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Friday links: Race and Dominion online

RFTGScreenSnapz001.pngTurns out that both of the card games I wrote about Monday have officially sanctioned online versions. Dominion’s had an internet-playable implementation on the beloved BrettspielWelt for some time, but I only today got around to trying Race for the Galaxy’s computerized counterpart (pictured here). Both games are perfectly functional and free to play, but have a cost in… well, let us say that a polished user interface is not the top priority of either effort.

The brazenly unstyled HTML of Keldon Jones’ Race for the Galaxy page lets you know from the start that he isn’t out to impress you with a razor-sharp UI. But if it’s Race practice you’re after, I find his solution far more satisfying than the solitaire variant that comes packaged with the card game’s first expansion set. Keldon has been developing this AI in the sunshine for nearly a year, updating it frequently, and it’s very good. It consistently kicks my butt, anyway, whether with the base deck or any of the expansions — every one of which the programmer has implemented, and which you can mix in or out before each game.

In the tradition of one-hacker game-adaptation projects, obsessive focus on the rules and AI leaves the UI a secondary concern. Even with the simplest setup, it’s hard to tell with this Race board when anyone draws cards, for example, or which turn-phase is active. However, it quickly earned my trust that it wasn’t skipping any of the growing pile of interacting rules-exceptions that build up over the course over a single game. The requirement for every player to perform their own bookkeeping represents the weakest part of the physical game’s UI — one that I mess up all the time, to the annoyance of my friends, who grudgingly allow me to draw the bonus card I forgot to draw two phases ago. But this computer game quietly makes a non-issue of it, and I like that.

I was personally interested to discover that, all told, the interface Keldon designed shares several similarities to the UI I came up with for a digital version of Andy Looney’s Fluxx in 2005 [1]. We both chose, for example, the same solution to the puzzle of representing cards both as teensy icons that all fit on the screen, while allowing all the text on the cards to be readable: when you roll over any small card, a full-sized version appears in the window’s upper-left corner. I suspect that this is simply a result of drawing from the same deep well; I have been enjoying fan-digitizations of board games since I owned my first personal computer, and in almost every case found them as full of heart as they were of somewhat dubious interface practices. There are worse models to follow.

I must mention that, according its homepage, this adaptation exists with the full knowledge and blessing of Rio Grande Games, the boxed Race game’s publishers. We scratch our heads over the fact that they still print an aol.com-based email address on brand-new game boxes in 2010, but this shows that they know a thing or two about the benefits of not holding onto an IP with a death grip, especially when your product has creative superfans willing to do your internet-based marketing for you.

Take, for example, BrettspielWelt, which houses the digital Dominion. The user interface for BSW’s downloadable Java client is a deplorable mess, a nightmarish melange of tiny, overtiled panes with candy-colored buttons whose unclear purpose has nothing to do with the fact that the application is natively in German (appropriate to der Vaterland of many of its supported games, and of course only a problem to monoglots like me).

BrettspielWeltScreenSnapz001.pngAnd yet, it’s become the one place you go to play many popular tabletop games online, because that’s where everyone else goes. If you cross your eyes and look at this screenshot (click to enlarge), you’ll note that churning mass of colored bars in the background all say “Dominion” in them. Each of those is a game of Dominion in progress, and that horizontally(?!)-scrollable pane contains many more, stretching far off-screen. It’s like this all day long, filled with players from around the world and its many time zones. It doesn’t seem possible to play a game against bots, alas, but if you can convince friends to join you — or if you don’t mind practicing with strangers (and the risk of their ragequitting) — then this is the venue for online Dominion that the world has embraced.

The actual game does an acceptable job with its interface, given the constraints. Wisely, its designer chose to render the cards as space-saving squares or minimized rows of text (depending on context), rather than copy the physical cards’ oblong shape. This means that the cards’ various powers are expressed only as mouse-hovering tooltips, but really, you should use them only for reminders anyway; I can’t recommend coming anywhere near the BSW version of Dominion if you don’t already know how to play. Fortunately, the rules are available online, if you need a refresher — or if you’re feeling brave enough to try the game for the first time there.

Keldon Jones’ Race game also features an internet-play mode, which — as of Friday evening — houses a healthy handful of active players. So I do believe I’ll wrap this up, wish you a nice weekend, and go knock over some planets.

[1] And, yes, you can actually play this Fluxx adaptation, made by myself and Andrew Plotkin, via Volity.net, our misbegotten internet-game thingy that we haven’t developed further in years, but continue to keep propped up because why not. But this link goes into a footnote because it requires you to download a Java-based game client, the very sort of thing I go on to slag two paragraphs later. Look, I started designing it in 2003, and it seemed like the right idea at the time.

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Planet M.U.L.E. - First thoughts

Planet M.U.L.E.ScreenSnapz002.pngYouTube review by me of the original M.U.L.E. is here, if you need some background.

Last night I played a couple of games of the brand-new Planet M.U.L.E. - one with some friends over the internet, and one by myself. It is a faithful (sometimes a little too faithful) adaptation of Dani Bunten's original economic simulation from the 1980s, and it does indeed finally meet the long-time dream to bring internet playability to this intrinsically multiplayer game. Unfortunately, at least in its current version, Planet M.U.L.E. is marred by some design choices that will, I fear, significantly limit the size of audience.

More details after the jump:

Despite the extra word, Planet M.U.L.E. is M.U.L.E., through and through. It updates the graphics, sound and music only as much as necessary so that they don't seem completely out of place on a modern computer. It leaves every other aspect of the game completely untouched, from the many examples of on-screen text to the pace and style of the various animated events. I cannot tell for certain that the game's internal rules for supply-and-demand simulation are the same, but I have no reason not to believe it. [Update: See's Eeyore's comment.] Any player of the original game will feel at home here, and anything you might have heard, read or seen about the older game will apply directly to this one. So in that sense, yes, it's just as worth your time to play, and that counts double if you especially enjoy internet-based gaming. (Part because it's a lot of fun, and part because computer-controlled players in this game are dreadfully conservative and boring - which, I seem to recall, was also the case with the original.)

This faithfulness to the source material is followed so closely that it sometimes results in cross-time oddities. For example, the on-screen text makes reference to the player's "button" and "stick", as if they're using an archaic one-button joystick, rather than a keyboard with a spacebar and arrow keys. This seems a willful choice to adhere to the letter (literally!) of the original game, even at the cost of confusing modern players by deliberately printing incorrect instructions on the screen. I can guarantee you that every single first-time player, seeing the message "Press button when ready", will think Er... which button? before flailing uncertainly at their mouse and keyboard until something happens.

(A smaller and more curious example: one of the random events makes reference to "your Space Gypsy cousins" trashing the town. This might have been seen as a harmlessly cute joke a quarter-century ago, but it is only winceworthy today. Couldn't we have made them, I don't know, "Space Hobos", or something?)

Planet M.U.L.E.'s deeper flaws lay not in its gameplay or interface, but in its distribution and packaging. First of all, the game is presented as a downloadable Java application. I'd be curious to know the developers' reasons for not making it a web application, Flash-based or otherwise. One of the lessons that Zarf and I learned with Volity was that most people, including most "gamers", hate downloading stuff, and will avoid it as much as possible. Someone who is only mildly interested in checking out a game will, upon discovering that it requires a download, wander off in search of easier entertainment. Put it on a webpage, on the other hand, and you have a much better chance of hooking them.

Planet M.U.L.E.ScreenSnapz001.pngOnce you have downloaded it, you must endure a wiltingly player-hostile setup process before you can enjoy the game. You are faced with a stark and colorless window with controls for starting new games or joining internet games in progress. The program informs us that, to host a new game, the player must open a couple of ports on their firewall, and then set up port forwarding for them; in other words, they must be willing and able to mess around with their home router's configuration. This effectively excludes anyone except for begging-your-pardon nerds (like me, yes, like me) from accessing one of the core modes for any internet-based game: the ability to set up a table, populate it with our friends, and kick out the riffraff. It also bars anyone who might not have access credentials to the local router - I'm thinking of kids, here. That's a shame.

It's true that you can just join existing games in any case. However, if you and a friend wish to play together without having to deal with any strangers, but neither of you happens to have the ability to modify your home network configuration, then you're out of luck. Or, more likely, you'll try anyway, get frustrated at the hanging "Connecting..." screen, and then give up entirely.

(And, that it requires the open ports in the first place questionable by itself - I have enjoyed many internet games from behind the snug safety of my NAT's firewall, and none prior to this have asked me to punch holes in it for their own benefit.)

This very cranky and dirty interface for setting up a game lies in direct opposition to the simple and smooth interface for actually playing the damn thing, once you've gotten it going. I know that the presence of internet play meant that the developers had to make an exception to the literal-adaptation philosophy (I believe the method for starting a game of the original M.U.L.E. was "Press the Start key"), but it's as if they strapped the game to the Java-UI equivalent of one the game's titular ornery and failure-prone beasts of burden, rather than a fittingly friendly and helpful interface that doesn't require any more network knowledge than, say, a typical Xbox Live user would have.

Sadly, there were some out-and-out bugs, too; I experienced several crashes while setting up my multiplayer game, and suffered a fatal freezeup when I was playing single-player. Problems like these are par for the course for any v1.0 product, and I expect them to be fixed presently. But again, because it's a downloadable game versus a web-based one, the burden is on the player to check for and then download new versions by themselves, rather than simply reload a webpage. (And, no, the application doesn't appear to have a new-version-checking feature.)

I had fun playing Planet M.U.L.E. with my friends, and look forward to playing it again. I congratulate Turborilla and Blue Systems on the loving gameplay adaptation, and on getting it all shipped on time. But all that said, this is a mule that could stand to spend a little more time in the outfitting shop.

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