Archive for August, 2013

Local Mom Discovers One Weird Trick to Ruin the Internet

We’re all so used to web ads that we just ignore them. “One weird trick” to lose weight, save on car insurance, or even keep your guns safe from Obama. For most of us, the only time we acknowledge them is for the jokes. It’s hard to believe that anyone could take them seriously.

But those ads do work on some people, obviously. Otherwise they wouldn’t keep spending money on them. It’s just one of the ways that the web seems to be dumbing down, along with the articles that are split across ten pages to increase pageviews. Pageviews that are, of course, used to serve up more ads about the secrets that local moms discovered.

It’s pretty scary to actually think about, though. Ads like this are basically scams, and they’re being served up by even many respectable sites. Instead of ignoring them, think about it for a minute: A huge percentage of internet content is funded by annoying gimmicks and outright lies. And chances are that you pride yourself on ignoring the more legitimate ads, as well. But that means you are doing nothing to fund the websites that you like. Other people are. Whether they’re gullible, suggestible, or just plain new to the internet, there are people out there who are bringing in the advertising revenue for your favorite sites. You’re not important to the sites, and those people are.

That’s the thought that occurs to me more and more these days when I click past ads and zero in on the articles. I’m not the site’s target audience, no matter how much I like their content. If they could replace me with an ad-clicking kid with no impulse control, they’d do it in a heartbeat. It’s only a happy accident that some sites are still producing material that I like, and I never have confidence that it will last. Why should it, when my high-falutin’, ad-ignoring ways are costing them money?

This isn’t a good situation. I like these websites. I want them to continue. And the sad truth is, I usually have no good way to support them, because I’m not about to start shelling out money for some expensive herbal placebo.

(Sure, there are sites like mine that don’t care about making a profit. But they aren’t the future of the internet. And there are high quality sites like Daring Fireball that can use fairly classy, curated ads which appeal to their fanbase. But there are still websites I like that depend on traditional ad money, and they have every right to stop doing things that I like.)

That’s why I tend to talk so much about crowd-funding, donations, and other alternate revenue streams for websites. I want to see people on the internet succeed, and I know I won’t ever take ads seriously. That means that, as much as I like free stuff, I know I’m going to have to pay sometimes to keep material that I like. The web has a lot of potential, but it’s obvious that advertising will stifle that potential, and most amateurs will not be able to get there on their own. As advertising gets more pervasive, and big companies find more and more ways to track our activities so that they can find the perfect ads for us, we need to look for alternatives. The future of all our hobbies depends on it.

Gogol Bordello – Pura Vida Conspiracy (Music Review)

Pura Vida Conspiracy cover

Gogol Bordello – Pura Vida Conspiracy

“Gypsy punk” band Gogol Bordello is back with Pura Vida Conspiracy, their first album in three years. Once again, they celebrate their own culture with a world-spanning fusion that owes as much to New York City as to their actual roots. It’s  a powerful and liberating sound, though, jumping from raw folk to melodic punk as needed. Sometimes they cover both extremes in one song, as in “Malandrino”. That track demonstrates how a good, simple, heartfelt song can be used in so many ways.

The band is slowly incorporating more wide-ranging styles, especially from Latin America, but the music here is mostly comparable to 2010’s Trans-Continental Hustle. The band is slower and more thoughtful than in their early days, with time for storytelling and long diversions, but the wild heart is not gone. The band has always walked a thin line between parties and lectures, and while their more “mature” style may put them in danger of crossing that line someday, that hasn’t happened yet.

Gogol Bordello also usually strikes a balance between celebrating life and facing down tragedies. That’s where Conspiracy differs the most from Hustle. While the last album was aggressively angry and depressed, even going as far as to call most of their fanbase racist, this one is almost exclusively optimistic. Frontman Eugene Hütz spouts a lot of mystical feel-good lines (“every lifetime, we meet same circle of souls”). The impression is of an enlightened foreigner filled with the Zen-like secrets to a happy life. Of course, the very title of “Pura Vida Conspiracy” undercuts that literal reading, and Hütz is too adept at tweaking the settled mainstream audience that he is performing for. It’s hard to tell what to make of that, but it’s easy enough just to enjoy his charisma and good mood. If Hütz likes to tease you from time to time, that’s just the price of admission to his party.

Pura Vida Conspiracy continues the string of hits for Gogol Bordello. I find some of the mystical-but-not-actionable advice to be silly, but this makes a good counterbalance to some of the darker, more grounded, parts of their catalog. This band shows that it is possible to mature, and even soften your sound, without losing your edge.

Grade: B


The State of Worker Placement Games

My last couple game reviews both briefly talked about aspects of worker placement design. I want to talk about that in a little more depth.

It’s interesting that Village is considered original for being a “worker placement” game in which you put workers on the board (which don’t actually claim actions for you) who eventually die of old age. That description perfectly matches the 2004 game In the Shadow of the Emperor. “What?”, I can hear my audience shouting. (Well, all three of the people who remember that old game, at least.) “That wasn’t a worker placement game! Even its Board Game Geek page doesn’t list worker placement as one of its mechanics!” That’s right, it doesn’t. But that’s my point.

Emperor is a “card drafting” game, because players take turns choosing actions by taking the card that represents that action. Once the card is taken, no one else can use it for the round. It’s a confusing game, because the card designs are busy and people tend to put them back in a different order after each round, so players have to stare for a long time to figure out what is available. It would be a better game if actions were printed on a board, and people placed markers as they were claimed. In other words, the game would be cleaner, more understandable, and still have exactly the same gameplay if it used worker placement. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a worker placement game.

(I did consider making a board to play the game with worker placement, but after re-reading the rules I decided it wasn’t worth it. That would make the game feel like it was from 2006 instead of 2004, but it still wouldn’t hold up well by today’s standards.)

My point is that what we call “worker placement” is fundamentally the same as “action drafting”. Everyone seems to recognize that that’s a necessary part of the definition – I’ve never seen anyone call Carcassonne worker placement, even though you literally do place workers in it. And that’s fine. The community has a habit of naming game mechanics after the way they’re usually implemented thematically. For example, “train games” are about building connections on a map, with the goal of making or using specific routes. Jet Set is universally considered a train game, even though it’s about making routes for airways. But Mystery Express, which is set on a train, isn’t considered to be a train game at all.

I’m wondering if the term “worker placement” is getting in the way of discussing action drafting games. It worked great for the first several years that we were using it, as most games used pretty straightforward action drafting. The twists they added, such as taking back workers at different times or needing special types of workers for certain actions, still worked with the basic system of blocking off actions with your worker pieces. The first one I saw to really mix up the fundamentals of action selection was Dungeon Lords, in which players choose the general category for their workers before they learn what specific action slot they will get. Targi also uses that sort of indirect action selection, since some of your choices are at intersections of a grid, and after first choosing a specific row or column, you don’t know what other columns or rows your opponent will leave for you.

But Village is an example of an action-drafting game that would be awkward with a worker placement system. Players select their action by taking a colored cube from a certain area of the board, and the cube can be spent later as a resource. It’s important to the game that the cubes be randomly distributed every round. Simply grabbing them, without placing any worker tokens, is the natural way to do that. Bora Bora also pushes the limit of what traditional worker bits can handle, since its “workers” are dice that take on different values each turn.

Are we reaching a point where worker placement can’t handle the complexities of our action drafting games? I’m not sure. It’s been the most natural fit for years, so much so that it’s obvious when a game (like In the Shadow of the Emperor) predates it. I’m sure it will always have a place. But as our tastes keep growing more complicated, it looks like we may start to have more games like Village, which are undeniably action drafting but don’t necessarily use worker placement.

Iain Banks – The Wasp Factory

The Wasp Factory cover

Iain Banks – The Wasp Factory

I recently panned I, Lucifer with the explanation that I can enjoy stories about bad people, but I don’t have to, and since then it seems that my statement has been really put to the test. The Orphan Master’s Son centered on awful things happening to hopeless people, and now I read Iain Banks’ The Wasp Factory. This is told from the point of view of a methodical, mass-murdering teen, and it really doesn’t pull any punches.

It wouldn’t be right to call narrator Frank Cauldhame disturbed. His life may be dominated by rituals, both practical ones like patrolling the land around his home and mystical ones meant to predict the future or grant him power, but he is rational and relatable most of the time. That’s almost the most disturbing aspect of the book: As awful as his actions are, Frank seems relatable, and can even be realistic about whether his rituals mean anything. He’s simply someone who acts on the thoughts that everyone has, but he understands that and is comfortable with it. His home and family are plausible, and add to the overall impression of real people disconnected from sane society.

This is never the kind of realism that made me worry someone like Frank could be living next door, but he definitely felt like the sort of person who could be out there somewhere. And that adds to the most disturbing part: The child relatives he murdered. Told in the same precise, clear-headed style as the rest of the book (yes, he has emotional outbursts, but justifies them with a pseudo-rational approach), he builds up to the deaths slowly and horribly. He takes advantage of their trusting nature, and murders for ritualistic reasons that the victims are not responsible for. Suffice to say that I wish I’d read this book before becoming a parent, because it’s very hard to read afterwards.

So this is powerful and well-written, unlike I, Lucifer, but is it good? That’s a trickier question. The Wasp Factory is a fascinating character study, and it’s mercifully short. It’s interesting, but rarely enjoyable. Even if you’re looking for a visceral thrill, it’s too dry and horrifying to provide that. The book’s main problem, though, is that it doesn’t sustain itself even through its short length. The worst of Frank’s actions have been described long before the book is over, and then he just spends his time acting like any other drunken, self-destructive teen trying to one-up Holden Caulfield. It coasts on the strength of the first half and the promise of a big conclusion. But that ending is based on a twist that feels half-successful. It recontextualizes the book, and does make the character study more interesting, but it isn’t foreshadowed well and it derails the plot, leaving the book no way to end.

The Wasp Factory is memorable, compelling, and often directionless. Its impact on the reader is a testament to Banks’ writing skill, but it still doesn’t feel like it had a point at the end. It will be a great book for some people, but certainly not everyone.

Grade: C+


Transplants – In a Warzone (Music Review)

In a Warzone cover

Transplants – In a Warzone

The Transplants’ debut album has aged much better than most of its pop punk contemporaries, more for its samples, dance hall sounds, and other experimentation than for the rap fusion that dominated it. A decade later, though, their third album is coming out in a very different world. If the envelope-pushing sounds and tough stories of street life were a reaction to the cookie-cutter pop punk of 2002, today the band is apparently reacting to the complete lack of punk culture with a much more straightforward album. In a Warzone is mostly standard songs, calling back to past sounds instead of trying out new ones. The rap rock is still there, though.

It’s amazing how often this album sounds like Rancid lite, with Tim Armstrong being the one member not noticeably weakened by the past decade. A few could easily be Rancid outtakes, right down to the shouts of “Go!” over opening guitar riffs. But while that may sound like an insult, even lesser Rancid albums are pretty great. (Admittedly, I’m a big fan of Armstrong, but I’m trying to ensure my review and grade takes out the less rational part of my fandom.) This album has some fun punk songs like “Back To You” and “Exit The Wasteland”. At first, I thought “Any of Them” was obnoxious and lazy, with its flat, repeated refrain of “No I don’t give a fuck about you or any of them”, but I’ve come to really appreciate the way it is stitched together with varied verses.

There are definitely times that I wish that the full Rancid band were performing a song, and some of the tough stories of street life sound posed and awkward coming from these middle-aged men (“I’ve seen the blood drain through the cracks in the sidewalk”). But the Transplants still let Armstrong try things that he couldn’t do in Rancid, including a wider range of guest artists. Rapper Paul Wall’s turn on “It’s A Problem” sounds as different as the band’s debut album.

It’s hard to say what the Transplants should be in 2013, and In a Warzone is easiest to appreciate if you don’t compare it to their other work. Considered on its own, though, it’s a strong album put out by veterans who know what they’re doing.

Grade: B-


Unexpected Hiatus

Oops. It looks like I vanished for two weeks. On the one hand, this shows that i was foolish to stubbornly try for an every-other-day update schedule even when I didn’t have time. I kept putting up placeholder articles, sure that I was about to have time to get back to them, but it just kept getting worse. On the other hand, this probably proved that I was right about needing a strict writing schedule. I was afraid all along that when I finally did slip, I’d go really off-schedule, and I did!

I’m back now. At least, I think I am. I forced myself to actually write those placeholder articles before I tried to post anything new. Now I’m caught up and (hopefully) ready to write regularly. If I start to slip again, though, I won’t be so stubborn about it next time.

If you want to go back and read those articles that I filled in retroactively, here they are:

Jayke Orvis & The Broken Band – Bless This Mess (Music Review)

Village (Game Review)

Targi (Game Review)

Targi (Game Review)



Targi is Andreas Steiger’s first board game, but it marks an excellent “standing on the shoulders of giants” leap in game design. It features worker placement, but your most important workers are placed as the result of other actions rather than being directly controlled. Every round, each player places five total markers: three on the outside of a grid, and then two more at the places that the chosen rows and columns intersect. You can’t use a row or column already claimed by your opponent (not even the card at the opposite end), so you may not be able to get to the center cards you intended on.

Some more details: This is a two-player card game, with the actions represented by a five-by-five grid of cards. There are twelve outside actions (with the four corners unusable) that are always the same. The nine inner actions are removed after use and replaced the following round. Half of those cards give you resources, and the other half are “Tribe” cards which you spend resources to build. The Tribe cards give points and special abilities, and must be positioned in the player’s personal three-by-four tableau after being built. On a typical round, every row and column will be claimed, leading to a tight competition in which one or two of your five actions every round will be sub-optimal if not wasted.

Targi play

The resources and tribe cards are solidly designed, but, frankly, unremarkable. They are balanced, and lead to minor differences between players’ positions, so that you have to consider what both of you want when jockeying for cards each round. But don’t expect an interesting engine, or real changes from one game to the next. The theme (the Tuareg desert tribe) is pasted on, and many of the gameplay aspects are arbitrary: You get bonus points for matching symbols on the Tribe cards, the game’s twelve rounds are tracked by a “Robber” token that blocks one of the outside action cards each round, and every three rounds (when the Robber hits a corner card), players need to pay certain goods to avoid losing points. But there’s no flow to any of that. Other than the first round, when the Robber blocks a card that wouldn’t be usable at the start of the game, there’s no meaning behind the order that cards are taken, and those penalties every three rounds are minor and barely need to be planned for.

The system of resources and Tribe cards is good enough to support the game, though. And the mechanics truly do shine. It’s tense, with plenty of trade-offs and interesting decisions, and just enough luck to keep things interesting. There are a lot of small actions to be made, enough so that it seems a little surprising that it fits into an hour. And even if Targi doesn’t offer much theme or engine-building, it it still fun, original, and worth replaying.

Grade: B


State of the Blog

Happy August to you! That means that I’m now entering into my eighth month of posts every other day. For most of that time, I’ve failed to make a buffer and just barely kept up, but last month I had my first real test: My first huge work deadline and a couple out of town trips kept me off the computer, and there’s still this new-dad thing to deal with. I wondered how my blog would handle all that when it came up, and the answer is: not too well.

I’ve maintained the every-other-day schedule, but with two placeholder posts just promising that I’d fill in content sometime soon. And I spent all last week writing essays about the theory of storytelling in games. Which, you know, I consider to be an interesting topic, but that is a sure sign that I haven’t had time to read/listen/play enough things and my review queue is getting low. And then there’s today, when this short update is all I have time for before another out of town wedding.

But after this, things should calm down again. The baby’s not going to take up any less time, of course, but work and other parts of life should allow me to read and write again. I intend to write one article a day for the next few days, which will keep up with my schedule and fill in those two missing posts. After that, I should be back to normal. For a little while, at least.

Aside from that, the blog has been doing great lately. I keep getting more visitors, and I constantly have to revise my standards for a “good” day. I’ve gotten a lot of new followers lately, and I hope that none of them are put off by the wall of rambling text that dominates the front page right now. I’ll fix that shortly.

Update: Well, that didn’t go very well. I guess the moral is that when I fall behind, I should just accept that and take a break. I’m taking that overdue break now, and I’ll fill in those placeholder articles before I let myself start posting new things.

Storytelling in Games: What about Board Games?

I have one last follow-up to my recent posts about storytelling in games, and then I promise to move on to other topics. Despite my interest in how games can advance stories, I haven’t brought up my preferred medium of board games. The reason is simple: I don’t have any reason to believe that board (or card, etc) games are a good venue for storytelling.

Quite simply, an interactive story depends on the participant(s) trying to guide the events but accepting that a force outside of them is in control. In a computer game, that force is a complex program that can send players through all sorts of paths and consider everything that has gone before when calculating the next event. In a traditional role-playing game, that force is another person, who has planned out a myriad of possibilities and adapts them to the players’ choices. In some more experimental role-playing games, that force is a group consensus, who may not have prepared a story but do have a shared agreement that cooperating to advance the story is the chief goal.

In contrast, a board game is ultimately about who wins and who loses. Maybe there’s one winner, maybe there are teams, or maybe everyone cooperates, but in the end the theme and actions are just fluff. It can definitely enhance the game, but the more you play games, the better you get at looking past that and focusing on the underlying mechanics. I’d say that that’s a contrast to most RPGs, where the people who play them all the time are the most invested in the story. (Even D&D min-maxers are ultimately going to remember the story of how they single-handedly slayed a dragon, not just the loophole that got their strength to 50.)

Most stories are meant to be experienced just once, unless they change each time or are good enough to “re-read”. (Some computer games skirt this rule, but that means that the person is playing it for the game instead of for the story.) In contrast, board games are intended to be played repeatedly. If you tried to design a game full of “plot twists”, they’d either be predictable by the second time you played them, or rely on a lot of random chance. And while many board games do throw randomized plot elements at you, they just feel arbitrary to me. Unlike a computer game or a human moderator, the board game’s plot changes are going to be completely random. They can’t calculate the new status based on previous events, unless the algorithm to do that is part of the rules the players all know about. And in that case, it’s just one more game element to be manipulated by the winner. If players are expected to cooperatively tell a story without just focusing on winning or losing, then by definition it stops being a board game and becomes a role-playing game.

Perhaps a game could have cards or books complex enough to offer unpredictable but fair stories in the same way that computer games are programmed to do. I can’t imagine a way to do that that wouldn’t be prohibitively expensive. More practically, I could see a limited pre-planned campaign providing a story along with a decent amount of replayability. If so, that probably wouldn’t fit my group of friends who meet up in different configurations all the time. (Legends of Andor may do that, but just last month I dismissed it as something that wouldn’t make it to my table.)

If you do want to come up with a theoretical way to add stories to board games, I’d suggest looking at the rare games that can provoke actual emotional reactions. These often accomplish it with techniques (like player elimination) that are considered bad design today. I do have a soft spot for social games like Werewolf, though. These let people take on roles and move towards long-term goals in ways that are more circuitous than standard board games. It’s a long way from there to having an emergent plot, though; People definitely tell stories about memorable Werewolf games, but they tend to be very focused on the mechanics.

For now, I’m going to stick to my claim that stories don’t work in board games. The players are too directly involved in the heart of the game mechanics, leaving no mysterious force to bridge the game between storytelling and trying to win. Fortunately, I don’t think that games have to have stories to be good. I’m just glad that there are so many varieties of games out there to meet so many different needs.