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.