The Smurfberry Economy

Rather than fueling hyperinflation in a failed attempt to fix the economy, maybe Fed Chairman Ben Bernake should have just invested in Smurfberries. I hear they’re a growth commodity, with China investing heavily in $59.99 wheelbarrows full of what they’re now calling “blue gold.”

It turns out that people are still a little bit fuzzy on the whole “in-app purchase” concept. Their first mistake was downloading Smurfs Village, Capcom’s freemium/social-gaming mashup of Farmville, blue Belgian fairies, and raw sadism. Now is not the time for another rant on the evils of this particular compulsion-loop design motif, except to say that it’s the worst thing to happen to gaming since E.T. on the Atari 2600. Except that E.T. didn’t spawn any imitators. I guess that makes Farmville the worst thing to happen to gaming ever. Thanks again, Zynga!

In-app purchases are common features in freemium games, allowing you to boost your production or buy special items by paying actual cash as you play, thus blurring the line between imaginary game money and real mom-and-dad-worked-hard-for-this money. These purchases usually requires a password, but some people may be unaware of a basic reality of the app store model: your password remains active for 15 minutes after you type it in.

Thus, angry parents are reporting that their tots are racking up huge bills buying useless items in rotten games. One dad even claims his child was able to blow $140 on Smurfberries without having entered the password at all. As the dad observes (quite correctly): “They make it a ridiculously difficult game to play, and you can skip all the difficult parts by spending money. I believe that they know exactly what’s going on.”

Exactly. It’s one of the things that make these games so pernicious. They’re terrible game design, they feed and promote the worst consumerist habits in our modern culture, and they are created with bad intent.

Apple has been responsive to these complaints and is issuing refunds.

How to Turn Off In-App Purchases
First off, if your minor child is using your device, or has his or her own device, he should not know the password for the iTunes account. Period. There’s no way a 10-year-old or even a 12-year-old is responsible enough to manage a raw cash IV drip that delivers hot and cold running media at the touch of a button. No way, no how, just stop it. It takes impulse buying to a level we never faced as children, and for which we have not prepared them. I was a reckless jerk when I got my own checkbook my first year in college. I can’t imagine the temptations of instant, painless financial transactions that delivered gratification in seconds when I was in junior high. It’s like digital crack. Just cut it out.

Second, you can turn off in-app purchases by going to Settings / General / Restrictions. Click the “Enable Restrictions” button. Scroll down to “Allowed Content” and turn “In-App Purchases” to “Off.” While you’re there, go ahead and set the content restrictions as well.

Parlor Game: Alphabet Stories

Players: 2 or more

Equipment: None necessary, but if you’d like to randomize topics and starting letters, then have some paper and pencils on hand.

We’ve been playing this game around the dinner table lately, but it’s also good for long drives or as a party game. It’s adapted from other alphabetical conversation games in which you write down a series of subjects on slips of paper, choose one randomly, and then take turns having a conversation on that subject. The catch is that each new sentence in the conversation must begin with the next letter in the alphabet.

Alphabet Stories uses the same structure. If you want to keep it simple, you can just pick a subject, or you can write 5 or 6 subjects on pieces of paper and draw one randomly. These can be broad subjects like “Christmas” or “Summer” or “Harry Potter,” or narrow ones like “Homer’s Odyssey set in contemporary New York” or “Santa and the Easter Bunny go on a pro wrestling tour.” The subject can be as broad or as specific, as serious or funny, as high-minded or immature as you like.

The idea is to use this subject to create a story, with each person taking turns adding a single sentence to the story. The sentence needs to connect to the previous sentence and must be on topic. It also needs to begin with a word that starts with the next letter in the alphabet. You can start anywhere in the alphabet that you like, going from A-Z, or from M all the way through and back to L.

For example, if we start with the letter “S” and take the Santa & Easter bunny idea, the story could go like this:

Player 1) “Santa entered the ring in his red tights, tucked his beard into his shirt, and looked dubiously at his new partner.”

Player 2) “‘This is gonna be a bloodbath,'” growled Jolly Old St. Nick.

Player 3) “Us Leporidae are natural fighters thanks to our giant feet,” the Easter Bunny shot back, waving the appendage in question.

And so on.  You can set limits and rules so that people are “out” if they don’t come up with a sentence within a few seconds, or if the other players think they aren’t following the narrative closely enough. But, really, this is best played as a casual game, particularly with kids on a long trip. The stories get silly very quickly, and often take off on funny tangents. You don’t need to set particular time limits, but do try to keep the game moving quickly: people come up with wilder ideas when they don’t stop to think for too long.

App O’ The Mornin’: Aces Cribbage Review

Grade: B
Price: $1 (lite version available)

Aces Cribbage may well wind up replacing Cribbage King as my iOS Cribbage game of choice. So far, I’m really liking the look and layout, and the feature set has almost everything I could want.

I’ve already written about Cribbage, so I won’t rehash all the details of the game. Short version: two people play cards for points which are tracked with a distinctive board-and-peg system. If you haven’t yet taken the Cribbage plunge, do so immediately by trying the free Aces Cribbage Limited Edition.

Aces brings a fresh style to the party. It has a much better layout than Cribbage King, filling the entire screen with a handsome board, running point system, cards in play, and cards in hand, with the crib and cut card off to one side. Some might find it a bit crowded, but after the small board and large expanse of blank space in Cribbage King, I’m kind of liking it.

I consider manual scoring features to be mandatory in any Cribbage game, and Aces has a pretty efficient one that makes it possible to play with an optional muggins rule. There is a “slow count,” in which you choose the different cards and their scoring category (15s, pairs, runs, etc), or a “fast count,” in which you just add up your total score. The game never seems to miss a muggins, but that’s okay. I did have a weird muggins error once, with the game taking 1 point when it should have taken 2, but otherwise I haven’t encountered any persistent errors. Naturally, there’s an option to bypass this and just let the game count all the hands to speed things along.

There are plenty of customization features, including various table, board, and peg styles; three difficulty levels; statistics; and Game Center support. It is, however, missing a couple of features I’d like to see, such as multiplayer support (even pass-and-play would be welcome) and variable card counts (5 and 7 card Cribbage variants are rare, but they do exist). Those reservations aside, I’d count this as my new favorite Cribbage app.