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.

My Google+ Hangout Success Story

This past weekend, 3 friends and I met up to play Dungeons & Dragons in the early morning, mid-afternoon, and late night, in California, Washington, the UK, and Korea. Simultaneously. And we could all see each other and share notes and drawings with each other. Technology just works when we can easily do things we haven’t been able to in years, like meeting up with friends from junior high.

Since we were split across 3 time zones exactly 8 hours apart, one of us is working at literally every hour of the weekdays, with some spill onto the weekends. It took us maybe 4 weeks to schedule our first session, but it was well worth it to get a chance to catch up under the premise of playing Dungeons & Dragons, a game that I will try to sell you on in the next 2 paragraphs.

Dungeons & Dragons (or D&D) is improvisation with a few dice rolls as a final arbiter for how things go. The players take the role of adventurers in a fantasy world of swords and magic controlled by the Dungeon Master (or DM). Unlike most tabletop and video games that have rules to dictate what you do, D&D lets you dictate your actions and makes the DM determine how those flesh out in the game. Want to stiff-arm retreating goblin instead of just swinging your sword? Or do you have a 5 minute argument to give the innkeeper about why his fedex quest was a waste of time? Just about anything goes.

Despite its nerdy association, D&D is very social: in this last session, we extensively discussed a battle plan that was obviously (and hilariously) flawed as soon as we began fighting, I described how my character was pretending to play dead to get a jump on a hobgoblin (which also didn’t work when I failed to roll well enough to bluff the enemy), and we interrogated a rescued hobbit about his plans. Like any good game should, it encourages interaction between players.

Being able communicate in speech and gestures, share documents with character details, and draw out various rooms is critical for D&D, and in truth, nothing beats sitting around a kitchen table. Even so, a Google+ Hangout was about as close as you can get without being physically present. Group video chat let us all look at each while talking and brought back the surprisingly important gesturing to conversation. While waiting for our last player, we watched a YouTube video together of the promise of custom games in StarCraft 2. The chat window let our DM copy-and-paste in written descriptions of the scenario, as well as being used as a log of in-game events. We shared Google Docs describing our various abilities (and also used an online character sheet I wrote to keep track of our stats. Check out my character!). The sketchpad took the place of the game board as we drew a grid and placed ourselves on various parts. And we even had a few laughs over the mustache and hat effects.

I have admittedly been somewhat fearful about Google’s integration of everything into their platform. With my email alone, they basically control me, but when they know what information I’m looking for (search history), where I’m going (google maps), what I’m working on (google docs), and more, I’m concerned about how much they know about me. At the moment, I’m not even using Google Chrome (which I admit is all-around the best browser) as my primary browser because I’m scared of the vertical integration of products in addition to the horizontal integration they already have.

But integration isn’t entirely to be feared. Google+ Hangouts are awesome because Google glued a lot of good features together in a single product. We spent surprisingly little time fighting with technology to make things work, and our game just went smoother as we discovered more features to use. At this point, this post likely sounds like an advertisement, but I’m just really excited about how well it work, so let me round out this post.

I’m very cynical about a lot of technology. Despite how “social” we’re being pitched that technology like facebook or mobile phones are, I think that these communities built on a virtual substrate are making us more disconnected than ever. I’ve been taught about the importance of physical embodiment in the world, and I worry tremendously that we’re replacing meaningful interactions with impersonal bursts, 140 characters at a time.

But this time, technology worked. When my friends and I are spread across 3 continents, it is impossible for us to get together for a quick check-in, much less playing a game. With this, however, we were instantly back to joking around and sharing the latest news with each other. I’m still anxious for the opportunity for us to all be in the same room again, but until then, I’m glad we have another way of hanging out  like we were.

My Thoughts on the Diablo 3 Beta

Hopefully those of you who also spent years in Diablo 2 didn’t miss the big news last weekend that Diablo 3 was in open beta for stress testing. The servers were up and down as Blizzard presumably was testing various capacities and training staff responses, but it was a tremendous opportunity for many fans of the series, like me, to jump in and try out the game.

For the unfamiliar, Diablo 3 is the 3rd installment in a fantasy hack-n-slash RPG. It’s set in a medieval world full of magic, where you wield swords, bows, fireballs, and more in a series of dungeons to defeat the Lords of Hell. The basic gameplay involves killing lots of monsters, which, to an inexperienced observers, looks like running around and clicking on monsters until they die. The slightly more observant will note that the game takes place from an top-down 3rd person view, and to defeat the monsters, you must run up to them and click them until they die. The final component to the game is roleplaying: you focus on developing a single hero over the course of the game and becoming stronger (by killing monsters) so that your character has more skills, better statistics, and better equipment, so you can kill more monsters.

Despite the relatively simple premise, the game is tremendously addictive. Although there are major quests to complete, the world map transitions you from one area to the next, where hordes of monsters have nothing better to do than to wait around for you to walk past. Moreover, the game is constantly rewarding you for playing: every monster killed means more experience (to get you stronger) and possible dropped items that make be useful to you.

As I mentioned, Diablo 2 had a large influence on my development, so I sprung at the opportunity to play this weekend. In the beginning, I was hoping to play through all 5 available classes (Barbarian, Monk, Demon Hunter, Wizard, and Witch Doctor), though I fortunately had better things to do with my time. I started with the Barbarian and quickly became comfortable with the format. Thanks to things such as reddit, work, and email, my clicking skills remained top notch despite being out of the game for years, and I had no problem with that.

Blizzard tweaked the gameplay to make some things easier: gold is automatically picked up when dropped by nearby monsters, statistics about your character are presented in a useful manner, and potions are largely replaced by health orbs that appear from dead monsters. They also changed gameplay aspects to focus more upon gameplay choices: skills are automatically gained (with builds being dependent on “loadouts” of  currently available skills), the environment like falling chandeliers can be triggered to deal damage, and crafting items has become much more relevant. Overall, Blizzard has done a good job of cleaning up the game and making changes that may seem detrimental, but actually really improve the experience.

But let’s face it: most of the time is spent clicking monsters, and in that respect, this game is a solid follow-up to its predecessors. And it’s for precisely that reason that I think I’ll pass on playing Diablo 3.

Unlike in “MacGruber”, the game is the same, but the players have changed. As snobby as it sounds, Diablo just doesn’t have quite enough to it to make me feel that it’s worth my time. Among my current interests, video games should be a low priority. And among video games, it doesn’t have the plot line of other RPGs like Mass Effect or the strategic depth that makes you feel like you’re learning like StarCraft. Out of Diablo, I get slightly better stats on my character and a worn-out mouse. Walking away from a game of Diablo frankly feels a little worse than I started because I’m only left with the desire to keep playing and feel the incremental improvement of a game that is purely grinding (that’s video game “grinding”. You better hope there’s no dancing grinding in this game).

The one thing that might convince me to jump back in is if there’s sufficient desire from my friends to play: it’s a half-decent social experience. But given the choice, I might push to do something else.

Overall, well done, Blizzard: you’ve improved the experience of a tried and true game. Sorry that I’m no longer part of your target audience.

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.

The Katamari Itch

A few weeks ago, I came across an interesting little project that turns a webpage into a game of Katamari. It takes any page (preferably one with a lot of text) and adds a ball that can be rolled around on the page using the mouse. Whenever it runs over a piece of text, it picks the text up off the page, creating a bigger and bigger ball. Although I appreciated the novelty of the idea and the cleverness of execution, I was mostly struck with nostalgia. I insisted on showing the “Katamari Hack” to all of my friends and telling them about my chance encounter with the game just over 5 years ago.

During my junior year of high school, Hurricane Rita threatened to hit Houston, which caused panic. Suddenly, everyone was talking about “evacuating” (being the simple term for “leaving” or even just “vacating”), and my mom and I left for Austin, where my sisters went to school. Family friends also came along, and that totaled 3 somewhat bored boys. I technically should have been reading “All The King’s Men” for AP English, but I was not nearly so motivated. Instead, my sister’s boyfriend brought over his Playstation 2 and games to my sisters’ apartment, and we were no longer just vacating. We were vacationing.

Although we had a library of games, we quickly became addicted to “Katamari Damacy.” Roughly, the game was about rolling a giant ball around, having items stick to the ball, having the ball, and picking up more stuff. Between us, the game was on pretty much continuously for those 3ish days, and although we switched off playing, everyone else was still in the room, watching, unable to pull ourselves away.

Since then, I haven’t played it at all or even thought about it much, until I came across the “browser version” above. Since then, I have thought about it quite a bit, and since my friend George happens to have a PS2 here, I finally found a copy at the library and sat down this evening to play it again. About an hour and a half later, I was convinced that it was as good as ever.

It’s simple. There are two controls (the two analog sticks), and those let you roll your Katamari around in a world. You start out small, picking up candies, then pick up bigger and bigger things as the ball grows. You, however, can’t just start out picking up cars. When you’re small, large objects are obstacles, but these soon become new targets for your Katamari.

It’s quirky. The plot of the game is that your dad, the King of All Cosmos, got drunk and destroys all of the stars. You, a little prince, have to roll these Katamari to form new stars because, as we all know, stars are formed out of thumb tacks, batteries, flowers, fences, people, memory cards, and maybe even buildings. In addition to the very strange dialog, the plot is driven in 2-line cut scenes of two children discussing the events of the game. The game is goofy. Thank goodness it’s also hilarious.

It’s catchy. The Katamari Hack has a snippet of the music, and the rest is similar. And the gameplay itself is addictive. The game doesn’t really become anymore complicated over time, but it’s always so satisfying to explore environments and grow that Katamari.

And I think it’s that last part that really hooked me in. It’s a casual game, but there’s great cleverness in its design to make it work. For example, the levels are laid ou to path you through different areas. Your starting area has many bite-sized pieces to grab, but it also has larger obstacles or animals that can ram into you and make pieces fall off of your Katamari. As your Katamari grows, you realize that you can now get over a certain wall, or that you can roll up the pieces that were blocking a new area. Or something that was previously a ramp becomes another piece to be attached to your Katamari.

Over the course of 10 minutes, the Katamari grows quickly, and that really gives you a sense of accomplishment. My personal history in gaming is largely focused around the western-style (DnD inspired) computer RPG, where character development happens over maybe 100 hours, and the satisfying improvement in a character’s abilities stretches over weeks of playing. Katamari does that in minutes. With a starting Katamari, mice can run into your Katamari and wreck havoc upon you, but maybe 2 minutes later, they become fodder for your Katamari as you roll them up with ease. That’s what triumph feels like.

I was sad to read in researching right before this post that they actually had made a poorly-executed iPhone version of the game called “I Love Katamari.” The iPhone really does seem like the right venue for it: the accelerometer works as well as the analog sticks, and it’s a casual game that can be played in short spurts.

In any case, I have to return the game to the library tomorrow. The one-day checkout is probably for the best since perhaps the game may not have the staying power I imagine. I think I’m happier with the belief that the game is timeless and endlessly amusing anyways.

(PS: Since I’m talking about gaming, if you played Portal, you should check out the trailers for Portal 2 where they show off new mechanics. It looks awesome, if really hard.)

A Little Beta about Starcraft 2

Thursday morning, I woke up, bumbled my way down the ladder, popped out my retainer, threw some water in my face, and sat down at my desk to check my email. One of the something silly my mom forwarded along. The other was from my drawmate George, and when he knocked on my door literally 2 minutes later, I was pretty excited. It might look like the email just had some instructions and a meaningless string of characters, but that’s a beta key for Starcraft 2. Allow me to explain for the uninitiated.

Starcraft was a real-time strategy (RTS) game released by Blizzard in 1998 for PCs. The premise of the game is that you pick one of three races, and you start out with a base. You have some basic resource gathering units, and you use those to build buildings, which build units that you use to destroy your opponent’s base. There are lots of RTS games out there, but Starcraft is particularly notable for being very well balanced. The interactions between different units are complex, and all of the different races play very differently, but end up being roughly equal in power.

Since then, Starcraft has gotten kind of big, beyond just a game. It’s a very popular and fun game to play, but it’s almost become way bigger than just a couple teenagers sitting in a basement all night: it’s basically the national sport of South Korea. Evidence?

I want to discuss that last point a little more. One common metric for Starcraft players is “actions per minute” or APM, which is a count of how many times you click or press a key in a minute. Professional players have APMs above 200. I myself have played Starcraft on and off for years now and play okay among my group of friends, and just looking at a recent replay, my APM is about 60. So yes, most people are capable of clicking and hitting buttons very fast, but the most impressive part about what pros do is that they do everything intentionally. There’s a huge cognitive load in keeping track of everything that’s going on, and it takes a lot of practice to get that good.

In any case, Starcraft 2 has been highly anticipated for a very long time. Blizzard is known for making very good games, but they’re also known for missing a lot of deadlines and not releasing a game until it is perfect. When Blizzard announced in 2007 that they had been working on it, no one was surprised, but everyone (read: South Korea) was very excited. Since then, people have been guessing about release dates and been constantly proven wrong.

About a month ago, Blizzard began closed beta testing, releasing the game to a select number of people to test out the game for bugs and balance. Prices for invites have dropped, but people were paying up to $400 to get into beta testing and try out Starcraft 2. I don’t know if I’d pay $400 for it, but I can tell you that this game is a lot of fun.

For all of you original Starcraft players, Starcraft 2 is at least as good. The races all have the same general principles, though the unit mixes are definitely fresh and something fun to try to figure out. The improvements, however, do a lot to make the game a lot more fun.

First, the graphics look great, and the game runs smoothly on my 2007 Macbook Pro. If your gripe with Starcraft was the 640×480 resolution and 256 colors, I think you’ll be impressed, especially with the detail in making buildings explode.

Second, the matchmaking system and friends bit for battle.net is also much improved. The matchmaking service also pairs you with players of about the same talent so that you aren’t getting crushed by insane Korean players on the US servers. The process of getting everyone together to play in a closed game also isn’t nearly as convoluted.

Third, the game is generally less annoying. Depending on how much time you put into Starcraft, you might know about a lot of the micromanaging you need to do to optimize the game. For example, trying to control groups of zerglings to surround a unit, or clicking each worker to a different mineral patch so that they gather faster. In Starcraft 2, much of that is simplified. Workers automatically spread, you can set workers to automatically mine when created, pathfinding for units is much better, and perhaps the biggest news, control groups can be of any size. No longer limited to only 12 units selected at a time, you can gather up all of your marine and just go for it.

The strategies for the game are still being developed, and I don’t think people even necessarily know the right build orders for the races. The moral of the story is that the game is wide open, and it’ll be more fun in general for any player, from casual players to pros, to sit down and knock down a couple games.

I’m not really sure who my audience is, but let me know if you’re more interested in details, and I’ll write more about specifics of the units and such.

Life at a Magic Tournament

(Note: if you actually want a tournament report and specifics about what I played, head over to my other blog)

Last weekend, my roommate Tom and I woke up early, hoped in a rickety white van, and drove across the bay to Oakland to participate in Grand Prix: Oakland, one of the competitive, open, official Magic: the Gathering tournaments. Allow me to provide some background on many important topics here.

Magic: the Gathering is a card game where you put together decks of creatures, sorceries, artifacts, and more to play against someone else’s deck in an effort to reduce them from 20 to 0 life. With over 10,000 unique cards and a couple hundred new ones printed each year, Magic is a potentially costly hobby that involves a lot of thought and strategy to be successful at. I myself have been playing on and off since high school and now play mostly with my drawmates in my dorm. Most recently, I had the opportunity to teach a student-initiated course on Magic here (for credit) where we actually applied real academic topics to Magic. Pretty nifty.

So Magic is just a game, but players take it very seriously. There are professional Magic players today, and Wizards of the Coast, the creators of Magic, run many tournaments, from weekly tournaments in stores with as few at 8 people to National and Worlds tournaments with 5 digit payouts. Needless to say, the community has invested a lot in this game, and it’s a big deal. This particular type of tournament, a Grand Prix, is an open event, meaning that you don’t need to win any tournaments to qualify to go, but also qualifies you for more exclusive tournaments. With only 20 a year, both local players and international players will attend, either to move up in ranking or just for chuckles.

Tom and I happen to fall in the latter group. In the wake of teaching the class and the convenience of Oakland, I figured this would be something we should do for the experience and convinced Tom to come along. Neither of us were willing to invest the time or money to play seriously, but we put some thought into the decks and headed out.

The event was held at the Oakland Mariott City Center, and we arrived arrived 8:30. After paying our registration fee, we headed over to the Burger King for their hearty food, then went back to the exhibit hall. On the way in, I noticed and laughed at a sign, “Open to the public.” I don’t imagine that a room full of people battling with cards is a very hospitable setting.

To be honest, I was expecting a lot more spectacle surrounding the event, but other than a few stores who had set up shop as sellers along one wall, there wasn’t much to look at. The room was filled with tables to play Magic games, which is probably where the most exciting things would happen. A stage at the front had a table set up for “feature matches” between well-known players, but other than that, you can imagine what a room of tables looks like.

The players meeting started just after 10, when everyone took a seat to listen to the necessary announcements. Blessed by my last name, I ended up sitting across from Raphael Levy, a French hall of fame Magic player, which I only confirmed by sneaking a look at his deck list. In fact, over the course of the day, I saw several other well-known Magic players, which just goes to show you what news I pay attention to.

I was pretty shocked that someone would come overseas for this tournament. I knew that players traveled for tournaments, but flights are very expensive just to play Magic. Even beyond the pro players, regular people came from far away just to play Magic. The people I ended up playing against came from LA, Utah, and Las Vegas, and I talked to a German man while I wrote up my decklist. Tom and I complained about the $30 in gas and other costs for parking and tolls, but in the end, we didn’t sacrifice much at all to be there.

I’m not sure how many of the 700 people there traveled to come, but they were certainly geared up to play. Instead of being ecstatic and joyous, people were generally pretty quiet and focused on doing well. A few clusters of people were chatting, but it was certainly not a lively party. Once the actual tournaments started, the biggest excitement was running to the places around the room where matchups were paired.

I played 3 rounds of the tournament before deciding to drop out of the main event. As fun as playing is, I figured I should take in more of the general experience of being at a big tournament and took a second look at the sellers and watched some of the other matches.

Although not my usual crowd, being a part of the Magic community kind of made me realize how far into it I’ve gotten. The community is just a small part of the nerd community, and of course it has its own jargon and common ground. Just walking around, I would hear snippets of conversations about how “getting thoughtseized turn 1 allows dark depths to wreck zoo” and such, and it reminded me that even if I wasn’t nearly as serious as many of the other players, I was very familiar with the game.

In psychology the week before, we discussed how expert knowledge can enhance working memory. For example, given a very short presentation of a real chess board, a chess expert can remember the positions of all the pieces, whereas a novice might only remember a few details. At the tournament, I realized I had developed the same knowledge for Magic as well. Looking at a game position for maybe 4 seconds, I could quickly absorb the entire situation: what decks both players were playing, about how far they were into the game, and, given life totals, who was more likely to win at that point.

Tom and I left just before 5 with the intention of not showing up to one of these events again. It was a good experience to actually see how the pro scene works to relate to students if we decide to teach the class again, and I did get to meet Gavin Verhey, a Magic writer who helped us design the class. Since we don’t play competitive, though, we’re not in it for the main event.

So it’s back to playing in the dorm room, also open to the public, though perhaps with slightly fewer cards to be swarmed by. But it’s okay. We make up for it in Tom’s diet soda and N64 Super Smash Bros.

Blizzcon 2009

It’s not often that one inadvertently ends up at an Ozzy Osbourne concert.

This past weekend, I roadtripped with 3 of my friends down to LA to go to Blizzcon and visit the area. Consistently making the best PC games, Blizzard has a huge fanbase, and those fanatics can buy up 20,000 tickets in less than a minute. It’s actually tragic to think that I’m one of them.

Until now, I don’t think I’ve ever been on a roadtrip or to a convention before. Perhaps the closest I came was going to a TubaChristmas with my section, but that’s a half-day event to play a tuba less than an hour’s drive away. This time, we drove 6 hours to spend 2 days at a convention center full of costumes, raffles, goody bags, panels, demos, and more. Because I can’t think of a better way to organize this, though, we’ll start with the drive.

To get from the Bay Area to LA, you can either take 101 or I-5. 101 follows the coast in a curve, so while you get the scenic view of the ocean, you also lose about an hour compared to the beeline of I-5. Since we left around 7 in the evening, we were much more anxious to arrive than to squint out to see the complete darkness of the ocean at night, so we took the very barren I-5.

That really didn’t matter, though, since we were more interested in talking to one another than looking out the window. All four of us–George, Ben, Jordan, and me–live fairly close together, but we see each once maybe once a week. With a variety of details to catch up on, we went back and forth on bizarre details, anecdotes, observation, and gossip. And like all good friends, we know each others’ feats and faults, boasts and buttons, stylings and stupidity, so 6 hours turns into a blur of mindless banter.

Oh, and if a town smells like cow dung, don’t stop for food.

We arrived at Tom’s house in east LA sometime past midnight and got the tour. It was a comfy enough spot, though we immediately fell into our old ways and began playing Magic and Super Smash Bros. At first, it seemed a little cheesy that we should do the same thing as we did in the dorm, but smash is what we do when we live together. So when we’re all sleeping over at Tom’s, it’s only fair that we should play more Smash.

About 4 hours of sleep later, we drove the 20 minutes down to Anaheim for Blizzcon 2009. We arrived around 8, and after parking and getting our badges and goody bags, we decided to get in line around 9 for a 10 am opening. We saw the line down the side of the building and followed it. As it led into park-like area, we were amazed by the snake-like shape the line had taken in and around a hill and some walkways. Walking around the outside of that, we ended up behind the convention center and finally got in at the end of the line 12 minutes later. And we were fortunate; we were only in the third row in the parking lot, which filled up and had the line come back out of it almost back to the front of the building.

We scoped out the floor first, which might have been a mistake. When we got to the hall for the opening ceremonies, we couldn’t find any seats and instead had to stand on the side. It was absolutely worth being, there, though. I guess it’s similar to the keynote presentation for most other conferences/conventions, as that’s when Blizzard unveils all of the new content for their games. Currently, Blizzard is working on 3 major titles: Diablo 3 (D3), Starcraft 2 (SC2), and World of Warcraft (WoW). WoW is their biggest cash cow with over 10 million players, each paying a monthly fee to explore Azeroth. As such, the room went ballistic when they announced the newest expansion for that.

The reaction to that announcement felt somewhat crazy to me. Although I’m familiar with the game, I, unlike the majority of people there, have never actually played WoW. A fan of Blizzard’s other games, I missed out on a lot of jokes and excitement, which many attendees got very excited about. I couldn’t immediately relate to their mania, but I can somewhat relate to their passion. Seeing as WoW is coming up on its fifth-year anniversary, I bet quite a few of them have spent more than a fifth of their life playing this game, so when they announce that attack power no longer exists, that probably affects them quite a bit. And Magic: the Gathering actually just went through the biggest rule change in 10 years, to which I freaked out about for the first minute or so. I guess I can’t ridicule them too much about their dedication.

During that first day, I went to a couple panels about the new games to see what content they were putting out. In-between those, I got to play demo versions of D3 and SC2. I won’t get too much into the details, since I’m sure many of you don’t care, but it suffices to say that I had a lot of fun with both of them. Like everything else at Blizzcon, there was quite a line, but with projections of the panels and events above all of the lines, the 20 minute wait to play for 20 minutes didn’t seem so long. Even though it took awhile, the system was surprisingly efficient with a large number of computers set up just to play on.

That first night, the headline event was the costume, sound-alike, and dance competition, MC-ed by Jay Mohr. I’m not sure how applicable this is to other conventions, but at just about all geeky conventions, cosplay is a big thing. Whether it’s  as Mario, Link, Goku, or just a generic dragon, people will show up to GenCon (a gaming convention), Comic-Con, and E3 is some very, very impressive costume of characters from the lore. At Blizzcon, everything was from the Starcraft, Diablo, or Warcraft universe, mostly from Warcraft. Combined with some shtick, the costume contest was very entertaining and impressive to watch. The sound-alike contest: not so much. I don’t find it particularly impressive that people are able to mimic the voice of a voice actor. And the dance contest was all WoW content, so nothing to speak of there.

We left around 10-1030 and went back to Tom’s. Since we were unwilling to pay for convention food, we only had dinner then, going to a Tommy’s a few blocks from his house. If you happen to like chili burgers or dogs, I recommend it.

Day 2 was mostly filled with playing games. That afternoon, though, I did get to watch the Blizzcon Starcraft Invitational finals, which was something of a big deal. Here in the United States, everyone crowds around the TV for the SuperBowl because football is the big American sport. In South Korea, Starcraft is probably the national sport. Both guys and girls will go to tournaments, where 2 players will be on-stage, and the audience will be watching live matches with 6 digits on the line. George happens to pay attention to the professional Starcraft scene, and he insisted that I watch the finals for it. It’s a little silly to think that a huge crowd started cheering when one of the players moved their mouse hand a millimeter and clicked, but that’s how the sport is played.

And to cap off the closing ceremonies, Blizzard brought in Ozzy Osbourne for a show. Although he might sound like a  random pick, there’s apparently an inside joke with him and WoW. Ozzy is known as the “Prince of Darkness”, which also happens to be attributed to the villain, the Lich King. To be honest, his appearance doesn’t mean much to me, so I watched most of his performance on a screen while in line to play D3 again. I did go over to that hall for about 3 minutes just so I couldn’t be faulted for not having taken the chance to see him live. He was surprisingly coherent and lively during the performance, so I’m betting he takes stimulants to get through his acts. That doesn’t change the fact that spraying the mosh pit with a foam hose is kind of weird, but it seemed like he gave them all a decent show.

Having pretty much experienced all of Blizzcon, we left around 9 and this time headed towards Ben’s house on the other side of LA. We geeked out for the evening playing Magic until about 3 in the morning and woke up around 11. We went on a walk and saw a Trump golf course right by the water. It’s a little ridiculous, but I guess the money has to go somewhere. After that, we went back to Ben’s and played board games with some of his friends. After dinner, we left to drive back. Some good signage let us dodge a 2-hour delay along I-5, and we ended up taking the 101 back up. We were pretty tired, but the radio was good bonding. We were constantly scanning the stations as we passed through different towns and got a good dose of 90s pop. While I’ve snubbed 90s music for awhile now, I guess there’s no point in pretending not to like fun music, so we shared a couple sing-alongs between naps all the way back to campus.

Sorry if that ended up sounding like a play-by-play, but maybe I’ll try to be more insightful next time. Instead of leaving you with a thought, I’ll instead give some details on SC2 and D3, if you care. Most of you probably don’t, but I can’t do a Blizzcon report without talking about the games.

So, Diablo 3 first. Diablo 3 is good. They gave us something like level 12 characters put in the middle of a desert (very much like act 2 of D2). The playable classes were the barbarian, witch doctor, sorcerer, and monk. The gameplay was pretty close to D2, which is probably a good thing. Now that I think about it, I didn’t feel like things have changed a lot. They eliminated potion spamming by putting a cooldown on that, but it’s compensated for by monsters dropping healing orbs. Playing each of the classes felt pretty simplistic. The caster classes were somewhat dissatisfying for me, since it was mostly just spamming ranged attacks. Although the barbarian is also just a click-fest, there was something a lot more satisfying about going toe-to-toe. The monk was probably the most fun to play. He chains together attacks, not unlike the assassin from D2. Instead of it being charges for a finisher, though, each of the 3 strikes has a unique effect. It was definitely the most interactive of the 4 classes. And the game is much better multi-player than single-player. It’s actually a little depressing to play by yourself.

Starcraft 2 was amazing. I got to play 2 campaign missions, including the on-ship briefing stuff. They weren’t that hard, but the action is varied enough that the objectives aren’t quite as trivial as in the first game. The main heft of the game, though, is in the multi-player. It’s going to take awhile to adjust to all the new units, but I promise they’re a lot of fun. There’s probably going to be some more balancing before it comes out; as it was, the colossus (think strider from hl2 or the walkers from war of the worlds) was pretty devastating. I’ll definitely be playing zerg, but I thought the protoss was a lot of fun to play. Lots of new abilities are probably going to be overload for awhile, but I think it’ll be easy to get used to. Things like queens pumping out larva and warpgates add fun mechanics without a lot more cognitive load, so the game remains fun. I was worried that additional complexity in SC2 would make it less fun for casual players who don’t practice their micro, but they’ve made lots of changes to simplify those as well. For example, you can rally workers to mineral patches automtically command-groups have icons on the bottom, you can control up to (I want to say) 32 at a time, and you can select multiple buildings at once to build. So more strategies, less fuss.

So overall, I’m a lot more excited about SC2, and a little less excited about D3. My concerns about SC2 were dealt with, but D3 didn’t show me anything special about the new classes. In the end, while they’re certainly doing a lot to add more to these games, they both very much retain the feel of their predecessors. As such, I played D3 and found it not as fun as I thought it would be. At the same time, I couldn’t think of any way that it was worse than D2. I realized that it just wasn’t as much fun because I’m not so pumped about playing more D2. I’ve pretty much exhausted that game, so while I’ll certainly buy D3 immediately and play it, it’s not something I need. As it is, I actually do want to play more SC, though. I just wish it had better graphics, ran more smoothly, and had more interesting mechanics, all of which SC2 provides.

So the bottom line: both SC2 and D3 follow their predecessors heavily. Be as excited as you are about playing those games.

(Edit) I was reminded by a FB comment about one of the big things that I forgot. If you remember, an important part about SC was the “Use Map Settings” maps. In this originated Tower Defense games, and in the Warcraft 3 custom games came DotA. Blizzard is smart, and they realized that people were extending their editor far beyond its original intentions, so at a gameplay panel, they demoed what you can do with the new map editor. And I have to say, it’s insane. It’s not just a SC2 editor; it’s a game development platform. They showed 3 clips, all of which are absolutely amazing. You have to watch it as you won’t believe it until you see it.


Lazyish Sunday

I remember reading an article awhile ago about how to procrastinate productively. The article explained one tactic where to procrastinate on one task, one should instead work on other tasks. And hence has been my tactic this morning. I have slept in, caught up on backlogged articles, gone through some old emails, worked on Chinese, updated my to-do list, and am now blogging and doing my laundry. This unfortunately means that I have not started on either of my papers.

But it’s been wonderful here in spite of the looming assignments. The temperatures have risen to a comfortable 75°F, and the prospective freshmen coming in for Admit Weekend have livened campus. Not to say that campus deadens at all, but something else is in the air. Seeing them puts my own change in perspective. Exactly a year ago, I was one of them: excited but clueless about college life. Even though my host was only a year older than me, I saw him as distantly older and more mature than me. I waver now on how far across that gap is, but at least I know what the bridge is like.

Yesterday was Google Games: an exciting series of challenges where teams from Stanford and Cal competed to win the lava lamp, the geek equivalent of the Axe. My team, five freshmen from my floor, was “Juneviles Majoring Greenback” and were very creatively (read: scrambled at the last minute) costumed in short-shorts/boxers and polo shirts with popped collars.

We competed in several events, including “athletics”, trivia, and general puzzles, but our pride was Lego building. Each team was given a bag of Legos and instructed to build a trebuchet to launch a Lego tire with the Legos, a weight, and string (which was not to be used to tie Legos together). Our team was assembled of 3 programmers, a math guy, and a pre-law student, so we thought engineering would be our weakest event. After construction, trading, auctioning, and launching, we were in a solid 1st place with an 11 foot throw. And unlike any other machine, none of the pieces of it fell off or broke on either launch.

We realized that our success came only because we were the only team to build an actual trebuchet. All of the others teams put the tire into a basket to be thrown, while our tied the tire to a string and slung it in addition to the catapult action. A minor point, but decisive. I’m also going to throw it out there (because I realize I’ve omitted it in every retelling so far) that I wasn’t involved in the engineering part at all; I was the team trader and scavenger.

So in the end, we got 5th place overall, which we were very happy about. The engineering win boosted some only average performances on other events and put us far ahead of what we expected. Stanford won the overall by a good enough margin, and “Juneviles Majoring Greenback” won the Spirit Award for our ridiculous outfits and being far too excited about the event. We now have some very nice board games.

Summer Stories

So this job (I may have mentioned this about a thousand times, but my job is to write a scheduler/database for dog groomers across the street from Taylor. I get to work from home, make my own hours, and the offer is pretty high.) is finally getting off the ground. I had another client meeting, where I, with all the doohickeys and tactics my dad taught me, presented a “functional document” and demonstrated a bit of the technology I was planning on using. I had originally thought that I would have to write a C# application on the front end, but it turns out that Access has a thousand different report and form dealies, so there’s built-in GUI. It, unfortunately, uses Visual Basic, which is probably the crappiest language I’ve learned yet (but then again, I can count those probably on one hand, so it doesn’t mean much).
Now, I am, of course, foremost a java programmer, and have come to love and hate many of its features, though more of the former. By now, a lot of it is pretty intuitive for me. VB is something completely different. First, methods have been split into two kinds: return and non-return. For all you java ppl, it’s the difference between
void methodName(){}
and
return-type methodName(){}
VB has sub-procedures and functions shown as
Sub methodName()
End Sub
and
Function methodName() as returnType
End Function
A nifty little thing about it, though, is that, as far as I can tell, you don’t worry so much about overloaded methods; arguments can be declared as “optional”, being instead set to a default value if it isn’t passed. Cool.
Two, when you declare variables, you don’t necessarily have to declare what they are. You reserve the space in memory for it (actually, you sometime don’t even have to do that much, depending on the settings) with the command “dim”, and then follow it with “as type”, with the second part being optional. Of course, you typically do give it a type, but that seems like a case for ambiguity that is a bit unnecessary.
Three, syntax is weird. In java and c++, spacing isn’t so important. Statements are cut apart by semi-colons. In VB, you have to put ” _” at the ends of lines to instruct it to keep reading. And as you’ve noticed, there are no braces: you have “then” and “end” instead. And parentheses around arguments aren’t necessary either. Anyways, enough about VB.

After 3/4 of a year, I finally beat Half-Life 2. It’s not so much that it was hard, but I wasn’t very dedicated. Well, slowly but surely, I’ve finally worked myself to the end, which was just as terrible as everyone’s been telling me. The game was so-so; I thought a lot of the lvls were very monotonous, but there were some genuinely spooky moments. Not the freaky, horror moments, but just the “I know that something bad’s going to happen, I know that manhacks are going to swarm me while Combine soldiers with pulse rifles are lining up behind me” moments. Regardless, the visual effects and physics were just as impressive as reported, and the story progressed okay. I guess it’s just one of those, “if it does a good job, then you’ll never notice it” sort of games.
With that out of the way, however, I need another one to slowly move through.
1) Morrowind, which I’ve been meaning to give a real try, but haven’t. I’ve played some of the beginning, and it’s just been real slow and boring, but I figure it must get better eventually, if it’s gotten this much attention. Besides, I’ll play Oblivion at some point, and background never hurts.
2) No One Lives Forever 2, which is pretty awesome. I’ve gotten somewhat through it, but it takes me forever, because I feel like I need to maximize my gaming, so I’ll play the same situation 3-4 times so I can escape with perfect health and grab all the items.
3) Freedom Force, which got rave reviews. I thought I was a super-hero, comic-enjoying, RPG-loving sort of guy, but this one never really got off the ground with me either.
4) Medal of Honor:Allied Assault, which I got about half-way through before I hit a really nasty sniper-lvl, and just got really cheesed off at. That one is good, but that darn sniper lvl…
5) X-Wing Alliance. I like the series, but missions are kind of a bore to do, and the graphics don’t work quite right on my gfx card.
6) Myst 3: Exile. I got more than 1/2 way through this game with only one tip, of which I’m immensely proud of, but then I just kind of stopped. I’ve been out of it so long, I don’t think I could force myself to figure everything out again.
I’m asking for your input, but no one will, so, with exactly 6 games, I’ll roll a dice on it. Thanks.

Another random thing I’d like that ungiven input on is another story plot. I really want to get into writing again, but I’m not particularly proud of any of my work since “Dixon Dills”, which I’m only semi-proud of. If ‘neone comes up with a good background, or some type of plot hook, please drop a line. I’m desperate for ideas.