National Gaming Day Is…

November 12th. The American Library Association is promoting a day of gaming at more than 1100 libraries across the country. Sponsor is donating 3,000 copies of Loaded Questions, Awkward Family Photos, The Greatest Day Ever Game, and Loaded Questions Junior for the event. Various libraries will host board games, video games, and RPGs. Check the site to see if your library is participating. 

Oil Springs of Catan and Ethical Gaming

Catan: Oil Springs is an impressive, free-to-download variant to the Mother of all Eurogames. Settlers on the island of Catan have struck oil. This new resource can be used like gold, or added to other resources to upgrade a City to a Metropolis. Its use, however, comes with a price: for every five oil used, an environmental disaster strikes. Based on the roll of the dice, this could be the removal of coastal settlements or the pollution of tiles so they no longer produce resources.

I won’t pretend to agree with its anti-oil politics, but I have to give the designers credit for turning out an intelligent variant for Settles of Catan. The scenario is the work of Erik Assadourian and Ty Hansen, and was developed as part of Transforming Cultures Project of the Worldwatch Institute. Clearly, it was created with an agenda, despite protests to the contrary:

While taking on issues of pollution and climate change, we strongly wish to emphasize that we do not see this as a polarizing political effort, but simply as a way to draw attention to the tradeoffs inherently embedded in the usage of natural resources such as oil. The use of oil has brought with it great benefits, and it is not our intention to condemn its use in a general sense. However, science has shown that its overuse is now having a destabilizing effect on our climate, and responsible use has become more important than ever before. Our intention with this scenario is to draw attention to these challenges in a way that is both educational and enjoyable.

Given the design of the game, this claim is just silly. Using oil wipes out settlements and turns the landscape into a wasteland, which kind of makes it a “polarizing political effort” even for those of us who support common sense solutions to sustainability. I have no problem with that, mind you. If you have a case to make, make it boldly. Just don’t pretend you’re not creating a fairly obvious piece of anthropogenic global warming propaganda.

Those issues aside, I like it, with minor reservations. The new rules radically change the dynamics, forcing people to interact at a different level to make decisions about exploitation of oil. I’m not sure how much life it will have, since its agit-prop origins give it the grim, “eat your peas” tone of a lecture. The balance of the game is a bit off. Environmental catastrophe is an inevitable byproduct of using oil. This is only slightly mitigated by the ability of players to “sequester” oil, which involves shutting down oil production. (Do this three times and you gain 1 victory point.)

Thus, the game functions more like a social experiment, as players try to convince others not to pull the oil trigger even though it could mean victory. Since the point of playing is to win, this isn’t really a reasonable approach from a perspective of pure gamesmanship. Opting out of a game-winning strategy in the interest of burnishing your environmental credibility in front of three-to-five other people shifts the focus from “game” to “social statement.”

The issue of ethics and moral decision making in gaming is a deep and fascinating subject that has played an increasing role in computer and video game design over the past few years, but hasn’t really made an impact on conventional gaming. This is largely because board games lack the character and narrative elements that make moral choices possible. With Oil Springs, some of that ethical decision making comes to Catan, but not quite as effectively. Video and computer games almost always provide a balanced approach to moral decisions: good or evil choices produce different results without stopping the game cold. There’s less of that balance in Oil Springs. Evil has a name, and it is Oil. Every disaster roll produces a disaster. Catastrophe is inevitable. This changes the gaming dynamic from “dialog” to “lecture,” with a pre-ordained outcome.

You can print out all the rules and pieces for free. Attach them to card stock or cardboard for better play. 

Aunt Sally: More Things to Knock Down Without Spilling Your Beer

Aunt Sally was the inspiration for my research into English pub games. The game was featured the British detective series Midsomer Murders, which regularly explores the bizarre festivals and customs of rural England. We couldn’t tell what in the world the characters were doing or why, since we’d never seen anything quite like it. A little digging uncovered not only the rules and origins of Aunt Sally, but also the wonderful and weird world of traditional pub gaming. 

The complete story of English pub games will appear in the March 2012 issue of Games Magazine.

The Encyclopedia of Traditional British Rural Sports calls the origins of the skittle-like game Aunt Sally “obscure,” but offers several possibilities for its mysterious name. “Sally” is a dialect word for “hare,” and throwing-sticks were sometimes used to hunt hares in the 19th century. A more likely explanation is that “sally” means to pitch forward, and “aunt” is a reference to the vaguely feminine shape of the target. The French name is the far more evocative Wholesale Slaughter (“jeu de massacre”), which is just plan odd.

The modern version involves throwing six sticks 18 inches long and 2 inches round at a target. A pole, four feet tall, is set into the ground, while a fat white skittle with a bulbous head perches on the top. The goal is to knock this doll from its perch, with a point scored each hit. Players throw their 6 sticks in 4 rounds, for a maximum total of 24. It’s actually much harder than it sounds, and a score of 20 points is considered superb.

The game may have evolved out of a cruel bloodsport called “throwing at cocks”. A live chicken was tied to the top of a pole, and people took turns throwing sticks until someone killed it. The “winner” got to take the chicken home for the pot. It was usually played on Shrove Tuesday.

Joseph Strutt, in his 1801 book The Sports and Pastimes of the People of England from the Earliest Period, says that “Upon the abolition of this inhuman custom, the place of living birds was supplied by toys.” The game found its way from fairgrounds and fetes to the pub, where it shed its cruel heritage and became almost respectable as one of the “lawful games on licensed premises.” Local leagues are organized around pubs, and Championships are held in August and September. The game surged in popularity in the 20th century, with the Oxford League alone counting 120 teams, and six other leagues cropping up in pubs around the country.

In his definitive book Played at the Pub, author Arthur Taylor estimates that “come summer, over 2,500 men and woman can be found playing the game, usually on a Thursday night,” and indoors during winter. The popular British TV show Midsomer Murders even featured an Aunt Sally rivalry as a subplot in the episode “Dark Autumn,” which led to a minor resurgence of interest in the game. 

The game actually made it to American shores, and then migrated back to England in a new form around the year 1855. The American version involved throwing balls or batons at doll’s head affixed to a strike. The doll’s head had a pipe extending from it, and the goal was to knock the pipe off without hitting the head. In the game of Nacks, unique to Yorkshire, the target was a peg rather than a doll.

REVIEW: Deus Ex: Human Revolution

I’ve reviewed Deus Ex: Human Revolution twice now: from a secular perspective for Games Magazine and from a religious perspective for Catholic News Service. This review combines a bit of each.

When a playwright in ancient Greece found himself with an irresolvable plot problem, he would have a pagan god appear to set everything aright. Athena, or perhaps Apollo, would be lowered onto the stage by a crane (in Greek, “mechane,”) as though descending from the clouds. This “god out of the machine,” or “deus ex machina” as it came to be known in Latin, was regarded as a cheap trick even then.

In the modern industrial age, however, the idea of a deus ex machina takes on a new resonance, as men exploit rapidly advancing technology in an attempt to synthesize the creative and destructive powers of God himself. The nightmare of eugenics is already a reality; transhumanism — the use of technology to fundamentally alter the human body — is not far off. This is the dystopia proposed by the Deus Ex games, and Human Revolution shows us where it all begins.

The Deus Ex and Bioshock series are both the offspring of 1997’s System Shock, one of the most important titles in the history of computer gaming. All of these game share a few common traits. They allow players to customize their characters with various kinds of biotechnology; they provide a flexibility of play that enables gamers to approach problems through wits, stealth, or force; and they engage complex ideas in a depth rarely seen in the medium.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution takes place in 2027, 25 years before the events of the first Deus Ex game (released in 2000). Biomechanical augmentations, originally developed to replace limbs lost on the battlefield, are becoming mainstream accessories used to enhance human abilities. They can make you stronger, faster, smarter, more persuasive, invisible, and deadly, and not everyone is happy about it.

Sarif Industries, a leading producer of augmentations, is under intense pressure from political leaders, activists, and militant anti-augmentation groups to slow down and consider the implications of a world in which human evolution is altered and accelerated in such a radical way. David Sarif is not a typical evil CEO. He believes he’s helping humanity, and may well be oblivious to the shadowy forces seeking to exploit his technology for their own reasons.

The plot is heavily populated (perhaps overpopulated) with conspiracies and double-crosses. Rival corporations, crime lords, and even the Illuminati are attempting use this new technology to control people as a means to power. Meanwhile, a fringe group of anti-augmentation activists wages a guerilla war in order to end this new age of augmentation.

The game begins with an attack on Sarif’s headquarters that leaves Adam Jensen, head of security, in pieces and near death. Although ambivalent about augmentations, Adam awakes to find himself heavily augmented with the latest Sarif technology. The game allows the user to shape Adam’s character through his reactions and responses. He can be reluctant and unhappy about the alterations done to his body without his consent, or fairly pleased about his new superhuman abilities.

The gameplay itself may unfold in myriad ways depending upon the preference of the player. Although the core experience resembles a standard first-person action role-playing game, the element of choice allows players to tailor the approach that best suits them. It is possible to pass through the entire game as an unstoppable killing machine, but it’s also possible complete the game without killing anyone at all, aside for a few select set-piece battles.

This is accomplished by allowing players to choose their augmentations by spending “Praxis points.” Praxis can be purchased, discovered, or earned by leveling up. These points allow you to enhance computer hacking skills, physical features, stealth abilities, or any combination of these elements. There is a huge amount of hacking in the game, so a minimal hacking level upgrade is essential. Most players, however, will find a balanced approach works best. Someone who has placed all their points in hacking will be at an extreme disadvantage in certain parts of the game, as will people who put all their points into combat or stealth.

Combat is still a part of the game, but it doesn’t have to be a huge part. You can play the game all-guns-blazing and wind up with an experience not unlike any other first-person shooter, but that’s hardly an ideal way to approach a game with such a rich level of content. The game actually rewards the player more for leaving an enemy alive than for killing him, which makes the inclusion of several set-pieces (known to gamers as “boss battles”) rather mystifying. These battles always end in the death of an enemy, with no other option. At one point, Adam is asked if he will save the life of a defeated foe. Adam says he’ll think about, and then leaves her to die.

There are two problems with this. First, you are encouraged to develop a character with no combat abilities at all, and then placed in a heavy combat encounter. Second, Adam’s choice of mercy may be exercised throughout the game, but not at some of its most important moments. This is simply a missed opportunity.

Human Revolution is a game with serious issues on its mind. With a running time of about 30 hours—and more if you explore all of the sidequests—it has a lot of space to develop these ideas. Cinematic sequences, writing, animation, and voice-acting are all top-notch. Adam Jensen sounds (and looks) and little like a young Clint Eastwood, and his quiet authority and strong character provide a strong grounding for the game. As the world starts to come apart and powers realign themselves, you start to get a sense of how the landscape of the original Deus Ex was shaped, and wonder how much worse it would have been if not for Jensen’s efforts.

Skittles: Knocking Stuff Down Without Spilling Your Beer

This is part of my ongoing research on traditional British pub games. The complete, expanded article will appear in the March 2012 issue of Games Magazine, available wherever quality publications are sold.

The phrase “life isn’t all beer and skittles” seems a bit mysterious to American ears. When I first heard it as a boy, I wondered why anyone would want to mix a fruit-flavored candy with beer.

To British ears, however, the image of “beer and skittles” is one of leisure time at the pub spent enjoying an adult beverage while playing a game with friends. Its first appearance is in The Pickwick Papers, by Charles Dickens, when Sam Weller remarks “It’s a reg’lar holiday to them — all porter and skittles.” (Porter is a dark ale.)

The saying would have made a lot more sense if Americans realized that skittles is a pub game that we’d lump together with bowling, since it involves knocking down pins with some rolled or thrown object. In England, however, ten-pin American-style bowling, “bowls” games, and skittles are all considered distinct and unique games, each with countless regional and historical variations.

Thanks to all these variants, and the lack of an authoritative governing body, coming up with a single definition for the entire class of skittles games can be tricky. Wikipedia takes off in the wrong direction by calling it a “European lawn game,” even though almost every notable version of skittles is played not on grass but on purpose-built alleys or hard floors. You could almost argue that a defining character of skittles that sets it apart from bowls is that it’s not a lawn game.

Perhaps the best place to start is with the most basic description. Nine pins are set in a diamond pattern at one end of a long, narrow, slightly raised surface that serves as an alley. Players stand varying distances away from these pins, and then attempt to knock them all down with a variety of projectiles in a variety of ways. A common version uses heavy, solid disks made of lignum vitae, a class of extremely hard, heavy, dense wood. These disks are called “cheeses” because their shape is similar to that of a round of cheese. (“Cheese” is now a generic term for any thrown object in skittles, regardless of shape.) Points are awarded for knocking each pin down, with an extra point awarded for knocking them all down. A set of throws is called a chalk, and three chalks make a game.

Within this basic framework, skittles has spun off a baffling array of variations. The pins may be long, short, thin, stout, big, small, rounded, squared, or any one of several shapes. Nine pins, arrayed in three rows of three pins each, form the most common layout, but there may be more or less. Pin layout may be a diamond, or something else entirely. You might have to knock down all the pins in any order, or just some of the pins, or perhaps knock some down in a specific order and others not at all. Pins may be numbered, with only certain numbers qualifying for scoring. The thrown object maybe a heavy disc, or a solid ball, or a smaller solid ball, or a half a ball, or a barrel-shaped object, or a log. In some games you must roll the cheese and it can never bounce, while in others you need to bounce it once.

A set of instructions from 1786 shows a skittle-ground layout measuring about 17 yards by 4 yards. In this early depiction, the player needs to roll the ball along a narrow wooden plank, curving it to meet the pins without ever hitting the side boards. This is followed by a second throw, called “tipping,” performed directly adjacent to the pin layout. The player “tips,” or drops, the ball onto the layout, attempting to knock down a specific number of pins. He doesn’t score at all if he exceeds or does not meeting this number.

One remarkable version, called half bowl, involves rolling … yes, you guessed it: half a ball. Played where space is limited, half bowl uses twelve pins set in tight circle. Nine pins comprise the circle itself, one pin is at the center, and two more pins project outside of the circle in a straight line. The trick is to roll the half-ball around the two projecting pins and knock down the circle pins from the other side. Since the half-ball rolls on an extreme bias, the trick is to curve each throw just right so the pins are hit from the far side of the configuration.

In fact, the extreme rolling bias of almost all skittle cheeses is one of the key elements of the game. Balls are rarely perfectly formed, and they don’t have finger holes like conventional bowling balls. Some are remarkably heavy, weighing over 15 pounds. They don’t roll nice and straight. They can wobble and slide and do all kinds of things that would make a ten-pin bowler red with rage. Learning the bias of each ball is vital to mastering the game.

There have been dozens (perhaps hundreds) of versions of skittles, and some of them remain a mystery. We only know a few things about a skittles-style game called “closh.” It was probably like skittles, it was very popular, and it was widespread enough that special greens—called closh-banes—were constructed for its playing. We also know that it was banned repeatedly by the government beginning with Kind Edward IV in 1477, and seems to have been wiped out by the 17th century.

A cousin of closh was a game called kyles, which was a type of skittles played with a stick rather than a ball. It may have been played with nine pins arranged in a straight line, which would make them devilish hard to knock down. Recorded as early as 1325, it, too, fell to the ban of 1477.

There is also a large class of games called table skittles, which takes several forms. The most common version features a ball hanging from a chain or rope attached to a pole, much like a tetherball. The pins are laid out on a raised platform, and the player swings the ball in an attempt to knock down as many pins as possible, with all the expected regional scoring variants. It’s also called Devil Among the Tailors, with the devil being the ball and the tailors being the pins. (There are a few different origin stories for this name. None of them are plausible.)

Another version of table skittles is “hood skittles,” or “daddlums.” These games are distinguished by their unique tables, with hood skittles played on a low table with padded uprights on three sides, and daddlums played on a smaller table with a slightly different configuration. In either version, nine pins are set in a classic diamond pattern. Players stand a certain distance away from the table, and toss small, hand-sized cheeses in attempt to knock down the pins.

In the 1970s, Aurora/Marx marketed a large and successful line of “skittle” products in the United States. They were heavily promoted by Get Smart actor Don Adams, complete with ads and TV commercials that haunt YouTube to this very day. Skittle Bowl (classic table skittles), Skittle Pool, Skittle Poker, Skittle Tic-Tac-Toe, Skittle Bingo, Skittle Scoreball, and Skittle Horseshoes all used the standard “ball dangling from a stick” mechanic.

Is that Uncle Leo in the background?

Dwile Flonking: More Fun With Beer

In 1967, an ancient pub game was brought back into the light, complete with the discovery of an old text—the Wavenly Rules of 1585—to bolster its legitimacy. Dwile flonking had been played since the 16th century at least, and now was at last returned to its rightful place among the regular pub games of Suffolk.

Except that it was all hoax. The game was invented in 1967 in an attempt to draw attention to a village fete in Beccles, Suffolk. Creators Andrew Leverett and Bob Devereux created the imaginary “Wavenly Rules” with plenty of pseudo-old-English terms and traditions to give it a veneer of age. Despite these dodgey origins, dwile flonking actually caught on and became an actual tradition. After more than 40 years of continuous play it can be considered “aged” if not “ancient.”

In dwile flonking, a group of festive drunks link arms and dance in a circle to traditional music. At the center of the circle is a bucket of beer. Inside the bucket is a beer-drenched rag and a stick. Outside the bucket is another drunk, called the flonker. The circle begins moving counter-clockwise at the referee’s command of “Here y’is t’gether,” while the flonker turns in the opposite direction. The flonker lifts up the dripping rag with his stick and flings it at the circle, attempting to nail someone with several ounces of warm, flat beer.

Different hits score different points. A head shot (or “wonton”) is worth three points, while a torso hit (or “morther”) is worth two and a leg (or “ripper”) is worth one. A flonker gets two or three tries, but if he misses all three he has to gulp a pot of ale in the time it takes to pass the dwile all the way around the circle. If he can’t finish in time, he looses a point.

The game has plenty of colorful terminology to go with it. The stick is called a “driveller,” or sometimes a “swadger” (provided by a “swadge-coper” sold by the “tardwainer’s nard”). The circle is called a “girter” and the referee is a “jobanowl.” Other people call the whole thing “nurdling” rather than “dwile flonking.” Of course, there is a Waveney Valley Dwile Flonking Association, as well as competitions.

You can watch a Pathe News reel about dwile flonking here, and a more recent video below.

The iPhone Not-Quite-5

By now, you’re probably aware that the Big Apple Announcement was not an iPhone 5, but an iPhone 4S. That “S” stands for, “So … that’s all you got for me?”
What’s this mean for gamers? It means an A5 chip, same as the iPad 2, which adds up to a significant performance bump for games. 
The bigger news was the central role played by Siri (click this link to watch the video of it in action) in the presentation. Siri is voice recognition software, and it isn’t new at all. Apple bought Siri and is integrating an improved version of it right into the OS. You can already use voice commands to do searches and the like, but the new Siri integration seems to take that the next logical step, with almost complete voice automation. It can read your emails aloud in that creepy GlaDOS voice, and then let you dictate a reply. If I asked it to open the pod bay doors, do you think it would?
It’s certainly a more robust integration of voice recognition, but hardly the stuff of Apple’s legendary press conferences. On the other hand, it was probably a smart move not to call it an iPhone 5, because if they did people would say, “Well, really, this doesn’t feel like a generational upgrade, more like an iPhone 4 with a random letter after it.”
Skynet goes online in 5…4…3…2…

The Game of Trussing

We found this one in the American Boy’s Book of Sports and Games (Dick & Fitzgerald, 1864), and thought it sounded like the kind of weird fun kids just don’t do anymore, probably for a good reason. (Although I think we may try it at a Cub Scout event.) I decided to call it by its alternate name rather than its original name (“cock fighting”) for obvious reasons. The prose of the Boy’s Book is worth quoting directly:

This game, which is productive fun, is a trial of skill between two players. It is also called “trussing,” The players are made to sit down on the ground, and draw their legs up, clasping the hands together below the knees. A stick is then passed under the knees, and over the elbows of each player, as shown in the cut; and then the two players, being placed face to face, try to overbalance each other, by pushing with the points of their toes. Of course, the hands may not be unclasped; and when a combatant rolls over, he lies quite helpless, until set up again by the spectators, or by his backers. The cock who overturns his adversary twice out of three times is considered to have won the fight. 

The interesting part about this description, by some unknown and long forgotten writer (only the illustrators and the engraver are named), is the notion of “backers”. Was there some kind of underground Trussing Syndicate?