Overwhelming Gearwheels 2019-01

01: Why gearwheels, and why do they overwhelm?

These are two of the only words in the SOWPODS tournament word game dictionary that contain my initials, RWHE, in sequence. (See also logo top right.) The four other stems include everwhere, otherwhere, underwhelm, and waterwheel. Are everwhere and otherwhere even words?

However, expect to find more than wordplay within. As goes the motto of the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation, a company that bears a greater than accidental resemblance to many places I've worked, Share and Enjoy!

Here are some overwhelming (in a good way) gearwheels to start things off. If you don't know what that photo is all about, consult Wikipedia.

Designing games while asleep

I awoke out of a dream the other night and couldn't fall back to sleep until I jotted down an idea for my work in progress, Parallel Pastimes, an idea that in my dream was being propagated by the half-Deep One protagonist of the revisionist Lovecraftian novel, Winter Tide (for some reason). In the morning, I saw it was this:

Massively multiplayer jigsaw puzzles.

I already have more game ideas than I can finish writing, so this will probably be a throwaway bit of design fiction, just a line or two. Kind of a relief. Don't need to go on another hypomanic bender developing this one.

Beyond the behind

January 1 is almost over and I haven't played even one game of my 2019 10×10 challenge. I'm (a) behind in a big way....

I'm thinking of starting a new game group called The Other Other Operation. If you live in the Seattle area, let me know if you're interested in playing some of these games or similar.

02: Operation Metagame: the 10×10 gaming challenge, Dr. Faustus, and my new game night

Today's lengthy post deleted in the name of marital harmony. Perhaps some of it will return later in another form.

03: Play with me

And we're back.

As mentioned, this year I'm participating in the BoardGameGeek metagame of playing 10 different tabletop games 10 times each, known as the 2019 10×10 challenge. For those allergic to hyperlinks, here are my proposed 10 games this year, plus one alternate (#11).

  1. Cosmic Encounter
  2. Tak
  3. Ultima (including my own variant, Hostage Ultima)
  4. Alien City
  5. Scrabble
  6. Zendo
  7. Ricochet Pyramids
  8. 504
  9. Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective
  10. Engle Matrix Games
  11. The Solo System

If you don't know what these games are, do see my BoardGameGeek post. These are not the only games I'm interested in playing this year, of course -- I've obtained three more just since Christmas, and I'm not waiting until 2020 to play them. But if you and I sit down at a table together soon and you suggest one of the games above, I'm unlikely to refuse.

Alas, as much as I want to play these games (as soon as possible, 10 times each or more), to put it as diplomatically as I can, my regular game group Seattle Cosmic Game Night can't meet most of my needs as a gamer anymore. Thus, I'm starting another game group whose working title is The Operation (pythonically a.k.a. The Other Other Operation). We'll hang out periodically at impromptu meetings around the Seattle area and online, codenamed variously Operation Ultima, Operation 504, etc., playing and playtesting weird new games, abstract games, and game systems -- and, of course, conquering the Cosmos from time to time. Won't you come? You might even spin off yet another group with the people you meet.

Right now The Operation has only three members: me, and my friends Karl and Natalie. But we're growing by limps and bounds, so if you're interested in becoming an Operative, don't mind appearing in session reports, and are not a giant hedgehog, leave a cryptically worded message of interest in the comments.

p.s. We may have Operation Chessboard and Operation Cosmic, but as dog is my witness, we will never have an Operation Operation. It would fail to find my funnybone.


I realized it would be a big help in completing my 2019 10×10 challenge if I could play most of the games in my challenge online at least occasionally. It turns out that most of them are not only soloable (a deliberate choice on my part), but yes, also playable on the Web. So see the table below, sniff around a little on the other side of these links I found, and leave a message in the comments if you'd like to play me at one or another of these games online.

Edit: See improved table at ScoreBoard.

06: The Operating Table

To save time, space, effort, and attention, I've created a table combining the 11 games in my 10×10 Challenge, links to them on BoardGameGeek, links to rules, places to play them online (with me, right?), the number of times I've played them so far in 2019, and notes, all on the ScoreBoard page, with info about the challenge.

I'm going to blog session reports for the Operation the way I used to for Seattle Cosmic Game Night. The Notes column can use short hyperlinks to jump to the session reports in my blog.

Please let me know if this page can be improved in any way, in the comments section.

Gaming for goodness

It would be great if the 10×10 Challenge had some infrastructure for fundraising. Imagine if you could talk your friends into giving some charity 25¢ for every game you completed, or a flat sum if you completed the whole challenge. As a bonus, the money could go to a cause you hate if you failed.

All those gamers playing all those games, and the only good they're doing is having fun! We could probably cure Alzheimer's if we could harness all that cogitation. (Obviously this doesn't apply to gamers playing LCR or Fluxx.)

Note: If someone wants to donate to charity for me on a freelance basis, leave a message in the comments below and we'll work something out...

08: Operation Tak-Tik, a.k.a. Operation Kit-Kat

Date: 6 Jan 2019, 19:00-19:45
Location: Marty and Ron's house, Kent, WA
Attendees: Me, Marty Hale-Evans
Games played: Tak 5x5 (three games)

The Operation, meeting 1.

Tak intrigues me, and I want to learn and get better at it so much that I made it part of my 2019 10×10 Challenge. It helps that a community has rapidly grown up around it. There is a strategy literature, and there are game problems available. I recently went so far as to buy the book Mastering Tak: Level I, but hadn't read it before this meeting.

In fact, I had only played the game once or twice before -- against the Solo System (in other words, an augmented version of myself) -- but it was enough for me to see Tak's inspiring potential. That potential surprised me, because I hadn't usually thought of James "Cheapass" Ernest as a designer of fine abstract games, even though I keep the rules to his chess variant Tishai in my EmergencyGameKit. I had always thought of him as a versatile designer, though, so I expect Tak won't be his last hit in this vein.

Marty hadn't played Tak before at all, and our first game was a fast one, with me as the winner. (I went first.) In keeping with the idea of "friendly postmortems" I'm espousing in my book in progress, Parallel Pastimes, I explained to her some of the strategies I was using, and where I got them.

  1. Don't make your roads too dense and tight (Hex, Go).
  2. Control the center (Chess).

Marty is quick to pick up games, so naturally, given my own lack of experience, she whupped me in our second game, which took a little longer than the first one. (She went first, per the rules.) I could have stopped Marty's winning move with her tall stack — a fact that Marty was kind enough to show me after the game....

Marty accepted my "best two out of three" offer, so next we had our longest game yet. I went first and won, but only after we had each taken a mulligan. Thus, I won our series of three. We both noted that the player who went first won all three games. I didn't think much of it, but Marty suspects a strong first-player advantage, which might be alleviated with more experience.

And we are still beginners. I'll probably still be a beginner even after I complete my 10 games of Tak for my 10×10. Marty pointed out that we weren't "into the meat of the game" yet; we had barely used walls and hadn't used capstones at all.

Random observations:

Have some experience with Tak? Let me know in the comments section below.

10: Gaming against the Solo System in 2018

Me versus Me++

In March 2018, I played several games against the Solo System, a deck of cards that can serve as a semi-automated opponent for almost any multiplayer game, enabling a lonely gamer to play it solitaire. For a more detailed description, here's the introduction from the Solo System page on BoardGameGeek, by Chad Mestdagh:

The Solo System is not a game per se, rather it is a Artificial Intelligence system that provides an unpredictable opponent for your multiplayer games. With a few adjustments, this can make a wide selection of games capable of being played solitaire....

You set up your game and play it the same way that you would a normal game. When it is your opponent's turn, you use The Solo System to figure out how your opponent will play. You will first flip a card and determine what personality/strategy the AI is interested in this round. There is a good chance that the system will keep the same strategy as the last round. Then you will look at the board and figure out if there is a move that would match this strategy or flip more cards to give a little more direction as to what he is interested in.

At this point you will probably find several moves that the AI could take. Choose one and ask the game if it does take that move. Before you flip a card, determine what the probability of the AI is of taking that move: probably, probably not, or unsure. Then flip the card and determine the results.

Cards have multiple pieces of information on them and are divided into four different decks. One deck has 14 cards, and the other two decks have 20 cards. There are mechanisms for movement on maps, targets and objectives for its armies, selection of resources such as coal or gold, and auctions.

The system is not unlike playing a game two handed, but you are playing against an opponent. Plus using the card system gives you direction for how to play one of the players. This will assist when trying to play several opponents and keep track of their play style. The opponent may need handicaps to increase its challenge against you depending on how you want to play, and these rules will give you ideas as to how to implement these handicaps.

I recorded four multiplayer games solitaire against the Solo System in March of 2018. Usually when people report on playing against the Solo System for Solitaire Games on Your Table or elsewhere, they record it under the multiplayer game they're playing instead of the Solo System. To be fair to the creators of both games, I'll be recording my plays under both. I hope more people will do so in future.

Solo System game 1, World War 5, 4 March

The first game I played against the Solo System was the Icehouse game World War 5. This was the first time I had ever played World War 5 too.

The initial personality I drew for the Solo System was Copycat, so I placed the first piece, and Solo mirrored me. Its stated strategy was to collect two or more types of resources, which I interpreted as territories and pyramid size. Well, duh. Those are really the only things you need to track in this game.

I (Yellow) chose North America. Solo (Blue) chose South America, with our biggest pyramids facing each other and our initial configurations rough mirror images. Blue was the high roller, so took the first turn.

Half an hour later, it looked as if we were heading toward a quick endgame. We both had two external territories and hadn't yet fought. Blue had been a Copycat all game so far, because I kept drawing Same As Last personality cards. There was seldom a need to draw a tactics card because Blue just copied me.

Then a tactics card came up that made Blue want to attack opportunistically, but I won the first combat. Blue attempted to move into Europe, but I beat it back.


Commercial edition of World War 5 with print-and-play Solo System cards

There were a few more battles. Eventually, Blue was one move away from winning, and I had to stop it. I attacked one of Blue's 3-pointers with one of mine. I lost the combat. Blue moved from the east coast of South America to West Africa for the win.

It was a close game. Yellow shook hands with Blue.

"Good game," we said.

Total time: 1 hour
Cumulative score: Solo System 1, Ron 0

Solo System game 2, Santorini, 10 March

This was actually a folo (faux-solo) game. It was my demo of the Solo System for my friend Karl, playing Santorini. We played Apollo together against Atlas, who was played by the Solo System -- which we ran together as well. In other words, it was Ron-and-Karl against Solo-System + Ron-and-Karl, for the purpose of demonstration.

Apollo's power meant he could change places with Atlas if they were right next to each other. Atlas's power meant he could place a dome on any square he was next to, at any height. By the cards, Atlas decided he would place domes on the ground to block Apollo, and then decided he would double down and build a wall to prevent Apollo from preventing him from climbing to the third story and winning. Although we were incredulous at this unlikely strategy, it was hard to deny this was what the Solo System "meant" in this context, and it proved to be a winning tempo-based strategy for Solo.


The improbable ending

Total time: about 90 minutes
Cumulative score: Solo 2, Ron 0

Solo System game 3, Tak, 16 March

I played Tak 4x4 against Solo on a break at work. It was the first time I had ever played the game.

It was looking like a flats win for me, when Black (Solo) made the first stack move of the game and won with a road. I hadn't seen it coming, and when I had asked if Black wanted to make the obvious move, I drew a "no" from the probability deck, so I had to dig deeper, to find the winning move. Pretty cool!

It hit me hard during the game that Tak is a stacking connection game, with elements of both Focus and Hex. Also that as a gamer, I need lookaround as well as lookahead...

Total time: about 45 minutes
Cumulative score: Solo System 3, Ron 0

Solo System game 4, Mate, 31 March

My first time playing the abstract card game Mate. The Solo System is enabling me to play a lot of games I've wanted to play for some time but can't find the opponents for.

Round 1, Game 1
Ron = 63 (7 card on 9th turn)

It was hard to do much with Solo's cards when I was leading, because many of its moves were forced by mine.

Round 1, Game 2
Solo = 100 (10 card on 10th turn)

Solo was better when leading because there were more decisions to make, so there were more opportunities to use Solo's probability cards. An experimental personality card I'm working on called the Explorer came up, and Solo was required to innovate. In a virtual replay of the Tak game, Solo played several cards ahead and forced something like my last three moves.

Round 2, Game 1
Solo = 100 (10 × 10)

The less said, the better.

Round 2, Game 2
Ron = 0

In a desperate attempt to stave off a win by Solo, I foreplaced an Ace, which meant that if I mated Solo on the last turn, I could score 11 points × turn 10 × bonus double = 220 points. But it was not to be. Foreplacing is hard; no wonder it scores so well.

Total: Solo 200 - Ron 63 = Solo 137

Cumulative score: Solo 4, Ron 0.


In addition, I started playing a game of Homeworlds against the Solo System in April. The game is currently unfinished (as of January 2019), but fortunately it's easy to record game state by just snapping a few photos. I'll get back to it eventually.



Of course Solo is just Me Plus, and I learn new things about the games I'm playing against Solo whether I win or not, so I don't feel too bad about losing to it consistently. But given how much smarter Ron + Solo System is than plain old Ron, I wonder if I could adapt the (public domain!) Solo System into something like a Gamer's I Ching: a "magic book" that would serve as a trusted adviser rather than an opponent. I've thought about it before, and damn, it's such a good idea that I'll probably include it in Parallel Pastimes.

Let me know if these games look sufficiently delicious that you'd be up to play one sometime (in the comments section, linked below).

14: Operation Kit-Kat II

Tactics in the game of Tak, plus epic human drama in the small compass of Starbucks and a five-by-five chessboard

Date/Time: 12 January 2019, 13:45-14:45
Location: Starbucks, downtown Kent, WA
Attendees: Me, Karl Erickson
Games played: Tak 5×5 (one game)
Game number: 4 of 10 (see ScoreBoard)
Winner: Karl (with a road), 28 points

Why "Kit-Kat"? Read it backwards. Twice.

I should have known that my friend Karl, an expert player of many another abstract strategy game, would pick Tak up quickly and give me the most intense game of my young Tak career... The game lasted about an hour, including the time taken to teach Karl the rules. Karl had already played a "stacking connection game", namely PÜNCT, part of Project GIPF, but in my opinion, it wasn't the same, in that stacks in PÜNCT can't move, let alone scatter pieces all over the board as they do so.

Karl played white and I played black. I went first, as decided randomly. Unfortunately for me, in this game, the first-player advantage Marty Hale-Evans hypothesized in an earlier match did not hold sway.

I'm only surprised that I lasted as long against Karl as I did. Karl noted that the game was "very interesting" and said, "It felt like it went back and forth several times." Yes, I lost count of the number of times we called "Tak!" to each other. After one of my turns, Karl said I had missed an instant win.

I hadn't slept well the night before and began making these mistakes toward the end of the game. It was one or two of those that did me in. I'm not making excuses; I believe Karl is a better player than I am at most of the games we play together. But if you had watched the two of us, with me sagging and twitching and Karl in confident repose as if in sitting meditation, I think you could have guessed which of us would win, even if I were the better abstract gamer.

In the end, I had a large handful of pieces in reserve; Karl had only three. I consoled myself that if I had won with a road, as I almost did, my score would have been substantial because of my large reserve, whereas Karl's score was 5×5 = 25 (size of the board) + 3 pieces in reserve = 28. Then again, if I had put more pieces into play instead of making so many stacks, the game might have gone differently. In fact (see photo) my constant stacking was a definite factor against me. If you look at the big stack in the back row, you'll see my black capstone on top of a stack of five of Karl's white pieces. Karl remarked that my capstone was effectively pinned, because if I had removed it from his white stack, it would have unleashed all his pieces.


Commercial Tak pieces on Looney Labs Martian Chess cloth chessboard (hence the canals)

Karl sportingly offered me again the best two out of three we had agreed on before the game started, but I was too tired. We agreed that in future meetings, we should play more than one game, perhaps some speed games -- fast and light, without too much invested, and giving us the chance to socialize during the game. Speed sessions should still enable us to learn and get better at Tak and other games, which we're both interested in doing.

I realize this was a one-off game of Tak (on a small board!) and not the World Chess Championship, but it's fun to analyze and narrate the game and the players as if they were world shakers. If we don't notice such things in the immediate and personal, how will we ever understand them in the epic?

Thank you for humoring a poor cobbler man's ramblings. Please leave a comment or what-ye-will with the Comments link at page bottom.

15: The Great Boston Molasses Disaster

Today is the 100th anniversary of this terrible tragedy. Wikipedia says,

The Great Molasses Flood, also known as the Boston Molasses Disaster or the Great Boston Molasses Flood, occurred on January 15, 1919 in the North End neighborhood of Boston, Massachusetts. A large storage tank burst, filled with 2.3 million gallons (8706 tons) of molasses, and a wave of molasses rushed through the streets at an estimated 35 mph (56 km/h), killing 21 and injuring 150. The event entered local folklore and residents claimed for decades afterwards that the area still smelled of molasses on hot summer days.

I used to live in the North End, but all I can really add is to paraphrase Steve Allen: Comedy equals tragedy plus time.

Too soon?

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