Sunday, December 28, 2008

Lanna Thai Diner Review

Lanna Thai Diner exterior
When we moved up to Reading, we made an effort to look around for appealing local restaurants. I can't say we've been that successful, but we did find one unambiguous hit: Lanna Thai Diner in Woburn.

This restaurant is an old 50's style diner; all chrome and vinyl, outside and in, but turned into a Thai restaurant. The owner, Max, is friendly and fun. The resulting ambiance is outstanding. Those things alone would make it worth visiting once, but what has made it our regular "date night", when we have grandparents around to do babysitting is the food.

Lanna Thai Diner interior
Everything we've had there is very good, from a variety of curries to the Pad Thai, but the Karie Curry special is the one that we always make sure at least one of us gets. It's spicy, but not overwhelmingly so. It has a sweet, almost cinnamon-like flavor to it that is just amazing. The portions are generous but not overwhelming and everything has been delicious, including the appetizers (though the satay was sort of unremarkable). Additionally, while they always seem to have customers, and they clearly do a decent take-out business, we've never had trouble getting a table, despite being a quite small restaurant. Service is really quick, but I've never felt rushed.

All in all, I highly recommended Lanna Thai Diner (website, map, streetview)

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Atom feed of your recently played games

Scott and his team are a bit overworked so I wrote a simple scraper that turns your "games played" page on BGG into an Atom feed. If/when Scott gets around to officially supporting this, I'll make my feed generator redirect to the "real" one. (Atom is essentially the same as RSS and most services that support RSS support Atom)

Games Played Atom Feed Generator

For example, my games played.

I'm planning to also add feeds for plays of a particular game, or even a particular game by a particular person.

Friday, November 21, 2008

In praise of short games

I like short games. I often find myself defending short games, and the preference for short games to other gamers, so I thought I'd write my thoughts down in a little detail.

First, definitions: A very short game is one that plays in 15 minutes or less. A short game is one that plays in 15-45 minutes. A medium game plays in 45-100 minutes. A long game plays in 100-180 minutes. A very long game plays in over 3 hours. That's how I use those words.

Part of my preference for short games comes from my opportunities to play. I don't get to game as much as I used to, and some of that limited time includes lunchtime gaming at work. But, my inclination toward short games extends back to before I had any such time constraints. The constraints have simply amplified the preference.

The standard argument is that longer games have more strategic opportunities, the ability to more thoroughly explore a game system, and overall to be "deeper". For the most part, I agree. The argument goes further something like, "If you're enjoying it, what's the difference between one two hour game and 4 half-hour games?". To me, a lot. This is the key, and why I prefer short games.

To get to the root of the issue requires deconstructing how I get enjoyment out of games. I enjoy the social aspect, it's part of why I don't do "online boardgaming" much if at all. I enjoy the decision making, but that's actually a small part. I enjoy the process: Going from a start condition where everyone is equal; adapting to random factors and other people's play; developing a strategy or strategies; picking tactics to execute that strategy; executing those tactics; resolving the endgame. The whole is far greater than the sum of the parts. The positive experience of a complete game, the beginning, middle and end, is greater than the micro-activity of "what do I do next". Each of those parts of the process has value in and of itself, not just "enjoyment per unit time". It's similar to why people presumably enjoy whole movies or TV shows rather than a simple collection of entertaining scenes. So, if the enjoyment of playing a good game yields 1 EP ("enjoyment point") per minute, I'd say the process of developing a strategy is worth 5-20 EP, on top of the time it takes. For each of the 5 or so "aspects" of gameplay, that often ends up being the dominant part of the fun. Plus, as mentioned, I like novelty/variety so I'd say most of the time I'd give a game a 1-10 EP bonus depending how long it's been since I'd played it.

Now, most very short games, and many short games have the problem that they don't have all that process in one game. They tend to be just tactical games (no strategy), or dominated by random factors, or insufficient variety to make the adaptation part meaningful, or trivial enough to make the execution automatic. But, say a good 30 minute game has obvious tactics given a strategy and a mundane endgame. This leaves it with 30 minutes of gametime, the adaptation aspect, the strategy development, and the execution. If each of these parts yields only 5 EP because, say they're more shallow than they might be in a longer game, then the game yields 45 EP, or 1.5EP/minute. Then, say I have a two hour game that has all 5 of the above aspects, but at a higher level of depth, so they're worth 10 EP each. This means that game is 170 EP, or 1.4EP/minute. So, I'd have gotten more EP playing 4 half hour games, even if I play the same one over 4 times. If I play different ones to get the "variety bonus", the gap widens. The specifics of this deconstruction aren't actually that important. It may be there's 10 aspects, not 5, etc. etc. The core is that there's something to "playing a complete game" which is more than just an activity.

Fortunately, there are some short and medium games that not only have all 5 (or whatever) of the above "aspects", but provide them with comparable quality to longer games. Race for the Galaxy is certainly one such game for me. It looks like Dominion may be too. But, on the flip side, longer games often suffer from a reverse problem; I used 1EP/minute as a baseline up there, but if the core activity of the game is more or less fun, that could be different. In a lot of longer games, I actually find the core activity is substantially less enjoyable. In some cases, this is why they're longer; they have 60 minutes of interesting stuff to do and 40 minutes of mundane manipulation or bookkeepping. This lowers their baseline rate and makes them less fun, for me. But, most shorter games don't quite hit enough of the aspects, while a 45-60 minute game usually does. So, in the end your 60 minute game which hits all 5 aspects at 5-10 points each, is just as good, or better, than the above-described hypothetical 30 minute game. This means I end up playing a lot of "medium" length games.

Finally, there's the issue of winning and losing. For the most part, my winning or losing doesn't have a huge effect on my enjoyment, but usually it is more fun to win than to lose, even if it's just a marginal effect. Other people's enjoyment also matters. In any game, one turn of bad luck, one error, or the confluence of small errors or luck can turn a game against someone. In a short game, it's over soon and the feeling of being stuck in a bad place resets. In a long game, you can get stuck there for a while. So, both because I would rather not be stuck with my errors or bad luck and because I don't want others' to feel stuck with errors or bad luck, it further pushes me away from long games.

But, there's an exception. There's a small number of very long games I like a lot. For example, Descent and Battlestations. These jump out of the above logic by being a lot of fun in the steady state, as an activity, unlike many long games, as well as usually having all the "aspects" in spades.

So, that's why I have a preference for short games, and obviously other poeple's structure/model for enjoying games may be radically different, but it's why I'll keep seeking out the Races of the world; short but complete and well-rounded games.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

1000 different games

I love variety in games; I don't like playing the same game a lot. It's not unheard of for someone to suggest a game and have my reaction be "Oh, I just played that a few weeks ago.", or for games that are less favored, "Enh, I've already played that this year." The most favorite and filler-y of the fillers rarely receive more than 10 or 20 plays in a year, and for a while, I was playing a lot of games each year (~800). Recently, Race for the Galaxy, has been the exception, but the general rule still holds.

So, it was with pleasure and a certain degree of pride that I recently passed the 1000 different games played mark. Of course, I haven't been keeping track of games played my whole life, but I probably played a total of 15-50 different games before I have any chance of remembering details. Further, before 2000, I didn't keep very precise records. For example, I know I've played Wiz-War, but not since 2000, and I don't remember exactly when. So, the 1000 threshold is a little fuzzy, but I can now say I've played:
  • > 1030 different games in my life
  • 1018 different games that I have some record of
  • 1001 different games since 2000, for which I have specific logs
Of course, it also depends how you count "different" games. I count, somewhat arbitrarily, by the distinct packaged games, where plays of a game with an expansion counts as the base game. So, Ticket To Ride and Ticket To Ride: Europe are two different games, but Ticket To Ride and TTR with the 1910 deck are the same game. Further, all the games in New Games in Old Rome, count as one game. Further, if BGG considers two games to be the same game, such as Europa Tour and 10 Days in Europe (which are not-quite-identical, but close enough) I count them as the same, even though they are technically distinct packaged games.

Some stats on the 1001 games:
  • I own 52% of them.
  • The average (mean) number of plays is 4.
  • The median number of plays is 2.
  • 47% have been played once.
  • 22% have been played 5 or more times.
  • 9% have been played 10 or more times.
  • 1% have been played 38 or more times.
  • I play at least one new game in 42% of gaming sessions.
  • The average number of new games per session is 0.9
  • Unsuprisingly, the rate at which I play new-to-me games has been almost monotonically decreasing over time, looking at a window of 100 new games. There was a brief upward blip the year when I first attended Gathering, when I played 54 new games in under a month, leading to 100 new games in 6 months. Lately, it takes me over a year to play 100 new games.
  • Since 2000, there have only ever been 4 calendar months where I haven't played a new game. (August 2004, May & September 2005, Jun 2007)
  • I've never played more than 10 new-to-me games on a single day, but I have played 10 on four separate occasions.
  • I've played multiple games which begin with each letter of the alphabet, except X. I should clearly correct this, since I own at least 3.
  • I still want to play more new games.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Simple election Monte Carlo toy

I wanted to be able to fiddle with my own model of the electoral college. At the moment, despite the general media's efforts, the race isn't that close, but I wanted a modeling framework in which I could interpret "dramatic" changes that might occur.

So, I made a Personalized Election Modeler which lets you specify the chances you think Obama will win each state, and runs the simulation for you.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Request for online photo hosting/sharing suggestions and opinions

I'm looking for a good online photo sharing/backup solution. The three options I'm considering at the moment are SmugMug, Flickr and Picasaweb. None seem to be quite up to my requirements, so I'm hoping someone can suggest something better or how to use one of these services better. I'm leaning toward SmugMug, but I'm not entirely happy with it.

I want:
  • Reasonably priced for a large amount of storage. I have over 40G of photos and don't want to pay >$100 a year. This seems to eliminate Picasaweb.
  • Access control. I actually like SmugMug's access model, but would prefer finer grained (per photo control) rather than having to move photos around between albums to change access. The three tiers of public/unlisted/password-protected work well for me.
  • Automatic/easy upload from iPhoto, iPhone and Android. Most seem to do fine in this regard, but opinions are welcome.
  • Decent file management. I want to be able to search browse and share all my photos at once, not have to go fiddle in dozens or hundreds of albums. I don't want to have to keep track of what I've uploaded and what I haven't. I don't want it to end up with bunch of duplicate uploads. All of them, including SmugMug seem to have issues here.
  • Reliable. I'm want this in substantial part as a backup solution.
  • Good temporal organization/photo finding. I think of my photos as organized by time, not by "album" and none of the sites seem to do well with this model.
In all, the main reason I'm not so sure about SmugMug is that it doesn't deal well with things like duplicates, it seems very locked in to the whole "album" metaphor (as do the others), and their site is a bit slow.

Thoughts, experiences, suggestions, ideas?

Update: I think I'm going to go with flickr. Easy browsing by time, good price, and it's fast.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Played a bunch of new games

The rate at which I play new games has been relatively steadily declining by 10-20% per year, until this year, when it looked like it might fall by by over 50%. As of last week, I had only played 29 new-to-me games this year (down from 73 in 2007, and a lot more in preceding years). But, yesterday I got to play a bunch (7) of new-to-me games, and I played two others earlier this week and that's worthy of a capsule reviews post. Because these are all based on one or two plays, they're probably, if anything, slightly over-inflated since I tend to like new things.

Tribune. [BGG] This obviously has a lot of positive buzz and it's fairly well deserved. It seems to have captured the positive qualities of a lot of role-selection/worker-placement games while playing in a reasonable time. The multiple parallel paths to victory quality is very nice. A-

Dreizehnte Holzwurm. [BGG] I got this as a "sweetener" in a trade over 5 years ago and only just got around to playing it. That's a real shame since it's a cute game of tactical cardplay and brinkmanship. The comparison to 6 nimmt! is a fair, but tenuous one. A nice filler. B

Handelsfursten. [BGG] A sort of generic Knizia filler card game. The game actually feels like it ends a little quickly for the number of potential opportunities for choices. In the end, it just didn't leave much of an impression, but makes a good filler. B

Container. [BGG] This is clearly a really neat economic game. It's also as try as the theme (container ships) would suggest. The system of A produces, B buys and resells to C who then auctions it to D, where A!=B, B!=C and C!=D is a little hard to wrap your head around, especially since the auction payouts are matched by the bank and the fact that your most common good type is thrown out. A little too much arbitrariness and dryness in an otherwise strong package. If I felt at all engaged, the rating would go up a lot. B-

Neue Heimant. [BGG] A cute little little auction game, but not one I enjoyed because the game has multiple sever "cliffs" in the final scoring. By that I mean an small change in where something gets built at the end of the game has a radical impact on scores. I like that kind of chaos/subtlety in the incremental mechanisms of games, but in the final scoring it's just sort of annoying. C

Witch's Brew. [BGG] A cute little role selection game with a nice cardplay twist. Unfortunately, it doesn't quite live up to its potential, in that the cardplay ends up feeling a bit too uncontrolled. But, maybe that's just inexperience. I should try this one a few more times before I make a real judgement. B+

Jamaica. [BGG] Wow. The art on this (same artist as Animalia) is beautiful and remarkably functional as well. It's definitely a "family game" but it's clever and quick. The multiple resources required to run the race and the ebb and flow of the cards makes for a nice experience. This was the biggest hit out of this crop of games. A

Cannonball Colony. [BGG] Cute little tactical conflict game. I wasn't going to call it a "wargme", but I guess it simply is. For the right person, this is probably a great game. For me, not so much. Too much pure direct conflict and the geometric and tactical nature was just not sufficiently engaging. C

Shadow Hunters. [BGG] A nice fun hidden alliances game. Some players are Hunters, some are Shadows, and some are Neutral, but you don't know who, so you go around attacking each other and gathering information. I think I agree with Felix's comment that it's better than Bang!, but scratches the same itch. Plus, it plays in much less time than it claims (30 minutes, not an hour). Not a lot of depth, but it's fun and that's the point of this sort of game. B+

Thursday, October 16, 2008

BaordGameGeek and AppEngine

AppEngine is fun. I've been fiddling on a number of personal projects using it lately, some involving BoardGameGeek. A month ago, I posted there, but forgot to post here: I made a fun BGG collection comparison tool. The combination of the BGG XML API and AppEngine with urlfetch (and ElementTree) makes writing BGG "add-ons" pretty easy. I'll certainly keep writing more, but other people should write some too. Don't know python? Well, it's a nice language and worth learning. :)

And, to get you started, here's the (sloppy, not cleaned up, but functional) library for fetching collection info from BGG. It lets you do things like:

coll = bggcoll.GetCollection(username)

while doing all the nice things like stuffing it in memcache, the datastore, and only refetching it from BGG if the local copy is stale.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Quick iPhone app reviews

I installed the 2.0 update and downloaded and played with a bunch of the apps. Except for Enigmo, all the apps I tried were free. The high points are Cube Runner, Aurora Feint, Shazam, and Google Mobile App. Here's my quick impressions:

I tried several of the free ones, and based on experience with the Desktop game, I bought Enigmo. The iPhone definitely has potential as a gaming platform.

Cube Runner: This is a nice little game that uses the accelerometer. The control is nicely sensitive and the game is cute, but it gets sort of old quickly, but it's fun enough to do in an idle minute I'm unlikely to delete it.

Aurora Feint: This has some role-playing game back-story, which I haven't really figured out, but it's a great little Tetris like game. You've got blocks of the 4 elements and you're trying to get them in rows of 3 or more, in which case they disappear. It's got good use of the touch screen, and you can even rotate the phone to switch gravity, which is a nice (literal) twist on the game. Good graphics, good play, good sound, and who knows, the bigger game might be interesting too.

Enigmo: I enjoyed the desktop version of this and the iPhone version is a remarkble port. The controls are sometimes a little finnicky, but it works and the puzzles are great.

PhoneSaber: Makes your phone make lightsaber noises as you swing it around. Gratuitous fun demonstration of the accelerometer. Don't let go.

Blip Solitaire: A pretty basic game that uses the touch screen. Not really any fun. Haven't deleted it yet, but probably will.

Spinner: Another acelerometer based game, but just not that compelling. Not intuitive and once you figure it out, not that fun. I'll play Cube Runner instead.

Shazam & Midomi: These are two "music id" services. Both let you hold the iPhone up to playing music and it will try to identify the song. Shazam seems to work better for music over the radio and has a reasonably nice interface, including of course "Buy from iTunes" buttons, but also has "Watch on YouTube" buttons. Very nice for IDing a song on the radio in the car. Midomi is also pretty good, but it's key feature is that it lets you sing or hum a song, instead of just actual music. It does pretty well, and my kids got a kick out of singing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and having it recognize it.

Remote: A very nice and remarkably responsive interface to control iTunes on your desktop. It makes me want to get an AirPort Express.

: Transcribes little voice recordings. It's not as featureful as the full Jott service, which I hope they will fix. The transcription latency is also really high, and while you can get your notes emailed to you, it's on a daily basis, not ASAP. If this improves, it will be great. For now, it's more of a net (slow) trick.

VoiceNotes: A basic voice recorder. The interface is a little clunky for most of the circumstances I've used a voice recorder in the past.

Google Mobile App: This is QuickSilver for your iPhone. If you haven't used QuickSilver, it's a cool mac app that doesn't do anything new, but does a lot of old things better. The Google Mobile App doesn't really do anything you can't do in Safari, but it's better at doing them than Safari. Basically, it saves a lot of typing by doing search term completion, web site URL completion and background searching. The web site URL completion alone is worth it to me, since the iPhone's (otherwise excellent) keyboard spelling correction doesn't do so well with URLs.

Twitteriffic: I'm not really big into Twitter, but this seems like a decent/nice interface to reading and posting. That said, I hear people raving about how great this is, and I don't quite get it. It's good, and includes nice things like easy posting of pictures, but really, I don't see the excitement.

I haven't really tried this one out much, but it seems like a nice interface to mobile blogging (Blogger or Tumblr). It doesn't seem to know about the fact that Blogger supports multiple blogs per user so I haven't tried it yet.

Yelp: I was hoping this would be great, since I really like the web site, but it couldn't find any restaurants near my home, which is just wrong.

WeatherBug: A decent weather app, but rather than showing cached results and indicating it somehow while it loads the updated information, it blanks out the information, which is annoying, especially when looking for forecasts which don't change that often.

eReader: A book reading application that comes with a couple of free books. A decent first pass, but it's missing a lot of features I'd want like bookmarking, line spacing adjustment and such. Plus, the page flipping UI gets the z-order wrong when going backward, which is a little bit dissonant.

NYTimes: Not bad, but nothing special as an alternative to the web site to read the news.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

I play games with other people

Reading (and posting to) one of the latest "Do ratings matter?" threads on BGG it occurred to me that there's a subtext here that bugs me. The argument usually starts as a generic "why would you care what other people think?" kind of thing but the subtext is that the enjoyment of other people (eg, your opponents) doesn't matter, and therefore other people's opinions don't matter.

Other people's opinions matter, because I play games with other people. If one has a limited circle of people you game with, they may be the only ones you care about, but I, and most people I game with play with lots of different people, and are constantly introducing new people to the hobby and playing with more casual gamers. Even this year, which has been a really slow year, nearly half the people I've played with have been "new people". So, to that end what a "random gamer" thinks matters, in that I play with a "random gamer" on average more than once a week.

In detail, over the past eight and a half years, I've played with two new people a week, on average. My wife, who I've played the most games with only has played in 25% of the games I've played. The next most frequent gamer barely breaks 10%. Over 50% of the people I play with, I only have ever played a few games with, so knowing what games a "random gamer" is more likely to like is useful. Of course I use my own judgment, but I can't always predict what's going to succeed and fail with other gamers. For example, I personally never would have realized the extremely broad appeal of super-hits like Ticket To Ride or Carcassonne, or realized how universally I should be careful about inflicting something like Vabanque on other people.

Of course, to repeat a comment from the above thread ratings are meaningful but not oracular. For a shared activity like games, other people's opinions matter to me, and ratings are one way to get some insight into the opinions of all those gamers who I'm going to play with who I haven't met yet.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Almost 4, Almost a boardgame geek

(warning: This is an "Isn't my child so cute?" post)

I play a lot of games with my almost 4-year-old daughter.  Most of the time when I ask her if she wants to play a game, she declares "Yeah! Let's play a game I've never played before!"  While I have a large collection, this occasionally proves problematic, as lots of them aren't quite suitable for a 3-year-old.  But whenever she decides she is too overwhelmed by the rules, or is just sick of playing, she suggests "Ok, now let's play my version.", which are usually an extremely complex set of steps with no actual goal, but she imitates the general structure of game rules quite well.

A week or so ago, we were in a games store and she'd look around commenting which ones we had at home and asking about games she thought looked interesting.  Then, she turned to me, perplexed, and asked "Daddy, where's Race for the Galaxy?".  This is a game she's never played before, just heard me talk about.  In fact, she's asked, and I've demurred saying we'd play it when she was older.  Her response, "Ok, we'll play that when I'm 6."  Who knows, maybe she'll be ready.

A few weeks ago, after trying a game that was a bit too hard for her (Chateau Roquefort), I suggested we play something a little less complicated.  She protested, "I like complicated games.  Let's play another complicated one."

Finally, today we had some friends over and one of their kids said to her, "You have a lot of games.  How many do you have?" and she replied, "I don't know, but Daddy could check the database."

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Spin and Axis reviews

I just finished reading Axis, by Robert Charles Wilson, his sequel to Spin. Spin was exceptional. Sadly, Axis doesn't quite achieve the same level. It's not bad. It's perfectly good science fiction. Heck, it's probably even above average, but it's hard to evaluate in an unbiased way, given the my expectations were unreasonably high going in.

So, what was good and not-as-good about Axis? It's going to be easier to rave about Spin and then complain where Axis falls short by comparison, while giving it credit where it's due, so that's how I'll do this. So, Spin was exceptional.

Spin has outstanding characters an engaging and deep plot and good science fiction ideas. But to me what really sets Spin apart is the way it paced it's build up, incremental delivery, and final dramatic payoff. One ubiquitous problem in fiction, especially science fiction, is the story that builds up, builds up, and builds up some more, without giving you any real narrative resolution or "payoff" until the very end. Further, that final payoff often falls short, especially since there's been such a big build up. So, you get a story that builds tension, dramatic energy, and then it turns out that the author was just good a writing tension and dramatic energy, not that the story actually had anywhere to go. Now, some novels, like Snow Crash do this, but the build up is so amazing along the way, it doesn't matter if the payoff is less than satisfying. Heck, something like Rendevous with Rama sort of set the standard in this way by not even really bothering with a payoff at all. In contrast, Spin has none of these failings.

Spin does a lot of build up, but it does a few remarkable things. First, it has that Snow Crash attribute of a compelling milieu for the build-up with great characters such that it doesn't even critically need a payoff. Second, it actually does deliver great incremental payoff. There are multiple points along the story where plot elements are actually resolved rather than just teased at. Finally, the ending payoff is more than just satisfying. It's a creative twist on top of the book, which is full of creative twists. And, as mentioned above, the characters are outstanding. Diane and Jason in particular are compellingly written and deeply familiar characters. And finally, while this is less of a problem in science fiction in general, it doesn't fall prey to the "sit-com syndrome" of having an odd compulsion to reset the state of the universe at the end of the book to match the state at the beginning. So, Spin is exceptional.

Axis is good. It has some incremental payoff. It has some good characters. It's got nice plot elements. But, it doesn't have great characters and it does that standard big build-up thing without having the final payoff to really make it worth it. Actually, let me qualify that. The final payoff is pretty good, even if it's not a total resolution, but so much of the book is tied to that payoff, it's hard for it to succeed. Even some of the interesting sub-plots are unnecessarily held until the end. Overall, I wouldn't strongly recommend Axis, but nor would I suggest you skip it. In contrast, you must read Spin.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Amusing StreetView vignette

An amusing StreetView vignette from Liberty, MO I discovered when browsing around. Move north one step (click the arrow by the N) at a time to watch the story unfold. 13 clicks total, then look to the right.

View Larger Map

Sunday, May 25, 2008

2008 SdJ Virtual Stock Market

As I did in 2005 and 2006 (but not 2007), I'm running a virtual stock market to attempt to predict the winner of the SdJ. It was right in 2005 and 2006. Play it here or discuss it here on BGG.

The market's been up for a few hours and Stone Age and Keltis are the favorites.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Next stage of migration and a warning

So far, I'm pretty happy with my move to blogger so the next thing to try moving my 250+ posts from my old blog over here. The good news is Blogger has a GData API and the better news is that Robert Love has already written a blosxom to Blogger import tool. I made a few modifications:
  • Treats path elements as tags when posting to Blogger
  • Parses the meta-date tag correctly for posts with specific publication dates
  • Emits a mapping of blosxom filenames to new URLs so you can set up a redirect map
Here is my version of py2blogger. So, I'm planning on loading things up. I believe have have FeedBurner and Blogger configured such that people using the RSS feed should see nothing. But, there's a chance I've done something wrong and this feed will explode with bunches of old posts. If so, I apologize in advance.

Assuming this goes well and I continue to be happy with it for a few more weeks, I'll set up redirects on my old blog then. But, in the mean time feel free to browse the archives. I know there will be a bunch of formatting/linking problems in the old posts, which I'll try to fix over time, but if you notice anything profoundly amiss, please let me know.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Luck, Skill and Experience in games

People talk a lot about"how much luck" a game has, without a lot of specificity as to what that means. Sure, most people are talking in general terms anyway, so there's not a lot of need to deconstruct it, but where would be the fun in that?

I think a decent model for deconstructing "luck in games" as follows: Each player has a "skill" (S) which we'll treat as constant over the span of a single game. Over time this may improve or degrade. Second, each game has a distribution of "luck" (L) or "random factors". Finally, each play of a game, there is a distribution of "performance" (P) or "how well you played". Then to determine the winner, we take S+L+P for each player (where L and P are random variables) and whoever is higher ends up winning. For some games, such as chess, L is essentially 0.

Additionally, the absolute values of these don't really matter, so we can just put some stakes in the ground. Let's just define a "typical novice" as having S=0. Of course, this means some people have negative skill, but that's fine. I also believe that while there are variations in P, from game to game, that it's actually relatively constant. So, let's define P as being a gaussian with variance of 1. When talking about a game, we regularly talk about its "depth" and learning curve, and let's call the difference between S for a "world-class" player and a novice "D", for depth. The units for D are defined by the fact that we've defined P as variance 1. Tic-Tac-Toe has a D well under 1, while something like Chess or Go could easily have D of dozens or higher. Another way to think of D (for games with no luck) is "how many distinct levels of play does the game have?". So, if Joe is a novice at a no-luck game and he is always beat by Fred, and Fred is always beat by Mark and Mark is usually, but not always beat by the best players in the world, then that game is D=2.5. For games with luck, the number of distinct levels of play is roughly D/(L+1). The notion that P is fixed variance of 1 breaks down for games with no choices, like Bingo, because it leads to L being infinite, but I'll ignore that problem for now.

Now, this model has some issues. It doesn't represent atypically non-linear skill curves well. It doesn't handle cases where the performance variation is strongly skill-dependent, or where there are other cross terms. It doesn't model "style" differences well, where you might get circular skill relationships. But, I think it does alright at representing the relationships.

Other than being a fun toy model, I think this actually is a useful, if arcane, way to talk about games. Further, it highlights a category of game I suspect I like more than most people. What I really want in a game is one where L>1 and D>2*L. Further, I mostly don't want D to get too high though, as that makes it too likely that opponents will be badly mismatched. That is, I want a game where luck is more important than how well you play in a particular game, but long term experience trumps both of these, but not by a huge factor. In this kind of game, there's enough luck and variation depending on the players' performance that a novice has a chance, albeit a very small one, against an expert.

Some concrete examples, of my opinions:

The most useful thing this illuminates for me is that I like high-luck, high-depth games. Unfortunately, there's not a ton of them. Heroscape, Race for the Galaxy, Battle Line, Lord of the Rings, and Funny Friends (sort of) are decent examples though. Further, I often find myself arguing that these games are not "high-luck" (contrary to what I just said), because I think a lot of people when they say high-luck mean (L/D) and these all have reasonably low values for L/D. But, maybe I'm misinterpreting, and people mean L/R, in which case they're right, the game is high-luck, but that can be more than made up for with experience. What other high-luck, high-depth games would you recommend?

A lot of people clearly have strong biases toward the left edge of the plot, or the upper left, or even the center. Where on the plot do you tend to prefer? Or, is the plot even a useful breakdown to anyone other than me?

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Moved to Reading & Commute Analysis

Last month, I moved to Reading, MA. We'd been in Somerville for nearly 9 years and liked it a lot, and now we've truly moved to the real suburbs. One of the big concerns was the commute. My commute from Somerville into Cambridge was 15 minutes, door-to-door, which was very nice. In Reading, I have a straight shot down 93, but the commute is very time dependent. I've now collected enough morning commute data to understand the tradeoffs reasonably:

Roughly speaking, every minute later I leave saves me 24 seconds of commute time with dramatically diminishing returns after about 9:10am. I don't really have enough data from 8am to 8:30am but based on the traffic data I've looked at it doesn't suggest my data is atypical.

The commute home, on the other hand, is much more consistently between 25 and 30 minutes (though I never leave before 6pm). But, I'm told the evening northbound commute is never as bad as the morning southbound, even at peak. I'm also told the morning commute isn't much better until you get to before 6:30am. This doesn't quite add up, since there presumably isn't a sustained migration into the city.

Overall though, we're really enjoying living in Reading. That said, the 15 minute commute was nice. If you or anyone you know wants to buy a lovely single-family home in Somerville with an extremely short commute into Cambridge and Boston, our house is on the market and is having an open house this Sunday. See the realtor's site for it at for details.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

I am a social network

Friend Connect was launched yesterday. It is very cool. It's basically a plug-and-play social network for a web site that merges the social networks of various major social networking sites plus your address book. In fact, this site is now a social network. Check out the sidebar. If you haven't tried out one of the Friend Connect sites yet, it's really worth trying, and you might as well start here. For the moment, I just have the comments and friends gadgets in the sidebar (and in this post), but will probably add some as new things become available.

But, more importantly, it's a big step on the path that OpenSocial started. Unfortunately, OpenSocial itself is a little opaque and confusing, but the root idea of allowing applications to uniformly access social data is important. However much people tend to deride some of the shallow social contact social networks provide, it provides a kind of ambient social interaction which is appealing and not necessarily shallow. There's no reason any site where meaningful interaction occurs (commenting, even co-reading, as with many blogs) shouldn't have a "social" aspect, where I can see the posts of my friends, see the friends of friends, etc. Friend Connect does that. Better yet, it turns any site into an OpenSocial container. Ok, enough sales pitch, I'm just enthused :)

One of the things I like a great deal about the board gaming community is that the online social interaction translates into in-person social interaction. If it weren't for the Unity Games mailing list (and others), boardgamegeek, or even other non-boardgaming focused social networks, I wouldn't be aware of and be able to participate in anywhere near the fraction of in-person gaming that I do. I suspect (and in some cases know) many other small site communities have the same effect, probably more so than the big generic social networks. The big social networks are often "really" about dating or getting a job. The smaller networks can be about board games, or knitting, or geocaching or whatever. The "me" social network is, uh, about reading this blog. And really, ever since I was a little boy, I've wanted to be a social network, so please join. Haven't you ever wanted to be a social network?

(Disclosure: I work for Google and know the team that built Friend Connect, but am not directly involved in its development. This is my personal blog. The views expressed on these pages are mine alone and not those of my employer.)

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Race for the Galaxy and variety

I'm usually all about variety in games. Sure, I have favorites, but I tend to play a lot of different games a few times each, rather than one game a lot. In past years, I've played over 250 distinct titles per year. Recently, the number has dropped to just over 150 titles, but that's more because of a general drop in gaming than a decrease in variety.

Then, along came Race for the Galaxy. I've played RftG 33 times this year, 53 times ever, which is way lower than many people's counts. But, it is already my third most played game, after Electronic Catchphrase and Crokinole, both of which I've been playing for nearly 7 years. In fact, the most I've ever played one game in a calendar year is Electronic Catchphrase which got played 36 times in 2003. RftG is three games shy of that and it's only May.

What makes Race so different for me? Well, some of it is circumstances. In addition to my usual gaming group, colleagues at work enjoy playing it. But, with any other game, after 30+ plays in under 6 months, I'd be sick of it and really lobbying for something else. For me, Race is optimal in several ways; Length: Race playes in 30-45 minutes with even only moderately experienced players and under 30 without feeling rushed with experienced players. It feels more substantial than almost any other game of its length. Depth: 50 games in, I feel like I'm learning new strategies and tactics. Luck: The luck level in Race is what I consider optimal. Against a total novice, I'm almost guaranteed to win. Against an opponent who has played some, but is still new to the game, I usually win. Against some of those who have played far more than me and/or have more natural talent at it, I usually lose. That level of luck keeps the game interesting to me. Theme: Obviously, for a lot of people, the theme is sort of irrelevant. I find the game deeply thematic and engaging because of that. The narrative presented by a tableau at the end of the game is often quite striking. Complexity: Race is a complex game, but to me it feels like it hangs together so nicely that the complexity is simply translated into depth after a few plays.

All that said, I'm still not convinced that fully explains why Race has so completely broken past my usual game-burnout threshold. Highly recommended.

All my blogs

I like the idea of blogging a great deal, and have been doing it since 2002. Lately there's been a proliferation of micro-blogging and mini-blogging formats, and while there's something sort of oddly simple about the phenomenon, it's an interesting social dynamic and I enjoy it as a way to maintain ambient social contact with friends and colleagues. So here's all my blogs or blog-like things:
  • My main blog: I've been maintaining this (through several software changes) since 2002 and it's mostly about board games.
  • Twitter: Iconic microblogging, which I've used sporadically.
  • Google Reader Shared Items: A Google Reader feature, that, with the new notes feature is a nice micro-blogging/link-blogging format. If you're not reading this on RSS, these sit in the sidebar on this blog.
  • BoardGameGeek forum postings: Not really a blog, but a potentially interesting aggregation of my posts there.
  • This blog. Until I decide what to do, I'll probably mostly do "real" (ie, more than 2 sentence) blogging here, and if I abandon it, I'll move them over to my main/old blog, or if I decide to keep it up, I'll move all the old stuff over.
  • Friend Feed: This aggregates all of the above and a few other not-really-blogging sources, which is awesome, but it's aesthetic and formatting bugs me, but it's manageable when read in Reader.
I also have an iPhone now, so I'm tempted to do a photo "moblog" even if I am several years late to that game. I could, of course, post those here instead of creating a separate blog and will probably do that unless someone tells me "I read your blog but would rather a moblog exist as a separate feed".

Trying out Blogger

I've decided to try out blogger because my old blog software (blosxom, which I love) was getting a little stale and I wanted to support comments again. I'm not (yet) going to migrate my old posts over here, but I might.

I decided to go with Blogger (rather than any of the other also good free choices) for a few reasons:
  • Part of my annoyance with my old setup was that I was sick of dealing with configuring and tweaking it. Blogger is entirely turnkey, including hosting it on my own domain.
  • I already have code that will upload my blosxom files into Blogger if I decide to do the full switch, using the Blogger API.
  • I work for Google, I know some of the Blogger folks and it's good to use your own products, even if I don't work on Blogger itself.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

My ScanSnap Workflow

I bought and absolutely love my Fujitsu ScanSnap S510M. It is a high-speed compact full-duplex full-color sheet-feed scanner. I put a document in the sheet feeder, press a button on the scanner and a few seconds later there is a PDF in a pre-configured folder with the contents of the document. It's an amazing product. Read any number of other rave reviews of it.

In the roughly three months I've had it, I've scanned over 1200 documents, comprising over 5000 pages. I use "Yep!" for managing all of these and all of my other pre-existing and downloaded PDFs. In total, I have over 3000 PDFs. Yep handles this fine. Overall, I like "Yep!" very much, though it has one or two bugs that irritate me, but it's well worth the price.

The software that comes with the ScanSnap includes both the scanning software itself and FineReader, the OCR software. Both work well, but the user interface to both is lacking. But, fortunately, it's possible to completely disable the user interface of each so I never see it. The functionality of both pieces of software is good. Unfortunately, the integration with the OCR has a moderate flaw, but there's an easy way around it. Specifically, OCR takes far longer than scanning, but it doesn't queue up OCR jobs. This means you can't scan a second document until the first is done OCRing if you have automatic OCR enabled.

So, here's my workflow/setup: I have the ScanSnap Manager set up to scan to PDF with no OCR to a directory called "New Scans/Fresh" without prompting. I have two other directories under "New Scans": "Being OCRd" and "OCRd". I often glance through "Fresh" in Yep to see
if the scanner misrotated a page or something (in general it is very very good). Occasionally, often only once a week or so, before going to bed, I drag all the files in "Fresh" into "Being OCRd", and then drag all of those onto FineReader. I have FineReader configured to
OCR the files in place, and depending how many documents I have scanned since the last OCR batch, it can take several hours. I go to sleep. Later, I drag the completed OCRd PDFs to the "OCRd" directory.

Gradually, documents pile up in "OCRd", and periodically, I go through in Yep and clean up. But, it's worth noting that having them unfiled in a big pile in "OCRd" is still quite useful. With Yep I can search through those and find things quickly even if I haven't done proper
"filing". But, whenever I want to do some filing, I use Yep's "Browse by search folder" mode, which shows me a list of directories that contain PDFs. I don't use the tagging as the primary organization scheme, but do use it and will describe it later. First I select the "OCRd" directory and it shows me all the PDFs that are pending. Usually I'll spot something obvious like a mortgage bill and I'll type "mortgage" in the search box, and the view will be narrowed to just
things mentioning "mortgage". Often this will include some things other than mortgage statements, but often it will nicely narrow it to a homogeneous set. I select all of them and drag them into one of my two "filing cabinets" and the appropriate sub-folder, all within Yep.

I use two folders as filing cabinets. One is just a standard folder under Documents which contains stuff like correspondence, recipes and local restaurant menus. The other is an encrypted sparse image for things like bills and account statements. Some of the hierarchy is
obvious "Bills/Discover" or whatever, but mostly I don't worry too much about it because I know search works well enough. As I mentioned above, I don't use tags as the primary organization scheme, but do use them for task oriented groupings. For example, I used a tag for "2007
taxes" since that included statements from a number of accounts. Similarly, when we bought a new house, I had a "mortgage application" tag.

The system works great, and I'm not a big "organization guy". It's allowed me to shred and recycle paperwork with abandon because if I have something and I think I might want it, I scan it, and get rid of the clutter. The resulting scans are small in size, coming in on average under 100k per page. I love the ability to quickly and easily find any bill, document or other paperwork and my wife loves it as well.

Overall, I wholeheartedly recommend the ScanSnap and "Yep!".

Friday, March 7, 2008

Much Better, reprise

A couple of years ago I posted a list of "much better" products. The idea was to point out (technology) products that are much better than the alternatives. There's a handful of new one's I've discovered that I thought I'd share. A couple of them already get a lot of popular press/praise, but I thought I'd add my voice to the chorus. The first one, while almost universally praised, is less widely known.

Fujitsu ScanScan s510m is much better than any other
document scanning solution I've seen.
I got one of these in
January and it is amazing. You insert a piece of paper, and a moment
later a double sided PDF is in a directory of my choice. It's wicked
fast. Scanning a few sheets of paper takes a few seconds. Oh, and it
comes with FineReader, which is good OCR software. So far, I've
scanned around 1000 documents numbering 4000+ pages. Having quick
full text (though not quite perfect) access to bills, account
statements, and other paperwork is revolutionary. I came into this
device with high expectations and it has exceeded them.

Wii is much better than other video game systems, for
For most of these "much better" claims the "for me" part is
implicit, but at some level, I am making the assertion that these
things are "objectively" better. The Wii is great, but I can see it's
not for everyone. I've had it for a little more than a year now, and
it's about as good as a game system could be for me. I don't play it
a ton, but I play it some and it's a fun diversion for a few hours a

iPhone is much better than most cell phones. I didn't
say it's way better than a Blackberry, which I used to have, but it
mostly is. As of now, the Blackberry was still a better email device.
The iPhone is an ok email device and a really good device in almost
every other way. Google Maps plus a really good browser is a potent
combination. Naturally the SDK announcement makes things even more

A couple more: Parkour and Speed Stacking

A couple more interesting and obscure hobbies: Parkour and
Speed Stacking. You can see a great deal of each on YouTube: Parkour videos and speed stacking videos.

(Read my posts from a few years ago for some context)

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Every Year Games

(I've discussed this twice before)
There's a number of games that are good enough to get pulled out every
year. For recent releases, this isn't saying much, so let's look at those that have been played in at least 7 out of the past 11 years.

10 out of 11

  • RoboRally. This has been played every year, except I missed in 2004. This is the game that really got me into board gaming.
  • Call my Bluff. This still gets played every year, going on 10 years since I discovered it.

9 out of 9

  • Basari. This was a wedding present and while it doesn't get a ton of play (only 13 plays) it gets pulled out consistently, year after year.
  • Ra. One of my all time favorites, and I expect it to stay on the 100% list for a while.
  • Apples to Apples. A party game that is successful with all but the most curmudgeonly.

8 out of 8

  • Medici. One of the greatest "pure" auction games ever.
  • Can't Stop. It's quick and approachable and likely to stay on the list for a long time.
  • Speed. At 60ish seconds per game, I make sure to play this on New Years' Eve if I haven't already that year.
  • 6 nimmt!. Another regular winner, in no small part due to its effective accomodation of 6 players.
  • Igel Argern. Fast fun filler.
  • Battle Line. One of my favorite 2-player games of all time.

8 out of 9 or more

Ricochet Robot and Samurai both somehow missed 2006, but have been played the other 8 of the last 9 years.

En Garde missed 2006 and 2004, but I've been playing it since 1998, so it makes the 8+ list.

Euphrat & Tigris has been missing the past couple of years and it will hopefully hit the table again in 2008, but for whatever reason I have not had the same yen for it I have in the past and while it had a good 8 year streak, it looks like 2006's omission wasn't just a fluke.

7+ out of the past 11

The 100% club for the past 7 years is: Knockabout, For Sale, Zirkus Flohcati, Crokinole, Princes of Florence, Electronic Catchphrase.

7 out of the past 8: Carcassonne, Cartagena, Flinke Pinke and missed this year for the first time: Vinci, Traumfabrik, Lord of the Rings.

Take It Easy had a 7 year streak from 1999-2005 and hasn't come back since, but it's likely to be back in 2008.

Set has been intermittent, missing 1999, 2001, 2004, and 2005, but being one of the "old" games, it's gotten to 7.

Overall, I continue to like the "year metric" and the "MonthMetric" as measures of gaming quality and longevity.

Games of the year, 2007

Last year, I did my personal "game of the year" for several categories, and I'll do it again:

Light Game/Filler

Factory Fun

This may be skirting the line of what constitutes light/filler. If you think it's over the line, the award should instead go to Felix: Cat in the Sack, and the honorable mention to Toppo.

2-player game

Race for the Galaxy

Race is sufficiently exceptional it does deserve the two awards it
gets here. No other 2-player stood out this year, but classic
favorites Blue Moon and Knockabout deserve honorable mentions.


Go Away Monster!

Of the 27 games I played with my 3-year-old, 11 of them were this
game, making it a clear winner. Her and my other favorites in this
are include Monza and Who Lives Where?. Zof im
also gets an honorable mention for being really neat.


Race for the Galaxy

Unambiguous and amazing. This game is likely to rapidly ascend to top-10 of all-time status. Honorable mention: Notre Dame



Still amazing.

2007 Games Summary

  • 256 games played

    • 25% bi-weekly group
    • 21% Gathering
    • 13% Home
    • 8% Work
    • 8% UG semi-annuals
    • 25% Other

  • 153 titles played
  • 73 new-to-me titles played
  • 78 sessions

    • 38% Home
    • 20% Bi-weekly group
    • 12% Work
    • 9% Gathering
    • 3% UG semi-annuals
    • 18% Other

  • ~93 hours
  • 170 opponents

Groups Breakdown

Bi-weekly gaming group
25% of games played
34% of titles played*
20% of sessions
17% of opponents
21% of games played
25% of titles played*
9% of sessions played (each day counted separately)
38% of opponents*
Gaming at work
8% of games played
11% of games played*
12% of sessions
18% of opponents*
Gaming at home
13% of games played
10% of titles played*
38% of sessions
5% of opponents*
UG Semi-annual Events
8% of games played
12% of titles played*
3% of sessions
12% of opponents

* Percentages could add up to more than 100, since the same title/opponents can
occur in different groups

Top Games

Top 10 games (by my own "hot games" metric) for 2007
10) Loopin' Louie
9) Antike
8) Ra
7) Princes of Florence
6) Felix: Cat in the Hat
5) Um Krone und Kragen
4) Factory Fun
3) Descent
2) Notre Dame
1) Race for the Galaxy

Fives and Dimes

Race for the Galaxy (18 plays)

Go Away Monster! (11 plays)

Factory Fun (7 plays)

Notre Dame (5 plays)

Toppo (5 plays)

Felix: Cat in the Sack (5 plays)

Speed (5 plays)

Top games by sessions are exactly the same, in the same order.

Top games by time spent playing are:
Descent, RftG, Notre Dame, Factory Fun, Princes of Florence and Ra


1) Go Away Monster (6 months in 2007, 7 ever)
2) Factory Fun (4 months in 2007, 5 ever)
3) Notre Dame (4 months in 2007, 4 ever)
4) Monza (4 months in 2007, 4 ever)
... new inductees to the MM>=10 list ...
5) Blue Moon (2 months in 2007, 11 ever)
6) Light Speed (2 months in 2007, 10 ever)
7) Flinke Pinke (1 month in 2007, 10 ever)
8) Samurai (1 month in 2007, 10 ever)

Top Opponents

Of the top 25 opponents (by number of games)
10 are regular attendees of the bi-weekly group
4 live in California
3 are other local gamers (not attendees of the bi-weekly group)
2 are family members
2 are co-workers
1 each from NY, WA, PA and TX

Year over Year

Year Games New Diff Ses Ppl
1997 ~30
1998 ~100
1999 ~150 63
2000 301 112 141 126 129
2001 712 172 266 175 165
2002 650 161 279 163 241
2003 552 128 272 129 180
2004 470 80 212 112 216
2005 429 92 208 124 236
2006 365 84 205 83 216
2007 256 73 153 78 170

First Derivative (year over year differential)
Years Games New Diff Ses Ppl
2000-2001 +136% +54% +89% +39% +28%
2001-2002 - 9% - 6% + 5% - 7% +46%
2002-2003 - 15% -20% - 3% -21% -25%
2003-2004 - 15% -48% -22% -13% +20%
2004-2005 - 9% +15% - 2% +11% + 9%
2005-2006 - 15% - 9% - 1% -33% - 9%
2006-2007 - 30% -13% -25% - 6% -22%