GenCon and Cybernetic Gaming: The Golem

This is a three part article about how digital technology is being woven into the fabric of board games, card games, and role-playing games.

Part One: The Golem

The booth for Harebrained Schemes is located at the back of the exhibit hall. It is a moderately large booth, much of its space turned over to four tables where convention goers can try out the company’s newest game: Golem Arcana. The long tables are covered with various landscapes constructed of large cardboard tiles, across which battle monstrous figurines. In many respects it looks just like any other game in which players battle with miniatures. In this case players control giant constructs that often look like demons out of a Lovecraftian nightmare instead of plastic infantry and tanks, but it’s instantly recognizable to anyone who has ever set up their green army men for a war across the family room. What is different about the scene—frankly the first thing that anyone approaching the booth would notice— is the large flat-screen monitor that is mounted above each game table.

At first, I think the monitors are simply to broadcast the games—something bright and flashy to lure in more GenCongregants. And although the large monitors are indeed bright and flashy and work on a principle similar to a bug-zapper for gamers, it turns out they are an integral part of the game.

Golem Arcana is designed to be played with a Bluetooth capable device. The monitors on each table are merely making the user interface visible to the gathered throng. Golem Arcana is a computer assisted table-top game. It is a game for hobbyists—those dedicated individuals who collect and paint and vast armies of miniatures—but Harebrained Schemes sees it as a point of entry for more casual gamers. As co-founder Mitch Gitelman tells me, “This is a social game. The technology takes away some of the barriers.”

I meet Mitch on the second day of GenCon. The vendors’ exhibition hall is packed and a line has started curling around one side of the booth as gamers queue up for a turn at one of the demonstration tables. We walk a few paces away from the booth just so Mitch isn’t drawn into some other conversation or demand on his time, but after a few minutes of standing he gets light headed and we sit down at a small table at the edge of the booth space. Turns out he hasn’t been eating much, and he has been talking, standing, or moving almost non-stop ever since GenCon opened its doors. He is enthusiastic and animated. His hands move in expressive bursts when he talks, but I suspect there is a limit to just how much that energy can be sustained by caffeinated sodas.

Golem Arcana is a gateway game,” he says to me as he pulls over a few of the game pieces and sets his phone on the table. At its most basic, the game consists of 6 landscape tiles, 6 figurines, two 10-sided dice, a blue-tooth enabled stylus, and a digital smart device such as a tablet or phone. Unlike any number of table-top war-games, Golem Arcana doesn’t require players read or consult a tome-like rulebook. Everything you need to get playing is contained in an app; starting with how to use the stylus and the digital interface.

Mitch sets his phone in front of us, and after the app loads, he presses the button to begin the tutorial. There is a brief explanation of the stylus and some examples of how it is used in the game. It shows us how to set up a small fight scenario—which we do—and then proceeds to teach us how to play the game by (and I know this sounds crazy) having us play a game. Any information I need about the pieces—how they move, how they attack, what special powers they might have—is accessible by touching the stylus to the piece or the landscape tile and pressing a button. There are also reference cards that players can touch with the stylus if that is easier than reaching the figurines. The information I need is displayed on the smart-screen.

“Microdots,” Mitch explains. The tip of the stylus contains a tiny camera that reads microscopic dots of information that are printed all along the base of the figures, on the landscape tiles, and on the face of the information cards. Players must still move the pieces and tell the app where the pieces are, but all other information is stored in the app: hit points are tracked electronically; allowable actions are highlighted on the user interface, movement options are illustrated for the player.

There are times when we need to roll the dice. The results are entered into the app and the game continues. “The app comes with a random number generator,” Mitch tells me as my small Golem deals damage to the larger foe, “but there is something about rolling dice that is important to the experience.” I agree with him. Rolling dice feels more random than having my phone produce a number. If I get a lousy roll on the app I might feel like the game is cheating me, but if the dice give me a lousy roll all I can do is curse fate. Or the dice. “Gamers tend to be superstitious about their dice,” Mitch says with a smile. He mentions that a lot of people who play at the demonstrations will switch back and forth between the dice and the app whenever one “goes cold.”

Golem Arcana is highly expandable and highly customizable. Through the app, players can download new scenarios, new game modes, and participate in the developing world of Eretsu. The players’ progress is tracked by the app, and the game will suggest new scenarios based on the ones that have been completed. But the new scenarios are not just canned adventures that players would be expected to complete in a linear manner. The results of the player’s home experience influences the world of Eretsu and changes the way future games will be played.

Multiple players can be accommodated by the software. At one table there were six players battling over a massive 24 tile game board.

I have friends who are avid collectors of miniatures and will memorize seemingly endless tables of data in anticipation of their next encounter. That level of dedication is not for me. I have a little experience with table-top miniature games—much of it good. I remember playing Warhammer and Warhammer 40K with cardboard chits and a tape measure. I’ve played some Batttletech and Car Wars and more recently a few scenarios of Memoir ’44. And although I loved playing these games with my friends, what I really loved was that they were obsessive enough to have the rules memorized (and usually the game set-up) before I ever had to play.

The ease with which I could learn from and interact with Golem Arcana is very appealing to me.

That’s not to say that I have no reservations about this encroachment of technology into the realm of table-top gaming. As far as I know, it is possible to play Golem Arcana without the electronic aids. You can find the information about the pieces and the terrain and the order of play. There are dice for your random events. The game is transparent in that you can learn the mechanics and play without the use of a smart device. You can record all necessary information with paper and pencil should you want to.

But given the ease of the technology why would you want to? Most gamers, especially those like me on the casual edge of the miniatures scene would see the app-based rules and interface as a great convenience. But convenience comes at its own price.

I will say this for my friends who obsess over their miniatures: they have paid a price—both in time and money—that virtually guarantees that they will play their games of choice for a long, long time. Harebrained Schemes has turned to our digital devices and the structure of many video games to effectively lower the entry price for casual gamers. And I’m not talking about the monetary cost: the basic Golem Arcana set costs around $80 and after that the sky is the limit. I mean the gamer equivalent of “sweat-equity” that is paid when we really devote ourselves to the minutiae of any significantly complex game system.

Many great board games have been turned into great apps. Pandemic is one that first springs to my mind. What I like about it (and wrote about in an earlier review for the Major Fun Awards) is the way the app opens up the mechanics of the game so that someone could play the table-top version after playing the app with only a cursory scan of the set-up and rules. But Pandemic is not nearly as complex in neither its rules nor its mythology as a game like Golem Arcana. Its accessibility is its appeal but it also limits just how fanatical its fan-base can become. Mitch is right that the technology takes away some of the barriers to the game of Golem Arcana. What won’t be clear until some time has gone by is if that is good for the game. There is a powerful social aspect to a group of people who share in knowledge that others consider esoteric.

But before I start to sound like the old man down the street who still thinks the printing press made humans too lazy to memorize the great stories, let me praise Harebrained Schemes for smoothly integrating our ubiquitous technology as a teaching tool for what could have been an intimidating experience. The tutorial style of instruction makes great use of not only the technology but some of our best pedagogical practices.

One of my favorite recent novels is The Golem and the Jinni, by Helene Wecker (Harper, 2013). As the title suggests, it tells the story of two mythological creatures, a Golem and a Jinni, who discover each other and develop a remarkable relationship in turn-of-the-century New York. It’s a great adventure story, and it does a marvelous job of implying more nuanced conflicts (inherent violence, cultural relativism, class divisions, and the pitfalls of service and freedom to name a few). I found the Golem’s story particularly moving as she struggles to come to terms with her remarkable strength, endurance, and the murderous rage that often threatens to consume her. Wecker creates a compelling character from what is typically a monstrous automaton as the Golem searches for her place in a world that can destroy her with a single word and yet is also remarkably fragile in the face of her power.

Although I can’t describe Golem Arcana’s conflicts as particularly nuanced—this is a game of magical monsters beating each other down into their component atoms—I do appreciate the richness of the world Mitch and Harebrained Schemes have created for their community of players. The fact that I could be immersed in that world and have some small effect on the direction it might take is perhaps the game’s greatest strength. That the game has the capacity to actually interact with the players—not just push new products but actually respond to the experiences of the individuals—is very compelling and represents an evolution of our technology that I’m glad Harebrained Schemes has brought to life.

Part Two will look at social networking and all manner of tournaments…

GenCon 2014 – Strife at Trade Day

Strife Creator - Chris HammFor those who don’t know, this weekend is GenCon in Indianapolis– one of the largest gatherings of game enthusiasts in the world. Here are some pictures from Trade Day which is the day before the official festivities commence.

I met Chris Hamm at one of the seminars. Chris is from Indianapolis and is the proud creator of the game Strife which he is debuting at GenCon. Strife is being published by V3G Games which is also right here in Indianapolis.

Check out how beautiful this game is!! (my crappy phone camera doesn’t do them justice) Chris demoed Strife for me. I can’t speak for all our game tasters but I would love to see it submitted for a Major Fun Award (I’m talking to YOU V3G!!)

StrifeAlso check out Chris’ blog “Life in Games” for more information about Strife and other games that Chris loves. He’s part of an active game community that was instrumental in bringing this project to life. Chris and Strife will be with V3G (and their game Incredibrawl) at booth 2727. Make sure you say hi.

More pictures and posts from GenCon to come…


Five Games for Teachers (Part 1): Reverse Charades / Rollick

reverse-charadesWith the school year about to start, I got to thinking about the games I always had with me in my class room. After 18 years of teaching, these were the ones I found myself going to over and over again. Over the next week or so I will be sharing my top 5…

The Game: Reverse Charades or Rollick

These games, Reverse Charades and Rollick are virtually identical owing to a split between the creators. Both won the Major Fun Award and they are both excellent choices. I tend to refer to the games interchangeably as Reverse Charades because the game of charades is recognized by my students. I’ll continue to do so here.

Reverse Charades is my go-to game for those unexpected deviations in the schedule: those times when your class is waiting to be called down for pictures or waiting for a speaker to show up or just when your lesson or class activity ended earlier than expected. I tend to introduce it early in the semester as a way to relax a bit with my students and let them perform. I have it on my phone, but I also keep several copies of Rollick in my room. The app version is well worth the investment.

The Set-up:

Rollick_Spread1Reverse Charades is just like the classic game Charades except that the group does the acting and an individual does the guessing. For the past several years my class size was around 20 so splitting the class in half was doable. A class much bigger than 20 and you will probably need to make at least 3 teams. With teams of 10 I will have 7 actors and 3 guessers. The guessers always rotate out, and a student can’t become a guesser again until everyone on the team has been one.

You will also need to arrange a space between the actors and the guessers. A row of desks or a table or lines of tape on the floor will do. Over the course of the game, especially as the tension and excitement mount, there is a very strong tendency for the actors and guessers to move toward each other as if they will attack one another. I suggest keeping a space of 6 or 8 feet between the two groups—you can even deduct points if they violate the “neutral zone.”

Maybe it goes without saying but I will mention it anyways: this game is loud. There is no way to make it quiet without straight-jacketing the whole affair. Consider the classes around you, and be prepared to accept a certain degree of exuberance and chaos into your life.

When it is time to start, bring one group of actors up to the front. If you are playing with the physical game, give the timer to a student on the other team. Show the clues to the actors and then listen for the guessers to answer. Make sure the guessers say the answer and not the actors. You’ll also need to watch so that the actors aren’t mouthing words or using letters and numbers. Usually this is done accidentally or in the heat of the moment. A reminder usually works but subtracting a point can drive the point home if someone seems to be “forgetting” too much.

The Value:

At the risk of raising a gasp of astonishment from legislators and gasp of mock astonishment from everyone else, there are moments of “down time” in school. So far, it has proven impossible to structure each and every moment of each and every day. For which I say, “Thank goodness.”

Being playful is a hallmark of intelligence. It is one of the traits of our remarkable neural architecture. Not a by-product. Not a happy accident. Playfulness is not a product of intelligence so much as an aspect of it—much like the relationship between magnetism and electricity. Reverse Charades provides a lightly competitive way for my students to play with words and ideas and communication in a way that brings all of us closer together. Sure we all like scoring and winning, but we absolutely love laughing and acting and guessing. The important thing here is play and the engagement that occurs in its pursuit.

Now, maybe you need something a bit more academic—a justification that fits better with state standards. If that’s the case then consider the thinking and communication skills that are involved in a game of charades. The actor needs to understand the target word or phrase, in many cases must break the clue into discrete parts, and then must decide on the best physical clues to give in order for the guessers to get to the target. The guessers must attend to the physical actions of the pantomime as well as the actions that show them where to focus their attention. They must come up with multiple ways of expressing the actions and in most cases must then come up with synonyms in order to get to the exact wording. Indiana has the following standard for 11th and 12th graders:

Indiana Standard (Speaking and Listening) 11-12.SL.3.1: Integrate multiple sources of information presented in diverse media and formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively, orally) in order to make informed decisions and solve problems…

This is a very basic standard that exists in almost all disciplines and across all grades. My guess is that your state has a standard that reads like this one (maybe even word for word given the way these standards often come to be written).

In general, I found that the more I got my students to just play with ideas in ways that made them laugh, the more likely they were to play and engage with the “serious” curricular materials.

Bullets and Blenders

Thanks to open-source programming, there are some very sophisticated and utterly engrossing ways for you to continue the cycle of Keva creation and destruction in the virtual world.

First, check out this video of Keva structures brought low by toy balls and Newtonian physics.[youtube][/youtube]

Then go here to watch more…

These videos were made possible through an open-source physics engine called Bullet Physics and an open source 3d animation application called Blender (which utilizes the physics simulation of Bullet Physics). Both of these programs are free. I can in no way comment on the coding or any other technical aspect of these programs, however, I am thrilled that these tools are out there for kids and adults– for anyone who wants to build and play in a virtual environment that so closely mimics are own.

Keva planks and Lego and Lincoln Logs and all of the other building props that I grew up with as a child were ways that I could turn the virtual world of my imagination into something tangible. These structures led to a richer landscape for my imagination. Physics bound design programs are an extension of this feedback loop. Physical Keva structures can be rendered virtual, which can be made tangible again, which can then be folded back upon itself so many times that no one can predict what will emerge. New shapes and configurations and material properties in the virtual world could result in new toys and building systems that we will be gifting to our grandchildren.

Use the links below to check out Blender and Bullet Physics. You can download from the sites.


Fun and Threat

Keva TowerIn preparing one of our upcoming Major Fun Award reviews, I came across a short video of the construction of a world record tower constructed out of Keva planks and its subsequent destruction. There are all sorts of videos out there documenting the destruction of things: buildings, bridges, bunkers, and virtually anything ever associated with Mythbusters.

The Keva tower took around 10 hours to complete and consisted of over 4000 blocks of wood. It stood over 50 feet tall when complete. It is a testament to human ingenuity, patience, and play. It served no purpose outside of the challenge of creating such a structure (OK—and probably the promotion of Keva planks but as advertisements go it’s very restrained). The video is short, compressing the entire process to just over 3 minutes.

[youtube][/youtube]What struck me was the part at the end when they were trying to knock the thing down. Instead of just pushing it over, the creators allowed kids to swing a plumb bob at the structure to knock out the planks that comprised the base. At this point in the video, you can see the crowd that has gathered. You can hear their cheers and gasps and laughter. It takes many swings to bring the structure crashing down and the tension is palpable as is the joy. When the tower ultimately topples over, there is a swell of noise not just from the collapsing blocks, but also from the assembled witnesses.

The tower falls as if it has fainted. It happens quickly but with a fluidity that gives the impression that it was held up with wires. The Keva planks pile up in a drift across the floor like a wave that freezes the moment it strikes the shore. Destruction markedly devoid of violence.

We often talk about violence in games and the media. And rightly so. There is a distressing amount of interpersonal violence that permeates much of our culture. What I want to note here is that there is perhaps a fine distinction that should be made between violence and destruction. That our fascination with destruction—with the undoing of static order—can devolve into a morbid nihilism is probably not surprising, but every so often it is good to observe closely as things fall apart.

exploded toiletI have always loved those exploded-view diagrams of common objects. And high-speed photography of events that occur between the blinks of my eyes. In these examples we get a peek at the complexity below the placid surface of mundane matter as well as the elegant order at the heart of even some of the most confusing phenomena. I would love to see a slow-motion, high-resolution video of that Keva tower as it succumbs to gravity. Even in the few seconds that we have in the video you can discern some of the logic behind the collapse.

stick bomb - andreOne of my daughter’s friends set a world record recently for longest stick bomb (click on picture for video). That’s STICK bomb, not STINK bomb. And before you alert DHS agents, there are no explosives. By weaving popsicle sticks in a specific pattern, you can create a mat that looks a lot like a trivet you would make in elementary school. Remove one specific stick and all the kinetic energy that went in to bending the sticks around each other is released. The sticks jump up off the floor with surprising force. It’s like a domino topple as the woven line of sticks unravels down the length of the construct. And here we find ourselves back at the undeniable fun and fascination that adjoins acts of destruction. Very few people want to watch, let alone participate in, the creation of large scale domino installations, but they will come out of the woodwork if it means they can watch the whole thing fall down.

I think, to a certain degree, fun is contingent on threat. There must be a chance of failure. There must be a tension in the construction of something, no matter if that is something physical like a stick bomb or something abstract like a chess strategy. For there to be fun there must exist stakes. And as those stakes are raised and challenged the tension mounts until it must be released, either tragically when a careless elbow destroys the tower before a record can be achieved or triumphantly when everyone has had a chance to admire their handiwork before they enthusiastically swing a plumb-bob until the tower is nothing but a pile of wooden blocks.[youtube][/youtube]

The Awesome Power of a Fully Inflated Earth Ball

Yesterday was Field Day for my daughter’s school. Grades K through 8 converged on a local park and rotated through a series of field games. Each team was made up of about 12 to 15 students from all the grades. They had team names and colors and many of them came in coordinated costumes.

The day was beautiful: blue skies, light breeze, and a broad expanse of grass and clover that was tall enough to cushion a fall but not so tall as to get everybody worried about ticks and chiggers and poison ivy. The kids were in high spirits. The teachers and parent volunteers were relaxed (well, as relaxed as can be expected with 200 or more kids in a field full of games).

With 15 minutes to go before the buses arrived, I was trying to work out in my head the rules for a game that would utilize two giant “Earth” balls AND would not result in debilitating injury.

Earth BallFor those who don’t know, an “Earth” ball is just a giant, inflatable ball (also called a cage ball). I grew up calling them Earth balls because they are huge (anywhere from 48 to 72 inches tall) and because the ones I played with as a youngster were scale replicas of good ol’ planet Earth. I spent many years as a camp counselor and many more working for camps and adventure programs. I’ve led countless field games that use giant cage balls of every color and yet I always call them “Earth” balls.

This is the second year I have volunteered at Field Day. Last year, I noticed that they had a giant pink “Earth” ball for a game called Sumo Wrestler. I immediately volunteered to be the adult supervisor. In part I volunteered for this activity because “earth” balls invite all kinds of fun, physical play: jumping, hitting, pushing, kicking, etc… But the bigger reason I volunteered was because all of those activities inevitably result in injuries—injuries that always take us adults by surprise.

It was my hope to fend off at least a few of the worst ones, because nothing ruins a field day more than a dislocated shoulder or a case of whiplash.

The game of Sumo Wrestler is one of those games that are instantly attractive to kids and most adults. The idea is that the giant ball is in the center of a circle that is split in half. Two contestants start on opposite sides of the ball and try to push it past the opposite side of the circle. Kids get really excited about challenging their friends. Even kids who don’t usually go in for physical conflict will line up to take a turn in the ring. I attribute this to the fact that they focus on the ball more than the conflict. Adults also see it as a safe way for kids to wrestle. The ball is big and soft and filled with air—how could a big ball of air hurt, right?

newton's second lawWell, all that air and the membrane that surrounds it are excellent conduits for Newton’s laws of motion. Especially the second law. In short, if there is even a small difference in the mass of the kids who are pushing against the ball, the smaller one will almost always be catapulted away with often surprising force. It gets worse if one or both of the kids manages to get even a little running start before they hit the ball. After all, force equals mass times acceleration. And if the kids are not pushing on opposite sides of the ball, if they are both even a little to one side of center, the ball shoots off and the two kids collide with whatever part of their body was foremost at the time—generally the noggin.

Although I abandoned Sumo Wrestler early in the day, my attempts to come up with an energetic replacement that would involve fewer than two kids leaving my station in tears left much to be desired.

So this year, with a little trial and error, I came up with a game that I called Sumo Volleyball (please feel free to make suggestions in the comment section—PLEASE). Teams get to push not just one but two giant balls. Here’s the set-up and rules:

  • Set out cones to form 2 parallel lines (about twice the width of your ball apart and maybe 30 feet long).
  • Teams face each other across the space between the lines. Teams play on their knees at all times.
  • An adult stands at each open end of the lines to keep the ball in play.
  • GOAL: push one of the balls over the opposing team so that it lands on the ground behind them. As soon as one ball hits the ground behind a team, stop play and start over.
  • RULE #1: all players must stay on their knees at all times. No standing up. No squatting. If someone gets off their knees, stop play and give a point to the other side.
  • RULE #2: Knees may not cross the line of cones. You can reach across the line but you can’t “walk” across the line. If someone crosses the line, stop play and give a point to the other side.
  • OPTION: every 2 points have the teams switch sides (gives them a chance to stand up, rearrange, and not have a disadvantage because of wind)

Earth Ball GameOnce the kids got over the disappointment that they wouldn’t be knocking each other out in a semi-sumo match, they had a blast. With 2 balls almost everyone is included and you can still get a very satisfying hit on the ball although it is harder to generate as much force compared to when you are standing up. You can still be knocked over, but when you are on your knees your center of gravity is much lower. The greatest risk actually comes from getting knocked over by one of your own team mates. The ball can still shake up a smaller child, especially if it catches the child on the head, but I saw that happen only twice and both times the kids came back after sitting out for a round.

What I loved seeing was that there were many times when the kids just loved hitting the ball back and forth. I think if I had made the lines farther apart they would have been just as happy to spend 20 minutes or so battering these giant balls back and forth with no score at all.

Field Day play at its best. Silly, active, and fun.

Do you want to play a game?

At some moment on the hazy horizon of memory, I am sitting in the tiny breakfast nook my mother called the “kitchenette.” This me is probably still in elementary school but I’m guessing that middle school is not far off. In this particular recollection I am eating cereal from a white Corelle bowl, but I could just as easily be playing with the last few strands of spaghetti from dinner. I am repeating a phrase over and over, sometimes out loud and sometimes just under my breath.

“Do you want to play?”

Each time I emphasize a different word.

Do you want to play?

Do you want to play?

Do you want to play?

Each iteration carries a slightly different meaning without changing the grammar. The emphasis alters the tone of the question which in turn directs the kind of answer that I expect from my imaginary interlocutor. I’m fascinated with the way the tone shifts with only a little extra volume on a single word. I am especially struck by what is implied when I ask, “DO you want to play?” As if I am speaking to a liar or someone who is only humoring me.

OK, so I was no Blaise Pascal, but in the solipsism of youth, the idea that language could be more than the sum of the literal words was quite a revelation. And that fascination with the subtle (and not so subtle) relationship between the denotational and connotational nature of language stuck with me.

When I tell people what I do as Major Fun, their first reaction is generally one of good natured jealousy. “That must be fun!” And it is! I get to play games and then write about the ones that I think are amazing. I can also write about any and all of the things that I think about as I decide what fits the criteria for the Major Fun Award and what doesn’t. I can write about the fun and playful nature of language.

That part of me that was fascinated by how emphasis shifts the tone of a question also drives me to do more than just play the game, but rather play WITH the game and everything it implies.

Do I want to play this game?

Do I want to play this game?

Do I want to play this game?

Do I want to play this game?

I think many folks regret engaging me in this conversation. It’s about as much fun to listen to wonky abstractions as it is to listen to someone as they relate their dreams. Fortunately for them, in our age of the internet, clicking the Back Button is a handy escape. If you have made it this far then perhaps you are enough like me that from time to time, you will want to splash around a bit in the abstract end of the pool.

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