Miscellaneous

I’ve got less time to write with school starting up, but here are short reviews on a few things leftover from the summer.

Humankind

It’s a game mimicking Civilization-style gameplay. Two major differences are the inclusion of a “hunter-gatherer” phase before you’re allowed/able to actually found a city, and the ability to establish “outposts” without committing to a whole city. It’s also much easier to incorporate the neutral tribes (analogous to more recent Civ releases city-states) into your empire. In fact I haven’t finished a game yet but judging by game status I’m really not sure how you’d lose on normal difficulty.

I quite like the artwork, but it’s a little harder to follow the terrain – in part because there are multiple levels navigable. The interface doesn’t make it very obvious how to implement your different options or take advantage of resources/features, either. (I started with tips set to the level supposedly appropriate for having played games like this before; I wonder if extra tips would have helped? But in that case those tips aren’t very well calibrated.)

The computer’s combat AI is much, much better than I’ve seen from Civ games. I haven’t tried the “manual tactics” mode to see if it makes a difference, but computer forces are very good at targeting units they’ll defeat. I don’t mind the way the “retreat” mechanic works but I think it’s bugged – your units will automatically back away until some kind of condition is met in the programming, but this can end up with them halfway across the continent – distances that ought to take 7 or 8 turns. You’re also basically forced to keep up skirmishes in order to maintain your “war support” meters, which annoys me.

Overall, it’s got some neat features, and is a little more transparent in places than especially recent Civilization releases, but I don’t think it’s unseating the titan any time soon.

Moby-Dick

He just kept talking in one long incredibly unbroken sentence moving from topic to topic… quite hypnotic. Of course Melville doesn’t actually confine himself to a single sentence, but it really is a little bit like listening to somebody who just won’t shut up – and you don’t quite want him to.

I started reading this years ago on a college visit and was fascinated by the first fifty pages or so I read. I’ve kept meaning to come back to it. I’ve finally gotten around to it, but admittedly still haven’t finished it. I will; but so far I find it hard to believe I’ll ever re-read it afterwards.

It reads a bit as though it was published serially, although I don’t believe it was; my thought, honestly, is that Melville was a short story writer with delusions of novelistic grandeur.

Creatures of Light and Darkness

Like a couple other Zelazny novels, this one seems to have been cobbled together from previously-written short stories, possibly not intended to be related. The plot tying them together deserves, I thought, a little more reverence and pathos than Zelazny actually give it. The writing is that of the author at his most elliptical except for certain obscene details; I read it, and then immediately read it again just to figure out what actually happened. It is, in short, not to my mind a success as a book, whatever the effect of certain scenes.

The universe of the book, incidentally and anachronistically, reminds me of nothing so much as the work of Iain Banks; apart from certain unmistakable stylistic elements that mark it as Zelazny’s work, one could easily believe it a juvenile effort of Banks, before he mastered his own distinctive style – which is effective through realism: Banks leaves you convinced that the absurd and despicable might really exist side by side. But Zelazny’s style highlights the incongruities in the story compared to our expectations, and the end result here is highly unsatisfying.

Starliner

A stand-alone novel by David Drake, best known for his military science fiction, it might be one of his better efforts. The dedication calls it “a book I wanted to write”, and I can only speculate as to the reasons. Oh, there are fist fights and gun fights and mercenaries floating around – there’s a certain resemblance to the early Hornblower books – but on the other hand, there’s not that much sci-fi floating around out there glorifying customer service. I’m inclined to think Drake wrote it just to prove he could do something different.

But then there are the twists – and break-neck pace – of the last couple chapters, which leave you rather wrung out and wondering if the book was more serious after all. Watch carefully when the question of duty is raised – and Drake gives an answer, but he seems to me to be positively inviting criticism and discussion.

Realignment

Periodically, colleges and universities in the United States change what sports leagues – colloquially known as “conferences” they are aligned with under the NCAA umbrella.  In contrast, in the NFL these changes are usually driven by teams having been added to the league.  In addition, for several years, NFL wonks have been considering, to various degrees of formality, adding a 17th game to the regular season schedule.

I’m all in favor, actually, because it would be really easy to do by realigning the NFL’s eight current absurdly small four-team divisions into four eight-team ones.  The requisite two games against each division opponent, plus my favorite quirk of the NFL’s competitive balance scheme, scheduling games against teams with equivalent finishes the previous year in other divisions, yields a neat 17 games.

The NFL playoffs have a near-perfect balance of just deserts and drama at 12 teams, so I’d keep that: the four division winners, plus eight wild cards based on record, though I’d be inclined to do overall seeding by record, 1 to 12.  If the NFL would prefer to keep up the polite fiction of separate conferences, the divisions could be aligned two and two and each seeded 1-6, it doesn’t really matter.

There’s no convenient way to carry out the new alignment, though – or is there?  As long as one doesn’t scuffle too much over the NFL’s history, there are actually some lovely logical arrangements just waiting to be made, based on the names – though not the actual geographical footprints – of some of college’s classic conferences.  With that as a reference, here is my proposed NFL realignment:

  • Big East: Baltimore Ravens, Buffalo Bills, New England Patriots, New York Giants, New York Jets, Philadelphia Eagles, Pittsburgh Steelers, Washington Redskins
  • Mid-American: Chicago Bears, Cleveland Browns, Cincinnati Bengals, Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers, Kansas City Chiefs, Indianapolis Colts, Minnesota Vikings
  • Mountain West: Arizona Cardinals, Dallas Cowboys, Denver Broncos, Los Angeles Chargers, Los Angeles Rams, Oakland (Las Vegas) Raiders, San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks
  • Southeastern: Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers, Houston Texans, Jacksonville Jaguars, Miami Dolphins, New Orleans Saints, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Tennessee Titans

See?  Easy!

Sum 15

And now for something completely different.

I wanted an activity for my spare class periods at the end of this week, so I wrote up rules for a card game.  I wanted to use familiar card game concepts, but also put a slight mathematical challenge in, to make it a little more than just a time-waster.  It also had to be something that I could scale to different class sizes.

Cribbage immediately came to mind, an in fact my first run was essentially just the play from cribbage expanded for more players.  This was challenging, especially as I tried to run it with the whole class in one game using multiple decks.

The second run I split the class into smaller groups, and also tried awarding points to multiple players for each play, which one of my three groups got the hang of but proved unrealistic.

The third run I kept the class split up, and reworked the ruleset to essentially what’s below, which looks more like a rummy variant.  15s were changed to 14s, and the limit of 31 changed to a reset on multiples of 15.  I hadn’t worked out a clean method of scoring for this class.

The fourth class I ran again split up, and the last class I ran a game with the whole class and multiple decks.  The fourth and fifth runs came out relatively smoothly, though I wouldn’t call the reception enthusiastic.

“Sum 15” is a working title and referred in the end to the reset rule for multiples of 15.  I haven’t come up with anything better yet.

PLAY
Deal 6 cards to every player
Place the remaining deck in the middle and turn a starter card face up
Each player going around left of the dealer must play a card in turn until all cards dealt have been played
Cards played remain face-up in the middle unless a set is made

SETS
A player who plays a card to make a set picks up those cards and places them face down in front of them.
A set is made if:

  • The last two cards played sum to 14; for sums, Ace is 1, Jack 11, Queen 12, King 13
  • The last two cards make a pair
  • The last three cards are in order, for instance 2-3-4 or Q-J-10

SUM FIFTEEN
If a player can play a card so that the total value of all cards in the middle is a multiple of fifteen (15, 30, 45, 60, etc.), then that player picks up ALL the cards in the middle.
Then place a new starter from the remaining deck face up and continue in turn beginning with the next player.

WINNING THE GAME
When all players have played their six cards, the player with the most cards picked up wins

There’s a limit on how many players you can play with off a single deck.  I think a maximum of six players per deck is the correct rule of thumb, but I ran a game with 14 players with only two decks.  How much of this was my students missing point plays (and so needing fewer restarts) I’m not sure.