Archive for the ‘Review’ Category.


A while ago one of the people from my old board game designers group got interested in the facebook phenomenon. He sent out invitations, and curiosity got the better of me a few weeks go.

Probably the most fascinating thing has been how many casual acquaintances from high school have been friending me out of blue. I recognize names, but often little else. Cornell, on the other hand, seems to have a much lower representation, although msphat seems to have found me at just about the same time I found her, and oddly almost the same time I’m getting around to writing about it.

I’m still rather wary of ‘applications’ Mostly they look like big time sinks, and I’m somewhat paranoid about getting involved in another ‘thing’ – I’ll have more to say about that (hopefully) shortly.

Super Mario Galaxy

As someone who has taken an interest in game design, there were a few things I found interesting in Super Mario Galaxy. Mind, the last game I played was 64, so some of these may not be novel to this release.

The Constrained Path – A Return to Form

Many levels, especially the early ones have a very linear layout. Very often you are getting launched from tiny-planet to tiny-planet. There is often freedom of movement on each planet, but movement between them is limited by launch stars. This retreats a bit from the freedom of 3d and harkens back to the linear scrolling levels of the first games.

Levels of Scale

Flying between planets has an effect almost like levels-within-levels. The level structure has a quality of Levels of Scale – one of Christopher Alexander’s 15 properties of life. There is the largest structure of six worlds, each with 2 or 3 major worlds and a few extras. Each of the major worlds has about 6 stars available, which may (or may not) reuse the same basic level geometry. Within each level, there are very often multiple sub-challenges, if not physically separate planetoids.

Variation of Challenge

There are several different types of levels. Major classes include timed, freeform exploration, boss fights, auto-scrolling, ball-rolling, ray-surfing. One of the great wonders of the game is how many games are contained within it – whole mechanics that would have been sufficient for a single game in ages past now supply 3, 2, even just 1 level (red star comes to mind)

Goomba Management.

One intriguing feature is the players ability to get two different types of resources from goobmas, and probably other kinds of enemies. Spin/kick them an they turn into star bits, which serve several purposes, including adding to extra lives. Stomp them and get a coin, which replenishes your health (they can also add up to lives, but are lost every time you die, making it much harder to collect enough.)

(Ideas 2008-02-22, mostly written 2008-07-06)


Ever since I got the Mac, I’ve been pining for the system monitoring applet in the Gnome panel. While I was in the midst of all my reconfiguration, I found exactly what I was looking for. iStat Menus puts essentially the same thing in the OS X menu bar. I’d actually found the application iStat while looking for a replacement earlier, but it was a window that was either in the way or constantly covered up. I used Apple’s system monitor to keep on eye on the network traffic for a while – but it auto-scaled, so you could never tell when whether you were looking at a trickle or full capacity.

I also ran across CrashPlan If I’d found these guys a year ago before I set up with, it probably would have made things a lot easier for me. Of course, there is the untested question of whether their linux client would work on my computer, which might have been a deal breaker. Their free program allows peer-peer backup, (full, not distributed) and they also sell an online backup service.

I also found BackupPC, which is designed for backing up PCs on a LAN to a central server. It combines identical files (i.e., the 10GB or so of Windows eating up the hard drive.) Might be an interesting exercise where I work, someday.

Actually, badly designed websites* were not the only thing encouraging me to get broadband. A few weeks ago I ran across It looked as thought it might be the kind of music service I had wanted – streaming (don’t have to buy CDs all the time), no commercials, and capable of making suggestions. I started recording CD playing history immediately, hoping to get some recommendations. So I was seriously considering broadband for the first time – it had always been too expensive for my limited use, and some kinds still are. It was only then that the slow web sites pushed me over the edge ;^)

So, I’ve finally played though all of my CD’s and have started using the radio for regular background music. The last few years I went through a long time of not listening to music very much. I suppose mixed results is what I should have expected. A lot of it is no doubt due to a limited selection – for instance, the global tag radio for anything with ‘harp’ has either one or no playable songs. I’ve had slightly more success with the celtic tag, (despite some decidedly mis-tagged tracks) which is a little better represented in popular music. I suppose it’s called popular for a reason, but it leaves us niche listeners out. I suppose I have my CD’s when I need them.

There have been a few discoveries. I heard one good piece from Hans Zimmer, so may keep an eye on him. I’m definitely going to check out the Mediaeval Baebes. (Boy, that sounds bad. Good music, but I might have liked a different name.) There were a few other interesting things, but I’m mainly treating them as outliers so far.

Meanwhile, I’m learning to lower my standards for using ‘love’ and ‘ban’. I might like a more finely graded scale, but I think that’s rating is based on quantity, (of plays) not quality.

I may also look into Pandora, which appears much better for exploring related music – but one thing at time. I’m also not too keen on the fact that they want a credit card up front, even though there is a free version.

Anyway, I’m on Is anybody else?

*(and yes, I’ve found several kinks in my recent site update that escaped me earlier while I was worrying about the flyout menus. The kinks will be fixed… um… eventually)

Alexander’s Magnum Opus

I finally finished book 4 (of 4) of Christopher Alexander’s 27-years-in-the-making Nature of Order series. After putting forth theories of structure, growth, and building in books 1, 2, and 3, book 4 leaves such immediately practical matters behind. (Not entirely unexpectedly, since the table of contents for all four books is printed in each) The book is titled “The Luminous Ground” – the underlying plenum of reality, the stuff that shines through, just a little, when living structure is created. You can call it god if you want; Alexander does and doesn’t; the main point he wants to make in that direction is that many of the greatest works of art were made in a religious context – as gifts to god. Ultimately, he spends more time talking about physics – the current criticism of the purely mechanistic worldview, and how these problems are resolved by integrating the “I” (aka luminous ground, aka god, aka etc.) In short, nothing nothing less than a change in our view of reality will suffice to heal the modern malease.

I tend towards what Alexander calls the psychological explanation: there is a perceivable value, and this value is fairly consistent between individuals, but this similarity has more to do with the fact that we are all humans than with the underlying nature of the universe. The best argument against this simplifying explanation is this: better results are achieved, in terms of approaching said ultimate value, when considering it ‘real’ as averse to not.

Real reading

I finally finished Rules of Play, an academic work about game design. It casts a broad net in several ways. Thus, much of the opinion I heard about it wasn’t good. Board game people were turned off by all the talk of digital games. Digital game people may have been turned off by the included paper games by ‘board game people’ like Riener Kinitza(sp?), Richard Garfield, and James Earnest. The coverage of subjects is also extremely broad. the books schemas are broken down into ‘Rules’, the down and dirty mechanics, ‘Play’, the experiences of the game, and ‘Culture’, the interaction of games with the wider world.

It is also very theoretical, which may have disappointed people looking for more practical advice. What the authors present are a system of schemes, or ways of thinking about games. Things like probably systems, psychology and motivation, narrative, and so on. This type of material appears to be geared more towards generating deep insight than helping out with routine problems. Sadly, I haven’t take time to really think about the material yet.

Now I’m working through Edward Tufte‘s books, which I got at the seminar some month’s ago. Having heard the core ideas in said seminar there is nothing revolutionary so far, but the wealth of examples will probably repay review when I have some actual information to present.

Reading (Well, Listening)

I finished the audio book of Victor Hugo’s Les Miseriables recently. Finished being the operative word: at 3 volumes of 12-15 cassettes each, it took awhile to get through this one. On top of it’s intrinsic size, I also listened to some other pieces in between to space out my library visits (just under 20 tapes per batch can be done comfortably)

Beyond a storyline that spans nearly 20 years, Hugo makes frequent and extended use of historical vignettes. It would probably not be hard to accuse him of presenting all the background material that authors are supposed to have but not belabor their readers with. However, much of this material is actually welcome context for someone far removed from early 19th century France. The vignettes are also artfully integrated; most are presented just as the become relevant (that is, the history of a location just as the character enters it.) Other times he blurs the magic circle of the story by integrating the story time and reader’s time. For instance, an extended description of the battle of Waterloo relates only in one small detail to the story proper. Yet it is presented at a time when years in the story are elapsing unseen – by the time that the text returns to the main narrative, time has passed for the reader as well as the characters. Furthermore, the connection with Waterloo only become important later in the story – by which time the description of the battle is in the distant past, just as it was in history.

Meanwhile, amidst the extensive historical accounts and occasional preachy events, are some artfully constructed situations. One character is held paralyzed, witness to a crime that he could stop at any time, but is unable to as he is torn within between loyalty to the past and the terrible reality of the present situation. In another a character who embodies the relentless application of law is discontented – indeed, destroyed – by encountering a situation where the most just action ran counter to the law. Hugo, through his character, ponders whether right action is following the law of god.

In between volumes, I also read (or heard) Darwin on Trial. It proposes that the theories of natural selection and evolution are just that – theories. While they may be the best theories that we have, the available evidence does not support them as anything like the given facts they are usually presented as. For instance, the fossil record shows long periods of stable life forms, rather than the continuous stream of incremental change evolution predicts.

Most recently was Lincoln’s Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural. What I took away: Lincoln was a deeply religious man who struggled with the conflicts between his personal beliefs, his oath to the constitution, and the inevitable coming of civil war. In his view, the war was punishment from god visited upon both parts of the country for allowing slavery to exist, and a necessary stage in removing slavery.

Next up: Brave New World and Shindler’s List



I have thought from time to time that winter wouldn’t be nearly such an obstacle to bicycle riding if only I had an enclosed bicycle. (Accumulated snow would still be an issue of course.) Finally, some time ago, I went and looked to see what the web had to say about it. Properly speaking, the are usually called velomobiles, and typically are recumbent tricycles.

Velomobiles, for the most part, are only available in Europe, and even there only in small, usually hand-built quantities. They do occupy a rather uncomfortable middle ground. Usually too big for bike trails or sidewalks, and too slow for most roads. Owing to the small scale production, they also tend to cost nearly as much as the cheapest new cars. (Never mind shipping from Europe…)

The end result is that I won’t be getting a velomobile any time soon. I may check back every once and awhile to see if the situation has improved. The speed problem for one may not be insurmountable – the human powered speed record could technically get a speeding ticket on any road in Illinois. This of course is a competition racer, on a smooth protected track, in a racing vehicle – designed for tight aerodynamic form and light weight – not for carrying groceries.

Read this book.

The Underground History of American Education, by John Taylor gatto.

You don’t of course have to agree with it. Personally I felt like it was putting into words a lot of things I had felt for a long time. You don’t even have to buy it; the entire text is online (I personally prefer real books, and this has driven my highlighter very nearly dry) My overall impression was that Gatto thoroughly supported most of his points, often with quotes of people expressing their desire to do exactly what he is accusing them of. Even if your views differ, the grand sweep of history, psychology, religion, economics, and of course schooling will probably give you at least a few new perspectives on things.

Of course, maybe there won’t be so much new material for some people. I freely admit to squandering my college education, and not making very much of elementary, either. Of course that is precisely the point of the book – the purpose of the school system is to dull minds, not to sharpen them. It took five or six years away from schooling before I started to really thirst for knowledge.

The book covers so much ground that I can’t hope to do it justice here. One of the basic premises is that there are a number of different ways that the world can operate. Through the interaction of various different processes, the dominant world view has become safety and science. This gives us the wonders of industrial society, all our medicines, our computers, SUVs, TVs and movies. The price is tight, stifling, hierarchic control. One of the major tools used to promote this world view is the mandatory school system, which turns the great majority of people into predictable, interchangeable parts accustomed to being told what to do.

The opposite world view is total freedom and self-responsibility – which entails a healthy dose of risk. This is the world view that America was founded on. The transformation into it’s opposite view has been a slow and ponderous process; so slow that very few people noticed what was happening.

Shameless Plugs

A few weeks ago I went to the Chicago Toy and Game Fair While there I un-surprisingly saw several people from the game designer’s group. I also saw a couple people from Protospiel set up in booths, and bought their games.

I played Cluzzle the first time I went to Protospiel, and saw a revised version the next year. Dominic has gone into production since. It’s aimed at the lighter market, but it does that very well.

I didn’t see MetaMemes at Protospiel since I didn’t make it this year, but I heard about it (and the game design expansion ;^) ) It’s in ‘early adopter release’ now – which is to say a very small print run that costs more to make than it sells for. Kesavan considers a marketing expense rather than a real product run. The idea is to generate word of mouth, which is really what inspired me to write this. It’s somewhere between a geek version of Apples to Apples and a brainstorming tool with a scoring mechanism. Players combine cards with various concepts to try and create some new invention. Sadly I haven’t played the game yet, but if nothing else it’s a pretty interesting set of cards – Flatland, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, Mambo Chickens (the game’s author’s favorite example card) or simply words (“Laugh”)

It didn’t have anything to do with Protospiel, but I also bought SeigeStones, just because I liked it. I felt a lot like some of the games I’ve been designing.