Saturday, December 27, 2008

Black Christmas

We had a pretty good Christmas (in spite of the title of this post) but it was not without its surprises and setbacks.

We had intended to travel to Oregon to spend the holiday with Helen's relatives, and to celebrate our nephew's fourth birthday. But our hosts, her parents, got snowed in. On the evening of the 22nd, we had to call off our anxious weather-watching and admit that nobody was going to gather in Oregon that week. (It is now Saturday after Christmas, and they're still trapped! They're safe, but likely won't get out until Monday or so.)

So we had two days to suddenly gear up for Christmas at home. A tiny turkey (store was sold out of the larger ones), mashed potatoes and gravy pre-made from Whole Foods (very good, too), salad fixings, Pillsbury crescent rolls (and cinnamon buns for breakfast), bottle of wine, and a mince pie made a very nice, small-scale feast. Helen had already spent a couple of days baking cookies: she has a half-dozen recipes that are all incredibly good, and she makes plenty every year.

We meant for dinner to be ready at 6, and we have no idea why that tiny turkey took so long to roast. It was 10pm before we sat down to eat! But it was very good (even without allowing for hunger as a sauce), and there was enough for everybody plus a little left over for a couple of sandwiches the next day.

The weather was odd. Periods of bright, calm sunshine alternated with the most amazing squalls, one of which took down a power line across the street. We weren't affected, but half of our neighbors had no power from about 9am Christmas morning until maybe 6pm the following evening. (They are the ones who had the "black Christmas"!)

We spent much of Christmas Day playing games (we had a lot of time while waiting for that turkey). We played Pandemic, Stone Age, and Ice Flow: all fairly new games for us. It was the first time in quite a while that the four of us had all played a game together, the kids now being grown enough to have their own social lives. It was a good day.

We have a number of new games in the house: unable to go to Oregon, we spent some of the traveling money on games to console ourselves. Le Havre and Siena we had already recently bought as Christmas presents for ourselves. We then went out and got Stone Age, Ice Flow, and Princes of Machu Pichu. And then Christmas is also Helen's birthday: I got her a copy of Galaxy Trucker, but it turned out her mother had gotten her that also! So we took the one I bought back to the store and traded it for EuroRails, TransAmerica, and Set. And we know there are more games coming, as soon as the relatives dig themselves out and can reach a post office. I think it's time to get that "Owner of Too Many Games" microbadge over at BoardGameGeek.

Stone Age looks like a hit. Ice Flow is interesting, but may be a bit dry, or else just sensitive to the number of players. We've played Princes of Machu Picchu just once so far, two-player, but we liked it. It's by the designer of two of our other favorite games, Antike and Imperial, so we had high hopes and it looks like we won't be disappointed. I want to play it again, soon. (And I want to get Brass back on the table, too!)

Not much game design news from me, but I have had a couple of ideas for spicing up the rail-game-formerly-known-as-Rails-Across-America. I hope to work with it some today, and I'll let y'all know how it comes out.

I hope you've all had good holidays too, and we can all hope for a Happy New Year.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

All the Good Names Are Taken

Stumbled across a reference today, and discovered that there's a PC game named Rails Across America. Oh, well—my design will probably never be published anyway. But it's frustratingly difficult to come up with a good name for a rail game these days. Even Martin Wallace's latest has a poor name: Steel Driver (with its picture of John Henry on the box) would be a great name if the game were primarily about building rail. But it isn't; it's primarily about buying stock in railroad companies, an activity that I suspect the Steel-Drivin' Man never indulged in.

Anyway, if you're a copyright lawyer you can stand down. I'll find something else to call my design.

Friday, December 19, 2008

The Blahs

"Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat..."

That would be me, that goose. About a year and a half ago I strained something in my wrist and had to lay off fencing for a few months. Then it got better (or so I thought) and I returned; but a month or so ago it was getting bad again. Now I'm again not fencing—and at Christmas, when there's far too much tempting, fattening food available. So far I haven't gained more than a couple of pounds. My wrist is feeling better and I hope to return to fencing in January.

An old friend of mine just got laid off from a job he'd held for well over a decade. That's not news in this economic climate, but it's depressing. Fortunately he got a good severance package and a lot of notice. He may need both; I have other friends who've been out of work for years.

Other "blah" non-news: no advances on any of my game designs. Somehow inspiration hasn't been striking. Had to work about ten days of intensive overtime, finishing up last week: fortunately it was not in vain, and we met the deadline. Really not much new, and really I'm writing this entry just to show that I haven't given up on the blog.

I have had a minor revelation (not an especially helpful one, alas) about my Rails Across America design, which has been languishing because I don't find it very original. It's that even my starting notion of a rail game that focusses on junctions as much as connections is not very original. I just wasn't remembering a number of games with that mechanic. One of them, embarrassingly, was my own Spatial Delivery. Another is Martin Wallace's excellent Brass. I played this game last May and enjoyed it, and Helen and I now have our own copy (after waiting months for a pre-order of the second edition). I can't recommend Brass enough, at least for experienced gamers. It's a tightly competitive game of linking towns and cities in Lancashire during the Industrial Revolution, and although the canal and rail links themselves are worth victory points, you get most of your score from building industries in the towns (using the links to transport building materials, and later products) and making them pay off.

Brass is great fun, but the rules are not trivial and are filled with difficult-to-remember exceptions. The second edition's rulebook was re-written and is apparently much improved over the original; but the rules themselves are still somewhat baroque. It's hard to play the game correctly the first couple of times. But if you stick with it, it's a great game. Helen and I were pleased to find a two-player variant on BoardGameGeek that some fan of the game designed. It works quite well. There are other two-player variants that we haven't tried, as well.

Finishing on an up beat: it turns out that idle blogging is not completely useless. Just talking here about Brass and Rails Across America gave me a new idea to spice up my design. Something to think about over the holidays!

Friday, November 28, 2008

The Invisible Man

"Not wanton killing, but a judicious slaying. The point is, they know there is an Invisible Man — as well as we know there is an Invisible Man. And that Invisible Man, Kemp, must now establish a Reign of Terror. Yes — no doubt it's startling. But I mean it. A Reign of Terror. He must take some town like your Burdock and terrify and dominate it. He must issue his orders. He can do that in a thousand ways — scraps of paper thrust under doors would suffice. And all who disobey his orders he must kill, and kill all who would defend them." — H. G. Wells

About three years ago, I had an idea to make a game based on H. G. Wells's The Invisible Man. In the novel, a scientist discovers how to make himself invisible, then goes on a mad rampage. (I'm oversimplifying here—the novel is not a mere hackneyed mad-scientist tale. If you haven't read it, you should!) My idea was to have the players cooperate in trying to defeat the Invisible Man, while the Invisible Man attempted to complete his Reign of Terror. I came up with a nifty mechanism whereby the Invisible Man could be a non-player character, moving around a map according to a set of rules, in such a way that the players would not always know exactly where he was.

And there it stalled for some time. The problem is that I don't much care for cooperative games, yet the theme seemed to demand cooperation. What could the players possibly be competing for in the face of such a fearsome common threat? A week or two ago I finally got an inspiration. The Invisible Man had a treasure: his scientific journals detailing the invisibility process. A competitive game would involve the players cooperating to defeat the Invisible Man, but competing to find clues to the place where he has hidden his journals. If the Invisible Man wins, all players lose. If he is defeated, the player with the most clues wins the journals and the game.

The novel is old enough to be in the public domain, so there would be no need to license the title and characters, and no problem including quotes for flavor. I think it would be a fun theme, but I've got a lot of work still to do to build a good game around it.

"This announces the first day of the Terror. Port Burdock is no longer under the Queen, tell your Colonel of Police, and the rest of them; it is under me — the Terror! This is day one of year one of the new epoch, — the Epoch of the Invisible Man."

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

A Question of Balance

"Is it balanced?" is a question that many game players, and all game designers, ask about a game. But it can mean different things to different people.

Most generally, "balanced" means that a game has—at the outset—an even chance of being won by any player at the table. If the game heavily favors the first player (for example), then the game is unbalanced: it's not fair to the other players.

But there are other ways to consider the matter. A common design problem is the runaway leader, where the first player to gain an advantage will almost certainly win. Even if the chances of winning are even at the start of the game, they may quickly become very uneven.

Some players take this notion to extremes, and consider any game unbalanced if the final scores show much separation. Others reject this idea on the grounds that it renders all of the game except the final few moves irrelevant to the outcome.

One of the reasons I built the Rails Across America simulator was to test the balance of the game. I instrumented the simulator to record scores over runs of thousands of games, and to print out relevant statistics. The results were enlightening, and somewhat depressing.

I was looking for evidence of all three kinds of imbalance. After a fair amount of work I was able to tune the rules and map to the point where there was no significant starting imbalance in the four-player game: all players had a roughly equal chance of winning at the start of the game. (This was not quite as simple as looking at the stats for which player won most. A start-player advantage may only apply to intelligent players, and my so-called AI doesn't qualify. So I was also looking for imbalances in the choice of starting location. Turns out it's a bad idea to start at New York, but when I was done tuning, the other five Major Cities on the board were about equal.)

Next I looked at the scoring curves. What was the range of final scores, what was an average score, how sharply pointed was the bell curve? Also I looked at the bell curve for the point spread: what was the difference in final scores between the winner and the biggest loser in each game? Since I want to avoid a runaway leader problem, but don't feel that every game needs to be really close, I was satisfied with curves that showed reasonable but not excessive grouping of final scores. Often a couple of players may be in a tight race for the win, while one or two others lag behind. Sometimes one player dominates, but certainly not always. That's a good distribution, in my opinion.

So what's depressing about all this? It's good, but only for the four-player game. With five, the game is badly imbalanced—at least one player is screwed from the start. The three-player game is worse. And I learned that the biggest factor affecting the balance is the map itself: merely playing with costs, rewards, and setup would not repair the imbalances. To have a good three- or five-player game, I'll need well-tuned three- and five-player maps. That's upsetting. The more restricted the recommended number of players, the fewer copies will sell. To make it less restrictive I have to add more boards, which adds expense.

Probably the best compromise is a two-sided board, with the 4p map on one side and the 5p on the other, and forget about the three-player game. If I'm lucky and work hard at it, I might also be able to make a subsection of one map serve for three players.

The next question is: Is it worth the trouble? But that's an issue for another post.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Adventures in Simulation

Rails Across America seems to be shaping up nicely, but it's clear that it will need a lot of careful tuning. Is there a first player advantage, and if so how can I eliminate it? Is there a clearly dominant strategy? How many rounds does an average game last? How many components (track, money, etc) are required? How should costs and payouts best be balanced? And so on—a myriad questions.

To answer these questions, I decided I needed a simulator, a program that would actually play the game—and play it quickly, so that I could whip through hundreds of games in an evening. With a good simulator, I can test lots of things just by tweaking input parameters: # of players, # of goods colors, # of goods cubes, costs, payouts, starting money, and much more. For more radical experiments I may have to recode the simulator for changed rules or variant strategies, but that's not too hard once the first version is built and running.

Well, I'm a computer programmer. This is the kind of challenge that usually makes me go "oboy!" and code madly for a few hours—then give up in disgust when I realize how difficult it's really going to be. This time, I went "oboy" and coded madly for a few hours, and actually had the bones of a decent simulator at the end of it. So far so good!

"Bones" aren't enough, though. The first version played very stupidly, and that's no good because it skews the results. I don't need it to play at grandmaster level, but it needs to play at least a plausible beginner's-level game. That's the big challenge; the rest is just boiler-plate code. After several days of work, I'm pleased to report that the gadget now plays a passable game: not as good as an experienced live player, but credible. And it is fast: it can play 10,000 games in five minutes or less.

I've given it two forms of output. If I have it play just one game, it prints out every action taken by every player, then summarizes each player's accomplishments at the end. If I have it play multiple games, it collects statistics and just prints those.

Just to set expectations, here's what this gadget is not: It is not a device for playing the game interactively against a computer, or against human opponents without a board. Also it is not a general-purpose boardgame simulator. When I want a simulator for the next game I design, I'll have to start coding from scratch again.

Here's another thing it's not: It is not a substitute for real playtesting. I hope it will tell me a lot about my game, but it won't tell me whether the game is fun, or has rules that irritate or confuse live players, or induces too much AP, or simply takes too long to play. I don't want to waste real people's time making experiments that I can perform on my own. But if the game survives the simulations, I'll start badgering friends to try it out.

Forgive me, but I feel like I have to add this: If you are a game designer and would like a simulator for your own designs, please do not ask me to build one for you. I'll just say no. This project has taken me days, with more yet to go, and I haven't got enough to spare. I'd never get any of my own projects done if I started coding for other folks.

But if it continues to go well, and anybody shows any interest, I might be willing to post the Java source code for download. I doubt it will be useful to anyone, but ya never know.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Rails Across America

After another playtest this evening, with new components and scoring, I've decided the rail-game design is showing enough promise to make it more official. I've given it a name—Rails Across America—and begun a Game Journal for it here, at the Board Game Designers Forum. Further details about the game's rules and components will appear there. I'll post here also if and when any more "milestones" occur.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Wait, I Did That Already...

In my recent post I Wanna Design Railroad Tycoon! I expressed my desire to (a) build a rail game, and (b) build one where ownership or development of the junctions was a primary goal. I had the notion that (b) hadn't been done before, or at least not often.

The other day I had a penny-dropped moment: I have already designed such a game. It's Spatial Delivery, in which players build trade routes ("rails in space") to reach prime locations for trade stations.

So now I feel kind of stupid for characterizing the new design's goal in that way. Fortunately, I can add a little verbiage and perhaps make it plain why the new design really isn't Spatial Delivery warmed over.

In SD, players build routes, but once built the routes are held in common. There is no ownership of the routes, and no reward is given for building them, beyond the fact that the route-builder gets to build a station at the end of each new route. Players do own the stations they build, receive substantial rewards for building them, and may receive further rewards if other players use them.

But in the more traditional rail game I'm now trying to design, the rails will be owned by the players who build them. As in SD, there may be no immediate reward simply for building rail. But there will likely be rewards for building a given strategic route before other players can do so, because by doing so you can get some rewards from late-comers who want to share the route, and you can block others from using the route altogether. The race for connectivity, for expanding your network strategically, will be an integral part of the game. This isn't the case in SD, where connectivity isn't much of an issue (because if anybody can get from point A to point B, so can everybody else).

Another difference is that in SD, making deliveries gets you Victory Points. In the new design, I think that deliveries will get you cash, which you will then spend to build more rails and to build train stations. (I say I think because the design is still up in the air.) There's nothing new about this mechanism, of course; it's just different from SD.

Reiner Knizia was the first person who told me (at a seminar, not face-to-face) that the victory conditions have a huge effect on gameplay. It's a fairly obvious point, yet before that I was thinking in terms of coming up with a bunch of nifty mechanisms, and then just slapping a win condition onto the end of the rules. But of course, the goal of the game informs all of the players' decisions. In my rail game, I have a set of reasonable mechanisms that might contribute to a good game. But I won't be able to tell until I've tuned the scoring system correctly (or given it up as a bad job). I want connectivity to be important, but I also want the stations to be significant. I want the famous "multiple paths to victory", so that a player might win by building stations, or by building the best network, or by making the most money from deliveries. To do that will require some careful tuning and balancing.

And that's my next goal for this design: to come up with a reasonably well-tuned scoring system. If I can do that, I'll have a game. After that, it'll just be playtest, tune, and repeat until it's good enough.

Well, that's the plan, anyway. Nothing ever goes that smoothly!

Later: I tried a solo playtest of the latest rules (including scoring) this evening. It worked fairly well. The biggest problem may simply be the lack of anything very new or different from other rail games. It's a mix of familiar mechanisms, with nothing in it you haven't seen before. But while originality is nice, few games offer anything really new. I won't worry about it too much.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

California Academy of Sciences

Helen and I visited the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco last weekend. This museum-and-research institution was founded over 150 years ago, and recently re-opened in new digs following its partial destruction in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

The new Academy is amazing. I don't know any better word to use to describe it. Check out the Web site (see link above) and see for yourself a little about what it's like—but you won't really understand until you can visit.

I could ramble on for pages. To avoid that, I'll just briefly describe the most amazing feature. This is the Rain Forest, contained inside a glass sphere 90 feet in diameter. The sphere contains maybe 10 feet of water at the bottom, in which hundreds of fish swim (and some of them are huge). From ground level, trees go up four stories, and are filled with birds and butterflies. Side exhibits include a bat cave (we watched a curator hand-feeding little bits of fruit to the hanging bats) and a large leaf-cutter ant farm. You enter at ground level, and follow a ramp that spirals up the inside of the dome. At each level there's something different to see: the fish, the plants, the birds, and the omnipresent butterflies that float around you. From the top, a glass elevator takes you down under the water for a close-up view of the underwater life. It is stunning; I think I could spend all day there, just in that one dome.

And there's more: the Morrison Planetarium (which we missed, for lack of time), the Steinhart Aquarium (still reigned over by the resident albino alligator), and even the roof which is covered with earth and planted with low-maintenance native groundcover.

Go, see it, it's wonderful. But don't drive there. We had an absolutely terrible time finding parking, and the traffic jams were horrific. Take BART to the city, then grab one of the buses that will take you straight to the Academy's door. Oh, and buy your tickets ahead of time on the Web, it will save you time getting in.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

I Wanna Design Railroad Tycoon!

It's my favorite game, is Railroad Tycoon. And I like most rail games in general. They offer a type of competitive problem that I particularly enjoy. Every design is different, but often you are competing with other players for real estate and scarce resources, while constrained by connectivity and budgeting. In Railroad Tycoon, the real estate is the rail you lay between cities, and the connection points to those cities. The scarce resources are the goods to be delivered. Laying rail costs money; to raise money you can issue shares or make deliveries to increase your income.

Games like this offer the player a rich matrix of decisions. With a limited number of actions to complete your goals, every action is a significant choice. You need to build as early as possible, to grab scarce real estate before someone else does. But you need money to do that. Make deliveries first, to raise money? Or issue shares to get instant money? But shares will cost you more money, and penalty points, later; and if you delay the deliveries, someone else may "steal" them from you. No wonder rail games are fascinating!

This isn't a new or original pattern. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of rail games. Many form easily-extensible systems: the 18XX series, Age of Steam and its many expansions, the crayon rail games. Rail games are easy to extend because once you have a good basic game, you can vary it with new maps and minor rule tweaks to keep it fresh.

So with all these excellent rail games already available, why would I want to design another? The real answer is that I like rail games, so I'd like to have the experience of designing one myself, hopefully a good one. But I could also reply that new rail games come out every year, and if they're good, they get bought and played. There's clearly room for a few more yet.

Of course, I can't design Railroad Tycoon. (As Helen told me: "You know it's been done, right?") So I needed a new idea. Seth Jaffee has a nice design called Reading Railroad, which has a new twist: he's melded a word game with a rail game. The result is much more rail game than word game; it's fresh and different and it works well. But I wasn't looking for anything quite that radical.

What I came up with is this. In most rail games, you compete for the connections between locations. The locations themselves are usually not owned or monopolized by the players. I decided to try a design in which the rail network is built as a means to the end of "owning" the junctions: you are building stations and switchyards. (I'd be surprised if this actually hasn't been done before; but I haven't seen it and it doesn't seem to be common.)

I followed my usual design procedure: did a lot of thinking, wrote it up on the computer, refined it until it looked good. Then I made a quick-and-dirty mockup and tried a solo game, pretending to be four players at once. As usual, the initial design didn't work very well. I took the lessons learned, rethought things for another couple of days, and came up with a different variation, and tried that one. And it was better, but still flawed... I'll spare you the details, but I'm still trying out different ideas. I may wander away from the original notion altogether; I've learned not to be too wedded to my original notions.

What surprises me, again and again, is how difficult it is to design a truly interesting, playable game. More than once I've started with a successful but complex game (someone else's, of course) and tried to trim it down into something similar but simpler. And every time, it's failed. Yesterday I played a Railroad Tycoon variant, designed by a fan of the game. It's pretty much the same rules as the base game, just a few variations for interest's sake, and (the main difference) a new map. And it was... lackluster. It worked, but money wasn't tight and there wasn't as much interaction between the players as there should have been. I don't want to damn the variant on the basis of one play; maybe the map was designed for more than the four players we had, for example. Still, either of the two official versions (the original Railroad Tycoon and the Rails of Europe expansion) offer much superior play experiences.

And there's my own design. I borrowed some notions from RRT, some from other rail games, added a notion of my own... as I said, there are bazillions of good rail games. How hard can it be to come up with another one?

Apparently it can be pretty tough. So far I'm not impressed with my own design. But... at least it's not a complete heap of trash. Used to be, all my new designs turned out to be steaming heaps. Lately they've been almost-playable, with a strong sense that there might be a real game lurking in there somewhere, if I can only find it. I guess I'm getting better at this game design stuff, but I clearly have a long way to go.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Rick and the Beanstalk

It seems to be called a "space elevator" these days, but I prefer the term beanstalk. In the fairy tale Jack climbed a magic beanstalk up to the giant's castle in the sky, but there are serious people today who think we could build a stalk that would ascend all the way from the ground to geosynchronous orbit.

This would be tremendous. Space travel today is dangerous, inefficient and hideously expensive, because chemical rockets are the only way we have to get off of Earth. But a beanstalk would let us ride an elevator into orbit. Properly built, it could be much safer and orders of magnitude cheaper, pound for pound, to put payloads into space. (Well, it would be cheaper once you'd recovered the cost of building it. It won't be cheap.)

We don't have the technology for a beanstalk yet. But I just read an article that says we might have it soon, and that's incredibly exciting news. Here's the full article:

I did find the article a bit amusing at a couple of places.

"Indeed, if successfully built, the space elevator would be an unprecedented feat of human engineering."

...ya think? It's only a tower that's over 22,000 miles tall.

"It is thought that inertia ... will cause the cable to stay stretched taut..."

Well, yes. It is also thought that if you drop a heavy rock onto your bare toes, it will hurt. This isn't some new, untested theory. Isaac Newton would have understood the space elevator perfectly 300 years ago, had he thought of it. Certainly there are plenty of engineering problems to be solved. But the basics, while unintuitive to us ground-dwellers, are simple and certain. If you make a cable long and strong enough and put it in place: yes, it will stay stretched taut.

I'm not going to start celebrating yet, but some experts think there's a chance that I could see a beanstalk actually built, or at least begun, in my lifetime. I'll have to take care of myself, and hope I inherited the longevity of my mother's family, but hey--it could happen!

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Email Grail

Warning: Lengthy rant ahead.

Email, my friends. Sounds so simple--a program that will reliably send and receive email, and has just a few reasonable bells and whistles to help me through my day.

Yesterday I went through a dozen and a half email clients for Mac OS X, and found not one that met all my needs.

I used to use Eudora, and I was happy. But Eudora has become decrepit: it is unsupported, and unreliable on Mac OS X Leopard. (It even lost some mail once. I used Eudora for over a decade and never lost a byte, but under Leopard it can lose mail. Unacceptable!)

So a while back I switched to Apple Mail, and groused about it because I lost some of Eudora's niftier features. But it mostly does what I want, and has its own virtues including really excellent search capabilities, tied into Spotlight. But...

Apple Mail has some bizarre problem in talking to my ISP's SMTP server. It takes forever to send outgoing mail, and most of the time it fails. Other folks on the Web have reported similar troubles, but none of their suggestions have helped. In despair I have had to go hunting for yet another email client.

I found 17 candidates, and every one of them is lacking in some fashion. My requirements are fairly simple—or so I thought:

  • Keep messages in individual files (this is a standard, RFC 822)
  • Handle large amounts of mail and multiple accounts gracefully
  • Good search capability
  • Good filtering capability
  • Supported product

There are three reasons I wanted one-file-per-message. First and foremost, I do not trust proprietary database formats. If the database gets damaged, I've lost everything. If the product stops working, I've lost everything. Yes, most of them have an export-to-standard-format ability, but I have to know that I'm about to lose everything before it actually happens, or else the capability is useless. Database storage is a deal-breaker for me.

Second, on rare occasions I need to actually edit received mail. (Usually this is because some misguided customer has sent me their credit card number, which is information I don't want and shouldn't have. I edit it out of the email immediately when that happens.) Mail should be stored in an editable format, even if the mail client itself doesn't overtly support such editing.

Third, monolithic mailbox files have to be backed up every time a message is added or deleted. This is inefficient and wastes space on my backup media.

During my research, I discovered several more requirements, stuff I'd been taking for granted:

  • Rich text (aka HTML mail) - Maybe the world would be better without it, but my customers use it. A lot.
  • Folder/subfolder organization for saved mail - Other paradigms exist, but I have tens of thousands of messages organized in folders, and I'm not about to reorganize them now.
  • Import from Apple Mail - Right. Duh. Almost forgot about that detail.
  • Decent spam filtering - I get about a thousand spams a day.

So how did all the candidates stack up? Here they are, each with their primary deal-breaker:

  • Balzac - Can't organize in folders.
  • Correo - Somebody's hobby. Too new, too feature-poor, too little support.
  • Entourage - Database. (Also, Microsoft. Feh!)
  • Eudora - Unsupported, crashy.
  • GNUMail - Unsupported since early 2007; home Web site is offline. OS X info sketchy.
  • GyazMail - No outgoing HTML mail. (Man, that was disappointing. This one looked good otherwise.)
  • Magellan Pro - Unsupported since 2004.
  • Mailsmith - Database, and no HTML mail.
  • Mulberry - Poor spam filtering, poor import capabilities.
  • Musashi - Old. Documentation is thin and in poor English.
  • Nisus Email - Irritating UI: no built-in text editor, omnipresent floating window even in other apps.
  • Odysseus - Supposed to be a Eudora clone, but it's still in beta.
  • Opera Mail - Integrated with Web browser, feh.
  • PowerMail - Database.
  • SeaMonkey - Integrated with Web browser, feh.
  • Thunderbird - Ah, Thunderbird...

I finally decided it would have to be Thunderbird. It's open source, vigorously supported, mature, and feature-rich. It keeps mail in mbox format like Eudora: not ideal for backups, but at least it's standard, editable, and recoverable. Its ability to import from Apple Mail was poor and clumsy, but the Web site explained how to do it and it works. (As of this writing, I've imported less than half my mail. It's a multi-step operation for each mail folder.)

Just when I was starting to relax, I hit a near-deal-breaker: Thunderbird has no ability to redirect mail! Redirecting is sending a piece of received mail on to another address, without altering the message body. Thunderbird only has forwarding, which does alter the message body. Redirection is crucial to our home business, where I receive customer purchase notifications and have them auto-redirected to Helen, who imports them into our customer database. Her importer relies on the format of the messages, which is why we need redirection and not just forwarding.

I was stunned. Every mail client I've ever used has had redirection. It never occurred to me that a mature, feature-rich product like Thunderbird would lack it!

Well, Thunderbird is extensible, and there are hundreds of extensions. After some searching, I found two that add a redirection capability. But one doesn't work well with recent Thunderbird releases, and neither allows redirection as a filtering action. It took me probably an hour to get all that figured out.

Finally I had to get Helen's attention (she wasn't pleased, she was busy with aggro of her own) and have her investigate her parser to see whether it could handle a forwarded purchase notification. And we dodged the bullet: her parser handles a Thunderbird-forwarded message just fine. Whew!

I think Thunderbird will work out. If I get really upset about some lack or other, I might be able to write an extension of my own to fix the problem. Hope I won't have to, though. Email ought to just work.

Monday, September 22, 2008

The Need for Speed

I fence foil, and I've been at it for several years now. Most people enjoy doing things they're good at, and often don't enjoy things they're bad at, and I'm usually no exception. But, but, but... I love fencing, and I'm not good at it. Oh, I'm not hopeless: I look pretty good during drill because I pay attention and practice hard at correct form and technique. But when it's time to actually fence, it's a different story.

Let me explain. There's no such thing as an unstoppable attack, nor an impenetrable defense. Any attack can be foiled (literally) with the right parry. The trick is to use the right move at the right time, and that's been my bête noir. You can't know what the right move is until you see what your opponent is doing, and that means you have to observe and react very quickly.

Recently I had a bout with a relative beginner. At one point she launched an attack. Since she expected me to parry, her attack included a circling movement intended to evade my parry. And I expected that, so I executed a viciously fast, perfectly precise parry-four-counter-four: a simple parry followed by a circular parry. The circular parry was to pick up her blade in case she succeeded in evading the first parry.

And it didn't work. She hit me, poink, right on target. While I was showing off with my fast, precise parries, she was still executing her circular attack, so wide and so slow that it went all the way around my fancy tight maneuvers, and hit me well after I was done.

Had I actually responded to her attack, I could have stopped her easily. There was plenty of time. But instead I just chose a defense I hoped would work, and it was completely wrong. Even with that slllloooooowwww attack, I was unable to respond appropriately.

So now I'm wishing I hadn't so thoroughly ignored my kids' video games all these years. Maybe my reflexes would be better if I'd had more practice! But I'm working on it--it's never too late to learn. Someday, I might even be good enough to handle a complete noob!

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Heir and Regent

Years ago, I began designing a game called "Heir and Regent." I didn't get far with it; it felt like a formless blob to me and I couldn't see how to bring any order to it. I dropped the design as a result and ignored it for several years.

But my good buddy Seth Jaffee always liked the basic idea, and periodically pokes me to see if he can get me to revisit it. Recently I did, finding that the intervening years of playing and designing other games has given me a much larger toolbox of ideas. I've dusted it off, re-thought some of the basic notions, added some new ideas, and the design is now taking some real shape and even showing a little progress.

There's still a long way to go with it. It's a two-player card game with a custom deck of cards. The rules, scoring, and card deck composition are all still up in the air; I make changes every time I try a solo playtest.

I've begun a "Game Journal" (a blog of sorts dedicated to a single game design) over at the Board Game Designers Forum, where Seth and most of my other design buddies hang out. If you'd like to follow its development, here's the link to Heir and Regent.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

ConQuest SF

Helen and I spent most of Labor Day weekend at ConQuest SF, a four-day gaming convention. Although ConQuest is primarily for wargamers, they offer plenty to interest the non-war boardgamers, like us and our friends.

We had a very good time, although in some ways it was pretty low-key. These conventions offer tournaments, demos of new games, seminars, and more; and in the past we've sampled all of these activities. In addition to scheduled events, I usually look forward to some playtesting of unpublished designs-in-progress, and I hope to discover at least one really exciting game that I haven't played before.

But this time, we mostly just played games with our friends. We skipped the scheduled stuff altogether, except for the flea market, and even that was pretty small and disappointing. We did pick up a copy of Hare and Tortoise, and Helen spotted a vintage copy of Risk that I was able to score for a measly $8. I'm not a big Risk fan; what attracted me was that this version of the game contains approximately a bazillion little wooden cubes in each of six colors -- a real prize for a game designer who needs bits for prototypes!

I played a number of games that were new to me, but nearly all were disappointing and there were several that I outright disliked. (These included Ruse & Bruise and Phoenicia). The one new game that I did rather like was Metropolys. It didn't make me want to rush out and buy a copy, but I certainly wouldn't mind playing it at least a few more times.

There were no interesting prototypes being played, at least that I noticed (there were one or two that I deemed uninteresting). With one exception: Candy Weber's Coronets. I missed that session, but that's okay because I've played it before and expect to be able to play it again. She tells me it's coming along nicely and that some of my feedback from an earlier session has been incorporated. (Yay, I'm helping!)

On Monday the con was still in progress, but we were exhausted; so we slept in and then invited a friend over to play a few more games quietly at home. That was a good day, too.

Monday, August 25, 2008

For Sale: French Horn

We're a musical family. At some point in our lives, we have all played at least one instrument. And every musician I know (singers excepted) cannot resist a musical instrument, even one they cannot play -- because, you know, you might learn to play it if it's lying around the house in easy reach! We have one or more trumpets, trombones, clarinets, saxophones, guitars, and pianos, and a plethora of less mainstream items including recorders, ocarinas, jaw harps, and washboards. Every one of them can be played, at least a little bit, by somebody in the house.

And they pile up -- that's how we got so many. I am trying to remember the occasions on which we have let a musical instrument go, out of our house and our lives, and there aren't many. An old student trumpet went to the daughter of a friend (we still kept two cornets, one regular trumpet, one pocket trumpet, and one slide trumpet, in varying states of repair); an upright piano is on "indefinite loan" to some other friends (replaced by a nice electronic piano). And that about covers it, up until this weekend. A few years ago, one of my sons decided he wanted to play the french horn in school band. We got him a nice used Olds in good condition. And he practiced it, and demonstrated a good ear, a better embouchure than the usual beginner, and overall a good deal of promise.

But the stress of marching band eventually got to him (don't get me started about that school's treatment of music as some kind of competitive sport) and the horn languished. This summer, he got fired up about music again, but this time he wants to be a rock drummer.

And right there, you have every parent's nightmare. Of course he wants to be a rock drummer! Every teenager in America, near as I can tell, wants to be a rock drummer. And no matter how many other instruments we've had in the house, we've never had anything quite as loud as a full drum kit. But we will not stifle any musical ambition that our children may show; so we are encouraging this. And he is working hard at it: practicing daily, finding a teacher, and listening analytically to a wide variety of rock and jazz. As he did with the french horn, he is showing considerable talent and promise at drums. If he sticks with it, he'll be pretty good.

But... there is nobody in the house to play the french horn. I'm a brass man, and I think french horns are things of beauty. And I can pick up most brass instruments and just start playing them -- I can play a baritone horn like I've practiced it for years, but I actually have less than an hour of time with the instrument, lifetime total. But the french horn is a different beast, I find. Its length gives it an incredible range and a set of harmonics that are extremely close together. The mouthpiece, while superficially similar, is different enough from cornet and trumpet to exacerbate the problem. The bottom line: my kid plays french horn better than I do. And anyway, I'm a jazz musician; I have no place to play a french horn even if I learned how.

So now it's up for sale, on Craig's List. This blog entry is not a plea for you to go buy it; if you want a french horn, you're already over at Craig's List looking for one, and you don't need my urging here. I just wanted to sigh a bit. Because although it's an awkward size and shape that we could never properly store, and the family finances will benefit from selling it... it really is a beautiful thing, and I hate to see it go.

Horns always sound distant; it's part of their allure. For a while, it was closer to us. Now it's distant again. Sigh...

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Olympic Gold for NBC

In past years, Helen and I have been disgusted with the quality of American television coverage of the Olympic Games. The broadcasters spent far too much time on fluff pieces, background stories and interviews of the athletes, and they have paid a disproportionate amount of attention to American athletes and their medal contentions. We wanted to see world class sports, and we wanted to see a wide variety. Too much attention to non-event programming and to only those sports in which Americans did well left us extremely unsatisfied.

This year, I'm delighted to find that NBC is actually doing a pretty good job. They haven't given up the interviews and background stuff, but there doesn't seem to be nearly as much of it. They have spent too much time replaying highlights over and over, especially those in which Americans starred, but at least the highlights are short.

A hit, a palpable hit!

Naturally the network is still paying extra attention to those sports in which Americans have medal hopes. In one respect this was good for me, because it meant that at long last, we were treated to some fairly lengthy and detailed coverage of fencing.

I'm a fencer myself (definitely not of Olympic quality), and I can almost never find fencing on television. (I mean sport fencing, not choreographed swashbucklers.) I'll admit that there's at least one good reason for this: fencing is too fast and subtle to make good television. TV only shows 30 frames per second, which is about 33 milliseconds between frames. But some fencing moves happen much faster than that; they literally can't be captured on TV. And while some fencing actions are large and dramatic, others are tiny. It's a game of centimeters and millimeters, and again TV isn't going to do a good job of capturing that.

Nevertheless, NBC gave significant coverage to women's team and individual sabre, and men's team sabre. The US fencers won more medals in the 2008 games than in all the games going back for over 50 years. NBC provided color commentators that did a reasonable job of explaining what was going on, and they had slow-motion replays of the interesting points. (I was hoping for super-slo-mo, which might actually have been able to capture the fastest action; but regular slow-motion was still worth watching.)

Faster, Higher, Stronger Bandwidth

It's possible that our rosy view of these games' coverage is due to satellite TV and a Tivo; these amenities let us record an awful lot of coverage, and easily skip the boring bits. Perhaps if we saw only the VHF broadcasts we'd be less happy. But we had satellite and Tivo for the 2004 Athens games, and I think the 2008 is significantly better.

One piece of new technology (okay, a lot of interlocking pieces of new technology!) has definitely improved my experience of these games. The NBCOlympics Web site contains a staggering number of hours of streamable video, apparently covering every sport at the games. As much as I enjoyed watching the sabre bouts on broadcast, I'm a foil fencer and I wanted to see foil. And on they've got it, hours and hours of it. This footage lacks the commentary (which is fine with me) yet includes the slow-motion replays.

But I give MSNBC a downcheck for making me install yet another browser plug-in from Microsoft in order to see those videos, something called "SilverLight". It does a perfectly good job of showing the videos, but so do several other prior standards; and incredibly SilverLight lacks proper controls for rewind and fast-forward. Why couldn't they just use QuickTime? (Answer: Because Microsoft are control freaks, and they didn't invent QuickTime. Today the Olympics, tomorrow the world!)


The bottom line: a very good job, although with room for improvement. Next time, let's have fewer and shorter interviews, and fewer replays of those interviews. Dump SilverLight, if it hasn't become a real standard with a real set of playback controls. And I wouldn't mind if they showed fewer hours of the standard team sports and more hours of the "little stuff" that you usually don't get to see. I can watch basketball, soccer, and baseball pretty much any time, and it's a shame to waste hours of Olympic coverage on it.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Playing Patience

"Patience" has a double meaning to gamers: it can mean tolerantly waiting, or it can mean "solitaire". I've been doing some of both lately. I may write about solo play of Zombie in my Pocket and Wings of War: Burning Drachens another time, but today let's talk about waiting.

General Anxiety

Quite some while back, Helen and I jumped on the bandwagon and eagerly pre-ordered Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage. This game is highly rated, but had been out of print for a decade. When Valley Games announced a reprint, we signed up. And then we waited... and waited... and waited for the reprint to appear. It took many months longer than Valley Games had originally projected. During the wait, our excitement levels went from "Man! I can't wait!" to "Y'know, maybe this isn't really our kind of game." When it finally (finally!) arrived, we didn't rip off the shrink-wrap. We decided to wait a while longer, because...

...the Plastic Generals hadn't arrived. Y'see, the game has cardboard counters to represent the important generals in this war, but we brave and faithful pre-orderers were to receive a special bonus: sculpted plastic figurines of the generals. But they weren't ready when the game itself was ready. "Soon!" said Valley Games, so we decided to wait for them and think further about how much we really wanted to play this game. And we waited... and waited...

Containing Our Impatience

Some while after we had ordered Hannibal, we ordered Container from the same company. This seemed more up our alley, as it's an economic game rather than a war-and-politics game. But again with the waiting! And again, our pre-order bonus, a set of sculpted cargo containers to replace plain wooden blocks, were delayed even longer than the game itself. Both did eventually arrive; we've even played Container, though not yet with the new sculpted container bits.

Agricola Envy

The hottest new game this year is Agricola. It was first published only in German and only in Europe, but those who played it hyped it heavily. Having learned from Hannibal that not all popular games will appeal to us, we researched it, and decided it was up our alley. We pre-ordered an English-language edition from an online retailer. And now we are (all together, now) waiting... and waiting...

Many people who pre-ordered from the publisher already now have their English-language copies. Some who pre-ordered from other online retailers are receiving theirs. Still no word about ours.

We did, however, get to play it the other evening. A friend of ours had just received his copy and invited us over. It did seem like a pretty good game, so we are still eager to receive our own copy and dig into it.

Patience is a Virtue

How shall I wrap up this little suite of cautionary tales? I am not really sure what lesson is to be learned here. Perhaps it is All things come to him who waits, since we did eventually get everything we were waiting for (except Agricola, and surely it will arrive Any Day Now.) Or possibly it's Be careful what you wish for; you might (eventually) get it, since after all that drooling and waiting for Hannibal, we are now considering trading it away, still in shrinkwrap. Or maybe the lesson is more pragmatic: Don't believe in publisher's schedules. Fantasy Flight Games has had one particular game in development for going on ten years now; it has been announced, delayed, dropped, and re-announced several times, and still seems at best a year away. (And it sounds like it could be really cool, too.)

What the hey. Sometimes the wait is well worth it. We pre-ordered the second printing of Through the Ages, waited patiently and then impatiently... and when it arrived, it was wonderful and looks as though it will be a favorite for years to come. (Well, except that it was short a few pieces and plagued by several misprints, and we had to order the "fix pack" and wait for it to come...)

Thursday, August 7, 2008

The Big Games

In my previous post about Die Macher, I commented that an exceptionally long game needs to deliver an exceptional experience. I also mentioned that I am a fan of several games that run as long, or longer, than Die Macher. Here are the games I was thinking of:

Roads and Boats is unlike any other game in our collection. Most of the action is simultaneous, which is good because it means the game can take four hours instead of all day. R&B has its down sides: for example it is an incredibly "fiddly" game, by which I mean there are dozens and dozens of tiny cardboard chits to be stacked, unstacked, and moved around the board. "Fiddly" can also refer to the finicky calculations needed to efficiently produce, route, and deliver these chits. R&B is a civilization-building game, in which you start with a few donkeys and geese, and some boards and stone, and by the end you hope to have trucks, steamships, factories, and stock exchanges. To accomplish this, you must transport goods to appropriate locations, use them to build new facilities that will manufacture new goods, and lather, rinse, repeat until you have a civilization.

Raods and Boats is a definite brain-burner, and one that has little panache. (No pirates, no spaceships, no ninjas, no monsters, no wars, just... donkeys.) But you do get the pleasure of creating a functioning and intricate machine, of building your civ up from nearly nothing into a sprawling, prosperous nation. There is continual change in the gameplay: breeding donkeys in the beginning, building factories in the middle, finally building mints and stock exchanges and pushing your gold production for all it's worth. The satisfaction of building coupled with the changing "story arc" is what preserves your interest for a full four hours.

Twilight Imperium 3rd Edition, by contrast, has incredible panache. This is a sprawling space opera of a game, where every player has his own alien race competing for supremacy with all the others. A game of TI3 does not have to last all day, but we once ran an 8-player, 12-hour session with the Shattered Empire expansion, and it was a great day. TI3 seems to have a little bit of everything. It is in large part a wargame: you can build fleets of starships, annex unoccupied worlds, and conquer occupied ones. But without ever fighting a battle you can also engage in trade, vote on issues that can actually alter the rules of the game, and climb the "technology tree" to improve your race's capabilities -- and you can win by doing so.

Fantasy Flight Games made TI3 one of their premier productions, and the game comes with wonderful artwork, background stories for all the races, and finely detailed plastic miniature spaceships. The game stays interesting throughout because your empire keeps expanding (or shrinking!), you gain new abilities as you climb the tech tree, you can set long-term goals to work toward, and you have an ever-changing constellation of neighboring races to fend off, maneuver past, or negotiate with.

Through the Ages is one of our very favorite games these days. In TTA certain cards represent technologies. You acquire these cards via competitive drafting from a common pool, but you can't make use of them until you have acquired and spent sufficient "science points", basically using research as a currency for purchasing tech. Once purchased, most of these technologies have to be built, which requires spending resources produced by your mines. Once built, they must be staffed, so you must allocate some population to them, and your people have to be fed by your farms. And so on -- it's much more complex than that.

TTA also lacks a map, a fact that astonishes (and dismays) some people. Usually civ-builders are all about maps, and usually they include some aspect of wars or battles that take place on the map. Yet TTA preserves the notion of military conflict. Some of the techs are military, and building and staffing them increases the might of your armies. Military conflict isn't tactical; instead it's a matter of who can summon the most military strength from their visible and hidden resources.

TTA keeps your interest by a constant process of building your civ's capabilities: agriculture, mining, research, government, population, military, and more must all be grown and kept in reasonable balance. This constant growth, the need for balance, and the pressure from your opponents keep the game fascinating throughout.

By now a theme should be apparent: what a game requires to keep interest alive is change. Doing the same thing all afternoon and into the evening gets boring. A game that keeps presenting new and different challenges to you, and that lets you build something to show that the preceding hours weren't wasted, is a good game.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Die Macher

Saturday night, Helen and I played Die Macher. We had played a couple of times before; three other players were new to the game. It was quite an experience.

Die Macher (which is about electioneering in Germany) is a real "gamer's game." It is rich in choices: gamers like having lots of viable options, and Die Macher delivers in spades. It is also rich in player interaction, and in mechanisms. All this richness means it takes over an hour to explain the rules to a new player. We started shortly after 3pm, but couldn't get the game itself going until about 5pm. The game is advertised as lasting four hours, and maybe it does with experienced players. It took us until well past 1am!

And how much did I enjoy this experience? Well sir, I'm still trying to make up my mind about that. Some of my favorite games are long and complex -- some even longer than Die Macher. On the other hand, six-hours-plus is a long time to sit in one chair and do one thing; a game had better deliver a pretty amazing experience to make that worthwhile.

I like games in which I can always find something constructive to do, and Die Macher certainly delivers. But I also prefer games in which I can build something I can rely on -- building something is only helpful if the others players can't simply knock it down again. In Die Macher it can feel like everything you do is ultimately futile. Actually you can build up quite a bit of solid progress in Die Macher, but it can still be discouraging.

Still, I enjoyed this session more than my previous ones. Die Macher is so complex that in earlier plays, I had very little idea of how to intelligently proceed. This time I was able to make informed decisions, which was definitely fun and satisfying. Perhaps after another play or two, I'll feel really at home with the game, and then my opinion of it may rise.

But I don't know how long it will be before I get more chances to play. Die Macher is really designed for five players. That and its great length and complexity means it's not going to hit the table very often, especially since there are other games I'd rather play when I have that much time. I'm sure I will play it again anyway: I'd like at least one more shot at it, and Helen loves it. And next time, maybe we can both do better than we did on Saturday!

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Spatial Delivery

Most of you who know me, know that my game Spatial Delivery won the 2008 KublaCon design contest, and as a result is being considered for publication by a major European company. The current status is that I received an email about a month ago, confirming that they had received the prototype in their Canadian office. They said they'd be evaluating it there for a couple of weeks, then sending it on to their main office in Europe. It should be in Europe by now, but I haven't heard anything new.

I'm not really expecting to hear anything for a while, perhaps quite a while. Game publishers are notorious for taking their time about these things. Of course I find patience to be difficult to achieve, so I check my email obsessively every day, hoping for word. When I hear anything definite, I'll be sure to post here about it.

In the meantime, I think I'll go check my email again!

Friday, August 1, 2008

No Mother-in-law Jokes!

My mother-in-law Joan is a truly marvelous person. She lives up in Oregon and comes to visit us once or twice a year. Helen infected her with the boardgame virus, and she is an enthusiastic gamer building her own collection of games. Whenever we visit, down here or up there, games come along and are played daily.

Over on the right you can see my list of Recently Played Games, supplied courtesy of BoardGameGeek. This week, most of them were played with Joan and Helen, and often with our kids and our gaming friends. It's been a good week. Joan also likes to make these visits an occasion to acquire a few new games. She has purchased Silverton for herself, a game we're all interested in trying; in part it attracted her attention because it can be played solitaire as well as multi-player, so she can play with it when her gaming friends aren't available.

Not content with that, she has put a copy of Brass on pre-order for us: this is a fine new game by Martin Wallace that I've played once and am eager to play again. And still not content, she dropped a copy of Wings of War: Burning Drachens on me, having learned that I like the base game and that I've been eyeballing the Burning Drachens expansion for some time. Thank you, Joan!

In addition to these new items, we're on the pre-order list for Agricola, which is the hottest new game to come out for several years. Today we got the good news that the English-language edition has finally arrived in America, and we should have it in hand within a couple of weeks. Joan has also ordered Agricola for herself, and it's another game that's reputed to be an excellent solitaire as well as a multi-player game.

All in all, July was a good month for gaming and visiting, and August is getting off to a great start.

Welcome to My Joint

"Rick's Café Américain," I've discovered, is not an original name for a blog by someone named "Rick." I wanted the url to be, but somebody already had that... and someone had rickscafe too, so I gave up on the cute url. But I've kept the banner anyway; I've been naming my personal machines "rixcafe" for years, and I refuse to give up on it entirely.

This blog is somewhat inspired by one a friend of mine keeps, Seth Jaffee at He writes about one of my strong interests, playing and designing boardgames, and I like reading his posts. It made me think that perhaps a few of my friends might enjoy something similar from me. (Convincing myself of this has been the main difficulty that stopped me from blogging before this.) And if not, I can still use it as a personal journal.

I'll probably be talking about a variety of subjects. Often (I expect) it will be boardgaming, but my other interests include music, fencing, fiction, comic strips, and computers, so no doubt those will make appearances from time to time as well.