Awesomest Awesome to ever Awesome an Awesome

Suppose you’re a voter, and you’ve got candidate X and candidate Y. Candidate X agrees with you on everything, but you don’t think that candidate can deliver on anything at all. Candidate Y you agree with on about half the issues, but he can deliver. Which candidate are you going to vote for?

This has nothing to do with what’s going on now.

–Bill Clinton speaking at the DNC on nothing in particular

Summertime and the Livin’ is Easy

We actually haven’t had our usual blistering dog days this summer. Last year this time, we were having 110+ degree heat and it wasn’t dropping below 90 at night. It’s only 72 degrees now (2AM) so even though it’s staying in the 90s during the day, this is the kind of weather that can wear you down.

But we got the new A/C in in June, and summer has been pretty irrelevant, even though the system still needs some tweaking, and I’m not confident how well it would handle a real 120 degree scorcher.

There are typically only 2-3 weeks in a summer where A/C is a virtual necessity. Not that you absolutely need it, but that you can’t do anything else but wait for it to be over.

However–and I knew this would happen–we’ve had the A/C on every day this summer, at least for a little bit. There’s a difference in what is easily tolerated versus the temptation of absolute comfort. Also, in fairness, the others endure less well than I. Children, in particular, tend to melt in the heat. (I did, too, though I often ventured out into it, and the smog.)

Usually we can get the house cool at night, down to the low ‘70s. But somewhere between 2pm and 4pm, it starts to get stuffy. Then it’s anywhere from 9pm to 1am before it makes sense to open up the house to cool it down again.

The only scary thing is that we’ve still yet to get a power bill.

Hold me.

TransSiberian: Like TransAmerica, minus the gender reassignment

A stable, staid couple hooks up with a wilder one causing havoc in their otherwise ordinary lives. Sure, we’ve seen it before, but have we ever seen it on a train crossing Asia?

Woody Harrelson and Emily Mortimer have just finished helping some orphans in China have decided to take the train back home instead of a plane, when they meet a sexy, sleazy Spaniard played by Eduardo Noriega, and his twitchy, sexy girlfriend Kate Mara. Hard-nosed Ben Kingsley is sniffing around with his lapdog Thomas Kretschmann, ratcheting up the tension.

I actually can’t describe much more without giving away the plot twists. This movie can be commended for missing about half the usual clichés of this well-worn plot. The normal trajectory of the “good couple gone bad” has them clashing with the “bad couple” and doing desperate things to restore normalcy back to their life. The theme of this movie is more about faith and honesty.

This latest film from Brad Anderson lacks the eerie atmosphere of his earlier film The Machinist, though it has much of that movie’s predictability. It generally seems above-average by missing a lot of the typical turns, as I’ve noted.

The Boy liked it but felt it was a bit slow in parts. I didn’t find it such, but with movies with foreign languages I (sorta) know, I’m always trying to parse out the foreign language.

Italia: Molto Bene!

The Italians kicked ass in boxing, the one sport I have a really strong affinity for. (And, at the same time, am repulsed by the fallout that comes from gigantic men smashing each others heads in with those 10 oz. clubs called “boxing gloves”.)

I saw Cammarelle’s gold medal super-heavyweight fight against the Chinese, but the one that really caught my eye was Russo against the American Wilder. In both fights, the Italian was the smaller guy. In the Russo-Wilder fight, the American was about half a foot taller. And something like 7-8 years older.

In both fights, the Italians forced their opponents to close and then just weren’t wherever their fists were. Their opponents were not nearly so lucky, suffering all kinds of blows as the Italians slipped in and out on the hard-charging American and Chinese brawlers. They didn’t show us how Russo lost his medal–at least, I missed it–but I would’ve liked to see the guy who was better.

The boxing judging was intermittently atrocious, so I don’t know if he lost fair-and-square, but that’s the sort of fighter I would’ve liked to be back in the day.

Meanwhile, the Italians performed a stunning rhythmic gymnastics performance and ended forced out because of the Chinese factor. (The Chinese did well, but they were nowhere near on the level of the Italians, who did about 12 things that had you gasping “How did they do that?”)

Oh, well. There’s a reason the Chinese got so many gold this year, and it ain’t entirely because they’ve improved so much.

Combat Systems II: Batman Wins

So, last time, I was talking about the complexity of actual combat–particularly space combat–and ended by allowing how it was understandable that games simplify it. Good board game design means simplifying as much as possible while keeping it interesting, while good computer game design can allow tremendous complexity but needs to still be accessible so that a player can puzzle out good choices from bad.

Take a game like Risk: Military battles on the scale modeled in risk are vastly complex things as well, but reduced to the players rolling (no more than) three dice at once. Fair enough. That keeps things at the strategic level. First edition Dungeons and Dragons took the entirety of martial combat and reduced it one 20-sided die roll–though with substantial rules behind that. 4th Edition D&D is basically geared toward detailed, tactical combat (incidentally signaling its demise as a storytelling medium).

But 4th Edition D&D illustrates perfectly the struggle of the game designer: You want to allow free action on the one hand, but on the other you have to make actions which are compatible in order to compare them meaningfully, which in any system, requires restricting actions. 4th Edition answers the question of Batman vs. Superman by saying, “Superman–but Batman shouldn’t encounter Superman until he’s leveled up and has comparable powers”.

Yet everyone knows that whenever Batman and Superman clash in comic book fiction, Batman wins. Because the alternative is boring and predictable. In fact, Superman almost always loses to every good guy. He has to: He’s invulnerable. That’s almost a literary necessity. It is a literary necessity that the battle be difficult, or you have no story. (Intriguingly, combat gaming must also be difficult, or you have no game!)

But can you have a game system that can make it possible for the Batman to win, simply by being smart? Can you have a game system that allows Frodo to defeat the big boss?

This feeds into the starship combat discussion, at a slightly different angle: Can you have a game system that allows for a wide variety of variants so that creativity is endlessly rewarded?

Let’s look at StarDock’s highly regarded Galactic Civilizations II, a game that I’ve played far more than I’ve actually enjoyed (for complex reasons best left for another time). GalCiv–a space-based form of Civilization–actually goes back to the OS/2 days, but in its latest incarnation has the option to “act out” space battles.

GalCiv, much like Civilization 4, takes a “rock-scissors-paper” approach to combat. But before we get to that, let’s look at what the next step might be past “roll a die/higher score wins”.

Obviously, the “higher die roll” is boring. It works in Risk because Risk is a strategic game, and the tactical simplicity gives just enough randomity to make the strategic game something more than a decision tree.

If we go back to Civ 1, we see the next level of complexity (or one potential level of complexity). In Civ 1, (if I recall correctly) units had an attack strength and a defense strength. Comparing the attacker’s attack to the defender’s defense gave the probability of success. Let’s say any unit has a 50% chance of successfully destroying another. Now, let’s say the attacker has an attack value of 6 while the defender has a defense value of 4. We can do the math like this:

6/4 = %150 * 50% = 75%

So, an attacker has a 75% chance of success. The problem with this approach is that it gets dull, fast. If the attacker has a value of 8:

8/4 = %200 * 50% = 100%

So, in any situation where the attacker’s attack value is double the defender’s defense value, the attacker always wins. This isn’t the way Civ actually worked, as it was famous for having the occasional stone-age spearman beat the occasional modern tank.

A better approach is to improve the odds without ever making them zero. So, if we have attackers with varying attack values of 6, 8 and 800, we could calculate the chance of failure as:

½ * 4/6 = 1/3
½ * 4/8 = ¼
½ * 4/800 = 1/400

Not bad. This sort of system allows us the opportunity to reflect a wide scale, and it works pretty well for a strategic game where technology allows creation of units with higher attack and defense. This single dimension of attack/defense allows us to evoke a battle between swordsman (high attack) and spearman (high defense). It also creates the user-infuriating situation where a spearman–maybe one time in 400–beats a tank.

The next level of complexity, for Civ games, was to add hitpoints. Instead of one “die roll” to determine the fate of a confrontation, one die roll determined whether a point of damage was done. So, where our little spearman before had a one in 400 chance to destroy the tank, now it has a one in 400 chance to cause a point of damage. And the spearman might have one hitpoint where the tank has 20, and his chances of success go down to 1 in 8000.

If we go back to our Batman v. Superman battle, we can see Batman’s in serious trouble. Superman is at least a tank, and Batman doesn’t even carry a spear.

One of the best implementations of attack/defense/hitpoints in tactical game was the combat sequences in the Heroes of Might & Magic series. In these classic games, a stack of monsters would attack another stack, but instead of chance to hit, the monsters had a range of damage they would cause, and the attack and defense values were used to scale that damage. The stack itself functioned as another layer of hitpoints, only one that didn’t regenerate after a battle.

This gave Heroes tremendous opporutnities to provide interesting combat. For example, the genie (in HOMM I) had the power to halve a stack (which was huge, and overpowered, but not dull). The top troll in any stack could regenerate (I think). Ghosts (in HOMM I & II) added to their stack for every creature in another stack they killed. And so on.

But HOMM added something else to the mix we haven’t talked to, because the combat was highly tactical, and not the sort-of strategic/tactical mix of the Civ games: A combat field. In HOMM, the combat field was like a chess board, and the two sides were placed on opposing sides of the battlefield.

So, the first thing an attacking monster had to do was to close on an opponent it wanted to attack. This offered huge tactical possibilities: Range attackers didn’t have to close (but in version 3, they did half damage if their targets were far away or had cover); flyers could cross the board in a single swoosh (in version 1, in later versions, that was only true of some flyers); regular melee attackers had to walk across the board before they could attack. A range attacker also did half damage if a melee attacker closed on it, which gave you the tactic of barricading your ranger attackers with melee attackers.

When you factor in speed of movement and range attacks, poor Batman is toast. Clark fries him from space with x-ray vision.

HOMM, being tactical, also had multiple types of troops engaged at once, which gives us another new attribute to consider: Initiative. (Who goes first?)

Now we have attack, defense, hitpoints, speed, range and initiative. And we’re still dealing with very broad abstractions. We also create the possibility of ships that can attack and not be attacked. (A ship with a high enough speed and a long enough range attack can attack and stay out of range of a slower ship.)

If a system can’t produce a disastrously unforeseen outcome, it’s probably not very interesting.

Next time we’ll look at how we could build a space combat system with these ideas in mind.

Olympic Irony

The gold medal basketball game between Spain and USA was pretty damn good. It was hard not to root for Spain, just because they were such underdogs. They couldn’t really lose, though. Anybody who scores against the American team is a winner–and Spain mounted more than a merely credible effort. They actually led at one point and kept the pressure on the whole time.

Of course, the Portuguese 18-year old is going to play in the NBA, just as some other NBA players were fighting for the Argentines. The Russian lady (she’s 29! Update, no: 33!) who should have won the gold in the vault (but got the silver due to some bizarre judging) was playing for Germany (because Russia couldn’t find it in their bureaucracy to treat her cancer-ridden son). Foreign-born Americans played for their home countries, and immigrants to America (and their children, like Nastia) played for us. Chinese dominated ping pong, playing for all different sorts of countries. A lot of foreign medalists train in the U.S.A.

The joke of the “medal count” was that the Olympics were supposed to transcend nationalism. (Medal counts were “illegal” for decades.)

It was hard to watch these games without believing, on a very real level, that they have.


The Barbarienne, who has the cutest farmer’s tan*, just peed on the floor.

When she was done, she stepped to the side and indicated her puddle with an open palm and said, “SURPRISE!”

She’s a laff riot, that one.

*Actually, her legs are tan but her butt is white.

Paging Buzby Berkeley, Mr. Berkeley To The Red Phone…

Can there be anything more decadently western, more American, even, than synchronized swimming?

These women are tremendous athletes, no doubt, though the event itself is even less a sport (and more a contest) than gymnastics.

But the suits, the makeup, the smiles evokes nothing so much as Busby Berkeley and his “Gold Diggers” movies. There’s something poetic about the Russians and Chinese doing so well in it.