Heroscape: 2004-2010, R.I.P.

Here at Casa McD, we’re big Heroscape fans. It’s really one of the great gaming systems of all time, allowing players to create wonderful custom playing surfaces using interlocking plastic tiles, and then fight battles with miniatures representing various historical periods and fantasy settings. Thus, you may find a Roman Legion and a dragon facing off against lizard creatures and samurai. The combat system is quick and easy, but with enough details and special abilities to provide interesting tactics. It’s highly collectible, wonderfully entertaining, and dead.

That’s right, Hasbro/Wizard of the Coast pulled the plug on the Heroscape line. Here’s the official statement:

After a thorough evaluation, we have made the decision to discontinue our Heroscape line in order to focus our efforts on our core brands. While this decision means that we will no longer be developing new content for the game, existing Heroscape products will still remain available from Wizards of the Coast and sold in the hobby game channel while supplies last.
The next and final Heroscape expansion, Moltenclaw’s Invasion, will be released on November 16, 2010. This final assortment, which is playable with the Heroscape D&D Master Set, will include the best and most iconic creatures from the worlds of Dungeons & Dragons. Orcs, bugbears, dragons and frost giants will all come together to join the greatest battle of all time. 

It’s a shame to see the series going away, and I hope someone snaps up the rights to it. Scoop up those remaining set while they last. Once the stock is gone, that’s it.


Ecarte: Poe and Doyle Play Cards

“The game, too, was my favorite écarté!”
Edgar Allan Poe, “William Wilson” (1839)
Card games have been such a popular pastime for so long that it’s not at all unusual to come across references to specific games in literature, such as Ombre in Alexander Pope’s Rape of the Lock, or Speculation in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park
In Edgar Allan Poe’s classic doppleganger tale “William Wilson,” a major plot point turns on a card game in which the narrator is caught cheating. The characters are playing a French game called Ecarté, and although it’s no longer popular, it was a common gambling and casino game in the 19th century. Observers, as well as players, often bet on the outcome.

There is no solid evidence that Poe was a serious gambler. Biographies usually only mention a single period of his life, when he was in school and near-penniless, when he turned to gambling to supplement his income. That he was able to do this shows he had some skill with cards, but of the many sins (both real and imaginary) laid at the feet of Poe, card-sharping was not one of them.

Nonetheless, he showed a ready familiarity with certain cheating techniques, as William Wilson explains when he is exposed during a game of Ecarté:

In the lining of my sleeve were found all the court cards essential in ecarte, and, in the pockets of my wrapper, a number of packs, facsimiles of those used at our sittings, with the single exception that mine were of the species called, technically, arrondees [rounded]; the honours being slightly convex at the ends, the lower cards slightly convex at the sides. In this disposition, the dupe who cuts, as customary, at the length of the pack, will invariably find that he cuts his antagonist an honor; while the gambler, cutting at the breadth, will, as certainly, cut nothing for his victim which may count in the records of the game

But the literary pedigree of Ecarté doesn’t end with there. The works of Arthur Conan Doyle contain at least 9 references to écarté in various stories and novels.
In Hound of the Baskervilles, for instance, Watson remarks:  “Mortimer had stayed to dinner, and he and the baronet played écarté afterwards.” 
Doyle’s Brigadier Gerard stories are full of Ecarté references. For example, in The Exploits of Brigadier Gerard, the narrator says: “I took up the cards from the table where Morat had left them, and I tried to work out a few combinations at écarté. But I could not remember which were trumps, and I threw them under the table in despair.” (This passage doesn’t really make sense.)
And that’s not even the end of it. A quick keyword search of just the books on my Kindle show écarté popping up multiple times in the writing of Anthony Trollope, Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens, Andrew Lang, J.S. Le Fanu, Gustave Flaubert, Honore de Balzac, W.M. Thackery, and Mark Twain.
In 1895, the Lumiere Brothers filmed a short which shows two Frenchmen playing a five-card trick-taking game. Given the time period and the fact that it’s a two-handed game, they are probably playing Ecarté. This is interesting for a simple reason: it’s the first time a card game appeared in a motion picture. You can see the clip as part of the Lumiere compilation here.  It begins at the 3:40 mark. 
One of the fascinating things about the clip is the speed with which the old men play. The onlooker doesn’t even finish pouring the drinks before the game is over. This speed is what made it a popular game for people to watch and wager upon.
How to Play Ecarté
Ecarté is a simple trick taking game with a unique scoring mechanic. It’s related to Euchre, and descended from the French game Triomphe.
The game is played with 32-card deck, with all the cards from 2 to 6 stripped. (This is your basic Piquet deck.) 
The rankings are K, Q, J, A, 10, 8, 9, 7.
The cards are shuffled and dealt 5 to a player. The standard deal is in packets of either 3 + 2, or 2 + 3, but any agreed-upon deal is fine. Stock is placed between the players
One card is turned face-up as Trump. If the card is a King, the dealer immediately scores 1 point.
Non-dealer can request an exchange of a certain number of cards. The dealer may refuse this request. If the dealer refuses the card exchange, then he commits himself to making 3 tricks and play commences. The non-dealer may come back with another request to exchange a different number of cards, with the same conditions: if the dealer refuses, he must earn 3 tricks.
If the dealer accepts the card exchange, the player discards the agreed-upon number of cards and draws replacements. Dealer must discard and replace at least 1 card.
Play is straight trick taking, with high-card or high-trump winning. 
If either player holds the King of trumps, he may show it and score a point before playing the first trick.
Players score 1 point for taking 3 or 4 tricks, and 2 points for taking all 5 (this is called a vole).
However, if the dealer refused the exchange and then failed to win 3 or more tricks, the non-dealer does not score his own tricks. Instead, he earns 2 points automatically. 
Play continues to 5 points. If the loser only scores 1 or 2 points, the pot is doubled. If he scores no points, the pot is tripled. 

App O’ The Mornin’: Floop Review

Grade: B
Price: $1

Floop is an uneven physics puzzler that isn’t always easy to love. The goal is to get an object into the mouth a critter on the opposite side of the level. At the beginning, the critter in question is a squirrel, and the object is an acorn. As you earn earn stars you also unlock a mouse with his cheese, and a gorilla with his banana.

The control is a simple touch/pullback combination. When you touch the object, a line shows the path it will follow. Draw your finger back further for a more powerful, set the angle, and let ‘er rip. It’s a pretty common ballistic mechanism, and it works fine.

The puzzle element comes from a combination of the environment and the physics modeling. There are plenty of obstacles and environmental modifiers. Some are fixed, and some can be slightly repositioned when hit by the object. Some surfaces slip or cause modest chain reactions, while others destroy your object.

The weirdness comes from the behavior of the objects, which feels kind of wonky. Everything is a little too bouncy, with reactions akin to Jelly Car. This is not really a problem, but it takes a little time to get used to the way each item behaves in the world. Adding to the challenge is the fact that each object behaves differently depending upon its shape. The cheese is square, the acorn is kind of oblong with a hat, and the banana is … banana-shaped. The shape effects the way a shot will bounce and roll, and creates a different dynamic for each level.

It takes a bit of time to warm up to Floop, and there’s a random trial-and-error element that I don’t usually like to see in my puzzlers.

Also: I don’t know why, but I don’t like angry-looking animals in my apps. I like cute. I like Kiko and Starcat. I’m sure this was attempt to capture the Angry Birds vibe, but it doesn’t work here. That squirrel looks like he’s about to foam at the mouth, run up my pants leg, and do something awful to me. (By the way, squirrels? Not cute. Squirrels are lawn rats, and no amount of Cute Overload pictures will convince me otherwise.)

That said, I did wind up kind of liking Floop. It has plenty of levels and decent production values, and it certainly offers plenty of gameplay for a buck. If the notion of a ballistic puzzler with Jelly Car physics sounds interesting to you, then have at it.