jazzfish: book and quill and keyboard and mouse (Media Log)
Hadean Lands, Andrew Plotkin

Not quite four years ago I backed my second-ever Kickstarter project[1]. I'd known Zarf in passing for about a decade at that point, and known of his work for, mm, twenty-some years. Throwing money at him so he'd a) make another big game and b) create tools so that other people could make similar games was kind of a no-brainer.

He'd planned on having the game done in a year, maybe a little more.

It shipped a couple of days ago.

I meant to post this yesterday morning, when it was live. I am afraid I was distracted by a formula for an alchemical fungicide, and then by my inexplicable failure to create a resonant oculus ("an exceptional tool for observing unseen influences"). So: I am pleased to report that it has been entirely worth the wait.

The plot: you're an ensign on His Majesty's Marcher (an alchemical starship) The Unanswerable Retort. Something has gone horribly wrong, and it appears to be up to you to figure out how to put it right.

This is an old-school text adventure. You type commands (GO NORTH, GET COIN, UNLOCK OAK DOOR WITH RUSTY KEY) and the game carries them out. It includes a tutorial for brand-new players. I cannot speak to the tutorial as I haven't played it; been too busy diving in.

The game's puzzly, but not impossibly so. The structure I've seen thus far:
  • First, a basic puzzle-type task, which serves as a tutorial for 'how to do alchemy.'
  • Then, a locked door that can be opened by creative application of the previous.
  • The game then opens up a few more areas, and gives you a few more keys, to doors that have to be opened in order.
  • The last of those doors leads to an area roughly the size of the entire area you've previously seen, with a number of things to do and a locked door at the far end.
  • Once you've puzzled out how to open that door, you have free access to most of the rest of the map.
  • At this point the game becomes a firehose of information: alchemical formulae, ingredients, concepts, and the trick becomes sorting and managing all this information. That's where I am.
All this ought to be overwhelming and tedious. It's not, because Zarf has implemented shortcuts. You have to do a ritual, or solve a puzzle or unlock a door, by hand once. After that you can just PERFORM TARNISH CLEANSING RITUAL or UNLOCK DOOR and the game gathers the ingredients or key and goes through the necessary steps. In addition, if you can't remember where you saw or left something, you can RECALL CONVEX LENS and the game will tell you "You left that in the Opticks Lab."

Not to mention that the prose is first-rate. "You smell copal incense, machine oil, rosemary, alcohol, and blood. Creaking, bending steel beams... no, that's not an odor. Why did you think the bulkheads were crumpling in on you? What would that even smell like?"

Hadean Lands is available for iOS in a native app, or Android and PC/OSX/Linux through a (free) interpreter. I believe it will set you back about five bucks.


If you have fond recollections of the old Infocom games: buy this.

If you enjoy throwing yourself against locked doors and attempting to concoct and (mis)use strange formulae: buy this.

If you snickered at an alchemical starship named 'The Unanswerable Retort': buy this.

It's good.

[1] My first-ever backed Kickstarter project has yet to deliver, because the creator turned out to be a flake. In retrospect this should have been obvious at the time. Supposedly the writing is done and it's in layout now. I believe the traditional next step is to whine that there are no more funds left to print or ship the book.
jazzfish: book and quill and keyboard and mouse (Media Log)
Interactive fiction, classic Infocom.

What really impresses me about the Enchanter trilogy is how they implemented what amounts to an extra dozen verbs, in the form of the spells. Suddenly just about everything can have just about anything done to it: turning into a newt, or opening, or becoming your friend... and they put in non-default answers to enough of those combinations to keep the sense of "magic" alive. It's almost enough to make one overlook how many of those new verbs only have one real use.

Enchanter )

Sorcerer )

Spellbreaker )
jazzfish: book and quill and keyboard and mouse (Media Log)
Tom Lehmann, Race for the Galaxy

Me: "Oh, Race! I've heard good things. How is it?"

Rick: "It's like San Juan on steroids."

Yeah, pretty much. San Juan is the Puerto Rico card game. It's got no plantations (just factories) and no shipping (but it's still got trading), so you only get points from building things. Other than that, it's a pretty good adaptation. SJ preserves the main PR mechanic of every turn you choose a phase and everyone does that phase, but you get a special bonus (draw more cards, build for cheaper, etc). You pay for buildings (which are cards in your hand) by discarding a number of cards from your hand equal to the cost of the building; this means that anything you build, you have to actually want to build more than your other cards. It's good stuff.

So Race for the Galaxy is like San Juan with two major changes and a number of minor ones. The biggest change is that the role selection is now simultaneous. Everyone has their own set of cards for the roles: explore, develop, settle, consume, produce. Every round, you choose one role secretly and reveal simultaneously. Any role that gets chosen by anyone, gets done by everyone; the person or people who chose it get a special bonus. Any role that doesn't get chosen by anyone doesn't happen. Roles happen in a predetermined order. So in SJ most of the roles are going to happen, but you don't know when. In Race, you know definitely that card-drawing happens before building, but the only way to guarantee that you get to do card-drawing is if you pick it yourself.

The other big change is the return of shipping. In SJ all you can do with the goods you produce is sell them for cards. In Race, some buildings can turn goods into victory points. So you've got a bit of the shipping dynamic present in PR: the building up a bunch of goods and turning them into points, and the possibility of having something shipped before it can be traded for lots of cards in hand. Also, SJ ends when someone builds a twelfth building. Race can (and usually does) end like this, but it can also end when (like PR) the predetermined supply of victory point chips runs out. So someone with only seven or eight buildings can still manage to outscore someone who's rushing to get their twelfth mid-range building in play.

There are also about half again as many cards as SJ, and very few duplicates. In SJ you've got a bunch of identical indigo plants. In Race, those indigo plants are planets that produce 'luxury' goods, and each one does something slightly different in addition to producing. Add to this two different types of buildings (developments and planets), planets that you can conquer through military might, and big buildings (PR's ten-cost buildings / SJ's six-cost) that have incredibly useful in-game effects in addition to the ton of points they provide, and you've got one heck of a game.

And it plays in about half an hour, max, once you're familiar with the cards and the phases. A ton of decision-making compacted about as small as reasonably possible.

Race was my most-played game of 2007. This is particularly impressive considering that I only started playing in December.
jazzfish: book and quill and keyboard and mouse (Media Log)
Christian T. Petersen et al, A Game of Thrones Boardgame

A multiplayer wargame more like Diplomacy than Risk, set in a fantasy world that bears a more than passing resemblance to War-of-the-Roses-era Britain, using mechanics cribbed from probably half a dozen games. It's good stuff. Lots of negotiating, some interesting high-level randomness (you'll get new units at the start of your turn just under half the time), and battles are partially determined by the strength of units (attacking and defending, with the potential of "support" from adjacent units on either side) and partially by the play of cards from your hand. There's a decent amount going on, but not so much that it's overwhelming, and there's a lot a lot of player interaction. It's got a few problems (navies are bordering on overpowered, and the five-player game has an unfortunate balance issue due to the vagaries of the map) but overall it's a really good game. This one'll probably get broken out about as often as Puerto Rico did this time last year. Looking forward to the expansion (due out at Origins!).

Ian Jones-Quartey, RPGWorld Volume One: Unlikely Hero Out for Adventure

It's a webcomic about the characters in a [nonexistent] console RPG. It mostly pokes fun at all the cliches of console RPGs ("Why did we get all fuzzy just now?" "It's a battle transition!") but managed to slide a bit of character development in there as well. The art's nice and the jokes are mostly pretty good. If it weren't an ongoing story I'd probably start reading it. (I hate having plot doled out to me in N-panel-per-day increments. It's all I can do to read comic books at twenty-four pages per month.)

Serena Valentino and Ted Naifeh, Gloomcookie

A comic book that starts off as the story of a small group of goths and their soap operas but quickly veers off into Changeling / Books of Magic territory. Neat, though bits feel a bit shallow (one character starts out looking like he's going to be fairly major, and then vanishes about halfway through the book and is never heard from again). I'm considering buying this one and the next two collections. It's drawn by Ted Naifeh of Courtney Crumrin fame, so the art is top-notch gothy.

Andy Diggle and Jock, The Losers: Ante Up

Trade paperback collecting issues one thru six. My second time through they still tell a compelling story. I don't feel like I necessarily got anything more out of it this time, but I did pick up on the clues that Character X is a traitor. (I'm upset that they played the "traitor among us" card so early; dangerously close to shark-jumping. To the left, there's time to work in the ramifications of the betrayal, and there's nothing that says no one else can betray them later.) The art's good, and several of the one-liners are brilliant. "That's one giant step for, uh, people who steal things."
jazzfish: book and quill and keyboard and mouse (Media Log)
Similar games; both third-person adventure with more emphasis on exploration and puzzle-solving than on combat. (Sphinx is designed by Eurocom and published by THQ; BG&E is both designed and published by Ubisoft, if you care.) In both the secondary cast is largely composed of anthropomorphs; in both you turn out to be The One Of Whom The Prophecies Speak, Mother****er; both have a Cool Gimmick that works pretty well (Sphinx has, well, the Mummy, and BG&E has Jade's camera). So why does Sphinx feel incredibly rough around the edges, while BG&E was smooth sailing almost all the way?

Good points about Sphinx: the control system was nigh-perfect (the camera was occasionally a problem, but very rarely; and when you control a secondary creature you can no longer move the camera at all). The combat was pretty clean, too: Sphinx has well-defined combos, whereas BG&E's Jade does random cool stuff with her staff when you press the A button and hold a direction, reducing fights to "Look at that cool thing! Hope it did some damage!" The world is gorgeous, and the pacing is good. The Mummy is so brilliant he deserves his own paragraph, sic:

For part of the game you get to control a mummy. His combat skills are nonexistent, but that doesn't really matter since he's effectively immortal. This lends itself to some clever problem-solving. For instance, there might be a wooden grate barring your way, or maybe you need to fit through a really tight space. Normal adventure games might make you carry a torch to the grating, or pry the space open. As the Mummy, though, you simply set yourself on fire or get squashed flat as a piece of paper, and voila! The Mummy sections of the game are really, really cool puzzles, and the Mummy himself is wonderfully animated. He doesn't speak, but he makes expressive noises, and even occasionally has as much facial expression as you can get under fifty feet of bandages.

The rest of Sphinx. . . eh. Gameplay is good, no question: I had fun playing, and that's ultimately what matters. But the plot was hackneyed (gotta beat the evil God and save the world) and had a few threads that got dropped in the middle of the story, with no explanation. (I was really looking forward to beating the crap out of Horus, my fellow student / rival / traitorous enemy, the next time I saw him. No such luck. There's also no voice-acting, which makes a surprising difference. (No voice acting beats bad voice acting, but even "okay" speech would have added so much to the game.) You get granted abilities, use them once or twice, and then forget they ever existed. Random side-quests that start out sounding really cool ("Bring me a specimen of every creature you come across!") devolve into "wander around and get enough money to buy the super-expensive one-of-a-kind beastie from the shopkeeper so you can finish." The fights are pretty good, too. . . but the final boss is just pathetic. I can see where they tried to make him a timing puzzle as well as a boss . . . but it was just too little. I felt gypped at its ease. Overall, there are big chunks that feel either incredibly rushed, or just amateurish. And the end doesn't so much shout "Sequel hook!" as jump up and down waving a brightly-colored flag with the words "PLEASE PLAY THE NEXT GAME" embroidered on it in hot pink.

Still, I look forward to the sequel. I imagine that given a second chance these [gender-neutral] guys can make an all-around good game out of these two characters.

And then there's BG&E. It's gorgeous. It's got nifty minigames (hovercraft races! and a REALLY FRICKIN' HARD game that's a cross between air hockey and pool). It's got well-developed characters and a plot that ties up loose ends while leaving questions open at the end. The controls rock, except for the aforementioned combat-is-button-mashing problem. There's combat, there's puzzle-solving, there's wander-around-and-look-at-the-cool-stuff, there's even stealth sections. I adored this game, almost without reservation. Even the final boss-fight had sections of pure beat-things-up plus bits of puzzle-solving, which is always neat. (And it was tough, but not so tough as to be bloody impossible.)

Let's do a comparison. In both games, there's a side-quest involving tracking down every creature in the game. Sphinx gives you one reward as soon as you get your first creature (it's required to progress in the game, actually), and some Monster Hunter medals as you progress. These are of no use in the game; they're just coolness badges. BG&E, on the other hand, gives you cash for each critter you photograph, plus a pearl for every eight critters. (Pearls are sort of BG&E's generic quest rewards. They can be traded for hovercraft or spaceship upgrades.) In addition, if you manage to get all the critters (not insanely hard; unphotographed critters show up on your map), you get to go back and view all your photographs. Sphinx's sidequests are just that; BG&E's actually give you something useful, give you some sort of motivation beyond sheer bloody-mindedness. (Which I have in spades.)

Both games were fun and Not A Waste Of My Time, but BG&E is by far the better. The little things count, is probably the moral here.
jazzfish: book and quill and keyboard and mouse (Media Log)
Jasper Fforde, The Eyre Affair

I get the impression that Fforde thinks he's incredibly clever. Sometimes he even is.

Eyre Affair is sort of an alternate history novel. "Alternate culture" might be more appropriate; though there's plenty of deviation from actual history. the cultural differences are far more prominent. Time travelling Special Operatives try to put history aright, the Goliath Corporation effectively runs the UK, and evangelical Baconians come to your house to convince you that Francis (or Roger) Bacon actually wrote Shakespeare's plays. Literature holds an improbably high position in Fforde's world, where the original manuscript to Martin Chuzzlewit is held sacred and riots between Raphaelites and Surrealists are commonplace. It's an English major's wet dream.

Anyway. Cleverness. The main character is named Thursday Next, and was at one point affianced to Landon Parke-Laine, which gives you some idea of what sort of cleverness I'm talking about. Bits are brilliant-- I nearly laughed out loud at the audience-participation Richard III-- but some of it is just tiresome. (The JW-esque Baconians got old after awhile, and the final answer to the Shakespeare question, while elegant, was a mite obvious.)

As for the plot, it's Not Bad. Characters popping out of and into works of literature, evil corporations, a villain who delights in evil for evil's sake, and plenty of confusion. Like Jonathan, I felt like the wrapping-up of Absolutely Everything was done too neatly in the last few chapters; better that than leaving three-quarters of the loose ends dangling, though.

I liked it well enough, and will read the other two (as soon as the third is published in the US), but won't be running out and buying them immediately. To the left, it was terribly amusing at times. (It's got a character named Dr Runcible Spoon! What more could you ask for!) Well worth reading, but not quite All That.

Greg Stolze, To Go

Greg was taunting the Unknown Armies listserv as far back as 1999 with rumors of "this huge epic mega-campaign I've got planned, tentatively called Walker In Your Face[1]." Well, now it's here. (Or maybe only the first part of it, in which case I'm really, really impressed.) To Go follows the course of the American kundalini through seven cities, and ends up with an ascension to godhood (more or less). It does everything-- mystic poker game, big car chase, three- or four-way battle in the woods at night, a couple of shootouts, and even the big climactic out-of-world experience. Someday I will run this, and it will be Good. (Pablo: it's worth getting just for the details of what happens if/when Dermott Arkane ascends as the Heisenberg Messenger.)

[1] A play off a lengthy and supposedly quite good campaign book for Call of Cthulhu entitled Walker In the Waste.
jazzfish: book and quill and keyboard and mouse (Media Log)
William Gibson, Neuromancer

What can you say about The Quintessential Cyberpunk Book? I started flipping through it a few weeks ago and it just drew me in again. Bits of it feel very eighties, and occasionally the future Gibson paints is jarringly retro, but on the whole the book has aged quite well.

I'm not sure I completely believe in Molly, which may be a problem since I think she continues to show up in the next two books. Case, though. . . Case was damn near perfect. Ditto Armitage. (His last scene. . . wow.)

Shigeru Miyamoto, Pac-Man Vs.

Always it's the simple ones that make the best party games. This one is multiplayer Pac-Man, as weird as that sounds. Three players control the ghosts, on the television screen. The ghosts can only see a little bit of the maze around them. The fourth player uses a GBA hooked up to the GameCube via a link cable to control Pac-Man. With the GBA, Pac-Man can see the whole maze. If a ghost catches Pac-Man, the game starts over only now the ghost gets to be Pac-Man and Pac-Man plays as a ghost. So simple. . . and so incredibly fun. Spontaneous teamwork among the ghosts ("Upper right! He's in the upper right!") and frenetic cable-tangling, to the immortal sound of wakka-wakka-wakka. My only complaint is that neither the analog stick nor the D-pad are ideal control devices. Maybe if I could find four arcade sticks. . .

Greg Stolze & Chad Underkoffler, Break Today

The Mak Attax sourcebook for Unknown Armies. Lots of good crunchy bits: a new archetype, three new schools of magick, a few rituals, and Familiars (which are, in fact, sufficiently creepy). Mak Attax was one of those things in the main book that always struck me as kind of wacky-- they're a loose cabal of fast-food workers who pass magic 'charges' on to unsuspecting customers, who then have those charges manifest as spontaneous magick, in the hopes that with enough weird stuff going on the world will be better able to accept the existence of the unnatural. Or something. Anyway, the book gives them a lot more . . . not structure, as such, but organisation? Purpose? There's a lot of write-ups of individual Attaxers, and just seeing the detail on the specific people makes it feel a lot more 'real' and less wacky. I'm not sure it was worth $30 (%&$ hardback) but it's a great sourcebook.


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Adventures in Mamboland

"Jazz Fish, a saxophone playing wanderer, finds himself in Mamboland at a critical phase in his life." --Howie Green, on his book Jazz Fish Zen

Yeah. That sounds about right.

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