Saturday, January 26, 2008

land art

Land art is a movement that began in the 1960's, when artists sought to place sculpture outside of the commercial gallery, and instead created works using the landscape itself. Such works utilized materials present in the environment, and were subject to the environment; blown by the wind or eroded by water. Here you see Spiral Jetty, a very famous piece of land art by Robert Smithson.

Andy Goldsworthy is my personal favorite of all the land artists I've looked into. What appeals to me, I think, is how his artwork is much like something I myself would have made as a little girl. All that free time wandering around in the desert wilderness, inspecting rocks and plants and making things out of them - I wish I'd known then that I could have called it art! I suggest that you borrow the book Hand to Earth: Andy Goldsworthy Sculpture 1976-1990 from the library, and view the documentary film Rivers and Tides to see how he works.

(Goldsworthy uses autumn leaves around a hole, pieces of ice slowly frozen together with water, rocks and branches, and dandelions woven together with grass stems)

My own attempt at making land art was entertaining. I wanted to try several types of sculpture, all of them using a single theme. In an attempt to subvert my overly enthusiastic maternal drive, I decided the theme would be infant related.

Initially, I wanted to
sculpt an earthen baby, perhaps from mud. I drew pictures of what I wanted it to look like. I scouted out locations, and finally found the perfect hollow tree, into which I built an elevated platform from stones. I covered the platform with moss to soften it and give it color. When I went to find mud from which to sculpt the baby, however, none of it had the right consistency. Rocks and sand for hundreds of miles.

conferring with my teacher, I decided to try suet (like Joseph Beuys). We pictured wild birds as they symbolically ate the baby, returning it to the earth. Perhaps I could make a mold of a baby and cast it in suet. That seemed artsy, right? In actuality, no one sold the quantity of suet that I needed, save for the butcher. Suet from the butcher is not like the suet you feed birds. It is big hunks of hard pig fat, which, I discovered, take years to render into grease, which then has to be cooled into lard. I gave up. I had no intention of suffering that smell for the sake of art.

In the end, I made a clay baby.
Clay is still earth, I figured, even if it didn't come from that exact location. Having become attached to the idea of how the fat baby would look, I wanted to cover the clay in a similar substance. I used beeswax, which smelled much better than the fat, and looked much the same. I had fun melting the wax in a double burner on my stove and pouring it all over the clay baby.

I took the baby to the woods, and with great internal
fanfare, placed it onto the platform, scattering birdseed all around it. It looked peaceful and protected sleeping there.

A few weeks later I went back, and someone had put up a sign that said "Rock Garden," and there were balanced stacks of stones all around the area. I felt very glad that someone had come across the baby and been inspired to add to it's surroundings.

Since then the snow has slowly been melting the baby. First all the wax cracked, and now the head has nearly entirely disappeared. I look forward to seeing if there is any of it left by spring.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

crayon physics deluxe

I'm growing to love independent games more and more. Like some others, I suspect that they will save the PC gaming market through their sheer ingenuity. Pretty soon, I'll post on Armageddon Empires, my current favorite that was developed and marketed by one person. It's an astonishingly good game.

But for now, here's another example of indie-borne creativity. It's called Crayon Physics Deluxe, and while it's not quite finished and I'm not sure I would even buy it, it's just so clever that you have to be impressed. The basic idea is that you go through a series of puzzles, increasing in difficulty, in which you must make a marble touch a star. The only way to get the marble to move is by drawing objects and taking advantage of the physics of motion (using weights, levers, pulleys, etc.). To get a feel for this, you have to watch it in action:

Pretty damn cool. I love how there are going to be an infinite number of solutions for each puzzle, limited only by your own imagination and desire for complexity. You can go the simple route (like the guy in the video) or you can try out some crazy contraption just to see if it works (see image above, which a reviewer of the game posted and claimed actually worked). I can definitely see the potential for educational value here, and a children's game that adults will obsess over too. Someone suggested that Crayon Physics Deluxe would be perfect for the Nintendo DS, with its stylus and touchscreen. You couldn't be entirely displeased if your kids were playing this in the backseat on a long roadtrip, right?

As it stands now, it's being developed for PC by a single person, Petri Purho, a student at Helsinki Polytechnic in Finland (you can read his blog here). If you spend some time looking at what this guy does, it'll blow your mind. Most of his games are "done-in-under-a-week," which is a goal he often sets for himself, but they're consistently creative. For example, here are screenshots of two of his other games. The one on the left is a "tribute to the rolling boulder from Raiders of the Lost Ark." You play the boulder and have to squash archaeologists before they touch the gold statues. The game on the right is called "SM Word" and you score points for typing in the phrase "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” over and over. Annoying Windoze error messages keep popping up to interrupt you, which you can close by shouting into a microphone and banging on your keyboard. I'm not joking.

People like this kid either get swallowed up by larger gaming companies, or try to create and develop on their own terms. You can imagine which pays more.

Saturday, January 19, 2008


Aili and I saw Juno last night, a quirky comedy written by Diablo Cody (famous in the blogosphere for her candid journal, the Pussy Ranch) and directed by Jason Reitman (Thank You for Smoking). We both enjoyed it and recommend it, although if you feel like waiting till it comes out on DVD, you're not missing anything on a big screen. If you don't want to know anything about the plot, don't read any further and just take our word that it's funny, imbued with indie spirit, and full of endearing characters and clever dialog.

The plot centers around a sarcastic, intelligent high school girl (Juno, played by an almost too pretty Ellen Page) who gets pregnant and after briefly considering an abortion, decides to carry through the pregnancy and give up her baby for adoption to a hyper-yuppie couple (Jennifer Garner & Jason Bateman). Both Aili and I were turned off at the beginning of the movie by the unrealistic, slangy, too-clever dialog of Juno and her best friend - but if you give it some time, the movie stops trying to impress you and just does. For me, the turning point was when they successfully transformed Garner's character from a freakish perfectionist and desperate wanna-be mommy into one worthy of sympathy. You suddenly realize that the movie really isn't saying anything (significant) about teenage pregnancy, specifically, but is instead trying to comment more broadly on parental responsibility. A responsibility that not only Juno lacks, due to her age, but also Bateman's character lacks due to his refusal to mature. It's an effective theme and turns an otherwise Napoleon Dynamite-esque movie into something more interesting and thoughtful.

The movie features a fair amount of peripheral "indie" content (that while currently trendy is still great) like comics, horror flicks, and cool music (The Melvins and Sonic Youth are mentioned several times, and Juno's three favorite bands are The Stooges, Patti Smith, and The Runaways). This is one of those movies that wouldn't have been nearly as emotion-provoking without its soundtrack, which is excellent from beginning to end. Aili was thrilled to see and hear that Kimya Dawson of The Moldy Peaches was the music director for the film, and the soundtrack includes several of her childlike, silly, but strangely powerful songs. To read an interview with her, go here.

For those of you that got off on the dark humor of Welcome to the Dollhouse, or even Ghost World, it's possible that Juno will be too light and fluffy. There's hardly any teen-angst here, as Juno seems amazingly mature and confident, has a trustworthy and dependable best friend, a dorky/cool "boyfriend" that loves her, and a supportive family. She's not particularly angry or depressed about her world or humanity. But I think that after seeing that plot-line all too many times, the bouncy happiness of Juno was simply refreshing.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

monkey-controlled robot destroys los angeles

This story was printed today in the New York Times science section: "Monkey's thoughts propel robot, a step that may help humans." I'm always on the lookout for anything neuroscience-related that seems to fuck with our notion of what's science fact and what's science fiction, and this one certainly fits the bill. As I understand it, the scientists implanted some recording electrodes into the motor cortex of a monkey, somehow translated this code of electrical activity into a set of instructions for a robot (?) such that when the monkey walked, the robot walked in a similar fashion. This, by itself, is pretty impressive. But the experimenters were also able to get the monkey to make the robot walk by using only its thoughts (and some clever operant conditioning), even when it wasn't walking on the treadmill. Here's a schematic that will help you make sense of what I just said (and visit the link for full details):

I am actually astounded by this. I really had no idea we, as a scientific community, had the knowledge necessary to make this possible. There are a couple of issues here that really stand out and beg for further information:

1. Where exactly in the motor cortex were these electrodes? It sounds like the team was trying to capture the neural code of not movement itself, but motor-planning. That's premotor cortex, rather than primary motor cortex. Premotor cortex is also where you find lots of mirror neurons, which fire when an animal either does something or watches another animal engage in the same behavior.

2. How the hell did they translate this neural code into a set of motor instructions for the robot? Quoting from the article:

"The video and brain cell activity were then combined and translated into a format that a computer could read. This format is able to predict with 90 percent accuracy all permutations of Idoya’s leg movements three to four seconds before the movement takes place."

Ummm, ok, but... what? FP/MC, got any thoughts here? Cracking the neural code in this fashion is perhaps the defining problem in computational neuroscience, and it seems like these guys have done it (at least with motion). Am I just naive to what's going on in my field? (probably)

If you're wondering why you'd even want to do something like this, well... I'm a little disappointed by your lack of imagination. Besides the eventuality described in the title of this post, you could use this technology to 1)
provide people who are paralyzed with robotic helpers, 2) control robotic movements in dangerous environments (e.g. mining delithium crystals on asteroids), 3) play a much cooler version of Team Fortress 2.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

the book of imaginary beings

I think most people love the idea of a bestiary. All children seem to go through a phase in life when they must learn absolutely everything about animals, or particular animals, and seem capable of quoting the most esoteric statistics and ecological descriptions of narwhals or triceratops. A bestiary of the fantastic falls within its own special category. Perhaps Aili will post on her love of Gnomes and Fairies at some point. For a slightly more surreal experience, pick up a copy of Jorge Luis Borges' The Book of Imaginary Beings (1954, 1967), which recently was released in another hardcover edition (2005).

Borges begins his collection with a thought-provoking foreword:

"Let us move now from the zoo of reality to the zoo of mythology, that zoological garden whose fauna is comprised not of lions but of sphinxes and gryphons and centaurs. The population of this second zoo should by all rights exceed that of the first, since a monster is nothing but a combination of elements taken from real creatures, and the combinatory possibilities border on the infinite... Readers browsing through our own anthology will see that the zoology attributable to dreams is in fact considerably more modest than that attributable to God. We do not know what the dragon means, just as we do not know the meaning of the universe, but there is something in the image of the dragon that is congenial to man's imagination, and thus the dragon arises in many latitudes and ages. It is, one might say, a necessary monster." (Borges, 1954)

Borges' insight on human psychology is, as always, impressive. Creatures fantastical are not randomly constructed but often represent aspects of our selves and environment that we perhaps find too repulsive or dangerous to process consciously. I am sure that Borges, like most intellectuals immersed in mythology, was influenced by Carl Jung and his idea of the collective unconscious. As a modern psychologist/neuroscientist, I am obviously skeptical of much of what psychoanalytic theory proposes, but I admit to being attracted by this particular idea. I think it reasonable that natural selection has shaped the human brain such that certain images and symbols (archetypes) possess inherent meaning. Let's consider this example of Borges': the dragon. The anthropologist, David Jones, has proposed that the dragon is a chimera of three significant predators that threatened our hominid ancestors: the snake (providing the scaly body and serpentine tongue), the large cat (legs, tail, and aspects of the head), and the raptor (wings). Our innate fear of these predators was externalized in the creation of a myth, the dragon, which in most cultures was a creature feared and reviled (see movie, Dragonslayer). Jones' book, An Instinct for Dragons, is an interesting read.

But back to the bestiary. There is nothing to dislike about this book. Borges encourages us to open it randomly and "dip into it from time to time in much the way one visits the changing forms revealed by a kaleidoscope." There are 116 entries, ordered alphabetically, with around 15 fine illustrations by the artist, Peter Sis. The creatures are taken from a variety of cultural traditions and Borges writes each entry meticulously, often with informative endnotes. He periodically quotes from a famous historical work by the Roman naturalist, Pliny, called the The Natural History which is interesting insofar as the author includes "real" and "imaginary" creatures side-by-side. If you've got some time on your hands, you can actually read the entirety of that work (translated from the original Latin) here. Skip to Book VIII for some entertaining reading relevant to Borges' work - I especially like the section on "the Rat of India, called Ichneumon."

A final quote, just to give you some flavor of The Book of Imaginary Beings. From the entry, The Jinn:

"Islamic tradition holds that Allah created angels from light, Jinn (singular 'jinnee') from fire, and men from dust... They were created two thousand years before Adam, but their race, Lane tells us, shall 'die before the general resurrection'... They make themselves visible at first as clouds or tall undefined pillars; then, accoring to their desire, they take the form of men, jackals, wolves, lions, scorpions, or serpents. Some are believers; others, infidels - heretics or atheists... 'They often ascend to the confines of lowest heaven,' Lane tells us, 'and there, listening to the convesation of the Angels respecting things decreed by God, obtain knowledge of futurity, which they sometimes impart to men'.... The Egyptians say that the Jinn are the cause of whirlwinds of sand or dust that rise like pillars in the desert; they also believe that shooting stars are spears hurled by Allah at evil Jinn...." (Borges, 1954)

Thursday, January 10, 2008

guest house

As if any of us needed something more to waste our time on...

As I was trolling the internet the other night, I stumbled across this free, flash-based escape puzzle developed by some Japanese dude known only as GUMP. It's a point-and-click adventure experience, so think of it like a miniature Myst (or King's Quest, if you remember that long ago). This one is called Guest House (give it some time to load up after you click the link). It's well designed, has a clean artistic style, and even a cool minimalist sound-track. There's no dialog and no instructions, and the "plot" is solely driven by the ethereal, suspenseful nature of the environment.

Don't you want to find out who (or what) is in this thing?

The basic idea is that you wake up in a room and have to figure out how to escape. There are objects to collect (you have an inventory), and stationary objects to interact with. You should be able to solve it in under an hour (but definitely expect a couple "what do I do now?" moments). Depending on how you feel about puzzles, you'll either find this relaxing or incredibly frustrating. Here are a few caveats and hints that hopefully will prevent you from running up against a seemingly impassable wall:

1. Observe your environment. Pay attention to details. The designer didn't build this room randomly, and although it seems fantastic, much of it operates according to logical principles.

2. Explore everything. When in doubt, point-and-click. Yes, this means pixel-hunting. If I remember correctly, there are only two moments where I felt this was being used unfairly against me (the pixels were hidden in a somewhat illogical place).

3. Items in your inventory are used to interact with the environment - but sometimes it is necessary to manipulate them while
they are still in your inventory. Double-click an object in your inventory to make it larger, and try playing with it in different ways. Some objects interact with each other. I failed to appreciate these points at first and couldn't figure out how to proceed.

4. There is a mathematical puzzle involved.

I found this mini-game oddly satisfying. If you like it, the creator has two more for you to try: Rental House, and the infamous Terminal House. I didn't find these latter two to be as logical, and Terminal House involves a certain degree of digit dexterity that I apparently lack. However, you will find yourself taking photographs of UFO's abducting Santa Claus and pixelated cavemen. As I said, these puzzles don't lack for style.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

the devil and daniel johnston

My favorite teacher, DW, recently handed me the film The Devil and Daniel Johnston.
Tired the other night, I popped it in the DVD player
, hoping to zone out and go to bed early. Instead, I found myself totally engrossed in the documentary of a profoundly mentally ill artist/musician. In the 1990's he made a name for himself in the Austin, TX music scene, and musicians like Sonic Youth, Yo La Tengo, Nirvana, and The Butthole Surfers all considered him genius. Somehow, in spite of being a fan of these bands and most "experimental" music of that era, I was completely unaware of Daniel Johnston's existence until watching this film (to listen to some of his music, go to his myspace page).

His story is very similar to that of schizophrenic musician Wesley Willis, who's connection to The Melvins and the Dead Kennedys brought him into my listening sphere in the 1990's. Both musicians are almost unlistenable, given the raw, childlike quality of both their lyrics and instrumentation. While Willis is imminently quotable in an Old Skull kind of way, Johnston has a more folk based sound. He has a certain earnestness that makes his songwriting - if not his sound- at times quite moving.

I don't know that I could actually play Johnston on my stereo very often. But what I enjoyed about the documentary was seeing a man who's battle with mental illness was met with the enthusiastic support of a community who saw his drive to create as valid, even worthy of fame. While music and art can't eliminate chronic mental illness, they can certainly improve the quality of life of mentally ill individuals. It was moving for me to see that so clearly demonstrated by this film.

While writing this I discovered that the Butthole Surfers also supported the recent comeback of another mentally ill Austinite, Roky Erickson, who was a significant part of the 1960s psychedelic music scene. He and Johnston share remarkably similar history, and similar sound. Link to Roky Erickson's documentary here.

Monday, January 7, 2008

settlers of catan (CG)

As you get older, finding people to play games with can be challenging. Some people are fortunate enough to be part of a group that meets on a regular basis but it's not a typical scenario. Having a family and/or demanding job can interfere with your ability to get together with a bunch of friends, read through a long instruction manual, and play a 5-hour epic of galactic conquest. This is something my friends and I used to do fairly regularly when we were kids (Axis & Allies, Heroquest, Dark Tower, etc.) but now we're all over 30 and it just doesn't feel right heading to your local comic & games store to play miniatures with a bunch of pimpled, obnoxious pre-teens. So what do you do? Well, as I mentioned in my previous post on Colossus, most turn to video games. But it's a solitary experience and I spend enough time in front of my damn computer. The other option is a good 2-player game that you can convince your partner to play with you. Surprisingly, there aren't a ton out there - most of the best boardgames really benefit from 3 or more people. But there are some gems that I've discovered over the years. This will be my first entry in a series on 2-player games that I think are relatively simple to learn yet deep enough to offer a challenge, and chock full of character and style.

Eurogames vs. Ameritrash

I first should discuss a distinction that's often utilized by boardgame enthusiasts. It's the difference between a Eurogame and Ameritrash. Eurogames, as you might expect, are developed by European, often German, game designers. They are characterized by relatively short and simple rules that interact to create strategic complexity, minimized randomness (dice are bad), and themes that often feel "pasted on." For example, Tikal is a classic Eurogame. If you look at the box and read the of
ficial description, you might think it's about searching for treasure in a Mayan temple, a la Indiana Jones. But the fact of the matter is that the theme (archaeological exploration) is tacked on - the heart of the game are the rules, which focus on laying tiles, using action points effectively, and exerting control over certain areas. In fact, you can pick up these rules and plop them into a different theme (which is basically what the designers did, by releasing the sequels Java and Mexica). Chess is perhaps the ultimate Eurogame. The theme (a battle between military units) is inconsequential compared to the rules. There is no randomness whatsoever. It is fairly easy to learn (the rules dictating movement of pieces can be taught to a child in under an hour), but winning versus a solid opponent requires intense cognitive processing.

(Nexus Ops: venerable Ameritrash)
Ameritrash games are heavy on style, there are usually lots of cool (possibly glow-in-the-dark) components, and mucho dice-rolling. These are the games most Americans are familiar with, like Monopoly and Risk (but visit this link for a great list of solid Ameritrash games). In general, I love Ameritrash. They've got character. But they also tend to be very boy-focused, probably because the vast majority have to do with conquest, slaughter, world-domination, smashing cars, or something involving mutants. They also can have rulebooks that are too long to read in one sitting (for an extreme example of this, see Advanced Squad Leader).

Most of the two-player games I'll be reviewing will be Eurogames, in part because they're the current fad but also because I tend to think that their style is more appealing to a broader audience.

Settlers of Catan Card Game

This 2-player game is actually a spin-off of the most popular Eurogame yet produced: the Settlers of Catan. If you get a chance to play the original Settlers, please do. It's a great example of an elegant Eurogame, with deceptively simple rules that bely intriguing and complex gameplay. I played it for the first time with RAW and his wife, and I'm sure they could speak to how great a game it is.

This version is a card game so there's no actual board in play. The theme is civilization-building in an ostensibly medieval time period. In fact, if you've played any of the Civilization or SimCity computer games, you'll feel right at home. Each player starts with a layout of cards that represents their two settlements, linked by a road, and their resource stockpiles:

(click for larger image)

There is a common pool of cards that you stack between the players. You will draw cards from these stacks to fill your hand. Most of the cards will be buildings that you can put into play around your settlements, like garrisons, churches, universities, and breweries. To play these cards, you will need to pay a certain number of resources (wood, ore, brick, etc.) - better buildings cost more. Resources are accumulated by rolling a die each turn and adding one resource to the matched stockpile. This is actually more randomness than you'll usually see in a Eurogame, but both Aili and I like it since it forces you to deal with resource shortages on a regular basis. Buildings usually come into play with text that allows you to "bend" the rules of the game - for example, the Abbey allows to hold an extra card in your hand. This is a very typical Eurogame mechanic, and also one that defines most collectible card games (like Magic: TG). Some buildings will also provide you with victory points, and once you've accumulated enough victory points you win the game. Settlements can only hold 2 buildings, so in order to get the necessary cards in play you'll need to 1) evolve your settlements into cities (building vertically, if you will) and 2) expand your civilization by building more roads and settlements (building horizontally). This image shows a player civilization that has grown significantly:

Of course, your opponent will also be building and it's a race to see who can get those victory points first. It all comes down to resource management. Knowing what to spend your money on and when, as well as knowing when to trade. You can exchange 3 of one resource for 1 that you need, and can improve this ratio with trade fleets. You're also battling over a military dominance token (achieved by playing knight cards) and an economic dominance token (achieved by playing buildings with commerce points). These many facets mean that you can pursue multiple strategic pathways towards victory, a key feature to any good game.

There are also random events which spice things up and add historical flavor to the game. Some turns, you'll get a "Year of Plenty" when there's extra resources for both players. Some turns, you'll get the Plague and your people will suffer. There are barbarian invasions, inquisitions, and pirate fleets. I recently read a blog entry by a fantastic game designer, Vic Davis, on the function of random events in games. You can read it here.

You may be wondering about player interaction. Many have criticized Settlers for basically being
two-player solitaire. While I can see the point, it's unfair. You'll be chatting with your partner about the various cards and you can even help each other with strategic decisions. Players can trade resources as much or as little as they want. Finally, there are "action cards" that you can draw which allow you to mess with your opponent's civilization. For example, you can send over an Arsonist card to burn down one of their buildings (in our last game, Aili tried to burn down my docks with this card). This reminds me of RAW sending over Rebels to my perfect island in the Intellivision game Utopia. Bastard.

Hope you enjoyed this excessively long entry. The Settlers of Catan Card Game is probably my favorite 2-player game, and Aili has given it a strong endorsement as well. I just find it very relaxing. It takes about 1-2 hours to finish a game; I suggest a good stout to drink while you play, and some Nick Cave on the hi-fi.

Friday, January 4, 2008

lonesome crowded west

[HHL] My favorite album of 2007 was The Lonesome Crowded West by Modest Mouse. Now I suspect some of you are saying, "hey douchebag, that album came out, like, 10 years ago." And you'd be right, of course. But I didn't listen to it when it came out. In fact, I hadn't listened to a single Modest Mouse album until I met Aili, in part because I sort of tuned out new music in the late 90's, and partly because I'd seen them play a song on the O.C. and thought that they must be another one of those whiny, pseudo-hip indie bands I was rapidly getting sick of (please don't ask why I was watching the O.C., really I blame it all on MQ). So I was wrong. Desperately, humiliatingly wrong. Everything on this album is just mind-bogglingly good and it'll have you alternatively singing along, banging your head, and possibly tearing up. It's got a consistent raw sound, complex mid-song transitions, deep lyrics, and haunting vocals. I can't recommend it highly enough. But I think it only fair that Aili chip in here...

[AAM] In my obviously expert opinion, this album is flawless. I say this because I've owned the damn thing for ten years, and I still enjoy it. Any album that doesn't annoy you after ten years of listening must be good. I played this record obsessively when I was eighteen and living in Seattle and feeling, shall we say, less than cheerful. This music commiserated with me. And for the last decade it has managed to somehow apply perfectly to every other mood just as well.
You know the dreamy almost sad and deeply happy feeling you get when looking out the window of a train and thinking about life's possibilities? This record even attends to that mood. I suggest you get the album, put it in your car stereo, and drive across the country listening to it over and over. Oh, and Hassan's mention of Modest Mouse on the O.C. reminded me of the time The Flaming Lips played 90210.


01 Teeth Like God's Shoeshine
02 Heart Cooks Brain
03 Convenient Parking*

04 Lounge (Closing Time)
05 Jesus Christ Was an Only Child
06 Doin' the Cockroach*
07 Cowboy Dan*
08 Trailer Trash
09 Out of Gas
10 Long Distance Drunk
11 Shit Luck
12 Truckers Atlas*
13 Polar Opposites
14 Bankrupt on Selling
15 Styrofoam Boots/It's All Nice on Ice, Alright

* favorites (but it's all good, we swear)

Thursday, January 3, 2008


Some of you are aware of my obsession with games. As a child, my mother used to play lots of boardgames and word-games with me, like Sorry!, Parcheesi, Clue, Boggle, Spill-and-Spell, and Scrabble. When I got a little older, I toyed with some of the advanced wargames my brother collected but mostly got side-tracked by D&D. DP and I used to regularly play a great fantasy boardgame, Talisman - which recently received a nice facelift from Games Workshop:

Meanwhile, there was a video game (VG) revolution going on. Some of my friends got Atari systems, I was lucky enough to get an Intellivision one Christmas, and eventually a Commodore 64. The games were great, I was hooked, and except for a relatively brief hiatus during college, I've played VG's ever since. Nowadays, it almost seems like people define gaming by VGing. Obviously, VG's possess many advantages: immediacy of gameplay, impressive sensory impact (that improves with each generation), complex rules that run "underneath the hood", etc. But for me, the biggest advantage to VG's is the capacity to play solitaire. If I could get a bunch of friends together on a weekly basis to play tabletop wargames, trust me I would. You just can't beat the social interaction and more importantly, challenge of playing other humans. And I still love the feel of a boardgame: the often campy artwork,
the haptic sensation of actual physical components, and especially, the visceral pleasure of rolling dice.

One of my favorite boardgames from back in the day was an Avalon Hill classic called Titan. MM and I played this in graduate school a couple times and we both had a blast. At first glance, it's typical fantasy fare with ogres and trolls, unicorns and wyverns battling for control of an abstract wasteland. But the gameplay mechanics are elegant (especially how it handles unit recruitment), and many (like the movement rules) present unique strategic and tactical problems. But of course, you can't play it alone and the best games involve 3-4 players. Enter, Colossus.

Colossus is a java-based, complete computer instantiation of Titan. You can play against up to 5 computer (AI) opponents and they put up a damn good fight. Best of all, it's absolutely free and you could get it now and be playing in a couple minutes (just click the link). Make sure you have Java installed on your computer (most do), click on the Colossus icon, and you'll be up and running. You probably should read the rules at some point but you'll quickly discover that Titan is very easy to learn. I have a pdf file of the rules so post a comment or email me if you want it. Here are the basic premises:

Explore & recruit. Here's a screenshot from the early-game:

You start with a single army, can split it into multiple stacks, and move those stacks around the gameboard. Note that the units in your stacks are kept facedown and hidden; therefore, your opponents (mostly) don't know what's in any particular army. Depending on what's in your stack, you may or may not be able to recruit another unit from the hex you land in. For example, if you have a Gargoyle in your stack, you'll be able to recruit another Gargoyle if you land in a Jungle hex. If you already have 2 Gargoyles in your army, you'll be able to recruit a Cyclops. Once you get 3 Cyclops, you'll be able to recruit a Behemoth. And so on. Each time you recruit a unit, you get that dopamine-kick that makes you want to keep playing. The nice thing about this version is that the recruitment rules are built in, so you don't have to look up anything as you play (in the classic boardgame, the recruitment lines were printed on the side of the board - pretty nifty). Now here's the thing: when you recruit a new unit, you have to reveal your stack to your opponent. That information is no longer hidden. But after revealing, you flip the units facedown again and continue play. Therefore, a key aspect of playing Titan successfully is remembering which enemy units are where. In this sense, it's reminiscent of the childhood game, Concentration.

Attack & conquer. When two armies from opposing players end up on the same hex, a battle results. At this point, you switch to a tactical "battle-board" that allows you to maneuver your individual units:

Each unit has a movement rating, defense and attack rating, and sometimes a special ability. You maneuver your units, attack your opponent by rolling (virtual) dice and dealing damage, and try to use terrain to your advantage. Again, the rules are simple but surprisingly deep. I suspect Titan was one of the first games to utilize this strategic map/tactical map dichotomy that now seems commonplace to most gamers (for example, the Total War series of PC games depends on this innovation for its combo TBS/RTS gameplay). Note that in this screenshot, each player has a "Titan" unit in play. These are unique (you only have one) and you lose the game if your Titan ever dies. This defines the victory condition of the game: kill all opposing Titans. This can be very challenging, as Titans are tough SOB's (and get tougher as the game goes on) and are usually guarded by other powerful units.

I wanted my first game blog to be something I could literally share with my friends, if they had the inclination and more importantly, time. You can finish a game of Colossus in under an hour, although some of the more epic matches will take a few. You can save and quit when you want. Because it's a turn-based game, you don't have to worry about making fast-twitch decisions, you can play it at your own pace, and walk away from your computer whenever you need to (I often have some football playing on TV while I'm entrenched in a game).

Drop me a comment if you want to know more about how the game works or where to seek out more info.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

cluttering up cyberspace

There are many reasons to begin a blog, and nearly all of them self-indulgent. The basic human desire to feel socially validated, meaningful, and unique in an increasingly populated world has provoked many to lay their souls bare within the relative anonymity of cyberspace. At its worst, blogging is just another form of bragging - of speaking when you should be listening. At its best, blogging is a blindingly fast way of sharing information, particularly with other humans with whom you share some common ground - be it an interest in hex-based boardgames, early 80's punk rock, or the same small town you couldn't wait to escape when you were 15. Let's hope this blog scores higher in positive sociality than nauseating, personal aggrandizement.

Here's what I'd like to accomplish with this thing:

1. Let my friends know what the hell I'm up to, in an easily accessible and hopefully somewhat entertaining format.

2. Express some of my opinions in a public forum, and possibly stimulate some commentary and conversation among those reading.

3. Write reviews on various media that may interest my friends, including: books, music, film, artists, and games.

Here's what I won't be posting:

1. Most things having to do with my personal life.

2. Thoughts or comments on my workplace.

If I sent you a link to this blog, it's because I value your friendship and hope that you come back and visit periodically, read some of what I've written, and maybe post a comment or two. As my friend, FP, often says (I'm paraphrasing here), computers are just a tool and their value in society in determined by how we choose to use them. I hope that this within this electronic space, the physical distances that separate us can be minimized or at least temporarily

(our apartment - no, we don't own the whole house)