Archive for October, 2012

Letterpress (iPhone Game Review)

Letterpress in playThe new iPhone game Letterpress was just released last weekend, but it attracted enough players so quickly that people are wondering if it’s responsible for overloading Game Center. I wouldn’t be surprised: Game Center never gets much attention, and it’s an easily-ignored option in most apps that use it, so one big push may overload it. Personally, I think the fact that Letterpress requires Game Center is a major strike against it: The system feels a little sloppy, I didn’t like agreeing to the EULA for yet another information-gathering service, and as we just saw, the game is now at the mercy of hiccups in a service it doesn’t control.

Despite all that, Letterpress is worth checking out for its clever approach to word games. Players make words from the letters of a 5×5 grid, and each tile becomes “owned” by whoever used it last. But if a player manages to own a tile and every one it touches, it cannot be captured even if their opponent uses it. The unique thing about this system is that letters can be used without being adjacent, but the system of ownership and protection creates a map of shifting territories. You need to create a word not just from the 25 letters available, but using the specific letters that will most help your position. Another thing I appreciate is that the game rewards long words, which means that they’re almost always familiar to the players. It feels like a more natural use of language than word games that require you to memorize words like “QAT” and “XU” in order to be competitive.

The dark blue tiles are protected, as they are surrounded by light blue ones. The blue player is close to victory.

Also, of course, the quantity and positions of the letters change from game to game. A game with multiple ‘E’s, ‘R’s, and ‘S’s available plays very different from one with lots of ‘Q’s and ‘Z’s.  You’re never allowed to play a word if it has been used before, or if it is entirely contained within a previous word. This means that variations of words might come up repeatedly, but you’re forced to move forward without getting stuck in a repeating loop.

The app is well designed, but bare bones. That Game Center integration, for example, lets the game match you up to network opponents with little effort on the developers’ part, but adds a few seconds of delay every time you launch the app to play your next move. It has a clean interface that makes it easy to play, though I miss features like chatting. And given that this game works best when played quickly back and forth, this game screams out for options such as time limits and in-person games shared on one phone. (The app itself is free to try, and 99 cents for the “full” version which allows multiple games at once. The first time your game gets hung up because an opponent stopped responding for a while, you’ll realize how vital that multiple-game option is.)

I haven’t had any issues like the network trouble other people allege, but I have run into one annoying bug: Ever since a player resigned against me, the Letterpress icon on my home screen has told me I have one game waiting for my move. Even turning the phone off doesn’t make that go away.

As for the game itself, the beginning and middle are great (other than my aforementioned wish for time limits – this really is a game that demands to be played quickly). The endgame can be frustrating, though. Whenever all tiles are claimed, whichever player owns the most has won. Since the score tends to seesaw back and forth with every move, you’ll want to make sure you leave enough tiles neutral to keep your opponent from ending it. This is clever in theory, since your territorial considerations now include which tiles you need to leave untouched. In practice, though, that means that if players are fairly evenly matched, neither dares open an endgame opportunity for the other. It can be obvious who is going to win long before it becomes viable for that player to claim a victory.

Letterpress has the potential to become a great game, but it isn’t there yet. I’m not sure if the developers plan to keep adding to it, or if they consider it to be complete. Either way, though, it’s fast and free to try out, so it’s easy to recommend that you give it a chance. As long as you’re willing to give Game Center a chance, too.

Grade: B

Quick Update:One week later, I am still enjoying this, and have learned to play so that my issues with the endgame aren’t as significant. I also managed to get rid of that extraneous notification about a waiting game by deleting that one from the history of played games. I’ve run into enough other issues to reaffirm my belief that this feels rushed and incomplete: After the multi-second delay for the app to log you in to Game Center, there is another pause before your games are updated. Since there is no visual clue as to whether this is still loading, and also no hint about whether it is your turn in games other than the one you’re currently looking at, playing multiple games is frustrating. When a game ends due to my opponent’s move, it is moved immediately into the app’s list of my previously played games, and I won’t notice it ended unless I think to look for it. And this morning, I finally did experience several hours in which my games wouldn’t update even though I knew one of my opponents had moved.

My basic conclusion is unchanged: This is an addictive but clunky implementation of a clever game that would be best played in person.

Colson Whitehead – Zone One (Book Review)

Zone One cover

Colson Whitehead – Zone One

Zombies are frequently metaphors for the barbarism that lurks behind polite society. It’s an unsubtle metaphor, to be sure, but it still makes a good match for a “literary” author looking to try something different. Zone One tells the story of slacker hero Mark Spitz helping to clear zombies out of Manhattan in the early days of society’s resurgence. Though this book should only be read if you have a stomach for the gore and hopelessness of a zombie movie, its prevailing atmosphere is more quiet and introspective: Most of the remaining zombies are quiet “stragglers” who seem lost in an echo of their past lives, giving the characters and the reader time to reflect on their pitiable state.

As far as post-apocalyptic fiction goes, Zone One feels halfway between the bleak tragedy of The Road and the outright satire of The Gone-Away World, with occasional bursts of horror to spice it up. Author Colson Whitehead is capable of hitting all those notes, and there are several amazing scenes. Most of the time, though, these contradictory elements just make the book an aimless muddle. The story jumps around in time frequently, often mid-scene, apparently to ensure the reader feels as detached as the “perpetual B-student” protagonist. This even breaks up the action scenes.

The satire has some clever elements, such as PASD (Post-Apocalyptic Stress Disorder) and corporate “sponsors” who control what items may be looted from stores. For me, though, it was derailed by a stubborn refusal of the author to provide specifics. No products or brands are ever named, relying instead of convoluted vagaries like “seasons one through seven of the hospital drama groundbreaking in its realism”. In fact, Spitz’ old job with a coffee shop chain is described for pages without ever mentioning a company name. This is pervasive throughout the book, and makes the narrator feel too out of touch for the social commentary to have any bite. I wouldn’t care if it mainly used made-up brand names, as long as gave the impression that the characters related to them like normal people.

Zone One leaves no doubt that Whitehead is a very talented author. Provided he doesn’t always use those vague generalizations in place of specific names, I’d definitely try more of his novels. This one, though, feels aimless. After the collapse of civilization, many of the characters wonder whether anything they do matters; That feeling pervades the story itself a bit too well.

Grade: C


Deer Tick – Divine Providence (Music Review)

Divine Providence cover

Deer Tick – Divine Providence

Divine Providence demonstrates that Deer Tick is a one-trick band, but it’s an excellent trick: Boisterous cock rock sung with a sloppy abandon. The stripped-down music perfectly emulates a lush arena rock band that’s too drunk for the subtleties they’d normally employ, and the lyrics have just enough of a self-conscious wink to win over people who might normally be put off by the frat boy personas. Despite that, it’s best appreciated without any irony. (The liner notes open with “You should play this fucker as loud as possible”, and that’s maybe a more accurate description than this entire review.)

The problem, though, is that they don’t fully appreciate that they should stay within the bounds of that one trick. Half the songs are slower, and, frankly, uninteresting. They actually aren’t bad, with solid hooks and a good variety, but songs that are merely tolerable become harder to wait out when the album is supposed to be a non-stop adrenaline rush. One or two might make an interesting break from the full-throated energy: “Chevy Express” has a bored tension that brings to mind an unsatisfying day waiting for the party to start, and “Now It’s Your Turn” has the weariness of the next morning’s hangover. But with a few more songs like them thrown into the mix, the album just feels watered down.

Deer Tick is excellent when they put their mind to it. You’ll be hard-pressed to find better anthems to the id than “Let’s All Go To The Bar” or “Something To Brag About”, but you’ll have to wade through a lot of filler to get to them. Fortunately, it’s easy to keep returning to those best few songs. I know I’ll be doing that a lot in the future, and honestly, that means more than my complaints about the skippable songs. But as an album, it’s hard to escape the feeling that this was a missed opportunity.

Grade: B


Dominion: Dark Ages (Game Review)

Dominion: Dark Ages box

Dominion: Dark Ages

After my lukewarm reception of the last couple Dominion expansions, I’m pleased to say that Dominion: Dark Ages makes the game feel truly exciting again. Its main themes (trashing and upgrading cards) are not new, but they provide plenty of territory to explore. There are a lot of clever abilities here, but even the cards that don’t seem original are consistently interesting, balanced, and have strong artwork. This are also a lot of combos, making this a great engine-building deck for experienced players.

Maybe the best part is the sheer quantity of gameplay that Dark Ages adds. The standalone Dominion sets have 500 cards, but half of those are used for the basic Treasure and Victory cards. The later “full-size” expansions had fewer cards to make room for mats and tokens. Dark Ages has no supporting bits like that, so it is the first to include a full 500 cards devoted to expanding the game. This means 35 Kingdom Cards, almost as many as a previous full-size and half-size expansion combined.

Rats and Graverobber cards

Two cards that do new things with the Trashing mechanism

Cards are a much more economical option for a game. Those 35 Kingdom Cards only account for about two-thirds of the cards included in the set, so the others can extend the gameplay in new ways. The lack of boards and counters doesn’t feel limiting at all. The Dark Ages theme is reinforced with Ruins cards (a deck-clogging type similar to Curses) and Shelters (new starting cards that give players more choices in the early moves). There are also several special types of cards which can only be gained by other specific cards. These feel like nothing that has come before.

A sub-theme seems to be a focus on cards with a cost between 3 and 6 coins, which form the “core” of most decks. It’s good to see certain abilities restricted to work only in this range, especially attack cards that otherwise would have had much more random effects on opponents’ decks. While for the most part, new Dominion cards stake out new territory without replacing old cards, this does seem to be a case where it specifically improves on some previous attack cards.

Hermit and Madman

A new type of upgrading: The Madman is a powerful one-shot card that can only be gained by trashing a Hermit.

It’s a little weird to consider the theme of the Dark Ages in this game, given that the trashing and upgrading abilities featured here actually help you make stronger decks. But no one would actually want to play a drawn-out game where everyone struggled through a representation of the collapse of civilization. The more important criticism is the one that has been present for the past few expansions: At this point, there are a lot of Dominion cards. With well over 200 types available and only 10 used in each game, you could play for a long time without missing any one set. Dark Ages is one of the best yet, but the game’s own success means that no expansion truly feels essential any more.

Yes, the biggest problem with this set is that Dominion is so consistently good that even excellent expansions stop being exciting. But it still ranks among the best, possibly second only to Dominion: Prosperity. It’s well worth buying.

Grade: A-