Search Results for: computer games

Weekend links: two on chess

Lewischess2-popup.jpgVia the New York Times’ “Gambit” chess blog, we learn of a new controversy surrounding… well, not so much a very old game as a set of very old game pieces, with new evidence causing some to question the national origin of the celebrated Lewis Chessmen.

But really, I just wanted to take the opportunity to mention these extraordinary game pieces on this blog. Even though they’ve been known to the modern world since the 19th century, I first learned about them only some months ago while kicking around Wikipedia. While they like look like the whimsical work of a modern sculptor — at least to my unschooled eye — they were actually carved some 800 years ago.

I showed pictures of these little guys to a friend this morning, one who actually does know something about art history. She tried to add a little perspective to my astonishment, noting how a lot of medieval artwork looks comically cartoony by modern standards. But while she spoke, all I could think was: boy, I’d love to just reach over and pick one of these pieces up. I recognize intention in their squat, chunky shapes: they were made to thunk down on the board, decisively. I bet they make a really satisfying sound when that happens.

Heading away from the past and into an uncertain future, we discover quantum chess, a computer game by Queen’s University student Alice Wismath, based on a concept by Selim Akl, a computer science proessor at Queen’s. It appears to be an academic work in progress, though one fun enough to have gained a bit of media traction. Certainly, it’s an intriguing idea, using the notion of quantum superposition to add a (perhaps rather thick) layer of tactical surprise to an otherwise pure strategy game:

A piece that should be a knight could simultaneously also be a queen, a pawn or something else. The player doesn’t know what the second state might be or which of the two states the piece will choose when it is moved.

“It was very weird,” said Ernesto Posse, a Queen’s postdoctoral researcher who took part in a recent “quantum chess” tournament at the university in Kingston, Ont. “You only know what a piece really is once you touch the piece. Basically, planning ahead is impossible.”

Like a lot of geeks, I’m enamored with the twisty little passages that represent quantum physics (or at least the closest representation a layman like me can grasp). But even moreso, any science that can plug itself into a cultural foundation of gaming to produce wacky chess variants is my kind of science.

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[Boston] GAMBIT Talk: Magic Systems in Theory and Practice

For those who can make it to the Kendall Square area on Friday, GAMBIT is hosting Jeff Howard for a talk on magic systems. Here's the synopsis:

GAMBIT Talks: Magic Systems in Theory and Practice

Friday April 9th, 5-7 pm.

Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab
5 Cambridge Center, 3rd Floor (near the Kendall Sq T Stop)

Magic Systems in Theory and Practice

In his talk, Jeff Howard discusses ideas for creating magic systems that are more fun, meaningful, and interactive than those typically seen in many role-playing games. Weaving together examples such as the operatic magic systems of Demon's Souls and the multi-sensory magical language of Eternal Darkness, Howard suggests that the magic systems of the future should draw upon the occult teachings of the past in order to create magical grammars that take input from a variety of sensory modes, including gesture, music, voice, and color. Drawing on many concrete gaming examples, including his game-in-progress Arcana Manor, Howard argues that the total art of opera and the enacted symbolism of contemporary occultist "workings" provide a model for a magical grammar that is connotative rather than purely denotative, i.e. in which gameplay enchants players on multiple levels of emotion and idea.

Jeff Howard is Assistant Professor of Game Development and Design at Dakota State University in Madison, South Dakota. He is the author of Quests: Design, Theory, and History in Games and Narratives. He received his B.A. from the University of Tulsa and his M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin. He is currently working on a game-in-progress, Arcana Manor, and related research about magic systems.

GAMBIT does various game-related things on many Fridays, but they usually start at 4:30, a bit early for me to make it from work, so I'm happy to see this one starting at 5.

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The Silver Lining, Cease & Desist

Long story short: a group of King's Quest fans has put in about 8 years of work on a non-commercial fan game in the King's Quest line. They worked out an agreement with Vivendi Universal to be able to continue making the game, with a name change to The Silver Lining. Activision now owns the King's Quest IP, and, after several months of talks and negotiations, they have told the group to stop working on the game and to take down their forums. Not wanting legal problems, the group had to comply.

Their webpage gives a fuller account.

There is a new, empty forum up for fans to talk to each other, and there is also a petition to save the game.

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Free Copy of Larva Mortus

Found via the IndieGames.com blog, if you follow indie developer Rake in Grass on Twitter, they'll send you a code for a free copy of their game Larva Mortus (I got mine just a few minutes after following them). They'll be doing this promotion for another week, so get your code now.

The game is pretty decent. I haven't played enough of it yet to say whether the story is compelling or not, but so far it's really just about the action, not the story, which is fine. It's a top-down shooter where you move with the arrow keys and aim and shoot with the mouse (do developers ever consider us poor laptop-with-trackpad users who have to go hunt down a mouse?). The tone of the game is nice and creepy, with nice music and graphics to support the spooky atmosphere. Once you've killed all of the monsters in a room, it's "cleared", and you are safe in that room from then on. This means you end up spending a decent amount of time just sitting around in cleared rooms as you heal up (I ended up advancing my regeneration stat just to make that time shorter). Maybe it should let you heal faster if you're in a cleared room or something? Anyway, it's a minor quibble. The variety of weapons is nice (I haven't seen them all yet, but you start out with a sword and pistol, and you end up picking up a shotgun, a crossbow, a machine gun, a stake, and a cannon(!)), and it's decently challenging on "normal" difficulty. I definitely recommend it for free, and it's probably worth checking out some of their other games.

Edited to add: Available for both Windows and Mac.

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A screenwriter looks at Half-Life

Screenwriter Todd Alcott looks at the difference between Doom and Half-Life, two first-person shooters from the 1990s with nearly identical plot setups, and yet one tells a so much more compelling story than the other. He argues, basically, that while the former game contains a series of thematically consistent levels, the latter game uses the tried-and-true three-act narrative structure that's supported countless films and television episodes - applying it with great success to a series of thematically consistent game levels. Recommended reading to all interested in writing interactive adventures of any sort.

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Tetris in the Zeitgeist

Hey, remember Tetris? Check out these Tetris gameshelves! Except you'd have to stack them with holes on each level or else your games will disappear. Which reminds me of a recent favorite explodingdog drawing.

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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.

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The fool and his brain village

There's a planetary alignment of interesting puzzle games coming out this year.

Professor Layton and the Curious Village for the DS is already out, and looks interesting. Apparently, while it does have a lightweight mystery-solving theme, it's mainly a collection of puzzles, in the classic meaning of the word. The game packaging wisely calls them "brain teasers" so that you won't be expecting to play Bejewled. Penny Arcade made fun of it the other day, but that strip's writer makes clear in his blog that it was done out of love.

What really caught my eye was the promise of downloadble content, which as far as I know would be a first for any Nintendo-system game, even though they've been running an online service since 2005. I've heard tell of some server-side hiccups with it, but I'm confident enough they'll sort it out that I went ahead and tossed a copy on top of an Amazon order yesterday. (I recall how the very first game to use the online service, Mario Kart DS, managed to pound Nintendo's servers far more than they had originally prepared for.) I'll let you know how it is.


Speaking of the DS, Eidos has announced Brain Voyage, a digital game with puzzles designed by Reiner Knizia, of all people. It's slated to come out sometime this year.

Knizia's surely the most rockstar tabletop game designer alive today, by which I mean if he created a board game about, I dunno, pancakes, the game would be titled "Reiner Knizia's Pancakes" and that's all you'd need. It's not clear from the press release whether his name'll be on this box, or even what the nature of his relationship with the game content is. If the game doesn't stink, it'll be an interesting crossover between the digital and analog gaming worlds.


Finally, Cliff Johnson appears to be maybe actually we-hope poised to release his long-delayed puzzle epic The Fool and his Money this year. Originally slated for release in - gosh, I can't remember anymore, late 2003 maybe? - he kept bumping forward the release date until finally doing the right thing and promising no release date at all. He's been spending the last year or more laboriously repairing the game's content so that it runs consistently well in all implementations of Flash, and according to the counter on his site's front page he's accounted for 187 of 197 puzzles.

Money is the story-sequel to The Fool's Errand, a Tarot-themed puzzle extravaganza Johnson designed and had commercially published in 1989. That game, as well as its first (and differently themed) successor 3 in Three, are available as free downloads from Johnson's website. Because they're for ancient computers, you'll need emulator software to play them on your modern machine, but the author goes into careful detail on the download page about what works best on different computers and operating systems. Both games have my highest recommendation to those who enjoy a good puzzle!

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Episode #1 - Medieval Games

View or download a high-quality version.

For our first full-length episode, we look at three medieval-themed games.

  • Shadows over Camelot, a (mostly!) cooperative board game that pits the (more or less) valiant knights of the Round Table against the forces of Evil. And quite possibly against each other, as well. Published in 2005 by Days of Wonder and widely available, especially in game shops.
  • Rampart, an arcade game from 1990, widely available these days on the console disc Midway Arcade Treasures Volume 1.
  • Peasant's Quest, an amazingly faithful parody/homage of the famous King's Quest adventure games that Sierra published in the 1980s. Published by those crazy guys at Homestar Runner.
  • Black Knight 2000, a classic pinball machine from the late 1980s. Not really a featured game, but it's seen hanging around in a few scenes. I note this mostly because Jason Joy dug up an MP3 rip of its great background music, which you can hear a little of in the show's closing credits.

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