Monthly Archives: July 2008

A Tale of Two Dwarves

Now, here’s the thing about dwarves: they’re not like you and me. We wake up, we shower, we get dressed, we go to work, and while we’re doing all this, sometimes we get an idea. "I should write a cookbook that focuses on pomegranates," we think, and then we get out of the shower and towel off and we don’t write the book.

...from A Tale of Two Dwarves, peterb, on tleaves

This sort of post needs no comment of mine, except to say that peterb is touched, sometimes. Own up to it.

On the other hand, this does tie into a conversation I once had with a friend. My friend had spent many teenage hours playing old CRPGs -- The Bard's Tale, for example. This is no unusual thing among my friends. I did it. Lots of us did it.

I finished The Bard's Tale with pages of obsessively notated graph-paper maps. And, possibly, some notes on how to give yourself a zillion hit points with a disk sector editor.

My friend finished The Bard's Tale with countless imagined stories about how each bard and wizard and fighter had comported himself or herself in the game world. How brave or desperate each one was? How they worried about each other's wounds, how thrilled they were to be rescued or healed? Secret crushes, secret hatreds? I don't know; our discussion didn't get into these details. It sure as hell wasn't the game I had played.

And so it is worth noting, as we game designers crouch in our forges, trying to weld together plot and conflict and resolution from our fragile rules and pixels, that occasionally we will look up and realize that the players have buggered off to play on the beach. Without us.

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Tomb

This past weekend, Boston hosted Mysterium, an annual convention of Myst fandom. I attended -- my first time -- and I had fun.

Mysterium is the small end of the con scale; I believe about fifty people showed up this year. (In a week I'm off to Worldcon, population circa 5000.) What do you do with fifty gamers in Boston? The answer, it appears, is to caravan them off to play Tomb.

Which is what this post is really about. No, I'm not going to blog about the salacious details of Myst fandom at play. There were chocolate chip cookies, let's leave it at that.

Tomb is a thing. It's this -- thing. Ummmph. Nobody has a name for what Tomb is, because it's the first one. It's the lineal descendant of a cornfield maze, by way of Myst and out of a LARP -- but not so much real live-action role-playing games, as the SF version envisaged by Niven and Barnes in Dream Park.

(Can I suggest "live-action interactive fiction"? That term makes sense if you know what IF is... which, okay, makes it a terrible term. Skip it.)

Anyhow, I don't think it's an accident that Tomb's logotype is a direct swipe of Zork.

Here is what Tomb is. After a brief orientation, you walk into a plaster-and-styrofoam Egyptian tomb. The door grinds shut behind you -- oh no! The Pharaoh's spirit speaks! He challenges you to solve his riddles or die!

That's what it is. You are in an immersive fantasy environment -- stone walls, mysterious lights, sound effects, glow-in-the-dark symbols, fog. The construction will immediately remind you of a theme-park ride, except for two small details: you're not riding anything, and it's interactive. Solve the puzzles and you'll discover the secret of the Pharaoh's tomb. Fail, and -- well, I don't know; we didn't fail. Hah. But I'm told that you undergo a horrific death and leave through a side door. Feel free to buy another ticket and try again.

Our guide, Squee

Your group has a guide. (Our guide, Squ'ee, is shown here dealing with her sudden induction into Myst zoology.) The guide is responsible for herding you through doors, making sure you don't miss anything really obvious, and nudging you along if you seem to be stuck. A run is scheduled for 45 minutes -- it's in a sequence of rooms, so they can start a new batch every 15 minutes.

I was impressed by the interactivity. It is, literally, hands-on; you are always feeling at tiles and buttons and moveable panels. You make things happen. There are some narrative tricks and traps, which I would never be so crude as to give away, but they were nicely designed; I felt like I was the one things were happening to.

Many of the story events, such as the Pharaoh's voice, are pre-recorded. Others, as I said, are the guide telling you what to do. Interestingly, the pre-recorded ones had better pacing. At several points I thought the guide was too pushy -- pointing at the next puzzle before we realized that we'd solved the last one. The sense of triumph got stepped on. On the other hand, we didn't solve any puzzles purely by luck; so we got to feel triumphant anyhow.

And how are the puzzles? This thing has been open for four years, and I've been living in Boston for three. I never visited until now, because, honestly, I heard the puzzles were kind of lame.

Which they are, to a puzzle devotee. Tomb is built to be solved by most people -- not just by most gamers. If you've played three computer adventure games, you've seen most of Tomb's puzzles already, or puzzles much like them. (I believe we won in just over 30 minutes.)

But -- I had a good time anyway. It's a social puzzle game, and that's more fun than sitting at home alone. You win or lose as a group. The puzzles are built as group activities. Even a puzzle that you've seen fifteen times before, which you can solve as fast as mouse can click (and I think you know which puzzle I mean), turns into a party game when the guide tells you to line up and make one move per person. Much cheerful yelling ensues.

So, go with friends. I think they aim for ten people as the average group size. If you show up with twelve, you can reserve a tour all by yourselves; if you have fewer than eight, or it's crowded, you could get mixed in with strangers. I recommend not being mixed in with strangers. (The Myst group wound up being split into three tours of about fifteen each, which really was too many. Small rooms were crowded, and some people wound up on the sidelines of any given puzzle.)

Moral and physical health guides: Tomb has darkness, fog, and bright flashing lights. Not strobe-flashy, but sensitive brains might still want to avoid it. Also, at one point you're exhorted to stand around chanting "All hail Pharaoh!" In good fun, but it was a bit of a "you know, this really is against some people's religion" moment. I promise that neither your guide nor your teammates will mind if you chant "Whatever, Pharaoh" instead.

According to the web site, the operators are planning to swap out Tomb for a new, spy-themed adventure "in 2008". I have no idea if they're on schedule with that. I hope so, because I want to do another one.

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I post some game reviews here, but I also write game reviews that appear on my own web site. I've been doing this for over a decade now, and I live in the iron grip of much shorter-lived habits than that, so I'm not going to abandon that page now.

And I don't want to double-post everything.

So, I'll just link to the backlog. Here are the last few adventure games I've reviewed:

Up in the next couple of months: Sherlock Holmes: Nemesis.

And now I will pass out, because I blew too many hours this evening playing Endgame: Singularity. This is a free casual Civ-style game which I found cute and clever. You're a newly-arisen AI, living in the Internet, trying to rent enough server space (under fake ID) to survive and grow.

I usually avoid Civ games, but this one had sufficient chill factor to pull me in -- once. Keep in mind that I avoid Civ games because I like the exploration factor, which means I hate failing and starting over. In fact, I don't even care for succeeding and starting over. I grabbed Endgame in order to play it once, and I succeeded (thank you, Easy Mode), so it was all good.

This is not a struggle of several AIs under symmetric rules. You are the AI. Your only enemy is the complacent herd of humanity: ignorant of your existence, and you'd better keep them that way, because if they find out about you, it's plug-pulling time. You set up computational bases on rented servers (and, eventually, larger facilities). Occasionally -- purely by chance -- one of your bases will be discovered and shut down. When this happens, humanity becomes more suspicious about Weird Stuff On The Internet; the more suspicious they get, the greater the chances of another base being discovered. You, in turn, can use your CPU and capital resources to research technologies to hide yourself better -- and, of course, to build better servers.

So, rather than a war, it's a building game with intermittent, localized disasters. Keep a few backups and don't get greedy, and you'll do well. This is the sort of dynamic I enjoy. (The dynamic I don't enjoy is when a rapacious horde of rivals comes over the Wicked High Mountains and outcompetes me. Or when an earthquake destroys my whole country. These are things that Endgame does not do to you.)

I also enjoyed feeling like I was a cross between Daniel Keys Moran's Ring and the bad guys from Odyssey 5. These are not virtues of Endgame, but riding a cultural wave is one of the things that games can succeed or fail at, and this one succeeds.

Open-source smugness: Endgame is a GPL project written in Python. Maybe somebody will write that multi-AI struggle version someday.

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"The Balcony is Closed"

Roger Ebert, reflecting upon the end of Ebert & Roeper, formerly Siskel & Ebert.

Notable here since The Gameshelf's review format is greatly inspired by the two-critics-having-a-conversation style that Gene and Roger pioneered on television decades ago. I'd been an on-and-off fan of the show since my own childhood. My inspiration to try my own hand at TV production came about after rediscovering the show via the magic of TiVo in 2003, and then watching it every week for the next couple of years.

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iPhone adventures

The iPhone App Store has opened, and it is time for all game-bloggers of good will to talk about iPhone games.

(The ones of ill will are doing it too, as are those of ill mind, of weak will, and of bad wind. I won't fuss about which of these categories I'm in. Zog knows I can't climb that many flights of stairs without going all anaerobic on my mitochondria.)

I see there are... 219 games as I write this. I haven't found a good way to browse them; the in-phone browser doesn't do subcategories, and iTunes doesn't seem to have complete lists in any category. (At least, this doesn't look like it adds up to 219.) But never mind. I've skimmed through the lists, and seen the expected variety: shoot-up games, tilt-marble games, rhythm-tapping games, and the entire continent of casual puzzle games. (Which consists of the Republic of Rule Mazes, the Sodality of Sudoku, the Mahjongg Concord, the Other Sodality of Solitaire, and so on. All of which are pinched corners around the Grand Imperium of Click On Three Identical Cute Animals. Or jewels or what have you. But usually animals.)

Really, the only reason I post stuff on the Internet is to use the word "sodality" as often as possible. Thank you, Brannon Braga.

But I'm interested in adventure games. Adventures are a gaping hole in the iPhone lineup. Can this be? Surely adventures are common casual gaming fodder! Really -- do any web search on "room escape". Each of these games differs from Myst only in that it is small, indoors, and (usually) visually stylized rather than photorealistic.

It is true that every one of these tiny adventurelets is written in Flash. And the iPhone has no Flash player. But heck -- every shooting, tapping, marbling, mazing, three-animal-clicking games on the Web is in Flash too, and developers had no trouble porting those to Mr. Shiny.

The graphical adventure form needs few changes to run on a touch interface. You don't have the ability to click on tiny details -- but "hunt-the-pixel" was always the reductive failure of graphical adventures (as "guess-the-verb" is for text adventures). It's what happens when the game isn't working. So design your scenes for big hotspots. You don't have a cursor to change to indicate hotspots, either. Maybe dragging your finger around a scene should cause hotspots to flash, to indicate their existence that way. Or maybe you just need really good visual focus.

This is important because graphical adventures normally have two levels of response: one indicates that you can use an item (cursor change), the other is for when you decide to use it (click). And so puzzles can involve a certain amount of "What do I want to do first?" If tapping something activates it, most of your game interactions are going to be accidental. ("Hey, I guess that was a lever!") That's a big rethink of the form.

(Sure, you want to adhere to the "no death, no mistakes" rule -- casual adventuring demands that. But even a benign irreversible action is irritating, if you hit it accidentally. And room escape games have lots of irreversible actions. It's a design convention: when you push the button it stays pushed, when you solve the puzzle it stays solved. Keeps the player's momentum forward.)

Maybe we should roll with the dragging idea: design most of the game elements to require motion rather than tapping. Tapping just causes a quick bounce or jiggle reaction. So if you tap on a cabinet door, it jiggles; that tells you that you can drag it open. I like this idea, actually. Levers everywhere instead of buttons. Drag the carpet back to look under it. Drag found items to your inventory, then drag them back to target hotspots.

I'm not sure whether edge buttons or flick-scrolling is better for turning left and right -- that will require some testing. (If finger dragging gets coopted for one of the above ideas, I guess you're forced to use edge buttons.) Pinch-zoom seems like a clever idea for close inspection of scenes, but I suspect it will work best in moderation -- closeups only.


Text adventures! My character sheet says I'm supposed to talk about text adventures. (In fact I already have; this bit of bloggery is adapted from a couple of posts I made on rec.arts.int-fiction.)

The App Store already has a text adventure -- the text adventure.

Advent Splash

This is a freeware application being distributed by "Pi-Soft Consulting" (which looks like it's the same as Shawn P. Stanley).

A bit of historic neepery which will be of interest to practically nobody: the splash text shown above is misleading. It is taken from Graham Nelson's Inform port of Adventure -- which, as the note says, is adapted from Dave Baggett's TADS version of Don Ekman's Fortran source code.

Which is fine, except that Shawn P. Stanley didn't use Graham Nelson's port. He adapted Jim Gillogly's C source code. This also descends from the Fortran version.

The two versions feel rather different. Were one to play Graham Nelson's version of the game, one would find a refined parser supporting features such as "get all", more synonyms, abbreviations like "x" for "examine", and a long historical introduction. Gillogly's port uses the original, simplistic parser. There are a few gameplay differences as well.

On the other hand, it's the same game. Both versions cover the classic "350-point" Crowther&Woods edition of Adventure, as opposed to any of several extended remixes. I just don't get why Stanley chose to write his credits this way.

(I'm not accusing him of misconduct. Adventure has always been, in hacker tradition, been considered free software. Jim Gillogly's port is explicitly licensed as open-source under the BSD license. And Stanley is distributing iPhone Advent for free.)

On both hands, the dedication to Stephen Bishop is appropriate to any version of Adventure.

Let's take a look at the game itself.

Inside Building

The interface is straightforward. You have an input line. When you tap on it, the usual iPhone tap keyboard appears, and you type your command. Hit Return and see what happens.

Well, perhaps not so straightforward. This implementation only shows the response to your most recent command. There is no scrolling game history, such as IF players are used to. If you type "get lamp" at the prompt above, the visible text changes to the single word "OK" -- poor context at best.

The obvious fix is to move the input line to the bottom of the screen, and show the game history above it. Right?

Wrong. The iPhone really wants the input line near the top of the screen, because the keyboard is always at the bottom. If the input line is at the bottom edge, it'll just slide uphill when the keyboard pops up, and that wouldn't be great.

So I want the input line at the top but a standard IF scrolling pane below it, with commands interspersed in the usual way. (You'd have to ensure that finger-scrolling only affected the text pane, not the entire screen. This is possible -- in fact Advent does it, with long responses such as the "help" output.)

(That model obviates the need for the input line to keep showing the last command, which is confusingly out-of-order.)

What else does the perfect iPhone IF application have? I'll move away from criticizing iPhone Advent, and talk about general features.

I'd like a special button to the right of the input line, which brings up a menu of one-touch common IF commands. A compass rose of movement commands, "look" and "inventory", maybe "undo". (iPhone Advent doesn't support "undo", but modern IF does.)

The splash page should have a "how to play" button. The mainframe-style "Do you want instructions?" when you start is all wrong.

PDA IF traditionally has some kind of "tap a word to paste it" interface. I want that but it's hard to do with a touch-screen, because words are tiny. The ideal solution might be to invisibly mark up the output text with "this word is important" spans. That opens up a certain amount of blind hunt-the-pixel exploration, but if brute force is tedious and generally useless -- ie, if only the obviously important words are marked -- I don't think it would sidetrack players.

Finally, the backgrounds. I rather like Advent's low-contrast cave photos. (Emily Short disagrees.)

Background Map Concept

However, what would be even keener would be a map. (I like drawing my own maps, but mobile IF players probably don't have a sheaf of blank paper handy.) Not a complete map, but one that's filled in as you play. You can see the nearby rooms that's you've already explored.

You wouldn't want text on it -- it is, after all, behind the game text, and text on text is hard to read. But a dynamic room map in unlabelled, simple shapes and low-contrast color would be cool. Highlight the current room (or keep it centered). This image is my quick sketch of the concept. Maybe it works? Maybe I'm nuts? Too bright yellow, for sure, but it's late so that's what you get.

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Review: The Tower SP (GBA)

Many people are not aware of the history of this game. At first glance, most people would call it a “SimCity rip-off”. However, this is completely false! It is SimTower, with a few cultural differences between the Japanese and North American versions.tower1.png

The Tower is a construction management simulation game designed by the infamous Yoot Saito while his original company OPeNBooK Co. was around. During this time, SimCity was a critically acclaimed game and was a major factor in Will Wright’s popularity in the simulation game industry. Saito’s The Tower was published in North America by Maxis and the game was renamed to SimTower as a way of standing out better in stores and increasing sales. The name change worked to benefit Maxis, but never replaced the critical acclaim of SimCity. Again, I must stress that Will Wright had nothing to do with this game in any way.

After this, Saito retained all the rights to the game, with the exception of the name “SimTower”, and stuck with the name “The Tower”. OPeNBooK later joined forces with Sega, and made a new version of his game for the PC and named it “Yoot Tower”. In addition, he created The Tower for the unsuccessful console, the Panasonic 3DO, and was only released in Japan. These versions were more complex than SimTower with different types of buildings that had various effects on a residents stress levels (e.g. restaurants, restrooms, etc.).

tower2.PNGYoot Saito formed another company, Vivarium Inc., which is well known for the Dreamcast game, Seaman, a pet simulation where the player uses a microphone to speak with the character directly to interact with it in addition to regular caretaking activities. OPeNBooK later on merged into Vivarium Inc and continued to develop more games with Sega.


The Tower SP is another game made directly by Vivarium. It still retains the visual similarities with its previous versions and makes good use of the GBA hardware with better controls and a better interface. The letters SP is a reference to the latest revision of the Game Boy Advance, the SP version, which is more compact and opens like a laptop computer and the newer Nintendo DS. This is the first time I recall a GBA game adding the letters SP to its name, where other games would use the word Advance.

The player takes on the role of a constructor for Yamanouchi Construction and needs to construct a building that people can live and work in, while making sure that everything is easily accessible, in good condition, secure, clean and making profit at the same time. As the building gets a higher population, the player is allowed to add different things such as a hospital and a train station to accommodate different people. The final objective is to have more than 40 floors, a population of 2000 and a wedding must take place during a weekend to receive a 5-star rating and the label of “tower” status. At the time of this writing, I have a 4-star rating and a population that fluctuates between 500 and 1900 and I am starting to slowly redesign the placement of everything to make it less stressful for the residents so they people don’t leave so much. It’s very challenging.tower3.PNG

The controls on the GBA are much better than the PC versions since there are buttons mapped to functions such as construction, increasing the rate of time, saving, reading help documents about various structures and examining people and rooms. In order to speed time, the player needs to hold down the A button. At first, I had a problem with this, because I’d end up holding down the A button for several minutes just to watch people move in to empty condos and fill up offices, then I realized the reason why they force players to hold down buttons is because there are messages that show on the screen such as “Single 40s female demands restaurant” and “Elevator #3 too crowded” which may or may not have a fatal impact on people’s stress level causing them to leave the building completely and it is important that the player has a chance to deal with these issues.

In addition to managing stress, the player needs to ensure that they are always making a profit with everything in the tower. This part requires plenty of patience. If the prices are low, people will move in, but move out if it’s too expensive and the stress level rises again. A trick I love to use is to lower the prices of offices and condos, and slowly raise it as people move in. One thing I had to do often is after a lot of people move in, I hold the A button to speed up the time and simply wait and watch as my money grows to 1 million dollars or more so that I can spend more time expanding.

tower4.PNGAs the player’s building expands, it will need more cleaning staff. Every morning, they will go through each floor and clean as much as they can. If there are not enough cleaners, there will be rooms left dirty, cockroaches will grow, causing more stress, forcing residents to leave the building. The player is capable of directly taking part in maintenance in strange ways. For example, the player can select a dirty bathroom and rapidly press A to clean it, saving the cleaning staff time when they do their daily routine. When a new restaurant is made, sometimes the player can select it and press A to increase the chances of residents to buying food there. This is a very miniscule way to add more player action so that they’re not always just waiting for money to roll in every time.


There aren’t too many bad things about this game, being that it is of the simulation genre. The thing I like the least about The Tower SP is the complexity of the rules. For example, a building can only have 4 elevators with a maximum of 4 carts and they cannot expand over 20 floors, people can take a maximum of 4 stairs at a time, there can only be 1 big elevator and can only be accessed every 10 floors, there is a limit to the number of restrooms, etc. The list goes on. Although, as the player gets a higher star rating, the president of Yamanouchi Construction will inspect the building once a year and give advice to make the building better.tower5.PNG

As a simulation game, it certainly lives up to the genre’s name. There’s just something about constructing a large building filled with little pixilated silhouettes that I find so appealing. Even with the complex rules and limited graphics compared to the PC versions it’s still a good game for anyone who is very patient and likes simulation games such as SimCity.


towermario.jpgWhile I was reading about this game, I found out that Vivarium Inc. made another sequel to this game for the Nintendo DS in Japan, appropriately titled “The Tower DS”. They did this to celebrate The Tower’s fifteenth anniversary. When The Tower SP for the GBA was released, most of the reviews for it were negative due to the fact that it is fairly long for a portable game and is still wrongly called a “SimTower rip-off”. The Tower is virtually unknown to most people, and the label “SimTower rip-off” causes so much confusion amongst people.


Due to the negative reviews, I don’t believe The Tower DS will ever reach North America in English. Reading text is a very important part of this game, and is nearly impossible to expand a building if the player is unable to tell what residents demand, so it’s not a game I can import from Japan and still understand. It makes good use of the dual-screens, so I don’t need to scroll up so high, since both screens display the tall tower better than on the GBA.

The only reason why The Tower DS was mentioned in some game news pages is because people saw the statue of Mario standing similarly to New York City’s Statue of Liberty, and there will be a point where the player can add rooms inside of the statue of Mario.

In addition, Sega did not publish The Tower DS. It was published by another Japanese company called DigiToys Inc. I don’t know if this is because Sega wasn’t interested in The Tower, since they were willing to produce a sequel to Seaman for the PS2 in Japan. It could also be due to the fact that The Sims and Spore are dominating the simulation game market here. Those are great games, and it’s a shame that Vivarium Inc. developed 2 games that we will most likely never see in English.

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Portal

I played through Portal yesterday.

jmac: So did you enjoy portal?

zarf: yes

zarf: I should make a Gameshelf post, but it would be a one-liner.

jmac: That's fine.

jmac: It would be like saying "Hey I just saw this 'Star Wars' movie OK" at this point

zarf: yep

jmac: I trust in your judgement / ability to say something original despite everything

zarf: I'm gonna quote this exchange... :)

I finished the game off at 2:30 AM, so you should be wary of my ability to get nouns and verbs in the same sentence, much less be original. But I appreciate the vote of confidence.

(I briefly considered making a long post about playing Portal, the 1986 hypertext science fiction novel/game by Rob Swigart. But I've got little new to say about that Portal either. Except that, drat, the Web-based version is no longer working.)

It is worth noting that I signed up for Steam almost 24 hours ago and nobody has come to collect my soul. I haven't even gotten any bothersome promotional email. That puts them ahead of a lot of web sites I've signed up for. (Big Fish, I am pointing this plasma rifle at you. I never did manage to unsubscribe to your newsletter. By "plasma rifle" I mean "welcome to my spam filter".)

That damn song is stuck in my head, but that's been happening on and off since it first hit YouTube.

I don't blame you. I don't hate you. Shutting down.

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Driving adver-games, now and then

night_driver.pngRecently playing the really crappy, Toyota-branded freeware video game didn't make me go buy a Yaris, but when I saw that one was available in my local Zipcar fleet when I needed to go grocery shopping the other day, I immediately gravitated to it. Make of that what you will.


(Real-life Yaris Review: While I couldn't find the button that makes the gun pop out of the hood, I did find the controls much nicer than those in the XBox version, and suffered no frustrating camera issues.)

This got me thinking of the history of melding digital games with car advertisements. Since one of the oldest video game genres is driving games, the potential at marketing crossover certainly does seem rather obvious.

However, it's a relationship fraught with peril, because cars in video games tend to be treated rather... let's say light-heartedly. No car manufacturer would wish to suggest that their products explode colorfully into slow-motion clouds of flame and shattered glass at the merest brush with an on-road obstacle, for example. Nor would they likely approve the depiction of the vehicle's utility as a weapon against soft targets (such as pedestrians). While these restrictions put a serious damper on most any attempt at cross-marketing, the medium is not without examples of attempts to overcome it.

When I was in college, among the games you could find drifting around the campus Macintosh network was some luxury car manufacturer's attempt to produce an "at-home test drive" for one of its models, resulting in a game that was supposed to simulate the experience of being behind the wheel - by way of a classic Mac's 9-inch, one-color display. While an interesting novelty, it was clunky and boring as a game. Its oversensitive mouse input let the player interact with the game world mainly through drunken swerving. I don't remember if it had any game objectives, other than the challenge of staying in the right lane for more than a second. (I cannot recall the actual car involved, and Google is giving me no love; would love to know what this was.)

Accolade's Test Drive, which simulates a variety of real-life high-priced sports cars, was a rather more successful offering. Intriguingly, the game encourages you to abuse the law, giving you a radar detector and making an explicit goal of driving as fast as you can without getting pulled over. Then again, the suggestion that their cars go very fast and let you avoid police detection with practice might not necessarily be a negative message, for a sports car company!

By my lights, the most successful melding of real-life car brands and playable games has been the Gran Turismo series of console racing games, which stress ultra-realism of automotive physics - with the exception of inertia, which vehicles can discard at will. This allows them to collide at full speed into walls and each another while suffering no damage other than the inconvenience of lost time. Other than that, though, the manufacturers are apparently happy to lend their name to a simulation of driving in circles, well away from traffic and serious consequences.

Have you spotted any other clever (or not-so-clever) insertions of real cars into game worlds?

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A session report from March

Although the Gameshelf television show covers tabletop games and computer games in about a 2:1 ratio, this weblog has been skewing towards the latter for a while now. In the interest of balance, I am posting a session report I wrote up for a game party way back on March 15. I only ever posted it to a private mailing list, but I think maybe it would be appreciated by a wider audience. I hope you enjoy it. (I hardly ever write session reports, so I don't have anything more recent. But it's not like there's anything out of date. I still haven't played Container again.)


Jeff M. requested that I post a session report for Saturday's Ides of March game party at my place, so here goes.

Attendees: Stephen M., Karl v.L., Jeff M., and Greg L., plus Chris L. showed up for about 3 minutes before leaving to get food and never coming back. I guess something spooked him, or else he was waylaid by knife-wielding senators before he could return.

Games played: Fairy Tale, Pickomino, Marco Polo Expedition, Zark City, Tongiaki, Wits & Wagers, Saboteur, Tashkent Domino, Container, Carcassonne: the Castle.

Food consumed: pretzels filled with peanut butter, pretzels filled with honey mustard (both of these were brought separately with no apparent pre-arrangement), kung pao chicken, "champagne" duck, Singapore-style rice noodles, and Jeff was brave enough to try my homemade sausage-and-turkey chili.

Fairy Tale: Stephen, Karl, and Jeff showed up in quick succession soon after 2pm, and we jumped into this short Japanese card game of simultaneous drafting. Usually in this game, especially with four players, everyone ends up concentrating on one of the four clans, but this game we all ended up with multi-clan tableaus. We also had very few flipped cards, and no one really went for the big asterisk-card collections. Consequently the scores ended up pretty close; Stephen eked out the victory with 54 points, Karl had 50, I had 49, and Jeff (the only one who hadn't played before) had 36-- and if I hadn't purposely held onto a card that he wanted, he'd have gotten another 12 points (face value 3 plus 9 conditional points from the matching story card).

Pickomino: Greg showed up as we were starting the final round of Fairy Tale, so I was glad we had begun with a short game. We settled on another short game, this time a push-your-luck Knizia dice game. We had what seemed like an unusual number of bust-out turns-- Stephen never once took a tile, and I only took a tile on my last turn. I don't think we were being particularly risky, either; many times we had no real decisions, e.g. the current total was too low to take a tile and there was only one legal number to keep from the current roll. Maybe we had made bad decisions on earlier rolls, or maybe we just had bad luck, I dunno. Greg seemed to be in the lead for most of the game, but Karl ended up winning with 6 worms; Greg had 5, Jeff had 3, I had 2, and Stephen had 0.

Marco Polo Expedition: Jeff pulled this game from my shelf while looking for 5-player games. This is one of those games that I always enjoy but I can never seem to win. It's a somewhat light but solid set-collection/racing game, one of Knizia's underrated titles. Like most racing games, it's usually better to be following than leading, but you don't want to fall too far behind the pack. I can never seem to remember this, though, and twice in this game I jumped out to a lead but then got overtaken by the rest of the pack before I could collect enough cards to advance again. Still, I managed to get to the 6-point location near the end before the game ended, which was enough to put me in a tie for second. Jeff won with 12, Greg and I had 11, and Stephen and Karl both had 9.

Zark City: Karl suggested this one, a new Andy Looney game that was recently posted online. It's a streamlined version of Zarcana/Gnostica, played with Icehouse pyramids and a deck of cards (preferably Lost Cities cards, which is what we used). Like its big brothers, it's an abstract wargame of territorial control, but in this version your choices on each turn are severely restricted so the turns move very quickly: either add a pyramid to the board, add a card to the board, move a pyramid, attack a pyramid using cards from your hand, grow a pyramid (for defense), or draw three cards. The goal is to have your pyramids control a set of three connected cards that form a suited run or a three-of-a-kind. After a lot of back-and-forth maneuvering, I made a boneheaded move that I thought was blocking Jeff from winning, but then he simply attacked my pyramid and converted it to his color for the win. I do think that this game is deeper than it first appears, but really I was just careless.

Tongiaki: I was out of the room when this game was selected, but it's another game that I think is underrated so I was happy to see it hit the table. This game of South Pacific exploration can be a bit chaotic with 5 players, but sometimes you can make a clever series of moves that substantially improves your position, and if you're careful you can avoid having your efforts easily undone. I took the opportunity to end the game while I had presence on a nice big spread of islands for 24 points, thinking that Stephen was my main competition with 23, but it turned out that Karl had 25 points which gave him the win. Greg and Jeff both had 16.

Wits & Wagers: At this point, Greg said that he had to leave in about an hour, so I suggested this game from his bag. I'm not a big fan of trivia games, but I enjoy this one because it's more about estimation than knowing precise facts. It also doesn't outstay its welcome: a whole game consists of just 7 questions. I stayed the chip leader for most of the game by winning a few 3-1 payouts, but Greg won big on the final no-limit bet when he was the only one to pick the right range for the percentage of US Presidents who had been elected to two or more terms. Final balances were $125 for Greg, $70 for me, $10 for Stephen, $5 for Karl, and $0 for Jeff.

Saboteur: Greg had time for one more, so we played this hidden-roles game of dwarves mining for gold. I was a saboteur in all three rounds, and twice I was the lone saboteur, which seems nearly impossible to pull off in a five-player game. When Jeff was the second saboteur we managed to win, but that just meant Jeff was on the winning side in all three rounds, which gave him the game with 6 gold total. Greg had 5, Stephen had 4, and Karl and I both had 3.

Tashkent Domino: After Greg left, we ordered some Chinese food from Wu Loon Ming, but it turned out that they didn't deliver, so Jeff and I went to pick it up while Karl and Stephen stayed behind and played this little-known pocket-sized game by Kris "Gipf" Burm involving special dice with domino-style faces. In each round, the players start by rolling all the dice, then taking turns placing them onto the board, matching domino edges and trying to have the fewest pips unplaced by the end. I think they didn't finish the full game (best of three sets of best of seven rounds), but it sounded like Karl had a pretty big lead by the time we returned with food.

Container: After our dinner break, the remaining four settled down for the only really meaty game of the day. Container, a posthumously published game by Franz Benno "Transamerica" Delonge, is a pretty pure business game: factories produce raw materials that are turned into finished products that are sold wholesale, shipped to distributors, and finally sold at retail. One of several twists is that you can't use your own materials to make products, you have to buy them from someone else; similarly, you can't sell your own products at retail, you have to pick them up from other players' wholesale warehouses with your container ship and deliver them to the center island where they are auctioned off in a lot, where you can in theory buy your own products but in effect you'd have to pay 3x the cost due to a matching government subsidy for selling to other players. Another twist is that each player has his own hidden chart of prices that the products will be sold for at retail at game end, so you're never really sure who's willing to pay how much in the distributor auction. And, strangest of all, you have to discard the product you have the most of at the end, so you often want to buy products that aren't worth much to you at retail to protect the products that are. All of this is complicated by the inefficient markets: you can only set or adjust your selling price when you produce materials or make products, and the distributor auction is blind. This seems to have the effect of driving down prices of materials and wholesale product-- you can't respond quickly enough when a competitor undercuts your price, so you have to preemptively set a low price-- and driving up the prices at the distributor auction, since the buyers have to guess how their competitors value the lots and can't just bid to maximize profit. I was just starting to figure this out near the end of the game, when I switched from trying to sell scarce materials and products at high prices to making all my money at the distributor auctions, but by then it was too late because Stephen had amassed a big inventory of products to sell at retail. His final bankroll was $117, mine was $70, and Jeff and Karl were in a virtual tie at $46 and $45, respectively. I started out not liking the game because it seemed like the value of everything was purely relative so it was impossible to figure out how to set prices or choose actions, but once I started to see how the (very long!) supply chains were playing out, I was getting more into it. I still think it might be a little too artificially convoluted for its own good-- the inefficient markets in particular are frustrating-- but I'd like to try it again now that I have a better feeling for how the economy works.

Carcassonne: The Castle: We finished up Container by about 10:30pm, which was late enough to send Stephen and Karl home, but Jeff stayed behind for one more game. I'm a huge Carcassonne fan, and for two players this Knizia variant is my favorite. Jeff jumped to a big lead on the scoreboard by taking lots of quick 2-3 point scoring opportunities, which let him scoop up all of the bonus chits, but once I managed to cash in the big regions I had been working on I started to catch up. I managed to merge into one of his large tower regions to neutralize its value, and the early investments I made in some market-rich courtyards ended up giving me my first and only win of the day, 76-68.

With that, we called it a night. Thanks to those who showed up, and thanks to you for reading this far!

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The return of ifarchive.jmac.org

I am pleased to announce the return of ifarchive.jmac.org, a mirror of the Interactive Fiction Archive hosted on my own webserver.

The IF-Archive is a repository of all things interactive fiction, as vast in content as it is austere in appearance. It includes all examples of the art that the IF community's volunteer librarians can get their hands on - from ancient games of the 1970s, through text games' Internet-enabled reawakening in the 1990s, to brand-new works. It also contains downloadable software used to create IF games, as well as Usenet discussions, magazine articles, and other variously sourced information related to the medium.

The archive has the visual appeal of a website that just stepped off the bus from 1993, but its purpose leans more towards preservation and organization than presentation. The links found under its front page's "New to IF?" section all lead to friendlier articles and resources found around the web, including Baf's Guide, an alternate front-end to the archive itself.

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Interesting Milton Bradley bio

Over at the Play This Thing blog, Greg Costikyan has started to write short and interesting biographies of eminent game designers. He begins with the tale of Mr. Milton Bradley, examining his origins both in life and as a game designer and publisher. Did you know that he is credited with inventing the concept of a "travel edition" game when he produced portable game sets for soldiers during the US Civil War, or that he helped popularize the notion of kindergarten education in the United States?

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