Thursday, 5 July 2012

Board Games IIf

Listening to:

Dvořák, symphony no. 8 in G, op. 88.

Two Tile Board Games

A couple of highly recommended games featuring tiles, iOS implementations and unduly complicated scoring:


Along with the famous Settlers of Catan, which I’ve never played (but about which there is now quite an appealing Tabletop video), Carcassonne is probably the most famous “gateway” game out there. Such a game is one that is meant to get the user addicted to the modern Euro style of board game, sucking them in so that get into even heavier and meatier games.

Carcassonne is certainly light and easy to pick up (though scoring, particularly of farms, is fiddlier than one might like). It’s also visually appealing: as play progresses the players cooperate to build a pretty map of a medieval countryside. This map is made out of the tiles that the players play on the playing surface. Game-play is simple: draw a tile from a bag; add it to the growing map; optionally add a little wooden person in one’s colour (a “meeple”) to the map to lay claim to part of that map.

There are plenty of hard decisions to make, but at the same time, it’s rather luck-driven. This is because the tiles are drawn one at a time, and the tile you have in your hand critically determines just what you will be able to do. With more than two players, the game becomes even more random because the situation will typically change in fairly drastic fashion between one player’s move and their next. Despite the prettiness of the evolving map, there is plenty of opportunity to be quite nasty to other players. You may or may not see this as an advantage.

There is an extremely good iOS implementation of Carcassonne in the App Store.


In Ra, the aim of the game is to collect various sets of tiles that are worth different amounts of points. Everything is vaguely Egyptian in theme. There are monuments, pharaohs, cultural advances, lands and Nile floods. Perhaps unfortunately, these tiles are not arranged into a pretty map, but are kept in front of each player as they are acquired. Indeed, they can be kept strewn about however one wants.

The game’s central mechanic is a form of auction, and one player’s move is very simple: they can get another tile from a bag to add to the current lot, or they can decide to call for an auction of that current lot (there’s actually another third option that doesn’t get exercised very often). In general, every player’s situation will be slightly different: they’ll have different levels of resources to pay with, and they’ll also be pursuing slightly different goals. It’s very clever, and the mechanics interact very cleverly. Modern Art (also by the same designer, Reiner Knizia) is cleverer as an auction game (Ra’s auctions are actually pretty weird as auctions go), but the set collection in Ra is neat and something that Modern Art doesn’t really have. There’s less “randomness” in the final scoring: in Modern Art, a painting can be worth absolutely nothing because its artist hasn’t “placed”; there isn’t anything quite as vicious in Ra.

There’s a reasonable Ra iOS implementation, but it has no online community so for the moment, you have to be content with playing against its AI (which seems pretty good).

Saturday, 21 July 2012

Did Darwin Get It Right?

Listening to:

Sibelius, symphony no. 1 in E minor, op. 39

Just read:

John Maynard Smith, Did Darwin Get It Right? Essays on Games, Sex and Evolution.

This rather bitty book is a collection of short pieces that Maynard Smith wrote for magazines such as Nature, Amercian Scientist and The London Review of Books. Many are reviews of various books. Unfortunately a number of these don’t make it obvious just what book is being reviewed, which makes for a rather disconnected reading experience.

Some of the pieces are also rather old. The book was originally published in 1988, and though most of the essays are from the 80s, there are some from the 70s, and one from the 60s. It’s hard, for example, to get excited about the controversies to do with punctuated equilibria and sociobiology.

My last criticism is that essays of this sort naturally need to be self-contained, and this means that those essays on similar topics often have to repeat pretty similar introductions to the area. This can be a bit wearying.

Having said all that, Maynard Smith writes in an appealing style, and most of the material is actually pretty interesting. It’s also good to be getting this stuff from someone who actually contributed to the subject and is not just a journalist. I just can’t see myself returning to this volume as a particularly great example of popular science writing.