Other Wise

Wotcha up to mate?

An old line that I’d long forgotten was brought back up recently:

In competitive games, I get to approximate the platonic ideal of an entirely selfish and self-centeredly manipulative creature, one bereft of every social grace and principle, and to thereby learn to solve interesting problems. What’s not to like?

Pidgeon opponents

Another thing written elsewhere

Part of respecting your opponents is respecting them as opponents and thus being willing to have them win or lose, to be hurt or happy, to succeed or be crushed or be somewhere in the middle. They are grownups now: they can and should take care of themselves. They are your opponent and that is what they are there for, so respect them for it and give them the roughest, most aggressively unforgiving, unrelenting and challenging game you can along with and as part of your respect.

Notes on a vantage

Three quick quips which I’ve had cause to reference multiple times and thus seem useful to keep stashed. First a comment on how and why I live:

Meanwhile the universe is interesting, delightfully interesting even, and I apply and dedicate my awareness and interest to that end. I assume, generously and with scant evidence, that it is a Good Thing to Have Understood, or at least to have Striven to Understand. I don’t know if that is in fact true, it seems quite likely that it isn’t, but it also seems a fine and possibly even wonderful conceit to live under.

And thence on the critical structures and requirements of something being a (viable) game:

That the answer is complex.

Primarily I see it as a function of cognitive ability. Oh, not in any elitist or superiority sense, but simply in terms of capacity. Tic-tac-toe is a fine game for younger children as they simply don’t yet have the cognitive abilities necessary for recognising what’s necessary to remove the game. It is rather less interesting if you or I played it. Similarly, the game of Go is very interesting for people precisely because we don’t have the cognitive capacity to remove the game. In short: in order to be a game the system as presented must fundamentally exceed our ability to comprehend the system.

How it exceeds us, by complexity for instance, or by stressing analytical forms we humans are inherently weak at like conditional probability, or by requiring modes of thought that we’ve not yet fully developed (and thus a lot of games for pre-adolescents stress symbolic thought as they’ve only just developed that capacity (it comes in around age 11)) — how it exceeds us really doesn’t matter, just that it exceeds us and is hauntingly close to the apparent edge of our capacities so as to provide the taunting illusion of almost-graspability. And it will remain a game only to the point that no matter how hard we study and analyse and work it, that we will still not fully understand the system represented or implied by the game.

(Somewhere in here there’s a fine rant that I’ll skip for now on the necessity for ambiguity in games, and how far too many so-called “games” are not in fact games because they don’t contain ambiguity: they just have game-states that are hard or laborious to parse)

Now a kicker in this is that most games rely on the fact that as humans we cannot completely model another human (of comparable capacity to ourselves). Godel’s incompleteness theorem guarantees that, and provides the primary reason I rarely ever play 2-player games. The problem here is that the modelling problem is also a cheap out for lazy game designers (ahem — there’s no subjectivity in this declaration, no sirree!). In this I find that the more interesting games exceed their players in both their systemic demands and in their demands of modelling the other players (and thus in the intersection of multiplayer interactions and the system, an implicit third factor).

After that basic, well, it gets murky and subjective and ever so much more complex. A lot of the subjective preferences there are arm-wavingly discussed in my profile text here on BGG. And, not to short shrift you too badly, I need to get ready for a gamesday with one of the top 18xx players in the world (Todd vander Pluym) who is in the area for a few days…and fascinating as this question is (and it is truly interesting), that’s a time-bounded opportunity and this question isn’t. Sorry.

And finally on the activity of playing games:

I find that face-to-face games provide context and variety which is largely not available in solo study. That alone more than makes face-to-face play worthwhile. Just participating in a game with other actors, and observing those actors, actors not in my mind, suffices a lot of my requirements for playing a game as you say. Much of anything I may think during that time or later will be catalysed and informed by my observation of those actors during the game — which is the great thing about playing games rather than merely thinking about games.

Definition: Euro(game)

Another quip from a post on Boardgamegeek:

A Euro is a marketing construct that describes a game aimed at the demographic of a young(er) suburban and culturally active/aware couple, possibly with 1-2 kids in the 6-14 age range, who wish to play games as a family or couple and/or socially with a similar couple. This well-defined, identified and understood market is the focus of many designers and publishers.

Definition: Economic Game

I wrote the following recently as part of a discussion on boardgamegeek:

An economic game implements an economy which the players either significantly create or engage in during the course of play. An economy consists of one or more marketplaces in which one or more currencies are exchanged either for goods/resources or other (potential) currencies, and in which the cycle of inputs to conversions to outputs is or can be self-sustaining. A currency is merely a granular entity with variable value which is conceived of as a trade item for other currencies or value goods.

On drowning in games

I wrote this as while back in reference to Wabash Cannonball, but it seems a generally true paean to both the types of games I like and the way I like to approach them:

First you lose a lot,

Then you win a game…and don’t know why,

Then you lose a lot more and think you should have won,

This happens for Oh, a dozen or so games,

Then you win one and think another player threw you the game unintentionally,

Then you lose and think you threw the game to another player!

Then you do that some more, say another dozen-odd games,

Then you win a game but clearly see it was because of another player’s error,

Then you lose a game because of your error,

Then you lose again because of an error you could have exploited but didn’t,

And that goes on for a dozen or so games,

Then you win, know why you won and feel great,

And you lose, know why you lost and feel great,

And that goes on for a while,

Until you lose and don’t understand why,

And win and don’t understand why,

And you suspect that you threw the game to another player,

Or another player threw the game to you or someone else,

But you’re not sure,

And this goes on for a while, perhaps a dozen games or so,

And then you realise you’re exactly back where you started,

With exactly the same uncertainties and confusions you had in those very early games,

Not really knowing what you’re doing,

Still feeling your way in the dark,

You just know a lot more about the questions now,

But you still have the same uncertainties and questions,

And you keep on struggling with them,

And you win some,

And lose some,

And hope to learn from both.

Attempting poker chipset design

The perrenial discussion of poker chips has resurfaced yet again and for odd reasons I’ve taken to fiddling with ChipTalk’s Chip Factory. It is a cute little system.

The chipset I finally came up with:


Among the design’s advantages, asides from using a moderately standard colour sequence, are that the edgespots bind to both the previous and next chip in the sequence, including wrapping around the ends of course1. Thus the chips themselves form explicit documentation on their relative placement within the value ranking system2.

My normal poker chip requirement list:

  • At least 7 visually distinct colours including white, red, green, black or blue
  • At least 10 grams per chip (11.5 preferred — I’ve used dice/suited chips so much they feel right to me)
  • Inter-chip friction important (stacking/non-slippy)
  • Edge spots preferred must not interfere with chip colour recognition
  • No writing on the chip (that includes no denominations)

The above set mostly match that.

Gahh! I posted the wrong image and didn’t notice. Corrected:

  1. What sort of programmer do you think I am?
  2. I’m sure this notion isn’t original to me. Shrug.

Boxing yourself

It is common wisdom that the box is often the most expensive item of a published game, and it is true. For small bespoke/vanity publishers box pricing is often prohibitive. It is a Catch-22. Boxes that display well and which retailers are happy to shelve (a significant concern) simply cost too much to afford, but without such well displaying boxes retail success is elusive.

Some choices that I’ve considered for my yet-to-be-named vanity press1:

  1. Paper envelopes as popularised by the many Cheap Ass Games analogues. Often simply monochrome images are printed on the outside of the envelope. Sometimes the rules are printed on the envelope. Many of the small press Age of Steam map products are sold in plain manilla envelopes.
  2. Polyethylene bags, seen recently for Sierra Madre Games and many Cheap Ass Games products. Typically the rulebook cover is the art (as seen through the bag).
  3. Small white display/shipping boxes as used by Cheap Ass Games (again) and various small card games. Large format labels can be applied to all the major faces. Despite the labels they tend to look rather packing-boxey but can deliver a professional albeit small press appearance. They shelve and stock reasonably well at the retail level but don’t display well. 1 Collectible card boxes as used by The Realm of Fantasy for Atta Ants. A paper insert, visible through the plastic on the various sides forms the box art. They can shelve, stock and reasonably display well.
  4. Polystyrene clamshells. Cambridge Games Factory have been using plastic clamshell cases, as recently seen for Aapep and Glory to Rome. There are a number of suppliers but Placon have been made well-known among small publishers as Winsome Games have used them extensively, but there are many other suppliers. Like the bags and card cases, a simple insert or the rule-book, visible through the plastic forms the display art. They are disliked by retailers as not only hard to shelve, stock and display, but fragile and prone to damage (sun/heat).
  5. Tubes, usually plastic. Plastic poster tubes have mostly come and gone for small press publishers but they used to be de rigueur for small press games. They are loathed by retailers and are usually consigned to the floor or other dead corners as impossible to display effectively.
  6. VHS cassette cases. Usually black plastic, sometimes white, not the sort with padded edges but rather the (usually) four-clip hard cases. GMT uses such cases for the expansion armies to Wizard Kings. It can be difficult finding cases without the posts for the cassette reels. Art is either a slip-in for three sides of the box, or a cardboard sleeve. They shelve, stock and display well given that the box-size is in an awkward middle-size range that doesn’t fit the display systems used for most other games, too big for card games, too small for big-box games.
  7. White single-piece shipping boxes. Mostly recently well used by Deep Thought Games and Hangman Games, these are readily available from shipping companies. Simple large format adhesive labels may be easily applied to the main faces for branding and display. Despite the labels they tend to look rather packing-boxey but can deliver a professional albeit small press appearance. They shelve and stock reasonably but don’t display well at the retail level.
  8. White telescoping boxes. Also available in black (harder to find). Most recently used by Deep Thought Games as their premium game box and by Vainglorious Games for Cambria, they are often readily available from shipping companies. Large format adhesive labels may be easily applied to the main faces for branding and display. They can can deliver a (more) professional albeit small press appearance. They shelve and stock well and display reasonably well at the retail level. Note: Most readily available telescoping boxes tend to be made of thinner/weaker/lower density material than the single piece packing boxes. The big advantage are that the telescoping box presents a cleaner top display surface (no gap where the lid tucks in along one edge) and they meet the basic expectation of buyers as to what a game box should be. As such they are preferred by retailers.
  9. Custom printed/full-wrap box. Two forms: full-wrap lid and plain base or full-wrap lid and base. Expensive and typically requires a large print run. The expense comes in two forms: the custom printing (which requires a large print run for an economical rate) and (if necessary) a custom die for a custom box-size/insert to cut/mark/score the cardboard appropriately. These are the boxes most liked by retailers as the easiest to shelve, stock and display. Caveat: Pick your custom box sizes carefully and after consultation with multiple experienced retailers from the market segments you are interested in. More than a few nice boxes simply don’t work at the retail level.

For my own interests I’ve been considering plain manilla envelopes for the Age of Steam maps, clear collectable card game boxes for card games and white single piece boxes ala Deep Thought Games’ products if I do anything larger.

  1. Unwelcome Advances and Conflict(s) of Interest are the currently favoured names.

Bay Area 18xx / SB-Boardgamers

Let’s play 18xx!


Second Monday of each month (first meeting 9 February 2009) starting at ~18:30hrs, and then every month after that.


  Yahoo! Inc.
  701 First Avenue
  Sunnyvale, CA 94089

Yahoo! corporate Cafeteria (“URLs”)/SB-Boardgamers. By the bye, we’re expecting multiple people from the North Bay (Layfayette/Oakland/etc) area. Carpooling is a likely possibility.


Depending on where you are coming from:

  • North on 101 to North Mathilda (just before 237 exit, go straight under the overpass and past Moffet on your left)


  • South on 101 to 237 then exit 237 immediately and turn left onto North Mathilda (go under the overpass)


  • West on 237 to North Mathilda (just before 101 exit, turn right onto North Mathilda when you see the blue cube at Moffet)


  • East on 237 to North Mathilda (right after 101 South exit, turn left under the overpass)


  • North on Mathilda to First St/Bordeaux (last light on the straight way)
  • Left on First St
  • Follow the curve to the right and turn into the Yahoo! parking lot
  • Park in Visitor Parking on either side
  • Walk away from the guard booth across the round-about
  • Go past the fountain and across the grassy quad
  • We play in the glass-fronted cafeteria on the other side of the quad


The idea is to play school-night friendly 18xx games (some of us have to get up in the morning!) but with a focus on teaching games and introducing new people to the 18xx hobby. To that end I’ve some games that can easily fit in an evening:

  • 1825 (Units 1, 2 and 3, all regionals and kits)
  • 1860
  • 1889 (we’ve been playing this a lot, great teaching/learning game!)
  • 18FL
  • 18Mex
  • 18Scan
  • 18TN

If you’ve games you’d like to play, please bring them! Coordination around what we’ll be playing, who will be attending etc should be done through the SB-Boardgamer‘s mailing list (they meet at the same time and place).

Returning clarity

The Muck & Brass rules are being exposed to a rather larger audience than they’ve had before. I’d greatly appreciate comments as to their clarity and utility, any problems with comprehending the game. unanswered or difficult to answer questions the rules left you with, etc left as comments on this entry. I am particularly interested in gaps, contradictions and unnecessary repetition. I’ve laboured to cover every possible contingency in the rules, but only just the once.

I have a rather non-traditional rules-writing approach (passive voice, no examples, close to minimum spanning tree etc) which approximates my ideals for rules. I’m interested in other’s perceptions of the rules as written. I should note that I’m actually not averse to examples, but I dislike putting them in rules until the very last minute (ie right before publication) as otherwise I find it too easy for the examples to start supplanting and extending on the actual rules rather than just exemplifying them. I loathe rules in which the examples actually define or supplant the game’s rules. The Platonic ideal of course is for the rules to simply not need examples as they are already so clearly obvious!

Please sir, I’d rather not have another

Sometimes gaming bring unexpected rewards. Sometimes you really don’t want the rewards.

Wednesday of last week I went to play games up at Endgame in Oakland (map). While we were there there was a riot a few blocks away around the Bart station. We were thankfully oblivious to this silliness as we played our games.

That video was shot all of about 3 blocks from the Endgame store.

Last Wednesday I went up to Endgame again and noticed that there was a lot of free parking. That was unusual as there’s a convention centre across the road from the store and the spill over parking swamps the street parking. Normally I have to hunt for a slot but this time where were rows of open slots on both roads by the store. Just as I drove by on 10th Street I saw a parking slot right in front of the door on the side street, Washington Street, but I had gone too far to turn back. There was also a slot open right beside the side door. For contrarian reasons I looped around the block and parked on the side street right beside the store door. It took a little longer but the ease of being right beside the store door appealed.

While we were playing (Confucius as happens) we heard yelling and loud booms from outside. A gang of yobos were running down 10th street smashing car windshields by jumping on them. Somewhere around twenty cars had their windshields smashed. The car in the slot right by the side door where I nearly parked lost its windshield. Four people that were playing games with us had their car windshields smashed. By simple foible of being on Washington Street rather than 10th Street my car was left untouched. I later saw the couple that owned the car that had parked where I’d nearly parked. They’d lost their windshield. They seemed bright, young, eager, potentially parents of small kids, and not at all keen on not having a windshield. I almost wanted to apologise for not taking the parking slot. It was so stupid.

One thing struck me as I walked back upstairs to our game: gamers wouldn’t have been so stupid. Not that gamers are so wonderful or smart or simply better, not at all, but gamers would have understood the incentive models that drive change and would thus have understood the rank stupidity of smashing windshields. That’s no way of effecting change, just of wasting your time and other’s, expensively.

Vanity Exposed

Motions are still (slowly) under way toward releasing/publishing my older Age of Steam maps. A skilled artist is working on rendering the maps in far slicker form than my Inkscape scribbles. We’ve also started toward determining the supply chain etc.

There are five maps in the pipeline, the first three of which are Wales, South-East Australia and Denmark. None of this so far should be huge news…except that I’m now also releasing the full text of the rules for each design.

Age of Steam: Wales


Age of Steam: Wales is geared for 3 or 4 players and introduces track gauges to Age of Steam. Players select either narrow or standard gauge track when building track and must also manage their Links between narrow and standard gauge for deliveries.

Age of Steam: South-East Australia


Age of Steam: South-East Australia was designed for 4 or 5 players and is the first map of a series which introduces a significantly new economic system to Age of Steam that makes for a simpler and yet deeper, nastier and more dramatic game pattern.

Age of Steam: Denmark


Age of Steam: Denmark was targeted for 3 or 4 players and is the next step with that new economic system and adds the notion of limited train availability (borrowed from the 18xx). Age of Steam: Denmark may also be the first Age of Steam map which actively encourages highly dramatic hail mary victories. Leaping come-from-behind victories in Age of Steam: Denmark are quite possible if well planned.

Nom De Clavier

I am haltingly, gingerly, considering the idea of setting up a small vanity press for my games. The initial target would be my Age of Steam expansions. Once past that only the gods know if it would fitfully stagger onward or die on the vine. But what to call such an ad-hoc publishing company? Suggestions for names are welcome.

Casual Nash

A good understanding of Nash equilibria is necessary for understanding the implicit auction theory behind most games. Presh Talwalkar has written a rather nice casual description of them in his Mind Your Decisions blog in the artcle, The Non-Mathematical Guide to Fixed Point Theorems and Proving Nash Equilibria Exist. He similarly casually and usefully discusses Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem (central to thoroughly understanding any auction or voting system) and Pareto Efficiency in another article, Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem and The Voting Paradox. Good stuff.

A few other interesting articles from a game-design perspective:

The game of theatre

In all the recent discussions of Temporary Emergent Alliances (or Manipulating Others’ Incentive Structures), Wabash Cannonball, Pampas Railroads, Muck & Brass and similar games the following article fell across my browser: Game Theory in The Dark Knight: A Critical Review of the Opening Scene (Spoilers). Several of the other articles in the author’s Game Theory Series are also interesting.

The Remainder Game — a method for constant-time (pseudo-)random selection

I primarily use the Remainder Game for start player selection but there’s no inherent reason it has to be limited to that application. The pattern is simple:

  1. One player calls for the start player selection, Everybody stick out some fingers. 1, 2, 3!
  2. Take the [[modulus|modulus]] of the total number of fingers shown by the players by the number of player and starting at zero, count out that many players in rotation from the calling player.
  3. The indicated player is the start player.

The Remainder Game is efficient, deterministic results (no repeats, roll-offs or ties possible), actually random1, short constant execution time, works with any number of players in any situation, works with any game in any situation, clearly auditable by all concerned, and requires no equipment.

  1. Well, nearly and close enough in practice. Ideally the number of fingers shown by each player should be in the range of zero-#players-1 or else there’s a bias away from players to the right of the calling player. In practice however as player counts are usually in the 3-5 range and most people use the fingers of one hand, this really doesn’t matter much. throw in the odd player who sometimes uses fingers from both hands and you’re near golden for all games and player counts

One more winner

Ariel has come up with an impressive follow-on T-shirt suggestion:


1 winner and the rest of you losers

Matthew Marquand has been following the boardgame T-shirt racket for a while, most recently with Uberbadger. I went so far as to propose a shirt:

I would like a shirt with a graphic something akin to a large digit ‘1’ above the word “winner”, and the words “and the rest of you losers” written in a circle about that.

A rapid exchange with Matthew lead to the following sequence of designs:

pic345555.jpg pic345704.jpg pic345724.jpg pic346152.jpg

Plus an external suggestion from Chad Krizan of:


A quick conversation with Ariel Seoane (Seo) on BGDF’s chat then lead to these suggestions:

JC_t-shirt.jpg JC_t-shirt_2.jpg JC_t-shirt_2a.jpg

Variously capitalising on suggesting a poker chip or classical smilie face model. BTW: The typo is known — the image is a quick sketch, not a final product.

The question is now which image is more interesting to buyers?