Sunday, October 26, 2008

Busy Saturday

This past Saturday I went hiking for the first time in quite a while. I went to Forest 44 Conservation Area, which turns out to be only a few miles from my house, next to a large horse ranch. That being the case, most of the people I passed by on the trails were riding horses. This was both good and bad. Good, because the trails were wide. Bad, because horses tear up trails pretty badly, especially after significant rains. So, yeah, lots of mud. It was good to get outside and do some hiking though. Then I went and watched the Blues manhandle the Florida Panthers in a 4 - 0 shutout. A fine way to cap the day.

Ben Hurt

Ben Hurt is a game of chariot racing, printed in the mid '90s by Cheapass Games. It was a gift from my brother, Mark, on either a birthday or Christmas many years ago. As with all games by Cheapass, it comes with only the unique components to the game: the board (in six pieces that you have to assemble yourself), the rules, and 80 playing cards. You have to add money, player tokens, and dice, of a unique color or style for each player.

Each player represents a rich layabout trying to become richer by funding chariots in the chariot races in ancient Rome. Each player starts with 100 ducats, which seems like a lot, but they disappear quickly. To enter reach race, you have to ante 2 ducats per lap in the race into the "pot." Then, you also spend money on various cards to either improve your chariot prior to the race (by either improving the chariot itself or getting a special driver), or to use during the race to break the rules in various ways.

This is handled in a pretty cool way. You get a few cards for free each race, but more cards are given up for auction. Each player will have cards that they can either pay for up front (each card has a "quick sale" cost that allows the auctioneer to simply buy it), or it goes around the table. The first time around, anyone who wants it has to put 1 ducat into the pot. If more than one person put into the pot for it, it goes around again, but particpants have to put in 2 ducats, and so on. Each time round it gets more expensive, and this helps make for a richer pot.

Once the race begins, player move their chariots around the track. Each chariot is represented by a die. The reason for this is that your movement points is both a combination of your chariot's speed (usually the number you rolled in the previous round, but not always) and what you rolled. For example, chariots start out at a low speed (duh), usually 1 or 2. Thus, if I start with a speed of 1, and then roll a 6, I move 7 spaces. However, then my speed becomes 6. In the next turn, if I roll a 4, I move 10 spaces, and then my speed becomes 4. So there is some momentum. This would make you think that the entire game is random and based on speed die rolls. This is partly true, but there are many cards that let you mess with other players. Maybe they have to re-roll, maybe you throw a cat or an orangutan at their chariot (yes, this can happen) to slow them down, maybe you drop grease behind your chariot as you pass someone making everyone else to slower, etc. The game would be hopelessly lame without the use of the cards.

However, even with the cards, the game still feels a bit too random. Maybe it takes a number of plays to really figure out the best cards to get, and therefore the best ones to bid one before the race. The game is helped by the "tournament" structure that it has. See, there isn't just one race. The game consists of a series of races. The number of races, and their length in laps, is decided by the players. The standard series is 3 races of lengths of 1, 2, and 4 laps. You can have much more involved races, though. The length of a race really impacts the way cards are played. In a short race, you will probably play your cards as soon as possible, because the race can be very short if some bursts ahead. In a longer race, though, you will likely see more saving of cards to use until late in the race, if it stays tight.

When a race is over, the pot is paid out to first, second, and third place finishers. The pot is divided into 6 equal shares. First place gets three shares, second place gets two, and third place gets one. It only takes a couple races without winning to really put a player in a bind, with little cash left to invest in new cards. Thus, there can be some momentum in the game, with a player getting an early lead in the series and it being hard to knock them out. Because of this, even though the game is rated for 4 to 8 players, I'm not sure I would play it with more than 6. The game can also get long with many players, though it also gets pretty crazy.

In the end, this game is pretty average, as tends to be the case with games by Cheapass. It is pretty simple and easy to pick up and play, but it has some depth in knowing how to properly play the cards and handle the auctions for more cards. However, the game just didn't really grab me, and throwing cats at opposing chariots, or attacking them with hoes (like you use in your garden), just seems silly. It's good for a laugh, but it gets old, and there are better games to play.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

That Was Easy... But This Won't Be

An interesting article has just been posted at the Books & Culture website. It's worth checking out. Here's the part that hooked me:

Well, our culture is pretty afflicted right now. Which is why I am more hopeful than I've been in a long time.

I am not hopeful because I envision an easy way out of the current economic mess. We are entering into the Great Deleveraging, where an entire country of consumers will have to pare back their reliance on cheap mortgages and abundant credit cards. (Remember when your mailbox was stuffed with credit card offers? Seen any lately?) The national savings rate might even rise above 0%—yes, that is zero percent, the proportion Americans have been collectively saving for several years now. But that means that consumption, a major engine of our economy, will have to decline dramatically.
I am not hopeful because I have confidence in whoever will be elected president in 15 days. I have grave concerns, as a Christian and as a citizen, about both candidates and will in all likelihood vote for neither. (Not for the first time—in 2004 I wrote in Colin Powell.)

I am not hopeful because I think we are well prepared for what is ahead of us. We are not. We are a terrifyingly unserious people, our heads buzzing with trivia and noise. This is more true, if anything, of American Christians than the rest of our country. The stark contrast between what I experience among Christians anywhere else in the world—and not just the "Third World," because Canada and Germany and Britain and Singapore come to mind as quickly as Uganda and India—and American Christians is astonishing. We are preoccupied with fads intellectual, theological, technological, and sartorial. Vanishingly few of us have any serious discipline of silence, solitude, study, and fasting. We have, in the short run, very little to offer our culture, because we live in the short run.

I am not hopeful because I think life is going to get easier in America. I am hopeful because I think it is going to get harder, and in a very good way. And I am hopeful because I think this means my children and grandchildren will live in a deeply and truly better world than I would have thought possible a few years ago.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Blues Win! Blues Win!

This past Saturday was my first of 11 games for the Blues that I have tickets to, this year. As seems to be their wont this year, the Blues started slowly, and looked pretty sluggish, especially on defense. As is also their wont this year, they got noticeably better as the game went on. I wasn't sure they were going to be able to pull it off, but they did. Scoring with 14 seconds left in the third period to tie it? I admit I went a little nuts at that point. Not as nuts as the ~12 people fighting in the upper bowl to my left, though. My form of "nuts" is more respectable, and doesn't involve taking my clothes off. Yeah, that was weird. Anyway, the Blues won the game in a shoot-out, which makes us 2-0 in shootouts this year. I don't know if we'll be making the playoffs this year, but if we can keep this up we will definitely be competitive.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Des Moines

Greetings from Des Moines, Iowa. Yes, I am back in the place of my birth, for the first time in probably 20 years. As this prior weekend began it looked like I was going to be headed towards either Nevada or Puerto Rico this week. As the weekend ended I learned that I was going to Des Moines, instead. Which is OK, because it is hockey season and who wants to be having fun in the sun during hockey season? Not me, certainly. So, instead, I am in cold, rainy Iowa. I'm here on some project new is very undefined, and I think my boss wanted someone up here with her just to keep her company, because all I'm doing is reading documents and getting ready for a meeting with some guys from KPMG tomorrow, which could have all been done by phone and email. Ah, well; so it goes.

Thursday, October 09, 2008


And now for a game I have actually played recently, Illuminati. This is a card game of global domination by secret power groups. You know all those conspiracy theories you hear from people on the bus or read about in supermarket tabloids? About how the Vacitan secretly controls the Church of Satan and how George Bush has orbital mind control lasers to stay in power? In this game, it's all true.

The game itself is fairly simple rules-wise, but that hides a lot of deep strategy. Each player is a specific Illuminati group. The basic game comes with eight, though expansion sets have added more. Each Illuminati has a specific amount of power, and it uses this power to take over various groups. In fact, most of the cards in the game consist of specific groups, like the Congressional Wives, or California, or the Democratic Party, or the International Communist Conspiracy, or the Eco-Terrorists, or the Boy Sprouts, or the American Autoduel Association, or... well, you get the idea. Each group has a Resistance, and you total up your power, and compare it to the target's resistance, to determine your odds of taking them over. Roll that number or less on two dice and you got 'em.

Of course, it's never that simple, is it? Everybody has money, accumulated at a different rate for each group, based on their Income rating. You can spend money to make it easier to take over groups, which is pretty cool. Of course, other players can spend their money to make it harder for you to take over your target. And here is where the game really gets fun! Wheeling and dealing abound as the players all try to keep the other players from achieving their goals and winning the game, without leaving themselves broke and defenseless? Why does that matter? Because other players can attack groups that you already control, so having some money on hand for defensive purposes can be important.

Winning generally consists of having a specific number of groups under your control. It varies based on the number of players. For example, with four players you need to control 12 groups in order to win. To help make everyone paranoid, though, each Illuminati has their own secret goal that will let them win another way. For example, the Bavarian Illuminati want to have a total of 35 Power in their control structure. The Gnomes of Zurich want to have a total of 150 MegaBucks in their control structure. The Servants of Cthulhu (being crazy cultists) want to destroy a total of 8 groups (yes, you don't just capture groups, you can also destroy them). And then there are the UFOs, which secretly pick one of the other Illuminati's secret goals, so nobody will ever know what they are trying to do.

So, a conceptually simple game with a lot of political maneuvering, deal making, deal breaking, and general back-stabbing. Good times!

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Big Spender

Yesterday I had the distinct privilege of writing the largest denomination check I have ever written. Over 18 grand, it was, pretty much all of my discretionary savings over the last five years or more. I spent it all to get rid of one of my two mortgages. When I got my place almost 4 years ago, I had an "80/15/5" mortgage, where I put down 5% and got two mortgages to make up the rest of it. This money pays off the '15' part of the equation, moving me out of Alt-A status and into the land of God-fearing citizens. Or something like that.

Or maybe I just didn't like having to write that extra check every month. That's a possibility.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Fury of the Norsemen

It's time for another dig into the depth of my game collection. This time I have unearthed Fury of the Norsemen, a small wargame depicting a viking raid into a generic northern European village unfortunately built along the coast. This game was published by Metagaming back in the early '80s, and I have owned it since at latest 1996, if not earlier. However, it had been over 10 years since I had last played the game.

The map depicts a rather small village, along with the surrounding woods. The village contains a monastery on the edge of town, a keep, a church, and a manor where the lord lives. The vikings all attack from boats that land along the shoreline. In the basic game there is just one boat, but there are optional scenarios that give the vikings two boats. The vikings start with ~25 units, which boil into the town and begin stealing livestock, women, and treasure. Yes, the point of the game for the viking player is to go all caveman, bonk women on the head, and drag them off. And horses and cows, as well. The viking player wins if he collects 18 or more points from loot. Treasure, women, and livestock are all worth one point apiece. The church treasure and the various village leaders are all worth three points.

The village player, naturally, wins if he stops this. The village player has the joy of starting with many more units. However, most of these units represent the average villager with a hoe or shovel, and they will die in droves if they don't run away as fast as they can. I always have them die while protecting the women, because that seems like the manly thing to do, but trust me, they will most likely die if they try this. On the other hand, there are a few serious military figures in the town, and if they bunch up well they can hold up the vikings for a while. The game only runs for 12 turns, so the viking player needs to get to the sacking as fast as possible, and thus simply holding up the vikings can actually be good strategy. You don't need to kill them, just keep them occupied.

Now, I have to admit that I find this game rather boring. Once you get the standard strategy down there really isn't much strategy to it. As soon as he can, the village player sends his womenfolk running for the keep while the militia hold off the vikings. The cavalry and soldiers can grab significant strategic points and hold on as long as possible. The vikings must run as hard as they can to grab all the good stuff. This means that the vikings must extend themselves, leaving themselves open to a counter-attack. But, still, they're pretty good.

However, the combat results table is weird and ruins the game for me. Combat can result in either the defenders or attackers running away or dying, or both sides killing each other. Trust me, the two sides will kill each other all the time. This is of great benefit to the village player, as you are usually losing lousy militia while the viking player loses good, solid viking units. And he only has about 25 vikings, and once one of them takes loot back to the ship, they are out of the game. And since you need 18 points, once you lose about five or six vikings, good luck actually getting those 18 points.

So, not a terrible game, but it has noticeable flaws that keep me from really wanting to play it, ever.