Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Board Games IIc

Listening to:

Missa Papae Marcelli by Palestrina. Oxford Camerata conducted by Jeremy Summerly. Naxos 8.550573. Lovely.

More Capsule Board-game Reviews

Monday night gaming continues well.


A quick game (a filler in the jargon), that doesn’t outstay its welcome. It features a neat card-playing mechanic whereby battles for territories on a map of Italy are resolved. There’s a lot of luck involved because each round of battles begins with each player receiving a random hand of cards. The strength of hands can vary quite a bit. That said, there’s lots of opportunity to be devious and cunning in the play of one’s hand (it may have to cover multiple battles), and this is definitely fun. My general principle is that random-ness is not such a big deal as long as the game is short, and Condottiere does play quickly enough.


Another filler, but not such a good one. This also features card-play, but the balance is slightly out-of-whack. The cards you play manipulate the ordering of people queueing up to be executed at a guillotine during the French revolution. (This is made out to be a cartoonishly light matter, so that it doesn’t seem at all grim. Make of that what you will.) Either you play according to the official rules which only generally allow one card per play, leading to a feeling of powerlessness; or you play as many cards as you like per play, leading to analysis-paralysis as people struggle to figure out the optimum order in which to deploy the cards.

Perhaps either mode of play could be made to work, given the right group and the right attitude.


This is a stylish, older game with an awesome central mechanic, buckets of theme, and a neat end-condition (to do with the Party Chief managing to wave at the annual May Day parades). It also plays up to six. On the down-side, it’s fiddly to track all the necessary bits of data (done with little cardboard chits). This could be done so much more elegantly with a computer (an iPad version as a shared, miniature table-top perhaps). It’s also quite possible that players may find themselves with nothing to do because their Politicians are not in positions of power. Some may also find the inter-player viciousness off-putting.

Glory to Rome

I’ve played this four times in fairly quick succession recently, and I’m definitely impressed, even though I have no real idea how to play well. It may be that there’s no real opportunity to decide on a strategy in advance. Rather, the winner will be the person who best manages the cards they draw from moment to moment, but while still managing to combine them with a view towards a coherent strategy.

The central mechanics are fairly abstract and revolve around becoming a big-shot in ancient Rome by building impressive buildings by attracting a big clientele of hangers-on to help with those projects, and perhaps also by embezzling building materials for one’s private vault. The buildings all tend to subvert the core rules to a greater or lesser extent and they can also interact quite wildly. This makes for fun effects, but these and the interactions in the core rules really do work well. (They’re also quite hard to explain so I won’t even try. Once the game is going, it all seems quite natural.)

Glory to Rome is probably the best game of this week’s four. But Kremlin is awesome too, and Condottiere is fast, furious and blessed with a cool battle mechanic. A nice set to have to choose from.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Caves of Steel

[Cover of my edition of Caves of Steel]

Listening to:

Wa-Da-Da by Bix Beiderbecke.

Just read:

Caves of Steel, by Isaac Asimov

As illustrated, I read this in an old (printed in the 1970s) Panther edition, complete with cool robots in the cover art. It’s just a bit of a shame that the cool robot has no conceivable connection with the story.

The novel is where we first meet one of Asimov’s favourite characters, R. Daneel Olivaw, an intelligent robot who can pass as human. Despite being a superior being in almost every way, Olivaw ends up needing the human insight of his initially suspicious colleague Elijah Bailey.

Both have to work together to solve a murder case, so the novel is a detective story in a science-fiction setting. On the whole, I think it’s a good story, with the implications of the setup falling out quite elegantly as the investigation progresses. Asimov is pretty famous for his robots (Three Laws of Robotics and all), and this is one of the best stories set in the robot universe. Indeed, it’s probably the best full-length novel in that setting.

Classic science fiction, first published as a book in 1954.


I really need to get my SSH setup sorted. I was at an event today where (I thought) I needed to get my browser pointing to a machine behind a work fire-wall. I needed to be able to use SSH magic to make the hidden server visible on work’s gateway machine, at least to me.

SSH tunnels are so capable of various magic tricks that actually figuring out how to achieve any one particular effect seems to rather more difficult than I’d like.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

The Scary Bit of the Scala Experience

Listening to:

Goodbye Pork Pie Hat from Charles Mingus’s Mingus Ah Um

Scala is Wonderful, But

Despite being another of those worrying single-implementation languages (see also: Perl, OCaml and Haskell), Scala may just be a language I could use instead of SML. It certainly has a number of advantages compared to SML. Firstly, and most importantly, it still seems to be under development, and has thereby managed to attract a community of keen users. (In the SML world, only Poly/ML seems to get any development love.)

It also supposedly gets to leverage the big wide world of Java code, which is pretty appealing. I haven’t confirmed that this is actually possible without undue pain, but being able to link against arbitrary other bits of Java would be pretty awesome. After all, there’s a heck of a lot of Java out there (some of which is presumably useful).

Of course, compiling to the JVM means that you get reasonable portability “for free”, but I think it’s more important that it also gives you consistent access to proper concurrency on multi-processor systems.

(I don’t want to suggest other options might not be awesome too. In particular, Haskell is clearly pretty amazing and my limited experience of writing xmonad configuration files has helped me remain impressed by it.)

Scala’s biggest disadvantage seems to be the build system. That whole Java eco-system is a mysterious world to me, but it seems to have thrown away the simplicity of make and replaced it with the horror of sbt (itself built on top of something called maven apparently). I can build stuff with sbt: I type sbt compile and errors get reported, but I dislike having the system be such a black box. I know how make works, and knowing how it works means I can build a good mental model of what is happening when I invoke it. With sbt I might as well be praying to an inscrutable deity.

Perhaps I just have to invest the time in learning its intricacies.