My 2018 Recommendations

Many bloggers write a “Books I Read Last Year” or “Recommended Movies” post at the end of the year. Frankly, I think most people do it because other people do it and because they’re really easy to write. It’s a total cop-out for generating content.

In fact, it’s such a good cop-out that I’m going to do it, too. It’s still a nice way to review the past year and share what I did. Here are the some things that I loved from 2018.

Continue reading “My 2018 Recommendations”

Shifting Towards “The Resistance”

After AP tests at the end of senior year in high school, there wasn’t much to do in class. Our teachers didn’t have anything to teach, and we weren’t particularly motivated to learn, so we were stuck in a room full of peers for 51 minutes until the bell rang and couldn’t get too loud. Some may see this as a waste of time: we saw it as an opportunity and played a lot of Mafia.

Mafia is a simple game of social deduction. The basic game has 3 roles: the narrator (who runs the game), the Mafia, and the townspeople. To setup the game, the Narrator gives out secret roles to all of the players: either one of a few Mafia or mostly townspeople. Then, everyone closes their eyes, and the Mafia open their eyes and to see who each other are. The game then switches between 2 phases of day and night until the Mafia or Townspeople win. During the night, the townspeople close their eyes, and the Mafia silently choose to kill someone. When everyone wakes up for daytime, the Narrator tells everyone who was killed and eliminated from the game (usually with a grisly story). Then, everyone has to argue and agree to lynch someone. Various suspects are accused over discussion, and a vote is taken by the Narrator. That player is then eliminated from the game, and it goes back to night. The townspeople want to lynch all of the Mafia, and the Mafia want to kill all of the townspeople. Continue reading “Shifting Towards “The Resistance””

Finally Settling

“Really? How have you never played Settlers of Catan?”

Despite playing many board games now, I didn’t play Settlers until just last week, which led to the reaction above from various friends. Many people are first introduced to more serious, strategy board games shortly after college, and Settlers of Catan tends to be where it starts and ends. I myself was introduced to board games by two other common gateway games: Arkham Horror during the summer after my freshmen year and Munchkin during my sophomore year. It’s a shame I missed out on Settlers because I don’t know if I’ll ever get really into it.

If you’re unfamiliar with it, Settlers mixes the trading of Monopoly with the set building of Gin Rummy. Several hexagon tiles are laid out as an island where each tile produces some resource. By building settlements on the vertices of the hexagons and between your roads, you get a chance (based on a dice roll every turn) to gain resources, which you can then use to build more roads, settlements, and several other developments. Throughout the game, resources are traded amongst the 4 players, Mostly by counting settlements, players gain points, and the first player to reach 10 points wins the game.

Although Settlers was designed as a physical board game, I actually played it using the web version with 3 of my high school friends. Willie was the only one who had played before, but we all picked it up relatively quickly. Unfortunately, I picked my initial road placement poorly and didn’t manage to develop much until far too late. Unlike the recent games of StarCraft we played together, we weren’t so intensely focused on the game that we couldn’t talk. Despite playing in a virtual space, we taught, negotiated, and trash-talked through the game over voice chat.

For most of my game-playing career, the exciting advances in gaming technology have been slicker graphics, innovative gameplay, and better network performance for smoother gameplay. What we’ve seen recently, however, is a return to social. Co-op play is a major part of many console games because players want to share games with friends on their couch. Mobile games are so dependent on social mechanics that I recently heard a friend lament how difficult it was to play these games without mobilizing and cajoling friends into joining in as well.

For myself, however, I have found the games become less and less important than simply as a context for us to use technology to hang out. An interesting consequence of technology discussed in “Alone Together” is that we can hide ourselves more easily from social circumstances. We text to avoid the complications of actually talking to someone, and yet we still somehow rationalize it by saying that we don’t want to impinge on others immediate attention with a phone call. Although I do cold call occasionally, I too shy away from bugging friends in the evenings.

Given my own availability in the evenings, I shouldn’t be as surprised as I usually am when my friends are available. Still, it’s much easier to reach out to play a game rather than just talk, though I hope to mostly just talk anyways. And thanks to technology, we can do it, especially over board games and other computationally simple tasks. At least in this domain, it seems that the gift of technology isn’t the amazing machinery of modern games but just some common ground to focus a phone call around.

So Settlers was good, and I’m glad I played, but I don’t think I missed much by having initially skipped it. I don’t have any criticisms right now, but there are many games (check out my board game chooser!) I would rather play. Still, I no longer have to justify having never played it and can lure friends into other games by honestly explaining how “it’s just like Settlers, except…”

The Board Game Chooser: find a board game for any occasion with a few simple questions

My friends and I have been playing a lot of games together recently. It’s quite remarkable how much time one has when no longer in school, and given how much time we spend together, it always helps to find fun, accessible activities for us to do together. Enter board games.

It turns out there’s a huge world of board games. BoardGameGeek is a great database of the ones that exist, but with so many and a decent investment to get any of them,  it’s hard to know which one is right. Right now, most of them aren’t right since my housing is in transition right now, but if I wasn’t, it would be really handy to find a way to narrow down to my own preferences in games and the situations I would be playing it in. For that, I built the Board Game Chooser, a simple website that walks you through to a good fit.

All of the credit for the data goes to the Silver Oak Casino, who made a huge flowchart for picking a board game. My contribution here was just processing the data and putting it online for greater accessibility. I hope it’s helpful to you.

For a project that took only a few hours, I’m happy with how it works. All of the data is in JavaScript, so notice that once you load the first page, you never need to load another page again. Not only does this reduce the amount of traffic my server needs to deal with, it results in a much faster experience for you as well.

Given that the path does feel like a series of pages, however, I am also using browser history in HTML5 to simulate the same effect. If you’re in a modern browser, you’ll notice the URL change as you click through choices, and if you navigate directly to any of those pages, you’ll return to the same state. It even supports the browser “back” and “forward” buttons, which have become critical in surfing the web but can often be a web developer’s nightmare.

Anyways, enough about tech. If you’re still interested, you can see all of the code at https://github.com/StoicLoofah/boardgame-chooser. Otherwise, go ahead and try it out, and I hope you find something that interests you.

And as a last second pitch, if you do want to play a game, please consider going out to a local game store or bookstore instead of just buying it online. The game store I went to growing up was a great place, not only as a retail space for fun things but also as a community for people looking to play games of any sort. Internet retailers may be $10 less than MSRP, but they don’t have tables in the back to meet new people to play with.

A Brief Introduction to Arkham Horror

(Note: post was started last weekend, so the dates are a little off)

As of a week and a half ago, I’m done with school. I took my last final, graded a ton of exams, and promptly got on with all of the things that I didn’t do because of classes. The most concrete of those was that I started work at Zanbato the following Monday, but more importantly, I’ve been playing lots of games. I played Magic: The Gathering for the first time in perhaps a year, and Friday night, several friends and I met to spend 4 hours losing horribly at Arkham Horror, yet absolutely enjoying it. It’s a slow game, but let me give you the pitch for why you should come by to play with me. Simply, Arkham Horror is a cooperative, adventure board game based on the works of H.P. Lovecraft where you fight monsters, close gates to other worlds, and try to avoid going insane before The Ancient One comes to devour Earth. Let me break that up.

First, Arkham is a town in Massachusetts that’s at the center of many of H.P. Lovecraft’s horror stories. If you don’t know Lovecraft’s work, you are perhaps familiar with the Cthulhu, which has become part of pop culture since he was writing in the early 20th century. His style is somewhat hard to describe, but in his world, there are horrors beyond the ability of humans to comprehend, and the characters of his story often encounter extraterrestrial and fantastic creatures in the course of their adventures. My friends and I often joke about how unoriginal he is between his works, with his descriptions at best being as explanatory as “eldritch” or “non-euclidean”, or more typically of the “horrors beyond all description” variety. Even so, he developed a rich mythos that should capture your imagination and shouldn’t leave you scared out of your wits if that’s not your preference. All of his work is now apparently free and available online or in ebook format.

This mythos gets compacted into a board game, where the monsters you fight are all Lovecraft classics, and various encounters are pulled straight out of his stories. I played Arkham Horror before reading his work, and now having read it, I find the game much more amusing as I recognize the references.

Second, it’s a cooperative board game, which means that all of the players are working together to “beat the board.” Unlike many other board games that require you to go after and knock other players out of the game, this game has a common goal for everyone. This makes it easier to get into the game as there is no conflict of interest in players helping newer players to learn. Like in Craps, everyone around you is on your side as you roll the dice, and at the end of the game, there’s either a sense of shared triumph or shared humility.

Third, it’s an adventure game, so you play as an investigator running around between various locations in Arkham and temporarily through gates into other worlds. Every turn, new monsters appear on the board as gates open from Arkham locations to other worlds, and your goal as a team is to close all of the gates by traveling to other planes, hopefully before the Ancient One comes for the final showdown. Along the way, you have encounters at each location, typically inspired by actual Lovecraft stories. The game can be very capricious and is typically very cruel, where you must roll a dice to determine whether you receive the pretty bad or very bad outcome. Although the rules are quite complex, the actual choices can be made without needing to think too hard about it. On the other hand, it requires a lot of coordination of actions, and you’re welcome to strategize as much as you want.

Once, Arkham Horror might have been categorized as a serious board game, but I get the sense that it’s become a bit too mainstream for true board game snobs. But that’s probably for the best, and it’s at least a good vote of confidence in the accessibility of the game. The main downside to the game is that it is slow. Games can easily take 3-4 hours, especially if you’re either new or not playing particularly quickly. But even 4 hours of crushing defeat can be fun as a shared experience among friends. If you’re around, let me know if you want to try it out. I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I do.