Game Review: Discipline the Simian

i-d484758b74411f8706a1ff95fe182a72-pic144671_md.jpgPlayed a fun card game with a somewhat off-colour name today: Spank the Monkey from 2003. The object of the game is literally to catch a monkey and whack its little hairy behind. Why? Because all the players are employees at a junk yard, and the monkey’s being a nuisance. It’s built itself a tower of junk and sits atop it, making ugly gestures, screeching and probably flinging poo at the customers. To catch it, you need to build a junk tower of your own while keeping the other players from building faster than you and catching the monkey.

Much of the fun stems from the absurd combinations of objects you end up with. One of the towers built today incorporated an automatic rodeo bull and a dinosaur skeleton reinforced with chicken wire. At one point a player lobbed an anvil at another’s tower, but he deflected it with an old trampoline, and instead I ended up getting whacked with the anvil. Good fun, each session lasting a few tens of minutes once everybody knows the rules. Though developed by Swedes, the game’s entirely in English. It’s not a “collectible” card game: you buy one box of cards and that’s it.

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Buying a New Board Game

i-f10d95e8e6f67ec21a59a4e315ac20e7-monopoly.jpgLately I’ve been playing more board games, thanks to gaming friends moving to my area, and also to my son and his buddies reaching an age where they can understand and enjoy games. I have a number of good board games from the 70s, 80s and 90s, and the newest one in the house is Blokus from 2000. Now I’m thinking of buying something new, and I’d appreciate some suggestions.

Here’s what I have in mind.

  • A new game, 2006 or later.
  • Suitable for age 12 upward.
  • Typical session length less than 4 hours.
  • English, German or Scandy.
  • Not a spin-off on an earlier game such as Settlers or Carcassonne.

So, Dear Reader, any ideas? Is Thief of Baghdad any good, for instance?

Update 15 June: Thanks everybody for your suggestions! After some serious study on-line, I’ve ordered Race for the Galaxy, and I’m looking for a reasonable deal on Pandemic in the EU. The only place I’ve found it actually available is Amazon in the US, which would force me to pay a lot of postage and customs.

Anybody registered on Board Game Geek? I’m “mrund” there, feel free to befriend me.

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Skamby Gaming Pieces on Display


In 2005, a team led by myself and Howard Williams excavated a 9th century boat inhumation burial at Skamby in Kuddby parish, Östergötland, Sweden. The finest finds we made in the grave were a collection of 23 amber gaming pieces. These are extremely rare, the previous Swedish set having surfaced in the 1870s when Hjalmar Stolpe dug at Birka.

Now the County Museum in Linköping has incorporated the Skamby gaming set into its new permanent exhibition! The official opening takes place on Tuesday evening 3 June, at 6 pm.

I am very proud that our finds will be seen by so many museum visitors. Perhaps the annual LinCon gaming convention might schedule a visit? Says Lotta Feldt who curated the exhibit: “Your amber glows! They form a natural magnet in the exhibition.”

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Nine-Year-Olds Like Roborally


Now and then I like to play board games: mostly Blokus, Drakborgen (a.k.a. Dungeonquest), Scrabble and Roborally. The latter is an award-winning 1994 game where each player programs a robot to move through a treacherous obstacle course and tag a series of numbered flags. More often than not, your robot ends up a smoking laser-riddled wreck or disappears down a bottomless hole.

On the box, Roborally is recommended from age 12 up. I am proud to be able to tell you that the game works just fine with (bright, geeky) 9-year-olds as well. Yesterday after lunch I took Junior and his pal geocaching, and then we played Roborally. It was a breeze for them to understand and enjoy it. And I, of course, was very happy to beat them most mercilessly. While I still can, you know.

(Junior asks me to point out that as I tagged the last flag, his robot was nearly at the penultimate one.)

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Dungeons & Archaeologists

Lore Sjöberg at Wired celebrates the achievement of recently deceased gaming wizard Gary Gygax with an entertaining look at what it would be like if Dungeons & Dragons characters behaved like archaeologists.

May 16

We have nearly finished our initial survey of the outer flagstones of the dungeon entrance. Already we have made wonderful discoveries! Initial tests indicate that the stones may have come from an open pit quarry near the Elonges River, nearly two miles from here! Also, we were attacked by a Phantom Fungus and lost two more graduate students.

Thanks to Johan Lundström for the tip-off.

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The Intelligence of Game-Playing Software

i-c7df6f56656ecbbac1eac39ad52f7927-king_geirraudr_red.jpgThere’s been some discussion lately about chess-playing software and intelligence. Some smart humans play chess well. Certain software can beat them at chess. Does this mean that the software is smarter than those humans? Of course not.

For one thing, intelligence is about versatility, about being able to perform innumerable different and unfamiliar tasks that take smarts. No software in the world, least of all chess software, is anywhere near passing the Turing test. If you talk to present-day software you soon become aware that there’s no intelligence in the box. If we came across a human that played kickass chess but had no other mental skills, we would classify her as severely retarded on the verge of brain death.

Secondly, intelligence is not simply about outcomes, it’s also about process. Chess-playing software doesn’t arrive at game decisions in the same way as a human player does. The software simply uses brute number-crunching force to calculate its chances of gaining an advantage with a certain move. Chess is a tightly bounded system where the number of possible situations is smallish and a player can make only a very small number of easily identified moves in each situation. Such a brute-force approach is useless for more intricate open-system games. Here, instead, the programmer has to establish rules-of-thumb for the software to follow, and it can never be any better at the game than the person who formulated those gaming methods.

I’ve seen this recently since I took up Civilization IV. This is an intricate game where the number of possible situations is astronomical. The game’s creators call their game-playing engine “an AI”, an artificial intelligence, but it’s nothing of the sort. It’s a collection of methods that allow the computer to offer adequate resistance to the player’s attempts at winning. But often, the methods make for mind-blowingly stupid game play.

In a Civ game recently, my country was invaded by a warlike neighbour who had somehow drummed up enormous numbers of troops. He sent them straight to my closest city. I responded by desperately sending almost all the defensive troops I had in my other cities to the besieged one, which I could do swiftly thanks to a railroad network I had just completed. The besieged border city was now extremely heavily defended. What did the invaders do? Did they perhaps split into a number of smaller forces and go off to find my other cities, forcing me to split my defenders too? Of course they immediately cut off my railroads at strategic points? Nope. They stayed where they were and threw themselves repeatedly against the border city until there wasn’t a single invader standing anymore.

But don’t think that Civilization is an easy game to win. To begin with, you may not know exactly how the game works, but the software does. And there are a number of levels of difficulty, ranging from the easy to the almost impossible. You might think that the difference between these difficulty levels would be how smart the software is. Sadly, no. The main difference lies in how much the software cheats.

In Civilization, when playing against the computer, you aren’t necessarily constrained by the same game rules as the software. This affects things such as how many troops you start with, how long it takes to train new troops and how fast your cities grow. Choosing a more difficult level doesn’t make your opponent smarter, it’s more like you’re assuming a lower handicap in golf. (The golf handicap system is, BTW, in my opinion completely pointless. It allows an unskilled golfer to “beat” a skilful one if he plays better in relationship to his own skill rank than the skilful one does in relationship to hers. But this really just means that one player’s handicap needs to be adjusted, leading to an infinite regress.) So when the computer beats you at Civ, it’s usually because the two of you aren’t really playing the same game.

I’d like to play Civ against other people one day. But a game that takes ten hours when most of the players are computer simulations would take a week if they were all human. Maybe at the old people’s home.

If the ecology doesn’t collapse first, we will have real AI one day. But it won’t sprout out of specialised game-playing software. It’ll arise as one of those elusive “emergent properties” that can be observed when a very large number of dumb particles with intricate communication capabilities are packed together in a convenient container — such as a human cranium.

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So You Want to Write Interactive Fiction?

Back in 1996 I played Curses, an extremely good text adventure game. I also read the inspiring documentation for Inform 3, the programming language Curses was written in, and found it extremely elegant. (The game, the programming language and its documentation were all the work of one Graham Nelson.) I had vague plans for writing my own game in Inform, but never got round to it. Instead I went through various interesting upheavals in my life (mainly involving women and the resulting children) that pretty much catapulted me out of geekdom, certainly as far as gaming was concerned.

Now, inspired by the Colossal Cave paper I linked to the other day, I googled “graham nelson inform”. And boy have he and his associates been busy!

Inform is now at version 7. It has transformed into a natural English compiler for interactive fiction. Inform 7 source code can look like this:

Martha is a woman in the Vineyard.

The cask is either customs sealed, liable to tax or stolen goods.

The prevailing wind is a direction that varies.

The Old Ice House overlooks the Garden.

A container is bursting if the total weight of things in it is greater than its breaking strain.

This incredible-sounding piece of software is a free download available for Win, Mac and Linux. Book-length documentation is included. I’ve got to check out what kind of text adventures / interactive fiction people are writing these days with tools like that!

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Original Text Adventure Source Code Examined

You are in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike.

The original text adventure game, ADVENT, was written in the mid-1970s by Stanford student Will Crowther. This game begat Zork, then King’s Quest, then any number of other adventure games on various computer platforms until the present day, when Second Life and World of Warcraft are scarcely recognisable as its descendants.

ADVENT is still around and has been ported to pretty much every machine in use today. But this is a late version of the game, expanded and beefed up by Don Woods. Crowther’s original version has long been considered lost. Yet now it has risen from the vaults, resurrected from 197670s backup tapes containing Crowther’s Woods’s student account!

Dennis G. Jerz has now published a long, thorough, well-illustrated study of the ur-version of ADVENT, comparing it both to the Woods version of the game and to the Colossal Cave in Kentucky that inspired Crowther’s game world. Seriously cool stuff!

Via Du är vad du läser.

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Oh Man, Civilized Again

i-03d54569e2b07bc4eb03866d1bee05b8-200px-CivIVboxshot.jpgThat Myers character has snared me in his net again. Did I say Myers? Sorry, M e i e r. Sid Meier. The Civilization guy.

It’s been years since I spent any significant amount of time on computer games. The other day, however, I picked up a copy of the 2005 hit Civilization IV cheaply on eBay, and now I’ve gotten sucked into it. I used to play the board game, I used to play it with house rules, I’ve even played it with house rules and a home-made alternative map, and I played the original PC game a lot too. I quit when I realised that the outcome of a game was largely determined by the size of the continent you started on and how many other Neolithic tribes you shared it with. Start alone on a sizeable continent and you win.

Myself and 9-y-o son have been finding our way around the new system, which has loads of new parameters that take some learning. I started out on the “Noble” level of difficulty, which turns out to be challenging: I’m more n00b than nobleman. The nasty Japanese just conquered one of my cities using war elephants (!), but luckily my other neighbour is Peter the Great of Russia who is proving uncharacteristically peaceful. I am of course the High Inca.

Like several games I’ve looked at in recent years, Civilization IV is loaded with graphics frills that you can barely see when you zoom out enough to get the big picture. I feel sorry for the people who designed and coded all that animation. Maybe with practice I’ll feel secure enough in the empire-building department to zoom in and savour the minute goings-on.

Dear Reader, are you or have you ever been a Civ fan? Let’s hear some stories and strategic tips and general comments!

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Used To Be A Kobold

i-97771998a9e679df0e00647019247453-kobold.jpgFrom age twelve to twenty-five, I was a gaming geek. It started with the Swedish version of Runequest (Drakar och Demoner) and the Lone Wolf solo adventure series, and soon branched out into computer games and sundry board games. Gaming was a big part of my life and I had a lot of fun with it.

In my teens I used to hang out at a gaming store and go to gaming conventions. There my friends and I encountered innumerable somewhat younger and even more enthusiastic gamers who milled around at belly height of us big guys. We scoffed at their “hack ‘n’ slay” gaming style, so much cruder than our own mature and serious role-playing. Everyone called them kobolds.

Dungeons and Dragons was originally conceived as a battle simulation system, not strictly a role-playing game, and to this day it emphasises the slaying of baddies. Baddies are ranked by how hard they are to kill, and the easiest baddie of all is the kobold. Variously conceived of as little goblins or small blue dog-like lizard-men, these beasties are a joke to any D&D character above the first level. Yipping angrily, they’ll show up in belligerent crowds and instantly get chopped up or fried with battle magic, the survivors fleeing squealing down the 10′ wide dungeon corridor.

Historically, a Kobold is actually a German mine sprite, like the Nickel. That’s where the chemical elements cobalt and nickel got their names.

I still remember the thrill of my first Drakar och Demoner game over at my friend Ragnar’s house. What an epiphany for a young Tolkien fan! I sometimes dream of starting a gaming group again one day, probably at the old people’s home. I’m sure some of my co-players will be ex-kobolds too.

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