Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Ocean Marketing/Paul Christoforo and Penny Arcade: Why Customer Service Matters on the "real internet."

It has been a while since I've had a bona fide gaming industry scandal to write about, but man are they interesting. I think that these sorts of stories hit the same spots in the brain that are activated when a high school girl hears the newest gossip or when a bit of drama hits guildchat in WoW. I am, of course, talking about Paul Christoforo of Ocean Marketing, a supposed SEO/Internet Marketing "Professional" who decided to be rude and condescending to a customer over a legitimate consumer complaint, and then Penny Arcade got involved... and things got weird. The entire text of the exchange can be found here, but I'll summarize as this frenzy has exploded over Reddit, Twitter and now even 4chan has gotten into the act, gleefully trying to destroy someone (and for once, it is a person who appears to really, really deserve it.


This all started with a few questions about a third-party controller, the Avenger, purchased in November, advertised as shipping in early December and a customer's questions about a shipment that was clearly going to miss a target for Christmas. These things happen, and Dave, the customer wanted an update, and noticed that new orders were eligible for a $10 off coupon and expressed his frustration that he wouldn't get the controller when he needed it, so he'd be best off canceling his order and placing a new one to save the ten bucks. This is a clear expression of a customer with a legit complaint that anyone who has been in any sort of sales knows is best handled with an apology and a $10 credit (toward a future order, if that ten dollars is really that important to you.) Instead, Paul Christoforo decided to respond in a condescending fashion, threatening to cancel the entire order of anyone who tried to save $10 stating "you can buy it at retail somewhere else." And in closing, he calls Dave "Dan."

This is where things get heated. Dave explains, using strong language (but no profanity) why this response to a customer is unacceptable, affirms that the product is so good that he intends to buy it anyway, but calls out Ocean Marketing on several failures to provide a minimal level of service. To be fair, he ends this e-mail with a bit of a snarky comment that could be construed as a personal attack. Mr. Christoforo then proves that he has not yet hit rock bottom in terms of a complete lack of business acumen or professionalism, and fires back. He starts name dropping, calling names and in general pulling the "do you know who I am, you little nobody?" routine. In this attack on both a customer and spelling/grammar, we have gems like "Son Im 38 I wwebsite as on the internet when you were a sperm in your daddys balls and before it was the internet" and "You just got told bitch ... welcome to the real internet." He closes by bragging about all the trade shows he'll be at, including PAX East.


This last bit is where thing take a turn for the surreal. The e-mail exchange is forwarded to Mike Krahulik, of Penny Arcade and co-owner of the PAX shows. Enraged, Mike steps in and calmly states that if this is how customers are treated, Ocean Marketing and Paul Christoforo will no longer be welcome at those shows. In a stunning display of ignorance, Paul responds with "I guarantee I can get a booth if I want one money buys a lot and connections go even further" and "who are you again?" The game is on. Penny Arcade is one of the most influential websites in all of video gamins, and Mike flexes a little bit to someone who clearly doesn't know who he is talking to. Paul Christoforo makes this clear when he starts throwing insults and telling someone with a LOT more pull than he has to "watch the way you talk to people" because "it's a small industry and everyone knows everyone," not appreciating the irony in his statements. He follows up with more name dropping, including the Mayor of Boston, Sean Buckley at Engadget and Scott Lowe at IGN. For a finishing touch, he insults and threatens the Penny Arcade site, saying that he'll put his "125 employees" on a smear campaign, insisting that Mike doesn't know who he is messing with.

The exchange is put up on Penny Arcade, which in his arrogance and ignorance Mr. Christoforo believes is a good thing, free publicity... and it goes viral within hours. Reddit, Kotaku, IGN and other sites all go bonkers at this little man with the mind-blowing ego and instantly he is the most hated man of the moment for many, many gamers worldwide. On Twitter, Scott Lowe takes issue with his name being dropped in support of this insufferable twit, and says so, calling him "completely unprofessional" given their past working relationship. Staying the course, Paul responds by calling Scott a "douchebag" and claiming that "You were the unprofessional one" in the same tweet, still oblivious to the concept of irony. Kevin Kelly of G4TV stands by Scott Lowe in his assessment, and the manufacturers of the Avenger controller become aware of what their "professional" marketing guy is doing to their brand online. At the moment (as of 11:30 AM, 12/27) Frank Shephard tweeted an apology to any customer treated poorly and said that there is no official statement yet, but "more to come soon."



Aside from the prurient entertainment factor of online drama, what does all this tell us about online marketing and the gaming industry? If you mess with an online institution over something petty, asking them "Do you know who I am?" soon, everyone will know who you are, and that isn't a good thing. Bad publicity is no longer the same as "good publicity," something I'm sure Mr. Christoforo will learn, much to his dismay. We also can see how careers and names can be ruined over something that could have been fixed with a ten dollar coupon. In general, as people become more connected, it is better to be decent and forthright with people, as word really does get around, and you DO have to be careful who you talk to and how. That's what we on the "real internet" call karma, bitch.
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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

A Return, of Sorts and Why Weight Watchers Doesn't Work For Me.

I haven't been blogging lately. Anyone who checks this site, and the regular readers I've lost in the last few weeks already know this. I've underestimated the impact of three nights spent working out, three nights spent raiding Dragon Soul in World of Warcraft and normal full-time job and holiday madness. My limited free time has also meant I've had little new to blog about. I've been focused on losing some of the extra 130+ pounds I've been carrying around these last few years and playing mostly Minecraft and WoW, with the occasional new Indie Game on Steam (Humble Bundles ahoy!) But I've done these topics several times now, and haven't felt inspired to tread the same paths in my writing during my limited free time. Now, I'm on Christmas Break from work, and what does inspire me is a topic some might call controversial. Let me blunt some of this by saying that despite my criticisms, I don't think Weight Watchers is a bad thing, and I've seen it work for some people. Like any program, it is up to the individual whether fitness changes are permanent or if there is some rebound, and any structure is better than no structure at all when it comes to being healthy.

Enough qualifying my opinion, let's get down to the Nitty Gritty.



Weight Watchers is, Essentially, a For-Profit Enterprise

Nothing is wrong with making a profit, but when there are elements of a program that seem to be more concerned with continued or repeat business than the best possible results, I get suspicious. Rather than focusing on building healthy habits that result in a permanent lifestyle change that would make the program no longer necessary, the program is structured with no "I'm done now" in mind. I frequently hear about folks who are "going back on Weight Watchers" after time off, making me think that repeat business is a major part of their revenue. For those who do stick with it, you are committing to a lifetime of group therapy with the meetings, with no goal other than maintenance. I know that after a certain amount of weight loss, your membership becomes free, but this doesn't allay my concerns, as WW is buying something with the money lost from your dues. Someone who has lost a ton of weight using their system and gets a free membership is a great marketing tool. I don't like the idea of making a commitment of paying a fee for therapy and a nutrition program for life, or until I become a walking, talking billboard for a for-profit corporation.



The Points System

Oh, God. This is the big one. I've heard that "Weight Watchers is the only program backed by research,"which isn't true, and hasn't been for several years. My main issue with the flex-point system is that it is entirely possible (for many people, I'd say easy even) to create a diet that the Laws of Thermodynamics prove will make you gain weight. Any research that says a magic combination of fats, proteins and fiber, or servings of fruits and vegetables will make you lose weight if you consume more calories than you burn is wrong. Calories consumed must be less than calories burned if you wish to lose weight. Period. Now, portion control and the fact that calories are a major part of how points are determined blunts the effect of this somewhat. However, fat content is weighted too heavily in accordance with the last twenty years of dietary research, and free fruits and vegetables are an issue. When eggs and nuts, excellent sources of protein and healthy fats are point-heavy, but I can load up on hundreds of calories of sugar-laden fruit, something is wrong. Small portions of high-calorie food supplemented by bowls of fruit because the calorie-dense food took up all the points and left hunger will make a person fat. Dietary fat is calorie-dense, but if the calories are kept in check and protein, fat and carbs are kept in healthy proportions, worrying about the fat in eggs, nuts or meat is counterproductive. Helping build healthy habits that control or eliminate food cravings instead of merely managing them is a better idea.



No Emphasis on Exercise

Now, I know that most weight loss is done in the kitchen, not the gym. However, we're back to the immutable Laws of Thermodynamics here, where there is the "calories burned" side of the equation. A plan that puts all of its focus on the eating part is nearly as bad as the gym rats who workout like mad and then undo all their hard work in ten minutes at McDonald's. Building muscle mass for increased efficiency of burnt calories and doing aerobic exercise to burn off a few more calories makes the journey easier. In addition, the mental and emotional benefits of "feeling better" as opposed to "feeling hungry" help set people up for success rather than failure. Is it easier to do something that makes you feel good, or something that makes you feel bad, even if you know your discomfort is good for you in the long run? In addition, people with a lot of weight to lose may experience sagging "loose skin," and filling that skin with muscle will make that easier to deal with as well.

These criticisms, I understand, are tantamount to an assault on principles nearly as deeply-held as those leveled at any religion. Weight Watchers can make a person lose weight. I have observed, however, for each person I've encountered who has lost a ton of weight on this program and kept it off, there are ten who gained it all back or couldn't stick with it. The program reminds me in some ways more like a crutch than physical therapy, once it is removed, most people aren't strong enough on their own to continue normally without it. As someone who has lost and then regained over 100 pounds, I'm focusing on programs that have their own obsolescence in mind, where once I've lost the weight, I've found my own motivation for keeping it off. Does this mean that I'd try to discourage anyone from being on Weight Watchers? No. I'm not remotely qualified to make that decision for someone as an individual. I would recommend research and a lot of thought about what sort of program fits each person taking this journey best. Calorie tracking, online motivation and strength training are working for me, as I've lost over 20 pounds since mid-November, but your mileage may vary.
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Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Star Wars: The Old Republic – News from the Sith Empire

There are few things more frustrating than struggling to find a topic engaging enough to write about with limited free time, while something you'd really like to be able to review is restricted by a Non-Disclosure Agreement. I got into the SW:TOR Beta, but couldn't really talk about it until now that the NDA is lifted. For those who always skip to the end of this sort of article to get the verdict, I'll give your mouse wheel a break - Star Wars: The Old Republic is a very good game that successfully incorporates the Bioware RPG formula into a WoW-like MMORPG. I intend to purchase it several weeks after launch, and I'll certainly play, but I won't raid in it and certainly won't be quitting World of Warcraft in favor of it. My preferred way to play this game is to turn off most of the things that remind me I'm playing with other people until I want to play with those people, and enjoy the story as a single-player experience on a massive scale. When friends are on, doing an instanced encounter with them or trading items is cool, but I don't intend to randomly group with JEDIDOOD just because I can.

I played through the starting areas for two classes, both in the Sith Empire faction. Let me start by explaining something that I thought was fairly common knowledge, but I continue to surprise people with. "Republic" doesn't automatically mean "good guy" and "Sith" doesn't automatically mean "villain." Moral and ethical choices like those found in Mass Effect and Dragon Age will touch on every character's personal story and the starting areas are very reminiscent in some ways of the Origin chapters in the first Dragon Age. I played a Bounty Hunter who gained both Light and Dark Side points as a mercenary who adheres to the terms of his contract regardless of new information, and a Sith Warrior who is lost to the Dark Side. The two starting planets are split between pairs of classes with Hutta given to the Imperial Agent and Bounty Hunter and Korriban for the Sith Inquisitor and Sith Warrior.


Combat options and gear choices are rolled out with completed quests much as they are in any MMORPG, but the quests are anything but typical. First, no quest text. Everything is fully voiced, including your character and every one-off NPC. Second, many quests immediately draw you into some sort of interesting story, and even the "kill 10 blargs and college their whatzits" quests frequently have a twist, where you may find that turning the quest in to the original quest NPC may have consequences you'd prefer to avoid. From the Sith training grounds on Korriban to the streets of Hutta torn apart by a struggle between powerful underworld bosses for control, the environments are gorgeous and logically laid out with "rest/town" areas placed naturally, without seeming like they were spaced out at particular intervals because players need a new quest hub about here. Each classes' abilities are used when trained in different situations, with status conditions like knockdown sometimes being important, or area of effect damage, or a hard, sustained "channeled" attack depending on the foes encountered.

I was surprised to find that the effect your decisions have on NPC party members is retained in the MMO, with every class having an NPC companion with their own outlook and motivations. These characters act like combat pets, and the AI is surprisingly decent on them, with them acting about how you'd hope they would in fights. Conversations have the familiar Bioware "wheel of options" and choosing one over another may affect your companion's opinion of you as well as your personal Light Side/Dark Side points and storyline. I delighted in my evil Sith Warrior's tormenting of his companion, administering painful shocks when she forgot her place or spoke out of turn. People began to react to my tendencies to adhere to a peculiar form of arrogant honor that does not preclude killing those who annoy me with weakness or trivialities. Very quickly, I got to know who my characters were as individuals, which added something to the experience that WoW will never have.


I was less impressed with the stability and capacity on the technical side of things, with login errors, extremely long queues with no way to tell how long a wait for a server was, and no way to back out of a choice poorly made tarnishing the experience. I also found a series of graphical glitches and missing art and animation in some spots that I hope get some additional polish before launch. Aside from the bugs and technical difficulties, I found that the community of players I had access to in the beta detracted most significantly from the experience. Within minutes, I'd turned off the ability to see chat channels and hid the names floating above other players' heads. I suspect that this is a game I will mostly be playing solo or in small groups of friends, trying to interact with the server at large as little as possible. I enjoy the typical MMO experience, but I like my Star Wars gaming to maintain a certain mood, and that doesn't include racism, homophobia or Chuck Norris jokes.

By the end of my last beta weekend, I'd decided to pursue the Sith Warrior class story past the starting areas and I got my first taste of a major faction city as well as the wider world at my disposal. I chose that class because I intend to actually play as a Bounty Hunter come launch, and I'd like to have the rest of that class experience when the full game is released, rather than losing all of what I'd earned after a post-beta wipe. As the feared right hand of a Dark Lord of the Sith, I got into the opening stages of Empire Politics, and I can see the consequences of decisions made earlier already getting ready to come back to haunt me. I look forward to my next upcoming beta weekend, so I can try out the small-group instances and continue my reign of terror. I wield fear as well as a lightsaber in service to the Code: Peace is a lie, there is only passion. Through passion I gain strength. Through strength, I gain power. Through power, I gain victory. Through Victory, my chains are broken. The Force shall free me.
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Tuesday, November 15, 2011

There and Back Again... Stupid Fat Hobbit.

No, this isn't a long-overdue review of the works of J.R.R. Tolkien.  I've mentioned recently that I'd gained some weight and had been spending time in the gym playing Fitocracy.  I never got into the specifics, but I can do so now.  I've been heavy since elementary school, slowly but surely gaining weight as so many of us do with Mountain Dew, Doritos and a lot of time spent in a computer chair or in front of some other screen, not moving around much.  When I was in my late twenties, managing a hobby shop and running an annual game convention, I'd ballooned all the way up to 325 pounds.  Somewhere in there, I decided to make a change.  I knew that my mother, who had just passed away, had been concerned for my health, and my good friend and then employer, the owner of the hobby shop, shared that concern.  He and his wife decided to work a membership to the YMCA into my annual compensation.


I had the motivation and the means, and it took nearly two years, but I lost over 125 pounds.  I managed to do so while making nearly every mistake a young gym rat can make.  I'd taken up smoking, I was working the "mirror muscles" at the expense of my back and core, and I was taking advice that was aimed at people with an overall greater baseline of fitness than I had.  However, reducing calories and moving around more work, no matter how many stupid fads you subscribe to or how many bad habits you have.  My progress motivated me to push harder and before I knew it, I wasn't having to fast-talk and charm my butt off to get the attention of the fairer sex. My looks were an asset instead of a challenge to overcome with humor, and I used my new-found changes to make many bad decisions with many women.

Luckily, before I killed myself or anyone else with my rampant hedonism and poor impulse control, I met the woman I'd soon be engaged to.  She most likely saved my life, literally. However, I was in danger over the following few years from another spectre: recidivism.  My gym membership went away when the hobby shop did, but my increased appetite and love for beer did not. In addition, I decided that I needed to quit smoking for my overall long-term health and short-term budget.  Things did not bode well for my new, lighter frame. My lifestyle changes and poor decisions brought my weight up. Way up. When I started in Special Education, I steadily gained weight until I was creeping up on 300 pounds again.  When I was laid off this year, I spent seven (heavily documented here) months mostly in front of a computer screen gaming, looking for work and blogging.


Now that I'm nearly as heavy as I was the last time I lost it all, but older, I have a reason to get moving again. I've got a YMCA membership again, and I've got a lot of people supporting my journey back to being a healthy size again. Even though I carry the weight well, looking more like someone just north of 250 pounds rather than someone nearly seventy pounds over that, I am committed to losing it again. I'm rapidly approaching the end of my first month working out and being more careful with what I eat, and I'm down seven pounds so far. I already have a ton more energy and am finding it easier to deal with life in general. I've done this before, I know the way. This is my burden to bear, and you'd better believe I'm ready to huck that extra whole person's worth of weight into Mount Doom.

Beyond that, I've joined Sparkpeople in addition to Fitocracy and I'm lifting weights in preparation to try the Stronglifts 5x5 program, as I find it easy to add mass to my frame, whether through eating burgers or pumping iron. It'd be nice to be healthy and fairly well muscled again, and better to surpass what I did allmost eight years ago now. Best Blogger Tips
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Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Yet Another Humble Bundle – Voxatron, Blocks That Matter and The Binding of Isaac

I've written before about the Humble Indie Bundles and their many advantages, pay whatever you want, support charity, DRM-free Indie games that deserve our support, and these are all still true. I've purchased every one of the bundles I've encountered since I became aware of them, and have been extremely happy with my decision. Though "bundles" that are initially released as just one game, but frequently get more content added gradually are happening more regularly, they've consistently been a great value and the Voxatron Debut bundle is no exception. In this case, unlike the Frozen Synapse Bundle, the "main" game is the weakest of the titles (for now) included, so paying more than the average to get the bonus games is a must.





Let's start with that main event, available for any price, as low as $0.01, the Alpha release build of the Robotron-inspired voxel-based shooter Voxatron. The 3D graphics combines with an old-school aesthetic not unlike Minecraft in a shooting game that is unlike most of what I've played on the market. You play a character with a basic gun, the ability to move in all directions and jump, and when you shoot, it locks your direction of aim and movement together into a strafe based on where you are pointing. It feels like the arcade classic it takes its name from with the way movement and shooting interact, but the controls end up feeling extremely clunky, and that takes a lot away form the game. I've also suffered a few crash bugs and framerate slowdowns, but I expect these will be corrected in future patches. The one thing that saves this game from mediocrity is the fact that players can use an editing program with building blocks to build and add their own content and custom levels, and turning a community's creativity loose on your project is a sure way to ensure a lot of content (quality, and otherwise.)



The Binding of Isaac is a twisted little game that combines features of shooters, the original Legend of Zelda dungeons, and roguelike RPGs. The story is that of a child whose mother hears God's voice telling her to murder her son to prove her faith, and the weeping, naked boy escapes into his basement, which is filled with awful things. There are disgusting and hellish elements from bosses based on blobs of flesh with cleft palates, enemies weeping blood or vomiting flies, and upgrades related to the occult and implied child abuse. The arenas are randomly generated every time the game starts, power-ups and bosses are different with each playthrough and there are tons of unlockables and achivements to earn. The game is tinged with a disgusting dark sense of humor but it is never funny, images which could (and perhaps should) be shocking are rendered with a cartoon style that robs them of their power and just makes them part of the game world. If the concept of playing as an abused child using his tears as a weapon against demonic creatures and confronting his own fears and personal demons doesn't offend, you may find that the overall solid game design makes this one a lot of fun to play.


My personal favorite game in the series is the platform/puzzler Blocks That Matter. The game combines elements of Tetris and Minecraft to form a unique experience that directly pays homage to its inspirations. Indie Developers Alexey and Markus have been kidnapped, and their secret project, the Tetrobot is the only way they can free themselves. The robot can destroy and collect many blocks such as sand, wood and dirt, and is able to replace them elsewhere in the level, but only in shapes of four consecutive blocks, like tetris pieces. Parts of the four block designs may again be destroyed and collected, leaving bits to stand and jump on to reach other parts of the level. As levels progress, there may be massive spots where there are blocks that cannot be drilled through, but, like Tetris, any line of eight (or more) blocks can be made to vanish. Figuring out how to make the various types of blocks interact and being efficient with them allows for progress through the games many stages.

This bundle will be available until Monday, November 14th, 2011 and the bonus games both have Steam and Desura activation codes. Like other bundles, bonus titles are available if the price chosen for the bundle is higher than the average for all bundles purchased thus far, so about $5.50USD (as of the moment) gets you all three titles, and any of these games is worth at least twice that.
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Thursday, November 3, 2011

Batman: Arkham City Review: As Good As Arkham Asylum?

I rarely buy console games anymore. I play them, but I spend so much more time on the PC that it hardly seems worth it to go out and get a new copy of the hot new release for the Xbox360 or Wii (still don't own a PS3.) I do, however, have an active Gamefly Account, and I make use of that to get to play new-ish games, one at a time. I was exceptionally lucky this month, as Batman: Arkham City popped up in my queue on release day, and landed two days after it was available for sale in stores. I loved Arkham Asylum, with the deliberate and dramatic staging of boss encounters, lore detail specific even on obscure points enough to satisfy a comic book geek and the feeling when playing well that you ARE Batman. Terrifying helpless goons dropping down from rafters, using a wide variety of gadgets from the utility belt, and satisfying melee combat made the first game almost perfect. I can say that the sequel improves on the original in all the right spots.


The game opens with a press conference concerning the new prison facility within downtown Gotham, a section of the city walled off and left to the criminals, heavily patrolled by guards ensuring that nothing escapes. The populations of both Arkham Asylum and Blackgate Prison are dumped within and left mostly to their own devices. This is, of course, a terrible idea, and it is no surprise that it is the brainchild of Batman villain Doctor Hugo Strange. Enter Batman, investigating what is really going on inside the walls of the prison, what has happened since the last game, and taking some extremely surprising turns along the way. The city environment is open, allowing for rooftop travel across long distances, gliding and using grappling tools to soar through the air.

Fans of the first game will note that nearly every major Batman villain who didn't take a major role in Arkham Asylum is present in this game. The big players, like The Penguin, Mr. Freeze and R'as al Ghul are brilliantly staged boss fights, whereas more minor villains such as Calendar Man or the Mad Hatter are featured in sidequests. The only characters returning in plot-centric roles who were also heavily featured in the first game are, of course, The Joker and Harley Quinn, and The Riddler remains ever-present at the source of secret collectibles/unlockables. Every single villain plays to their personal strengths, and they aren't abnormally good at something they shouldn't be just in order to craft a challenging boss battle. For example, The Penguin is extremely heavily armed with weapons and stolen/smuggled technology, but his melee combat ability it laughable. Despite the fact that the little fat man drops after only a few punches, he is an extremely formidable villain based on his henchmen, equipment and planning.


Story-wise, it feels like there are really two plots going on at the same time which cross paths from time to time. Dealing with the Joker and the aftermath of his having injected himself with the TITAN serum at the climax of the first game is an ever-present goal while trying to find out exactly what Strange is doing in the new prison facility, and how he ever managed to make this monstrosity happen. Actually believing that Gotham would let the Arkham City project fly in the first place is the hardest bit of the plot to swallow, and you're hit with it off the bat (no pun intended.) If I had a singular complaint about the film, it would be that the main plot is pretty short. It was an engrossing story, but I'd beaten the game after two evenings and a solid long session on one weekend day. I've gone back to work on sidequests, but as I'm not huge on hunting down optional content, I'm effectively done after only I'd guess 16-20 hours of play.

The graphics are top notch, and the sound is even better, though I found myself playing a LOT in "Detective Mode" to make certain I wasn't missing the location of a goon who was hiding somewhere in the muck and grime dressed mostly in black and brown. There were a few frustrating technical issues as well, as I had a half dozen unexplained crashes to the Xbox dashboard claiming I had "corrupted DLC." Since I was playing a rental copy, I had no DLC whatsoever (no playthroughs as Catwoman or Robin for me.) Also, attack animations are very occasionally sometimes a split second longer than they should be, sometimes exposing you to attacks you are helpless to prevent. This flaw is noticable on normal difficulty, and nearly game-ruining on hard, as enemies do so much more damage per strike.


Overall, Batman: Arkham City was great despite its flaws, since nearly every hour of gameplay contained some experience that was jaw-droppingly awesome. I won't spoil the ending here, but those who have beaten the game appreciate the bold and potentially controversial choice made in the game's final twist. I can honestly say I was not expecting what happened, and I'll be very curious to see what they might to in light of the game's ending for any possibility of further games in the series. If you love to hunt and explore for every last collectible and unlock all varient costumes, concept art and bonus game modes, I'd recommend this game as a purchase. If you are like me and are mostly satisfied with getting to a certain level of completion % and then stopping, this is an absolute must-rent.

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Tuesday, November 1, 2011

A New Daily Grind, and Fitness Questing with Fitocracy.

Way back when I started falling into a routine based on habits and the goals I'd set for myself when I was out of work I talked a little bit about what a typical "day in the life" for me was like back here. Looking back on the last few weeks, as I do my best to adjust physically and mentally to a new daily grind, I've started to think about the differences and similarities between those schedules. I'll give a brief rundown on my new routine as a lead-in to talking about a website that has started to play a major part in helping me keep to a part of that schedule. (This post won't be entirely "OMG my daily rut is so interesting," so bear with me while I get it out and onto the page for a moment, and then I'll get into the details concerning Fitocracy.)

On a given day, I'm likely to wake up to two alarms, one on a clock radio and one on my phone, set for 4:59AM and 5:00AM, respectively. I manage to get out of bed before either triggers the first snooze alarm, most days at about 5:03. Then I start the morning routine, which is comprised of more ritual than most portions of the average Catholic Mass. Breakfast, e-mail and checking social networking sites, followed by a shower and getting dressed, at the approximate same times, clothes on by 6:00. I make my sack lunch for the day, pour a cup of coffee and allow myself time for some morning PC gaming until about 6:45 AM (this will drop back to about 6:25 when there is snow) and then I brush my teeth and get in the car. My commute is long, over an hour daily but with the help of my iPod and at least a few minutes daily of a vaguely amusing morning talk radio show, I manage.


My work day is highly structured as well, as work at a therapeutic day school must be. Every day, I clock in, get another cup of coffee and attend the morning meeting. I head to my classroom and prepare daily attendance and behavior tracking paperwork and wait for students to arrive. I'm going to vague it up a little here to avoid coming within even shouting range of confidentiality issues, but each day is broken up into standard high school periods including arrival/breakfast, Gym and Lunch. I can say that Gym and Lunch are together under the current schedule late enough in the day that by the time we survive the chaos of Physical Education, I can see a light at the end of the tunnel. Once the last student has left the building, I have enough time to finish any required paperwork before 3:00PM. The commute back is a solid 90 minutes or more on any given day unless I get really, really lucky with traffic.

Once I make it home, I have a little bit of time for decompression before dinner (working in writing a blog post where I can somewhere in here) and after dinner I need to get ready for either the night's Progression Raid in World of Warcraft or the trip to the YMCA for a workout. Either one of these activities takes me close enough to bedtime that maybe I can sneak in a few minutes of gaming before I have to sleep at 11:00PM to catch six hours of sleep before doing it all over again. This is, obviously, a far cry from what I'd adjusted to between the months of February and October of this year when I started this blog. I was used to sleeping when tired, eating when hungry, and being on the PC the rest of the time. The effects of that inactivity pushed my weight up higher than I like, which is the primary reason for gym workouts occupying three of the four nights I don't raid, giving me only Saturday nights free of commitment.


With all that, it is really, really easy to find excuses to skip the gym. I'm a master of that, as evidenced by the fact that I went to the gym all of a half dozen times in my entire term of unemployment. I allowed myself to get sidetracked by hobbies and, of course, any number of the various games I filled all that time with when not looking for work or blogging. The number of tagged articles with "video games" on them spell it out. I find myself too easily drawn into various games. Fortunately, I found a way to convert the addictive qualtities of questing, leveling and highly structured rewards found in the RPGs I play into a way to keep myself motivated in the gym. I'm playing another game. Fitocracy, as recently featured on Penny Arcade, combines the addictive qualities of social networking with the quests, achievements and levels of any MMORPG to focus the gamer's Obsessive/Compulsive qualities into a way to keep going to the gym.


The interface mostly looks like Facebook, or a similar social networking site, and there are plugins to link your Fitocracy account to both your Facebook and to your Twitter. You automatically follow the progress of whoever invited you, and you may choose to have the program find friends from your personal social networks. Excercise, record ytou workouts on the site and recieve experience points toward the next level. Bonus XP can be gained from completing quests which start out simple (do 20 crunches, or play sports for 30 mins) and get progressively harder. Quests also encourage the user to try excercises that they might not normally ever give a shot to in a normal workout, and the bonus experience is enough to maybe try a freeweight bench press instead of the standard half-hour or hour on the elliptical, bike or treadmill.

Your friends and members of groups you join can see your progress as you earn experience, levels and achievements, and give "props," which are essentially the same thing as upvotes on Reddit, likes on Facebook, +1s on Google+, etc. The site seems well laid out, though more variety in the specific types of exercises that can be tracked would be nice in some spots (There is, for example, an entry for "video game dancing" but nothing for, say, WiiFit, and many weight lifting exercises that use machines are absent.) The amount of experience required to gain the next level and the progressively more difficult quests do a good job of subtly encouraging more excercise, and I'll admit, I've gone out of my way to do a little extra on a non "Gym day" to knock out a quick quest for bonus experience. The amount of free content on the site is impressive, and if you want to support the developers, it is possible to subscribe to get access to titles and at least one bonus achievement when you become a "Fitocracy Hero." I'm only Level 3 at the moment, but I'm just getting started, and since I don't get to run back if I keel over, I'd like to be able to make it to endgame.
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Monday, October 31, 2011

Schedule Change Effective This Week

The last two scheduled post days, I've been unable to sit down and write. Friday I collapsed right after work and fell asleep until the middle of the night, and tonight basic maintenance type errands just plain ate up all my time. I said I'd swap from M-W-F to Tu-Thu if I had to, and it has become clear that is the case right off the kick. I'll be back tomorrow with a full size post (which will replace this one,) and we'll move forward from there. If I'm dissatisfied with posting only twice a week, I may throw a weekend post together when the mood strikes.

Back to adjusting to the schedule. 6 hours of sleep per weeknight, three weekly WoW raids and three trips to the gym on non-raid nights is quite a shock from my unemployed life routine. I'll likely elaborate before raid tomorrow. Best Blogger Tips
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Wednesday, October 26, 2011

My Personal Top Ten Horror Films

I like horror a lot. It is frequently lumped in with fantasy and science fiction, so this is entirely natural, but I don't blog much about scary movies for two reasons. One, unless I am specifically enjoying them for how awful they are at a Bad Movie Night, I'm pretty picky. The second reason is that there are a lot of horror bloggers out there, and many of them do it better than I could ever hope to. (In particular, I recommend Wreckhouse Magazine, many awesome articles there.) I have my own taste in what I find scary, like anyone else, and these films are ones that got to me when I first saw them. I'm leaving out a few films that I personally love, but which didn't scare me (specifically, The Shining and Nightbreed) and a TON that others might call horror, but I'd classify under another genre (the Aliens series is science fiction, as far as I'm concerned.)

Counting down from 10 to 1 without further ado...

10. Suspiria (1977, Italian)

Okay, I'll admit, some people find this one dull, and most find the plot ridiculous at best, nonsensical at worst. For me, this is classic italian gore-splattered horror, with quality kill scenes. The filming of the individual scenes, the effects and use of color, light and music make the incoherent mess of a plot concerning witches at a dance academy entirely irrelevant. The mood created is disturbing and deeply unsettling, and even where the effects are subpar, the kills stuck with me.


9. Friday the Thirteenth, Part Two (1981)
The first of two sequels to get love on my list where I snub the original film, the sequel to Friday the Thirteenth is the first to have Jason Voorhees as the actual villain, as his mother is the killer in the first picture. He's missing his signature hockey mask in this one, preferring instead to hide his features under a sack with holes cut, and the disfigured being under that mask will forever be my preferred vision of the man behind the mask.

8. The Thing (1982)
Paranoia, extreme cold, an environment where something has gone horribly wrong, no one is coming to help you, and the creature could be any one of the people around you. John Carpenter touches a few of the triggers that get to me in this one, and the effects are spectacular, even if they almost killed several of the actors and burned down the set at least once in the filming. I actually think The Thing is at its scariest when we aren't looking at the monster, and don't know what (or who) it is at any given moment.


7. Hellraiser (1987)
Clive Barker has a problem. He writes great horror that, in general, doesn't translate well onto the screen. My love of Nightbreed doesn't excuse how far it falls short of the short story, and the less said about Lord of Illusions, the better (how you perfectly cast such a great story and screw up the script that bad is beyond me.) Hellraiser is the exception. This is Clive Barker's first movie as director, and he knocks it out of the park with demons, blood, a cursed puzzle box, and a twisted torturous sadomasochistic take on a tale of horror and revenge.

6. The Devil's Backbone (2001, Spanish)
A spanish ghost story from Guillermo del Toro, the story of an orphanage in the middle of the Spanish Civil War and a young boy who is plagued by an apparition of one of the boys who died there, saying many of the other children will die soon. Between the horrors of war, the menacing adults and their secrets and an unexploded bomb in the center of the school, this film drips with tension, and I actually like it as much or more than later del Toro films like Pan's Labyrinth.


5. Freaks (1932)

I'll just say this, Freaks is flat out great. A simple tale of revenge is made incredible by the supporting cast comprised entirely of actual circus freaks. The climax, with the Freaks closing in on the beautiful but treacherous trapeze artist who only marries the minute sideshow leader for his money, as they chant "One of us, one of us..." is still chilling today. Tod Browning cast the Barnum and Bailey troop members when actors of the day balked at sharing billing with "sideshow attractions" and the resulting film was considered so shocking it was banned by law in much of the United States and all of Australia.

4. Dawn of the Dead (1978)

As far as I'm concerned, this is the zombie movie. It is the first to address the perils of what to do once you are safe, as boredom and complancency set in once the survivors are holed up in a shopping mall. It most effectively also shows how dangerous other survivors can be, and is the least preachy of all of George Romero's zombie films. Though it has a bit to say about commercialism and the monstrous nature of man, it doesn't jam those things down your throat while you are trying to watch a horror movie.


3. A Nightmare on Elm Street, Part 3: The Dream Warriors (1987)

A controversial choice, I know, but I've always liked the third Freddy Kreuger movie better than the first, mainly because each of the kids who he kills are the best developed in this one. In the first attempt to solidify a coherent mythology for the series, each of the Dream Warriors realizes that Freddy can only kill them in their sleep, and that they can fight him with aspects of their own personality. Most of them lose, but it is one hell of a story along the way to the final showdown.

2. Halloween (1978)

Slasher films may be overdone, but Michael Myer's first appearance holds a high place on my list. From the creepy piano theme to the spray-painted mask of William Shatner's face, the escaped lunatic stalks his prey on the night he can move about when no one would find his costume odd. What makes this film is how subtle it is, and how it builds tension by showing the killer in the background, lurking... and he doesn't strike. Every time we think he'll make a move, he disappears, and the audience is left wondering when and how he'll kill.


1. The Exorcist (1973)

This movie has been parodied, analyzed and studied for years, and with good reason. This is the archetype for all other stories of demonic possession. Quick cuts to build unease, great performances from all the principal actors, creepy music and a story so scary that the Rev. Billy Graham claimed that the film's reels contained an actual demon, this is a classic without parallel. I highly recommend the DVD re-release with restored footage that corrects a few technical glitches and adds the cut "spider walk" sequence. If adjusted for inflation, this movie would be the highest grossing R-Rated film of all time.

Barely missing the cut is the only horror movie I own on DVD, The Ring, and the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the first Saw film and the Amityville Horror. I'm not a huge fan of all the remakes going around, and I despise the campy, self-aware horror films of the 1990s and 2000s, and this list shows it. Happy Halloween!
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Monday, October 24, 2011

Blizzcon 2011: Demons and Costumes and (Panda) Bears, Oh, my!

So another annual convention from the developers of World of Warcraft, Diablo and Starcraft is in the books, and there were a few highlights of interest to those of us who couldn't make the trek to the convention. There was the ever-popular costume contest, the announcement of the next WoW expansion, and a deal for people willing to sign up for a one-year "tour" for the popular MMORPG, that is seeing a decline in subscription numbers. Personally, I was excited by this year's announcements, and I'd like to talk a bit about them and address my feelings on the controversial elements, specifically about the next World of Warcraft expansion, Mists of Pandaria. But before we get into any of that, let's take a look at the convention as a whole.



Outside of the WoW-Universe, there were a couple of major announcements with the debut of the trailer for Starcraft 2: Heart of the Swarm and the release of Blizzard DOTA. The Starcraft trailer gives us a bit of a teaser for next year's expansion, showing that even though Sarah Kerrigan has been rescued and looks human again, all is not well with the former Queen of Blades. We get a preview of a bunch of new units and a brief look at the continuation of the story from Wings of Liberty, with a gorgeous trailer rendered using in-game technology. On the DOTA front, it is exciting to see the original Action/RPG/Realtime Strategy mod Defense of the Ancients get an officially supported release, with many of Blizzard's greatest characters as champions. The original DOTA spawned a subgenre of games including League of Legends and Heroes of Newerth, and it'll be great to see the original game return with updated graphics and gameplay, and with Blizzard's official blessing and support.

This year's costume contest continues the tradition of moving away from "sexiest costume wins" and rewarding amazing craftsmanship. The top three this year included a great-looking Deathwing in human form, a decent representation of a WoW Paladin with Ashbringer, and the grand prize winner, one of the best costumes I've ever seen outside of a Hollywood movie. The costume, a note-perfect representation of a Starcraft Adjutant android was worn by Avery Faith of Los Angeles, CA. The combination of technical excellence in the fabrication of the costume pieces with the simultaneously creepy and beautiful aesthetic makes the piece something that really needs to be seen to be believed. (Which is why I picture it below.)


There wasn't a lot more that could be said about Diablo 3, aside from a new teaser trailer, since we've already seen a glut of preview videos and the news that it won't come out until 2012 broke before the convention. However, there was one thing they could do to make Diablo 3 news my personal favorite bit of the con. They made it free. Of course, there are strings attached to the deal. With the imminent release of Bioware's Star Wars MMORPG and some frustration with current raiding content, World of Warcraft is losing subscribers. The solution? Offer a free copy of Diablo 3 to anyone willing to commit to a 1-year subscription to WoW. The offer also comes with an automatic beta invite for the next WoW expansion and an exclusive in-game mount. For me, it was a no-brainer, since I hadn't planned on canceling my subscription this year anyway, and I was a guaranteed sale for Diablo 3, so reducing that game to my favorite price was a bonus.

Then we have the next WoW expansion, raising the level cap to 90, introducing a new zone, a new playable race and a new base class. Mists of Pandaria will be centered on the forgotten home of the reclusive masters of brewing strong spirits and practicing asian-style martial arts, the Pandaren. The race will be available to be played by either Horde or Alliance, and will have a strong connection to the new base class, the Monk. The developers are changing up the formula a bit, focusing on the conflict between Alliance and Horde instead of a single "last boss" like the last three expansions. The Pandaren will be drawn into the conflict, creating a brutal civil war in a land that once knew only peace and meditation, with the "main villain" as war itself. The announcement of a battle minigame system for non-combat pets, along with the "cutesy" look for the Pandaren has the neckbeards of the internet lighting their torches and sharpening their pitchforks, declaring WoW forever ruined.


...Really? We have talking walrus-men, cow-men, bird-men, fish-men, but pandas are somehow crossing the line? I get that none of those races has be the central character for an entire expansion, but people have been begging for Pandaren since the beginning of World of Warcraft. The accusations that the next expansion is "Kung-Fu Panda and Pokemon," and therefore is designed with small children in mind insults the intelligence of the average gamer. Pandaren have been present in the Warcraft lore for sixteen years, long before there was a Kung-Fu Panda, and gamers were outraged that they weren't a new race way back when The Burning Crusade was first released. I'm completely willing to check out the next expansion (and with my guaranteed beta access, I certainly will) before I declare it to be childish and stupid. If the game becomes something I no longer want to play, I'll stop. I don't see the point in being insulting and jumping to conclusions on the basis of a few videos and some sketchy details, however.
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Friday, October 14, 2011

Dark Souls - A Brutal and Relentless Action/RPG Horror Title.

There's a game out there that is so difficult, so merciless and unforgiving of mistakes or poor planning and so punishing of failure that I'm almost afraid to play it. I am, of course, talking about Dark Souls, the action RPG that is as much an exercise in masochism as it is a hardcore gaming experience. Dark Souls is a sequel to Demon's Souls, an earlier game that I completely missed when it came out in 2009 because it was a PS3 exclusive and I draw the line at two consoles I rarely play. Dark Souls was released by Namco Bandai Games in the US on October 4th for both the Playstation 3 and the Xbox 360, and the relentless blend of action and frustration provides an answer to the gamers who believe that quicksaves and infinite lives have made gamers soft. This is clearly not a game for everyone, as people who want a more casual experience to relax and unwind will no doubt be very, very frustrated with this game, because it kills you the instant you let your guard down. And then it kills you again, and again, and some more, until you wonder if the game is mocking you.

Expect your character to die several times before you even get the package open.

If you are thinking "That doesn't sound like much fun," one thing I neglected to mention is that despite the relentless, even punishing, difficulty... the game is (almost) never cheap or unfair. Every death is due to a mistake in either choice of weapon, where and when to fight an opponent, or just plain old-fashioned not being careful enough. The setting starts out without a massive amount of background information or plot to get you going, as the world is corrupted and all but lost to the demonic hordes, and your motivation is simple: destroy evil. Dark Souls, unlike its predecessor, is an open-world game, with freedom left to the player to go in whichever direction they believe they can survive, with no indication of where that might be, as death waits around every corner. Every time you die, you learn something new. Death is a strict teacher who shows you your mistakes immediately and demands perfection, and the lessons are well-learned.

The combat system rewards care, patience and selection of the correct tools for the job, whether that is a nasty two-handed weapon, heavy armor and shield for defense, or magical abilities, all are available to the player but none will suffice in every situation. You cannot gain enough magical power to run through sections of the game blowing things up at will, and you will find the predictable result of trying is, of course, another death. When you die, you lose your corporeal form and your collected souls, which are used to upgrade your character and equipment, and you respawn as undead... with half a health bar. Get back to your corpse, and you can retrieve what you've lost. Checkpoints come in the form of bonfires which can be lit to rest and make camp, but when you rest, the foes you have defeated rise again, meaning use of a checkpoint is a strategic choice.

The beacon fire. A place to rest and reflect on what lessons repeatedly dying has taught you.

On its surface, Dark Souls is a single player experience, but online play has been incorporated into the experience in several unique ways in keeping with the themes of the game world. First, it is possible to leave scrawled messages for other players in certain sections of the game, though whether you choose to heed the warnings or suspect they might have been left by a player trying to lead you to a quick death is up to you. The spirits of other players can occasionally be glimpsed moving through the same sections of gameplay as you are working your way through, seeing these damned souls in action reminds you of the consequence of failure. You can also summon spirits of other players for co-op play, but who is brought into your game world is random and communication with your spectral ally is extremely limited, a very different experience from loading a game and jumping in with people from your friends list. Also be warned that PVP players may, while you are in your living form, invade your game to assassinate you to regain their own form. In practice, you'll spend so much time as undead that this won't happen very often, but it is not optional or consensual, further adding to the danger for players who are doing well.

So much more of the game is meant to be discovered through play that I feel it would be a disservice to spoil it in a review here, but I can mention in passing a few other features. Despite being thrown into the world with only a very basic understanding of what is going on, that doesn't mean there is no lore or story going on in the game. By design, the player must earn tidbits by peeling away at the surface of this fantasy/horror world, and not telling you too much all at once helps keep the disturbing and disorienting tone of the place intact. For replay value, there is the covenant system. Without spoiling too much, I can say that covenants are the combination of faction/guild and alignment system in the game, and joining one will significantly change the play experience beyond the typical "good" or "evil" playthroughs in other RPGs. Every covenant comes with its own advantages and price to pay for membership, and some may make sections of the game easier or harder, or affect objectives.

Breathtaking environments and deadly foes are literally around every corner.

Is this a good game? The graphics are gorgeous, most reviews agree that the gameplay is incredibly tough, but in a fair sort of way barring one or two scenes that drift close to unfairness. The starting class is more like declaring a play philosophy than committing to a single set of options, as weapons, armor and abilities can be swapped out as needed to progress. If you are the sort of gamer eager to overcome challenges and believe firmly that modern games are too easy, this may just be the game for you. If dying over and over until you struggle toward the goal of hitting a beacon sounds too much like inflicting pain on yourself because it feels so good when you stop, I'd give this one a pass.

Fair Warning: I mentioned here that I planned to take a week off from posting as I get adjusted to a full-time job again, I plan to take that week from 10/15 through 10/22, so my vacation starts... now.
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Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Raspberry Pi - $25 Linux PC for Students

The inexpensive personal computer used as a tool for education is something we once had, and many machines like this started the computing lives of geeks who lived in the 1970s and 1980s. The Commodore 64, TRS-80 and to a lesser extent, Apple's earliest computers took a hobby interest in computing and deveoped it for people who would later use computers their entire lives. Network administrators, computer programmers and many game designers grew up with these sorts of machines and they are indirectly responsible, in part, for the breakthroughs in computers over the last two-plus decades. Now that we have computers everywhere, however, the cheap hobbyist machine that can be used to teach programming and tinkering for students and geeks who want to learn more by doing just isn't around anymore. Most computers in homes cost between several hundred and several thousand dollars, and for fear of ruining the family PC, experimentation is frequently discouraged. This is a problem, and the designers behind the Raspberry Pi project have a solution: the $25 PC.



While it is true that most laptops and desktop models can only come so far down in price, there are computers in many other devices that rival their desktop cousins from only a few years ago in terms of performance. Mobile phones and tablet computers have taken miniaturized components and packed quite a bit of processing power into a small space, and the SD memory cards and flash drives made today have storage capacity larger than full sized hard drives did only six or seven years ago. The Raspberry Pi was built with these sorts of components in mind, using a small mainboard with several dataports out for USB, HDMI and audio, and open source Linux builds as an operating system on flash memory. The goal is to have a reasonably fast and powerful basic computer that can handle media, programming and internet that can be manufactured at a price low enough to be sold at the same price as a standard textbook.

The original prototypes for the project were a little larger than the average flash drive, but the features that the developers wanted to include couldn't fit comfortably in that configuration. The charitable Raspberry Pi Foundation, headquartered in the UK, moved development to a board slightly larger than a credit card. The CPU will run at 700Mhz, with 128MB of SDRAM, HD-Quality video with both HDMI and Composite output for connection to either a monitor or a television set, with about 1W power requirements allowing for power through an adapter or about 4 AA size batteries. Peripherals can be attached using a simple USB hub, and the overall package is impressive given the price of the components and size of the completely functional computer. The hardware will ship with all open-source software, the Debian GNU/Linux distro, Iceweasel, kOffice and Python, and storage will be upgradable based on the size SD/MMC/SDIO memory cards purchased to be used as a hard drive.



Once units are ready to ship, there will also be a second model with more RAM and built-in ethernet for wired networking for about $10 more. The prototypes have been shown to audiences running Quake 3 at 1080p and full-HD video for other media, and the finished product promises CD-quality audio as well. With all these basics in place, this is not intended to replace a main PC, or to run any Windows software (or even WINE for emulation,) but this computer isn't for gaming or for a household's daily use. This is a small, cheap and functional PC that can be used to teach computing in places where budgetary restrictions have made educational computers a pipe-dream. Worldwide access to a machine designed for experimentation and learning could very well bring up a whole new generation of brilliant developers and programmers for tomorrow's advances in computer technology.


The speed for basic operations and media on this little PC is really something.

This is exciting for me, as I've always been fascinated by the idea of Linux as an OS, but as a gamer I can't ever really sever ties to Windows as an Operating System. I love the idea of tinkering and getting into the nuts and bolts of computers, but I wouldn't dare mess with too many things under the hood of my main PC. I've already "bricked" several devices, and I remember the panic and frustration that can come with having to rebuild the machine I use daily (which is also why I stopped building my own Pcs, hardware conflicts are no fun.) After the initial rush of orders from people curious about the project, if they can continue to manufacture enough of these mini-computers to keep up with demand, I may well pick one up to mess around with. By design, the price of these things encourages the "get one and play with it a little" sort of thinking, and answers my reservations about really getting into Linux. I've heard that putting together a Linux PC is a little like getting a car from IKEA, you have a bunch of parts and instructions on how to put it all together, but there's a lot of effort in figuring out how to assemble it so it all works. At 25 bucks, a lot more people would give it a shot, which is what the Raspberry Pi Foundation is counting on.
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Monday, October 10, 2011

Warrior Knights – Politics, War, Faith and Trade

This past weekend I managed to celebrate my imminent return to the workforce with an activity I haven't been able to participate in for a while now. My wife and I had a few friends by to play board games, and I got to play favorites of mine that have collected dust for years. Among these was one of my very favorites, Fantasy Flight's version of Warrior Knights. Not so long ago, I wrote about the difference between Eurogames and "Ameritrash" or Thematic board games, and Warrior Knights straddles the line between these extremes neatly. As a result, its design heavily influenced several popular games currently in production including RuneWars and Chaos In The Old World. It is a complicated looking game that is actually pretty simple, though it is not without its flaws, as I'll get into later. This is a revamp of the original published by Games Workshop, with European Game designers brought in to make the mechanics more appealing to modern audiences.

Parallels have also been drawn between this and A Game of Thrones (the Board Game.)

The layout, board, counters and pieces are classic Fantasy Flight. They are well made with solid artwork and plenty of components, but none seem unnecessary. The game is intimidating, as there is a lot going on, and the first turn will take so long unless everyone is a veteran that you'll lose sight of the fact that using standard rules, it'll be over inside of 5 turns. In a generic medieval country that has knights and lords with French, British, Italian and German sounding names, the king died without an heir. Without a clear line of succession, the Barons maneuver for the power to delare themselves monarch. This means that influence must be accumulated, and the easiest way to do that is to bring cities under your control, and keep those cities. Every player must plan six moves from strategy cards in their hand with a little control over what happens first, and then see how fate and the plans of other Barons make their plans all fall apart.

Each turn, players choose six general strategies which allow them to move and/or attack, serve the church, gather political support, levy taxes, draft mercenaries or allow for a less powerful but more versatile strategy. The players put the two orders they'd like to see happen first in a stack marked "1", second in the "2" stack and then third in the "3" stack. Two neutral strategy cards are added to each pile, the three stacks are shuffled and then orders are executed one at a time in a random order. When orders are executed, the strategy cards are temporarily discarded to one of three piles which will trigger sub-phases when those discard piles fill up completely. The piles are labeled Taxation, Wages and Assembly, and when each triggers, income from captured cities is given out, soldiers must be paid or released from service, or Barons convene to vote on legal matters, respectively. Until those piles clear and trigger their phases, those cards are unavailable to use again by the player who spent them.

Game in progress at CABS in Columbus, OH.

To build an empire, players must supplement their own loyal troops with a mercenary army, levy taxes to pay for army upkeep and build a stable economy. Hiring mercenaries and outfitting all troops is difficult to do with taxation alone, so there are several other options to get money rolling. Players may choose to invest in trade expeditions to the far east, gather support to have trade concessions legally assigned to them, or conquer cities in foreign lands. Balancing income versus military might is essential, as the most lucrative options for making money don't typically directly contribute to victory, and large armies are expensive. Getting new soldiers is handled through a mercenary "draft" where anyone who chose to use the "draft soldiers strategy" is allowed to pick, in order from the new units ready to be assigned to nobles.

Taking cities and fighting with these armies is fairly simple. Each player has four commanders to move around the board, each has a special power. Cities can be assaulted at the risk of damaging the defenses and/or taking casualties for a quick (1-turn) capture, or with a large enough army a city can be besieged for 2 turns and it will automatically fall without any damage to defenses or the attacking army. Sieges may be lifted by any player attacking the besieging forces, and in a game where victory points are calculated at the end of every turn, risking two turns to maybe get nothing is significant. Armies and cities get to play one Fate card per 100 troops, with armies led by a noble (anything except an uncontrolled city) getting two extra draws to choose from to represent tactical ability. Fate cards may inflict 100 casualties, prevent 100 casualties or generate 1 victory point. Resolving fights is simple, if either side took enough casualties to wipe out all the troops assigned to them, they lose (and casualties to cities also represent broken walls, etc.) If neither side is wiped out by casualties, whichever side has the most victory points wins, and the opposing force is killed (but buildings take no permanent damage from this phase.)

Each noble may command an army and move about the board, while the Baron
(representing the player) only fights if the home Stronghold city is attacked.

Nobles limit how many places you can be at once, as there are only four of them and all your troops must be assigned to any nobles on the board or to defending your home base. When a noble dies, they are off the board for a turn and a card is pulled to see if any mercenaries under their command desert (by nationality.) The next turn, the noble's heir commands his dead father's forces and rides out again. If nobles don't stay at a captured city, that city may revolt, so rapid expansion comes with risk as well. The power of each of the four nobles either allows them to prevent 100 casualties, deal 100 extra casualties, generate +1 victory in battle or to not have to pay wages to any army smaller than 450 troops. Figuring out how many troops to assign to each and where to place the nobles helps determine who wins.

There are also two roles that players fight for throughout the game, the Chairman of the Assembly and the Head of the Church. Assembly Chairman gets to choose where trade expeditions are started and breaks ties in votes on agendas. Agendas may grant extra income, grant titles (with free troops) to nobles, or put rules into effect for the rest of the game. The Head of the Church may decide to bless trade expeditions to increase their chance of success, and also spends faith to influence the events deck. The events deck may grant free influence, have nobles assassinated in the field, affect plague or revolt, or even declare that a noble has no heir and may not return with his troops to the board when killed.

The game has an expansion that addresses some of the flaws I talk about below.

The biggest problems with the game are that a runaway leader in early turns is hard to catch, as everyone gets influence from all cities every turn, so a player in the lead must be attacked quickly, or everyone else falls behind. Experienced players can deal with this by keeping the game close through a lot of aggression, if people play passively, the outcome is determined almost from the very beginning. Also, the amount of influence in the pool determines game length, and the default number of 10 per player means the game tends to end abruptly just as it is getting good. Adding more influence per player fixes this, but it also makes the game take quite a bit longer. I think that the default shorter game is good to teach it, but after learning the rules, 15-20 influence per player makes the overall play more satisfying. I'm looking forward to giving it another go, as I don't play often enough to not have to play the shorter default version to re-learn it every time.
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