Still haven't got round to rereading Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix yet and so to formulating opinions worth posting. Anyone would think I wasn't looking forward to it, or something. Here are the entrylets which have been brewing during my posting absence:
1. In sporting news, British athletics teams of both genders finished competently in the European Cup (good, but the men's team are about four stars from being able to think of winning again; unfortunately I cold-induced-slept through the coverage both days), Lennox Lewis managed to split Vitali Klitschko's face open which was about the only way he could defend his boxing title and ring announcer Michael Buffer's voice still sent shivers of nervous anticipation up my spine.
Today (ha, you can tell when I wrote this part and just how old it is!) Croatian tennis non-entity Ivo Karlovic defeated Lleyton Hewitt in the first round of Wimbledon - the first men's defending champion to go out in the first round for almost 40 years and only the second ever. The funniest thing about this is that over £100,000 had been placed on Hewitt to win the match on the Betfair bet-matching exchange at decimal odds of between 1.01 and 1.04 - or, in old money, between odds of 1/100 and 1/25. Now the argument goes that you can't turn your nose up at 1%-4% interest in the duration an afternoon, but those strike me as mighty short odds at which to have blown your bankroll. Chortle. (Er, why does Wimbledon have a 33rd seed and a 35th seed in the men's singles but no 34th seed?)
2. The BBC have a story about a family who want to take their seven-year-old chess prodigy, Peter Williams, out of school for a day per week so that he can study chess and see whether he really does have the potential to be outstanding as opposed to merely better than 99% of the population. The local education authority said no, so the parents are home-schooling him instead. See the May 27 entry for the details on just what he's done to inspire the squealing.
The world is full of prodigies who never made it, of course. The crucial part is that while he's seven, he's playing at a standard where "he would not be disgraced in the 2003 World or European U10 Championships", so a couple of years ahead of the pace. Now by way of contrast, one Luke McShane won the World Under-10 championship at eight, became a Grandmaster at 16 and is only now breaking into the world top 100. Should Peter match Luke's World Under-10 win then that's a sign that he might eventually reach the same standard. To be up with the world's very best pre-teens, though - the Sergey Karjakin current gold standard for prodigy - Peter has five years to raise his rating from 1500-ish to 2500-ish and the GM title. Little David Howell looks to be up to 2320 by now, but he's a positively geriatric 12½.
Good luck to them all, though the world of professional chess is very hard to those outside the top few dozen.
3. Sepp Blatter campaigned for the FIFA Presidency on, among other things, guaranteeing a place in the World Cup finals for the Oceanian champions. However, the FIFA Executive Committee have voted overwhelmingly to give Oceania's guaranteed spot to South America, with Oceania getting a play-off half-spot somewhere along the line. Boo! South America had campaigned for their extra spot to come through an expansion of the World Cup from 32 teams to 36, which was voted down.
I say that the way to expand the World Cup is to take it from 32 teams to 40. Instead of the first round being 48 games between eight groups of four teams each playing three times, it should be 80 games between eight groups of five teams each playing four times - thus guaranteeing every nation who gets there four games instead of three and extending the World Cup by about eight or ten days. All-play-all leagues of five teams are much more interesting than leagues of four teams, mainly because the number is odd and so you end up doing interesting things with byes. You can add interest by adding the tweak that the top four finishers in each group of five win their continent a guaranteed qualifying spot for the next championship, with the last eight spots for next time being split between the continents by committee. That'll make a fourth-versus-fifth place match much more interesting.
We also expect to hear the announcement of the 2010 Winter Games hosts on Wednesday 2nd July. The BBC suggest that the 55 European voters out of the 126 among the IOC who decide where the Games should be held will be voting for Vancouver to get the 2010 Winter Olympics to make it more likely that a European nation will get the 2012 Summer Olympics. (Aha! But which European nation?) Sounds to me that the current voting system isn't working terribly well, being driven more by self-interest than by the quality of the games, but it just might be that it's impossible to avoid that in some sense whatever system you use.
I also enjoyed reading that four of the fifty United States near British Columbia are supporting the Vancouver 2010 bid on the grounds that a Pacific Northwest games in 2010 will do wonders for the region's economy whereas a New York games in 2012 will have no impact on them. Hee hee! Can't remember hearing many instances of blatant regionalism within the United States before, Civil War apart, so it's interesting to see what is probably about as close as we will ever get to the tiniest little crack in the strength of the union. Heh, spot the European...
4. bmibaby have revealed more of their plans to make Teesside Airport their fourth base starting from the end of October - and they're starting small. To begin with, they're going to base 0 aeroplanes at the airport and will only have one of their East Midlands ones servicing us here at MME. We will get a daily return flight to Belfast International and one weekly return flight (!!) to each of Geneva and Malaga on Saturdays. We'll actually start to get planes based here and a decent range of destinations from March 2004. Meanwhile, it occurs to me that Northern Ireland is doing really well out of the low-cost boom - I'd guess that, by the end of 2003, maybe two-thirds of the population of Great Britain will be within an hour of an airport which flies to Belfast. Surely this will make Belfast a realistic and yet relatively inexpensive, accessible conference location - coupling the slightly exotic feel of overseas travel with very familiar surroundings at the other end.
5. Saturday saw a trip up to Brancepeth Castle for an afternoon of board games. Happily, it wasn't as freezing as it was last time (October 2002 - eek, how time flies!) but still cold enough that I was glad I had brought my jumper. (Yes, in the height of June.) A good time was had by all. We played:
- Bohananza for six, a bean-trading card game which took about an hour. I tended to stick with the rarer, more valuable beans throughout the game, but didn't find myself in the right place at the right time with the trades. I think at least four of my five opponents paid two gold for the third beanfield - a move which I regard as a mistake with 12+ beanfields out there and only 9 types of beans (numbers 8 to 24) to collect. I felt I was really lagging behind the pace but still finished on nine gold, which was good for (I think) third equal (tied for fourth and fifth) of six.
- Give Me The Brain for seven, my first play of this short (20-minute?) silly card game. Set in Friedey's fast food restaurant, a staff of zombies try to play all the cards in their hands by taking on tasks in the restaurant. Trouble is, the zombies only have one brain between them, represented by an ordinary six-sided die - and you need to have hold of the brain to perform some of the jobs. Cards come in three types: ones which let you bid to take control of the brain, yellow jobs which may be performed without the brain and pink jobs which may only be performed with the brain. Not a great deal of subtlety here, just traditional hose-your-buddy cardplay.
The endgame was mildly interesting: Clark swapped his hand of four cards for my hand of eight (a trade highly advantageous for me, for no good reason); soon afterwards, I was able to discard one of them and win a bid for the brain with a medium bid card. This left me with two pink job cards. Having the brain, I could play the one which permitted all players to discard one card - and so I went out. However, another player discarded their last card in the same way, thus triggering the contingency "If more than one player is able to win at the same time, you chose who does so." Accordingly I had a choice between either winning myself or gifting the win to someone else. Naturally, the fun thing to do under the cirucmstances was to gift someone else the strangest (...and hollowest?) win he'll ever have.
Not recommended. A few laughs and some reasonably pretty card artwork, but dull and repetitive gameplay with few decisions. Par for the course for a Cheapass Game (no, really, that's the name of the company), but not worth the extra presentation. I would recommend Wizards of the Coast's Guillotine as a beter game which offers the same sort of laughs - or, better still, the classic Family Business should it ever become available again.
- Mare Mediterraneum for six, with the player who brought it (and who taught us how to play) sitting out and acting as banker. We had the beautiful but rare box edition - the tube edition is scarce enough. The leatherette playing map, depicting a slightly misshapen Mediterannean sea and Euro-African coastline (plus the southern half of England, which appears to have floated a degree or two south-west for the summer) was of the highest quality and a pleasure to play with.
This too is a trading game. Coastal ports about the lands require commodities like gold, silver, tin, hides, meat, slaves, marble and so forth. Each port, and many other spaces on the map, produce these resources of various types. Sail your ships about the seas, taking commodities from where they are in surplus to where they are in demand. Prices in uncontrolled ports are generated by the die - prices in controlled ports are down to haggling. However, once you have generated enough money (about 20 minutes into the game), you become civilised and declare a capital. From then on, you raise tax revenue from your people but have to balance the budget by paying for the upkeep of provinces, armies, artists and so forth. Your aim is to conquer provinces, to erect buildings in your capital, to have your artists produce fine artwork and to fill your warehouses. You will require 5 of one, 4 of a second, 3 of a third and 2 of a fourth; cleverly (and Careers-style) the type of government you are - republic, monarchy or dictatorship - determines which combination you require to win.
Once all the nations become civilised, the feel of the game became quite different. Armies swept across the board... slowly. Armies took to the sea - though I don't know whether this makes them navies or marines - and piracy ensued... slowly. There was still trading from place to place, but much less so. Three hours in, we decided to stop the game, finding that we had squeezed a lot of the fun out of it. I had eight of the fourteen things I required to win, with a ninth imminent and a clear plan for the remaining five. Nobody else had more than seven, so I was declared to be winning, if not yet to have won. It was estimated that I would probably have taken another couple of hours or so to get the last few - that is, unless people saw how well I was doing and started to claw me back.
I wasn't too taken with this one either. The main problem is that it had quite a serious feel to it and yet there was a tremendous degree of luck in the game - potentially ruinous storms could crop up anywhere, provinces and armies could revolt for no good reason, cities could suddenly develop extra deficiencies to be remedied and so forth. If this all takes place in a light-hearted game then you can roll with the punches and have fun. However, this was a game which put you in a reasonably serious mood and so the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune felt rather out-of-place. The tremendous variety in prices that people might have to pay and receive for their wares for no good reason also felt rather out-of-place when the game was such a finely-tuned balancing act. There were lots of instances in which I was very lucky and a few frustrations caused by chance alone. It was fun and it was clearly classy, but it was more aggravating than I would like for a long game which I'm going to take seriously. Accordingly, I'm in no rush to play this one ever again.
- At this point we paused for a dinner break for about an hour. The host, Steve, gave some of us a tour of the outside of the castle, pointing out which parts of the stonework dated back to the 13th or 14th centuries, which parts were from the 1820s and which parts were the ugly toilet and kitchen block erected by the Durham Light Infantry when the building was used as their regimental headquarters. Much of the history went over my head, but still a fascinating (if impractical) place to live. We ordered pizza in - unfortunately, from the same place as last time. (Apparently the other vaguely-local places are even worse, which is worrying.) My tuna and onion pizza was no better than "adequate" and also very expensive - £4.50 for a 9" pizza. They also threw in some garlic bread, but it had the consistency of hard toast and over half of it ended up being burnt in the open fire.
- After tea, we played two laps of the Hockenheim Formula Dé circuit for seven in about 90-120 minutes. This grand prix-style racing game captures the spirit of a race well in its gear-selection decisions; happily, there is much more overtaking than in real life Formula One.
I got off to a lousy start. After qualifying sixth of seven, my acceleration into third gear leaving me just shy of the first corner. This gave me two choices - go down into second gear and so lose a lot of ground very quickly, or take the corner in third gear and hope not to overshoot by too much. Accordingly I took third gear, rolled the maximum possible and did copious damage to my tires. The rest of the race went along very similar lines; I was as aggressive as was just-about sensible in my gear selection in order to stay with the pack and ended up with a highly thrashed car. I spun out a couple of times - including on the last corner, so I didn't even manage to get the car into the pit lane to put on a new set of tires. Accordingly the second lap was just spent rolling around, half a lap or so behind the leaders. A big last place. Still good fun, though.
- At this point (about 10 o'clock?) the two visitors who had travelled up about 80 miles from Leeds for the day set back off home, leaving us with five for the last game of the evening. We chose Puerto Rico as a 90-minute closer, still impressed by the initial volley of buzz it got after its initial launch - all the cries of "best game ever" and so forth. A year or so after release, it's still as highly thought of as ever. As with most of the best board games of the last fifteen years or so, its author is German and we play using a translated English-language edition; however, most unusually, the word on the street is that Puerto Rico didn't really take off in its native Germany and the English-language sales might represent something like 50% of the total market compared to a typical 10%-20% for its predecessors.
Each player manages their own Caribbean island. You have a countryside which can hold up to one dozen plantations and quarries (producing commodities of corn, dye, sugar, tobacco and coffee) and a town which can hold up to another dozen buildings. Should you manage to get the right combination - for instance, a sugar plantation and a sugar mill - and manage to attract enough colonists to the island to operate both buildings, eventually you will produce barrels of sugar which you can either sell at the trading house for in-game money or ship to the rest of the world for Victory Points. Money will let you buy buildings to make the process more efficient or let you produce more barrels in the first place. The player who earns most Victory Points through shipping barrels or erecting buildings, especially the double-size buildings which attract bonus points.
In this game, the action always moves in a circle - but, specifically, it's more like a circle within a circle within a circle in practice. On your turn, you choose one of a number of roles; everyone gets to take advantage of the functions of the role, but you get a little bonus for being the one to choose it. You will have different choices of role at different times, governed by the outer circles. The game has been criticised in that the islands cannot directly affect each other; the player interaction comes in terms of picking the roles which will give you the biggest advantage relative to the others and setting yourself up to be able to take most advantage of the breaks that are likely to occur in the future. Certainly a subtle game. There is very little random chance involved.
Starting fourth, I adopted the "corn" strategy; corn needs only a plantation to produce and no accompanying building, but is generally valueless when sold at the trading-house. I produced a fair amount of corn at the start and shipped it overseas for Victory Points while those who were starting with dye took longer to get going. Then later on I moved into trying to get sugar and tobacco production going, but made a series of poor decisions (in terms of the order in which I bought different buildings) which delayed my plans to make relatively large amounts of money by about four rounds in what must have been something like a 15-round game. However, it was a strange game; the plantations came out in an unusual order and the trading house took about half the duration of the game to fill for the first time. Accordingly, all the players were really struggling to afford any but the cheapest buildings.
In the end, I was the only player to build one of the five large buildings - a place of residence for the workers, giving me a major bonus for having so many plantations and quarries. My final score was 38 VPs - 22 from buildings, 9 from shipping and 7 bonus for the residence. I thought that most players were doing really well on the shipping front - but the player who had shipped 27 VPs worth of merchandise only turned out to have 10 VPs of buildings and so finished on 37. It was a close game (all five players in the 30s) but my score of 38 turned out to be enough to win - and the lowest winning score that I think I can remember seeing.
Puerto Rico is a game that I admire rather more than I like. While I was playing it, I recognised the mistakes I had made and appreciated how intricately and cleverly designed the game is when played well. It's more satisfying to play the game badly but see what you should have done instead to play well than it is when you aren't obviously making mistakes and so you feel like you are playing well - yet it turns out that your small but efficient operation isn't producing quickly enough to compete with other players' islands. I made some big mistakes yet came out on top ahead of players who weren't obviously making mistakes. Certainly I recognised at the time that I was making some plays which were particularly advantageous for me, compared to the others, but I didn't realise how effective they really were until the end of the game. Strange how bad play feels worse than good play feels good, somehow.
6. In a similar vein, I even dreamt about board games the night before I went to Brancepeth Castle. The situation is that I'm playing Monopoly - it's either the game at punt!t00bage or a game which has started in a very similar way. I have the cheapest two properties in the game and a hotel on each. They have been performing well and I have about 2,000 cash. (I may have some other sundry property. I think some of the other players may have a house or two on the board, but nothing major.) For some reason, one player owns the entire fourth set of properties (that is, the three just before Free Parking) and is willing to sell. I offer 1,000 cash for the set and also include in the deal that I will accidentally-on-purpose forget to collect rent from the seller should they land on any of those three squares, at least until we are the last two players remaining. The other player accepts, but in the remainder of the dream (another lap or two of throws?) nobody hits by newly-acquired property. Monopoly experts: all other things being equal, for whom would this have been the better deal?
7. I tend not to play a lot of computer games, for no good reason. (Note to self: I've enjoyed the Literati etc. I've played - I must make time to play more.) However, when I do play computer games - normally to cheer myself up on a particularly low afternoon when I don't feel like writing and when I feel I've surfed everything that there is to be surfed - they tend to be old arcade games, courtesy of MAME, the Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator. I don't feel like giving a full explanation right now for those who aren't familiar, but I'm sure I've talked about it before.
Anyway, arcade ROM legality issues aside, there tend to be only about ten or so arcade games I keep coming to over and over again. As a genre, I most enjoy racing games: Out Run, Hang On, Chase HQ, S.T.U.N. Runner, Super Hang-On, Konami GT and most notably WEC Le Mans. There are sundry others, too; 1943 is my favourite shoot-em-up, mostly for the music on level six, though Space Harrier is a joy too. Then there are lots of infinitely weird oddities: Quiz & Dragons, Camel Try, Marble Madness, Golden Axe, Wonder Boy in Monster Lair (both better arcade D&D than the D&D games themselves). Cyberball, Smash TV, button-smashing athletics games like Hypersports and of course the wonderful Bubble Bobble with its bizarre bubble-blowing dragons. Most of these games have sequels and prequels which are also joyous.
OK, scratch that "ten", replace it with about "forty". Others keep springing to mind, too. (Bomb Jack! Mr Do! Gauntlet!) In general I tend to prefer the games I grew up with from the mid- and late- '80s to both predecessors and successors - nostalgia value, I guess. There is much to admire in those old games, particularly the extent to which they weren't random - you could trigger apparently-random events by firing a number of shots which was 17 mod 32, or falling through the dealing a particular number of times and so on. It's only sad that there are so many games which haven't attracted nearly as much fandom and aren't understood in nearly as much depth. It's just possible that nobody has ever exhausted the secrets of the remarkable Total Carnage, for instance. Some day I shall write five thousand words on MAME alone, but not today.
However, if I had to have only one Desert Island MAME ROM, at the moment it would be Block Out. Never a critical hit, it's effectively Tetris in three dimensions; you're dropping solid blocks, which can be rotated in three dimensions, and are seeking to complete planes instead of lines. It's ever so good for your special awareness. The presentation, too, really appealed; psychedelic pulsing colours, gentle tunes (the ones on every fifth level are wonderful!), just-plain-silly-panic-fun bonus rounds and a central opponent that is a slightly scary disembodied head. I like the game because it is so abstract; I find it very easy to switch off and concentrate only on the game, much more so than with most other games which have characters, parallels to real life and so on. This is just a satisfying piece of fast-action mental exercise. (Hey, jwz likes it too.)
The other day, I managed to complete a level by dropping the final 1x1x2 block so that it filled the exactly filled the two planes in progress, both of which had exactly one square missing, both missing squares being lined up with each other. Accordingly, I finished the level with exactly zero blocks left on the screen - and it was a double block out, not just a single. It's a strange sort of non-achievement, even in the world of pointless old video games, but it didn't half cheer me up at the time. :-)