sure, the term "United States Spaceship" was incorrect, but it could have been fixed with a pencil slash. Although we do want directors, writer, actors and others to use proper terminology, this error was certainly far from being the major STAR TREK format error.

(   ) Scientifically inaccurate. Wrong again; beware if you checked this one. Although we do want to be scientifically accurate, we've found that selection of this item usually indicates a preoccupation with science and gadgetry over people and story.

(   ) Concept weak. Wrong again. It is, in fact, much like the opening of one of our best episodes of last year. "Aliens", "enemy vessels", "sudden attack" and such things can range from "Buck Rogers" to classical literature, all depending on how it is handled (witness H. G. Wells' novels, Forrester's sea stories, and so on.)


( x ) Unbelievable. Why the correct answer? Simply because we've learned during a full season of making visual science fiction that believability of characters, their actions and reactions, is our greatest need and is the most important angle factor.

(I do want to stress that the correctness of that answer has nothing to do with the social inappropriateness of treating women in an unprofessional manner and everything to do with how unbelievable it would be for a decorated, veteran officer in active command of a military vessel to stop and hug someone in the middle of a battle. Roddenberry was certainly one of the highest-profile SJWs in SF history, and Star Trek was his mouthpiece, but that's not what's going on here (except possibly surreptitiously).)

quarrel: Engraving of Thoth from the Luxor Temple. (politics)

"I know Liberals all too well. They talk high about free speech but if you say something they don't want people to hear they'll attack your right to speak and even resort to violence if you don't let them silence you."

Okay. Let's say I'm a Liberal (since I probably am, being married to another guy and all) and you say something I don't like.

I'm kind of stuck.

If I punch you to shut you up, well, obviously I'd be attacking you.

But not punching you is also an attack! It's an attack on your expertise. You claimed to know something about me, and by acting contrary to that claim, I'm challenging your authority on the subject. That's not physically violent, sure, but it's certainly confrontational!

In fact, it's entirely possible that I want to punch you, and that I was going to punch you, but because you exposed that fact about me, I deliberately acted in contrary fashion just to make you look wrong. In a dishonest act of rhetorical petulance, I manipulated the data to hide your correctness and undermine your reputation. And that's not a very constructive way for me to act, now, is it?

quarrel: (Default)

Or, why I’ve learned, once again, not to bother trying to have an opinion on anything art-related. It’ll only make me feel bad.


Read more... )
quarrel: (gaming)

One of the prizes you accumulate from playing Guild Wars 2 is items for quickly advancing new characters. I’d built up quite a pile, so I made an Engineer of the game’s giant cat race and made her look like the late bookshop cat from Powell’s Books’s old technical annex. I was expecting something that played a little like engineers do in Team Fortress or Firefall — a class that trades off its own personal attack power for the ability to build stationary gun turrets and team-healing devices.

Technically, Engineers can be played that way in GW2, but unlike in those other games, that playstyle barely scratches the surface. While I won’t say I’m hopelessly confused, I will admit that the complexity caught me by surprise. The Engineer’s true strength comes from its ability to pick and choose from more than twice as many powers as other classes have, which makes it excel at things like equipping multiple powers that all apply the same debilitating condition or mixing and matching obscure powers so their idiosyncratic, normally inconsequential side effects interact in potent ways.

Take this one example: the lowly healing turret. When you build a healing turret, it initially emits a single strong healing wave to nearby allies, then provides a persistent low-grade regeneration field. Every twenty seconds you can manually trigger another healing wave. A neophyte would build the turret at the start of the fight, to preemptively establish the regen, then trigger healing waves as needed as the fight progressed.

That’s about the worst possible way to use it.

A skilled Engineer ignores the weak regeneration effect. She’ll wait until the team is hurt, build it and overcharge it immediately for a back-to-back double heal, then manually disassemble it so she can do it all again once it recharges. If the team is really hurt, she’ll build it, overcharge it, then blow it up for a triple heal. (How is it a triple heal? Well, 1. Overcharging a healing turret also creates a water field around it. 2. Ordering it to self-destruct produces a burst effect. 3. Any time there’s a burst within a water field, all nearby allies get healed as a free bonus. This is a specific example of the game’s combo system, which makes certain pairs of powers stronger when used in tandem.)

A truly expert Engineer will do things like create a fire field before the fight (or use a teammate’s), then sacrifice a surplus healing turret to trigger a burst of bonus attack strength over the party. (Only the oldest field matters, so the detonation combos with the fire field and not the turret’s own water field.) Or customize themselves with a trait that puts a temporary projectile-reflecting field around every new turret they build, and build a well-timed turret purely to bounce a massive volley of arrows back at a raid boss’s face. Or….

So, yeah. I have a bit of a learning curve ahead of me.

quarrel: Engraving of Thoth from the Luxor Temple. (thoth)

It alienates you from all sides.
There is a cost to listening to both sides of an issue: it makes each side think you’re a flaming idiot for not seeing that the other is wrong on its face. Whichever one you ultimately conclude has the stronger point will be less likely to accept you.

On top of that, it identifies you a risk factor. When you’re emotionally dedicated to a cause, you’re in. You’re one of them. You can be trusted. The same can’t be said when everyone knows you are perpetually one random factoid or rogue discovery from flipping sides.

No, really. It makes you look gross.
Double-checking claims about how many people of color are killed by white cops or how much women get paid relative to men jeopardizes your reputation as a compassionate human being.

If you uncover that a politician voted against a multi-billion-dollar hurricane relief bill because a) he thought billions were going toward things that weren’t relief and/or to agencies that have misspent or hoarded previous funds, and b) senators aren’t allowed to vote for/against individual elements of a bill, only the whole thing, you’re hosed. It doesn’t matter if you disagree with that politician and feel it’s totally appropriate for a relief bill to include funds for preparing against the next disaster. It doesn’t matter if you point out that he’s stuck in the no-win situation of either acting like an ass or voting in favor of what he and his constituents feel is corruption. The nuance is wasted. You’re already a shill for him, or a sycophant, or an apologist. Or you’re an idiot for believing those were his real reasons for voting no.

Approaching divisive issues rationally is not the optimal approach to affecting change.
It’s more sensible to strike a balance between learning about an issue and being an effective leader. As I pointed out in the opening paragraphs, you sabotage people’s trust in you if you thoroughly investigate the problem from every angle before committing to a course of action. The price you pay for making sure you know exactly what to do is that you may then find you’ve rendered yourself unable to garner enough support to do it.

It’s (possibly) selfish.
If your end goal is not to affect change but rather to maximize your self-edification, open-mindedness and critical thinking are wonderful tools…at helping you be selfish. An end goal of just making sure you know as many things as possible, and that all of them are true, doesn’t help anyone but you.

It doesn’t tell you who’s right. It only tells you who it’s most logical to believe.
Critical thinking isn’t a perfect approach to settling the truth of a matter. Research is. The only truly reliable way to tell who holds the more accurate stance on a controversial issue is to already know the answer yourself and check their conclusions against it. Of course, this is pretty much always going to be somewhere between impractical and impossible, so we fall back on critical thinking as a second-best-but-actually-workable approach. Always remember that it’s a fallback plan.

Critical thinking isn’t necessarily open-minded.
Meet Gene. Gene has a high school diploma but never went to college. Gene has worked for five years as a flower arranger at a shop in a small city in Vermont. Gene has some great ideas on how the U.S. should handle Middle East relations. Would you like to hear them?

Of course not! As far as you can tell, Gene has no expertise on the subject. There is no rational reason to expect to hear something insightful. The principles of open-mindedness say, “Yes, listen,” but rational thinking says to consider your source and advises you not to bother.

Eventually, you still have to pick a side.
Although it does require you to be forever receptive to the possibility that you'll need to revise your beliefs, being open-minded doesn’t absolve you from forming opinions or from becoming convinced that one viewpoint has distinctly more merit than the rest. Neither open-mindedness nor critical thinking encourage you to remain undecided forever, irrespective of what new truths subsequently come to light. In fact, if you’re going to do that, critical thinking actually becomes useless.

“Decide for yourself” is a rhetorical trick.
It’s counterintuitive, but if someone presents you with both sides of an argument (hers and an opposing one), then plays to your sense of critical thinking and asks you to decide for yourself which one to believe, you’re more likely to be getting shammed than if she simply argued her own position straight up. Like a bush league southpaw who can only throw strikes if he stays down in the minors, a common rhetorical trick among people who have weak arguments (and know it) is to throw their pitches at folks who aren’t experts in the field. They pretend like they’re honestly exposing themselves to critical analysis, but it’s a smokescreen. It makes their arguments weaker, not stronger, and if they’re trying to convince you via that method, it’s because something about you gave them the impression you’ve got a lousy batting average.

quarrel: (gaming)

Playing X-Wing sort of got me back into miniatures painting (mostly touch-up work), which got me looking up scratch-building and model making sites, which led me to a blog titled Solipsist Gaming run by someone who creates a lot of simple models and homebrew rules as a hobby. I was particularly intrigued by how he made starships by manually hollowing out shapes in clay and pouring in resin or plaster of Paris. (Well, that and gluing pasta together, but one thing at a time.)

I already had spare paint, and I did some resin casting back in my Warhammer 40,000 days. I have a lot of old Sculpey, but it's a little too stiff to take deep impressions even when it's fresh. Plasticine works well, though, and it's three bucks for a pound. The casting compound I used is even less.

Step 1 was sculpting a vanilla hull shape out of spare Sculpey and baking it. I pressed that into the softer clay to give me a starting impression, then ad-libbed the surface details with various tool tips and paintbrush handle ends. Next, pour in the plaster and wait. Pop out the dried shape, sand off the excess, then paint on a quick base coat followed by a thin black wash to darken the crevices and some soft edge highlighting. Then I drilled a small hole in the bottom and stuck it on a spare X-Wing ship stand. The whole process was pretty informal and experimental (i.e. sloppy) just to feel the process out.

(here's the rest of the album).

quarrel: (Default)

There’s a game designer I know of who is a vocal proponent of competition as a means to determine true, objective merit. He’s a huge fan of games like chess or poker that let everyone compete on an equal footing, where how well you perform depends solely on how hard you work at it and how much skill you develop, and he has little respect for games like basketball where some players possess material advantages that give them an undeniable yet inescapable edge over opponents who would otherwise be equally skilled.

One day, this designer did something I didn’t expect. He blogged enthusiastically about a psychological study that showed practice is more beneficial to people who have more natural talent to begin with. To be precise, the study showed that people who perform consistently poorly when trying a given activity for the first time don’t get as good at it in the long run as people who consistently performed well at it at the outset. It confirmed another of his philosophies, which is that people are better off playing to their strengths.

I pointed out this contradiction to him. How could he be such a fan of the idea that you deserve success if and only if you work hard at it, yet be happy that science confirms that someone with more inherent skill than you will always stay better — in fact, pull even further ahead — if you both practice? It kind of put the kibosh on his whole “ultimate success through self-improvement” philosophy.

His response was handwavy but fairly sound. He pointed out I was assuming everyone gains skill at a linear rate and takes the same amount of time to reach their personal ultimate mastery level. Thinking about it more, I came up with several additional complications on my own. Not only might the graph of a person’s skill over time easily be a curve instead of a line (in fact, it probably is), it might even dip in places rather than always rise. The worse early performer might learn swiftly at the beginning and slower later, while the better one does vice-versa, which would flip the tables at least temporarily. There’s no guarantee that the better initial performer will practice as much as the other competitor, or even at all. It’s also possible that the person with the stronger initial performance didn’t achieve it due to having more innate ability but rather from having more past experience in similar activities, which means he’s actually already climbed part-way up his learning curve rather than having a higher origin for it, and so may not truly have the higher ultimate plateau.

All that said, none of this may matter. This isn’t the whole picture. I double-checked the study that started this whole discussion and discovered this designer never mentioned its most important finding. While the study did find that people who do consistently poorly at a new task usually only ever become so-so at it, and that people who do consistently well at a new task usually become quite good at it, it also discovered that people who display a wide range of early results — amazing “beginner’s luck” outcomes and abysmal failures — tend to do best of all in the long run.

quarrel: Engraving of Thoth from the Luxor Temple. (thoth)

When I was a boy, my parents were good friends with our neighbors across the street. They had a son who moved away to college when I was still in junior high. As a result of repurposing his old bedroom, they donated a small shelf of his old books to me. I don’t remember anything about them except that several were Hardy Boys mysteries, which I was already too old for, and one was Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. That’s how I came into possession of a paperback printed the year before I was born, containing a story written almost a century and a half before that.

With my curiosity of the title piqued by frequent showings of the Hollywood version and its many sequels on one of our cable schlock movie channels, I picked this book as my Christmas travel filler. Somehow, despite all odds, I finished it shortly after returning home. (Seriously, I read more than half of it on the return flight in one sitting. I still don’t know how that happened. I don’t read quickly — hell, I don’t even read at an average rate — and no one burns through early 19th century grammar.)

The plot frequently relies on coincidence, inexplicable decisions, or sheer convenience to progress. For instance, when Frankenstein first animates his creature, he freaks out over how hideous it is and dashes from the building. He goes back that evening, searches for a bit but can’t find it, so he instantly and totally forgets about it for months. Then one of his relatives back home is murdered, and another on the far side of town is framed for it. (I’ll give you three guesses who’s to blame.) Also, the same setbacks tend to occur repeatedly. The following events all happen multiple times: the doctor spends weeks in a fugue state; the doctor tries to tackle the creature but it “eludes” him; a new relative is introduced; an innocent person is arrested for murder.

There is much philosophical fencing between the doctor and his creation. It touches on many subtleties of good and evil, right and wrong, forgiveness, fairness, and truth. It gets complex, though to its detriment it tends toward the melodramatic.

Frankenstein: “You’ve made my life miserable.”
Creature: “You’ve made my life miserable.”
F: “My life is more miserable!”
C: “It is now because I made it that way. If your life were already more miserable than mine, I wouldn’t have done that. But it was better, so I had to make it worse because you deserved it.”
F: “But that makes you evil.”
C: “Yes, I know. And I hate being evil— Gah! You’ve made my life worse than yours again. Now I need to take more revenge. This is why I hate you!”

Still, this interplay is the heart of the story, and it stands the test of time. The creature is a tragic figure who responds as appropriately to his extraordinary situation as we could reasonably expect anyone to.

And hey, I’ll even get to say I recently read a science fiction novel when Foolscap rolls around in a few weeks.

quarrel: (gaming)

Two semi-regulars brought a game they’d recently acquired: Compounds. In the main playfield are sixteen chemical compound cards: ammonia, ozone, etc. Each turn, players draw some random elements, maybe do some trading, then place elements on cards in an effort to complete compounds and score cards for victory points. Each card scored also increases some fundamental game property for you, such as how many elements you draw per turn, and can have additional optional effects as well, such as awarding you a token worth an extra mid-turn draw.

It seemed like there were one or two more moving parts than the game needed. In particular, there are frequent “lab fire” events that set fire to all flammable compounds on the board. One or two fires sends a flammable card to the discard pile and replaces it from the deck. So every two or three turns, you could count on about a third of the board getting replaced. It felt like something that just happened around us that we couldn’t stop or plan for and that added no strategy to the game beyond “don’t play on flammable compounds”. They didn’t seem to be worth enough points compared to non-flammable ones to justify the risk. (Elements on a partially-completed compound aren’t discarded when it burns. They’re shifted to any available adjacent compounds, as chosen by the active player. I feel like there must be some way to leverage that, but it looks both unlikely and complicated to A) get a fire while you’re active, and B) establish a board position where you gain more by rearranging elements that you could have gotten by putting them in different spots in the first place.)

Final scores were close. With four players, there was only a five or six point spread between 1st and 4th. I came in second, one or two points behind the lead. If I had gone for an upgrade on how many elements I could place a turn, I would have won. That particular aspect — which basic upgrades to acquire, and when — is one of the good mechanics of the game.

Game 2 was Forbidden Desert. The theme and mechanics are similar to Forbidden Island. It’s a co-op game with each player moving a pawn on a grid of tiles, with the overall goal of finding four hidden items and assembling them, plus themselves, on a specific exit tile. The challenge is that the map, and our water supply, randomly and steadily deteriorate. Ultimately, we lost. I struck out early in an odd direction searching for artefacts. This fragmented the party a little and kicked off a mini-scramble to reassemble when random sand dunes built up between us, but Orbus feels we were doomed regardless from playing too conservatively and over-relying on a single character’s special power to keep us alive.

quarrel: (gaming)

There’s a local game store Shaterri introduced me to when we randomly found ourselves in its area. He’d heard about it billing itself as a “gaming pub”. It’s bright, clean, has more floor space for playing than it does for product, and has a dozen flavors of ice cream and microbrews on tap. Checking their weekly schedule, I noticed they ran Fantasy Flight’s X-Wing Miniatures Game every Thursday. I’d been hankering to get involved with some kind of hexmap or tabletop spaceship combat game. Given that the store was close, unemployment gave me extra free time, and that sort of game was not going to break out any time soon in any of my usual gaming circles, I stopped by on league night.

Long story short, I’m a regular now. I’ve been playing mostly Imperial, for no particular reason beyond it’s cheaper to buy lots of ships for one side than for both and this happens to be the side I bought more of first. I think I subconsciously prefer the look of TIEs over the various Rebel fighters.

(Before we continue, let’s be honest. From an aerospace engineering point of view, the TIE Fighter is probably the single most brain-twistingly bad design for a dogfighting spacecraft in the history of film. It wouldn’t shock me if it’s in the Top Five Stupidest Ships in SF. You’d need intentional effort to construct something that stands up to torque and high-G acceleration less well than this:

And solar panels? Solar panels? WHY? You can’t maintain facing toward a star when someone is shooting at you. You usually aren’t close enough to a star to collect meaningful energy anyway. They’re just dumb. But the craft’s profile is incredibly iconic, and Lucas was making a movie, not applying to Northrop Grumman. I have to hand this one to him.)

Okay. Enough asides about mechanical engineering. How is the game?


Simplicity. The rules are easy to pick up. The basic framework is almost bare:

  1. All players secretly assign a movement order to all their ships.
  2. Going from low to high Pilot Skill, each ship executes the movement it was assigned, then performs one of its available special actions (typically an offensive or defensive bonus or a short additional maneuver).
  3. Going from high to low Pilot Skill, each ship makes one attack.

Game balance. Point costs are good overall. No one side, ship, or strategy dominates. (Caveat: that may have just changed. That said, it’s still a mark of praise that two years and five expansions elapsed before that happened.) In fact, generic pilots flying basic ships comprise ⅓ or more of many competitive fleet lists.

Tactical importance. Unlike a few other miniatures games (Warmachine comes to mind here), the combination of powers you’ve built into your army is less important than what your units do during the game. That means fewer matches are foregone conclusions.

Model quality. They’re pre-painted, and well, and the ships are both nicely detailed and accurately scaled with the direct help of ILM experts.

Popularity. It’s still big in the greater Seattle area. Finding players and tournaments isn’t hard.


Price. The core set retails for $40 and is necessary for basic components. It contains three ships — enough to play a simple matchup that’s about half the size of the smallest standard game. Additional fighters cost $15 apiece or $30 for larger craft like the Millenium Falcon. (There are even larger ones in the $60–$80 range, but they require special rules and aren’t commonly played.) A 100 point game, which is the most common, requires at least two more ships, bringing the minimum typical financial outlay to $70. (Drop all prices by ⅓ if you buy exclusively online — but then expect to have nowhere to play when all the Friendly Local Game Stores go out of business.) And even though you don’t need paints like with Warhammer and its ilk, there will still be the overhead cost of storage cases ($5–$20, maybe more).

Component distribution. Every ship comes with optional upgrade cards that give it better stats, bonuses, or abilities. These cards are not limited to that ship, though. They can be used by any ship that accepts the same categories of improvements. Although cards aren’t packed randomly as they are in CCGs, specific upgrade cards are scattered across the entire product line, so you may find yourself needing to buy two different ships to put a specific combo together. When there are upgrades usable by any ship that appear exclusively in one of the $30 boxes, and even unique cards in with the super-expensive ships, being able to field any legal fleet is prohibitively expensive.

Rules spread. As short as the rules are, they are spread across multiple sources. There are the basic rules, the tournament rules, and the official FAQ, all of which intersect with, clarify, and sometimes override one another. The official rules for some mechanics, like dropping bombs and cloaking, appear only on inserts packaged with ships that use them.

Slippery pieces. Ships are way too easy to bump out of position on a smooth tabletop.

quarrel: (gaming)

This was a slow week. We only had three players.

Game One was Havok & Hijinx, a lightweight game that exists mainly as an excuse to put cute baby dragons on cards. Each turn, each player gets either a random treasure or event, then plays an action card from hand (say, to steal a treasure or make everyone select and pass one card to the left). Each player also controls a dragon. Action cards are color-coded and have stronger or alternate effects when played by the player with the matching dragon, and every dragon has a special power that puts it to sleep (plus a way to wake back up). The first player to reach 15 treasure points wins. It’s a cute filler game that requires almost no brain power. Also, baby dragons. Rawr.

Game Two was Splendor, a simple but deep game of economic buildup. In the central market are three tiers of cards representing gem mines, each with a purchase cost (say, 2 rubies and 2 sapphires), a single gem output, and possibly a victory point amount. On your turn, you can gain three different gems from the bank, gain two identical gems, or buy one mine using gems on hand and/or the production of mines you already own. You can also reserve a mine card, taking it face-down into your hand (from which you and only you can buy it) and gaining a wildcard gold token as well. If you have enough production, you can then also buy one noble for extra VPs. Again, 15 VP triggers endgame, though in this case you always finish the round so everyone has an equal number of turns. Final scores were 15-11-8, with Orbus winning and not feeling guilty about letting us know that he is very, very good at this style of game and we pretty much had no chance.

This game definitely warrants another playthrough. It has very few moving parts, yet it feels quite deep. (I’m sure I have a lot more to understand about how potent reserving a card is, for example.) It’s also eminently teachable to someone with no gaming experience. Definite thumbs up to this one.

Game Three was a run of Sentinels of the Multiverse with its latest expansion, Vengeance. This set changes the basic game structure from a single powerful villain who only acts once per round to separate villains alternating their turns with the players’. It wasn’t a tough fight. The only troublesome villain was the last one, due to her combination of “all players put one of their Ongoing or Equipment cards back on top of their decks” followed by “discard the top card from all decks” every turn, plus an automatic redirection of all damage the first time she’s attacked every turn.

IMO, this expansion introduces more bookkeeping to the game without making it noticeably better. There are now more elements that specifically happen “at the beginning of”, “during”, and “at the end of” certain phases, leading to more mistakes processing villain turns. It’s also now more complicated to correctly parse restrictions like “all non-Hero targets” due to the greater number of cards in play that fall under them.

Dark Souls

Jun. 13th, 2014 08:51 pm
quarrel: (prinny)

I’ve been playing a lot of Dark Souls in my copious spare time. So far, I’m having a blast with it. It’s an action combat RPG released in 2011 by From Software, and was on Steam sale a couple weekends ago, probably to stoke interest in the sequel that had been released one month prior.

Dark Souls has a deserved reputation for being brutally hard and unforgiving. I see where that comes from, but at the same time I find the challenge fair and the setbacks tolerable. Getting killed is generally not that big a deal. You don’t lose skill points or levels. Your gear doesn’t suffer extra wear. You don’t lose anything but your money, which gets dropped on the ground and can be recovered if you return to that spot before dying again. That itself can be a bit of a chore, but since enemies are always in the same place, if anything surprises you more than once, it’s your own fault.

The game gets most of its reputation for difficulty from its tough boss fights. Many are steeply challenging, with gigantic enemies that seem impossible to even reach before they assault the entire playfield with a giant instant-kill attack. But the only ones that have caused me insurmountable trouble so far have been optional. All the major enemies that I absolutely had to defeat to progress through the game were relatively easy to take down. Tough, but not frustrating.

The game’s real difficulties are its complexity and the need to play dynamically. There is no one weapon, tactic, or character class that’s great all the time. In fact, different strategies have sharply different odds of succeeding, and in any given situation, many approaches are downright poor. You constantly need to learn, experiment, and adapt — the exact thing casual players dislike most.

Weapons in particular are vast, varied, and rife with tradeoffs between power, speed, and numerous unquantifiable variations in swing animation and other idiosyncrasies. Spears can be thrust while keeping your shield up, but they can’t be swung to hit multiple surrounding enemies. Claymores sweep through huge crowds of foes but get hung up in tight corridors. A heavy scimitar swing produces a wuxia-style somersault that strikes twice — good if you’re using an enchantment that adds damage to each hit, bad if you’re on a narrow bridge where wild motion sends you plummeting. And so on and so on.

The game is online-only, which is quite annoying. (Technically, you can play without a connection, but there’s no way to save.) It uses its always-connected nature in a smattering of neat but sometimes odd or inexplicable ways. On the positive side, you occasionally see other players as ghosts in your game, doing whatever they’re doing in theirs, or find patches of blood where other players died. Players can write messages on the floor for others to read — these are generally trustworthy and are invaluable at finding secret areas and avoiding ambushes.

Beyond that, the online features get strange. Occasionally you’ll see a white ring hovering in the air. I thought this was a bug at first. What’s actually going on is that another player recently cast a miracle there, so some of your miracles will get a small strength boost if cast at that spot.

PvP and co-op are intermingled. You can temporarily summon random volunteers to fight alongside you. That’s fun and helpful! However, doing so first requires that you use an uncommon, expensive item to take full human form. (Your character is normally in the early stages of undeath.) You also have to turn human to do some other useful things, like upgrade a resting site so it provides more healing potions. But there’s a downside to being human: hostile players can invade your game and attack you at will. They can’t take your things when you die, and the game ensures that they can’t be significantly higher in level, but there’s nothing you can do to stop them entering short of committing suicide to lose your human form, and if they’re hardcore PvPers (which they will be), you won’t stand a chance at beating them. (There are other, more consensual ways of initiating PvP, but their rules are convoluted.)

In summary: fun, deep game if you like a serious challenge that rewards exploration and flexibility and can't be overcome with brute force.

quarrel: (Default)

Thinking ethical stances through to their logical generalizations leads to some weird places.

Last Thanksgiving, in a fit of nostalgia, the party’s hosts put up a YouTube video of some horrible educational claymation film from their childhood in the 70s. One viewer repeatedly chided the film for fat shaming in portraying a girl with an insatiable candy appetite as a giant, disgusting monster.

That got me thinking: how would a teacher educate children about the benefits of a healthy diet without painting people who don’t follow one in a negative light? Is it even possible to teach kids that “doing X (eating healthy, exercising, brushing your teeth, etc.) will improve your quality of life” without inherently, simultaneously teaching them that people who don’t do X are inferior in some fashion? It seems challenging at best. Children are awfully tribal. Plus, there’s the challenge of believing “doing this will make me better than if I don’t” while not believing “doing this will make me better than other people who don’t”.

Part of the problem is that a lesson like “exercise is good for you” is a value judgement. It is, strictly speaking, subjective, and to teach in that manner is a mild form of indoctrination, not education. To be objective, you must instead explain exercise’s benefits in neutral terms — starting with not calling them “benefits”. You must teach that exercise will improve strength and endurance, lead to more restful sleep, aid concentration, and increase resistance to disease, then allow the students to decide for themselves whether they want to attain those things.

Frankly, if you keep with this line of reasoning, it would be improper to call smoking “bad” or “harmful”. To be equitable, you must explain the symptoms of emphysema and lung cancer in unbiased, objective fashion (and don’t call them “maladies”, “afflictions”, or “diseases” — they are “conditions”), then leave the fourteen-year-olds to do their own risk/benefit analysis regarding whether to light up. Otherwise, you’re merely stamping them into the mold of your personal worldview.

Okay. That last paragraph was just a tad hyperbolic, but I think the core line of reasoning stands. I never expected I could start with “don’t belittle people whose bodies don’t fit the idealized norm” and arrive at “to call cancer ‘bad’ is to blindly adhere to a personal worldview”. And now that perplexes me, because while I agree with the sentiment in the first half, I also see the wisdom in not leaving important issues entirely for schoolkids to decide on their own when it’s been psychologically shown that they’re still more than a decade from being able to make sound long-term decisions.

quarrel: (gaming)

Given that A) Shaterri contributed to the Kickstarter fund for Paperback and B) another game designer friend of mine said he found it fun, I brought it to Game Night and played it with Orbus and Mufi. It’s essentially a word game version of Dominion. Rather than being able to play all your money cards plus one special action card, all cards have one or two letters, a money value, and a play effect, and you may play as many cards as you wish so long as they spell a single legal word. Some cards are wild, able to be used as any letter and contributing victory points to your final score but not worth any money when buying new cards.

It was disappointing. The core idea is sound, but the game was slow and frustrating. The biggest issue was that turns simply took too long. First, you need to figure out what word to spell, taking into account not only how much money it will be worth but also which letter cards you expressly want to spell it with. Not only does each have a distinct effect, but some vary based on where they appear in the word or what you buy that turn. Second, you need to decide what to buy from a set of 13 normal and 4 wild letter piles, and every single card in the normal piles has its own unique combination of letter, price, value, and effect to be considered. Also, it’s legal to buy multiple cheap cards rather than one expensive one, so you have to make that decision too (unlike Dominion), and since each purchase exposes a new, different card (also unlike Dominion), you need to stop and reconsider the rest of your purchases if you go the former route.

A less pressing but still noticeable issue was that the game lacked a feeling of progress. In Dominion, you can pursue a deliberate deck-tuning plan by purchasing multiples of specific action cards from known piles, and feel your plan come together as the game progresses and your combos start kicking in. Paperback lacked that. Part of it is that its random effect distribution defeats any long-term planning and restricts you to the occasional lucky opportunity. Part of it is that your average value per hand does not rise as fast as your deck’s average card value does, since higher values come on cards with trickier letters that are nigh-impossible to consistently use together. In other words, as the average value of your cards goes up, the average percentage of them that you can play goes down. (I realize this is a word game, so it makes sense for high-value letters to require dictionary skills, but that requirement has a downside here.) Part of it is that depleting piles of normal cards doesn't end the game, so players can run short on things to do without getting closer to finishing.

One factor I did like were the unbuyable reward letters that go to the first player to make a 7-, 8-, 9-, and 10-letter word — though it's odd that all players get to use them until they're claimed, and they're all worth the same VPs.

There’s a good game in Paperback not far below the surface, but it was printed before it got there.

Game #2 was a five-way of Ticket to Ride by unanimous decree. Two players were big fans and hadn’t played it in a while, and two others were brand new but strongly encouraged to give it a try for the experience since they are Game Night regulars now and it really is a modern classic.

I was ahead on rail-building points from my very first rail all the way to the end of the game, and, as I expected, came in third. (The two fans of the game are expert players and expert board gamers in general.) I also drew miserably for ticket destinations. Twice I drew extra tickets only to get two decent pairs I couldn’t complete and one worth a measly 4 points, linked purely by 2-car routes. Final scores were 129, 128, 105, 96-ish, and somewhere in the 50s.

quarrel: (gaming)

Don’t Starve went on sale on Steam, so I bought it. It’s a roguelike survival game with a mechanical emphasis on crafting tools and tech trees and a cartoony goth art style. It’s permadeath, of course, and not easy.

I finally got around to playing Quantum, which I bought back in early February but have had a huge delay in playing, partially because the dice were misshapen and I had to wait for replacements. Its designer is one Eric Zimmerman, who is a prominent academic in the game industry. (How prominent? He’s made multiple museum installations.)

Quantum is a slightly abstract game of space opera-y planet-claiming, with a small, elegant set of tightly interconnected rules. Each player controls some ships, which are represented by a 6-sided dice. Higher-numbered ships are faster but weaker in combat. Players maneuver their ships around a square-gridded galactic map. If you destroy enough enemy ships or position a specific dice total into orbit around a planet, you can build a Quantum Cube. Build all your Cubes first and you win. You have a strict limit of three actions per turn — basic effects like “move a ship (and maybe attack)” and “return a destroyed ship to play” — plus one special power per die, whose exact effect is unique for each of the six ship types. There’s a lot of interaction, dynamism, and power combinations. Single decisions cause large divergences in how a game might unfold.

We had the full contingent of four players on the standard starter map.I was set back early due to a neighbor starting off by invading my territory with strong combat ships and picking me off for renown points. For a while, I had only one ship on the map and was pretty sure I’d been knocked out of contention. That player and Wing progressed steadily through their first three Cubes while I limped back into the game and Orbus, who was also slow off the starting block, gradually gathered upgrade cards to increase his bonuses for winning battles and remove his penalties for losing them. Eventually, all three became mired in back-and-forth fighting in one corner of the map, letting me build Cubes unmolested in the opposite quadrant. In the end, neither of the two players who got early leads placed any more Cubes, Orbus built four, and I won with the aid of two “take an extra partial turn” cards in the late game and an upgrade that let me move and attack with the same ship more than once per turn.

Update: I also played a quick 2-player game with Shaterri, which I lost 5-4. I adopted an early strategy of going around the edge of the map building one Cube almost every turn. He advanced to the central planet to claim it eventually. By that point, he was in an even better position than I was to build one or even two Cubes a turn. I looked for ways to destroy his ships and wreck his plans, but with him occupying the center of the board, plus all my ships being either too weak to win a fight or too slow to reach him, I couldn’t manage it and he beat me in the building race.

quarrel: (gaming)

Blizzard released Hearthstone on iOS last week. It’s pretty much pounded the last nail into SolForge’s coffin for me.

It’s an elegant game with several good points going for it. The overall mechanics are straightforward, and they’re introduced one by one in a detailed tutorial that has a ton of personality. There’s a great deal of tactical complexity in the totally free order of actions in a turn and the reliable presence of a Hero power. Low-cost cards remain relevant all game. I find it easy to notice play mistakes and learn from them (unlike in, say, SolForge, to bring up another digital CCG). Also unlike SolForge, the huge player base makes it easy to find opponents of your own skill level. (I have about a 60% win percentage in Hearthstone with almost no added cards, compared to under 10% in SolForge after over three dozen boosters.) Finally, it’s polished to a ridiculous degree, like everything Blizzard makes.

How does it work? In a nutshell, take Magic and:

  1. Remove mana colors and land cards. Instead, on round N you automatically have N mana to spend.
  2. Remove blocking. Let the active player directly attack either the opponent or his creatures.
  3. Remove the Attack Phase. Each creature attacks individually and at any time during the turn.
  4. Remove tapping. With no blocking and no activated abilities, it isn’t needed.
  5. Make creature damage persistent.

It features only synchronous play but it’s still designed for strict turns. You never do anything when your opponent is up — you don’t decide how to block, you never pick targets for her effects, and there are no reactions.

To fit it into the Warcraft universe, every deck must specify a Hero with a class-specific special ability that costs 2 mana and can be used once per turn. Decks must be exactly 30 cards and be comprised only of cards that match the Hero’s class or are classless.

You can field constructed decks against live players or an AI for free. You can also pay in-game currency or real money to enter a pseudo-draft tournament with varying rewards based on your win count. You don’t get to keep your draft deck, but you are guaranteed to get at least one booster as a prize no matter how poorly you fare.

One thing the game isn’t is “generous with free cards”. (Not that it necessarily should be, mind you — they have to make a profit somehow.) SolForge has a standard reward package of one random card or booster plus almost half a booster’s worth of in-game currency, and you can easily get three of these packages per day. In comparison, Hearthstone only gives out entire packs (or the currency equivalent) for a few one-time achievements. Accumulating one booster’s cost in Gold from repeatable actions requires completing two to three daily goals (each of which means playing multiple games, sometimes with specific decks) or winning thirty PvP matches. Particularly egregious is the fact that each Hero has five fundamental class-specific cards that can only be attained by repeatedly playing that Hero to raise its level. That’s roughly 15 games per Hero, multiplied by 9 Heroes… And you can’t get around this last bit with real money.

Other games I’ve dipped into lately:

  • Skulls of the Shogun: a game of troop-scale tactical combat with a highly stylized, cartoony Japanese feel.
  • Viscera Cleanup Detail. Imagine a raging firefight between Space Marines and Mutant Bio-Xenomorphs through a futuristic science facility. Imagine the poor schmuck who has to clean up the mess afterward. Guess what? It’s afterward. Here’s your mop. Don’t forget the ceiling.

quarrel: (gaming)

Last week, our usual game hosts were at a convention, so instead I dropped by a comic and games store run by friends-of-friends that was running a Saturday board game night. They already have a gaming night Thursday evenings, but a couple of regular customers wanted to experiment with an additional event on Saturday due to having work-related brain fatigue on weekday nights, and a little because the Thursday slot is technically half RPGs.

We got through two four-player games of Sentinels of the Multiverse, with one loss and one win. The base set of the game is apparently both sparse and unevenly distributed when it comes to supervillains: it only comes with two 1-rated villains (on a 1-4 scale) and two 3-rated ones. The 3-rated one who bested us was Citizen Dawn, whose specialty is summoning mutually reinforcing minions. Let them accumulate and they start using brutal combination attacks on you. The catch is that if you ever defeat five of them, Dawn becomes invulnerable and stays that way until she’s built her henchman numbers back up to three. That’s a problem when beating her is the only way to win.

We got in a few rounds of Ricochet Robots after that, then had to clean up. It was just as mind-bendy as I remember it.

quarrel: (gaming)

Game one was Seasons, with four players using the basic component set. It's a drafting-based game, though not so purely drafting as 7 Wonders. Players compete to achieve the highest combined value of crystals scored and cards played over the course of three four-season years. They also constantly collect and use elements, which are needed to pay for most cards and which can also be sold for crystals. Seasons affect which elements are available and what their trade-in values are.

The drafting comes in two layers. Layer one is determining your first nine cards at the start of the game. Layer two — which isn't really a full draft — happens every turn, when dice are rolled and each player only gets one. Their various faces provide some combination of elements, crystals, permission to sell elements, increases to your cards-in-play limit, extra card draws, and how fast the game clock advances.

It was rough to pick up on the mechanics cold turkey. When you don't know a game, it is a challenge to have your very first task be "select which cards you will get this game, and decide which you'll receive early, mid-game, and late". (And this was with the simpler, basic cards. There are more complex ones.) Crystal count is public knowledge and it looks like a running score, but it isn't. Too many bonus points come from played cards and those aren't reflected on the crystal track, so there's no way to see who's ahead short of doing a ton of arithmetic in your head. Cards vary greatly in strength but don't seem to vary much in cost. A card like "gain 9 crystals" or "draw X cards, where X is the number of players, and give one to everyone" is simply unimpressive next to "all your cards cost 1 less element to play for the rest of the game". Finally, more than one player had a quibble with element colors. Fire is yellow (for the sun, I suppose?), with red used for air.

On the positive side, I never felt like I didn't understand a rule or didn't have a goal in mind. Icons are clear, the components are solid, and the dice drafting is satisfyingly tense. The game didn't feel overly long, and turns were quick except when players strung out rediculous 4-card combos — which, given that you normally only draw 3 per year, I can understand.

Final scores were 124, 123, 122, and 117, with me in last. I can identify only two strong plays I made: I played one card early that automatically stole one crystal from everyone else each season, and another that let me spend any number of elements to drop everyone else's score by 4 crystals each. (And I didn't capitalize on the latter as much as I should have. Spending any element to hurt everyone else's score by 4 on any turn is better than selling that element to raise my own score, since that's normally worth at most 3, and for only one element type each season, and I can only do it if I draft a die with the sell-back symbol.) Given that other players were dropping big-swing combos every two or three turns for 15 to 30 point gains, I can't say how I ended up scoring so close to them. It truly puzzles me how the other three players all scored virtually identical points when there are so many major swings. Most likely it was simply a freak coincidence. Only further plays will tell.

I was yet again frustrated by my continuing inability to transfer skills from game to game. I seem unable to remember or recognize concepts as simple as "combo a 'play a card for free' effect with a card that has a huge cost and major benefit" until someone plays them against me, regardless of how often I see them or how obvious they are in hindsight.

Game two was another run of Euphoria, this time with the full retinue of six. Nothing much to report here. As I'd planned from last time, I went aggressively for getting in on unlocking markets. They're the cheapest VP in the game, resource-wise, and you suffer penalties if you don't help open them. It got me close to the lead, but other players edged me out in the end by drawing a few more artifacts and sitting in very nice positions to get free extra VP from their followers when the faction tracks invariably maxed out. Final scores were 10, three 9s (including me), a 7, and a 5.