Friday, June 27, 2008

WoW Boardgame Session(s)

Laurent was the only person to make it over for our weekly Tuesday session this time out (I was subbing for Chris) and I thought it would be fun to play the World of Warcraft boardgame. Fantasy Flight has a more strategic game (if that can be imagined) coming out this summer (in theory), so I thought it would be fun to play this again. I have little experience with playing this with actual people - one session at GameStorm more than a year ago, a co-op game with Chuck and Dave at WBC West nearly two years ago, a game with six people at Matt's before I started playing online, and another game with Jesse just about the time I was playing (but before I'd spent any time in Loraedon, which comes up if you're playing Undead or Horde before level 30, but not for Alliance, which was my bag). 

As you can see, this was really the first time I'd played the game other than one solo session after the Burning Crusade expansion (for the boardgame) came out in a little while, and so I was interested as to how well it stood up for WoW players. It's kind of a mixed bag, which I'll describe below. 

My biggest mistake was not helping Laurent pick his powers on the first turn. We were playing with the Shadows of War expansion, which is a small box add-on that more or less doubles the character development options, adds a "Destiny" deck that adds timed special conditions, and also some Blue Quests to make fighting independent (non-quest) monsters more profitable, at least sometimes. I think that all of the additions add to the game and correct some class imbalances, but they do make picking your powers a bit more complicated as now instead of three first level powers you have five, and the corresponding talents (added as you ascend in levels) as well.

As such, Laurent wiped in both of his initial combats, essentially dropping him back a cycle. Like Formula De, this game is about efficiency and not wasting effort. Every time you wipe against an opponent, you lose at least four or five actions. The one you spent moving to fight the critter, the one you spent fighting the critter, the one you spend resting and getting your strength and energy back, and the one you spend getting where you were before all of this happened. That's two full turns out of fifteen each character has to work with, and it's a burden that's difficult to overcome if your opponent doesn't do so well. This is, frankly, one of the reasons I prefer the game solitaire. 

I, on the other hand, did quite well (or so I thought). I was a level ahead of Laurent with both characters for the bulk of the game, and felt I was a shoe-in to take down the boss with a turn to spare. Both of my characters dinged level 4 (the game goes to 5 without the BC expansion), and for most bosses that's a good level to fight them if you're dice totals are decent (and mine were). The problem was that my Shammy had enough energy for a single round of combat, with fewer dice in the second round and almost nothing from there on. 

When I went to take on the Overlord, in this case Ragnaros from the BC expansion, I learned that I really needed to be a little stronger. My Lock did alright, mostly because he had things that lowered threat, but I didn't get enough red or green hits and the 22 damage Ragnaros dealt was only lowered by 12. In the second round, I didn't do very well and wiped. I'd had a card that looked like it would help a lot until I realized you had to roll your opponent's attack value or less on a blue die, and with an eight sided die and an attack value of 22, that was unlikely even after medication. 

During this time, Laurent was slowly building up his forces and leveling, and after I'd wiped there really wasn't anything useful I could do. There were no local quests, no point in trying to take on Ragnaros again, so I sat for about three turns with little to do but regain strength. We ended the game with a PvP fight, one of the few I've ever done, and in the end we both forgot to use various bag items, and Laurent forgot to use one or two talents, and I ended up winning with each of my characters at a single health. 

The really interesting part should not have been a surprise, though, although it's not something I've dealt with much in the game because I don't play on a PvP server. When you fight other players, you may want to gear up differently. Red dice, for example, are your most valuable in normal combat because they prevent hits and cause them. In PvP, however, only the Green dice prevent hits and red dice are taken sequentially in such a way that you can have a huge advantage and still lose. Attrition points are almost useless, as armor removes them *and* one other hit from the Damage or Defense boxes. 

The other interesting element is that powers that are particularly useful in the online game are not so useful in the board game. Rogue powers are a good example. Vanish is vital to a soloing rogue online, as they can get out of very sticky situations and avoid a corpse walk, but it's not that helpful in the game if you've got the right dice (there's little chance of a mob running to pull in more mobs in the boardgame). Potions are helpful to a point, but against a massive boss that is going to inflict losses of more than half of your damage points in a round there just isn't much point (although if that saves the fight for you, great). 

This is not to say that I didn't enjoy the game, just that I think it's more fun with four players if you've got four hours. I like the conferencing that goes on during downtime - "I'll go take out this Murloc, and you travel over to the Hinterlands and grab that boss from the Event deck." When it's just you, the planning is less interesting. We're hoping that Jesse and Iveta will come over and play in another month, as like the online game this is really a more interesting game when it's more social, at least when you play both factions. Solo, it's a puzzle game and also interesting, but with two it's lacking a little bit. 

One final note: the one solo session where I played the BC expansion seemed to go on for a very long time. I liked the dungeons, although they added considerable time to the game (I could usually play an entire game, from opening the box to having it put away, within two hours, but BC pushed that out to four). I had not gotten to Outlands at that point, so the extra critters and map were unfamiliar to me while the rest of the map and critters were. That made things a little odd. The game felt a little more compressed because there were more levels but not any more XP points to gain, so you barely got comfortable with new powers before you were training to get even more. I'll give it another try, but I'm loathe to ask people to play this game for six hours, which is what it would take. That and two extra tables. It's a lot of game.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Balance Board Quick Update

Not 30 minutes after finishing the entry on the Balance Board for the Wii, I did my exercise program for the morning and unlocked a new balance game - snowboarding.

Let's just say that I have never snowboarded before, and it showed. A completely different experience from skiing. 

You do indeed rotate the board 90 degrees when snowboarding. Steering is now front to back, with speed related to shifting left over the front of the board. No idea if the board reacts to the opposite orientation, which is to say so that your right side is over the front of the board. 

Anyway, I thought it was germane to my previous post. 

Combat Commander - Starting To Get It

Matt R. came over last night for a game of Combat Commander. We played scenario 25a, which pitted several German units attacking four Line level teams (heavily armed and entrenched, but a thin line at best) during the initial advances at the Battle of the Bulge. This is an interesting scenario, because it has a companion scenario that takes place in the same location later in the same day, starting with the same players. The scenario has extensive historical notes, which I wish every scenario had. Get rid of the pictures and graphics, and just put up extra info!

Matt played the Germans, who while they have a lot of units have their movement hampered, and about a third of the units are conscript squads or green teams that can barely move, and there's a lot of open ground to cover. The conscripts and greens, however, are worthless for VP, and the Germans have to capture three of the five objectives before they can start getting units off of the board. Matt also drew the Obj5 = 10VP objective, and given my starting setup that was going to be a problem for him to get to.

The Deansian Statistical Distortion Field is apparently much stronger than we ever anticipated, as Mike is currently in Pennsylvania, 3000 miles away, and it gave me excellent combat rolls (except for a single snake eyes/jam result that I used my Initiative card to reroll), while Matt seemed to roll low on just about everything that he wanted high numbers on, and by the end of the game he had lost more than half of his units. His luck even went sour at the time check on Time 7, when I first rolled a 4 to end the game, then rolled a six when he gave me back the initiative. 

It seemed there were a few things that went wrong, and a few things that Matt did wrong (I had a very simple strategy - draw Fire cards and the occasional Recover), and after the game I had a bit of an epiphany. Up until now, I've learned a few operation concepts - save up the cards you want for a big push, as this is a game played by inches. Far better to discard fishing for the cards you want to do what you want to do than to just fire randomly hoping for a statistically improbably result. Instead, you build up the cards you need, such as smoke cards to advance on a strong enemy position (the bunker with the 2 leader in it was impervious to enemy fire with almost any result). 

What I have failed to understand about this game, and I believe I can be excused for this, is that each scenario is a puzzle. ASL players have already figured this out, I think. This is not to say that every scenario has a perfect solution, as the vagaries of the decks ensure a level of chaos that echoes the battlefield (a good thing, I think, and a big selling point for me over ASL's perfect knowledge of the odds) - the events alone make every game different. 

Here's the big thing - because the scenarios are puzzles, they need to be played repeatedly to enjoy. Which is totally unintuitive to wargamers, who tend to be parakeets and collectors, grabbing the next cool and shiny game before moving on to something else. That's me, anyway. As such, when given a game with 12 scenarios, my first impulse is to play them all, then anxiously await the next batch. 

This is a big mistake, and I think that I have been shortchanging my enjoyment of this game. Especially the CC:Med scenarios, which have seemed extremely unbalanced in my group's play. At this point, I think that the relative elegance of the ruleset, combined with the large number of scenarios (I have something like 40, which includes the C3i scenarios, with more on the way in October in the Stalingrad pack) lures you into thinking this is a light game, a la Command and Colors, which does have considerably more similarity between scenarios as the battles tend to be fought on largely similar terrain with largely similar forces. Ancients does a good job of adding some real-life elements, but the luck element of what card you draw has heavier consequences in C&C, while in CC you at least have the ability to choose to discard and work toward executing a plan. 

As such, while I've always thought that the initial setup was one of the more important decisions you make in CC, I'm now thinking that not only is that setup critical, but also having a detailed and effective plan for how to advance on an enemy held position (meeting engagements tend to go pear-shaped almost immediately). That means spending a little time with the board, trying to imagine your opponent's initial placement (both offensively and defensively), and knowing exactly what you need to do to achieve your goals. It's a level of operational awareness that the mechanisms of the game belie, and while the game can be enjoyed on a casual level, I'm delighted that there is a much deeper game underneath, one that encourages you to anticipate problems and have plans in advance. 

I'll use music performance as a comparison. For the casual listener, music is a very pleasant and often exhilarating experience. For the student of music, awareness of compositional techniques, performance issues, and music history do nothing but add to the experience, much as learning a little about cooking enhances the dining experience. For the performer, you must understand the place of every note, every phrase, in the bigger picture. You must know where the difficult and problem spots are in the piece, and have a plan to pick up the pieces if things go wrong. You need to spend time playing the instrument if it's not yours, the acoustics of the hall, anticipation of audience reactions, all sorts of things. The better you plan your performance, the better it will go. As an intuitive musician, one who came to many of these performance mechanisms naturally and without effort or active study, I actually suffer a bit in terms of the discipline of preparation, and repeated "serious" performance has given me a much better idea of what I need to be thinking of when preparing for a concert. 

Combat Commander is exactly the same. If you approach it as a casual, shoot-from-the-hip-with-the-bullets-you-have-right-now game, it's a lot of fun. Knowing how to work your deck for optimal progress adds depth while retaining the fun. But understanding the deep game may, I think, provide the most satisfying experience. I've always thought that ASL players considered the game more of a lifestyle because of the vast ruleset, but it now occurs to me that it's because each scenario, and there must be something bordering on thousands out there now, is it's own puzzle. You don't have the same level of chaos to create the need for as much contingency planning in ASL, but it's still there. In other words, it isn't rules retention as much as the discipline of board and force study.

I don't know that CC will become a lifestyle choice for me in the near future, as I'm not sure I can get the quantity of play necessary without resorting to online play. However, it does throw a different light on the game that will dictate scenario choice and preparation time in the future. Instead of trying a new scenario, I may be wanting to repeat scenarios (on an opponent-by-opponent basis - the last thing I need is people who don't want to play me because I've optimized my strategy on a given scenario when they've never played it before), and switch sides on the shorter ones. 

Sure, I feel a little stupid figuring this out so late in the game, but keep in mind that I absorb and retain rules quickly and well, and always have. It's the same with sight-reading music. The result is that things seem so easy, even if I seem to lose frequently, that I make the assumption subconsciously that the tactics and strategy of the game must be equally accessible and obvious. I even know this consciously, but during play it seems to get lost. Where in a game like Age of Renaissance your play is strongly dictated by what cards you draw, in CC your draws are dictated by how you wish to play. Without that lesson firmly in mind, the next step of detailed understanding of the tactical situation can get overlooked. Especially if there are all of these bright shiny scenarios to play! 

So, who's up for a game?

Wii Balance Board

I've been asked for a little more info on the Wii's Balance Board accessory. I guess I assumed people were familiar with the concept, so here we go...

The Balance Board is about 16" x 12",  about the size of a small bathroom scale. The footpads on the four corners double as weight sensors, so that it both notices that there is a load on it (most programs will have a calibration step involved) and the relative placement of that weight on the board spread among the four corners. Think of a joystick with X and Y axes, but instead of position of the joystick along those axes the BB registers center of mass. 

During some of the wait screens in the Wii Fit program, there is a pulsing green pixilated blob that moves around the screen as you shift your weight. 

The BB comes with four extenders for the footpads if you want to use the device on a carpet. We have a rather thick Persian carpet in our living room, which sits on installed carpet of modest thickness, and the extenders work just fine. The whole point is to get the bottom of the unit above the carpeting so that it can move up and down and register the change in center of mass.

The entire unit sits about two or three inches above the level of the floor, which is just high enough that I'll be nervous when my mother uses it, but it's fine for anyone not prone to falling over. Interestingly, the added height adds considerable tension when you play the Rope Walk balance game on Wii Fit, which is not for those with vertigo. 

Depending on the program, you might only worry about moving left or right, or just back and forth, or both axes. In We Ski, you lean forward to go faster in addition to turning. As you can imagine, with only two axes there's relatively little control you can add, at least compared to the Wiimote, which not only has buttons, but works in three dimension, as well as a fourth dimension of yaw (how much the control is twisted so that the front panel is no longer facing up). At the same time, the control is incredibly intuitive. I haven't skiied in years, and I was admittedly very bad at it, but for just skiing down a slope I felt extremely comfortable very quickly. Just like in skiing, the trick is to learn when to turn and how much, which is more difficult if you want to do moguls. 

Of course, the BB can only do so much, so in We Ski you have to do air tricks using buttons on the controller. If you sidestep up a slope, that requires hand motions, as does skating or doing other special movement. The crouch is a little more intuitive - you twist the Wiimote and nunchuk inward to pick up speed. Snowplowing uses a button as well, as does stopping (although a sufficiently sharp enough turn does the same thing). I would have liked an option to lean forward to crouch, although I think that the word "option" is important here. Interestingly, this is exactly what the Slalom Skiing balance game in Wii Fit does, and it makes the game a little harder as a result. I consider We Ski an early title, and am looking forward to what improvements a snowboard game would make. 

Snowboards and skateboards have a different foot orientation, of course. The balance board has a definite front/back orientation, with the power button in the back. I'm not sure if it works via IR or RF (line of sight or not), but Nintendo *must* have thought of this during design. I know that some elements of the Wiimote seem to be IR dependent, as the hand pointer icon on the screen disappears if I move too far back from the parallax IR sensor, but the button presses work fine even if the Wiimote is pointed up at the ceiling, for example. For a snowboarding game, you'd need to turn the BB so that your feet were oriented correctly - that, or you'd be going down the hill with your head turned 90 degrees. I have no idea how they'll handle when your feet are in a normal over-the-shoulder stance, which I know is part of operating the board when you aren't flying down a hill. With We Ski, you shift to a side view, but at those times the BB isn't providing control. 

Even though I understand that the BB isn't a professionally calibrated device like those used by physical therapists, what it does excel at is the relative position you're in. Some programs will work better if your feet are spread further apart, but the Wii Fit yoga programs are often intended to have your feet close together. There is no way the machine can know if you are doing this when both feet are on the board, of course, as there are only four sensors, but then again you are only cheating yourself.

The Wii Fit feedback is quite good. For a given exercise, a small two-d graph is shown to the side, which represents the possible center of mass distribution, and a yellow highlight zone shows you where you should be. A red dot shows where you actually are. As you do the exercise, the dot moves around on the graph, and keeping it in the yellow area will improve your score on that exercise. For example, the Sun Salutation position (fancy-schmancy touch your toes) has an oblong area oriented along the vertical axis, which corresponds to front/back balance. As such, where your weight goes front to back is much less important than your right/left balance for the exercise. For the Warrior pose, you only have one foot on the pad, but weight distribution is more important so that your knee is bent correctly, so front/back is important (and, I'm guessing, total weight), and the yellow area is a smallish circle that you want to bullseye the red dot in. 

All of which is no substitute for a real Yoga instructor, but at the same time the cost is considerably cheaper and you don't have anyone sticking their foot in your face in a crowded studio. Believe me, I've been there. Plus, unless you had a yoga studio across the street from your house, as we did for a brief time, you probably have to get in your car to get there, so your carbon footprint is probably a little less. We go green where we can. 

As for upcoming titles, I've learned not to pay too much attention to anything until it's actually out, although the fantastic luck I had in picking up a BB could easily have ended with me running around town looking for a BB had I not been at Fry's that one specific day. Games don't seem to be as much of a problem, fortunately. My problem is that if I'm waiting for a game to come out, I typically buy it that day without knowing if it's actually any good. As such, I've learned to wait until it comes out, read the reviews, and then make a buying decision. With the Wii, that's been a really good idea as so few of the games have been well received critically. I'll probably pick up the snowboarding game when it comes out now that I know about it, but probably not the skateboarding. I've tried a Tony Hawk title or two, and my wife even got me a skateboarding controller for the PS1. Having never skateboarded, the damned thing nearly killed me, which may have been the ultimate goal. We ended up giving it to a friend's kid. I'm just the wrong generation for skateboarding - it was a shortlived fad when I was in my early teens, and didn't make a comeback until I was in college, but boy has it stuck around this time. What I'm saying is that skateboarding just doesn't speak to me much. 

There's a hilarious send up of the Wii Fit package put out by Sarcastic Gamer on You Tube, well worth watching. They use the Wii promotional materials with a hilarious voice dub, it's quite good and well worth searching out online. Of course, it missed the point that Wii Fit isn't a game (although it includes games), it's an exercise program for your console. And for those who mock Yoga but have never given it a serious try, I'm here to tell you that it's a whole lot harder than it looks. We ended up getting (and I sh*t you not) a walker to help with my balance - anything that involves one foot leaving the ground that isn't involved in getting me from one physical location to another is a real challenge for me. I use it to balance my elevated knee for Tree position, for example - otherwise I simply can't maintain my balance. Let me tell you, seeing my mother at 85, and knowing that her largely excellent bone health is the product of 15 years of thinking ahead with calcium and vitamin D supplements, and seeing that balance is a huge problem for her makes me want to start working on it *now* instead of after I've tried to imitate Paul Hamm on a staircase sans the stuck landing. 

Anyway, that's my take on the BB at this point. I think it's a brilliant addition to the Wii, and more importantly, it broadens the appeal of the console in ways that I will guarantee Microsoft and Sony will begin to emulate. When you see Wii's used for physical therapy and played by seniors in retirement communities, you know that this is not your older brother's console anymore. I predict that at some point in the next decade the Wii and BB will be in MOMA's Industrial Design wing along with the original Mac, the Newton, the iPod, and the iPhone. And well it should because those designs took their historical predecessors in new directions just as the Wii is taking console gaming into new realms. 

Monday, June 23, 2008

The Wii - One Year Later

I spent a considerable amount of time and effort trying to get a Wii a little more than a year ago, showing up at Fred Meyer's at 6am two days a week for a month, even being the *first* guy in line at Toys R Us - that *didn't* get a Wii. My most excellent friend Ben seemed to be a magnet for the damned things, though, and managed to score one just stopping by a store. It's a year later, and through what seems to me to be considerable controversy for a gaming console, I thought it worthwhile to jot down my feelings on the system, the industry, and the continuing shortage of hardware.

First, availability. The Wii is not impossible to get as it was a year ago, but it does require some patience and perseverance. The local Fry's Electronics Superstore gets them in about once a week, although they go quickly. Controllers are easy to find, unlike a year ago when getting a Nunchuk was a bit of a trick. You no longer are forced to purchase Wii Play along with your controllers, which is nice. The new Balance Board controller that comes with the Wii Fit package, however, is nearly impossible to get. Rumor has it that Nintendo is shipping units to Europe rather than the US because the dollar is so weak compared to the Euro. I was very lucky to have been at the store the day they came out, because I'm not sure they've gotten any back in since.

The games have been a huge disappointment to me, at least in part. It usually takes the developers some months to start figuring out the efficiencies of any new system, but with the Wii it seems that they hadn't the foggiest idea of what to do with the new controller paradigm. When they did use it, there was little novel about it (usually shaking it or pointing it at the screen), or in some cases they abandoned the novelty altogether! This puzzles me, as some of the early games, like Warioware - Smooth Moves did a fantastic job of showing genuine creativity. Comparatively, the new Lego Indiana Jones game, while a lot of fun, doesn't really use the controller in anything other than a very traditional way. No shake, no point, no nothing. At the same time, I'd rather play a game using the Wiimote as a traditional controller if it makes sense to do so rather than staple on some non-intuitive elements just to make it more of a Wii game. 

This is not to say there aren't some exceptionally good games out there. It just seems like they were far and few between for quite a while. Some of the titles I think are worth investing in:

  • Super Mario Galaxy (do not play if the old Descent computer game messed with your inner ear)
  • Metroid Prime: Corruption (this is how to do a first-person shooter on the Wii)
  • Mario Kart (even comes with a little wheel you put the controller in)
  • Trauma Center: Second Opinion (you use the controller like a laser scalpel!)
  • We Ski (if you have the Balance Board and don't actually ski)
  • Battalion Wars 2 (Fun combat game)
  • Warioware: Smooth Moves (the "koans" they give for the various uses of the Wiimote are worth the price of admission alone)
Of course, the original Wii Sports package is still a lot of fun, if limited in many ways. 

The good news is that the quality of title seems to be improving in general after a long drought. The bad news, at least for some, is where the market seems to be going. The Wii can't really compete against the traditional console games on the XBox 360 or even the PlayStation 2 in some respects, but that's also because Nintendo isn't trying terribly hard. What Nintendo decided to do with the Wii was to open the market up to people who werent' twitchers but were instead interested in "social gaming". And it has worked. At the retirement community where my mother lives they play Wii Bowling every night, even those residents in wheelchairs or with walkers. And they have a *ball*. 

The success seems to be drifting over to the Sony and Microsoft camps, where developers are starting to copy the social gamer model. For one thing, you don't need to work so hard on AI or level design when Halo 3 isn't the point but Mario Kart is. Think of the brain trust needed to design Advanced Squad Leader (a wargame whose rules come in a 2" three-ring binder) compared to a game like Times Up, which requires you to think of a bunch of people's names and stick them on cards. I'm not saying I don't like games like ASL, but if the point was to make money putting together a game and selling it, a party game as good as Time's Up will win out every time, and by a factor of about 1000. So guess where the market is going? Not to mention that you have Wii's used in physical therapy, and played by people that previously wouldn't have gone near a console game.

While the networking side of the Wii is just starting to get beyond the Nostalgic Download phase, it's definitely moving in the right direction. Nintendo is starting to sell downloadable games and Mario Kart *finally* allows you to play other people online (and even shows you where they're from, which I really like). The Mii concept, that of designing an avatar that will represent you in the games and even show up as observers or competitors, seemed a little childish at first. Now, however, when I go for a jog using Wii Fit, there's my daughter jogging past me, or people from my game group playing baseball. It's a little corny, but I actually enjoy these games better when people I know are in the game, even if they aren't really there. 

Perhaps the biggest surprise is the physical exercise the Wii can provide you with. Let's establish right now that while I am not what I would consider a fat man, I am about 10-15 pounds over fighting trim and don't do much in the way of exercise. 30 minutes on the Wii Fit gives me a decent aerobic workout, and really surprisingly good feedback. After seeing the sort of trouble that decaying balance causes as we age in my mother (who has been very good about almost every other aspect of her personal health), the Balance Board is mana from heaven. My balance stinks, as anyone unfortunate to watch me try various yoga poses can attest, but now I have an excellent way to practice this at home. And I can't emphasize this enough, give me feedback on how I'm doing. While the Wii Fit is by no means as accurate as the balance machine they use at my mother's physical therapy workouts, it's an amazing first product. If anything would get me to start doing a daily workout in the mornings, it's this. 

I do have a PS2 that I use mostly for Guitar Hero (and Rock Star, which I plan to get later in the summer - it seems that they are unbundling the various elements and I'm hoping my GH controller will work as well as my SingStar microphones), so if I want the old-style twitch gaming I can always get it. Right now, the MMO experience is so rewarding that I mostly game in small increments on the Wii - 30 minutes of Mario Kart, for instance, or even just 15. 

However, what I find so damned rewarding about the Wii is that it tends to engage everyone, from small children (my great-nephew Kai, for example, is a scream to watch golfing at age 2) to my 85-year-old mother, and nearly everyone inbetween. My wife, who dabbled in PlayStation golf and a little Virtua Tennis on the Dreamcast, has started to ask if we can play the Wii in the evenings. She likes the boxing for some reason, but especially the slalom skiing in the Wii Fit program. Even my daughter comes over and plays with us. 

All in all, despite the dearth of decent games (mitigated a tad by the GameCube compatibility - I can still use all of my old controllers and games with the Wii), I can't imagine a more forward-thinking or perfect console for where I am in my life. I suspect that the developer community is finally figuring out how to leverage the unique aspects of the Wii by creating a different kind of game rather than retrofitting the old gameplay styles into new hardware. 

Now if only they would make the Euro-style boardgames available for play online, a la the XBox 360...

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Tuesday Gaming Recap

Eric, Wes, and myself descended on Mike's place for a really nice night of gaming. On the table - the new Ticket to Ride Card Game, and Zooloretto (with a warmup session of Coloretto for Wes' benefit).

I'll assume that everyone reading this knows how Ticket to Ride works, and I'll also assume that many are aware of the controversy surrounding the game. People either love it or they hate it. The game gets rid of the board and instead the tickets have combinations of colors/symbols on them that you need to collect to turn them in. However, it's a little more difficult than that. First of all, you only score your tickets after the last card in the deck has been drawn. Second, you only use cards that are in your "On-The-Track" stack that you build up over the course of the draw deck being depleted. Third, those cards have to come from your "Railyard" in front of you that has very specific rules about what can be played to it and has the potential to have cards "Train Robbed" if someone plays a longer sequence of cards in a given suit. 

As such, when it's your turn you first take the top card from each color in your Railyard (which may mean a locomotive) and put it face down in your On The Track stack. After that, you have three choices, just like TtR:board - draw cards from a drafting set (or blind), draw and keep/discard tickets, or play a set of the same color card (and any locos you wish) to your railyard. You can if you wish play three cards, each of a different color, to your railyard. 

The root of TtR in any incarnation is the decision process between drawing one more card and getting that route on the map. Here, it's about whether or not you're going to put down three black cards only to have someone play four and have yours discarded. In fact, you can't put down more cards of a color you already have, and you can't put down cards in a color that's already in someone's Railyard unless you end up playing more. When to put those cards in your railyard is a huge part of the game.

With two or three people, you go through the deck once. We played with four and went through the deck twice, scoring at the end of each deck. There are also bonus points for having the most routes in/out of a given city (the terminii of each ticket are given on the card, and are tinted for relatively easy identification). To be honest, I wasn't even thinking about this when I looked for tickets, which was admittedly at the start of the game and again about halfway through.

Like TtR, what's available for drafting can really affect your game. I had drawn a bunch of cards using black trains, only to see Mike plop down five of the nine cards available as his first play of the second round. Which was funny, because a third of the way into the game I turned to Eric and said that I suspected that Locos were much more valuable in this game than in the other TtR titles, and I think that's correct. I ended up with three Locos covering my Black needs at the end of the game, with only a single black card making it into my On The Track stack. 

Wes went with a "pick tickets with the same color sets" strategy, and it seemed that it worked for him. I don't know that this would be the case in future games - all it would take is for everyone but you to get one or two of those colors and you could be in serious trouble as it takes a *long* time to build up locos if you draw them as onesies. I'm sure I had some subconscious strategy, but I can't remember for the life of me what it was. It sure wasn't picking tickets by bonus cities (which strikes me as another good strategy). 

It took us about an hour to 'splain and play, which is twice the box's estimate (although I think that was for the single deck game for two or three players). That's an excellent amount of time for a game like this, which has if anything a *higher* tension factor than even TtR: Maerklin and feels more like a gamer's game to me than anything else in the series. I found I was largely able to remember what I'd played into my stack as long as I had a ticket that synced up with it. Otherwise, they were out of sight, out of mind. Which was why I avoided drawing tickets other than just before the second round! In fact, I put down a stack of four red cards at the start of the second round even though I never had a single ticket with a red card needed. 

In the end, Wes' strategy won handily, with something like 127 points to my 113. That may seem like a lot, but in fact it's about the average value of a ticket or bonus points. Had I tied for the New York points (I was one card short) I would have won the game. 

Frankly, I loved it. I felt the luck factor was mitigated by several factors, chief among them being knowing when you should be playing those one-of-each-color three card sets so that others wouldn't stomp on them. If you are like me and think that luck is very real but overused as an excuse, you'll like this game because I really did feel that I had choices all the way through. The tension is great too, as you're always wondering if you should be pulling off a train robbery on your opponent, drawing those cards you really need, or deciding what tickets to keep and when to draw them. It's kinda strange because most card game versions of board games are stupified (Settlers Card Game excepted) versions of the original, and I didn't think this was a particularly good game for non-gamers while TtR (at least the original and Europe) is. Between the memorization and what always felt like tough calls for play it pretty much wiped me out, but in a good way. While I've yet to play with three, I can say that I loved it with four.

Next up was Zooloretto, which Wes had never played (nor had he played Coloretto), so Eric suggested we play Coloretto first so that the basic idea was established then teach the rest (mostly the money actions). I played quite poorly at Coloretto, which is a fun little game but with so little luck mitigation that it loses points as anything other than light family fare. Zooloretto, on the other hand, simply rocks. It builds on the basic concepts of Coloretto in a way that turns a game of chicken into a long-term set collecting strategy. I'm very interested in seeing Aquaretto, which I have heard is out. Clearly one I'll need to pick up in the future. 

At some point, I'm hoping to get some of the expansion tiles into a Zooloretto game, and it may be something I take to Sunriver to play with my family. Along with TtR, of course, although I think this time I'll bring Europe. 

Thanks to Mike for hosting, and it was nice to see some faces that I haven't seen around for a little while, especially Wes. 

Monday, June 16, 2008

Mom Update

A quick update on my mother's condition.

We saw a neurosurgeon today, Kyle Smoot. Nice guy, but they're starting to graduate them younger and younger. ;-)

Mom passed the exam with flying colors, which is a very good thing. Even better, she should heal on her own over the next couple of months. If she still has fractures/pain after that time, they'll consider the bio-cement procedure, as it's still invasive and carries some risk. 

So, for now we simply have to manage her pain, balanced with the effect that medication has on her (Kyle was aware that older patients tend to get a little foggier with pain meds/opiates than, say, me). That, and do a little physical therapy to keep her back relaxed. 

The awesome news is that instead of seeing nothing but being drugged the rest of her life, my mother now sees that she's going to just have to live through this for a matter of weeks - we're already at the three week mark and so at worst she'll be on the meds for another 10 weeks or so. That's much better than the next 10 years or even 10 months, and her attitude perked right up when she heard that the fractures would heal on their own. 

We aren't out of the woods yet, and even then I'll be caring for an 85-year-old and whatever happens next, but all in all I feel like we dodged a bullet. Thanks to everyone for your kind thoughts and wishes, it does make a difference. 

In other news, my wife got to hear our grandchild's heartbeat today. Frontrunner names are Michaelangelo (sadly, after the TMNT - Jake's idea, which we're trying to steer to Michael Angelo) for a boy, and Lila Grace for a girl. As Paul Simon once said, "Li-la-li... , Li-la-li-li-li-la li, ...."

At this point, I don't even care. I'm just trying to figure out what game a 5-month old can play...

The US Open

I usually don't watch too much golf on television, and haven't played myself in years. Watching the Sunday round of the USGA US Open yesterday had all of the elements of a classic sports film, all but the clear ending. Rocco Mediate, a minor golfer at best who has never won a major, is one stroke out of the lead going into the final round after Tiger Woods nails an incredibly difficult putt on 18 to eagle the hole and jump ahead by one stroke on Saturday. Rocco's first question - is he going to be paired with Tiger on Sunday? Sadly, no, but he did get his wish.

What made this the sports event to watch is that Tiger had knee surgery recently and is only playing because it's the Open and he has his eye on history - he has a lot of winning to do to catch Jack Nicklaus. Which is a damned shame, because were I Tiger I would have blown the last putt on 18 on Sunday, a relatively easy putt compared to the previous day, to allow Rocco (a 45-year-old man, who would be the oldest golfer to win the Open) to take home the prize. Admittedly, I'm rooting for my age bracket over everything else, and I love an underdog (would have been hard to follow the Seahawks all these years if I didn't), but I don't see a downside if Tiger wins either, wincing in pain every time he tees off and torques his knee. 

It's a good thing there was all of this incredible tension going into the last round, because it seemed that everyone forgot how to putt. I can't count the number of really close putts there were all day long. Perhaps the tension overall got to people, but it's rare I see that many double-bogies coming out of the top seeded players (both Woods and his partner tallied one). Maybe Torrey Pines is just that kind of golf course, like St. Andrews, where under par means you've achieved the golfing world's equivalent of Nirvana. The religious state, not the band. Rocco himself missed a lot of very makeable putts to put himself into the position of playing Tiger Woods today for yet another 18 holes.

I can only imagine that both of these men will need a three-week vacation at Club Sedated after this. Tiger for his knee, Rocco for the sheer adrenaline of being in this position for the first time in his life. Even if he loses, though, I see no shame. To take on the premier golfer of his generation, perhaps of all time, even if he is gimpy, would be the dream of just about any golfer on the planet. And he beat the other 100 golfers who showed up, even though he had to qualify to get in. And he's the same age as me. So go get 'em, Rocco, and enjoy the moment while you can. Every other golfer on the course wishes they were in your shoes, and every one of them is rooting for you. Tiger, you've won enough for now. Let Rocco have his day.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Two Great Tastes

That go great together - LEGOs and Indiana Jones. Mmmmm....

Picked up this Wii title because the Star Wars version did so well, although I never got it for the Wii because it wasn't really a Wii game, just a game on the Wii. No use of the Wiimote for anything other than mashing buttons. Still, I liked the newest Indy movie and I've always loved the franchise, so I did something I never do and bought a game based on a movie. Actually, three movies because the game replays the original trilogy. Better yet, you can skip Temple of Doom if you don't feel like hearing Kate Capshaw squawk. 

I spent a couple of hours getting through the first two chapters of the original Raiders portion of the game, which cover the Amazonian prelude that introduced the character in a way that hasn't been repeated since, as well as the Tibetan sequence where Indy finds the Magnifying Glass of the Gods. 

There are a lot of cute cutscenes that take a lot of liberties with the movies, which I think adds a lot. For example, there's a part in the first cutscene where Indy, map pasted to the front of his face, narrowly misses falling into a pit, but one of his porters doesn't. Two tribesmen are watching, one of them giggling until the other shoots him a look. Pretty cute, and there are lots of little moments like that.

And that's a good thing, because the game is fun and all, but there are problems. First up is the apparent design goal that "breaking every piece of furniture in sight is good". Remember how Mario had some suppressed anger regarding wooden crates? Indy has that about every table and chair in the place, and you'll want to break everything in sight so you can get extra hearts and cash. And you will need the cash to buy extra characters, as one of the cool things is you can switch from one character to another. For example, Marion is a much better jumper than Indy, so you need her to get into areas that he can't reach. 

Another problem I had was the "endless pursuers" mechanism. Not only do you have to figure out how to solve all of these puzzles, you also have to fight off wave after wave of henchmen. Wave after wave. Until you figure out the puzzle. Sort of like doing a crossword while in a car with a ADHD kid's soccer team. Most of the puzzles require you figuring out how to get to a certain spot, then using the correct character to build the necessary piece out of the pieces in the area. That in itself is pretty cool (although don't use Indy for this - it uses the same button as his whip, and about 55% of my mashing was wasted). I went through about 40 waves of bad guys at the Tibetan bar before I figured out what I needed to do, and it's not always obvious. 

Finally, as I said before this game could be on any platform. The graphics are great, although you can't change the camera angle for a couple of "hidden" spots, and the LEGO theming is really quite good. At no time, however, do you actually use the Wiimote as it was designed, through shaking or pointing. That's not an entirely bad thing, as my personal opinion is that they shouldn't try to fit a square Wiimote in a round hole if it doesn't work. However, it makes the game just another video game instead of a Wii game. 

I definitely like the 3D platformer implementation - I liked Mario Bros back in the day, and this has a very similar play style, although extended to three dimensions. You want to find all of the pieces of the "artifact" for each area, and there's a special room at the College where you can review progress on each level, as well as moving between the various movies if you wish. So if you get stuck on one level, you can go play a different movie for a while. 

There are an incredible number of animations in the game - in the parts I saw, I watched Indy punch, kick, and flip enemies, throw chairs, break bottles, fire crossbows and guns, and of course use the whip. And that's just combat. You can even have Marion do the same things, although she doesn't have a whip. The best section so far (of course) is the "run from the really big ball of rock" scene, which is not that hard to do as long as you aren't too greedy for getting every piece of coin in the game. 

I'm a little concerned that I can't save my game in the middle of a level. While it wouldn't take too long to get through the areas you've already completed because you know what has to happen when, it's still a little annoying to have to give up the entire level's progress just because you have to put the game away. 

Still, all in all it's hard to judge a game just because the port to the Wii didn't take full advantage of it's motion sensitivity. It's a cool enough game that I'm tempted to find the Star Wars LEGO game (at least for the Mac if not for the Wii) and have some fun with it. 

Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Road to Legend, Chapter 1.2

Six of us met to continue with our Descent: The Road to Legend game on Tuesday night. From our previous meeting were Jesse, Iveta, and Laurent (Mike has no apparent interest in the story arc element in RtL and bowed out). Joining us were Ben H and Matt R. Ben had never played Descent, and Matt had played once or twice before, but both jumped right in and started to get the hang of the game with very little prep time. 

To save a little time, I'd "rolled" the second and third levels of the dungeon prior to our session, and gotten the various characters all set up. This saved me quite a bit of time sorting through the various floor pieces, and I recommend this for groups who are competitive but that isn't the main reason for play, as the Overlord *may* make some choices based on their knowledge of the upcoming maps. However, I tend to discard a lot of cards so that I can build up threat quickly, so there's little planning beyond what's in my hand, so I don't feel my extra knowledge helped me in the least. 

Our second level seemed to me to be very straightforward. The map was a squared off donut, with two treasure rooms off to each side. Our boss was again a skeleton, and in addition to a never-ending supply of skeletons I also included an ogre and a golem. The Ogre didn't last long, but the golem sure did. Fighting against Vasikos (I think that's the character name), they both had trouble getting anything going, with Vas using the Dodge ability pretty much every turn to force rerolls. It wasn't until the characters got the boss skeleton wiped out that they were able to finish off the golem and get to the treasure rooms. Good thing there was a chest - they give the Great Wyrm extra Conquest Points, of which I was pretty far behind when we started (6 to 2). By the end of this level I'd not only gotten three for going through my deck (I got the Brilliant Commander card out that let me draw three cards a turn), but also the points for killing Astarra the Runewitch, my favorite target in this game as she has little armor compared to the tanks. I'm going to need buffed up characters and lots of traps to do them decent damage.

Just before they got to the third level (another donut but with much bigger rooms and more rubble), I also got out the DOOM! card that let me roll an extra power die with each attack. I'm limited to two Power cards played, so I couldn't get out the Hordes of Things card out, but then again if you don't have multiple areas in a level (most have just one) there's no real point once you get to the final level. 

The third level has a master giant, which is by far the most dangerous critter they've run into, and quite fitting for the dungeon boss. In addition to the usual special attacks, he can choose instead to throw a chunk of rubble around the room. If it moves over a hero, they take damage and if it lands on them they die. I did manage to kill Astarra again (for a nice 4 Conquest Point gain combined), and am hoping to get through my deck once more for another three. That will put me up to fourteen or fifteen points after the dungeon, which is not too bad. Poor Matt just kept getting picked on, but that's what happens when your armor consists of what looks like a workout halfshirt and a hairband. The party's Conquest Points are already at that point, and I expect them to get to 20, for a total of around 35 points. 

We had to stop about halfway through this level. At the present rate we'll get 1.5 levels done each session, which is maybe a little slower than I expected. Assuming no encounters on the way back to town, I'm guessing we'll get through the first half of another level in the next session once they go back to town and train or do other things and we get used to the non-dungeon mechanisms. That means about a year to get to silver level, another year to get to gold, and another to get ready for the big fight. Not sure this game will last three years, although people seemed to be having a good time and I'll keep it going until my audience loses interest. I think that once the players get to start improving their characters we'll see some extra enthusiasm, although at this point that's not an issue, and I hope it's enough to keep people coming back. I'm a little worried that the dungeons will start to feel kinda samey-samey, but only time will tell. Hey, I've played WoW for more than a year and am still loving it, and it's technically got the same issue (although that's not as true when it comes to dungeons as they get more difficult in a strategy sense as opposed to just tougher monsters, forcing players to play smarter). Still, I have trouble seeing the game having the same punch after 15 dungeons or more. Perhaps the quest mechanism (where going to a specific dungeon gives you a bonus) will spice things up and add a story element to keep things fresh.

One other interesting note is that we played with five people taking four characters. Because I want to let as many people as possible get in on the fun early, I was willing to take the chance that one person could operate as a strategic thinker for the group, or just as an extra voice. Iveta took on this role, and while she wasn't as involved as others, I think she's enjoying the way the story unfolds. Next time she'll get to drive someone and we'll let someone else sit out, assuming we have five players on the hero side. I'm glad that the game is engaging in this way, although the limitation on exactly four heroes, while clearly a necessary design decision, is a bit of a knock. 

All in all, I'm enjoying the game myself quite a bit, even though I arguably have the least interesting role (as I'm not all that involved for about 60-70% of the time, or at least don't need to be). However, since I really enjoy hosting and watching people having a good time, especially with something I'm organizing and running, that's not a bad thing at all. It really is a very fun game to watch other people play, as there is so much interaction between the characters. 

Thanks to everyone who came and played, and I'm looking forward to getting into the character building parts of the game as we move ahead.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

D&D 4th Edition - Whither RPGs

I have to admit that when I heard that Wizards of the Coast were going to release yet another edition of Dungeons and Dragons, the seminal fantasy role-playing system, I got pissed. As in angry, not as in drunk. I was angry because I bought the 3.0 Edition core books back in 2001 or so, only to have 3.5 come out not long after, and this seemed like a real stretch to put out a new edition only eight years after 3.0 came out. Considering that the original Advanced version came out in 1977, the second edition (which merely consolidated rules and added Skills but left the basic system intact) in 1989, and the 3.0 version (the first massive departure from the original ruleset) in 2000, it seems that they're telescoping the product, and in the wrong way. Like the early White Wolf releases that were swiftly replaced with second edition versions (which only took me three iterations to figure out - Vampire, Werewolf, and Spectre), I was leery of buying yet another core set of books only to have it "fine tuned" and re-released with a large number of rules changes a couple of years later.

But I have disposable income and too much time on my hands and buy things to give myself worth, so I picked up the full set of core books last weekend. What can I tell you that you don't already know!

I've been working my way through the Player's Handbook, and I think that all of the critics who say that 4th Edition is D&D by Days of Wonder has never played a CCG or a MMORPG in their lives. 4th Edition is World of Warcraft and Magic: the Gathering brought to traditional roleplaying. 

Nowhere is this more clear than in the character class descriptions. Each skill (forgive my nomenclature, I'm flying without the book handy) looks almost exactly like what you'd see on an ability card of the WoW CCG. There are keywords, various strongly typed parameters on when and how often you can use the power, even freakin' flavor text. 

Of course, MMORPGs borrowed quite a bit from CCGs, which in turn borrowed heavily from RPGs. What feels much different in this edition is that WotC are trying to generate a recurring revenue stream by creating and selling an online component (including moving their print magazines to the internet, and published piecemeal rather than as a cohesive unit). I did buy a lot of Dungeon magazines, the print organ that focused on adventures, back in the 2nd ed days, but stopped when they went to 3rd ed and my sizeable collect of adventures was suddenly deemed obsolete. 

So, like Games Workshop and their revolving Warhammer and Warhammer 40k titles and spinoffs that constantly get newer editions every couple of years, WotC seems to be trying to do both the "rebuy everything" strategy while also trying the "online subscription" strategy and seeing what sticks. Which is important, because there is a *lot* of competition for the time of the traditional RPGer these days. Even if you take CCGs and MMORPGs out of the picture, you still have a growing "indie" movement. As such, the rules contain frequent references to other WotC products from minis to character sheets to adventures and campaign settings. Nothing new, but it feels like I'm reading marketing material at times (which I suppose I am) instead of rules. 

Here's why I like the new edition, though. There's been much said about the return to wargaming roots, as most of the new rules cover combat rather than roleplay elements. I actually like this because I feel that it allows the DM to be creative. Most DMs outside of an official event tend toward rolling their own system on the fly anyway, so why bother with elaborate rules on negotiations? 

I have to admit that I also like the MMORPG feel - every new skill you get is something to look forward to, for every class. Rangers, for example, get exploits. The new format makes it very easy to see how the skills work at a glance. Here's an example:

Careful Attack

The title bar is green, so you know you can use this one as often as you want. It's an Attack 1 skill, so first level rangers in combat use it, and you don't need to worry about it when you aren't fighting. It requires two melee or one ranged weapon to use, and is a standard action (meaning that you can do it once per combat turn). You target a single critter, and it allows you to up your Dex or Str by 2 depending on whether you're attacking ranged or melee. You get your normal hit, although an increase in 2 generally will give you a plus one modifier.

Gone are the paragraph descriptions that you have to parse for a couple of minutes to get most of this information. There is a certain amount of duplication, mostly because they're trying to be consistent (the example above mentions that you need a weapon about three times), but I can forgive that in a scope this small.

Me, I like focusing on the story, and it wouldn't be hard to come up with some software that generated these stats for the specific character and printed them out in an easy reference sheet. To play with people who are "non-gamers" would require a little more hand holding, I think, but for anyone who isn't an RPGer but has done CCGs it would take little work. In fact, I'd imagine that CCGers would appreciate that they have an entire deck to work with at once, and they get to build it over time. 

[Note: I just saw that what I've been calling "skills" are actually "powers". You know what I'm talking about.]

A few other things I've noticed so far:

1) Races. Quite an array. No more half-orcs, although that was always a stretch. Now there are High Elves, called Eladrin; Wood Elves, called, uhm, Elves, Humans, Dwarves, Halflings (all wearing svelte shoes in the artwork, which really throws it for me), and half-elves. There are also Tieflings, which look like demonized humans (which I guess they kinda are) and Dragonborn, which are happier versions of Draconids from the old Dragonlance setting.

2) Classes. Warlocks, Warlords, Rangers and Paladins in addition to the Big Four. There's a lot of room for differentiation as you go up in levels - you choose a Paragon Path based on your class once you hit 11 and have an Epic Destiny once you get to 21. I like having these "big" class bumps because it gives players a real incentive to get to the next level, both incrementally and in the bigger picture. 

3) Alignment. Here I start to have trouble. They've gotten rid of nearly half of the alignments from the original game. I always like the fact that you could play a Chaotic Evil character in the context of a generally Good party and really make some role-play hay out of it. In fact, I've done just that, and the challenge for all of us was for me to stay true to my nature as an evil character (stealing things from other party members, looking out for myself above all other things, then coming up with good excuses if I got caught later!). In the new game, you are more or less limited to Lawful Good, Neutral Good (just called "Good"), and Unaligned. Even that last one is a bit of a stretch for players. The rules actively discourage you playing with an Evil or Chaotic Evil alignment. 

This is a bit of a nod to the old "Basic" D&D rules from the 80's, where you got rid of the Good/Evil axis entirely. Of course, the various races were built into the classes, so you never played a halfling cleric, you were simply a halfling. To my mind, I can understand why they made the choice (pick the obvious things and merge the rest), but the challenge of playing a Lawful character who believed strongly in rules regardless of whether they were correct or not made for some interesting game situations. I guess you could still do this, but there will be no official critters or deities that follow this path per se, and I think this was an oversimplification that shows that WotC considers MMORPGers (who don't take alignment into account at all) and CCGers are their new target audience.

And that's really what 4th ed is about. Like wargaming before it, and like eurogames in the next ten years (or less), RPGs came out and blew everything in their path away. Now it's their turn to drift slowly into obscurity (although there will always be a hobby, look at wargames) and this is the way they try to pull new gamers into the hobby. The problem is that you have two populations who are already pouring money into a hobby that they enjoy, and you want to get them to do it with another hobby? One that requires that, Bahamut forbid, they actually *read*? Books? Hmm. 

On the other hand, those of us who played a lot of D&D in our formative years (up through college age), and especially those of us who are multi-faceted gamers (who don't distain other genres because we feel it necessary to justify our own niche) will really like this system. As a relatively late-comer to both MMORPGs and CCGs, and (fortunately) someone a little older with a ton of disposable income, I will almost certainly find new life in playing RPGs again. On the down side, at least for Wizards, I'm unlikely to buy a whole lot of supplements, at least until they get around to something a little less standard like Forgotten Realms (I never saw any of the Erebor - or whatever it's called - material as I never invested in 3rd ed other than the books after 3.5 came out). On the upside, I have a campaign concept that I feel is very fresh and interesting and I'm dying to flesh it out in 4th ed. I won't say much because some of my readers are likely to be players, and I don't want to give anything away, but I can envision mapping the whole Heroic/Paragon/Epic tiers into the life cycle of my campaign pretty easily, and if I do it right it will feel like a good TV series along the lines of Lost or Battlestar Galactica, with an overriding arc, recurring NPCs, moral dilemmas, and some really good progressive revelation. I'd come up with the concept when I first got the 3.0 books, but that didn't seem like the system for me. 4th ed, that looks like the ticket.

Of course, I'm only into the character classes in the Player's Guide so far, but what I've seen so far makes me think this may be the first really good departure from the original system, at least in terms of what I enjoy about gaming. Time will tell. If I do get a campaign up in the near future, I will be sure to give session reports.

Friday, June 06, 2008

MRI Update

We got the test results back from the MRI, and my mother apparently has one or two fractures (depending upon who we were talking to) in her L4 and L5 vertebral bodies. I haven't really had time to spend trying to figure out exactly what that means, as most of my time the past couple of days has involved trying to get her health insurance straightened out. However, it does mean that this was indeed a milestone event, although there is some hope that she can come out of it in more or less the same shape as she left it. 

The health insurance component has it's interesting side. My mother was married for a few years to a retired Army Reserve brigadier general who provided her with health coverage. They divorced early this year after his Alzheimer's got to the point where she could no longer care for him (and his family could). However, the divorce was never recorded in DEERS, the DoD database on service members, and until it is I am unable to get her insurance transferred from the standard TriCare service to the COBRA version. After a few phone calls, I finally made an appointment with the local Army office in downtown Portland to bring in the divorce papers and get this straightened out. I also may need to be sure that her information is correct - they seem to think that she was born five years later than she was. So, Tuesday morning I go downtown with my passport and ODL (because terrorists never carry a passport or driver's license), present them with the papers, and wait however long it takes to percolate through the military bureaucracy. On the plus side, she's covered until then.

As far as what her situation is and her options going forward, there are apparently some surgical options that are plausible for someone of her age. Recuperation and risk are critical issues, and quite frankly my mother is feeling like maybe she's lived long enough. We have been able to get an appointment to see a neurosurgeon on the 16th, and we'll have a better idea of her options then. In the meantime, she's exhausted and sleeping quite a bit, and my wife and I (as well as my siblings) are trying to get over to spend time with her about three times a day. She's also agreed that driving is now out of the question for her, and she's allowed me to pay her bills for her. While these are positive steps for her (mostly letting me do most of the work), at the same time she is giving up autonomy and responsibility that helps her keep going every day. This is a delicate time for her, and I am encouraging her to keep an open mind about her future at the very least until we have a chance to get a good assessment of her options.

In talking with her, I've learned that the things she enjoys most is time spent with her family, especially her children. My sisters (one in particular) have spent a lot of time doing some genealogical research, including two trips back to Missouri over the past year. While I suspect that these will be the last trips my mother makes (that involve aircraft, at any rate), I think they are nice bookends to her life. That is where she was born and spent her first ten years of life, and now she has gone back to those places, even the home she grew up in. 

As for me, I'm finding that I am having to choose what my exact role is. On the one hand, I am her advocate, carrying out her wishes. On another, I am an advisor, making suggestions. On a third, I am her parent now, making meals, tucking her in and setting limits. On a fourth, I am a friend and confidant, allowing her to speak openly and honestly about her thoughts and feelings. I can already see that some of these roles will begin to conflict at some point, and it is this tightrope that I find the most draining, even moreso than the emotional realization that my mother will not be with me much longer. I have told her repeatedly that it is my honor and privilege to be her son, and that I will be with her from now until the end. As I told her earlier today, if she feels that I am a good man and a good person, it is because of the example she set and the lessons I learned from her, not the least of which is to choose your friends carefully. Those of you who read this know that I am very particular who I play games with, and it is because life is too short not to spend it with people whose company you enjoy and treasure, and so I thank those of you I game with for being such good friends. 

I'll give one more update before we speak with the specialist to talk a bit more about caring for my mother and the challenges that brings, especially during a time when we don't know exactly what the future holds. 

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Caring For Mom

A couple of years ago I took this site from being strictly about gaming session reports to being about whatever I felt like blogging about. Usually that means some political/social diatribe spawned from an op/ed article in the local newspaper, occasionally about something a little closer to home.

As regular readers know, my wife and I moved about 15 miles south down I-5 to Wilsonville to be closer to my 85 year old mother. A couple of weeks ago I found out why that was such a good idea when my mother fell in her kitchen right after I got back from the Sunriver game retreat. At first, we thought that she'd hurt her shoulder, which hit the frame of the entrance to her kitchen. X-rays showed no bones broken, though, so the doctor recommended Tylenol for the pain until the ligaments healed up.

A week later, though, my mother was suffering from lower back pain, which eventually moved into her hip and around to the front of her thigh on the side she would have landed on, with less pain on the left side. More X-rays showed no breaks in her pelvis, but the concern is no longer about her hips but about her spine. Her specific symptoms are likely caused by a compression fracture in her spine. Astute readers know that for an 85-year-old, this is not going to get better, ever. 

We had an MRI done last night to verify or rule out (hopefully) issues with her spinal column. [Side note: apparently tattoos contain enough ferrous material in the ink to cause problems with MRIs. The ink is pulled out of the skin by the magnets. Ouch.] We are still waiting to hear the results, hoping that in the digital age that maybe, just maybe, they could get results to a doctor within 24 hours of a test for diagnosis.

Time is of the essence because my mother is in enough pain to warrant her being on Vicodin. I'm pretty sure that she hasn't taken pain medication in something like 40 years, and she rarely even drinks wine, so finding an effective dose that gets rid of her pain without making her so woozy that she'll fall again is a bit of a trick. Especially because when she's woozy it's hard for her to assess her condition and communicate it effectively. 

The MRI went until after 6:30pm, and by the time I got Mom home and everything but tucked in it was close to 8pm. I had already excused myself from the weekly gaming session for that very reason, knowing that I couldn't make it until well after everyone had started. That's a pretty small issue in the larger scheme of things, but I believe that it is going to signal a trend in my life. I've seen this coming for a while, but was hoping that it might hold off a bit more (sort of like becoming a grandparent!) While I don't have a firm diagnosis yet, the symptoms are so clear that I know that the rest of my mother's life is going to be pain management and physical therapy.

Don't get me wrong. My mother and I have an incredible relationship, and I am honored and pleased to be helping her. I also am extremely fortunate to be in the financial position I am in, in no small part to her hard work, and thus I am able to limit my activities to the point where anything I'm involved in can more or less be cancelled or put on hold. The one exception is the band I'm playing in, which will be a problem once they start getting gigs. I may have to reconsider my involvement there, I'm afraid. Otherwise, I can drop anything I'm doing and be there for my mother when she needs help.

I've been hesitant to bring this element of my life into my blog not because I'm embarrassed about the situation. On the contrary, I think that one of the best parts of the internet is being able to reach out and find a huge number of people who have gone through or are going through exactly what is happening to you, and by blogging I am adding to the body of experience that's out there. What has concerned me is my mother's privacy, made clear today when a friend's daughter mentioned that she'd stumbled across my blog while looking for information on Ticket to Ride! However, I've decided that few if any people my mother knows are internet literate enough to connect this blog with her, and I think that regular readers will get a clearer picture of what happens if the time element is present. It's a small thing, but tracking events as they happen feels different from reading a ten year old diary, for example. 

I anticipate that many of my posts in the coming months and years will be about my experiences in caring for my mother, and I hope that those of you who have been in a similar situation will feel comfortable speaking of your own trials and joys along the way.

Before I go, I will leave you with this. I do not believe in an afterlife, at least other than what we produce through our DNA. I know that life is temporary, that we have but a short time on this world. I also know that life is cheap in the general sense (cheap enough that we are approaching the planet's capacity to support our species), but precious in the specific sense. To hear of the tsunami that killed so many in SE Asia a few years ago is terrible and tragic, yet the loss of a single close friend or relative has a larger effect on us. As such, I try not to couch my language about death other than to spare the feelings of those I'm speaking with. I will use terms like dying and death about my mother, and it's inevitability, but I do not do so out of callousness but out of a sense of reality and acceptance. I have spoken with my mother about death, and she is, I believe, ready. I will treasure the time we will spend over the coming months and years for the rest of my life, and I hope her remaining time will be as pleasant as I can make it.