Five Things #10

For He Can Creep by Siobhan Carroll is a dark fantasy about Jeoffry, a cat who fights demons, Jeoffry’s human, a poet, who is confined to an insane asylum, and Satan, who schemes.

Stephen Dowling suggests that cats are more social than we realise.

Margaret Schotte asks how the sailors of early modern Europe learn to traverse the world’s seas. The answer: they learned maths.

Nick Barlow argues that the first past the post electoral system is a significant factor in why British politics is broken.

And Luke at Start Your Meeples suggests four opening strategies for Hive.

Five Things #9

Between the Dark and the Dark by Deji Bryce Olukotun is a powerful story about hard choices and the potentially calamitous consequences of failing to recognise cultural differences.

Five hundred years ago, Leonardo da Vinci came up with a radically different bridge design to connect the city of Constantinople with its neighbor city Galata. Now, researchers at MIT have proven that his bridge would have worked.

Daniel Crown looks at Hnefatafl, the board game at the heart of Viking culture.

Dean Burnett explains, scientifically, why “Edgy” comedy can get fu*ked.

And finally, Nick Barlow reviews the various parties’ prospects in the upcoming UK general election and concludes that things are far too volatile to give predictions about what the result of the election might be.

Hnefatafl: The Viking Game

Although Hnefatafl is a recent acquisition for me, this is a very old game indeed. The game goes back to medieval Scandinavia and became popular across Northern Europe during the Viking era.

When newer upstarts, like chess, started to become popular during the Middle Ages, Hnefatafl lost out and the rules of the game were slowly forgotten. All was not lost, though, and in the 1900s various attempts were made to reconstruct the rules based on the Sámi game, Tablut. These had been written down at some point in the 1700s and translated (quite badly) from Latin into English somewhere in the 1800s.

This brings us to the game that I now have, from Masters Traditional Games, which both looks and feels solidly retro. The resin pieces have a suitably medieval look to them and feel nicely solid to handle. Even the linen board felt appropriate and has the additional advantage of allowing for a relatively compact box.

In terms of the actual game, Hnefatafl — and the class of games to which it belongs — is not balanced by design. This is a two-player game in which the white king starts in the centre of the board surrounded by his 12 pawns. The dark pawns (who have no king) are arrayed around the edges of the board.

For white to win, his king needs to escape to one of the corner squares. Black wins by trapping the white king, which is q lot more difficult than it sounds.

Because of this, it’s generally best to play the game as two rounds so that each player plays as both attacker and defender.

This is the sort of game that is right up my street. Although the rules are very straightforward, the design of the game is such that it has a huge amount of depth and there are a wide range of strategies that can be tried and discarded. It can be a quick game, but when the attacker starts building a blockade to slowly close in on the king it becomes a truly challenging strategy game and one that will keep you (or me, at any rate) playing again and again and again.

Twenty-One

For all the flashy modern games that we have in the house, it’s surprising just how often we go back to older games that have stood the test of time. One of these is Twenty-One (also known as Pontoon or Blackjack).

This is a card game that goes back at least as far as the 17th century and is (as you’d expect) played with a standard deck of cards. Each card is worth the number of pips on the card except for the ace, which is worth either one or 11 (player’s choice) and the picture cards, which are all worth ten points each. The aim is to get as close to 21 as you can without exceeding this number (in which case you are bust and have lost).

There are many versions and descendants of the game and multiple variations on the rules. The way we play it is to first select a dealer who deals two cards to each player, including himself. Play then goes clockwise, starting with the player immediately to the left of the dealer. That player then draws cards until either he decides to stop of goes bust, then it’s the next player’s turn.

When someone goes bust, they have to immediately declare it. Of the players that didn’t go bust, whoever was closest to 21 wins the round, with a couple of exceptions. A royal 21 (a picture card and an ace) beats any other 21 and a five card trick (five cards, any score as long as you don’t go bust) beats everything.

The winner of the round takes the pot and someone else gets to be dealer for the next round.

This is, of course, a gambling game. Each player pays in to the pot to join a round and pays into the pot for each additional card they take.

Obviously, we use glass beads rather than actual money. Otherwise the boys would never have to ask for pocket money again.

The great advantage of Twenty-One is its flexibility. A round only takes a couple of minutes to play and, if we’re waiting for something, we can play as many rounds as we have time for.

And it’s an educational game. Not only do the boys have to add up the cards in their hands and calculate how far they are from 21, but they also have to try to assess the probability that the next card will take them over.

Timeline: Science and Discovery

About a month ago, Luke at Start Your Meeples mentioned Timeline: Diversity, one of the many games in the Timeline series from Asmodee Games. This prompted me to pull out, yet again, our copy of Timeline: Science and Discovery, a game that we play infrequently but regularly.

In terms of rules, all of the Timeline games are the same. Each player is dealt 4 cards with the date side down and the rest of the cards are left in a pile in the middle of the table (date side down). Turn over the first card and then the players take it in turns to pick a card from their hand and place it in the timeline (leftmost is the earliest event and rightmost is the latest). If you place your card correctly, well done, if not the cared is discarded and you have to draw another card.

The first player to get rid of all of their cards wins the game, but the competitive part of the game takes a very long second place to its ability to provoke discussions.

What happens is this: Someone picks a card and says something about what event they are sure it happened before or after. At this point everyone else starts jumping in with their own best guess as to where the card should be in the timeline. This will continue until the player turns their card to reveal the date, at which point we all say either Aha! or Oh.

With 110 cards in the deck, it’s not possible to memorise all of the dates so the game forces you to start thinking about when discoveries happened in relation to each other (was bacteria discovered before or after the arrival of The Mayflower, for example).

Timeline is not a game that we play particularly often, but when we do it can trigger a conversation (and often, much Googling) for the rest of the evening.

Board Game Arena and Blooms

A couple of months ago, someone mentioned Board Game Arena to me and I signed up to take a look. The site carries a huge collection of board games, all of which can be played online. You can either play in real time (live against an opponent) or (as is my preference, turn based in which each play has a day or more to make a move. Not all games lend themselves to turn-based play, but the ones that do are handled well by the site.

Board Game Arena has recently added Nick Bentley’s Blooms to the site. And this is proving to be a frighteningly addictive two-player game.

The rules are pretty simple. The game is played on a hexagonal board made up of smaller hexes. Each player has two sets of coloured stones. The first player players a single stone and in each subsequent turn players can place one or two stones onto any empty space — if you play two stones they have to be different colours. To capture a stone or ‘bloom’ of connected stones you have to surround them so that there are no empty spaces into which the bloom can expand.

And that’s it.

The game is inspired by Go in that you place stones to surround territory but differs in that the emphasis is on capturing stones rather than territory. Also, the much smaller board size makes for a much faster game.

The number of stones you have to capture varies depending on the size of the board (15 stones when it’s four hexes per side; more for bigger boards).

What makes this game really fascinating is that you have to watch out for your opponent’s pieces but also your own. Each player has two colours which means that, if you’re not careful, you can end up trapping your own pieces. This adds a whole new element to the game and one that makes it a real challenge.

I’m still terrible at this game, but the depth that emerges does leave me wanting to play more and to get a much better handle on the game. It’s a game that is easy to understand but one in which you really need to think about your moves if you want to avoid tripping over the sort of mistake that can quickly lose you the game.

It’s certainly a game worth playing, but I would suggest you avoid the four hexes per side option. This makes for a very small playing area in which the outcome is determined by whoever makes the first mistake.

Emergency Entertainment, or: What’s in the games bag

Last week I mentioned that we have a bag or portable games for emergency entertainment and I thought it might be interesting to delve into this, so to speak.

A bit of context first. Eve and I both enjoy eating out and it didn’t really occur to us that we should stop doing this just because we had kids. Of course, no-one wants to be That Really Annoying Family With The Screaming Kids, so we tried to make sure that we would be able to keep the kids entertained while we waited for the food to arrive. Initially, this meant looking for restaurants with outdoor play areas (there used to be two locally, now only one — but it’s really good) and, later, ensuring we had paper and crayons to hand.

As the boys grew older, we have continued to bring our own entertainment when we go out for food, but this entertainment has veered towards multi-player card games. Our restaurant routine has now become one in which we sit down, decide what to play, order drinks, deal, order food and play until said food arrives.

It’s an approach that works for us and, I think, if we are all sitting around a decent sized table it’s a lot nicer to do something together rather than all lock ourselves into phones and tablets (actual quote from an actual waiter).

The bag itself has gone through several iterations. At one point, we had a lot of two-player travel games in it which was fine when the twins were too young to join in. But as they have grown older, these games have been replaced with multi-player games and the multiplayer games have all turned out to be card games, primarily because these are easy to transport and don’t take up too much space when played.

So, what’s currently in the bag?

First up, we have three puzzle games — one for each of the boys. These are designed to be played individually so if, for any reason, one or more of the boys doesn’t want to join in, they don’t have to. This is important because, to me at least, playing games should be something fun that we choose to do, no a chore to keep the kids quiet.

Next up is Uno. Uno is a great game and one that works really well when we are out and about. It’s compact, simple and can be played by any number of people.

Then we have The Monkey Poo game. Because a family that throws poo together is a family that stays together.

The most recent addition to the bag is Exploding Kittens. We played this on Sunday and it’s still going down a storm.

There are also a couple of trivia games (Harry Potter trivia and Dinosaur trivia, if you must know). These may not stay in the bag for much longer though as the twins tend to switch off quite quickly when they come out. We shall see.

And finally, we have a deck of bog standard playing cards. Four suits and thirteen cards per suit. And with one of these, you can play anything.

I keep thinking that we should also add Sushi Go to the bag. This is another multi-player party game that, on the face of it, should work well when we are out and about. The only problem is that once a round is played, everyone has to tot up their scores. This adds an extra layer of organisation that I have so far managed to avoid.

So over to you. If you’re a parent, how do you keep your kids entertained when you’re out and about?

Exploding Kittens

Exploding Kittens is the only Kickstarter project that I have backed. With two real games designers behind the game and Matthew Inman of The Oatmeal providing the artwork, it looked like a pretty safe bet, and it was. The game duly turned up and, rather embarrassingly, I never actually got around to playing it.

That changed at the weekend when Macsen found the box and asked about it. So he, me and the twins set about reading the rules and dealing the cards. And I will say upfront that we had a lot of fun with this game.

The game is essentially a version of Russian Roulette, in which players draw cards until someone draws an exploding kitten card and, if that player doesn’t have a defuse card then he or she is blown out of the game with a Kaboom!

The other cards in the deck allow you to do things like peek ahead, force other players to draw extra cards or end your turn without drawing a card. Of course, not drawing a card drastically reduces your chance of ending up as a feline fireball.

The last player to survive wins the game.

Exploding Kittens is not a very complex game and nor is there a lot of strategy involved — avoid drawing cards as far as possible and hang onto your defuse cards — but it is a lot of fun. And a large part of this fun comes down to the cards themselves.

If you have ever read The Oatmeal, you will recognise the often juvenile sense of humour behind the Rainbow-Ralphing Cat, the puntastic Jackanope and — a household favourite — the Transdimensional Litter Box. I enjoy this sort of silliness and the boys are still repeating some of the jokes three days later.

Exploding Kittens is a quick, simple and very funny game. We have a bag of portable games that we take on trips for emergency entertainment. This game is going in the bag.

Hive

As board games go, Hive is a bit of an oddity in that it doesn’t have an actual board. What you do have is two sets of tiles (white and black), each marked with an insect (or spider) symbol.

Each player takes it in turn to place a tile until the queen bee is placed (which has to happen by the fourth turn). Once a player has placed their queen bee tile, they can then decide to either place a tile or move a tile that is already on the table. The spider moves exactly three spaces, the grasshopper can jump over any number of tiles but always in a straight line, the queen beetle moves one space at a time but can climb on top of other tiles (thus preventing them from moving), the ant can go pretty much anywhere and the queen bee can only move one space at a time.

The aim of the game is to surround your opponents queen bee.

There are a couple of other rules: the pieces in play must be linked at all times (no piece can be left stranded and you can’t split the hive in two) and when you place a piece after the first turn it must be touching one of your pieces and not touching any of your opponents pieces. And finally, pieces move by sliding — if a piece is surrounded to the extent that it cannot physically slide out of its space, it can’t be moved (this doesn’t apply to grasshoppers and queen beetles).

And that’s it. Yet, from these few simple rules, fascinatingly complex games can emerge as you focus on the layout of the pieces, what can be moved, what can’t and how close to being trapped is your queen bee. And with a ‘board’ that is constantly changing as pieces are added and moved, you really do have to think about how things are moving and which pieces are about to become trapped.

It can be easy to forget about the playing pieces and how much they add to (or distract from) the game. In the case of Hive, though, the pieces are gorgeous. The tiles are quite deep and have a nicely chunky feel to them, giving the whole game a nicely solid feel. The artwork is also very well done with clear and colourful symbols indicating which piece is which.

Uniquely, once you’ve opened the box, you can get rid of it as the game also includes a zippered bag to hold the tiles. This makes it a very portable game and one that can be played pretty much anywhere.

Overall, Hive is a game that is easy to learn but one that sucks you into its mechanics and which can keep you engrossed for hours. There are a number of expansions (providing more insects) that I can certainly see us buying in the future but even without these the base game is incredibly playable on its own.

Jengabot

This is cool. Researchers at MIT have developed a robot that can play Jenga.

At first glance, it doesn’t sound like much — computers can play chess, go and a variety of other games. What sets this apart, though, is that Jenga is a game that requires physically moving blocks around. And while this is relatively easy for humans, teaching a robot to move stacked blocks without collapsing the tower requires a collection of physical skills that has not — until now — been attempted with robots.

Combining interactive perception and manipulation – whereby the robot would touch the tower to learn how and when to move blocks – is extremely difficult to simulate and therefore the robot has to learn in the real world.

So the researchers placed a two-pronged industrial robot arm with a force sensor in its wrist by the Jenga tower and allowed it to explore rather than using traditional machine-learning techniques that could require data from tens of thousands of block-extraction attempts in order to capture every possible scenario.

It’s an impressive sight