Burr Settles

Day 366. Seems fitting to wrap up my year of games with one of my favorites, and one that I haven’t really played in probably 4-5 years. Now that I have a few sets of Looney Pryamids, I can play this game of inductive logic, even though it’s out of print. So Natalie and I played several rounds with my parents while ringing in the new year.

The idea is that you build little sculptures using the pyramids that serve as examples or counter-examples of a rule. One person is the “master” and all other players are the “students,” who take turns trying to either build sculptures to test their hypotheses of the rule, or try to guess the rule outright (to win). Here were the rules that each of the masters chose:

  • Me: the sum of the pips on each pyramid is odd (Natalie go this)
  • Natalie: contains no yellow pyramid on its side (I got this)
  • Mom: I can’t remember (but Natalie got it)
  • Dad: contains at least two colors and the pips sums to five (I got this)
  • Me: contains a green piece that doesn’t touch the table (Natalie and Mom got really close, but ultimately gave up… it was late).

We finished with about 15 minutes to go before midnight, so we watched Ryan Seacrest fill in for Dick Clark on the countdown. And thus ended my year of games. I think I’ll keep this game log going, though, even if I don’t aim to play a game every day of 2013 and beyond. It’s been a fun exercise.

Day 361. Boxing day double-header! After playing Twisted Farkel (see below), the holiday contingent played a few rounds of this frustratingly random card game called Chaos. It is essentially Uno (or Crazy Eights), but with a second deck of additional “rules” such as “players may not ask questions” or “players must speak in the third person” or “players may not lay red cards after wild cards”.

The trick is, each person is in charge of enforcing their own rule, and the other do not necessarily know the rules. Hence, you get a lot of penalty cards for infractions you don’t fully understand. Part of the challenge is an inductive logic game on top of a standard card game: you have to figure out that one must announce when you are down to one card, or that you have to scratch your head whenever you change suits, based on penalties. Some are pretty easy to pick up on by example, others less so. And every time a “Chaos” card is played (a special wild card), all the rules get replaced, so just when you think you’ve got the hang of it everything changes. I don’t remember who won these games, but I think my brain burned about 3,000 calories just trying to keep up for an hour or so.

I was surprised that (1) I didn’t particularly love this game and (2) Natalie did. This is because I enjoy another card game with ever-changing rules, Fluxx, which Natalie despises and refuses to play with me. I’m not sure what the salient differences are… perhaps it is that Chaos is simply Uno with new random rules (i.e., the goal of getting rid of your cards stays the same), while Fluxx is a new game system with constantly changing goals as well as the rules. Hmmm…

Day 361. Boxing day! Today Natalie and I visited with her Mom, aunt, and cousin Nate for lunch, and played a few more post-Christmas games to boot. I’ve never played Farkle before, which is apparently a pretty common pub dice game. The goal is to be the first to 10,000 points, where various combinations of rolls (three of a kind, runs, etc.) of six dice score points.

Twisted Farkel turns this around by adding another special die: one that determines who actually gets the points, and instead the goal this time is to be the last to make it to 10,000 points. There’s a surprising amount of strategy involved for a game based on so much randomness. I found myself making decision-theoretic decisions a lot. ;) I ended up winning the game, but from a 9,900-point tie with Natalie’s aunt Debbie. Whoever gave the other 100 points first (points come in 50 or 100 point increments) would win, and I got lucky. It was a fun and surprisingly balanced game, too, with all six of us within about a 1,500 point spread the whole time.

Day 360. For Christmas, I was given a few sets of Looney Pyramids. You know how a deck of cards is standardized and there are hundreds of games you can play with them, varying from simple to complex and quick to slow? Pyramids are a similar concept: the idea is that with a few sets of these plastic pieces, plus some other common game bits (e.g., a deck of cards, dice, poker chips, and/or a checker board) you can play a variety of different games.

I also got a booklet that contains the rules for about a dozen games you can play with these pyramids, so a group of us cousins spent the afternoon trying out Zark City, a game you can play with three sets of pyramids (what I got) and a standard deck of cards (which we borrowed from Natalie’s grandfather, our host and an avid Bridge player). It’s a clever but strategically rich game where you place pyramids on top of numbered playing cards, and attempt to “control” adjacent cards that form either three-of-a-kind or suited runs.. and the board (set of cards) is ever-expanding. Aces, jokers, and face cards are special actions, like replacing someone else’s pyramid with one of your own color.

It was the first time for any of us playing it, and it took well over an hour to finish, but it was a lot of fun. I found myself in a Kingmaker position between Natalie and her cousin Nate, so I guess Natalie won. Although we learned about halfway through the game that she had not been discarding down to her hand limit, so it wasn’t entirely fair. As I said, we were all totally new to the game.

I look forward to exploring other pyramid games (and probably acquiring another set or two of pyramids in order to play more of them). The only pyramid game I ever remember playing before is Zendo, a now out-of-print inductive logic game I played in grad school with my officemate Mark Goadrich. (I bet you can play it with just a few sets of pyramids and some gaming stones, coins, or poker chips, though).

Day 350. Went to a Christmas/Housewarming party in the ‘burbs this weekend, and lo and behold there was a pool table in the basement! I got roped into two-on-two game of this classic (which I haven’t played in a decade, and was never very good at to begin with). My team ended up winning, but not really because of me. I sank the first ball of the game (earning us solids) and in fact I sank the 8-ball at the end, too. So I kind of book-ended the game. But my partner got all the rest of them (three of the balls were actually on the same turn).

Day 336. So in January I start a new job (in about 45 days, I suppose). To that end I was invited to a board game night that a subset of my future coworkers put together and we played A Game of Thrones, a Risk-style military game themed after the book series and corresponding TV series on HBO. I enjoyed getting to know my future coworkers, but didn’t enjoy the game too much. In fact, if it weren’t Game-of-Thrones themed, or if I’d not seen any of the TV shows, I probably would have hated it… we played for nearly five hours and still didn’t finish the game. On the plus side, it was very balanced, as virtually all of us had the same score for the whole game.

I think some of the best board/card game designs are such that you can understand all the mechanics after about 15-20 minutes into your first game. Some of the strategy may still allude you, but you don’t end up making stupid moved because there are complex “edge case” conditions that you were unaware of, or forgot because there are simply so many rules and edge cases to remember. Game of Thrones was that way. There were some redeeming things about it, and I wouldn’t necessarily say no if a whole crowd was dead-set on playing it again, but I also would be AOK if I never played it again. ;)

Day 319. I gave a guest lecture in Aarti Singh and Eric Xing’s Machine Learning course this morning. (Tanget: Aarti and Eric have, to the native English speaker, essentially the same last name!) The topic not surprisingly was active learning. So I decided to start out the lecture by playing 20 Questions to see how many it took them to figure out what I was thinking about. The result: 13 yes/no questions, and the answer was support vectors machines. I was impressed!

Day 297. Housemate Jeriah and I decided to kick it old school by playing several levels of this old arcade game (on the MAME emulator). We didn’t finish it, though… we just played 5-6 levels or so.

Day 295. I enjoyed this perverse game a lot more than I thought I would… we were introduced to this unique card game while visiting my cousin Trey and his wife Alix, and in fact we played two versions of it. The original (plus a few expansions) and the H.P Lovecraft-themed Cthulu Gloom as well.

While the idea of a game themed around making your murderous and dysfunctional family as miserable as possible before killing them off is particularly distasteful, the artwork, alliteration, and narratives constructed by the scoring system (not to mention the innovative mylar cards which stack on top of one another) all made it quite fun. I’m thinking of picking up a copy, so I hope the novelty does not wear off. I enjoyed the whole Edward Goreyness of it. Not to mention, I won 2 of the 3 games we played, despite Natalie’s best efforts to thwart my every move. (But she won the other game.)

Day 294. At the end of a trip to DC this weekend (which included a visit to UMD to give a tutorial on my research), Natalie and I stayed with my cousin Trey and his wife Alix. They invited a couple of friends over and we played a big game of of Betrayal at House on the Hill, a wacky one-versus-all game. I had played it once before, about 5 or 6 years ago. Natalie had also played it more recently…

The idea is that we are a group of explorers wandering around an old abandoned house, and at some point an “event” happens, and one of the players goes “bad.” There are then 50 different scenarios for the game at that point, determined as a function of where and how the “event” occurs… and although the odds are severely against it, we played the exact same scenario that Natalie played a month or two ago. Although this time she was the betrayer instead of one of the betrayed. However, the group prevailed against her this time (barely).