Archive for the ‘board games’ Category

Catan iPhone app review

Thursday, November 5th, 2009

Screenshot of Apple iPhone app 'Catan - The First Island'I’ve expressed before that The Settlers of Catan is my favorite board game. But I don’t get to play it much lately, so I was excited by the news that there’s now a version for the iPhone and iPod Touch. “Catan – The First Island” was developed by Exozet Games and released by USM; the Catan app is $4.99 from the iPhone App Store.

Previously, Catan fans had to settle for a knock-off called Kolonists (currently not available from the iPhone App Store — pulled due to being too close to Catan without a license, perhaps?). Kolonists dressed the game in a Roman theme and did away with the random dice roll element of resource gathering, replacing the roll with a workable-but-inferior mechanic of having a single worker per settlement (and two per city) that provided guaranteed resources each turn, and a bit of jostling for position with your neighbors. It made the game faster but less interesting. So it was refreshing to go back to the original mechanic. (Other limitations of the Kolonists app are that it’s single player only, and there’s no ability to trade resources with the computer players, only the bank.)

This is a preliminary review of Catan, having just three-and-a-half games under my belt, but that’s enough experience to offer the following points. First, the good:

  • It’s Catan. The rules are implemented faithfully, the terrain and icons are familiar, and the gameplay is smooth. If you’re a Catan fan, you can stop reading here and just go get it now.
  • The music is excellent, and the sounds are good (but I could see them becoming annoying over time). There are options to switch off either or both.

And the bad:

  • This is just basic Settlers. No expansions, no 5- or 6- player options. You do have a few options when creating a game, however. These options are: fixed or variable setup, random vs. stacked dice, optional friendly robber (no attacking players who haven’t earned any points yet), changing the victory requirement from the default 10 points to either 8, 9, 11 or 12, an optional catch-up “resource bonus” to players who haven’t earned any resources in five turns, or starting with a settlement and city instead of two settlements.
  • Even switching the option for “quick animation” on is not quick enough. You get bogged down in transitions and long dice roll animations and the resource assignment animation. Kolonists had a faster pace.
  • I don’t like the UI. All the commands (building, trading, etc.) are hidden in a slide-out menu to the right, guaranteeing that even a simple “end turn” is two gestures. Building a settlement is needlessly complex: Slide out menu, tap build, slide left in the build menu to choose to build a settlement, tap a checkmark to confirm, tap on screen where you want to build the settlement, tap a second checkmark to confirm. A better option would have been to dedicate some of the screen real estate to action buttons.
  • No undo.
  • While there is a good in-game statistics section (keeping track of dice rolls and other interesting data), it doesn’t keep track of your overall win-loss record. Kolonists offered a campaign mode, awarding points for each game that earned you new (cosmetic) titles. Catan would have done well to offer something similar.
  • The AI does not seem great. I’m 3-0 so far (but might have lost another game that crashed). You can choose either random computer opponents or select different characters, which are rated by skill. I’ve seen even the best-rated AIs make some questionable moves. And they all trade too much in the end-game.
  • You can only save one game at a time. If you save a game and then start a new game, it doesn’t warn you that your previously saved game is lost.
  • It’s a bit buggy. For example, I chose to switch off the insipid comments that the AIs make when building items, but sometimes they still make comments anyway. And one game had to be abandoned when it was a computer player’s turn but it took no actions, with no options to continue or skip.
  • Multi-player is only done via pass-the-phone (hot-potato style) — no networking support.
  • Picky: The random setup of ports isn’t in accordance with the rules, randomly putting ports closer together than the official random setup rules allow. (Unless something has changed in the fourth edition that I’m unaware of.)

Despite the limitations, I recommend this anyway. I’m hopeful that all of the above problems will be fixed over time.

For players not familiar with the board game of Catan, they offer extensive tutorials and help. I didn’t go through them all but they seemed exhaustive, which should help a bit with the learning curve.

I’ll give it 3.5 stars for now.

Candy Land: Why it works

Wednesday, January 28th, 2009

Ah, Candy Land. Fancy a game? Of course you don’t — unless you’re a two-year-old.

Raph Koster wrote a post defending Battleship and other kid’s games in response to a BoingBoing post outlining the case Against Candy Land and other games for young children. However, Raph didn’t defend Candy Land, dismissing it with a single sentence. So it falls to me to rush to Candy Land’s defense, to erect towers of spun sugar and moats of molten chocolate, flinging gumdrop boulders against naysayers. To arms, Princess Frostine, to arms!

(Of course, the greatest indictment of Candy Land has already been written, on The Sneeze.)

The BoingBoing piece (and also The Sneeze piece) denounce Candy Land because there’s zero strategy; they point out (correctly) that the game is an extended coin flip, where you have no influence on the game’s outcome.

So what? Agreed, it’s not a fun game for adults. Agreed, it’s not a strategic game. To dismiss Candy Land for those reasons escapes the point entirely. It’s as misguided as giving a Mister Rogers episode a bad review because the plot is dull and there’s no conflict.  The point is, Candy Land is a starter game for very young chldren. Not only is it an extremely attractively packaged game (“strongly themed” in the parlance of board game geeks), but it serves its intended purpose very well: Its audience is 2-3 year olds who don’t know any other games and need to learn the very act of how to play a game.

The skills Candy Land teaches are:

  • Color recognition (although in the travel edition we have, they print the orange so close to the red that even I have a hard time distinguishing these two colors from each other if the light isn’t good)
  • Simple counting (one color square vs. two color squares)
  • Remembering which piece is yours
  • Understanding how your piece represents you in the game
  • Following rules of how to advance your piece, by matching the board squares to the drawn card and finding the location of the next color square to advance to
  • Appropriate turn-taking
  • Watching for victory conditions and ending the game at the right time
  • Dealing with random setbacks and unpredictable events
  • Winning gracefully
  • Losing gracefully
  • Not cheating

Some of those lessons are only taught with heavy parental guidance, of course.

To make the game palatable (not drawn out, and not likely to induce a tantrum), there are two optional rules described in the official rulebook that I highly recommend:

  1. Young children who draw a location card that would cause a backwards move get to draw again instead of moving backwards.
  2. Older children may draw two cards, and choose the one they want.

The second rule introduces very modest strategy, teaching children the basics of how to evaluate one move against another. It also speeds up the game significantly.

Candy Land is fun for children in the same way that reading a simple story is fun: It has a beginning, middle and end, and the outcome is in doubt. That the game is not fun for adults is irrelevant. Candy Land is not intended for adults, or even for five-year-olds. (Five year olds could use the pieces as a springboard to inventing their own, much more interesting, game.) It’s a gateway to better games, for children who need to acquire the skills I described above. It’s far better to learn how to play games using a simple game as a starting point, rather than one too complex for the child to understand.

If you’re upset about the sugar-laden and calorie-rich theme, you may prefer The Busytown Board Game instead. It’s basically the same race game, but with trappings of Richard Scarry instead of trappings of confections.

My son Sammy, who is three, still loves Candy Land. But now that he’s starting to get the hang of what games are about, he’s also interested in many other types of games. Lately we’ve been playing Rush Hour (which Sammy picked out of my game shelf himself because he loves cars and trucks). Even though intended for eight-year-olds, it’s easy enough for a three-year-old to understand the basic concept, so we’ve started designing our own puzzles for each other. To see him go through the logic of untangling the traffic jam and get the red car to escape is simply amazing. But without a background of Candy Land, I don’t think he’d have either the interest or skill set to play Rush Hour.

In about three years I’ll start teaching him Settlers of Catan.

Variegated miscellany

Saturday, May 24th, 2008

Today I attended Jack and Andy’s fifth birthday party at Hoover park, and watched Bob get pelted by water balloons and shaving-cream-filled sponges by ten ecstatic kids. (How I escaped that fate, given I’m a co-godparent? Dunno! But I am oh so grateful.) Aunt Beth made two cakes, one a race car, and the other a chocolate volcano with lava made from melted orange lifesavers. Amazingly beautiful cakes.

* * *

While I was feting twins, Kimi took Sammy and Sophie to the Hiller Airplane Museum, which never gets old for Sammy.

Me: Sammy, what did you see at the airplane museum today?
Sammy: Airplanes.
Me: What kind of airplanes?
Sammy: Old airplanes. With wings!

* * *

Yesterday was Sophie’s eight month birthday. She babbles incessantly now, has the tiniest of teeth buds coming in, gives a smile to everyone, likes to wave somewhat erratically at people, and can roll over, but seems to show no interest in crawling. We’ve started the ferberizing to break her of her 3 a.m. feedings, and so far so good; she slept through the night for the last two nights.

* * *

Yesterday was also photo day at Sammy and Sophie’s school, and in addition, teachers’ lunch out for Sophie’s class. This semi-annual event asks the parents to donate their time and a little money for the teachers to get an escape, while parents come in during the lunch hour to watch the kids. There are eight kids in Sophie’s class, ranging from four months to almost a year old. For the noon to 1 shift where I helped out, we had five parents. When we first started our shift, the teachers had left us well-fed, happy, clean-diapered kids. Within about, oh, ten minutes, half of the kids were bawling, and most had dirty diapers. We parents just looked at each other and laughed. What a profoundly difficult job. The two teachers handle four infants each, with aplomb. We parents were having difficulty with less than two each. Things soon settled down though, and the hour ended up flying by.

* * *

While the photographers set up outside the school and we lined the kids up to have their individual and class photos taken, smoke and haze filled the sky from the nearby Santa Cruz mountains fire. Yesterday morning over 3,400 acres had burned, dozens of homes were destroyed, and the fire was less than 1% contained. Even though we were fifty miles away, kids rubbed their eyes and coughed; and the strange air reminded me of a smell from my childhood, in London: walking down the street in winter evenings, with seemingly every house having a fireplace with a blazing wood fire, smoke pouring out of chimneys, getting on your clothes.

Chim chimminee, chim chiminee, chim chim cheroo.

I was very glad to see the unexpected and unseasonable light rain today, giving the firefighters the break they needed to control the mountain blaze. The dull weather was not so much fun for five-year-olds attending a birthday party, but everything in life is a trade-off.

* * *

Earlier in the week, I caught Speed Racer and then snuck in to a showing of Prince Caspian. It took me about thirty minutes to catch on to Speed Racer’s vibe, but once I did, I loved it. I think this is a vastly underrated movie. The critical smackdown is somewhat intense; I guess most of the critics never watched the original cartoon, because I think the movie catches the goofy tone of the movie pretty much perfectly. And the visuals do not disappoint, exceeding even the hype.

Prince Caspian, on the other hand, is a dreadful bore, missing all spark of charm and whimsy of the first Narnia movie, laying the religious theme on over-thick, and really missing the point of the book (which I read probably twenty times before I was 12).

Speed Racer is over two hours but feels like 60 minutes. Prince Caspian is over two hours but feels like three or four.

* * *

Rob and I have been playing a new card game, Race for the Galaxy (which Steve and Larry introduced me to when they visited a couple of months ago). We play whenever we get a chance. I love this game. It’s a bit fiddly to learn, and the fact that you’re not directly interacting with your opponents takes a few plays before you understand how you can actually have a huge effect on your opponents’ play — but it’s such a short and intense game, I find myself even dreaming about it. Get this game!

* * *

Kimi gave me the new Flight of the Conchords CD for my birthday (among a lot of other CDs, thanks sweetie!). Although I loved the first season of the HBO show, I had thought some of the songs were hit or miss. But I was able to really listen to the lyrics (thanks to the iPhone making it easier for me to carry around music), and now I love all the songs. Buy this CD. Please mister, you won’t regret it.

* * *

There’s a friends-and-family deal at TiVo right now for a TiVo HD. If you’re a friend or family and want a new HD DVR, drop me an e-mail.

* * *

While I do aim to generate content, rather than pass along content from elsewhere, here’s a link. I have to say I applaud these two for their convictions and avocation.
* * *

Kimi: “Your blog is so random. No one likes all the content. No one!”

Guilty — variegated miscellany is what this is. I do tend to be all over the place. Everything’s connected, somehow. Just think though — there are half of the categories listed on the right not even touched by this post. But comments are what I like best, so let me know what you’d like to see more of, and less of.

R.I.P., E.G.G.: I’m… [rolls dice]… saddened by his passing

Wednesday, March 5th, 2008

Gary Gygax passed away yesterday. Tributes and discussions popped up all over the web for the co-inventor of Dungeons and Dragons and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons — the venerable tabletop roleplaying game (“RPG”), forerunner of today’s immensely popular fantasy multi-player computer roleplaying games such as Everquest and World of Warcraft.

(My favorite article about Gygax, which I read far too late into the evening last night, was this extremely funny and well-written story from 2006.)

In 1979, as an awkward 12-year-old newly arrived to America, with a weird British accent and not a single friend in the entire country, I stumbled across a lunchtime club at my junior high school playing AD&D. I joined in. In the first few minutes I played, the party was encountering a group of mind flayers, far tougher monsters than our group of low-level characters could handle. The mind flayers asked for a sacrifice to let the rest of the party go free. Not understanding the rules at all, trying to hard to ingratiate myself with the other players, I volunteered to be the sacrifice. The DM nodded and said, “Ok, you’re dead.” Wait, what? Your character can die in this game? What kind of game is this! Fortunately, over time, I got better at playing.

I introduced the game to my brothers and cousin, and we played. A lot. An awful lot. I played with them and other groups, through college and beyond. We tried many different RPGs over the years, but always kept going back to AD&D. To the chagrin of my wife, there’s still a huge stash of old AD&D books and modules and character sheets taking up space in our hall closet.

As my brother Rob said, on one occasion of taking up the game again, “The fact you can kill some monsters, roll some dice, and end up with 10,000 gold pieces is just awesome.” Sure, more modern games are better designed, better balanced, take less time — but the appeal of a game with such charming and bizarre rules, that is powered mainly by imagination, and offers infinite (even unbalanced) possibilities, and defies the entire concept of “game” by having no winners and no end — well, you can’t beat that. (Literally.)

Over the years, Gary lost control of the company he founded to sell D&D, and different versions of the game came out that he had nothing to do with. The newest versions seem to have lost a lot of the soul and quirkiness of the original. The original game was earnestly written, each page of the dense rules packed with ideas all happily lifted from dozens of sources ranging from Tolkien to Moorcock; dungeons were populated with mythic Greek creatures living side by side with creatures out of Arthurian legend or gothic horror or Arabian Nights. It stretched my vocabulary and creativity.

It was never a “cool” game though, and even here and now it’s a bit weird to be typing this up, knowing there’s a stigma with associating yourself with such an uncool pastime. I never met Gary, but the profiles and interviews paint him as an uncool guy. But a happy guy, a generous guy, and a supremely creative guy — who was not ashamed to be uncool.

These days, geeks and nerds aren’t so reluctant to identify themselves as such. Geekdom is slowly becoming cool. Vin Diesel plays D&D, and Vin Diesel is cool. So what the heck. In honor of Ernest Gary Gygax, creator of works that fired up my teenage imagination such as The Tomb of Horrors, and Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, and (most of all) Against the Giants — I hereby admit my enjoyment of Dungeons and Dragons, and raise a flagon of mead to salute the life of the man who started it all. Thank you, Gary, and RIP.

Tacoma, Tacoma, we’re back in Tacoma

Saturday, December 23rd, 2006

I like the word “Tacoma.” Strong word, very mellifluent (sort of like how L.M. Boyd claimed that people who don’t speak English choose “nausea” and “diarrhea” as the two most attractive-sounding words).

In pounding rain and after only just barely getting everything packed and wrapped and delivered and back home in time for the shuttle, I flew out Thursday night, and Kimi picked me up at Seatac. Kimi’s been staying with her sister Tomi and Tomi’s family: Her husband John and three-year-old daughter Kira.

Yesterday we spent the morning visiting Santa Claus at the Tacoma Mall. Only after waiting two hours in line (in shifts) did we see all these people cutting in front of us. What’s going on? we asked. Oh, if you become a member of this mall kids club thing, you can cut to the front of the line. How much does it cost to join? $5 a year. Yikes. For $5 we’d have gladly saved two hours of time.

Sammy was, naturally, terrified of Santa, who seemed like a decent chap. They took three pics: One of Sammy bawling his eyes out, then Kimi jumped in and distracted him for a brief second, and he’s looking at the camera with a strange expression that if you didn’t know what was happening you might think was nearly a smile, and then another one of him bawling. Kira’s expression is a bit flat. But at least Santa and Kimi are smiling radiantly. (I’ll scan in the photo when we get home and put it up; I know there haven’t been many photos here lately.)

Tomi had a small party for friends and neighbors last night, and we had lots of cake and cheese and cookies, and played Apples to Apples, which remains one of my very favorite party games for mixed groups. Kimi made snicker dooodles and chocolate crinkles, which didn’t do much for my diet because I can’t resist them.

Today we had brunch with Kimi’s dad, one of the most dour men I have ever met, but Sammy can charm anyone, so things went well.

I took Sammy for a brief walk. Brrrr. His vocabulary is coming along, and he’s very interested in airplanes. In addition to being able to say “uh-oh” and “bye bye” and “mama” and “dada” and recognizing (sort of, some of the time) what we want him to do when we ask him to point to his ears or his nose, I do believe that on that walk he told me he was freezing his buns off. Only he pronounced it, “Mfwwa bah fala bah?”

We’ll be up here in Tacoma until Tuesday morning, and then we fly in to Elk Grove for my mom’s birthday.

Happy Thanksgiving — let’s hear it for four-day weekends

Saturday, November 25th, 2006

The last few years we’ve had Thanksgiving at my parents’ place up in Elk Grove. This year, Kelly and Rob hosted. This was great for two reasons: First, it’s a lot closer, and second, they did almost all of the cooking, so we could relax a lot more. The only downside is that I didn’t get to see my brother Phil and his wife Erin and daughter Sarah, since they went to Erin’s parents instead.

Kimi made a pair of sweet potato cheesecakes topped with maple cream. In addition to the traditional menu (mostly cooked by Kelly and Rob’s friend Keith), Rob also cooked some crab, which tasted really great although I have to say it felt out of place. A memorable addition, to be sure.

Kelly’s step-mom, dad, sister Tara, and brother-in-law-to-be Geoff were also there, so it was a big group. After dinner, a few folks watched football and the rest of us played some Outburst (one of my favorite party boardgames). Sammy was well-behaved the whole day and managed to take a nap at 3 in the office. Kimi ended up taking him home around 7, and Harry and I followed a bit later (we had invited him to spend the night).

It felt good to see my parents again, and I appreciated Joanna driving them down and back. If we had more room in our house I think we would have invited them to stay as well as Harry.

At home, Kimi went to bed early so Harry and I played some Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation, completing the series we had started the week before. In this two-player board game that shares some similarities with Stratego, the black side (Sauron’s minions — the orcs, cave troll, warg, and other bad guys) are definitely stronger than the white side (the Fellowship and assorted other good characters). Harry’s very good at this game, and gets a lot of practice since they apparently play a lot at his work. With Harry playing the more difficult white side, he beat me 2-1 in the first series, but I managed to win the second series 2-1. The new deluxe edition has some variant characters, and when we played with those, he beat me 3-0 alternating sides. I don’t like the variant characters nearly as much, but I do recommend the game overall — a really interesting game for two players that somehow manages to capture the feel of the books better than any other Lord of the Rings-inspired game I’ve played.

Thursday night we watched BloodRayne, a truly awful inspired-by-a-videogame-neither-of-us-have-ever-played movie, and Friday we basically vegged out and watched Heroes all a bit during the day and finishing up after Sammy went to bed. We had a mini-marathon and succeeded in watching the first nine episodes. I enjoyed Heroes quite a bit, and it’s clear the writers actually know where the first few episodes are going. I was a bit surprised at how much gore there was; it’s not for kids at all. The series plays around with comic books as a theme but ultimately I think the series has more to do with a cross between The 4400, X-Files and Lost than with any particular comic book.

As I write this, Kimi and I are doing a movie-trade. She’s seeing the 7:10 showing of Casino Royale and I’ll see the 10:30 showing.
I’ll add my impressions later.

Hallowe’en night

Wednesday, November 1st, 2006

I meant to get home early, before dark (it gets dark so early now) but work was too busy. By the time I got on the road, traffic was more frightening than any scary costume. I called Kimi and she was trying to feed Sammy, give out candy to the trick-or-treaters, cook dinner, put up some decorations, and change into her costume — and was quite understandably a bit stressed.

Fortunately, John and Yvonne to the rescue — they were coming over for dinner and to hang out and play party games. Yvonne helped feed Sammy and give out candy, and John helped with the decorations. Kimi made some lasagna that was delicious. We managed to get the house looking suitably spooky. And just in time — not long after 6, the kids starting coming in droves.

Every year we get a few hundred trick-or-treaters. Every year we’ve run out of candy and had to rush off to Safeway to buy more. Some years I’ve had to give out sports bars or spare change at the end. This year Kimi and I resolved not to run out. She spent Monday and Tuesday creating 360 treat bags. And for the first time, we had some candy left over. By leftover bag count, it appears we had 320 trick-or-treaters this year, up slightly from last year.

Sammy really enjoyed seeing all the kids in costume. (If I had to pick the most popular theme, I’d say Star Wars was the winner this year. Spiderman was sharply down from last year, but Batman held steady.)

After Sammy went to bed at 8, Yvonne, John, Kimi and I had some wine and played this game, which I have to say was pretty amusing, especially after a couple of glasses of wine (although we didn’t play it by the rules and as a drinking game, more just as a discussion).