Monthly Archives: August 2008

Difficult and Barely Mentioned Video Games

There's been many countdowns for the hardest video games ever made. Many of them include popular games such as Contra, Metal Slug, Battletoads, Ikaruga, R-Type, Ghouls 'n Ghosts and Devil May Cry.

Here's a list of video games which I've played that I consider extremely hard, and at times, harder than the games mentioned above in no particular order:

Odama (GameCube): This game was developed by the same people who made Seaman: Vivarium Inc. Odama combines the elements of pinball, Real Time Strategy and voice recognition. You control a gigantic ball called the Odama with your left and right triggers, and you can move the left analog stick to influence the way the Odama moves. The Odama can buildings, enemy soldiers and your own as well, so the player is forced to carefully maneuver the Odama in order to make it to the next level. The player also controls a set of soldiers who are controlled by shouting 11 distinct commands into the microphone to make them move, defend, rally or to press forward against enemies. There are also a few soldiers who carry a giant bell. If the Odama strikes the bell, the soundwaves generated by the bell can take down both enemy and friendly soldiers. However, if the Odama hits the bell when it's glowing, it will turn green, and make enemy soldiers hit by it fight on your side, and your soldiers remain unharmed. The objective of each level is to take the bell to the other side of the level within the time limit while surviving and not being pushed back to far or being defeated. The game is extremely stressful and unforgiving while your solders lessen, the time gets lower, knowing what to shout into the microphone and the Odama causes more harm than good. There was a rumor that an easier version would come on the Wii, but this never happened.

Cubivore (GameCube): Originally intended for Nintendo's failed Nintendo 64 DD, it was ported to the GameCube. The art style is extremely weird and crude because everything is literally shaped like a box, even the sun, moon and clouds. The world has been taken over by a killer cubivore, and it is your job to go up the chain of evolution to become strong enough to defeat him and his lackeys. This is done through eating other animals and taking their meat to make yourself stronger and defeating boss cubivores and taking their powers. Strangely, this game has elements of Darwin's theory of evolution. With the cubivores devoured, the player must determine which form is the best to use. Some may jump higher, do more damage, run faster, etc. Unfortunately, the game is actually too complicated for my taste. With all the different meat types and the fact the player must go through 150 mutations, plus the fact that enemies have unforgiving difficulty, this game can be extremely repetitive.

Bangai-O Spirits (DS): This is a sequel to Bangai-O on the N64 and Dreamcast. There are a large number of puzzles and challenges in this one. The player controls a tiny robot that can do many things from fire bombs, bouncing balls, missiles, and can use melee weapons such as baseball bat and a sword. Each item has strengths and weaknesses. This robot makes Gundam Wing look like Hello Kitty. The game can actually slow down because of the sheer number of objects on the screen. Many times, there will be over 400 bombs with enemies firing back and the game will slow down while processing each one. This issue is notorious in the Bangai-O series. In many levels, enemies attack immediately and death occurs in less than 5 seconds if you don't react fast enough. Also, some levels need to be completed in a specific order or else the player can get stuck. The DS version has a strange feature called "Sound Load" which can create and receive sound waves through the microphone to store levels. This is similar to the way a 56k modem works. This means that I can go to YouTube and play sound load videos on my desktop and have my DS listen to the sound to store the level. I tried this many times, and only got it to work once. This game is for hardcore gamers only.

The Haunting (Genesis): You play a ghost who is trying to scare a family out of every home they move into. You do this by possessing objects in the house such as making walls bleed, turning a couch into a monster with blood dripping, making plates fly in the air, etc. The player's health is represented by slime which slowly drains. If the slime is completely gone, the player must go through a dungeon level to recover slime, and it will be game over if the player dies too many times. Scaring family members out of rooms in the house makes slime fall from the ceiling which the player can take. With every level, the game gets increasingly more difficult because the player is attacked by other demons, the dog's bark can cause damage and the player must perform more scare tactics in order to stay alive. There is no save options, and the player will always start from the very beginning should they choose to restart.

Heavenly Guardian (Wii): Originally supposed to be a sequel to Pocky & Rocky on the SNES, it was renamed to "Heavenly Guardian" and released on the PS2 and Wii. They player controls a girl who can fire different projectiles depending on where the Wii remote is pointing. Shaking the remote triggers a blizzard which freezes all enemies which can be destroyed for bonus points. This game becomes difficult because there are no save points, it's difficult to gain health and lives after they're lost, and enemies attack in weird patterns that are difficult to dodge. For example, one enemy attacks in 3 random directions at once and sometimes fires 1 at a time. With the multiple enemies, low health and the lack of a save system, the player must anticipate enemy attack with every step.

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Myst news sizzling off the griddle

I promised, didn't I?

On the Myst Forums, from Chogon (Mark DeForest, CTO of Cyan):

This is a small project that probably a very few of you know about. We are porting Myst to the iPhone. Ok, before some of you start groaning, this is an outside funded project that is keeping a few developers employed... but it is really more than that. It is an interesting and fun project. This is also a very small team with three of us (which includes Derek, Rand (not Randy) [Miller] and myself).

The groaning, I assume, is because of the Nintendo DS port of Myst, which debuted a few months ago to an avalanche of held noses. (Someone was passing it around at the Myst fan convention I mentioned a couple of weeks ago. I didn't get a close look, but the disgust oozing from that side of the room was tangible.)

So hopefully iMyst will be smoother.

Other bits from that post:

MORE - UruLive: The current focus is to get the servers back online and subscribers back in the game (in other words, launched!) before the end of the year. [...]

Other projects: We do have a number of other projects that are suspended waiting for publisher approval or other outside funding. These range from a large epic multi-console game to smaller single console games with a number inbetween. All of the games are unique, artistic and have different aspects of exploration... and I can't tell you anything about them until they become active.

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Noteworthy games I have not played

I have not played Agricola due to its length - it takes at least a couple of hours, and I haven't been able to spare that for games lately. (Please don't ask how many half-hour games of Race for the Galaxy I've burned through lately.) During the time I have been not playing it, though, it's managed to knock Puerto Rico from the number-one spot on Board Game Geek's rankings. I discovered this today, and it's a real shocker; "PR" has been the top game for the several years I've known about that website.

As I understand it, the main conceit of Agricola is that it ships with around 300 cards, each of which alter the game rules in some way - but only a handful of these cards appear during any single game. By itself, it sounds like a gimmicky way to tap up replay value (I mean, that's how CCGs work, right?) but I'm informed that it's actually pretty cool. I look forward to trying it myself, sometime.

I have not played Dwarf Fortress because I get to the first screen where I can actually make something happen, and then I sit there going duhhhr. I think that fully reading through the documentation and figuring out all the keystroke commands would take at least as long as a game of Agricola. Its UI is of the Nethack / Angband lineage, complete with graphics built entirely out of animated text characters, and learning to play one of those properly is practically like learning a new programming language.

But I really want to play it someday, because its two game modes include a Rockstar-style sandbox game and a Maxis-style simulation game, both set in ye olde Tolkeinesque fantasy world. The simulation game has you commanding a gaggle of dwarves to construct and maintain the titular fortress, and has a reputation for usually ending in not just total disaster, but hilarious disaster. Indeed, I heard of the game by reading friends' oh-my-god-you-guys blog posts telling the story about how their fortress ran out of alcohol and then burned down and now their last starving dwarf has gone insane and is wandering the woods attacking elk with his fists or whatnot.

For now, though, I can only describe it as a vast piece of work that's crying out for a tutorial mode.

I have not played Freeway Warrior: Highway Holocaust because... well, it's a bit silly, isn't it. Here's another digitized version of a Joe Dever-authored solitaire RPG book from the 1980s; we've linked to a digital version of his "Lone Wolf" series before. This book was the start of Dever's attempt to turn the game mechanics he developed for that series towards a Mad Max theme.

To play properly, you're meant to do up a full-on character sheet for your dude. In its original format, this was printed on one of the back pages, and you could pencil it up all you wanted. Now you can print it out in order to carefully manage your character's inventory, hit points, and food rations. You can even print out the random-number page that you're supposed to close your eyes and poke at, in lieu of die-rolling, in order to resolve combat and other chancy situations that pop up during the story. But I find it just as satisfying to click through the pages and enjoy the perfectly nostalgic text, which contain both Dever's writing style (which I enjoyed as a tyke) and the undiluted 1980s imminent-nuclear-holocaust gloom.

I was impressed to find a simple number puzzle in the story, whose solution was the page to which you were to turn - that's something I don't remember encountering during any other period work. So, yes, despite the title of this post I must admit to kinda-sorta playing this game. So that's as fine a note as any to go out on.

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Race for the Piggy

Blog regulars will be familiar with my attitude towards the New Hotness in games (of any sort). I hear about something cool, wonder vaguely if I should try it, hear about it some more, get told in strenuous voice that I must play it, avoid spoilers, hear spoilers anyway, procrastinate, and eventually -- after several months, perhaps -- I try it.

It's a secret blogging strategy. By the time I post about something, all the obvious things have been said by everyone else, so I am forced to come up with clever and original observations. (Witness my post about Portal. Hint: I am lying about the secret blogging strategy.)

There are of course exceptions; I have my fanboy obsessions. You will hear Myst news here still sizzling off the griddle. Text adventure technology, I'm pretty good about. (Text adventure games, I'm years behind on.)

Nonetheless, I sat around for weeks while all my friends learned Race for the Galaxy, a card game designed by Thomas Lehmann. By the time I went looking for it, it was out of print. Then it reappeared, and all my friends bought it (except the ones who fanboy-obsessively had bought it on day one). But I still didn't play it with my friends. Why? Because I was on vacation at Worldcon, where, as it happens, my other friends all showed up with Race for the Galaxy, and so I played it a bunch.

Clever and original observation: it's good!

Okay, skip that. How about this: Race for the Galaxy is better than any other game I know at being Interstellar Pig.

Interstellar Pig is, of course, the imaginary game in William Sleator's eponymous science fiction novel. If you spent your teenage years having the crap scared out of you by Sleator novels, you know it. If not, go read it. (Although House of Stairs is more brutal and The Green Futures of Tycho is better.)

The game is described pretty well in the book. Each player is a member of a different alien race, travelling around the galaxy. Each player has the advantages and weaknesses of his species, plus an array of tools, technologies, and weapons -- some in hand, most hidden on various planets. One player owns (or has hidden) the goal object: the Piggy. Whoever holds the Piggy when the timer goes off is the winner. The hunt is on; duke it out.

As given, Interstellar Pig is a lousy game. (No criticism; it serves its role in the story, and Sleator is a writer, not a game designer.) One player starts out ahead, knowing where the Piggy is hidden. Or one player starts with the Piggy, which should be a good strategy -- all you have to do is run away from everyone else. Several card combinations, and at least one single card, are described as unbeatable: if you have the deadly virus and its antidote, you can sit on the Piggy and watch everyone else die.

The use of a timer is all wrong for a strategy board game. Even if you convert it to a more reasonable mechanism -- a fixed number of turns, or some sequence of game events -- the games described are too short. The most a player can do is run to one or two planets to retrieve tools, and then try to get to where another player is heading (if you can guess who knows where the Piggy is). You may not get there in time -- unless you hit a wormhole, which is pure luck, or unless you have the (rare, overpowered) teleport card. If you do get there, you may find the environment unsurvivable with the tools you've got. If the factors do not align, all your play and planning are irrelevant. You just lose.

On the other hand, it's a great fictional game. And it has elements which are undeniably awesome. You get to be an alien, with powers and vulnerabilities which influence your strategy, and make each game a distinct experience. The game has lots of Stuff -- poisons, antidotes, weapons, protective gear, teleporters. The Stuff and the alien powers interact in interesting ways. Also, of course, it's set in outer space.

So if Interstellar Pig, itself, is not the ideal real Interstellar Pig game, what is?

Cosmic Encounter is an excellent choice. You are an alien race with an alien power! You're trying to conquer the universe! There's -- well, there isn't any Stuff per se, unless you count Flares. But I remember wandering through game stores when I was ten or twelve, staring with enormous eyes at the wonderful expansion sets full of alien powers and planets and moons. Now that was Stuff, in real life.

It's a wargame with rule quirks, but the rule quirks -- the alien powers -- are so pervasive that you are constantly thinking in their terms. Your game identity determines how you see every move and skirmish. That's the heart of Cosmic; that's why I played it every weekend during college.

This doesn't mean that other games can't be Interstellar Pig too. The Awful Green Things from Outer Space (as seen on The Gameshelf) is set in outer space; it has alien races; it has Stuff. (Pool cues and fire extinguishers!) It's a wargame clobberfest, rather than a hunt-the-prize game; but then Cosmic is clobbertastic as well.

The Awful Green Things from Outer Space is, most importantly, awesome. Particularly when you're twelve. It's not a particularly awesome game -- lots of room-by-room fighting; I could reasonably describe it as Risk with Stuff. But the theme is so delightfully done, with little cartoon aliens and critters and a three-eyed blue chicken. It glows with personality. It's impossible to pick it up without imagining you're there, pelting aliens in the Ward Room with canisters of zgwortz. It has a comic-book prologue and a CYOA epilogue! Nothing about this is less than awesome, and that's why it is Interstellar Pig.

And that brings me around to Race for the Galaxy. (Which I keep mispronouncing as "Rails Across the Galaxy", because Analog magazine was awesome too when I was twelve. But never mind.)

It's quick. It's in space. There are alien planets; there are technologies to develop, which are Stuff, close enough. It's neither an egg-hunt nor a wargame, but a civ-building resource race, the favoritest genre of discerning modern strategy gamers. And Race is a discerning modern game, designed with a careful eye to balance and strategy. Which makes it entirely unlike Cosmic or Green Things, those gleeful triumphs of the "heave your every idea at the wall and insist they stuck evenly" school of game design.

Why is it Interstellar Pig?

For all the care and finickiness of Race's rules, they all support the theme. Take an bonus card for your brown planets. Reduce the cost of yellow planets by two. Keep an extra card when you draw. Each of these, as you combine them with other powers, evolves into a game strategy. And as you play, each game strategy evokes a story: you are the mining combine, you are the interstellar explorer fleet, you are the technological hothouse, you are the fearless archaeologists amid the Forerunner ruins.

These roles aren't just labels for various suits of cards. Each has a different set of mechanics, and takes advantage of different rules. Theme emerging from gameplay, rather than painted on as "color", do you see? Nor are the roles assigned to you -- you figure them out. Select one, or part of one, or a mix of several; whichever fits your hand and your luck. That has always been the real root of interactive fiction: complicity. You care most about what you do.

Which is why, as someone who hasn't been twelve for a few years now, I think Race for the Galaxy is awesome. Just like Interstellar Pig.

(Although, I admit, not quite. To really be Interstellar Pig, you'd have to imagine that if you don't wind up with the most victory points, then all your planets explode at the end of the game. Now that's awesome.)

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More iPhone adventures

A quick note: Craig Smith has ported Frotz to the iPhone. This means that you can play I am not kidding hundreds of text adventures, including all of mine. Frotz is a free download in the iPhone App Store. (It's a Google code project.)

The app comes with a nice stack of games. (Including the famous Zarf games A Change in the Weather, Spider and Web, and The Dreamhold. Also the famous not-by-Zarf-but-he-shows-up game Being Andrew Plotkin.) But the really boss trick is that it lets you browse IFDB, directly from the Frotz app. Select any Z-code game, and it's automatically downloaded and added to your game list. Think of it as a mini App Store for IF -- only all free.

(I really have to adopt some cover art for my games. I did a cover for Shade that I rather like. For the rest, I will go back and look at Emily Short's IF Cover Art Drive. There were some great contributions in there, but I never bestirred my butt to accept any of them.)

iPhone Frotz is a 1.0 release, and I see some rough edges, but very small ones. The worst problem I've found is that The Dreamhold plays very slowly -- not every move, but when you do something interesting. This bothers me, because The Dreamhold is my shot at an introductory IF game -- it's designed to coach players who have never tried IF. I want it to run well. My current theory is that displaying italicized text is much slower than printing plain text.

More later. (I forgot to charge Mr Shiny since getting back from vacation, and I should save what's left of the battery for, maybe, receiving phone calls.)

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Braid, Portal, and selling poetry to gamers

I am pleased to report that I am the 1,492nd person to complete Braid, according to its leaderboard.

I really like Braid, and recommend that anyone with an XBox 360 download it and take its free trial levels for a spin. It's already a darling of the professional reviewers, and deserves all its praise. That said, I do wonder how its sense of reception will fall out after some tens of thousands of people have kicked it around for a week or so. It's an interactive art piece, implemented by mixing dollops of text (which, in style, intentionally evoke Italo Calvino), quietly beautiful graphics, contemplative music... and an action-oriented puzzle game that requires a moderate level of video-game skill to get through. So, as art, it chooses to limit its audience to people who are at least pretty good with video games.

Not that there's any kind of deception afoot, here: Braid bills itself primarily as a puzzle game, and it's a very good one. It also follows in the footsteps of Portal - last year's celebrated action-puzzler - by balancing its brevity with a tight structure and sense of purpose, so that when the game is done you feel more like you've just experienced a fine work of artistic entertainment, and less like you just pushed over an amusing but rather small collection of puzzles.

But Portal was bursting with, begging your pardon, a very nerdy sense of humor, full of dark-jokey irony that echoed the best of Monty Python. It also left players with a basket of souvenirs to take home after the game was over, most notably that catchy Jonathon Coulton end-theme, and some repeatable catchphrases and iconography suitable for wearing as T-shirts or forum avatars. Braid eschews these; after playing, you take home no more than what you would after, say, savoring a short poetry collection, or studying a large oil painting for some time.

The striking difference in attitude makes me very curious to see how well the game is received by the XBox-owning public, for whom - if I may risk stereotyping - Portal's macabre humor seems like a far easier sell than Braid's airy, contemplative sketches on the fragility of human relationships and the tenacity of regret. (Yes, by way of puzzles where you dodge cannon-fire and bounce off monsters' heads, which as far as I'm concerned is part of the joy of it.)

Portal established a precedent for high-concept, low-budget commercial games with small, tight structure and scope, planting its flag in relatively safe territory and reaping tremendous success. Braid starts there too, and ventures a little further out, taking some unusual and interesting risks, given its audience limitations. I want to see and play more games like these, so I really do hope that it enjoys a similar fate as well.

Aside: Braid also, for me, shines light on some of the more interesting challenges that digital games face when they present themselves as art. I carved out these bits and may turn them into another post later.

Aside 2: This is the second XBLA game I've played this summer that prominently features an in-game reference to the iconic phrase but our princess is in another castle, which originates from 1985's medium-defining game Super Mario Bros. Always interesting to witness the construction of a 25-year-wide artistic feedback loop, and be able to say you were there at the start.

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Quick report: Ralph Baer's talk

This was the most crowded I'd ever seen a Post Mortem gathering, and the packed room was bursting with love for the speaker. When Baer showed a video of his 1967 self and a colleague demonstrating "the ping-pong game", the room went wild; here was footage of a gentleman in thick glasses holding a bulky, knob-encrusted controller showing off what would become the very first home video game console, and the person showing the video through his MacBook was the exact same guy, 40 years older but just as enthusiastic. (The audio on his laptop cut out, actually, so he just narrated the video in-person instead.) I have to say, it was something else, all right.

baer.jpgTelling the story of Odyssey's development took less time than scheduled, so he continued by opening up a Word document that contained illustrations of all his inventions over the decades, telling the tale of each. These were mainly commercial failures you've never heard of (Talking doormats! TV-interacting hand puppets!) but there were a couple of bigger names which clearly subsidized all the other experiments.

Undoubtedly, the biggest of the hits was Simon, a stand-alone electronic game that has been on sale continuously since its introduction in 1978, and whose most recent designs barely stray from the original. (Baer named the bright and many-colorful LEDs in new models, a technology unavailable 30 years ago, as one welcome change.) How many other battery-operated toys can claim that distinction?

During the brief Q&A, one fellow asked him whether the Odyssey was a digital or analog computer. Baer replied that he didn't feel it was computer at all; just a very clever arrangement of relays and switches that interfered meaningfully with the TV's normal operation. (Though I rather feel that to be a perfectly valid, deconstructionist definition of a computer system...)

His response to an enthusiastic "Sir! What advice do you have for us!" was basically: Eh, I dunno, you're all writing software, and I'm just an old TV hacker. But, he noted, there will always be a market for console peripherals.

His parting words for the evening, spoken with a grin, hinted that he was looking at the Wii schematics with some interest...

Crappy iPhone photo by me. You can learn more about Ralph Baer's life work at his page on the Smithsonian's website.

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Braid is almost here!

My old friend and college roommate, Jon Blow, has been working on a video game called Braid for the last 3 or 4 years (with the help of artist David Hellman), and this Wednesday, August 6, it's finally being released for Xbox Live Arcade. It's superficially a side-scrolling platform game a la Super Mario Bros., but the central mechanism of having infinite rewind, even after dying, turns it into a thoughful puzzle game. And the art is beautiful.

It's more than just brain and eye candy, though. To quote the game's home page, "Braid treats your time and attention as precious. Braid does everything it can to give a mind-expanding experience." Jon is a deep thinker about the role of video games in society; for a brief taste of some of his ideas, check out his Short Essay About Serious Games. He has also given a number of lectures about game development, which are available as either video or powerpoint-plus-audio in the Appearances category of the Braid blog. These talks range from advice about making game prototypes to philosophical discussions of how the design of World of Warcraft is unethical. All of his lectures are worth checking out; some of the same slides appear in two or three different lectures (and I think he manages to mention The Marriage in every single lecture), but the lectures come at their topics from distinct angles and are full of thought-provoking (and sometimes incendiary) statements. Several of them also include Braid previews, if you want to see the game in action or get a glimpse at the history of its development.

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Homebrew tabletop mashups

I have many clever and creative friends who like games. One or another of them will regularly host game-playing gatherings at their homes, where we sink a few hours or more into various tabletop contests. But sometimes, some of these clever and creative people will find themselves a little tired of the well-worn titles, and that's when the combinatory experimentation starts.

quiddler_texas_holdem.jpgI took this photo last weekend, during one such event. The card-based word game Quiddler (published by Set Enterprises) is an old favorite of many-perhaps-most of my gamer friends. My pal Marc, one of the weekend-long game-gathering's hosts, led a groggy Sunday-morning group in inventing the mashup of Quiddler and Texas Hold Em depicted here. Players each held two of Quiddler's letter-cards, and as community cards appeared according to the standard flop-turn-river pattern, players bet on wether they held the highest-scoring Quiddler hand. This photo shows the final round's winning hand in the lower left; it allowed Marc to spell ZITHERS.

One especially memorable mashup I enjoyed several years ago, via the same group of friends, was "Apples to Ideas", a collision of the increasingly well-known party game Apples to Apples (Out of the Box Publishing) with the rather more obscure party game The Big Idea (Cheapass Games). It essentially involved pitching pairs of the green and red apple cards instead of using the standard Big Idea cards, and otherwise playing according to the The Big Idea's rules, which involves rapid-fire pitching of cockamamie startup-company ideas based on the cards you play. We found that this not only led to a much larger pool of cards, but players had to get more creative coming up with (at least vaguely) legitimate-sounding business models based on cards not tuned for this purpose. During this one game, I scored big by playing the card pair [Industrious] [Industrial Revolution], selling it with the slogan The socioeconomic paradigm shift so nice, we named it twice!™

Have you seen, pondered, or even invented and playtested any game-mashup ideas, yourself?

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Ralph Baer speaking at Boston Post Mortem

The August 5 gathering of Boston Post Mortem, a casual, beerful get-together of professional (and otherwise) video game developers, will feature a presentation by Ralph Baer, the man often credited as the inventor of the home game console. He'll have a "brown box" prototype of the first commercial game console, the Odyssey, on hand as well.

Brown Box multigame.jpgThe presentation will be at the Post Mortem's usual venue, the Skellig pub in Waltham, MA. Consult the link for full details. I plan to be there; say hi if you spot me.

(Image swiped from this page on Baer's own website.)

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Weekly Werewolf at

The user midnyte007 on Volity's discussion forums has suggested that a weekly game of Werewolf really ought to happen Saturday nights, at 7pm Pacific time.

As Volity's principal founder, and a fan of Werewolf (whose Volity version was developed by our own Andrew Plotkin), I encourage readers to give it a whirl. (If you don't already have a copy of Gamut, the cross-platform desktop application you need to play Volity games, you can download it from's front page.)

Obligatory Gameshelf link: Werewolf on YouTube.

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