Saturday, May 30, 2009

Trailblazer

Next up on my journey through my game collection is Trailblazer, a small game from the early '80s about making money in space. Seriously. The setting is a generic future where interstellar engines have been invented, and mankind takes to the stars to find its fortunes. Each player controls one of four corporations, trying to make the most money. You do this by buying items and then selling them. Each star system only creates a small number of items (there are 12 total in the game), and systems want to sell what they do make, and buy what they don't make. The player corporations are the middle-men, building fleets of ships to travel between systems, trading goods.

The underlying system is actually fairly simple. Each turn, players bid money to purchase items at each system. The order in which this is done matters, in that money spent to purchase items at the first system isn't available to purchase items at other systems. The bidding is fairly simple, with players bidding how much they want to spend per item, and how many items of the good in question they want to purchase. For example, if system A has 3 drugs for sale, and player A bids 6 money for 1 unit of drugs, and player B bids 4 money each for 2 units of drugs, and player C bids 3 money each for 3 units of drugs, then player A gets 1 drug at a price of 6, player B gets the remaining 2 drugs at the price of 4 each (total 8), and player C gets nothing because none are left to sell at 3 money each.

Once items have been purchased, players put them on starships and transport them to other systems, where they are sold. Charts that come with the game detail what price different systems will pay for goods, and this changes over time. To use the previous drug example, a system that doesn't produce drugs may pay 8 money for drugs. Once they have some, they don't need as many anymore, so the price they are willing to pay goes down. If nobody sells them any drugs, they might then raise the price they are willing to pay. So, you have to balance scarcity against plenty to get the best price for your goods.

There are other complexities to the game, but not many. You must have a starship in a system in order to transport goods offworld, which especially early in a game limits who gets involved in goods auctions in each system. You can build what the game calls "factors" in systems, which basically means you open a branch office of your company, which allows you to store goods from turn to turn, so you can buy goods at a system even if you have no ships present. Players can also purchase scout ships, which let them explore more of the galaxy, perhaps bringing new systems into play, increasing the opportunities to sell goods to more systems, and thereby make more money.

And that is pretty much it. Players can play as long as they like, but there are suggested ending points based on earning certain amounts of money. Being a game that is over 25 years old, the graphics design is very minimal. The galaxy map is just a blank grid with words in the spaces where starting systems are. The counters are simple pictures of starbases, buildings, or spaceships, all in a two-color pattern. There are no dice, as nothing is random except drawing newly discovered star systems out of a cup. This is a great example of what I like to call a "spreadsheet game." I call it this because gameplay is enhanced by creating spreadsheets to track everything, rather than writing it all down on paper charts, which was the only option realistically available when the game was designed. Being a professional accountant and auditor, you might think I would like this kind of thing. Well, I did. Back before I became a professional accountant, and just had dreams of being such, I loved games like this, because it let me pretend I was an important business person doing important business things. Now that I crunch numbers and track data for a living, I don't have much desire at all to do the same thing in my spare time. Thus, I kind of doubt I will ever play this game again. In fact, my copy has never been played, as the counters are all unpunched and pristine (my plays of this game many years ago were with my brother's copy). Anybody want it?

Vocaloid

A couple months ago on an art site on the internet I stumbled across a picture in a category called "Vocaloid." The picture was of what appeared to be a robot that looked like an anime-inspired young woman. It was kind of interesting, so I started googling the term and found out that it was way more than just a picture. It turns out that Vocaloid is a piece of voice synthesizing software developed originally by Yamaha Corporation, but popularized by a Japanese company that produced a series of releases featuring different "characters" with different voices. The following video does a great job of explaining the basics.



As can happen when things get posted up on the internet, Vocaloid seems to have completely taken off in certain geekier areas of the web. I do find the basic concept fascinating, especially as someone who has written and home-recorded songs before using Guitar Tracks software. Software like this lets people who can't sing, but can play an instrument (especially a synthesizer), produce songs and even entire albums on their own. Then, people who know animation software can produce music videos of the songs. They then hit YouTube (generally after hitting Japanese video-sharing sites), which has hundreds of Vocaloid videos, of varying quality and scariness.

One of my favorites, created using the freeware MikuMikuDance (MMD) software mentioned in the documentary video posted above, is posted below. As a guitarist, I am amazed that all of the guitar work in this video is completely accurate. That had to take many hours to do, but the results are totally cool.




Some creators are more into traditional animation, though, and use standard key-framing techniques (mixed with CG background work fairly often). This probably takes more time than just using existing animation software like MMD, but provides for a greater range of creative expression. I really like the video below, just don't ask me why the lady is choking a younger version of herself halfway through the video, because I have no idea why she would do that. Or why she flies through the middle of some kind of strange construct. Remember that music videos aren't supposed to make sense, or MTV would be a center of logical, constructive discourse on the nature of society.



Edit: No, I don't know how to widen the column on this thing, so that the HD videos don't span too wide and look stupid. We're just going to have to live with it.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

R.I.P. Peter Zezel

Well, it turns out that my favorite Blues player of all time, Peter Zezel, has died. I didn't even know that he had a blood disorder. You never would have guessed it the way he pounded players on the other team. Peter was a fearless competitor, and the kind of player that first drew me to ice hockey. He taught me that hockey players (mostly) weren't a bunch of pretty boys out to make tons of money live crazy. Hockey players were stand-up guys that played fair, but hard. Well, except for Bob Probert, but he's a putz. God speed, Peter.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Friday, May 22, 2009

LolEconz

You may remember a while back when I blogged about the joy that is lolcats. Well, it turns out that someone found a way to combine lolcats with witty commentary on the state of the economy. Admittedly, it could have a better name, but there sure are some funny things at the loleconz site. My favorite so far:

Get it? The cat is falling, just like Gross Domestic Product! It's funny!

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Fortune Cookie the Great

"With integrity and consistency your credits are piling up."
Village China Wok, Hazelwood, MO

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Will Wonders Never Cease

Back in good 'ol 2001 I learned about a Japanese console RPG series called Sakura Taisen. I had started getting into the Oh! My Goddess! manga by Fujishima Kosuke, and I really liked his artwork. I was also big into console video games at that time, and this game sounded really interesting. Not only was it one of those oddball Japanese things I seem to love so much (it references the Russo-Japanese War, and is set in an alternate universe, steampunk-style 1926), but it had a bit of the "dating sim" style game in it, where you had to be nice to the girls in your military unit, and the more they liked you the better they would fight. I wanted to know how that would work.

Well, in either late 2002 or early 2003 Sega Japan released a huge, 12-disc set for the Dreamcast including all of the Sakura Taisen games, from the original in 1996 to 2003s Sakura Taisen IV. I went a bit nuts at this news. I found a company online (NCSX) that imported foreign video games, and I dropped, I don't know, $200 bucks maybe? Yeah, I so bought that thing. It looks awesome, too. Of course, my domestic Dreamcast console couldn't play any of those discs, since Dreamcasts (and all non-portable units to this day) were region encoded. So I sent my console off to NCSX and they added a chip to the mainboard that bypasses the region encoding. Yes, I used to be a horrid person, voiding my warranty just to play some oddball Japanese video game.

Did I mention all the games were in Japanese? With Japanese text and voice overs? Yeah, I don't speak more than a few words of Japanese, and I read even less. However, there was this guy that was even crazier than me, and he went through all the games and produced rather detailed translations of most of the dialogue in the games. He then posted these translation documents on the internet for people like me to download. Trust me, you haven't lived until you have played a Japanese console RPG with an open laptop next to you, following along as the game runs in one language and you read it in another.

Anyway, the point of all this is that there was a Sakura Taisen V released a few years ago for the Playstation 2. This one, unlike the other games in the series, was not set in Japan or France, and had entirely new characters. One of whom is a redheaded cowgirl. OMG, I can't tell you how many buttons that character pushes, buttons I didn't even know I had. I figured I would never get to play that game, as I didn't have a modified PS2, and I wasn't going to try to get one just to play one game, no matter how awesome it might be. Well, guess what? I just found out that NIS America is bringing Sakura Taisen V stateside this Fall. I'm off to find a way to pre-order this thing right now! But before that, I leave you with a picture of awesomeness.

Finding Stuff, and then Moving It

I spent a good chunk of the day yesterday at my parent's place. I played some Combat Commander and Settlers of Catan, and otherwise just hung out. Right before I left, though, my father took me down to the basement to root through a box of games he had recently uncovered. At the bottom was Battle Masters, a board game that my friend Tony had purchased in college, and had given to me. I hadn't seen it in years, and had figured it was lost to the mists of time. Well, now I have it again. No idea when I'll actually play it, though. In the meanwhile, it joins the collection in my basement.

After that, I went to help my friend George move from his old apartment in south county to his new one off Clayton Road, in Creve Coeur, I think. Not too far away from me, actually, just up 141 a few miles. This would have been a non-event, except for the severe thunderstorms that were blowing through the area. We got everything loaded up just fine, but on the drive over the rains kicked in hard, and crazy stuff started to happen. Stuff like the mattress coming loose and flying 50+ feet into the air before landing in the middle of the road. And horizontal rain that soaked everything. Did I mention that George's new apartment is on the third floor of the building, and required hauling large, awkward furniture up a spiral staircase? Yeah, that was fun.

Friday, May 08, 2009

The Fortune Cookie Strikes Back

"Investigate new possibilities with friends. Now is the time!"
New China, Arnold, MO

Shadows over Camelot

Shadows over Camelot is an odd game, as it is generally co-operative, where everyone plays a knight of the round table, and you go on various quests to defeat the forces of evil (or, in a couple cases, the forces of "not you"). As you succeed at quests, you gain benefits, the most important are white swords. White swords are important, because you need them to win. Black swords are awarded when you fail a quest. Once 12 swords of any color are placed, the game ends. If the players have more white swords than black swords, then they win. Otherwise, they lose.

There are other ways to lose, as well. If all knights are killed, the game ends. If 12 catapults are placed around Camelot (generic representation of the growin strength of evil forces), then the game ends. But as long as the knights are on the ball and doing their jobs of completing quests, then things will be all right.

Well, that would be the case, except for the way the game works. Every turn, the player whose turn it is has to do something bad. They can lose a life point from their knight (putting him closer to death), they can place another catapult around Camelot, or they can draw a black card. Black cards always cause something bad to happen, usually related to one of the possible quests. The way the quests work is that they "build up" bad cards until you lose. A couple of the quests are tug-of-war style, where bad cards move something closer to the losing end, while good cards move something closer to the winning end. The others just build up bad cards. Either they fill up and you lose, or they fill up and are compared to your cards, highest total wins.

To win quests, knights have to move their tokens to specific quests, and then play cards on those quests. This might be playing certain numbers of Fight cards, or laying grail cards on the Grail Quest, etc. It ends up being a pretty neat mechanic, because bad things are happening all over the place, but you have to focus on one thing at a time. Sometimes other players can help you on the same quest, but sometimes you are all on your own, and you need the right cards in your hand to win the quest. Yes, winning quests is done with the playing of white cards, which are one of the possible knight actions each turn. You can move, you can draw new cards if in Camelot, or you can play white cards where you are. It leads to fairly tense games in my experience, where the knights are trying to get the right cards to the right places while they slowly lose ground in everything they aren't actively engaged on.

One neat potentiality, which I've never actually seen happen, is that one of the knights can secretly be a traitor, working against the other players. The traitor wins if the knights lose, because he is actually an agent of evil. Each player has a 1/8 chance of being a traitor. This adds an interesting dynamic to the game, because you are never quite sure who is actually a traitor. You can accuse other players of being a traitor, but you better be right, because being wrong flips a white sword to a black sword, which is pretty bad.

I've played this game twice now, and both times the knights have come close to winning, but lose a few turns before they would be able to win. It has been pretty tense all through the game, and I have to say the game is fun to play. I can see how some people might not like it, due to its non-standard setup and game play, but it is worth trying out if you get a chance.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Celebratin' my 35th

Well, I know what I'm doin' on my next birthday. What are you doin'?

And more importantly, do you think they saw my address and gave me the ticket with Scott Rolen's picture on purpose, or is it happenstance?

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Stupid Birds

There is this mated pair of starlings that keeps trying to build a nest in my dryer vent. They worked at it last year, and they are back at it again this year. A few weeks ago I went out to get a vent cover, but my stupid dryer vent is some fancy thing that none of the vent cover models will fit. So I just kept cleaning it out by hand, but then recently I had this idea. I had picked up a pack of little adhesive dots at a craft store (I was thinking they would work well for putting shields on wargaming minis). I didn't want to have to try to glue the vent cover into place, but I could pre-place the dots and just stick the cover over the vent. In theory, it should work.

So, that is what I did late this morning after church. I did it while actually running the dryer, as I wanted to make sure I didn't have starlings attacking my head while performing the operation. I am happy to report that it seems to be working great. I went out this afternoon to check on it and make sure it hadn't fallen off, and a very depressed starling was sitting on it staring forlornly at the dryer vent. It made me smile.

All Things Must End

I recently learned that Yahoo! will be shutting down their Geocities website service at some point later this year. My first online experience was with Geocities (back before it was a Yahoo! service), and I still have a website with them. I haven't done much with it in recent years, to be honest, but it is still a little sad to see it go. With its forthcoming disappearance into the aether, I have been looking into new online tools to do similar things. My first success was yesterday, when I was looking for some sort of widget I could add to this blog to showcase the books I am reading. I landed on the site Goodreads, which lets you keep a virtual library, rate and review books, and also produces a handy widget to either show what you are reading, or produce random views into your "bookshelves," which is Goodreads' way of letting you break your collection up in different ways. All I need now is one of these bad boys for comic books and I'll be set.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

More Fortune Cookie Adventures

"This week, you have a good head in matters of money."
China 1, Twin Oaks, MO