Jun 30

Open Adventure 1.1, and some thoughts on software preservation

Open Adventure 1.1 has shipped. There are a lot more changes under the hood than are readily apparent. In fact there have been no changes in gameplay at all, and only minor changes to the UI (reversible with the -o oldstyle switch).

We (Jason Ninneman, Per Vorpaev, Aaron Traas, Peje Nilsson and I) could have taken the approach of changing the original rather ugly C code (mechanically translated from FORTRAN) as little as possible, simply packaging it for compilation and release in a modern environment.

I elected not to do that, one reason being that I think we honor hacker tradition better by bring the code forward as a dynamic, living artifact that invites being hacked on than museumizing it as a static one. There’s also the fact that the extreme obscurity of the code made it difficult to appreciate what a work of genius Adventure actually was. (The code we inherited had over 350 gotos in it – rather hard to see past those.)

So we’ve taken a different path. We’ve translated the code into (almost) fully idiomatic C (but not trying to introduce pointer idioms; that should make translation to future languages easier). We’ve replaced the rather cryptic custom text database file that used to define the dungeon with a YAML document that is orders of magnitude easier to read and modify. We haven’t hesitated to use technology that wasn’t even a gleam in anyone’s eye when Adventure originated – the YAML is compiled to C structures at build time by a Python script.

The effect (we hope) is Adventure as it would have been written if Crowther & Woods had had today’s tools to do it – the same vision and design logic, expressed in modern coding idioms. Worth doing, because there are still some things to be learned from this design.

Probably the single cleverest thing in it – which pretty much has to go back to Crowther, Woods couldn’t have bolted it on afterwards – is the way movement in the dungeon is handled. The dungeon’s topology is expressed by a kind of pseudocode broadly resembling the microcode found underneath a lot of processor architectures; movement consists of dispatching to the sequence of opcodes corresponding to the current room and figuring out which one to fire depending not only on the motion verb the user entered but also on conditionals in the pseudocode that can test for the presence or absence of objects and their state.

It was hard to fully understand and appreciate this before, because the code was a spaghetti tangle in what looks today like a shockingly primitive style. The abstraction of the dungeon topology into a declarative specification that – in effect – loads microcode into the game engine was a thing you could half-see, but the impact was blunted by the unreadability of both the code and the specification format. Lifting the specification to YAML was like polishing a rough diamond, revealing beauty and brilliance.

And that’s before we even get to Adventure considered as a work of communicative art. It’s had so many successful descendants – like, every dungeon-crawling game ever, and every text adventure ever – that it’s difficult to see with fresh eyes. But if you make the effort, it is astonishing how mature the wry, quirkily humorous, slightly surrealistic style of this very first game seems. The authors weren’t fumbling for an idiom that would be greatly improved by later artists more sure of themselves; instead, they achieved a consistent and (at the time, unique) style that would be closely emulated by pretty much everyone who followed them in text adventures, and not much improved on as style, even though the technology of the game engines improved by leaps and bounds.

I don’t know how they did it, and the authors would probably not be able to explain if we asked. But I think it is damned impressive how well this game has aged – the code may have needed a refresh, but the design still shines. I’m proud to have helped restore it, and hope I have brought it to a state where it can be forward-ported to future languages for as long as programming is a living art.

Mar 16

An apologia for terminal games

Yes, to a certain segment of the population I suppose I define myself as a relic of ancient times when I insist that one can write good and absorbing computer games that don’t have a GUI – that throw down old-school in a terminal emulator.

Today I’m shipping a new release of the game greed – which is, I think, one of the better arguments for this proposition. Others include roguelike dungeon crawlers (nethack, angband, moria, larn), VMS Empire, the whole universe of text adventure games that began with ADVENT and Zork, and Super Star Trek.

I maintain a bunch of these old games, including an improved version of the BSD Battleships game and even a faithful port of the oldest of them all: wumpus, which I let you play (if you want) in a mode that emulates the awful original BASIC interface, all-caps as far as the eye can see.

Some of these I keep alive only because somebody ought to; they’re the heritage grain of computer gaming, even if they look unimpressive to the modern eye. But others couldn’t really be much improved by a GUI; greed, in particular, is like that. In fact, if you ranked heritage terminal games by how little GUIfication would improve then, I think greed would probably be right at the top (perhaps sharing that honor with ski). That in itself makes greed a bit interesting.

Much has been gained by GUIfying games; I have my own favorites in that style, notably Civilization II and Spaceward Ho! and Battle For Wesnoth (on which I was a developer for years). But the very best terminal games retain, I think, a distinct charm of their own.

Some of them (text adventures, roguelikes) work, I think, the way a novel does, or Scott McCloud taught us minimalist cartooning does; they engage the user’s own imagination as a peripheral, setting up a surprisingly strong interaction between the user’s private imagery and the bare elements of the game. At their best, such games (like novels) can have a subtle imaginative richness that goes well beyond anything this week’s graphical splatterfest offers.

More abstract puzzle games like greed don’t quite do that. What they offer instead is some of the same appeal as tiling window managers. In these games there is no waste, no excess, no bloat, no distraction; it’s all puzzle value all the way down. There’s a bracing quality about that.

Ski is kind of hermaphroditic that way. You can approach it as a cartoon (Aieee! Here comes the Yeti! Flee for your life!) or as a pure puzzle game. It works either way.

Finally, maybe it’s just me, but one thing I think these old-school terminal games consistently do better than their modern competition is humor. This is probably the McCloud effect again. I’ve laughed harder at, and retained longer, the wry turns of phrase from classic text adventures than any sight gag I’ve ever seen in a GUI game.

So, enjoy. It’s an odd and perhaps half-forgotten corner of our culture, but no less valuable for that.

UPDATE: I probably shouldn’t have described wumpus (1972) as “the oldest of them all”, because there were a few older games for teletypes like Hammurabi, aka Hamurabi (with a single ‘m’) aka The Sumer game from 1968. But wumpus is the oldest one that seems to be live in the memory of the hacker culture; only SPACEWAR (1961) has a longer pedigree, and it’s a different (vector graphics) kind of thing.

Aug 10

WBC 2014 after-action report

I just got back from the 2014 World Boardgaming Championships in Lancaster, PA. This event is the “brain” half of the split vacation my wife Cathy and I generally take every year, the “brawn” half being summer weapons camp. WBC is a solid week of tournament tracks in strategy and war games of all kinds, with a huge open pickup gaming scene as well. People fly in from all over the planet to be here – takes less effort for us as the venue is about 90 minutes straight west of where we live.

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Aug 14

Summer vacation 2013

The last couple of weeks have been my vacation, and full of incident.This explains the absence of blogging.

First, World Boardgaming Championships. I did respectably, making quarter- and semi-finals in a couple of events, but failed in my goal to make the Power Grid finals again this year and place higher than fifth.

I did very well in Conflict of Heroes, though; my final game – with the tournament organizer – was a an epic slugfest that attracted the attention of Uwe Eickert (the game’s designer) who watched the last half enthralled. I lost by only 1 point and was told I’d be put on the Wall of Honor. I like my chances at the finals next year.

Then Summer Weapons Retreat. Huge fun as usual; I spent most of the week working on Florentine (two-sword) technique. with some excursions into polearm and hand-and-a-half sword. I’ve posted a few pictures on my G+ feed.

First full day I was home, a thunderstorm blew out the router in my basement. Yes I had it on a UPS, but ground surges (though rare) do happen; this one toasted the Ethernet switch. Diagnosing, replacing, and dealing with the second-order effects of that ate most of yesterday.

Now life is back to relatively normal, though it will take a few days for the muscle aches from a week of hard training to entirely subside. Blogging will resume.

Feb 15

Eclipse: raising the bar for the 4X game

I’m a big fan of the game genre called “4X” – “explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate.”. I’ve been playing these ever since the ur-progenitor of the genre in the 1980s, Empire, and I actually still maintain an open-source C version of that game. Civilization is my favorite computer game ever, and by what I hear of it Master of Orion – the game “4X” was coined to describe – would have hooked me even harder if I’d known of it when it came out.

I particularly like SF-themed 4X games. I have previously posted a favorable review of Twilight Imperium (hereafter “TI”), a big sprawling epic of a contending-galactic-empires 4X game. But now I write to report on a game that effectively makes TI obsolete – a new design called Eclipse which I think is going to permanently raise the quality bar in 4X games.

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Jan 28

Power Grid: The Robots – a review

Friedmann Friese’s Power Grid is one of the acknowledged classics of the modern Eurogame genre. It embroils 2 to 6 players in a simulation of running power companies, competing to light up the most cities. Strategy involves a mix of positional play, resource management, and (most entertainingly) competition for new plants in an auction every round.

Since the game’s original release in 2004, Rio Grande Games has published an alternate power-plant deck and five pairs of expansion mapboards, introducing minor rules variations and new tactical challenges. My wife Cathy and I own all of these; we have been fans of the game since almost the date of release, and regularly compete in the World Boardgaming Championships Power Grid tournament.

With Power Grid: Robots, the game’s developers take off in a completely new direction. This expansion introduces robot players, assembled at random from tiles that define how they will behave in the auction, resource-buying, and city-building parts of each turn. With six possibilities each for five behavioral slots, one may face almost 7776 robot variations.

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Aug 22

Vanished Planet, Innovation, and the luck-swamping problem

From the gaming front, I report one nice surprise and a couple of disappointments.

My interest in that old standby Puerto Rico was rekindled by the World Boardgaming Championships tournament a few weeks ago, in which I made quarter-finals only to wash out in a game with a mere 4-point spread. Friday night at our gaming group I scored 56 points with a factory/fast-build strategy finishing with Residence and Guildhall, 6 points ahead of a tie for second. Nothing remarkable about the play, but I’m becoming convinced that if you’re running that strategy it’s vital to never skip a build opportunity even if it means you have to settle for a smaller edifice than you really want – otherwise you lose control of the game tempo and shippers get time to blow past you.

I won the Power Grid game after that, too, starting with Wien on the Central Europe board and successfully scoring the 30 fairly early (3 Garbage -> 6 cities). The Wien discount was very helpful after that. I believe that low-balling to buy the 3 in the initial auction in order to place first and grab Wien + Bratislava is the strongest opening on that board – besides locking in the garbage discount and enabling you to build nukes, it’s also a central placement that makes it difficult for other players to box you in.

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Jun 13

Z-Man games is on a roll: two boardgame reviews

Two important qualities in a good boardgame are an interesting theme and good mechanics. Theme is the narrative of the game – what it’s supposed to be about. Mechanics is the game considered as a pure logic puzzle – what goes in there, what comes out here.

A subtle but common failure in game design is for theme and mechanics to never really connect to each other, so that the theme is a mere superficial paint job or gloss on what might as well be a purely abstract game. One of my favorite examples is Lost Cities, a game by Reiner Knizia with simple mechanics, deep strategy, and excellent repeated-play value. Its one flaw is that the archaeological theme of the card and box art is completely disconnected from the lovely little jewel that is the game logic. Nothing that you might know about archeology helps you play better or enjoy the game more, nor is there any possibility that you will learn something about archaeology by playing. The result is that the game feels a bit cheesy and contrived even though the game engine is actually an excellent and elegant design.

Two recent releases from Z-Man Games remind us what it can be like when a designer integrates these aspects really well. They’re on a roll lately, seemingly trying to out-Fantasy-Flight Fantasy Flight games.

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Jun 06

A first game of Twilight Imperium

Twilight Imperium is advertised as “an epic boardgame of galactic conquest, politics, and trade”. The advertising doesn’t lie – the games in progress I’ve occasionally tripped over at SF conventions were sprawling affairs with huge fleets of starship models swirling about on a tile map representing the explored galaxy of a far future. Designed for six players, and play sessions commonly run seven or eight hours (!).

The coordination cost of setting up such a game is high, and though I’d wanted to try it for years I was never present at exactly the right time. Until this last weekend, when a bunch of the harder-core types from my Friday night gaming group got it together to play a game Saturday. It was quite an experience.

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May 09

The Uses of Cliche

I’ve done a lot of writing for the game Battle For Wesnoth. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned, and now teach others, is this: genre cliches are your friend. Too much originality can badly disrupt the gameplay experience. This is so at variance with our expectations about ‘good’ art that I think it deserves some explanation and exploration.

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Oct 22

Krythar: a world that almost was

One of the experiences that made me swear off proprietary software was doing some designing of a fantasy-world map with a proprietary program I have long forgotten; this would have been in the late 1980s or early 1990s. Of course the program became obsolescent and nothing else could read the map….I recently stumbled across a copy of the text I wrote to accompany the map, mod-dated 1994 but probably a few years older. There’s a continent of Krythar in the Neverwinter Nights universe, but this long predates it.

Explore with me now the world of Krythar. Because the “accompanying map” no longer exists, it will never be.

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Sep 26

The Golden Age of Wargaming is Now

I’m what people in the strategy-gaming hobby call a grognard. The word is literally French for “grumbler”, historically used for Napoleonist diehards who never reconciled themselves to the fall of L’Empereur even after 1815, and nowadays refers to guys who cut their teeth on the classic, old-school hex-grid wargames of the 1970s.

As a grognard, I’m expected to grumble dyspeptically about the superiority of the huge, heavy, elaborately simulationist two-player wargames we used to play back in the day, and bemoan how fluffy and social the modern wave of multiplayer Eurogames are. Sure, they’ve got four-color printing and unit counters you don’t have to use tweezers to pick up, but where are my pages and pages of combat resolution tables? Where are my hairsplitting distinctions between different types of self-propelled assault gun? O tempora! O mores!

But you know what? Times change, and game designers have actually learned a few things in the last forty years. In this essay I’m going to revisit two games I’ve reviewed previously (Commands and Colors: Ancients and Memoir ’44) and take a closer look at two others: War Galley, and Conflict of Heroes. These games exemplify how very much things have changed, and how little point there really is in pining for the old-school games any more. Yes, I may forfeit my old-fart credentials by saying it, but…I think the golden age of wargaming is now.

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May 04

The Eurogame Phenomenon

I enjoy strategy games. I’ve been playing them since the heyday of the elaborate hundreds-of-tiny-counters hex-map historical-simulation wargames in the 1970s and early 1980s. But those games don’t get played much any more, largely because they took so long to set up and
learn; after 1985 or so younger gamers moved to computer simulations instead, and as the hex-wargame genre stagnated many old-school gamers eventually abandoned it in favor of military-miniatures gaming.

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