Results tagged “books”

Mammals needed

No long article from me this week; am setting up with a new client to earn money to buy more time to think about games for your pleasure, dear reader. But here a couple of small items nonetheless:

Anna Anthropy’s book Rise of the Videogame Zinesters is coming out this spring, and she asked a bunch of folks to record very short videos for her to stitch together into a book-tour promotion. This was my contribution:

This is the essay I refer to in the video. It really is one of my favorite written works of game-design takeapart.

There are still a few unclaimed songs in Kevin’s Apollo 18 IF Tribute Album project. It’s particularly needful of a short work of interactive fiction that would complement the song “Mammal”, but there are a bunch of one-move “Fingertips” games that need to be written as well.

The first-draft deadline remains set at February 12. Those who find themselves suddenly inspired to create a They Might Be Giants fan-game at tremendous velocity should feel free to claim a remaining slot and follow the instructions on the original post.

David Sudnow: Pilgrim in the Microworld

Piano keysNear the beginning of David Sudnow’s Pilgrim in the Microworld, published in 1983, the author, a Berkeley-based sociologist and polymath, describes his discovery of the Atari VCS at a friend’s party. Missile Command in particular intrigued him so much that he immediately visited a store to buy his own console. That game was out of stock, but the salesperson recommended Breakout instead. He proceeded to play that game obsessively for three months, and then wrote a 160-page book about it. The resulting artifact was unique for its time and remains an unusual work; even as the field of games criticism grows deeper and richer, this book from the previous century has something to teach us.

I read a book

Last Sunday I finally finished reading and working though Aaron Reed’s Creating Interactive Fiction with Inform 7, a book that Andy’s already written about here. I felt it worth noting my own thoughts, briefly, as someone who isn’t an Inform expert (unlike Andy, whose name appears in the language’s credit roll, for zog’s sake).

Creating Interactive Fiction with Inform 7, by Aaron Reed. Cool-looking book, eh? It's been out for a few weeks, and I haven't seen a review beyond short "this book is awesome!" posts. I finished reading it last week. I ought to write a review.

This book is awesome, and... hm. What is it? Hm. Okay, what isn't it?

Friday linkdump: Three stories about cubes

IMG_1393.JPGOK, two of them are about dice.

Your Uncle Dudley’s Knucklebones appears to be the online gallery of a dice collector (with a casually Google-resistant identity). The mysterious blog contains only two posts, but the enormous latter entry contains many dozens of individual photographs.

The dice lay against a ruler on a white background, looking more like bullets in an autopsy, removed from their police report. The site offers no textual explanation of where any of the dice came from, or what purpose the more oddly specialized ones may have served. But if you’re like me, you’ll find delight in imagining the designs these little rolling-bones once played a part of. (Granted, the aim of the rather NSFW dice towards the end seem plain enough…)

I was interested to see that the first post, dedicated to the display of a single prototype 60-sided die design, mentions the fabbers at We’ve mentioned their contributions to the games-and-puzzles world before.

I have not read The Bones, but I probably should. It’s a collection of essays on dice edited by Will Hindmarch, and my fellow tabletop-game aficionados will recognize many of the collected author’s names — Costikyan, Kovalic, Selinker, the increasingly inevitable Wheaton, and many others. A print book is currently for sale, with an ebook edition in the works.

(Bonus aside: for a delightful coffee-table book about these most venerable gaming tools, Ricky Jay’s Dice: Deception, Fate & Rotten Luck, which pairs smart text on the history and culture of dice with truly beautiful and haunting photographs of our cubical friends by Rosamond Purcell. It’s still in print, and findable through the book-oracle of your choice.)

Finally, allow me to share with you the good news that God’s Number is 20.

With about 35 CPU-years of idle computer time donated by Google, a team of researchers has essentially solved every position of the Rubik’s Cube, and shown that no position requires more than twenty moves.

[ … ]

One may suppose God would use a much more efficient algorithm, one that always uses the shortest sequence of moves; this is known as God’s Algorithm. The number of moves this algorithm would take in the worst case is called God’s Number. At long last, God’s Number has been shown to be 20.

It took fifteen years after the introduction of the Cube to find the first position that provably requires twenty moves to solve; it is appropriate that fifteen years after that, we prove that twenty moves suffice for all positions.

I don’t pretend to fully understand exactly how this solution came about, despite the cogent explanations on that page, and its many interesting links to other Cube-fiends’ attempts at finding this elusive number, going all the way back to typewritten correspondence from 1981. But I am delighted to learn about such a vertiginous level of recreational puzzle solving — not solving the Cube, but solving a puzzle that’s made out of solutions to the Cube, a true meta-puzzle. All the better, I suppose, that I learn about it specifically because some folks have finally laid it safely to rest after nearly 30 years of shared effort. Less fundamentally frightening, that way.

Zeno Clash: Subtle horror, done right

MA_revisions_06-large.jpgThe opening cinematic of ACE Team's Zeno Clash shows a towering and unearthly creature -- cowled, hunchbacked and literally bird-legged, yellow eyes glowing like lanterns over a beaklike proboscis -- tenderly caring for some chubby, babbling babies. We see it helping one learn to walk, letting the child grasp its absurdly long, bony finger, leading it along gently.

The scene is not played as a shocking reveal; the entire, bizarre tableau is displayed at once, as soon as the game loads. The game knows damn well that you downloaded it after reading a blurb, either on Steam or on Xbox Live, that led you to expect an action-adventure about beating people up. And then it shows you this.

That, my friends, is a hook.

Here is another hook:

Mrs. Sloan had only three fingers on her left hand, but when she drummed them against the countertop, the tiny polished bones at the end of the fourth and fifth stumps clattered like fingernails. If Judith hadn't been looking, she wouldn't have noticed anything strange about Mrs. Sloan's hand.

"Tell me how you met Herman," said Mrs. Sloan.

This the opening of "The Sloan Men" by David Nickle, whose work I discovered via Pseudopod, a podcast of new short stories in the horror genre. I started listening to the show a couple of years ago as a change of pace from Escape Pod, the trailblazing SF podcast that became popular enough to spawn a handful of subgenre-specific shows, Psuedopod among them. I quickly came to prefer it over its parent show -- to my surprise, since I have never identified as a horror fan. And while I don't love every story it features, it manages to air a real winner with sufficient frequency that I look forward to each week's new show.

I quote Nickle because his stories, and the experience of having them read to me by Psuedopod's varied but consistently fine vocal talent, came to mind as I started to play Zeno Clash. From my perspective, the game appeared without warning or fanfare on Xbox Live Arcade last week. (It's been on Steam for a year, but, not much of a PC gamer, I hadn't noticed.) By coincidence, I'd purchased Nickle's collection Monstrous Affections earlier that same day -- after hearing and loving, for the third time, a story of his on Pseudopod -- so stories like "The Sloan Men" were fresh on my mind.[1]

The two stories' openings share the tactic of taking something familiar and domestic -- one parent lovingly caring for its infant children; another, enthroned in her kitchen, casually grilling her son's new girlfriend -- and mixing in something very wrong, letting it jut out in plain sight, as obvious as an exposed fingerbone. The disconnect, when executed correctly, produces a thrill in the audience, a recognition of the normal world gone horribly (aha!) awry somehow, and generates a hunger to learn more.

What I bought at PAX East 2010, Part 2

9780810984233.jpgThis week I complete my writeup of the stuff I hoovered off the merch tables outside the very first PAX East expo hall last month. As I mentioned last time, almost everything I bought at this game expo was some kind of printed matter.

Meanwhile, by Jason Shiga

I don't understand how I haven't run into Jason Shiga's work before last month[1], where two of his self-published books lay among the Printed Works of Interest on display at the PAX IF Suite. One of them, a black-and-white, intriguingly dogeared comic book called Meanwhile, caught my attention immediately, and I was delighted to discover that a brand-new full-color hardcover edition had not only just been printed but was for sale at the expo. For my money, it is a best-case scenario of print-based interactive fiction.

What I bought at PAX East 2010, Part 1

30887208_16f5396a71.jpgHere is one of my two funny PAX East 2010 stories: Near the start of the Friday-afternoon festivities, around the time that Zarf took the pensive-looking photo of me seen in his own PAX post, I bumped into Darius Kazemi, celebrated one-man social nexus of the Boston game-making community. We caught each other up on our respective projects, and after hearing about how I've been experimenting with writing longer, more-or-less regularly paced columns for The Gameshelf, he gave me a quest. I was to seek out a brand-new and ambitious print magazine called Kill Screen, the editors of which I could find in attendance that weekend.

The rest of Friday was then completely consumed by IF events, as others have already ably recorded. (Again, see Zarf's post for links aplenty.) When Saturday came, and after I'd succeeded in meeting my visiting Xbox Live pals for lunch, I pulled out my phone for some google-sleuthing, hoping to find where within the overcrowded PAX these magazine folks hid. A search for "kill screen" "pax east" brought me easily to this blog post by the magazine's managing editor, Chris Dahlen, where he noted that he'd be speaking on a panel in the IF hospitality suite at 7 PM. As it happened, I would be speaking on the same panel. Quest complete.

I am in possession of both video and commentary regarding that panel, but alas, my poor, broken, coffee-stained MacBook lacks the wherewithal to make the video postworthy. I expect FedEx to deliver its shiny white replacement presently, at which point I'll attempt to push my own thoughts on that panel and the whole "IF Outreach" topic into presentable shape.

Until then, allow me to review my PAX East 2010 Haul. With one exception[1], everything I purchased took the form of printed matter, and all of it came from either the Attract Mode folks or Jason Scott, both of whom had set up tables in "Band Land" amid all the musicians' merch. I took delighted surprise in finding myself coming home from a video game expo with only an armload of books and magazines, and hope you'll enjoy hearing about it.

Games in, on, and around our culture

Two quick links today.

  • A Common Nomenclature for Lego Families: That, families (and other households) that play with Lego. What do you call a two-by-two brick? Everybody calls it something. This article charts the nomenclature of four children.

...a "light saber" is a "light saber" no matter where you live or how much Lego you have.

(Thanks nancylebov for the link.)

  • One Book, Many Readings: A patient, detailed, gorgeous discussion of Choose Your Own Adventure books. Analyzes twelve of them in detail, including Edward Packard's original The Cave of Time. And when I say "analyzes", I mean several different data visualizations: the endings, the choice points, the flow graphs. Some are animated (Flash).

Another surprising change over time is the decline in the number of choices in the books. [...] I'd be very curious to know the reason for this progression toward linearity. Presumably the invisible hand was guiding this development, but whether the hunger was for less difficulty in the books or simply for something with more in the way of traditional storytelling is harder to unravel.

My only quibble with this essay is that white-on-black body text is a ravening monster that should have been exterminated at the end of the Dark Ages (1980-1984). But oh well.

(On the other hand -- who knew that Ellen Kushner wrote a CYOA book? Neat!)

(Thanks daringfireball for the link.)

Free Online Game Design Course

Ian Schreiber is doing a free online game design course this summer. It's open to everyone, and you can either just follow along on the blog or actually sign up and get some additional material by email. He doesn't specifically mention the title in his post, but I'm sure the book he's using is the one he wrote recently with Brenda Brathwaite, Challenges for Game Designers: Non-Digital Exercises for Video Game Designers.

So, if you've played many games and want to get an idea of what goes into designing them, check out the blog or sign up for the course.

From the old to the new

Another in our series of game design documents. Jeff Howard, author of Quests: Design, Theory, and History in Games and Narratives (standard disclaimer: this book was published by the company I work for, and I acquired it, but I have no direct financial stake in the book), recently started blogging on the topics associated with his book. He just posted a game design document for a game that he's going to start building, called Arcana Manor, a "3D, first-person action-adventure/platforming game about leaping, swinging, and crawling through a surreal funhouse while battling demons." You can also check out his post where he talks about his initial idea for the game, and I find it interesting to see the modifications and refinements that take place just in the two weeks between the posts. I'm particularly interested in the fact that he's going to use tarot symbolism, with the possibility of wandering through rooms based on the major arcana. (I've had this minor fascination with card games that use a tarot deck where each major arcana has a different ability, and I've been meaning to post here about that.)

The library

They say you can blog about whatever you want, really. But I don't have a cat, and it's not Friday. So this is Irregular Holy Crap I Wish That Were My Life Wednedays.

Jay Walker's private library -- article by Steven Levy in Wired

The article is game-related only in that videogames, particularly adventure games, often have imposing libraries. Some of them even look this good. But in a game library, inevitably, there are only three or five books you can look at.

Just occasionally, reality is better.

I've been upgrading my own library, the past few days. But when I say "upgrading," I mean "I crammed in one more small bookshelf, plus a DVD rack, and then added a second lamp so that there'd be a little more light in the back." I didn't put in floating balconies and a Nuremberg Chronicle and a Sputnik. Nor is my apartment done up in a surprisingly harmonious mixture of wood inlay and fiber-optic glass.

Maybe next year.

Games Canon from Creating Games

Disclaimer:I am an editor at A K Peters, the publisher of this book. Sales of this book help my company; thus, I benefit from the sale of this book. However, I don't get any kind of commission or bonus based on sales of this book, so the benefit is not a direct one. Besides being an employee of the company, I also worked on this book, so I am not necessarily unbiased about it.

9781568813059.jpgA K Peters is publishing a book called Creating Games: Mechanics, Content, and Technology by Morgan McGuire and Odest Chadwicke Jenkins. From the authors' website for the book (which contains a full TOC):

"This book is a comprehensive introduction to the process and theories of game development. It is written for academic games courses, professionals new to the games industry, and indie development teams. The book includes worksheets and exercises that cumulate in a game design document."
Basically, it talks about each area of video game development (much of which can be, and explicitly is in parts of the book, applied to board games), in enough detail so that you know what's going on in that area and are able to talk to the people who do work in that area. There's a lot of good stuff in there (I've read the whole book word-for-word, which, contrary to what might be generally believed, is not something an editor in technical publishing does for every book he or she works on), and I think it's something that might be interesting to people who read this blog, even if they never intend to develop a video game.

So, I wanted to put an excerpt up here, and I debated putting one of the meaty chapters of the book up, but I decided that the games canon that appears as an appendix of the book might actually be more interesting for the blog. So, here's the canon. I'll just note that this book is copyrighted by A K Peters, 2008, and used by permission (I asked the publisher). All rights reserved. The book should be out around Thanksgiving, and you can preorder it from the A K Peters website or from Amazon.

The Games Canon
(Appendix F from Creating Games: Mechanics, Content, and Technology by Morgan McGuire and Odest Chadwicke Jenkins)

Famous, infamous, radically innovative, critically acclaimed, or blockbuster successes, these are games everyone in the field should know about. They form the base of prior art. In any field, professionals work within a mainstream culture that references important previous work. These form the critical jargon (e.g., "this painting references Van Gogh's Starry Night") and the cultural context for new ideas.

Research is important in any field. It is how we build on the successes of the past and avoid their failures. You wouldn't try to write a book or create a car without first learning about the ones that preceded yours. When creating a game, you should research previous games. This list summarizes some of the most important games. It is intended as a jumping-off point for further research if a game sounds like one you'd like to make. Read through it to familiarize yourself with the previous work. No game designer would be taken seriously without at least passing familiarity with these titles, and most designers have studied several of them in depth.

For brevity, only the most critically acclaimed (or derided) and popular games are listed. In many cases, a previous game introduced a concept (e.g., Crystal Caverns predated Wolfenstein) but had a minor impact. These also include the games that designers often list as their major influences.

For additional cannon lists, see Lowder's book for an excellent recent review of major board games by famous game designers, for up-to-date Internet ratings, and Wikipedia's best-selling (if not best) video game list at


The minicanon contains the bare minimum set of games that you should be familiar with to appreciate the examples in this book and start making your own games. A games course should offer these or equivalents to students at a minimum, and anyone serious about games should own them. Most of these games are explained in more depth in the following sections and referenced throughout the text (see the index for references). Note that these aren't necessarily the absolute best games in their class, according to one specific design criterion, but they are likely the most widely acclaimed, easiest to acquire, and successful.

  • Carcassonne by Klaus-Juergen Wrede is a board game that features tile-laying and semicooperative mechanics. It has multiple ways of earning points, relatively low variance, and deep strategy and is supported by a series of expansions and alternative rule sets.

  • Settlers of Catan by Klaus Teuber is a board game with trading and building mechanics. Settlers and Carcassonne cover most of the mechanics found in modern strategic German board games and clarify the differences in mechanics and business models that distinguish them from ancient games and twentieth-century American games. They have also both successfully been converted to Xbox 360 video games. Puerto Rico is a good substitute for Settlers and features similar mechanics and theme but more advanced play and better balance.

  • Chess is representative of ancient strategy games. It is played internationally from casual to tournament levels and features rich emergent play. Almost everyone is immediately familiar with the basics of the game, and the knight and king playing pieces are challenged only by the six-sided die for the iconic status as the symbol of gaming in general.

  • Go beats chess in complexity (due to the large board), age, and elegance (there are only two rules to the game!). Although less popular in America than chess, many classic mechanics and strategies arise directly from the rules of go, including encirclement, flanking, captures, and variable board size.

  • Poker is a gambling card game that rivals all other games in terms of tournament popularity and purse size. It is exemplary as a classic card game and relies almost exclusively on bidding mechanics, which can be studied in depth through the many variants on this game. Poker is familiar to most gamers and requires only a standard deck of cards to play.

  • StarCraft, or any other major RTS/TBS video game (e.g., Warcraft, Civilization, Populous, Master of Orion, Empire Earth), is a requirement for any game developer. We have a slight preference for the Age of Empires series, which combines some modern RTS UI conventions and elements of casual gameplay to make the games more accessible to new players (and also has a free demo of the latest version). These play like a board game but with mechanics so complex that you need a computer to resolve them, nicely showing the transition from strategy to tabletop wargame to computer game. The character-building RPG mechanics made famous by Diablo and Dungeons & Dragons all appear in RTS games, but the "character" is the army or civilization. Mechanics are at the forefront of RTS games, and these are a celebration of complexity.

  • Half-Life 2 stands out among FPS games. It is exemplary as a shooter, and the engine supports the other popular shooters Counter-Strike and Team Fortress, but HL2 also pushes farther toward storytelling than any other FPS and is among the most technically sophisticated of its time in terms of technology and Internet distribution business model. We believe that the original Half-Life had a better quality balance (HL2's graphics and physics advanced substantially, but the puzzles, mechanics, and story were at the same level as HL1) but believe that new gamers would appreciate HL2 more because they are accustomed to modern graphics and audio.

  • Tetris is iconic as a puzzle and casual game, and decades after its introduction is still considered the standard to meet. The elegant gameplay, tremendous commercial success, and geometric twist on dominoes meets Connect Four make this game a classic. Bejeweled, Hexen, Maki, and other popular arcade puzzle games are directly inspired by Tetris.

  • Guitar Hero and its sequels were neither the first rhythm games nor the first guitar games, but they took the genre to perhaps its natural acme. Guitar Hero 2 and Rock Band (by the same developer, Harmonix, and the moral sequel to GH2) are the best of the series. By combining a physical prop with popular music, these games offer broad casual gamer appeal and have consistently been among the best sellers every year since their introduction. Reasonable substitutes are Dance Dance Revolution (DDR), Karaoke Revolution, PaRappa the Rapper, and Guitar Freaks, although these do not have the same mass appeal.

  • Super Mario Bros. and its many sequels (e.g., Mario 64, Super Mario 3, Super Mario Galaxy) stand out as best-of-breed platformers. These have tight arcade controls for hardcore gamers combined with cartoony content for casual players. They are polished to a shine by Nintendo's development team and feature a Japanese experiential aesthetic that is still grounded enough for mainstream Western audiences. The Mario games are consistently among the best-selling games of all time, and Mario is probably the most recognizable (and longest lived) video game character—the video game equivalent of Mickey Mouse. As with most of Nintendo's most popular games, the Mario games were designed by Shigeru Miyamoto.

  • The Sims 2 and its sequels and expansions are the best of breed (and best-selling) of the god game/pet-raising genre games. These feature most of the mechanical complexity of an RTS, but that complexity is buried behind fiction so compelling that the player's mental model invariably aligns with the artificial characters and not the mechanics. The Sims series is often considered the best-selling video game of all time, taking sequels and expansion packs into account. The game was designed by industry veteran Will Wright, who dedicated it to the memory of Dan Bunten, author of M.U.L.E.

  • Indigo Prophecy is deeply flawed in its action sequences, and the plot goes haywire halfway through the game, yet it is one of the best examples of the potential for interactive fiction. This arcane mystery game features characters that the player will really empathize with and scenes that inspire true anxiety, fear, desire, and awe. Although few narrative games can touch Indigo Prophecy, some other well-respected narrative games include Dreamfall and Jade Empire. The older Lucas Arts games (many by Tim Schafer and with writing by Orson Scott Card) feature rich characterization, humor, and fantastic scenes but only occasionally gripping narratives: The Secret of Monkey Island, Grim Fandango, Full Throttle, and The Dig.

(Read the rest of the games canon, which lists games by category.)

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.

Quick Links (Spring Cleaning Edition)

Not so much with the posting lately; a new (game-related!) project that I can't talk much about yet has sprouted in my middle of my life like a delicious and fecund springtime mushroom. You see what it's done to my sense of metaphor? You don't want to see my writing right now, anyway.

But for now, it's time to close some tabs!

The fellow got his hands on an ancient hard drive from the offices of Infocom, the long-defunct (but Cambridge-based!) publishers of the most well-known text adventure games in the 1980s. He shares some details from "the best parts", including design notes and swirling, dramatic internal emails regarding a never-released sequel to The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

Because this received so many links from more timely game-news blogs (cough), a lot of the Infocom alums mentioned in the story showed up in the attached comment thread to flesh out the details personally, and one of them's apparently been move to pen his own view of the saga for Wired magazine. (See? There is an advantage in waiting a week to link to it. Mm-hmm.)

Lost Cities is out for XBox 360 now (as a US$10 download), and here's a video (using some whackjob MS-proprietary format, sorry) about the team adapting the tabletop party game Wits & Wagers for the platform. Word on the street that the numba-one game on Microsoft's "Live Arcade" downloadable-game service is not any sort of action-fighty game, but Uno, which has put away around 1.5 million copies through it.

So, yes, Microsoft has thrown down and put forward this console as embracing the world of tabletop games that are more obscure to American audiences than Risk. The examples I've gotten to see so far have been fairly decent and faithful adaptations, so I cautiously salute this.

Archaeologists in Iran have indentified some grid-shaped rock carvings on Khark Island as being the play surface of a millenia-old board game. No word on what kind of game it was, though the article seems to imply that it could be some relative of Backgammon. No additional commentary from the original designers this time, sadly. Anyway, an interesting antidote to the last time Iran showed up in this blog.
Andrew at Grand Text Auto describes another interesting never-was game from the 1980s, an Atari VCS game where you had to program an on-screen robot to complete tasks, such as navigating a maze. Yes, it looks like a totally bomb-ass cool version of Secret Collect. I would have loved this. Apparently the original designer is releasing some homemade cartridges with the game software on it; see article for details.
Via Play This Thing, we see that several of Joe Dever's Lone Wolf pick-a-path adventure game books from the 1980s have become free downloads. I played and enjoyed these as a kid, and as Greg notes in that post, they're an important evolutionary step in the development of single-player role-playing experiences, even though nobody(?) is publishing books like them nowadays.

Maze: beautiful, inspirational, unsolvable

At a local gathering of friends the other day, the classic puzzle book Maze, by Christopher Manson, came up in conversation. Many, myself included, recalled encountering it not too long after its original 1985 publication date. At the time, we all found it a fascinating artifact, though a completely inscrutable puzzle.

The book is still for sale, as it turns out, and there's also an online, hypertext version of the book you can wander through freely. (I note that the website appears to reside among the archives of an early electronic-publishing venture, and has remained unmodified since the mid-1990s. Sadly, the scanned illustrations are formatted to fit the relatively dinky computer displays of that era, resulting in much of the fine detail getting lost. I suppose I should encourage you to go buy the book, if you find them sufficiently intriguing.)

I should correct myself and call the book semi-scrutable, at least. It represents a labyrinth of connected chambers, you see, where each page features a haunting and evocative illustration of one room, trimmed with a short bit of text where the book's mysterious narrator leads a group of squabbling explorers through. The first part of the book's puzzle, then, is simply to find a path that takes you from the entrance to the maze's center and back in 16 steps. The harder part involves teasing the text of a riddle out of all the depicted stuff that lay along this route. And this is where most mortals get stopped, finding themselves with a pile of stuff and no clues.

After I returned home that evening, it occurred to me that I probably hadn't thought much about Maze since the ascent of Wikipedia, and surely it spelled out the solution. Why, yes. And what a solution! It's amusing I can look at this more than 20 years after the book's original publication and tell you why this would get razzed by any of the hardcore puzzle people I know today.

Granted, it was supposed to be very hard, because there was a cash-money prize for the first correct response. But the Wikipedia article implies that they overdid it, since the publishers extended the deadline at least once, and it's unclear if any claim was ever made. And no wonder, really; the solution demands you selectively perform wordplay on picture and text elements along the path, but gives you no clues as to which elements are important, and what should be done with them.

For example (and I'm about to get a little spoilery here) on this page, it happens that you're supposed to get a word by taking two picture elements and anagramming them together. But for all you know, maybe you combine the A with BELL and perform a sound-alike wordplay to get ABLE. Or perhaps the word is simply BELL, after all. Or a dozen other things suggested by the image. They all seem equally right - which is to say, none especially so.

Carry this feeling over the path's 16 pages, and I assert you've got an utterly unsolvable combinatorial explosion. I would be quite interested to learn of integral clues I'm overlooking, though, or to hear about someone who solved the book without any hints! Until then, I must conclude that for all the book's beauty - and it is quite a lovely thing to flip through - as a puzzle, it would get booed off the stage at the MIT mystery hunt.

More important than its puzzle, however, is the book's legacy. Without a doubt, the book left a lasting inspiration to many, stoking a hunger to try solving more baroque and beautiful puzzles, even if that means having to create them first. You can see echoes of Maze in art-heavy digital adventures such as Myst. In fact, the stimulus for this group recollection among friends was a new puzzle designed with Maze in mind, by Gameshelf pal Andrew Plotkin. I have it on good authority that it was cracked by dedicated solvers within a day.

Computer Role-Playing Games

Since this is my first post, a bit of an introduction. My name is Kevin Jackson-Mead, and you can see my lovely face in Gameshelf Episode 1 (playing Shadows over Camelot) and Gameshelf Episode 3 (playing Gnostica). My current favorite game is usually one that I have recently learned, but right now it's Strange Synergy, an old favorite (anyone want to play?). By day, I am an editor at a book publisher where I am responsible for, among other things, books on computer game development.

Some of the books may be interesting to this audience, but I don't want want to come on here and plug my books all the time. However, a book that just came out is, I think, particularly relevant, so I'll get the plugging out of the way with my first post.

I would imagine that the genre of computer role-playing games (CRPGs) is known to most people reading this, but the basic idea is tabletop role playing (like Dungeons & Dragons) brought to the computer desktop (or console). My introduction to this genre was via my uncle, who played the Ultima games. I only watched him play a little bit, and I never ended up playing the Ultima games, but I do remember that one of the games came with a cloth map and a metal ankh. I now know that this was Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar, which is widely considered to be the best in the series and even one of the best computer games ever.

The first CRPG that I played on my own computer (Commodore 64) was Phantasie. I was completely thrilled with all of the stats, figuring out what spells my wizards and priests could get at what level, the Tolkienesque theme, the little noises during combat—pretty much everything about the game. I ended up playing all three games in the series. I later played Pool of Radiance, the first of SSI's "Gold Box" games. I made lots of maps on graph paper for that game, and it was also a magical experience for me. Perhaps my favorite part of the game was the combat, which was a turn-based combat that had the feel of combat played out on a tabletop with miniatures. I played at least six of these "Gold Box" games, perhaps the favorite of which was the second one, Curse of the Azure Bonds (yes, I realize now that starting a story with the main charcater(s) having amnesia is hackneyed, but it enthralled my thirteen-year-old self).

Over the years, I dabbled with a few other CRPGs, but I never got into any as much as I did these first ones. Fast forward to Dungeons and Desktops: The History of Computer Role-Playing Games (I'll spare you the story of how this book came to be, but I will point out that the cover art is by Clyde Caldwell, renowned fantasy artists whose art graced some of the "Gold Box" games). In working on this book, I was introduced to my old friends Phantasie and Pool of Radiance, and I was introduced to many new friends. The book tells the history of the genre, starting with the earliest games and going right through to the present day. It talks about what was good and not so good about these games, what design decisions were made and how these affected gameplay, and how these games influenced later games.

It got me excited about the genre again. And so when I saw a mini review of a shareware computer role-playing game recently, I decided to give it a whirl. The game is Excelsior Phase One: Lysandia, originally published in 1993. You play a fixer, a member of a group whose aim is to keep time in order, or something. You're sent to this land where there has been some kind of problem detected. That frame story doesn't matter much once the game gets started, however; you're basically in a standard swords-and-sorcery game.

It is very much in the style of the Ultima games, and it is an homage to them. I found it challenging while still being doable, although I admit to checking out the walkthrough for a few things here or there—although only once for something other than as an alternative to taking notes. Because you're going to have to take a lot of notes in this game. There are many different quests, and you get little bits of information from talking to people scattered throughout the land. A piece of information, however, doesn't make sense until you have gotten to a certain point in a particular quest, so you either need to have a good memory or take many notes (or cheat). The nice thing about all of these quests is that they are not linear, so that if you get stuck on one quest, you can switch to working on another quest. There's lots of running around the map for some of the quests, but I found that, after a while, the monsters you encounter are no longer a problem, so it's simply a matter of the time it takes.

I made a tank of a character (a giant warrior), and after suffering through a few levels of barely scraping together enough money to get healed and eat, I became powerful enough to survive for a while, and then I discovered a few key spells (mostly the healing spells) that a warrior can cast. After that, it became pretty easy to survive just about anything (I did occasionally get killed when I would get hit by a sleep spell and then get pounded to death while I blissfully snoozed).

I've never really reviewed a computer game before like this, so I'm sure I'm botching this somewhat. Let me just say that this is an extremely enjoyable game, and I highly recommend it if you're at all a fan of old-school CRPGs, especially the Ultima series. There's a sequel, too, called Excelsior Phase Two: Errondor, although I haven't played that one yet.

Christmas break

I'll be offline for a day or two while I make my annual Christmas visit to my 1960s-tech-level family in Fairfield, Maine. They are like unto a museum exhibit, a living piece of history. This is why I tolerate their ceaseless yet period-appropriate racist and panaphobic speech, which would make any of my bleeding-heart friends' hair turn white upon exposure.

I will attempt to lighten my visit by bringing games. Ricky enjoys playing Memoir 44, but last year's attempt to play it with him ended prematurely and poorly, as he used its theme (WWII) to start ranting about the WoT. So I am steering clear of militaristic subjects this time, and opting to bring Bohnanza, which I haven't played in ages and my family might actually both understand and like. Ricky, if he plays, will play according to however the UFOs tell him to, but the game supports this strategy.

All that said, my Zipcar reservation lasts only 48 hours, so I am guaranteed an out before things get too twitchy. I also made a late-night run to the Harvard Bookstore to pick up the second collection of the Brust saga, so I won't go insane from boredom from lack of internets.

I wish a most Merry Christmas to those who desire one!

Starting to read Brust

I am now two books into the Brust canon, having finished Yendi last night. It's a good time, and not what I was expecting. (What I was expecting was unfavorably set by the front cover copy on my ancient Jhereg paperback - "A young man bound for adventure needs a faithful reptile companion!" Which makes it sound like a YA quest-type story. Which it isn't. (It might still count as YA, but I am doubtful.) )

Was Jhereg written as a winking reaction to Dungeons and Dragons? The author perhaps challenging himself to write a coherent story set in a world that seems to operate under D&D-like rules?

I mean, here we have a faux-medieval-euro-world where it's no big deal to suffer an untimely death, so long as your friends or family have access to a sufficiently high-level wizard and you don't totally blow your dice rolls on your way back. And characters conduct long-distance psionic communication with not just the ease but the conversational manner of cell phones, asking each other what's for dinner and such.

But it goes beyond simple parody by then starting to follow through with societal implications for this stuff. The main character is an assassin, a job suddenly fraught with unusual complications in a place where death is often non-fatal. Here is a world where, if you want to send a "stay out of the west side" message to someone, you kill them. This is actually hilarious.

And on top of all this, the protagonist and all his friends each have what some of my friends would call a PC glow that basically lets them hew effortlessly through most any physically dangerous situation, particularly fighty ones, but that's as much an artifact of adventure fiction as it is role-playing games.

I found it a fast and goofy read. Yendi I had to struggle with a bit more, since the first act feels like looking over someone's shoulder while they play Fantasy Underworld Tycoon on their computer. Reading a turn-by-turn account of how Vlad acquired new resources and moved his existing ones around the map made me want to play the game too, but it wasn't otherwise all that interesting. It got better once the plot finally kicked in.

Looking forward to starting Teckla soon.



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