16 February 2019

And Life goes on ... with Don Woods!

In "That's life!" I approached the Game of Life, by John Conway, and one of the two-player versions, Immigration, developed by Don Woods.

Now this world of interconnections in which we live provides unexpected possibilities and events: a search, an address found, a message sent, a reply that ended in the spam box, its recovery many days later.

All facilitated by technology, but only made possible by the kindness of people: Don Woods himself, was gentle enough to share some memories and to answer a set of questions sent by this stranger, thousands of kilometres away, about a game created a few decades ago!

A good pretext to revisit Immigration, and a little more.

Ironically, in a stage of his programmer's career (which includes companies such as Sun Microsystems, Xerox, and others that came to be purchased by Microsoft and Google), Don worked in a spam filtering-related service company. And I almost lost his message because of a spam filter!

Ever since a fan of games, Don Woods created, together with Will Crowther, in the 1970’s, Adventure, a computer game considered to be the first interactive fiction game in which the player introduced his commands in natural language. As we will see from the choice of games, the taste for adventure continues.

No wonder, therefore, that combining the enthusiasm for games, the programming and the logical and mathematical approach that is inherent to it, he has attempted to transform the abstract Game of Life, more contemplative, in a game for two. In his own words:

I have been interested in games since quite a young age, so I’m not surprised I wanted to find a two-player version of Life, but I no longer recall any specific inspiration.

Or, perhaps more appropriately, in a game concept.

I must confess that, back when I came up with the idea for Immigration, I was still quite inexperienced at game design, so I was mostly guessing at what would make for an interesting game. I do not remember a lot of play-testing, either, so the game is mostly hypothetical.

And clarifying, about playing over the board:

"I'm sure I've never done any profound analysis of life, except on computer."

A part of the message exchange focused on the mechanics of the game itself, alternatives or possible evolutions. I remind you that, in Immigration, players only act each 10 turns or generations, all the rest being the automatic development of the "organism", according to the rules determining the birth and death of cells.

The 10-generation gap was an arbitrary choice and could no doubt use some tuning. Allowing player intervention every turn would clearly be too chaotic, but it's possible that the right interval could be shorter or longer, or even that it should gradually become longer as the game proceeds, to make it harder for a player to recover if their position is dying out.

In "That's life!" I had suggested the possibility of reversing the order of play: not starting with the player with a larger population, but according initiative to the player lagging behind. Now, interestingly, initiative may not always be the most important factor, and may, even, induce adverse effects, as Don Woods points out:

Regarding which player should be the first to add their immigrant, I think the stronger position should be required to add theirs first, so that the weaker player can try to react and limit the damage.  If the weaker position is forced to move first, the strong position is free either to counter their play or to make an attack that cannot be countered.”

And on the hypothesis of a variant for more than two players:

“I recall thinking a bit about supporting more players, and I'm sure I've seen rules for automata with more than 3 states (including empty).  The tricky part is finding a rule for which player "owns" a newly birthed cell.  Since it takes exactly three neighbors to generate a new birth, it was easy to come up with the rule two players, basing it on the majority.  With 4 players you could rule that the new cell belongs to whichever player owns 2-3 of the neighbors, or to the 4th player if the three neighbors are all different.  But I never tried out anything like that.”

Interesting reflections on the notion of neighborhood, and its implications, with potential applications for the development of board games!

Don Woods's list of preferences, of different periods, includes games such as Titan (Avalon Hill, 1980), Empire Builders (Mayfair Games, 1982), Wizards (Avalon Hill, 1982). Race for the Galaxy, since from the pre-publication phase, and Dominion (Rio Grande Games, 2007 and 2008). In addition to computer games.

Many of the best games of the past several years continue to be abstract games at their core, even if there is theme and structure pasted on top of the mechanics.  I do tend to prefer games with an element of randomness, to keep the game fresh and not bogged down with analysis.  (Azul is a good recent example.)

And while we are at it, as for today's games, the preferences go to Terraforming Mars, Gloomhaven and Azul.

Let's conclude with a word about the crave for game design:

I don't generally design games, but have several friends who do, so I satisfy my designer "itch" by play-testing their games and offering suggestions.”

Thanks so much, Don!

P.S. – Conway’s Game of Life and the cellular automata related are still alive: http://www.conwaylife.com/

9 February 2019

PAW, Engraved in stone

PAW. Playing around the World. Today in different format, leaving the rooms where usually games are played, leaving the tables, the boards that may be folded, the boxes.

Traveling through the territory.
From the museum to the churches and castles.
From the Portuguese capital, Lisbon, to the Beira Alta border.
Looking over the rest of the country and beyond.

Traveling through time.
Time of players and builders, or builders-players.
Time of the archaeologists, curators, historians, in search of memory.
Visitor time.

Traveling along the family tree.
In a text with photographs sent by my daughter and papers written by my mother!

About immovable boards, engraved on stone, which remain after the people are no long, waiting for others to come. Adapting the lyrics of Barclay James Harvest, "Now the People Are Gone Just the Games’ Boards Alone”.

Let’s start at the National Museum of Natural History and Science, in Lisbon, with a game reproduction and a factsheet on the Alguergue, in the Alguergue of 12 variety (Photos by Leonor Conceição).

A 5x5-point board. A dozen pieces on each side, leaving only a free intersection at the beginning of the game.

Lines that connect the dots, indicating the possible movements. Moving only one step at a time, from one point to an unoccupied neighbour point.

Captures, leaping over an adjacent opponent's piece to the immediately following intersection, provided it is empty. Possibility of multiple captures, in sequence, in one single move.

A classic game, a two-sided fight.

Let's leave the museum, heading to Beira Alta, Sabugal County, on the border with Spain. 

Let's travel, in the writing of Manuela de Alcântara Santos, to find alguergue boards carved on granite and to discover a little more of its history [1]. 

Alguergue, an word coming from ancient Arabic Al-Quirkat, small stone. Word that denotes the close origin of these games that have traveled to us: introduced in the Iberian Peninsula by overseas Muslims.

Not a game, but a family of games, with common principles, but with different boards and number of stones.

Here, in Sabugal, these are five alguergues of other variants, designated 9 and 3, according to the number of stones on each side.

Engraved boards may be found in Sabugal, Vila Maior, Vila do Touro, Sortelha and Rendo. In rocky outcrops or constructions. All probably from medieval times.

From Sabugal let’s move to the whole country finding more, many more, games engraved on the stone.

Up to 250 boards identified in the work of Lídia Fernandes [2], with a clear majority of alguergues of 12 and 9, from north to south, from Valença to Silves, some dated from the X-XI centuries.

And we go beyond, crossing borders of countries, regions or tribes, communicating in different languages, using distinguished names, but playing the same games: Alquerque (Spain), Marro (Catalonia), Marelle (Italy), Marella (Sicily), Mérelles (France), Bara-Guti (India), Natt klab ash-shawk (Palestine), Damma (Sara), Aiyawatstani (New Mexico), among many others [3].

[1] Santos, Manuela de Alcântara (2012), Tabuleiros de jogos de alguergue no concelho de Sabugal, [Boards of alguergue games in Sabugal county], Sabucale – Revista do Museu do Sabugal, 2012, n.º 4, pp 83-96.

[2] Fernandes, Lídia (2013), Tabuleiros de jogo inscritos na pedra – Um roteiro lúdico português, [Game boards engraved in stone - a Portuguese ludic itinerary ], Apenas Livros.

[3] Murray, H.J.R (1952), A history of board-games other than chess, Oxford at the Clarendon Press.

Step in and leave your PAW print - Playing Around the World - and follow the PAW tag.
Send a photo of a gaming session, the game title, your name, city, country (and, if you feel like, a short sentence about the game and or a photo of the city) to gamesinbw@gmail.com.

3 February 2019

The way of the stones

Traversing the path of stones. One stone at a time. On terra firma, in shades of green. Trying to get as far as possible.

Picking up Celtic stones, valuable for the final scoring. Adding or subtracting points, depending on the number of stones.

Traversing the paths of stones. Not one, but five. In colours, Blue, Green, Pink, Yellow, Red. Not alone, but in the company of other walkers. Competing. Running over the rocks, one stone at a time.

"Hmmm... Starting hand. From a deck of cards numbered from 0 to 10. One color for each path. 

Placing in ascending or descending order. First choices seem obvious: yellow in ascending order; blue in descending order. As for the rest, it is better to wait for the next few cards. 

Take the risk and start moving the only big token, which
doubles points at the end, by the yellow path? Yes, I think so. In doing so I will only be unable to use the yellow zeros."

In every move, only one card. Each card, a single path, a single movement.

Who will pick up the next stone? Black or white?

Award priority to this path or advance in another?

Play an easy card, in the right sequence order, take a big leap, for example, from a "7" to a "2", compromising future advances, or wait for a better card?

Seek for a movement bonus on another path?

Rush the end game or delay the outcome, in an attempt to improve the position in each of the five paths?


The game is reaching the end.

There are two players who have already picked up three gems.

The big black token has reached the end of the path. It will score 20 points (10 x 2, for being the large one). The gray is nearby.

Good choices!

Knizia, Reiner. Keltis. Stuttgart, 2008: Kosmos Verlag. Devir.

27 January 2019

In Red Baron's time

Misty morning. The wind, cold and damp, blows from the North. I button up the leather jacket and fit the gloves. The boots step onto the grass, still wet. I get to the dirt road. On the track, the triplane, now painted in red. A last check. The usual touch on the wings. I slip into the cockpit and put the goggles on. Engine running. The bird trembles and advances, preparing for the flight. Could be just another training session, or a weekend flight over the green fields. I sigh. We're in 1917, and the world is at war.   

If I should come out of this war alive, I will have more luck than brains”, Manfred von Richthofen, aka the Red Baron.

This is a game that recreates the aerial battles of World War I.  No board, no parts, no maps.

Ace of Aces uses only two small books, one for each pilot, filled with images that show the views from the cockpit.

And adopts an ingenious system of cross-references, allowing to connect the pages of both books, and so to keep the reciprocal views of each plane on the other, whatever the maneuvers performed.

In the simplest version of the rules, needing no notes or records on paper, it's a perfect game to play when travelling.

With different levels of complexity, and optional rules, is suitable for different tastes and an episodic or systematic approach.

A must have game, if only for the originality.

View point from an Allied plane. In front, on the left, the German triplane.

Below the cockpit, the entire range of possible maneuvers, since simple turns to aerobatics or even stall; from low speed to full throttle.

And an indication of the page references to use, in conjunction with the one of the opponent, to determine the new relative position of the aircrafts and, hence, the new book page.

In line of sight. Firing.

Scoring a hit!

Being hit!

After the introductory game it is time to move to the next level: simulation of combat aboard some of the planes at the time.

A dozen models to choose from, each with different maneuverability abilities and speed allowances!

On one side, the choice lies between the Nieuport (11, 17, 28) and the Sopwith (Triplane, Camel, Snipe). On the other, between the Fokker (D III, DR I, DV III) and the Siemens-Shuckert (D I, D III, D IV).

It's a whole new learning, in that the choice of an action is limited by the previous manoeuvre and speed. Banking the plane to the left, for example, prevents to immediately follow it with a right turn. If you stall, it is not possible to perform a subsequent manoeuvre at high speed.

But that's not all.

For those who are keen for more complexity, there are also advanced rules. Adding the vertical dimension, with climbs, dives and the recording of the aircraft altitude. Or where it is necessary to determine the consequences of each shot: damage to enemy weapons, hindering the ability to manoeuvre, causing a fuel leak, hitting the pilot. 

And then there's still the campaign mode, in which each player leads a flying squadron, with named pilots, evolving throughout the campaign in accordance with the results of each dogfight. It's time to call von Richthofen, Georges Guynemer or William Barker.

Now, just clouds.

Tomorrow will be a brand new day.

Leonardi, Alfredi, Ace of Aces - Richthofen, Manchester, USA, 1986: Nova Game Designs Inc. Emithill Limited.

24 January 2019

PAW in Florianópolis, Brasil

PAW in Brazil.
From Florianópolis, the capital of the State of Santa Catarina.
With a view to the Hercílio Luz bridge, between the island and the Mainland, in a photo by Ricardo Junior. 

A journey that continues, by the hands of Bianca Melyna.

On the table "The voyages of Marco Polo", with the expansion "Companions" and the mini expansions "The secret paths of Marco Polo" and "New Characters". 

Score: 105 x 40.

Thanks Bianca!

Step in and leave your PAW print - Playing Around the World - and follow the PAW tag.
Send a photo of a gaming session, the game title, your name, city, country (and, if you feel like, a short sentence about the game and or a photo of the city) to gamesinbw@gmail.com.