VIDEOGAME DECISION: Two Stories, One Meaning

Exactly a year ago, I wrote the following column for the July 2010 issue of Maximum PC. I’m reprinting it here in light of today’s Supreme Court decision.

Look, I’ve been on the internet since the internet was on. In those weird early days, I saw enough of alt.binaries.ohmygodicantbelievetheyredoingthat to illumine the darker corners of humanity.
            Thus, I was not at all surprised that some ostensibly human-like creatures get their kicks watching videos of attractive women crushing small animals to death under stiletto heels. It’s a fallen world, and any cursory glance at history or headlines shows us that men are capable of unspeakable depravity.
            I was surprised, however, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that these “crush” and dogfight videos were, in fact, protected speech. In their April decision on United States v. Stevens, the court voted 8-1 to overturn a ban on the sale and distribution of these videos. Chief Justice Roberts wrote that, although the acts depicted are in fact illegal, the ban on images of these creates a “criminal prohibition of alarming breadth,” and violated 1st amendment protections.
            Why is any of this of any concern to gamers?
            Simple: the Roberts court is about to get their first swing at the gaming piñata. In a case bearing the sublime name of Schwarzenegger v. Video Software Dealers Association, California’s laws banning the sale of violent games to anyone under the age of 18 have already failed to pass muster with various courts. Most recently, the notoriously liberal 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the law was in violation of the 1st and 14th amendments, clearing the path to a Supreme Court challenge.
The Stevens decision, although not an exact analog, is a pretty clear indication of where the Roberts court stands on freedom of speech, with obvious applications to video and computer games. After all, if 8 out of 9 justices can rule that video recordings of illegal acts of animal cruelty are protected speech, then the court is packed with more 1st amendment absolutists than the staff of Reason magazine.
Of course, what the VSDA and the development community should be asking themselves is, “How did our content become so depraved that we’re relying upon animal torture videos as precedent?”

Breaking News: Supreme Court Strikes Down Videogame Law UPDATED

No surprises here. This court is seriously–almost radically–against perceived curbs on the First Amendment.


On a 7-2 vote, the high court upheld a federal appeals court decision to throw out the state’s ban on the sale or rental of violent video games to minors. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Sacramento had ruled that the law violated minors’ rights under the First Amendment, and the high court agreed. 

“No doubt a state possesses legitimate power to protect children from harm,” said Justice Antonin Scalia, who wrote the majority opinion. “But that does not include a free-floating power to restrict the ideas to which children may be exposed.”

UPDATE: Here’s the complete decision, and it makes for an interesting read. As I warned it would last year, the court drew on their decision in United States vs. Stevens, which overturned a ban on animal torture videos. This is horrible company for the video game industry to find itself. We have reached a point where our entertainment is so grotesque that it winds up in the same legal category as animal snuff videos.

PopCap On Sale for $1 Billion?

That’s what TechCrunch is reporting. The story is unsourced and PopCap isn’t talking. $1 billion is about ten times their annual earning power, but PopCap (creators of Bejeweled, Plants vs. Zombies, and other mega-hits) is a proven entity. TechCrunch writer Jason Kincaid runs through the standard speculations about buyers: Zynga (boo, hiss), EA, and a Chinese company called TenCent. As long as we’re just making up possibilities, it could be Apple, Walmart, or Papa John’s Pizza. Nobody knows anything yet, so all we have right now is rumor and speculation. All of the stories out there–including the post you’re reading right now!–are just reporting TechCrunch’s initial story, so we’ll have to wait and see. 

Disney Forgets to Renew Club Penguin Domain


Disney paid $700 million for Club Penguin, an online gaming site for kids, only 4 years ago. On June 13th, they lost their domain because they forgot to renew the registration for $10.

Yesterday, the site went offline, leaving 12 million angry little penguins who were unable to feed their puffles.

All the stories are saying that the problem was quickly corrected, but as I write this, is nothing more than a dead domain screen. I snapped this picture on Tuesday afternoon.

REVIEW: Spot It!

Designer: n/a
Publisher: Blue Orange
Players: 2-8
Ages: 7+
Time: 1-2 minutes per round
Price: $14

This review is going to be short and sweet, just like the game. Spot It! is a remarkable little confection that works great as a warm-up game or just a quick bit of fun. It comes in a compact tin that contains a set of 55 circular cards. Each card has 8 symbols drawn from a set of 50. These are clear, clip-art-style images like scissors, bullseye, snowflake, pencil, dragon, etc. The images are scaled, so you may see a large zebra or a small zebra, but each tends to have a single dominant color. Between any two cards there is only one matching image. I’m not certain how they pulled that off, but they did, and it forms the heart of the gameplay.

The goal is to draw cards and spot the matching images. It’s that simple. The size doesn’t matter, so a large snowman can be matched to a small snowman. However, there will only ever be one match between two cards.

With this basic setup, Blue Orange offers 4 gameplay options. In The “Tower”, players are each given one card face down, with the rest of the cards forming a face-up draw pile. Players flip their cards simultaneously, and the winner is the first person to announce a match with the top card of the draw pile. They place that card on the top of their own pile, and the matching continues until the draw pile is exhausted. The person with the most cards, wins.

“The Well” is like The Tower in reverse. One card is dealt to the center and the rest are dealt to the players. The goal is to shed your pile of cards by matching a symbol from your top card to an image on the center card. 

“Hot Potato” is also a shedding game, but this time players each hold a single card in their palms. The first person to call a match places all of his cards on top of the matching card, then draws another. Play continues until one person has all the cards, then a new round begins. The winner is the player who has the fewest cards once the draw pile is exhausted. This one plays better with larger groups.

The final variant is called “The Poisoned Gift.” Each player has a single card, with a draw pile at the center of the table. The goal is to make a match between the top card of the draw pile and another player’s card. That player then takes the matching card and play continues. The winner is the person with the fewest cards when the draw pile is exhausted.

If all this just sounds like a simple matching game … well, it is. But it’s also a whole lotta fun. It’s much more entertaining than you might expect from a mere description. Play is lightening fast, with quick turns of fortunate and split-second decisions. You have to be observant and fast, and each player develops a technique of rapid observation in order to compare visual elements as quickly as possible.

If I just saw this game sitting on a shelf, I never would have bothered with it. It looks too rudimentary and seems to lack replay potential. In fact, repeated play only makes it better, as you become familiar with the images and the pacing. I must have played at least 100 games with just my daughter alone, and it still comes out as a 5 minute filler or a compact travel game. It’s immensely clever and appealing, and scales quite well for different ages and group sizes.

You can try the online demo, but this really plays better with another person.


Legend of the Five Rings Gets Board

It’s been years since I’ve played Legend of the Five Rings, but in all my many game purges, the original Wizards of the Coast collectible card game version of L5R is one I’ve kept. It’s a great CCG with a lush setting and solid mechanics. It’s good to see that AEG (the original developers of the game) are still publishing and expanding the game line.

Debuting in August at Gen Con is a new L5R board game by Fréderic Moyersoen (designer of Sabateur). Called NINJA, Legend of the Scorpion Clan, the game “features fast play, hidden movement, limited information, bluff and guile.” The game is for 2-4 players, and comes with more than two dozen 28mm miniature figures, four pads of secret maps, 58 playing cards, and a full-color map. Here’s the official line:

The game centers around one very dangerous night at a castle in the provinces of the Lion Clan. Honorable Lion samurai stand vigilant watch around the castle, protecting it from harm. The Scorpion Clan sends one well trained ninja to infiltrate the castle for nefarious purposes… it may be to assassinate an imperial guest under the Lion’s protection, or poison the well, or steal the daimyo’s war plans for the coming season. Whatever the goal, the ninja has vowed to accomplish it, or die trying. Worse yet for the Lion Clan, the ninja has an accomplice: a traitor among the ranks of the Lion samurai whose true loyalty lies with the Scorpion. 

Pottermore: Will It Be a Game?

The news has been trickling through the internet today about a new project from J.K. Rowling dubbed “Pottermore.” All that exists thus far is the web site teaser and some wild rumors. We know what it’s not, however, and that’s an announcement of a new book. Rowling has made that clear.

Since everyone else is speculating, I might as well join the club and ask, “Could it be a massively multiplayer Harry Potter game?” I’m thinking the answer to that is a very firm no. Electronic Arts owns the interactive rights, and they don’t appear to be involved in any of the filings for the domains or trademarking of Pottermore.

I’ll just take a wild shot in the dark and guess we’re looking at a broad-based online Harry Potter experience which may include light gaming, but also fan content, forums, news, and retail. More to the point, Rowling has already stated that she wrote a lot extra material while building the world and writing the books, and she’d like to make that available to fans. This may well be a conduit for that kind of content. I’m guessing it’s a Disney.go kinda thing, with a more fan-friendly approach. We’ll know for sure next week.

The site was teased with a viral game. Ten map coordinates were sent out to fan sites. These coordinates could be entered at If you zoomed in on the location, you got a letter. If you found all ten, it spelled out “Pottermore”. Here’s an example:

Click to enlarge

Duke Nukem Forever: A Brief Public Service Announcement

This is not a review. I’m only able to tolerate playing Duke Nukem Forever for about an hour at a time, and then I have to take a shower to wash away the stench of the thing and maybe go to my Quiet Place and turn out the lights and listen to soothing music. Or perhaps play a little Portal 2 to remind me that games don’t have to be this grotesquely awful, and that there is goodness and decency left in the world of PC gaming.

It’s not that the game is vulgar, gross, sexist, crass, and stupid. It’s certainly all those things, and deliberately so. It would be pointless to rail against the misogyny, omnipresent scatological references, juvenile sexuality, outrageous gore, or profanity. Those were always going to be signature elements in any Duke Nukem sequel. Complaining about them would be like going to Hooters “for the food” and complaining about the way the waitresses dress.

The only real point to be made about these elements is this: while the original Duke Nukem managed to be somewhat tasteless while still being a decent game, Duke Nukem Forever is grindingly, insultingly, nihilistically tasteless while simultaneously being one of the worst shooters I’ve played since Corridor 7. What was a send-up of 1980s action stereotypes in the original is now just self-referential, tired, and joyless.

The gameplay is ghastly. The level design is horrible and the game itself is boring, repetitive, and pointless. At one point Duke is shrunk down and tools around in a tiny car, and you wonder: did anybody even play this game after they made it? Did they enjoy the tiny-Duke level? Did they finish it and say, “Yes, by golly, this is something people will want to pay to experience!” Because if they did, then they really should be looking for work in some business more in line with their skill set; perhaps slop boy at a hog processing plant.

If this game was a person, he would be a paunchy middle-aged man with a bad combover and a silk shirt open to the waist to reveal the cornicello tangled in his matted, graying chest hair. It is so desperate to be Super-Alpha-Male-Plus-With-Extra-Testosterone-On-Top that it winds up merely sad and sickening.

And did I mention how bad it plays? Really, really bad. I have not finished it, but I’ve invested about 3 hours so far, and hated every single moment. I felt like someone was grinding my face into the gunk you find under a fridge. I didn’t crack a smile once: not at the pee jokes, the cliched movie quotes, the quips, or the parade of bimbos. Everything about it was dreary and hateful. The graphics are just bad. The action is the worst possible blend of trite early-FPS shoot-n-scoot and modern pop-up shooter styles. Duke has to hide like a little girl when he’s wounded, in order to have time to heal. Yet–bizarrely–the monster behavior and level design favors old-skool run-n-gun action. It’s all a hot mess.
I will put more time into the game because I have to. It’s my job. However, even with only a few hours under my belt, I can tell you without hesitation that you do not want to buy this game, download the demo, or look at the box. This isn’t “bad in a good sort of way.” It’s bad in a soul-killing, suck-all-the-sunlight-from-your life sorta way.

UPDATE: I’ve been asked why I didn’t write in detail about some of the game’s most notorious elements in this post. I just didn’t think I could even describe them on a site that tries to stay family friendly. I know there are kids who read this site, and I couldn’t think of any language that could describe the content and still remain kid-safe. For that, I’ll refer you to the review at Ars Technica, which explains just how bad it gets. 

New Arrivals: Godzilla, Catan & Pixies

Godzilla: Kaiju World Wars (ToyBiz, $70) unexpectedly arrived last week, landing with a mighty thud on the porch as the UPS guy ran for his life shouting “Aaaaiiiii! Gojira! Run!” I unboxed it, marveled at the lovely figures, marveled further at the hideous gameboard, and then sat down with the manual.

And there I was still sitting, an hour later, trying to search my mind for a game with worse documentation. I haven’t tackled the gameplay yet, although I finally figured out that it’s a pretty straightforward combat/destruction game, with Godzilla and three other monsters taking turns stomping the city and each other. The mechanics appear to have some potential, but I’ll obviously need to dig more deeply before I can deliver a verdict.

The manual, however, is a disgrace. It’s not merely that the gameplay, the pieces, and even the purpose of the game are poorly explained; it’s that all of this is printed in teeny tiny print and without any color. The black-and-white illustrations are so dark that you can’t actually tell what they’re depicting. Thus, I’m not really sure what all the little chits are supposed to represent. I’ve heard that this was a cost-cutting measure, but if so it was the worst possible decision.

I’m a big kaiju (rubber monster suit) fan, so I was really looking forward to this one. I intend to give it every chance to overcome the poor initial impression it made.

The Rivals For Catan (Mayfair, $20) is a rebooting of Catan: The Card Game, which I haven’t played in ages. I’ve been able to play the basic game twice, and enjoyed it both times. I want to get about 6 more plays done before I review it, but thus far it’s proving to be a quick, enjoyable slice of Catan. It seems to be better balanced than the original, and it was certainly easier to pick up and play with a novice gamer. Stay tuned for a full review

Pixy Cubes (BlueOrange, $16) is another clever offering from BlueOrange games. Think of it as a cube-based tangram. The game comes with 16 dice-sized cubes, with each face depicting a different pattern. These cubes must be assembled to match certain patterns depicted on a set of cards. It has a couple of options for competitive play, but it works just fine as a solo game.

On the videogame front, everyone in the house has been spending a lot of time with this guy: