Monthly Archives: April 2009

Jotto and Some Variants

I became obsessed with Jotto when I learned it from some friends in high school (the friends had learned it, for some reason, in Latin class). Jotto is a word game where two players try to guess each other's secret five-letter word. Each guess must be a valid five-letter word, and a guess is scored by reporting the number of letters in common with the secret word. Unlike Mastermind, order is not important (I plan to address secret words with anagrams in a later post). Here is a sample (naive) game, from the perspective of one player:

guess  score
-----  -----
sport    2
spore    3
spare    2
pared    2
scare    2
scape    1
joker    3
loner    3
grove    4
gorge    3
hover    4
mover    X

That's how I played the game for quite a while. At some point, in an effort to make the game more of a challenge, I came up with a variant that I call Twisted Jotto. In Twisted Jotto, each guess you make must be a possible secret word based on the information from the previous guesses. So in the above game, "spore" would not have been a legal guess in Twisted Jotto, since its score against "sport" is 4, not 2. Here is a sample Twisted Jotto game (borrowed from my article in The Perl Review):

guess  score
-----  -----
trios    1
false    3
slang    2
swell    2
passe    3
abase    2
pleat    4
paler    5
pearl    X

It didn't take me long to realize that Twisted Jotto enabled me to make fewer guesses to find the secret word (even if it took more time to come up with a guess). Twisted Jotto then became just the smart way to play Jotto (although the smart player will abandon it in certain situations, for example, when you know four letters and there are a number of possibilities for the fifth).

Another variant of Jotto is to play with different word lengths. I first did this with six-letter words, and my friend Matt named this Count Rugen (the six-fingered man in The Princess Bride). Using six-letter words is certainly more challenging than using five-letter words. Here's a sample game (using Twisted Jotto rules, of course):

guess   score
-----   -----
clamps    1
boughs    1
trines    3
sevens    3
defies    3
bindle    4
belier    2
ceding    5
inched    X

And of course one could keep increasing the number of letters, making the guesses harder and harder to find. That is maybe more challenging but is starting to seem more like work than fun. Enter another variant. My friend Debby came up with this one, called X-Jotto. In X-Jotto, the number of letters in the secret word is unknown. I decided that the word length could be from three to eight letters. So, even if the word has eight letters, you can test letters by guessing a three-letter word. Here are some sample X-Jotto games (for sanity's sake, I didn't use the Twisted Jotto rules):

guess    score
-----    -----
flack      1
trudges    3
hominy     0
wares      3
pared      2
frees      2
berserk    4
levers     6
revels     X

guess    score
-----    -----
flank      0
trudges    4
chimp      1
boxy       1
crusty     2
brides     4
showered   6
reshod     6
horsed     X

guess    score
-----    -----
flank      0
trudges    1
chimp      1
boxy       0
pew        X

Now, if you study the above games closely, you will see that I started out the same way in all three games, guessing three or four words that have no letters in common (flack, trudges, and hominy for the first game and flank, trudges, chimp, and boxy for the other games). This gives a minimum number of letters that the secret word must have, which makes it a bit easier to think about (and led me to a five-guess win in the third game).

Now, while this might make it easier to think about, is it a good strategy for minimizing the number of guesses? To find out, I had my Jotto program play itself at X-Jotto 100 times with two different guessing strategies. The first strategy is simply Twisted Jotto rules: it eliminates any words that don't score correctly, and then it randomly picks one of the remaining words. The second strategy is the same except that the first four guesses are always the set of four words from the second and third games above.

The first strategy found the word in an average of 9.15 guesses (standard deviation = 1.97), and the second strategy found the word in an average of 9.76 guesses (standard deviation = 1.95). Now, I don't know much about statistics, and it is a small sample size, but my gut tells me that the purely random method is going to be better overall. However, that less-than-one-guess difference might make it worthwhile to use a starting set of words, so that you can more easily get your brain around the search space. More tests are in order (the first one being trying the three-word start from the first game above).

I know this blog isn't really about word games, but I thought I'd put this up and see if anyone else has the kind of interest in word games that I do. Unless I get smacked down for posting about this, I'll do a few more Jotto-related posts, and possibly some related to other word games. If nothing else, it's made me pick up my Perl Jotto programs again, which has been a lot of fun.
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Lee Stewart's Random Oddness

Just a little side-link: Lee Stewart has been part of The Gameshelf's small and constant crew since the first episode, mostly doing camera work, but also assisting in other aspects of production and studio management during shoots. Sometime when I wasn't looking, he turned his blog Random Oddness into a showcase for his recent adventures in screenwriting. As a fan and supporter of DIY television, I feel obliged to toss him a link!

Bonus Gameshelf Trivia: I'm pretty sure I mis-credited him as "Lee Marvin" in at least one early episode.

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The Nephilim notebooks

I have been an on-again, off-again role-playing game player since I first discovered the hobby in high school. Since moving back to Boston at the start of this decade, I've had the pleasure of playing with some remarkably creative game masters. The first of these was Joshua Wright, an archaeologist and world traveler who expertly applied his first-hand knowledge and experience of cultures past and present to help guide and shape the stories that our group would tell together.

Josh recently departed for greener scholarly pastures on the left coast. After settling in there, he put back up online some web pages, PDFs, and other digital goodies that he'd made as supplementary material for the many games he's run over the last couple of decades. The campaign I played in is under the red "Nephilim" link; it was an instance of Nephilim, an RPG of supernatural secret histories.

I link to them here with Josh's permission, and present them without further context, both because they are more delightfully mysterious that way, and because I am lazy. I invite players and GMs of all role-playing game types to poke around; among the character sketches, plot outlines and historical-fact (and "historical"-"fact") compilations, you may find some unexpected inspiration.

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GAM3RS: The Play in Boston April 30

Six weeks ago, I went to a performance of GAM3RS: The Play at MIT. It was so much fun that I wrote about it here. One of the co-creators has let me know that there will be another Boston-area performance next Thursday:

I just wanted to let you and your readers know that the MIT show was so much fun, the wonderful folks at the New England Institute of Art wanted a performance of their own. Arrive early--the show is FREE and features a reception starting at 6 p.m., the play at 7 p.m., then a talk-back with co-writer and star Brian Bielawski after the show. Thursday, April 30, 2009 New England Institute of Art, Center Bldg, Room 1001, 10 Brookline Place West, Boston.
Again, I highly recommend this show. And, hey, it's free, and I think "reception" is code for "free food".

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Two pieces on Pac-Man

The Pac-Man Dossier, a free book-in-a-website by Jamie Pittman, is an exhaustively researched and thoroughly enjoyable exegesis on the flagship game from the golden age of video arcades. After an initial chapter that lays out the backdrop of Pac-Man's development in Japan and subsequent worldwide introduction, Pittman delves into the machine's inner workings, keeping to a designer's-eye view.

Of particular interest to me is the clear but exact explanation of the different ways the four ghosts behave. The reader learns that the game's enemies share a set of deterministic rules for movement, but each one also carries an additional rule unique to that ghost. These rules are elegant and easy to describe, if you know the trick - but to a player of the game, they're visible only as slippery and subtle effects, enough to give the ghosts the distinct "personalities" that help make the game so memorable. Truly masterful design.

As a child, I revered - was obsessed by, really - this game and its manifold mysteries. Seeing them all laid bare like this over a quarter-century later feels... oddly satisfying, actually. It's less like reliving a significant part of my childhood than it is like discovering a heretofore unknown director's commentary track attached to it.

And here's a transcript from Darius Kazemi of a talk by Ian Bogost about the origins of Ms. Pac-Man. For some reason, I didn't know that the game was an American invention, delivered directly to Bally/Midway after Namco declined to produce a sequel to Pac-Man. (Wikipedia confirms this, so it must be true.) Contains bonus noodling about what Ms. Pac-Man can tell us about The Bible and late 20th Century feminism.
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Dave Arneson, 1947-2009

A year ago I wrote about the death of Gary Gygax, and what his life meant for the birth of computer games.

All the same applies, and perhaps even more so, to Dave Arneson, who passed away this week. As I understand the story, it was Arneson who took a fantasy miniatures wargame and reinvented it as a structure for collaborative role-playing. That's where we all picked up the thread; long may it continue to unroll.

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CFP: Ludic Cartography, Mapping GameSpaces

This seems like a good place to spread the word:

The How They Got Game Project at Stanford University is currently seeking papers that explore the connections between mapping, cartographic practices, electronic gaming, and virtual worlds for an illustrated book that will be published in 2010.
If you have an idea (or maybe just a collection of your old hand-drawn game maps?) send them a one or two page proposal by April 25th. Read the full CFP for more details.

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Telltale Games has released the first episode of their Wallace & Gromit series, for PC. (Available as a direct download or on Steam.)

I'm not doing a full review, because you can get those anywhere, but I wanted to pick up a few contrasts between W&G and Telltale's previous episodic adventure hit, Sam & Max.

...The first contrast being, Wallace & Gromit isn't an episodic game series. Not in the sense we usually mean. The "episodic" model is: you buy a small game, which doesn't cost very much, and then next month a followup comes out and you buy that, and you keep doing this until you decide you're hooked (either because each episode is awesome, or because they build into a story arc and you want to see the end). Maybe you know you're a fan straight off the bat -- I certainly was when Sam & Max season 2 began -- so you buy a package deal for the whole series. Up to you.

Not this time. Telltale isn't offering Wallace & Gromit a la carte. You have to plunk down $35 up front, and then you get four small games delivered monthly. It's not so much "episodes" as "buy a game that's only a quarter done yet." (Or, I suppose, wait until July, when you'll be able to buy the whole thing at once for the low-low-price of... still $35.)

I'm not sure what spurred the change. The point of episodes is that you can draw in new players with a low-price game. ($9 for each S&M episode.) Not all those new players will follow through the rest of the series, but then how many players do you push away by asking for $35 up front? Maybe the name recognition (and existing fanbase) of S&M is enough to make this work for Telltale. I guess we'll find out what they do with their next offering.

Anyhow, I am the existing fanbase, so I paid up and jumped straight into the pit.

The most interesting interface tweak is keyboard navigation. Unlike in the S&M series, you move Wallace and/or Gromit around using the arrow keys. Now, keyboard movement has been the spurting carotid rupture of third-person adventuring ever since -- I don't know, Gabriel Knight? Steering an avatar around a 3D space with arrow keys is generally as much fun as parallel parking. However, W&G manages to minimize the hassle. You can still click on objects to walk up and interact with them. This is 75% of your navigation to begin with. The arrow keys only come into play when you have to walk across a wide space -- down a hallway, along a street -- so you're really just holding down one key. Obstacles are rare, large, and blunt, so you don't get stuck behind anything. The only place I had any real trouble was the town square, which is large enough that perspective does odd things to the directions.

Why this interface change? I'll hazard a guess: to make the game cozier. In the S&M series, the locations are fairly open, because there has to be floor everywhere. You have to be able to click on floor next to every object.

W&G is centered around a cluttered house. By cutting out the floor, the designers are able to pack more interesting objects into each room. The kitchen, for example, gives you an over-the-counter view with appliances in the foreground and background both. And by the same thought, the characters themselves can be larger; they can take up more of the screen, because you're not trying to click around them.

Another difference: W&G has no dialogue menus. (What, really? A third-person adventure with no dialogue menus? Outrageous!) If you're sharing the display with another character -- Gromit and/or Wallace count, when you're playing Wallace and/or Gromit -- some of the scenery acts as conversation topics. That is, when you're standing near the flower lady, you can click on various flowers to comment on them. It's the same one-click as any other action; some objects can be taken, some examined, some manipulated, and some commented on.

This works so smoothly that players may not even notice the lack of those beloved (or perhaps despised) menus. Mind you, it makes for a less conversational game pace. You're not going to spend as much of each game interrogating people, because the conversation choices don't change or nest. But then, that fits the theme. Sam and Max are cops; they interrogate. Wallace and Gromit are inventors; they play with toys.

So, does the contraptionating part of the game work? Answer: yes. (I told you this wasn't a full review.) Some of the puzzles felt a little awkward, but then I said the same about the first S&M episode. As with that series, I expect W&G to smooth out as the designers get comfortable with the model and build up some running gags.

My only other negative comments are, first, this episode felt a little short. (Perhaps the lost dialogue time needs to be replaced by some other sort of pacing interaction?) Second, I miss Peter Sallis (the original voice of Wallace). This game's Wallace does a great Peter Sallis impression, but it's still an impression.

And, third, I love Gromit -- Gromit is the best -- but he's no Max. The doggy eyebrows can express the perfect shade of exasperation, resignation, or confusion, but they just don't carry the narrative like the rabbitty-thing's awful, cheerful, unsay-that-now-please bon mots.

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