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"Your 'reality', sir, is lies and balderdash and I'm delighted to say that I have no grasp of it whatsoever."
— Karl Friedrich Hieronymus, Freiherr von M√ľnchhausen

Revised my Review of Chris Crawford On Game Design

I wrote a review yesterday of Chris Crawford on Game Design. After re-reading the post, I found several mistakes and omissions, so I went back through it today to expand and smooth it out. I think it reads a lot better. So if you've already read it, I'd like to ask that you re-read it. Thanks!

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Friday Free Game: Ramps

The Friday Free Game routine isn't as regular as I had hoped it to be; it's hard work finding games. I have decided that I want to keep providing Friday Free Games, but I know I probably won't be able to do it weekly. I am trying to devise a better schedule for blogging overall, and because I think it's better for people reading your blog to know when there's going to be new material, I will be having that discussion out loud in the Red Bull Diary.

jayisgames (who picked up S3QUENC3R, so you know he has good taste), recommended a great little Flash game called Ramps about two weeks ago, and it's a well-made and thoughtfully designed little time-wasting game that kept me going for about forty minutes and I made it through 23 levels.

The central mechanic is arranging of – you guessed it – ramps in order to guide a ball that is dropped out of a chute at the top of the screen to its destination at the bottom. The first wave of levels has your rolling and bouncing with ever-smaller ramps. But then there's the robotic lava-dwelling pirhanas.

I bet you didn't expect robotic lava-dwelling pirhanas, did you?

Play Ramps. It's fun.

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On Chris Crawford on Chris Crawford

Since gnome asked, I figured I'd talk a little about Chris Crawford on Game Design.

Chris Crawford was writing computer games before many of you out there in cyberspace were ever born. During his 25-plus-year career in the industry, he created one of the first commercially successful computer wargames, pioneered the use of "fog of war", implemented the first scrolling map, and founded the original Game Developer's Conference (GDC). Clearly, Chris Crawford knows a thing or two about video games, and in his book, he's ready to tell you all about it.

Chris Crawford on Game Design feels like a follow-up to his earlier work, specifically The Art Of Computer Game Design: Reflections Of A Master Game Designer, because he doesn't seem concerned about discussing game design in itself in systematic way – he refers the reader to this earlier work for that. Instead, he lets himself range over a broad variety of topics, writing with obvious passion on what games are, what makes a good game, what the videogame industry is like, and the quirky and unusual stories behind his imaginative range of titles from back in the day. The book is therefore a semi-biographical collection of war stories from the game industry, and Crawford's entertaining if heavy-handed prose is a captivating window into that world.

Crawford predictably bemoans the state of games today and compares the elegance of the old school against the excesses of the new, but does so from a position of experience and authority few other pundits can claim. He talks about how games can be more than a distraction; how they can be expressive art and even help us create a better world. For example, his game Scram was intended to educate the player on nuclear safety issues by modeling the Three Mile Island power plant. His Balance of Power is a classic cold war simulation that allows the user to explore the delicate interaction between the superpowers trying to advance their own causes while averting nuclear war. He also tells the very personal story of his his cat, Bootsie, and how his cat's death lead to the creation of his game Trust & Betrayal: The Legacy of Siboot. I was touched by this baring of his private thoughts and feelings.

I think this is the sort of book that has a conversation with you, and you have to decide for yourself whether or not that person is worth talking to. I, for one, was fascinated by the stories, and struck by the fact that his approach to game design is something like mine: his game ideas occur organically, and he tries to stay true to the fun bit (core mechanic) that originally inspired him without limiting his design's ability to evolve. His interests are wide-ranging, and he constantly encourages the aspiring designer to read books on a wide range of topics, to explore language, religion, architecture, and science in order to broaden one's understanding of systems of every kind. But his didactic approach can be a little off-putting at times. I think he was trying to come off as avuncular to a presumed reader who is a good number of years younger than I am and he has a habit of stating his opinions as if they're facts. But despite this, Chris Crawford on Game Design is an intriguing glimpse into the mind of one of the foremost game designers from the golden age of video games.

I have to concur with what an Amazon review of the book says: "This should not be your only book on game design in your library, but it should definitely be there. Chris's thoughts on creativity, his list of 'games I would like to write' and analysis of his games are worth the entry price alone." I'll give the book a 7 out of 10.

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LibraryThing: What I'm Currently Reading

I have a new feature on my blog, driven by a site called LibraryThing. LibraryThing is one of those newfangled "Web 2.0" sites that allows you to catalog your entire library of books. Another way to use it is to keep track of what books you have and to help find other users who are into the same thing. I plan to enter books as I begin reading them as a way of keeping track of what and how much I'm reading and as a way of communicating with my readers so as to spark discussion.

At the bottom of every page on my blog, you'll see a section below the place where I'm showing my favorite songs from Pandora. This new section is entitled "LibraryThing: What I'm Currently Reading". The leftmost book is what I'm reading right now, and proceeding to the right from there is a look back through the last five books or so I've recently read. The books link to Amazon if you want to check them out or find out more.

So, at the time of this writing, I'm reading a biography of Aleister Crowley, entitled Do as Thou Wilt by Lawrence Sutin. I have wanted to read this biography for some time, but hadn't because when I started reading it some three years ago or so I lost it. I received a new copy as a gift sometime later but have only gotten around to reading it now.

I'm sort of amazed at how this biographical work has illuminated the actual content of Crowley's incredibly obscure, mystical writings. Crowley approaches his topic with a sort of brutal arrogance, never bothering to explain himself, refusing to slow down, and generally taking the attitude that it's not his problem if the reader doesn't follow. There may be something to this approach, especially if you're so that only the determined few can penetrate your work, but I admit that Crowley's ravings made little sense to me at all when I read them. But Sutin has provided a number of key historical facts to put the writing in context and already it all makes much more sense. For example, when Crowley talks about "Knowledge and Conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel", he's borrowing a phrase from The Book of the Sacred Magic of Abra-Melin the Mage to mean gnosis or knowledge of divinity. It makes his writing far more understandable.

I'm barely 100 pages into the book, but I can already heartily recommend Do as Thou Wilt to anyone who has ever wanted to read Crowley and actually understand him. And I want to hear about what you are reading.... I'm always looking for recommendations!

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Echochrome

So, the Tokyo Game Show is going on, and according to Gamasutra, it seems to be a bit more subdued than in previous years, even though it is E3 has been scaled back, making more room for it to compete. Ninja Gaiden II was announced, and there were playable demos of Metal Gear Solid 4 and Devil May Cry 4, but the most impressive thing I've seen to come out of the Tokyo Game Show is a game called Echochrome. To understand this game, ask yourself: what if MC Escher had created a video game?

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The September 15 Protest

This past weekend I was in Washington, D. C. participating in the protest led by Iraq Veterans Against the War. Ms. Angel and I went with our friends Agnes and Jim, who picked us up Friday night and arranged for us to stay with a friend of theirs, Sara. I can't thank Agnes, Jim and Sara enough for being so generous with their time and making it possible for us to be there. We left Friday after work and even though the trip took a bit longer than we expected (close to seven hours), we had a great time just hanging out and talking. We arrived late at night, had a bunch of beers with Sara and her friends and then headed to bed.

We left to meet up with the protesters outside the White House after breakfast the following morning, and we were there to hear some of the speeches given before the march. First up was an eight-year-old who delivered a vaguely apocalyptic spoken word poem that she concluded by shouting "Black Power!" Then Colonel Ann Wright spoke; she resigned from the military in protest of the war in 2003 and complained that nothing has changed since. Cindy Sheehan, who had officially retired in May, said she could not stay away from a protest as important as this one. She was followed by Malik Rahim, a former Black Panther who gained fame as a community organizer in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Ralph Nader, who I have a great deal of respect for, encouraged everyone to "give their representatives a spine" by continuing to speak out against the war.

After going on a bit too long, everyone was ready to march, and the people flooded the streets; by at least one account, the mass of protesters stretched for ten blocks down the eight-lane road to the capitol. I believe it, too: there were a huge number of people there. We marched, shouting our slogans, including "This is what democracy looks like!" and "What do we want? Peace! When do we want it? Now!" There were even a few rounds of "Impeach Cheney first!"

We arrived at the lawn of the capitol and the "die-in" began; people laid down in the streets and around the capitol to protest the deaths in Iraq. A whole bunch of people were arrested (from "dozens" to "hundreds", depending on what you read), but overall the energy of the protest seemed to fizzle out. Sure there was a guy shouting "9/11 was an inside job!" over and over again. Sure there were people chanting "Arrest George Bush!" But the impetus for the masses was gone. We went out for some dinner and went home, talking about how such a huge protest could feel so unfocused.

I believe in the cause. I am angry because the government doesn't seem to be listening to the people. The problem is that while there was definitely a theme of frustration tying everyone together, the specifics of the problem are manifold, and everyone seemed to have a somewhat different gripe. There were the Veterans Against the War who feel that the occupation of Iraq is costly and unjust. There's the impeachment crowd that think that Bush-Cheney should be removed on the grounds of incompetence. There were the peacemongers, who I think would be against any war whatsoever. There were anti-imperialists who think that America should mind its own business. There were the Che-worshiping socialists claiming that the ultimate problem was capitalism itself.

And then there was me. I think that Mr. Bush and company have wiped their asses with my Constitution about five times too many.

Now, I have the utmost respect for the speakers, my fellow protesters, and for those who are helping organize the resistance to this war, but my experience at the protest was a bit frustrating and it left me with a greater understanding of why it is so difficult to generate public outcry against the war. I don't think we all agree on exactly what we're pissed off about. And, was so plainly evident by the decidedly lackluster speeches delivered at the rally, there's no single, passionate voice leading the charge to Capitol Hill. The movement has no leader; its message is fragmented.

But it is undoubtedly a movement. Tens of thousands of people don't flood the streets for nothing.

Which brings me to my final point. We watched Fox news coverage of the protest that evening, and according to the broadcast, there were 5,000 anti-war protesters and 1,000 pro-war protesters present, and there is no way in hell that could be true. Anti-war protesters probably outnumbered the guys singing "give soap a chance" by at least fifty-to-one; maybe a hundred-to-one. And there was no way there were just 5,000 people marching. I only have my visual estimate to go by, but I've seen 20,000 people in one place before (e.g., at the Garden) and there were that many people at the protest at the least.

So don't believe the hype and don't get discouraged. The anti-war movement is real and it's gaining speed. With any luck, change won't be far behind.

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Italian Playing Cards

One of the things I did while waiting for the Palio to start was I wandered around the local shops. Many of them were tchotchke warehouses, but there was a toy store nearby. I had heard of Italian playing cards before and had seen some being used by kids on the train, so I wanted to see if I could find a deck. I asked at the toy store and they suggested a nearby tobacconist. Apparently cards are more associated with men smoking cigars than with toys in Siena.

I discovered a shelf filled with decks of cards marked with the names of various regions around Italy. The shopkeeper came over and had a conversation with me about the cards and explained than most of the different states around Italy had their own variation, and there were in fact 16 different styles of playing Italian playing cards:

  1. Bergamasche
  2. Bresciane
  3. Genovesi
  4. Milanesi
  5. Napoletane
  6. Piacentine
  7. Piemontesi
  8. Primiera Bolognese
  9. Romagnole
  10. Salisburghesi
  11. Sarde
  12. Siciliane
  13. Toscane
  14. Trentine
  15. Trevigiane
  16. Triestine
Many styles of Italian cards use Tarot-style suits: cups, wands/clubs, swords and coins, and the Queen is considered to be of lower value than the Knight/Jack. Apparently, some styles have 36 cards (A6789TQJK), 40 cards (A56789TQJK or A234567QJK), or the familiar 52.

I bought about four different decks, paying about 4.75€ (around $6.60) each — the Romagnole, Sarde, Napoletane, and Trevisane. They seemed to be the most diverse set of four I could make out of the seven or so different ones the tobacconist had (Siciliane, Trentine and Primiera Bolognese were the others I think).

And it seems you can buy almost the exact same cards I got here for less than I paid for them there.

Yeah... well, I bought mine at the Palio. There were people in medieval costume nearby. That automatically makes it cooler.

Doesn't it?

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It's Talk Like a Pirate Day

Avast ye scurvy dogs! Today be September 19th and ye know what that means, don't ye? It be Talk Like a Pirate Day, the only day of the year when every man be a sea dog, every wench be a wench, and every enemy be damned to spend his days sleeping in Davy Jones' locker.

Arr, but what's that ye say? Ye don't know how to talk like a pirate? 'Tis naught but a little practice ye need! This video be teachin' ye all ye need know about shivering ye timbers, says I.

And fer those of ye who may know ABC's Wife Swap, ye may want to give Mad Sally's first-hand account at representin' the piratin' way of life on the show. She be weird, but ye have to respect the wench's pluck.

Now put on yer peg leg and find yerself a parrot. I want arrs all around!

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The Palio

After a long absence, I have returned. There are several major items I'd like to cover, so I'll just jump right in with a series of posts.

First, of course, is the wedding. The weather was on the big day was gorgeous, Ms. Angel looked beautiful, and I was surrounded by friends and family. It was one of the happiest days of my life.

The honeymoon was incredible. We spent three weeks in Italy: five days in Venice, seven in Tuscany, and eight days in Rome. I suppose the most interesting thing we did was attending the Sienese Palio.

Il Palio (named for the banner given to the winner) is a bareback horse race around La Piazza del Campo that has been taking place every year since at least the 13th century. Each horse represents one of the 17 contrade (districts) of Siena: Tortoise, Wave, She-Wolf, Goose, Shell, Porcupine, Dragon, Owl, Snail, Panther, Eagle, Caterpillar, Unicorn, Ram, Giraffe, Forest and Tower. Some 50,000 people show up each year to watch the race. The prize is bragging rights for your neighborhood, preparations go on all year and celebrations last for weeks following the race. If you want to read more about the Palio and its history, check out "How I Became a Caterpillar" for another person's first-hand account. You can watch the August 16, 2007 Palio on YouTube here.

Ms. Angel and I left the villa early the morning of August 16th so we could stake out a spot in the Piazza. The festivities don't start until 5:00pm, but you have to show up early to stake out a good spot next to the track. It was a test of endurance just to stick to one spot in the hot Italian sun all day. My fair Ms. Angel was under a hat, an umbrella, and SPF 30, and still managed to get a bit sunburnt!

But we met a ton of nice people who were doing the same: a small family of Brits, a French project manager, a group of four older Aussie couples, a pair of young Aussie girls (there were a lot of Aussies in Italy!), as well as some Italian locals. A group of local boys from the Snail contrada wore their red-and-yellow scarves around their shoulders with a picture of their mascot on them. They had staked out a spot by placing an extra snail bandanna along the fence beside our spot. They were angrily reminding the British boy "Nostro posto!" as he was forced to encroach on their spot by the crowds.

The day wore on and the crowds thickened, and eventually, the ceremonies before the race began with the sound of trumpets and drums. There was a parade of costumed representatives from each of the contrade, representing their traditional professions. For example, the Snail contrade's residents from the southwestern corner of the city were traditionally tanners. They wore colored hose and tunics matching the colors of their contrade, and were accompanied by armored men at arms and flag-throwers. Following the contrada representatives was a statue of the Virgin Mary. The boys from the snail contrade feverishly shook their snail bandannas at it as it passed. I think it was for good luck.

This was very cool for the first hour, but I'll be honest: by the twelfth troupe of guys-in-hose...guy-in-armor...guys-with-flags, I was ready to watch a race. But before they took up their position at the traditional rope that marks the starting line, the horses were led around the track. They were lean and wild-looking animals, every one of them walking drunkenly and petulantly. Then they began to assemble to start the race, and fifty thousand people grew quiet. From where I was, I couldn't see too well, but they had several false starts, because one of the horses was so wild, it didn't want to line up. Three times they had to disperse the horses to try and get the unruly one in line. But before you knew it, on the third or fourth try, the race had begun, and the horses flew down the track at blurring speed. On the second lap, two horses flew bodily into the wall, tossing their jockeys like a rag doll. I hoped they were alright, but before I could wonder long, they had flown around the track again. And within two minutes, it was all over. The Unicorn had won. And I had waited about 10 hours in the hot sun for one really lousy picture.

The Palio was an amazing experience just for the pageantry and intensity of experiencing a part of Siena's living history. But the crowd was electric; and it was certainly the most exciting race I had ever seen, once you got past all the guys in tights.

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The Red Bull Diary is the personal pulpit and intellectual dumping-ground for its author, an amateur game designer, professional programmer, political centrist and incurable skeptic. The Red Bull Diary is gaming, game design, politics, development, geek culture, and other such nonsense.