chris: (stockton-on-tees)
2014-03-10 00:02

Stranger and stranger still

OK, I started writing this literally months ago, and got stuck quite early on through the piece. This won't be the version I wanted to write, but if I don't get any version of it it out, I won't get it out at all.

Stranger was a show that billed itself as a life-sized board game, played at the Stockton International Riverside Festival this weekend on the weekend of 3rd-4th August. It was created by Emke Idema from the Netherlands and has seen a fair degree of activity in avant garde theatre festivals in northwestern continental Europe; the Stockton festival may well have been its UK debut.

The show describes itself, accurately, as "a playfull platform that tries to reveal the tension between our social norms and our intuition". I am not aware of it having been booked for any further such festivals or other performances in the UK. (Edit: Salisbury Arts Festival at the end of May.) Having seen the show twice this that weekend, I would strongly recommend getting a ticket if you get the chance at some point in the future. I guess there's probably a higher volatility in show quality between different performances of a not-entirely-scripted show like this than of a completely scripted show, but this is well worth a try.

A fuller discussion, with minimal spoilers, but definitely a few. )

You'll not often get the chance to see Stranger performed; it's a brave festival that will take a chance on booking something like it. In order to find out if you'll ever get the chance, follow the creator's agenda. It looks like the show is coming to the UK as part of the Salisbury Arts Festival on 31st May and 1st June. You lucky Salisburians; you have a treat coming! Sadly Wiltshire is, near enough, the other end of the country from here. Nevertheless, strongly recommended, and I'm only sorry that this review is being published closer to the 2014 Stockton Festival than the 2013 one at which the event happened.

More excitingly, it looks like Emke Idema has produced a follow-up, RULE, which had previews last year and is getting its official debut performances from Tuesday to Saturday next week in Amsterdam. Hurrah! The description, in translation, suggests "a game about hospitality and border ethics, a game about the boundary between personal values ​​and existing rules", to which I say "papers, please!". Fingers crossed that either show, or Emke's future work, continues to flourish and that we can see it again in this neck of the woods.
chris: (mobius-scarf)
2013-04-03 13:24
Entry tags:

Upcoming game projects exciting me right now

1) As previously hinted at, the DASH puzzle hunt is coming to London this year. This will be the fifth annual-ish occurrence of DASH, whose full title - Different Areas, Same Hunt - neatly explains the premise. One big problem with real-world puzzle hunts is that they only take place in one location; DASH runs the same hunt in lots of different cities. Historically all the locations have been in the US; this year, there will be an event in a to-be-disclosed Central London location starting at 10am on Saturday 25th May, and fourteen events across the US one week beforehand. (Not quite sure how that will work in practice whether we'll all be required to avoid spoilers for a week; we'll see.)

Teams of 3-5 take place and travel a distance of probably 2-3 miles over the course of most of a day, solving something like 8-10 hunt-style puzzles. I believe that the travel is not timed, so (a) there's no advantage to jogging around (good, otherwise I would cry) and (b) there's no problem in stopping for toilet breaks, snacks and so on. The hunt is expected to take most teams 4-7 hours, and other cities seem to be applying a hard deadline of 8 hours. I don't know who's running the event, other than "not me", though I have my suspicions. It's a non-profit event and fees are £25/team. You can see previous years' puzzles from DASH 4, DASH 3, DASH 2 and DASH 1. They are salty enough to be worth spending a day on them, especially if you're not familiar with the hunt "work out what you're meant to be doing" format.

On the other hand, DASH does go out of its way to be accessible:
  • it's possible to register for Easier Puzzles at the very start of the hunt;
  • it's always possible to take hints on each puzzle if they're required, and there's no worse punishment than a missed scoring opportunity for not solving a puzzle;
  • I believe there really is an ethos of offering as many hints as are required in order to get people through as many puzzles as possible and making sure people are having fun at all times.
I reckon that, particularly for the first year in London, the organisers will be erring on the side of keeping things newcomer-friendly because so many participants will be newcomers - so if you find yourself thinking "this looks potentially fun but may be too hard for me", I reckon people will be almost bending over backwards to make it worth your time and effort, before later years offering the potential for people to send themselves down black-diamond slopes.

I'm very confident about this being a spectacular event - and, more to the point, I'm quite hopeful about it being a tremendous social event, bringing together lots of interesting people who would surely be interested in other interesting puzzle-related events over time. I've been snapped up onto a team already, but I can quite easily think of a couple of dozen of you who I think would enjoy it and I hope to see you there. Registration is open now and set to remain open for another three weeks, though there is a generous limit on places; I believe London is limited to 25 teams, of which two spots have been taken... and I hope to get our spot in the next day or two.

If you have questions, you can find out more about the London event and more about DASH in general. One open question: is there any significance to "Catch DASH Fever!" in tiny writing in the footer of one of the DASH web pages, or the "S" in some of the logos being replaced by what appears to be a twisted double helix? I have no answers, though am interpreting this as a potential nudge towards a possible medical or weird-science theme.

2) Why has nobody told me about Hint Hunt in London? It appears to have existed for at least eight months, and I go looking for This Sort Of Puzzle-y Game-y Thing fairly often, so it does not speak volumes about their marketing. It appears to bear a resemblance to the Real Escape Game things that happen in the US and Japan - sixty minutes for a team of (concidentally) 3-5 of you to crack the codes, puzzles and so on and Escape The Room.

The price is a little on the steep side; we're looking at a good twenty quid a head, including VAT, though this is probably not unreasonable for London rates, and it is somewhat targeted towards corporate entertainment where it would be cheap at twice the price. Furthermore, I have seen a spoiler which suggests that there are some cool toys involved that may make it worth the money regardless of the quality of the game material. I also get the impression that the game has been cunningly playtested to guarantee a fair share of in-the-nick-of-time wins and other happy endings, though there is a second harder game available as well. It's probably a good sign that you have to book in advance and lots of the time slots appear to have gone. Anyone interested? Sadly it doesn't seem to mesh well with DASH weekend but you'd have thought that there would be likely to be natural crossover between the two constituencies.

3) Unrelatedly to either of the above, the Hide and Seek company have a Kickstarter in progress for the production of an iPhone app which will attempt to suggest an appropriate real-world game for the situation and number of potential players you find yourself with. For those of us who don't have a way of running iOS apps, or would prefer just to have a list of all the games rather than an app that will (presumably, rather playfully) attempt to deal with the picking-which-one-is-appropriate process, the same £8 donation will produce the list of game rules in ebook form. There are some delightful-looking higher-priced options if you wish to supply your patronage further.

The campaign has not quite had the vitality that some recent successful Kickstarter campaigns have had, and one of the videos they put out made quite a misstep in poor taste which I would have hoped would have been dealt with. The campaign is just past half-way in time, and just past half-way towards its £25,000 goal, so I think the way of Kickstarter probably makes it narrowly odds-on to meet its funding target but short odds-against reaching any of the stretch goals. After having a good old grumble about it, I have stuck in my eight quids' worth; [livejournal.com profile] several_bees is lovely and I regard Hide & Seek as having good form. At worst case, you're paying £8 for a book with lots of short game rulesets, and I reckon there are bound to be eeeeasily £8 worth of original, interesting, fun ideas in there.
chris: (mso)
2010-12-12 18:21
Entry tags:

Gamesvision

Some interesting developments:

* The second London Chess Classic is in progress at the moment, featuring past world champion Vladimir Kramnik, current world champion Vishy Anand and potential future world champions Magnus Carlsen (of Small Talk fame) and Hikaru Nakamura in a round-robin also featuring the UK's four best players, Michael Adams, Nigel Short, Luke McShane and David Howell. Five rounds in, McShane is doing remarkably well, joint-leading with Anand, with wins over Carlsen (!) and Short as well as three draws and a relatively gentle run-in over the last two rounds. I mention it particularly because of the live video and audio stream from the commentary room, which is best of breed for a live chess Internet broadcast in my experience.

The players come in and share their post-mortem with the viewers, at a grandmaster rate that is difficult to follow, but when it's just the commentators, it all proceeds at quite a reasonable pace and is kept fairly bright and breezy; it's fun to let it all wash over you, at the very least. The graphics and live vision mixing are pleasantly sophisticated and the overall production is really not far off, say, BBC 4 live broadcast quality, probably on a fairly tight budget. There are well over three thousand viewers for a live stream on the Internet, which is not bad at all. Sadly there are no broadcasts tomorrow for it is a rest day, but the last two rounds start at 2pm GMT on Tuesday and at noon GMT on Wednesday. Commentators Danny King and Jonathan Rowson are always good value, though I wonder if Julian Hodgson is available?

* If chess isn't your game, I thoroughly enjoyed the recorded celebrity game of Dungeons and Dragons from the Penny Arcade Expo, featuring three web comic artists and Wil Wheaton as players. You really don't need to understand the game to follow, not least because the players aren't taking the game desperately seriously, which should probably be of reassurance to hack'n'slash campaign DMs of every age everywhere as reassurance that it's OK not to take the game too seriously, even at what would appear to be quite a high level; there are tons of stray pop culture references, mostly very geeky ones, which are very funny in context, and occasional bursts of interactivity for the fans in the audience. In fact, there are plenty of (fourth-edition?) specifics that I am years behind the times to appreciate, but again it's fun just to let it all wash over you in the background, not least because everyone is very clearly having a blast. More, please!

* Also quite exciting is the Pandanet Go European Team Championship, an online go competition between national teams from across Europe. There are three divisions of ten nations, each nation featuring a squad of twelve players and picking four of them to play in each match. The leagues are then played as single round-robins, one match every three weeks or so, with the top division featuring an additional play-off in person between the top players. The UK team are in the middle division, lost 3-1 to Poland in their first match but take on Belgium on Tuesday. The enterprise looks well-organised and has potential to grow into something quite special over the years, though the slow pace may detract from the excitement. (Would holding the divisions in alternate weeks, so there's always one division or another playing each week, make the league more fun to follow?)
chris: (dealer)
2010-07-28 22:41
Entry tags:

A family tree of games

OK, I have a load of links about game-related topics that I am saving up for a post I may or may not make some day, but this family tree showing different styles and features of games over the years and alleging links about which media and phenomena have influenced each other is a work of art, as well as a work of scholarship. If you're a games person, go. Lookat. (ETA: See also the discussion about the thought processes arising to the arrows.)

It's definitely rather selective and seems to have been designed by starting at one particular genre that it chose to feature at the bottom and working back up, but that's an entirely valid approach. I choose not to take it as a piece of propaganda suggesting that social media games are the ultimate evolutionary product of all games design ever; indeed, one might expect that soon enough, or even already, there could be arrows coming out of the big bottom box influencing game media that we are yet to experience.

There have been other game family trees in the past; I can remember having linked to one a year or two ago, and they all take different approaches because they all have different reasons behind them. This one seems to have taken the reasonable decision to prioritise clarity over comprehensiveness; I can think of all manner of interesting arrows that I'd like to draw linking boxes together, but I think the most important arrows are largely in place.

Nevertheless, as a paid-up member of the postal games party, while I am delighted to see play-by-mail games get their own box (for they are so often forgotten) I would like to root for them getting a couple of extra outgoing arrows as well. I'm hoping that some of you can help me make a convincing argument to this end. :-)

Many postal games are effectively RPGs played by post; while postal chess games were matches between two sides and postal Diplomacy games were matches between seven sides (or fewer after dropouts and eliminations, or more in some variants), commercial postal games could cater for hundreds (or, in a few cases, thousands) of players at the same time. I claim that it's not such a stretch to see postal games as proto-MMORPGs, with the O standing for offline. It would be interesting to know whether MMOnlineRPG designers have postal game experience and whether they claim them as an influence; if not, there's a definite case for postal games influencing MUDs, not least because one Richard Bartle ran his own postal games 'zine from 1977 onwards, a full year before, as referenced in his autobiography, his work on the original MUD.

I'm also tempted to wonder whether postal games can claim prior art for the existence of virtual economies. Bribery in postal Diplomacy is par for the course, but I wonder if there are substantiated precedents to (the local equivalent of) gold farming arising from postal games. I was all too young, innocent and broke at the time, but you may know otherwise...

(Hat tip.)
chris: (dealer)
2010-07-23 01:10
Entry tags:

The 2010 World Series of Poker

The bulk of this year's World Series of Poker, hereafter the WSoP, recently concluded in Las Vegas. I think history will judge this to have been one of the better ones; grade it a B+ at the very least. The corporate overlords at casino behemoth Harrah's, who own the WSoP brand, will doubtless be pleased that so far it has passed without major scandal or embarrassment.

If there's one thing with which the public associates the World Series, it's the $10,000-entry-fee-per-player no-limit Texas Hold 'Em World Championship held as the main event, which has been responsible for the seven richest (not quite the same thing as largest, but arguably more important) face-to-face poker tournaments ever, generating one a year for the last seven years. This year's tournament had 7,319 entrants, the second highest figure ever after the peak at 8,773 in 2006, a year when legislation was rather happier for the poker industry. This figure alone might be used as a metric for the health of poker at large and would likely lead to a judgment of rude health.

It's hard to directly compare player numbers in other events from year to year as the event is notorious for chopping and changing the precise formats of its tournaments from one year to the next, even as it becomes more and more bloated; this year, the six-week-long series has featured 57 tournaments, each one awarding not just a huge monetary prize but also an exclusive and prestigious bracelet to its champion. Early tournament entry numbers were slightly down on those of last year, but overall there has not been a notably strong significantly decreasing trend. Read more... )

Sidenote to game designers who might want to run immense games some day. )

On the other hand, there is anecdotal evidence that online poker at large is certainly not expanding in the way it used to and is showing vague signs of a plateau; while the biggest online tournaments are continuing to grow, there is an extent to which many of the middling players are winding down their activities or dropping out altogether, and the poker world derives its strength from new blood at all levels of the metaphorical food chain.

It's as if there are fewer and fewer of the players who are starting out as online poker beginners, and if you've watched poker on TV and decided to give it a try for yourself, possibly when slightly drunk, then you've had already many years of opportunity to do so by now. The novelty is decreasing and the sponsorship is generating diminishing returns. Established players no longer can feast on the "fish", but now have to beat other established winners in order to show a return. However, much as people continue to take up the smoking habit around the world, there still are new poker players out there - quite possibly, more heavily concentrated outside traditional poker stronghold countries - for established players and established poker companies to find.

I specified earlier that the bulk of the WSoP is over. 2007 saw the first signs of "mission creep" as the event inspired a spin-off World Seres of Poker Europe series, taking place over a couple of weeks in September, to date firmly based in London. (Numbers have been good rather than great; I fear that strong numbers for EPT events on the continent will inspire WSoP Europe to spread its wings before long.) 2008 also saw the WSoP stretch even further by virtue of the inauguration of the November Nine concept; the Main Event is no longer played to a conclusion but merely to its final table, with that final table being played as a separate made-for-TV event in, as per the title, November. Additionally, the final table is only played down to the final two, with the final heads-up a separate event still. All to stretch the brand further still!

This year the dilution and spread of the event has seen the riches and glory distributed among many different winners; the headline, if you will, is that there is not one particular headline story to describe this year's event. While there is sufficient skill in poker that in the long run you can identify players who make far more than their share of the right decisions to win tournaments - which is as good a definition of skill as any - the individual tournament level has thrown up a lot of winners who are more anonymous than either notorious or famous. Making his name as the only (?) player to win two tournaments this year was Frank Kassela, who also picked up a third payday this WSoP even more lucrative than either of his bracelets in the $25,000 six-handed no-limit event.

Arguably the biggest winner of this year's championship was Michael Mizrachi, who won the $50,000-buy-in Poker Player's Championship, a tournament considered one of the most prestigious within the series due to (a) its unsurpassed entry fee and (b) its requirement that players must play eight different versions of poker in turn. The second half of his crowning achievement this year is that he has made it to the November Nine, as by far the best-known of the final table in the Main Event. Mizrachi is otherwise known by his nickname, "the Grinder", and has a very strong tournament record leading to a "player of the year" accolade in 2006. He is also noted for having had a large tax lien filed against him due to unpaid taxes, possibly suggesting a downturn in his fortunes since then, and also for having a brother Robert, a successful poker player in his own right.

It has been a very good year for British poker players, with five of the 57 tournaments seeing Britons pick up champions' bracelets and big fat cheques. Another five (?) tournaments saw Britons finishing in second place, picking up nearly-as-big cheques and, almost inevitably, considerable regret at being "first loser". James Dempsey and Richard Ashby each have the distinction of both a first-place and a second-place finish this year; Praz Bansi is another familiar winner, with Mike Ellis and Steve Jelinek picking up debut bracelets. Among the second-place-only finishers, Neil Channing and Sam Trickett are both familiar faces to TV poker viewers. Hurrah! It has also been a relatively good year for Canadian players, though as is usual the vast majority of bracelets are destined to remain within the United States.

Other than that, the majority of the fascination of the event comes from the natural consequence of getting thousands of crazy ramblin' gamblin' types together: they strike up outlandish wagers amongst themselves. Now the precise details of the bets are only really truly known by the players involved in the specific disagreements, but word does get out - and the fun thing is that it doesn't really matter whether the reporting is accurate or not. Sometimes the fiction can be more fun than the fact. Speculation within... )

Unrelated to poker, but on the casino theme, I was really impressed by Casino Backgammon, a new table game recently introduced to at least one Las Vegas casino. It has an instantly very familiar design based on backgammon, it has a lovely sense of internal progression, it has logical structure and - strange to say - it has as much narrative as you could hope for considering that the gameplay is really, really simple and relies purely on the results of two or three rolls of a pair of dice. Players must make two identically sized bets. The first is won by advancing two backgammon pieces past a "bar" (backgammon terminology for a line going across the board) based on a single roll of two dice; the second is won by advancing the pieces all the way off the board within two (or, with a bonus, three) rolls.

Most deliciously, the first bet is very visibly paid off at odds that are clearly in the player's favour - but you can't make that wager alone, and the compulsory second bet pays out rather less generously. Taking the two together, the whole game has been analysed typically to have a healthy 4% rake in the casino's favour. However, the design is elegant and, well, kinetic; this might just be the long-sought (dreaded?) casino game which is simple fun as a game activity by itself, rather than all the thrill relying on the sums of money won or lost through play. If there's any justice in the world, Casino Backgammon will take off like wildfire and the usual suspects of craps, roulette and blackjack will finally have a worthy challenger.
chris: (games)
2010-03-07 17:20
Entry tags:

GameCamp: coming soon to London

Haven't posted for a while, and this wasn't the post I was planning to make next. Things are only just about OK here; everything's great between Meg and myself, our health concerns are little nagging background things rather than keep-us-in-bed-all-day things, but there are all the usual stresses in the background. We just haven't been up to much recently - I've been really boring - though [livejournal.com profile] frayer came to visit this week and we went up to see a play directed by [livejournal.com profile] hanacandi; not an easy night's entertainment, but wonderfully acted and technically immaculate. Some lovely people are coming to stay in a couple of weeks, though, and after a fair bit of saving up we're hoping to take a little holiday to Italy, probably in May, so there are things to look forward to in the near future.

Mostly for the UK games people from hereon, this one. )