Sunday, July 31, 2011

Moonshine, Trikes, and Other Million Dollar Ideas

1. I'm reading yet another financial disaster book--review of doomsday and panic forthcoming soon, hopefully before August 2nd!--but one thing that strikes me as odd is that it seems like every single person of note is described as "a blue-collar, parochial-school type, unlike all of the other WASPs that make up Wall Street." Sometimes it seems like the finance industry is just a bunch of Catholic former longshoremen who are pretending to be trust-fund Presbyterians.

2. Perhaps it's that I haven't been very perceptive about it, but I've seen more motor trikes than I even have in the past, which, to be fair, is "never." I've never been a motorcycle person--just not my thing--but I'm intrigued. They seem safer, though I don't know why; getting plowed by an inattentive Suburban driver will be the same whether you're riding a hog or a tricycle with a motor. But I will never understand how a small vehicle such as a motorcycle is more expensive than an equivalent car. I mean, sure, the main core parts are the same, and a car is basically a motorcycle with a bunch of plastic and hope duct taped on it, but it's silly to think that more material and/or craftsmanship goes into a motorcycle than a real life breathing car. Still, I was shocked and astounded at the going rate for these vehicles. I don't get it.

3. This is pointless, and also immeasurably cool. A color wheel of cartoon characters.

4. A company in Charleston, South Carolina is going to start selling moonshine, legally. I'm a live-and-let-live kind of guy when it comes to stuff like this; especially given our nation's tumultuous relationship with alcohol in general, I don't mind a little bit of passive resistance. I'm not a drinker myself, and I will never understand the "alcohol culture" we have created for ourselves, but I do recognize the fact that with a few exceptions, booze encompasses all classes, races, and regions. It seems like everyone but Mormons and people on the liver transplant list like to get boozed up. Anyway, moonshine is the perfect blend of entrepreneurship, Southern charm, and symbolic rebellious that encompasses the best of the American dream.

5. I'm not an expert on such things, but it seems the reign of comic-book movies are coming to an end. They got all the low hanging fruit and getting the second-tier heroes up to bat (Green Lantern, anyone?) and now they're trying to capture some of that but without any actual, real comic book stories (Cowboys vs. Aliens, anyone?) I am a lukewarm fan at best--they're usually pretty good fun, and they seemed to get the right mix of story, action, and fun without getting all art-house creepy on us--but except for the occasional sequel I think we're doing seeing them for a while. (Why they don't develop more of them for TV shows I don't know. I know production costs are mind-numbingly high for such things, but there are some basic cable shows that are managing to pull it off.)

6. Speaking of, I am becoming more and more of a fan of the 13-episode series. I used to hate it, because that meant less shows to watch, but a lot of recent examples--True Blood and Mad Men, specifically--has shown that if the quality is high enough, it often feels like a whole season anyway, and probably most previous series were just padding it out anyway. I'm not sure if comedies have got it quite right--even those that do, such as It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia--seem like they should be full-run seasons.

7. Another million dollar idea: have a themes restaurant with lost treasures. Have replicas of Excalibur hanging on the walls, drunks can chug moonshine out of the crystal skull, and kids can go play in a big Ark of the Covenant filled with fake gold coins. All the glasses are holy grails which, if you finish your drink and there is a mark of the Templar there, you've found the One True Grail and get, like, free dessert or something. And the waiters are dressed like Indiana Jones or if you want to go downscale Nicholas Cage, with the hostess dressed up like Lara Croft. Just sayin'.

8. Football is coming back! The new CBA doesn't have my long-desired 40 Team League, but at least there will be a season. To be honest, I didn't miss it, and I actually don't care if it starts in a week or so, but I know once the games start airing I'll get all excited about it. This also means that, to paraphrase House Stark, fall is coming.

9. I have so far been underwhelmed by Google+. It's probably because there are only a few people I know on it yet. But we shall see.

10. I have a ton of reviews I haven't gotten around to doing yet. This involves candy, food, board games, and all sorts of fun stuff. It's been too damn hot lately to do much of anything, so I have just been lazy. If you'd like to read some reviews of restaurants and trips we've taken lately, head on over to my wife's blog where she has plenty of posts up about it. July has been slow as far as my productivity goes, so hopefully August will go much better.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Debt Ceiling Primer

Even though it would seem to be the thing that is right up my alley, I haven't written much about the debt ceiling. Mostly because this has little to do with economics and all to do with politics, even though the consequences will have much graver economic impact than political. (At least long-term.) And the politics involved on both sides has been appreciatively distasteful to me, even for politics.

I honestly don't know what is going to happen. My guess is that we will see:
1. A raise in taxes. This may not happen on Deal Day, but it may be an implicit bargain for later. Grover Norquist, the dean of anti-tax sentiment, has all but said that not continuing the Bush tax cuts does not count as a tax hike, giving all the reps and Senators that signed his pledge a loophole. Of course, raising taxes in a recession is generally considered a bad economic move, so this won't happen immediately. But I suspect it will, Tea Party howls to the contrary.
2. Given the tone of the vote last night, we still won't see any structural changes in entitlements. I always thought it was common knowledge that war spending and recession-level revenues and spending could easily be overcome--the amounts are temporary--but structural spending, such as Social Security, are (politically) permanent and the only way to reach fiscal sanity. If the Tea Party fails, expect absolutely nothing meaningful to get done--just like every other administration since FDR. Also, expect 60% marginal tax rates in the 2030's.*
3.  Someone will (politically) die. It may be Speaker Boehner, it may be Tea Partiers, it may be Obama himself. Again, this isn't something that will happen next week, but at this point someone is going to be mortally wounded. They will limp along until the next crisis, in which someone will have to step aside and resign.

Most of what happens on Capitol Hill is artificial. Issues such as abortion or gun control don't just happen--specific individuals decide to make it an issue, and it becomes an issue. (Taxes and spending are slightly different, since there are deadlines to pass budgets.) But this seems to be an artificially created problem with consequences far outside of failing to pass a farm bill.

Anyway, for a clear account of exactly what will happen economically if an agreement is not reached on the magical date of August 2nd, Megan McArdle has a post over at the Atlantic that lays it out for you. Read it, or, if you prefer sleeping at night, don't.

*I am sympathetic to what the GOP is trying to do--it is crystal clear that entitlements must be reformed, or, instead of a lot of shadow boxing about whether we default, we will just straight-up default with no political choices to make in about two decades. So the Republicans have chosen the debt ceiling to "force" a crisis that will require that some sort of entitlement reform be made, or at the very least set the stage. In theory I have no problem with this, since politicians for at least sixty years have never once felt compelled to make meaningful changes, so someone has to do something to get people to act. How the GOP handled this, at least so far, has been clumsy and abysmal. If a halfway decent deal gets passed in the next few days, however, they will go from pariahs to heroes. So we shall see.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Close The Borders!

A lot of attention has been focused on the closing of the big box book retailer Borders lately. It is a shame, of course; I always hate to see book stores close, even if they are huge corporations. But just like with any business, they failed to adapt at all to market conditions. The question remains, however: can the other large book retailers survive? And how will smaller shops adapt?

There have been plenty of reasons given for the fall of Borders, most of which are a mixture of truth and assumptions. First on the list is the rise of e-readers. Devices such as the Kindle, the Nook, and countless others have been purchased in droves for the past two years. Borders was the only large store to not have their own dedicated reader, so whatever devices sold garnered them much less in sales than their competitors. Still, I think the volume of e-books sold is overstated. I know a lot of press was made when Amazon sold more e-books than dead tree versions, but I also think a vast majority of those e-books were free or low-cost or independent books that most people would not have otherwise read (and probably still haven't). It's a factor, to be sure, but it is comparing apples and oranges.

Another reason, of course, is online book retailers. For most people they assume this means Amazon, but the Barnes and Noble web site has been remarkably aggressive in their pricing, so that is also a factor. Borders, again, did not really keep up. Marketers have always wondered whether Amazon's deep discounts equaled the instant gratification of going to the store, and it appears that the answer is increasingly yes. Borders was left for those people who desires a book immediately, or just wanted to browse, and those people have become less and less of the consumer market for books. Features such as Amazon's recommendation list has made browsing online more efficient, and the publishing world has become so niche-driven that an increasing number of books are desired by word of mouth.

The good thing for book stores is that this has thankfully been a slow, gradual process; this usually means the old dinosaurs have the means and the time to adapt appropriately. B&N appears to have done so; Borders didn't. Still, one wonders if the days of the massive bookstore are over.

Obviously, I don't know, but I think B&N and the other, more regional large chains can stick around for a while yet. But the entirety of the market shift in books may have an odd side effect, and that is to boost the sales of small independent book stores. Maybe.

Not ten years ago, it was all about volume. If you wanted a book, you could go to a small book store with a small selection or you could go to a large book store with a large selection. Obviously, most people opted for a large selection, since prices across the board all tended to be the list price. Now, however, the demographic has changed. You now have people who want to browse a large book store and buy a book there; people who just want the latest summer read; people who don't mind waiting a week to have books shipped to them; people who are price sensitive and shop around; casual book readers who don't need a large recommendation list beyond one or two books; and so on. Before, the only differentiation was size; now, selection, price, format, and convenience are all factors. A small bookstore can easily carve out a specialization where they couldn't before.

Still, all book stores--big and small, dead tree and electronic--have to change with the new publishing rules. Self-publishing, especially on e-readers, has boomed, and many small-time authors can easily make spending money for their work, and there appears to be at least a modest audience for such things. Agents and publishers have lost control of the market. Like any other creative industry, it's easier to bank on proven things than experiment with likely failures, so agents tend to stick to the familiar. It takes one book that pops through to satisfy an insatiable need--see the current vampire/supernatural craze--for the industry to shift. With everyone producing a product, however, it's much easier for that one new idea to come through--and harder for publishers to count on stability.

So what can book retailers do? I have two ideas, neither of which is revolutionary:
1) Start getting aggressive for price. One of the most baffling things I have noticed is that book retailers have never--never!--changed their pricing. No matter what, all of the books on the shelf are full retail. That's insane and no other retailed really does that. Sure, they'll have the NY Times Bestsellers at 20% off, and they may have a book rack with a BOGO or something on it, but by and large there aren't any discounts. When you have online retailers delving into the 30-40% discount range, you're gong to lose each time. That's insane. Pricing models need to change and they need to change now. And, no, small booksellers aren't exempt from this. (Thankfully, it appears some are catching on; loyalty cards that give 10% discounts are frequently offered, and B&N's online store appears to be recognizing this. But there is still a long way to go.)
2) Integrate e-readers into the sales system. A person browses the store, finds a book. They can bring it to a station (that does not need to be manned) and scanned the book. They then plug their e-reader into a machine, which downloads that book. They swipe their credit card and pay for the e-book and then throws the actual book in a bin, which will get placed back on the shelf. The retailer is out nothing except the time and labor to re-sort books, but still made pure profit. For customers who still like to browse but also like e-readers, this seems to be a reasonably cheap solution and a good way to adapt.

The future of the book market will most likely end up like most things are when hit with an industry-changing innovation: a mixture of old and new. There will always be a market for paper books, and e-readers will probably drive a lot of the growth. How corporations handle this change remains to be seen.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Bike Me

The city of Los Angeles recently passed a law protecting bicyclist's rights. It's a pioneering law, to be sure, but it's probably pioneering in the wrong direction.

The law has two major components: it is now a crime to threaten (either verbally or physically) a bicyclist, and it allows cyclists to start a civil suit before the city even presses charges.

The first part, of course, isn't horribly controversial; it should already be against the law to physically threaten anyone, more or less, regardless of who they are. The verbal part, on the other hand, seems ripe for abuse. Of course, the question is: will cops also police the road rage incidents of physical and verbal abuse of car vs. car? Probably not.

The second part also seems sketchy. A civil suit without any criminal charges 1) probably won't get anywhere, but 2) will still allow bicyclists to sue more or less at will, creating what I am sure will be their own form of legal harassment against vehicles.

I guess I'm not a big fan of specific activities getting special treatment based on the group itself. Had this been laws about safety or zoning or other things to encourage or make biking safer--though more about that in a second--then I probably wouldn't care. But when you give legal protection to people in a voluntary activity like this that are not afforded to others, it smacks of 1) bad policy and 2) potential fraud and abuse.

[And, yes, before we get too far into this analysis, I realize that this applies to many other parts of our society. Farmers play by different workplace and tax rules as the rest of us. Religious groups, like the Amish, get all sorts of exemptions that aren't necessarily in the public good. I don't dispute that, and I believe some are legitimately necessary; this probably makes me at least in some form a hypocrite. But making a policy of granting "extra" rights to specific voluntary groups just seems like the wrong direction to go.]

I'm also not a fan of bicyclists in general. Not that I want to deprive them of their activity, but, while laws vary from state to state, many have a "share the road" policy. In this case, bicycles and vehicles are treated largely the same when on the roads. I think that this is a horrible policy. Having multitudes of individuals driving at high rates of speed in huge steel boxes that weigh a ton cannot simply "share the road" with someone riding on three pounds of light aluminum with no other protection than a helmet and their own sense of self-importance. It's not possible, no matter how many laws you have in place, to prevent accidents from happening under these conditions.* And when an accident does happen, it will always be at the expense of the bicyclist. There is just no law in the realm of physics that this can be reconciled to the bicyclist's benefit, and unfortunately physics trumps legislation, despite centuries of trying. [Bike paths aren't perfect, but I think they afford the best cost vs. benefit solution than anything else. I'm not sure it should be a high priority, but it's enough of a public good that I'm not opposed to them.]

Of course, my own empirical evidence is that while many bike riders are fine, a vast majority do not share the road in the sense that they actually follow any of the traffic laws. (We will leave aside the moment that since car > bike, bike > pedestrian, and bicyclists seem to have as much regard of pedestrians as cars have for them.) I don't want to generalize too much, since I know most bicyclists are decent people, but far too many of them give everyone a bad reputation. (Bicyclist "activists" who do things like clog intersections during rush hour are not helping. Those people need to be hauled off to jail, just as if anyone had deliberately caused a stoppage of traffic during rush hour. One of these days an ambulance won't be able to get through, and I sure hope the shit hits the fan then. I want to see blood on the spokes.**)

Perhaps this is all an irrational reaction. My existing bias against the "bike vs. car on the road" debate probably doesn't help, nor does the behavior of most bicyclists. And I have a negative gut reaction when any group is afforded special rights for a voluntary activity.

The Pledge: Bicyclists don't have to get off the road, but they have to realize that the rules are different for them, regardless of what the law says. If you fail to recognize that, I'll see you in the hospital.

*The main problem, of course, is speed. Bicycles can only go so fast, so if you are in a car driving in a 45 mph zone, that bike may only be going 20. When you pass, you're creating all kinds of dangerous situations, since you're not going in the passing lane. Couple this with hills and curves and you can easily see how frequent accidents can be. Of course, in town where speed is less of a concern, the main problem is traffic laws that don't get obeyed by either party, and as noted, anyone who thinks their side is blameless is a moron.

Review of Reviews: Political Board Game Series

[Editor's note: I apologize in advance for the multitude of board game postings lately. There's no reason except that I'm struggling with topics at the moment. If you haven't noticed, I haven't bothered to write a Trending post for a couple weeks, and that's because the headlines have been exactly the same for three weeks in a row--phone hacking this, debt ceiling that. So I'm afraid you'll have to put up with some board game and, eventually, political posts, since those are my default topics when there's nothing else to write about.]

Roughly a year ago I wrote a series of reviews about four politically- and historically-themed board games: 1960: The Making of the President, Campaign Manager 2008, Twilight Struggle, and Founding Fathers. These have all been popular games, but I hadn't gotten to play them much lately. I have been able to play some games over the internet; while not my preferred venue of playing (if I wanted to play board games on the computer, I would play video games) it's still fun. More importantly, it lets me play against people around the world I normally wouldn't, so I am introduced to new strategies and new outlooks in each game.

So I figured it may be a good idea to revisit each game and see how my initial review stands up.

Twilight Struggle: Because of its length, I haven't played this one for over a year, and there aren't any good online implementations of it, so I don't have much to change for this. However, the Defcon strategy I mentioned in my original review just really sucked a lot of the desire for me to replay this game. I need to try it out, though, and get this game to the table, because based on the reaction it's not nearly as bad as I think it is.

1960: The Making of the President: This is still by far the best game in the series: it fits the historical theme well, there are plenty of meaningful decisions to make, and it's remarkably simple for the amount of depth. However, after playing many online games of this, my dismissal of the "Issue Wars" problem was probably premature. (As a refresher, the problem is that players simply dump as many cubes as they can into the issues. A player who doesn't immediatley counter it find themselves never controlling any issues throughout the game, and it's very, very difficult to win without controlling them at least at some point. So players find themselves simply going back and forth on all the issues for a majority of the game.) I used to simply wave this off as a tactic that looked pretty but had little strategic value, but now I see that while it doesn't work all the time, it still works often enough that it's a problem. And it does just suck the air out of a game. I still don't think it's an overriding detriment to the game; online, I have nearly won several games deliberately ignoring the issues altogether (though in just as many games I got trounced). At this point, I'll advocate some sort of house rule--the issue on the card is more efficient than the others, or something. I don't think it's necessary, but it does seem to be a blight on an otherwise awesome game.

Campaign Manager 2008: Oddly, this game has seen the most improvement in my eyes, and I'm not sure why. The online implementation is very well done, so I am able to cram several games going on at the same time. This reinforces its reputation as a light, shallow game, which I still won't disagree with. But I've realized the massive importance of the drafting sequence; that is, I'm convinced, half the game. But it's a surprisingly strategic game otherwise, with a lot of surprises and back-and-forth. I still maintain the game would have been better served with a 60-card/20-card deck and a larger number of "unique" cards for each candidate, but beyond that I've had a lot of fun running through a ton of games online with this.

Founding Fathers: This has also improved markedly in my eyes. Now that I've played this a few more times, there's a lot more long-range planning than I thought. And I've noticed a sort of tiered event system going on--some events are no-brainers, while others are conditional, and a vast majority virtually useless. Oddly, though, this works out very, very well, since you don't want events played every single turn. It still seems like there is a "dogpile" element to the game that I don't care for--since only the winning side gets points, once one player casts a vote everyone just starts loading up on that side, because players really don't have a vested interest throughout the game to do otherwise. (Yes, the losing side goes to the Committee room, but that's a much costlier route to get less points.) I wish there were some sort of hidden goal mechanic that would make voting decision a little bit more meaningful. Yet I no longer feel this game to be as dry and mechanical as I originally thought. I still think it could have been tinkered with, but it's still a good recommendation.

The designers of Twilight Struggle are coming out with a new game soon: 1989: Dawn of Freedom, a game very similar to TS but compressed to the brief time frame of the Berlin Wall crisis. It looks equal to Twilight Struggle in both length and complexity. I will probably eventually get it, but it's the first game in the series I'm not salivating over.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Case Of The Still-Cold Yuengling Bottle

I was present when justice was served.

Last Sunday evening at 6 pm--this detail is important--I witnessed the evidence of a crime, the prosecution, and eventual verdict of malfeasance on a grand scale. I had entered a local restaurant/bar--appropriately named Nite Courts--to pick up an order I had called in half an hour before. Normally, this is a smooth transaction, the only issue being that if the food was not quite ready I had to mingle silently and uncomfortably with the locals who apparently had no problem drinking the same beer for an hour and watching back-to-back episodes of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition in the late afternoon as if this is what sane people did.

This day, however, was different. Upon approaching the door to the bar--where takeout food was picked up and paid for--I saw the barmaid run outside with a cross look on her face, pick up a beer bottle that was in the parking lot, and march back in. As I entered, I heard the following cross-examination. Picture a young but angry girl and a slurring drunk, all (which I hasten to repeat) happening on Sunday at six:

Barmaid: Don't throw bottles outside again.
Patron: Whaaat?
Barmaid: Don't you ever go outside and throw bottles in our parking lot. I will kick you out.
Patron: That wasn't me!
Barmaid: Of course it was you! DON'T do it again!
Patron: No, I took that beer and me and Smitty* went up to the ball field and I drank it there and threw it in the trash there.
Barmaid: You mean to tell me you took this bottle, the only bottle of Yuengling I have sold this afternoon, had your friend who was waiting outside for you drive you to the ball field for the express purpose of drinking it, then immediately drive back here? All in five minutes?
Patron: All I knows is that it wasn't me.
Barmaid: The bottle I just threw away was still cold. The only person who could have done it is you.
Patron: It wasn't me!
Barmaid: Fine, then. You can stay but I'm not serving you any more today.
[Thoughtful pause.]
Patron: Okay, it was me.
Barmaid: [Death glare]

Even if he could have gotten away with the details of the offense--the evidence could have been spun as circumstantial--the cover story was just full of holes. The ball field was clearly a five minute drive one way, and even the fastest driver and unrepentant chugger could not have pulled it off in the time frame given. And the ball field? Nothing sounds better than having a slurring drunk go to a place where Little Leaguers play ball to suck down a cold one. And the mysterious friend? "Hey, hoss, I need you to hang out in the parking lot but don't come in and let anyone see you 'cuz I may need to get my buzz on watching a place where small children play T-ball. Thanks a mill, bro."

But it warmed my heart to see street justice prevail. Though it did not warm my heart as much as the grilled chicken sandwich and cheesy breadsticks did, though.

*I don't remember the guy's name, but it was one of those cliche barfly names, like Stretch or Paddy or Shorty.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

An Open Letter to Steve Jackson Games

[Editor's Note: This post was originally supposed to be much, much shorter, but it kind of grew into this ugly scribe. If you are already familiar with the history of the CCG format, or--so help me--Illuminati, you can skip down to by highly persuasive marketing strategy I've outlined farther down below. This post was prompted by the latest Daily Illuminator, here, though it's something I've been thinking about for months now.]

There were many casualties and few (i.e., one) victors in the collectible card game boom in the mid-90's. With the runaway success of Magic: The Gathering, scores upon scores of CCGs flooded the market. Inevitably, most of them failed, and to this day there are only a dozen games or so that could be considered "successful" and even fewer enjoyed any sort of longevity.

It was a shame, because even with the inherent money-sucking market strategy and (often) indifference of publishers and designers to flesh out rules and card errata, the CCG format itself was able to introduce many new innovations to the board game hobby. The main issue was that, instead of creating a game that was organic within the format, many designers tried to cram "normal" game rules into the CCG realm, often with disastrous results.The simple flooding of the market--even those with disposable incomes weren't able to try each new game, let alone sink wads of cash into it--also hastened its demise.

Enter Illuminati: New World Order.

This was one of the very few CCGs I got into. Actually, by the time I had found out about it, it was already showing up in the discount bins; I never paid full price for a pack. I dabbled in a few others, but mostly because I was able to by entire booster boxes at fire sale prices, but most of them were pretty boring.

INWO straddled many worlds. It was based on a board game that Steve Jackson Games created waaay back in the early 80's. Influenced by the Illuminatus Trilogy by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson, but also by decades of pent-up conspiracy theories and paranoia, it pitted players as a cabal of secret masters attempting to control the world against each other. Your role--the Illuminati--ranged from the mysterious Bermuda Triangle to the money-grubbing Gnomes of Zurich, and each player set to control a myriad of groups to do their bidding, such as the Post Office, the C.I.A, or Nuclear Power Companies. Meeting a certain goal unique to each player--or meeting a basic goal--won the game. (I won't go into rule specifics here, since they can be easily found most anywhere on the internet.)

The format of this old board game was one of necessity. Instead of a traditional "board," players played cards that was the formation of their conspiracy. Rather that being awkward, this melded perfectly into the theme of the game itself: If the Republicans controlled The Mafia, and the Mafia controlled TV Preachers, you would set your cards up in that order, with additional groups, if any, dangling from the sides. Since multiple strains of groups formed your power structure, each player's "board" would grow, spiderlike, across the table. For many games this would look, and feel, strange, but for the purposes of this game it was done well. Another consideration, of course, was cost: by only requiring a pack of cards and perhaps some dice and counters, the production of the game could be done on a shoestring. It felt like a board game but could be easily sold and transported more or less like a deck of cards.

This, of course, was all before my time. But as the description above notes, this old, famous game was perfectly suited for this brand new format called CCGs. Instead of packaging up everything in one box, players could customize their own set of conspiracies and still have the feel of the original game. With a built-in fan base and the opportunity to update rules and groups (say hello to Cable TV, Bill Clinton, and Silicon Valley!), the CCG ended up doing well. Even though many packs made it to the cheap bins, Steve Jackson Games still ended up making a decent profit.

[As an aside, I was never a fan of the original game; it has a "megabucks" system that always seemed clunky and ill-conceived; I also preferred customizing my own deck. When everyone pulls from the same deck, it's hard to make any long-term planning, and adds a lot of chaos to an already chaotic game. But, of course, I played the CCG version first, and I'm sure that formed a pretty strong bias.] 

Of course, the CCG game was not without its flaws. With massive library of 400+ cards, contradictions and clarity issues abounded to the point that errata ballooned to something like 50 printed pages. While the first expansion (Assassins) filled a lot of holes, it also produced a number of awful cards that needed to be completely reworked after printing. And a second expansion, the stand-alone SubGenius, was a disaster--by this time the market was drying up, and basing all of the cards on a cultural reference that was already ludicrously small in number just added to the perplexity. It effectively killed the (admittedly dying) franchise.

And so we come to the important part of this open letter: It's time to re-publish this game.

It would, of course, be foolish to release an expansion as a CCG. The market is dead, the game has been out of print for about 15 years, and the base game is so heavy with legacy costs as to be impractical. However, a new, reasonably robust format has arisen: the LCG, or living card game. Rather than buying packs like baseball cards, gamers would purchase entire sets of pre-determined cards at once. The publisher usually posts some sort of schedule--a new set each month, for example. Instead of being random, players know what cards they are getting ahead of time; yet since the cards are related in some common manner, players may pick and choose which sets they prefer. And, ultimately, the "customization" part still applied, since players can still throw all the cards together as they see fit.

Just as the CCG was a perfect fit for an adaptation of the original game, LCGs appear to be a perfect adaptation of the CCG game.

The sets are already more or less determined: The original CCG release had nine Illuminati cards, with a few new ones added for the expansions. The mix of cards could be fashioned around this. And the cards in each set would be vaguely related, so a workable deck could easily be formed from the cards available in each set.

The game also has an automatic built-in marketing system. Just as Bill Clinton, Fidel Castro, and Ted Kennedy are instantly recognizable public figures in 1995, throwing Barack Obama, Sarah Palin, or Donald Trump as cards would immediately grab people's attention. A lot of new conspiracy has been produced since 1995: The Da Vinci Code, 2012, Y2K, etc., not to mention all of the trends that have emerged since then, such as Facebook, reality television, and the Tea Party.

[Aside 2: Steve Jackson Games have been releasing regular expansions to the original Illuminati game that include many of these cultural milestones, but since the rules are different--no plot cards, much fewer special abilities--they don't seem to have been explored to their whole potential.]

And, finally, Steve Jackson Game's website recently posted in their daily update a list of the most trafficked internal parts of their web site here. Listed at #9 is the site of INWO. For a game that has been out of print for a decade and a half, that seems to be a remarkable feat. It's clear people are still playing and referencing this game, even when it's in the mix with other products by SJG that are in print. And this is separate from the original Illuminati game, which, while higher on the list, is also still being actively sold.

So, the Fail-Safe Sure-Fire Marketing Justification for re-releasing INWO as a LCG is thus:
1. There is clearly still interest in a customizable version of Illuminati.
2. The original CCG is too clunky and out-of-date to tinker with at this point. It's dead.
3. The LCG, while not nearly as prevalent as the CCG format was, has still had many more long-term successes than CCGs had.
4. There is still interest in conspiracy theories, and many of the items in the original games are much more well-known now. And due to the nature of the game, it will be easy to hook people. Customers already know about the CIA and UFOs; you don't need to sell them on a new character or universe.
5. From a design standpoint, the sets are more or less already made. Sure, it will require some fine-tuning, and some decisions will have to be made about scheduling and Illuminati cards, but it's well-placed for regular updates. 
6. This would also provide a good way to comb out all of the snags in the rules. Simplify and streamline while keeping the spirit of the original theme.

Obviously, I don't know the industry details as to the viability of such a project. SJG has a pipeline to the major book stores (though these days I suppose that's not saying much) and they are one of the few veteran gaming companies that are still kicking, three decades later. And releasing this parallel to the original game may be cause for saturation concerns.  Yet, while nothing in the board game industry is a no-brainer, and the economy is still a bit waffly, this is much more of a sure bet than other ideas game companies have been shilling lately. Just...something to think about.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

A Short Discourse on Board Game Design

There are several different theories on board game design. I've watched the evolution of board game design over the past decade--heck, I'm still revising prototypes I slapped together ten years ago--and came to the reasonably obvious conclusion that there is no one hard and fast rule. Like so many other forms of art, design, and recreation, the definition of a board game is broad enough that it doesn't lend itself to compartmentalized desginations.

However, that doesn't mean we can't look at the different approaches to go about designing the rules and theme of a game. This is, of course, a broad look at things, and there are no doubt many that I'm forgetting.

All Rules, All The Time For years, this was the default way of doing things: if you invented a new game, you had to add new rules to an existing concept. The existing concept was successful, so the easiest and presumably best way was to find some way to tweak it. What you saw was an endless parade of overly complicated games that had a similar feel to previous games but with the added frustration of "innovative" rules that were usually just chrome and confusion. Of course, that's not to say that the large rulesets are necessarily bad--good games can come out of those. However, the vast majority of these games are wargames, and they kind of have their own set of rules to play by anyway--and the others are usually those that have a weak or nonexistent theme and need some "flavor" in the form of unnecessary restrictions. The best way to make this work is to make the rules flow with the game, as opposed to stopping the game.

Everyone Is Equal! Many players and designers strive for elegance--and for many, this means making sure everyone starts off the same and has the same opportunities as much as possible throughout the duration of the game. All of the rules apply to all of the players equally all of the time, and so no player can blame bad luck or poor starting position or suboptimal choices by another player. The winner is the one who truly played the same game as everyone else and still came out ahead. Once the purview of abstract games, most eurogames now fall under this category, and nearly all games tend to address equality amongst opportunity. Personally, I find this approach to be booooring, but I understand the sentiment.

The Players Are The Rules For those who like the idea of equality but dislike the symmetry that comes with it, imposing hidden information can be key. Everyone has the same opportunities at the beginning of the game, but conscious decisions by each player will affect what actions others take. So the end game will be vastly different than how everyone started, but it was the players, not the rules, that made it this way. Sometimes this can be quite effective and remarkably elegant, but it can also act as an illusion to real choices or gameplay. (Negotiation games are few in number for a reason; they are difficult to create and still give players valid choices.) There is no one genre that seems to embrace this, though many specific designers seem to, and I suppose party games would fall under this as well.

Throw it Out There, Let The Cosmos Figure It Out Many designers like chaos. Some players do, but most players want to feel like they have at least some form of control over the outcome of the game. By introducing self-balancing mechanisms--see my previous post here--designers are free to more or less throw whatever dice rolls, cards, overpowered abilities, and everything else they wish. There's no need to nitpick at the rules as long as some framework--such as auctions--causes everything to even itself out. By having reasonably minimal but critical rules, the game ends up working itself out.

Simple Rules, Complicated Components This is often found in Ameritrash and collectible card games, and my preferred method. The rules to the game should be reasonably simple, with enough to set up interesting situations but not enough that it can't be learned reasonably quickly. Then, through the introduction of different game elements--special abilities, card draws, etc.--exceptions to those rules are presented. Players have a deep, immersive gameplay experience that is very difficult to find repetitive, yet aren't burdened by a massive rulebook that has a difficult learning curve. The main drawback is that it is very difficult to release such a game and catch all of the contradictions and needed clarifications, so these games are the ones with the most errata; this turns many people off.

I am certain there are other approaches for the designing of board games, and I am interested in hearing what actual published board game designers would add to this list. If anyone has any suggestions for examples for the above listed items, I wouldn't mind drawing something up just for reference. Thoughts?

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Daily Injury Report

[Warning: Graphic descriptions of horrible things ahead, but, as consolation, no pictures.)

This has not been a good week for me from a self-inflicted wound standpoint.

First, I must have stepped in something itchy when geocaching about two weeks ago, because in the middle of the week last week I had an itch on my foot. At first I thought it was a mosquito bite, but this was a full-on skin irritation. I had to resort to that worst of office cubicle faux pas--taking my shoe off at work. All I saw was a bump. Nothing red or particularly alarming, just itchy. This lasted for about three days, and no amount of scratching would stop the itch.

Which, it turns out, was more scratching than should ever be the case. Peeling off a sock a day later, I immediately knew something was wrong. I look down, and I had somehow managed to scratch away my skin. I had no idea I was doing this, but it was there plain as day--a big patch of non-existance epidermis. Needless to say, it stopped itching (presumably because I slowly ground the skin away) but now hurts like no one's business. I'm still slathering it with salve and keeping the dogs from licking it.*

Then, during a home project that had the unfortunate aspect of involving oil-based paint, I spend about three hours crouched in the same position. This is enough for someone like me to take the armchair doctor method of drinking milk and gorging on bananas, and while my muscles were sore there appeared to be no lasting damage except for being irritable to my wife. However, I then foolishly decided to take a shower/bath/shower again, since I was covered with sticky red paint, two barrel's worth of rust, and shame. In the process, my muscles decided to no be particularly cooperative, and I slipped in the tub. No harm, I thought, just a little discombobulation until I woke up the next morning and OH MY GOODNESS WHY DOES IT FEEL LIKE SOMEONE CARVED OUT HALF OF MY BACK AND POURED GASOLINE DIRECTLY INTO MY BLOODSTREAM.

So then a day or two later, my wife and I went to one of those local pizza buffets. It's good stuff, and they generally have a decent mix of pizza toppings, and in what was apparently an overenthusiastic reaction to seeing chicken pizza I managed to press my hand against the heat lamp like a canned ham. (For those keeping score at home, this is not the first time this sort of thing has happened.) Oddly, it didn't hurt--still doesn't--which I assume is a byproduct of my increased tolerance to pain, but now I have a dime-shaped birthmark on my hand as a reminder of the evils of gluttony.

Part of me thinks I have one of those House-type diagnosis that's causing me to suddenly have a lot of minor, pride-injuring accidents. And part of me thinks I'm just a clumsy dumbass.

*I don't know if those dogs have some sort of sixth sense, or if they are 1/32nd vampire, but the moment there was a wound they had easy access to they went at it like it was a free steak on my foot. It was gross. Dogs are gross.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Static and Noise: Lift-Off!

Roger Ebert, Philosopher-King The emergence of Roger Ebert--the penultimate movie critic who was the gold standard of such for decades--has transformed himself into a sort of cultural barometer for modern society. He's never been a slouch, as it were, but his previous entire career was always through the lens of the film industry. After his cancer surgery and the inevitable end of his time with televised film critiques, however, he expanded his range of commentary to include other cultural aspects of our lives, and has also branched out into politics, religion, and education. While I certainly don't agree with everything, his input is generally refreshingly blunt and disarmingly free of malice, which makes him one of the few individuals I disagree with and still enjoy reading. He has always been willing to face up to his critics and (usually) admit when he is wrong. He's also embraced social media quite effectively, something few people in his age range and temperament are able to do. My only fear is at some point his age and/or illness will catch up with him and his commentary will suffer, and no one will really be in a position to tell him it's time to hang it up.
The Debt Ceiling This is one of those manufactured events that you see pop up in Poli Sci 101 textbooks, and I can't bring myself to get worked up about it. Oh, don't get me wrong--there are dire, irreversible consequences if an agreement is not reached. (Hint: it involves immediately chopping social security checks by 40%, for starters.*) And I think many of these consequences are being dismissed by zealots on both sides. Short version: The United States can't incur any additional debt unless Congress authorizes it, which they have done for nearly a century as a matter of routine. Suddenly, both parties--spurred, perhaps, by the bond rating agency's warning of a possible downgrade in quality--have decided to draw a line in the sand. Republicans, who control the House and therefore have the power to either approve or deny a raise in the limit, are using the catastrophic consequences to eke out what amounts to an austerity deal: a long-term structural change on how the government spends money. It's also a bit disingenuous; in, like, two or three years tax revenue will most likely rise and emergency stimulus spending will sink back to pre-recession levels and things won't look so bleak--but you can't force hard choices unless you are in a crisis situation, and the Republicans know this. (I don't necessarily disagree with their logic, since politicians like to kick the can on unpopular but necessary reforms.) I think an agreement can be reached--whatever you think of the tea party, they also like their money to not be worthless--but this is more about political theater than anything else.

Atlantis No More So the last shuttle has taken off of the launching pad. I, like most people my age, still remember the odd feeling of pride, mystery, and wonderment of space exploration when watching a launch. But, strangely, I don't feel the same level of sadness that many people do. Most are chalking this up as yet another strike against the invulnerability of the American way; one less thing to point at with pride. But times have changed. The space program created countless secondary products that we use everyday--plastic, GPS, Tang--but, as could be expected, we have reached the point of diminishing returns. Practical applications haven't been produced in years, which means that many of the benefits of space travel are theoretical in nature. And, more and more, those things can be done with simulators and computers safely on the ground. There is less of a justification of the massive spending of aeronautics and more of a justification of finding cheaper, easier ways to accomplish the same goal--which, of course, will likely start to spur new practical innovations a massive government bureaucracy couldn't. So instead of seeing this as the end of an era, I see it as a necessary process to maintain its survival. Sure, there won't be flashy liftoffs or parades of official astronauts marching through ticker-tape parades, but we'll end up going much further than before.

*Technically, not true: spending overall would have to be cut by approximately 40%, but it doesn't necessarily have to be evenly spread. Social Security, being by far the largest component of the budget, would almost have to be cut, thought not necessarily by 40% (though this would mean that other things, such as military pay, Medicare, all of the cabinet departments, etc., would have to be cut by even more than 40%.). Either way, everyone is screwed.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Trending: Not Guilty Edition

Casey Anthony Verdict: -10: To be fair to Florida, they already have to take care of Hulk Hogan, Scientology, and intermittent visits by the cast of Jersey Shore. It's hard to stay focused on such abstract things like justice.

Last Shuttle Launch: -5: No worries, everyone. The space age continues. Only instead of NASA stenciled on the side, it will have a Virgin Mobile logo or an ad for the Kindle plastered on the side. Hey, time marches on.

News of the World: -4 Rupert Murdoch is shocked, shocked that his reporters are hacking into dead girls' phones in pursuit of a splashy, scandalous story. He almost had to stop editing long-view photographs of Christina Hendricks on the beach without makeup and barely pixelated pictures of congressmen's genitalia to deal with it. Almost.

First Successful Synthetic Organ Transplant: +2 Why is this news? The McRib has been on the market for a while now.

Taylor Swift Gets Bronchitis: -2 Thankfully, this will not affect her singing abilities.

Women's World Cup: Push If the US Women's Soccer team loses to Sweden, does it make a sound?

South Sudan: +5 Congratulations, South Sudan, on becoming the world's newest independent nation. That's one more to add to the list of nations that Americans can't find on the map.

Soap Operas on the Web: +3 Trying to breathe new life into an old concept, some of the last few remaining soap operas that were due to be cancelled are going to the web. So instead of watching your stories interrupted by commercials, you can watch them in 45-second snippets while Windows Media Player buffers. Or, as they are known now, "dramatic pauses."

Independence Day: +8 We celebrated yet another year as a nation by putting off fireworks and talking a half-day on Tuesday, despite the best efforts of debt-ceiling demagogues, mysteriously disappearing job figures, and Horrible Bosses to rip the roof off the joint and kick it to the curb. Liberty, freedom, and the American Way will preserve us, at least as long as our bond rating remains at AAA.

Betty Ford: +10 Good on you, Mrs. Ford. You kicked the bottle, helped others do the same, outed your daughter's nonexistent affair, and ushered us through your husband's unfortunate Presidency. You hung in their until 93, giving boozehounds and addicts a strong, beaming ray of hope.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Boreable Lightness of Posting

Posting will be light this month, I am afraid. I've got a few events that's sucking up a lot of time for the next few weeks, and I haven't had a ton of ideas to write about, anyway. I've got a few candy, book, and board game reviews that I'll get posted up, and perhaps towards the end of the month I'll have some time to write more regularly. I will probably also still do a Trending each week, even though the last few have been kinda lame--it will at least get me to write something.

That said, there are a few long-and-windy politics-and-philosophy manifestos I swore I was going to write less frequently that percolated in my head over this Independence Day weekend  I may get around to do that, or I may just play some Team Fortress 2 instead. We shall see.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Trending: Googlebook? Timberspace? Edition

New York Allows Gay Marriage: +2 Finally, New York can make an honest man out of New Jersey.

NBA Lockout: -2 Someone should probably notify Portland, Memphis, and Minneapolis that this will, in fact, affect them.

Geithner Leaving Treasury (Perhaps) -4 He's either going to Pittsburgh, Detroit, or Montreal. (Editor's Note: Or, apparently, Philadelphia.)

Timberlake Buys MySpace:-3 He did this after watching Rupert Murdoch's YouTube video "MySpace in a Box." Pretty much the same concept.

"American Girl" -4: Tom Petty has asked ("asked" as in "sent a cease and desist order") presidential candidate and Tea Party favorite Michelle Bachmann to stop playing his music at campaign rallies. If only classic rock stations would get a copy of those letters as well.

Glenn Beck's Last Show: +2 Don't feel too bad for Beck. He'll spend the next decade locked in a bunker surrounded by chalkboards, gold coins, and embarrassingly large unsold back issues of Fusion magazine. He will never be happier.

Chris Hansen Gets Caught: -5 Rommel, you magnificent bastard!

Google+: +3 Great, now do I have to create an entirely new circle of friends to not want to talk to since high school? It's getting easier and easier to just talk to my friends.

Violent Video Games: +4: California courts have declared that banning video games for young people is unconstitutional--you know, because California doesn't have any other problems to worry about. But now father and son can bond over a nice prostitute-killing and meth-procuring session of Grand Theft Auto without all of the guilt of violating the First Amendment.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon: -5 So it's an alternate history where cars are really robots, Chernobyl and the moon landing were part of a conspiracy to secure advanced technology, and Megan Fox was turned into an overrated diva with limited acting range. OK, so not all of this is alternate history.