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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
November 7, 2013

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Phone Games, Because I Said So

The best thing about Ticket to Ride on computer, tablet, and smartphone is that my wife and I are a little less obsessive about playing the table game. Which means our employees don't catch us quite as often playing Ticket to Ride at the kitchen table while they're still working.

For anyone who doesn't know, Ticket to Ride is a boardgame in which players take turns linking cities with train routes, trying to fulfil goals and amass points for length of train and the value of each completed route.

Board games are usually hard to implement on small devices like smartphones, but Days of Wonder, the publisher, engaged game designers who did a splendid job of it.

The map on the four-inch screen may be too tiny to read any of the words (it takes younger eyes than mine to read them), but it doesn't matter, because as you examine a route card, the two cities light up in green. When you select a route, the two cities light up in blue.

Then, as you play, all you have to do is link the blue-lighted cities with completed links. It can sometimes be tricky to get the game to accept your placement of a link -- the very act of lifting your finger off the touchscreen moves it off the desired route -- but eventually it consents, and most of the time there's no trouble.

(I've had a few problems with weird screen behavior on my Samsung Nexus 7, but it's the tablet's fault, not the program's -- I've never had a problem with any other platform, and on the Nexus 7, other programs sometimes have windows that go black, too.)

The only thing that one might consider a flaw is that the game's AI plays a generally bad strategy. Because longer links are worth more points, the AI invariably chooses long routes instead of quick ones.

The reason this is bad strategy is that (a) if you use up all your train cars on a few long links, you end up linked to fewer cities. That means that as you draw more route cards later in the game, you are less likely to already "own" both ends of a new route.

Another reason it's bad for gameplay is that (b) since it takes a turn to lay down a link, laying down fewer (but longer) links means you run out of train cars faster, ending the game for everyone much sooner. That allows the AI to catch you with unfulfilled route cards in your hand, which count against you, but only rarely does that help the AI to win.

The result is that as long as you choose your routes sensibly and play the short-links strategy, you will win at least nine times out of ten.

And there's an apparent glitch, because sometimes, near the end of the game, the computer opponent will draw and draw and draw from the color-card pile, apparently trying to draw enough cards to complete a route for which the AI doesn't have enough train cards anyway.

This allows you to rack up incredibly high scores. It's kind of fun, in a way, but it feels almost as if you're winning because of an accidental cheat.

At least the gamewrights didn't make the AI play an aggressive game, in which it lays down links in order to block you from getting routes you obviously need. In "real" games against human opponents, the other players soon learn that such aggressive tactics, while they sometimes work, lead to ill feelings at the table, which means that pretty soon others will decline to play with you.

Besides, in the long run it doesn't work out well: If you use up your train cars on links you don't need, in order to block others, you won't have enough train cars to complete the links you do need. Other players will have longer and better routes than you, and you'll lose.

You'll lose and they'll hate you. Not really a good longterm strategy, though there are still some players whose native aggressiveness makes it impossible for them to resist the temptation to block.

The AI doesn't play that way, fortunately, because then it wouldn't be fun to play the computer game at all. You can't persuade a bad algorithm to change its behavior, not the way you can persuade a human player, because being snippy with the AI and serving it smaller servings of ice cream during the game doesn't bother it.

*

Before Ticket I had never tried to use my phone to play games. That's because I always had phones with such short-lived batteries that I didn't dare use up the electricity on anything like games, or listening to music, or ... well, anything, except to take an occasional picture.

Though when I was caught in line without something to read or without my mp3 player so I could listen to audiobooks, I would pull out my phone and read something using my Kindle app.

Then I got a Motorola Droid Maxx and I finally -- finally -- had a phone whose battery outlasted a little playtime.

I only discovered this when I downloaded Ticket to Ride and realized I could play for a couple of hours and still have more than half my battery left. I went in search of more.

My first lucky hits were the free Android games Spades, Hearts, Euchre, Canasta, and Pinochle from KARMAN games. And they're really free: There aren't even any ads. Nothing but the game itself.

The graphics style is charmingly cartoony, and there's no joke about the quality of game play.

The game I play most is Hearts, partly because that's what I play most commonly on my Windows machines. Windows XP's free Hearts game has one main virtue: When I'm waiting for my computer to boot up, Hearts is the game that comes up most quickly, so I can play a hand or two or seven while Windows finishes loading.

But it's not really a very good Hearts game. KARMAN Games' version of Hearts, by contrast, is helpful in every way it can be. It keeps a running tally of how many points each player has already accrued in the game, and in this particular hand. That means the game isn't a constant memory test.

Then, as you approach every trick, the cards you are not allowed to play are greyed out a little, so you don't have annoying error messages or beeps when you make a mistake.

And on the last trick of a hand, you don't have to click at all -- the computer just plays out the cards that have to be played.

The other players aren't stupid -- they hold back high hearts to block you from attempts at shooting the moon, making the game smarter than Microsoft's Hearts.

Best of all, KARMAN's Hearts can be played in either landscape or portrait mode.

I did mention the part about how it's free, right?

The weird thing is that nowhere in the game do they put their own name. In order to write this review, I had to go to the Google Play store and search for Euchre to find that the maker of the games I liked so well was KARMAN.

I would happily pay for games so well-designed; but KARMAN cares so little about money that they don't even advertise themselves!

*

AI Factory is not as modest as KARMAN Games. They make sure you know all the time who made the game you're playing.

Their games also carry ads for other companies in narrow strips at top or bottom. And sometimes they sell this ad space to companies that strobe their ads in garish colors -- annoying!

However, the ads are in narrow banners, and on my phone they're small enough to cover with my thumb.

AI Factory's Gin game is excellent. I had never played real gin -- just the version of gin rummy that was explained in the rulebook that came with the Rook card I grew up with.

The real game of Gin has more options and complications. You can knock (end the hand) when the deadwood -- cards that aren't part of sets and runs -- totals ten points or fewer. Then your opponent "lays off" any of his deadwood that fits into your sets and runs.

The score is the difference between the deadwood points in your hand and the deadwood points in your opponent's hands. But because of laying off, sometimes you knock and end up handing your opponent points, plus a ten-point bonus!

It took a lot of hands before I began to grasp the subtleties -- especially because Gin has weirdly huge bonuses at the end of a match that obscure what actually happened. I'm glad the computer keeps track of the score, because it would be tedious to do it manually.

The game is compulsively playable in the AI Factory version. Hands play quickly; even matches fly by. There's also an option of choosing your opponent by their traits and tendencies, so you can decide just how difficult a game you want to play.

The only danger is the Undo button. Gin is a great game in part because of the frustration of discarding a queen, say, only to have three more queens turn up in rapid succession.

If only you had known, you could have completed a set! But if you had held the queen and no other queens had turned up, it would count ten miserable points against you at the end.

The Undo button allows you, in effect, to never miss such an opportunity. You can step back as far as you want, now that you know the order in which the cards will turn up.

Obviously, the computer opponent never complains. But you are cheating. And, after having used it way too much for a while, I never -- er, I mean, almost never -- use it any more. If I discard a card, it's gone.

The only exception is that sometimes, playing too quickly, I discard before realizing a card goes with a set or run already in my hand. In such cases, I allow myself one step of Undo. If I go to hell for it, at least I'll have plenty of gin partners available.

AI Factory Gin plays in portrait mode; their Backgammon plays in landscape mode.

And folks, this free game of Backgammon is far, far superior to any other computer backgammon I've ever played.

In fact, it's annoying now to play the Hoyle Backgammon I have used for years on my Windows XP machine (and the more-annoying Hoyle Backgammon that runs on Windows 7).

The best feature is that instead of each game standing alone, you can set up matches -- I usually play matches that are won by the first player to reach five points. It makes it more of a contest, and each loss feels a little less frustrating. Have to keep my blood pressure down, these days.

I'm really pleased with the quality of all these games, from KARMAN and from AI Factory. I only wish I could get the identical games on my Windows machines, because every one of them is better, on my phone and Android tablet, than their supposed equivalent on my desktop or laptop.

*

Ken Jennings feels like a friend, though we've never met.

I mean, we watched him win game after game for years on Jeopardy! (OK, it was only for months.) His Kennections column in Parade (which recently has grown suspiciously easier) is fun, and his books Brainiac and Maphead were delightfully informative and personal.

The premise of Jennings's book Because I Said So is that parents (and older siblings, and teasing uncles and aunts and grandparents) tell children all kinds of things that may or may not be nonsense.

"Don't cross your eyes -- they might stick that way!"

"Keep doing that, you'll get hair on your palms."

"Go play with your sick cousin so you can get chicken pox now when you're young."

"Don't talk to strangers."

Some of this advice might be deep wisdom; some of it might be utter booshwa. But which is which? That is what Ken Jennings decided to find out.

So Because I Said So is full of answers to life's deepest questions -- like the truth of the five-second rule (mostly, but not entirely, false). No double-dipping in the salsa, it spreads germs (mostly true). Or whether most of the vitamins are in the crust (mostly false). Or chew each bite thirty times (mostly true.)

Some of these answers are very, very important to me. Like, "Stay out of the cookie dough, you'll get worms!" As Jennings says, "Worms? In cookie dough? This old chestnut clearly has its origins not in a research lab but from a frazzled mom tired of kids sticking their grubby fingers in a bowl of raw cookie dough."

He points out that there are foods which, if undercooked, can lead to various icky parasites invading your corpus, but "unless you use a lot of lobster roe or pork belly in your chocolate chip cookies, your dough is almost guaranteed to be worm-free" (pp. 95-96).

Worms are one thing; what about bacteria from the raw egg? The FDA "takes a strong no-raw-eggs-ever stance," Jennings says, but then he points out that the fact is that one in twenty thousand American eggs is contaminated. That "means that the average egg-consumer will come across a dangerous egg once every eight-four years."

Or, looking at it from the other side, "about a million Americans get salmonella every year, and twenty thousand get a bad enough case to send them to the hospital. About four hundred die." But egg salmonella accounts for only 18 percent of all cases -- chicken meat is far more dangerous.

And in the documented cases where food poisoning came from cookie dough? "The culprit wasn't the eggs! 'Raw flour is the only raw agricultural product that was in the cookie dough,' said the study's epidemiologist" (pp. 96-97).

What made them sick wasn't salmonella from the eggs -- it was E. Coli in the wheat flour!

Jennings's conclusion? "So there's no reason to traumatize kids, parents: let them lick that bowl and then they won't grow up to hate you and become serial killers."

Jennings was charming on Jeopardy!, which is why we kept watching during his winning streak instead of tuning out till he was beaten, and he's charming in his books. It's like having a conversation with somebody who's smarter than you and makes you like him for it.

His tone is never, "You idiot, why didn't you already know this like all the smart people do." His tone is, "I didn't know this, and now I do, so I'll tell you."

That makes all the difference in the world.

*

I've been in Nantes for a week, as I write this, and I head for Paris in the morning. Only a day there, and then we fly back to Greensboro.

As usual, I don't get over my jet lag till just before I come home. Then I get to have jet lag again on the other end. But westbound jet lag is so much easier to get over than eastbound jet lag!

What brought me to Nantes was the Utopiales science fiction convention. I attended an earlier version of this convention in Poitiers fourteen years ago. That's when I came to know my French publisher, a lovely man who cares deeply about the quality of translation when books are brought in from other countries.

In France, for instance, my Alvin Maker novels are translated by Patrick Couton, a well-known musician (he's a connoisseur of American traditional music, among many other things) who has also translated the works of Terry Pratchett into French.

When I tell you he plays autoharp, you still won't be prepared for the cool, jazzy music that is sampled on his website: http://patrickcouton.fr/

As a translator, Couton saw that vast swathes of the Alvin Maker books were written in a kind of American frontier English, and so he translated those parts into Cajun French -- quite intelligible to French readers, but also highly evocative of the American frontier.

It's that kind of intelligence and care that makes it a joy to have my works published in French, with L'Atalante taking special care to make sure my translations are taken as seriously as if sci-fi and fantasy were ... gasp ... real literature. (In France, they are.)

The main pleasure in coming to a science fiction convention in France is the quality of the readers and the other participants.

Science fiction and fantasy readers tend to be above average in intelligence and education in America and everywhere else. But in France, they come to conventions prepared not just to talk about literature and art, but also history and philosophy.

Every panel I was on quickly shifted into the deepest sort of consideration and reconsideration of the philosophical, scientific, and literary implications of everything.

And the audience not only sat there listening, they were measuring the ideas. Questions from the audience weren't at the level of "Tell us about the movie," they took serious questions from the discussion and brought them another level deeper.

If such a thing happened on an American talk show, the ratings would plummet and those guests would never be invited back. But in France, nobody (except visiting Americans) is either surprised or particularly impressed, because, as one friend explained, "What else would you come to a science fiction convention for?"

On the public panel discussions, the convention paid for real-time translation. We all wore headsets; the anglophones could hear an English interpretation of the francophones, and vice versa.

The quality of their on-the-fly interpretation was amazing. They were never more than a few words behind, and they seemed to be able to translate the most difficult, abstruse words and concepts without breaking a sweat.

I must admit that I deliberately threw in rare words and new-coined words and arcane terms of theology and philosophy, just to see if they could handle it. It didn't even slow them down.

The result was that even though my French is only about ten sentences this side of non-existent, I was able to be a part of the conversation as it happened.

And when I was interviewed, by the media and in front of an audience, I was never asked any of the dull questions most media people ask me. Clearly the people who interviewed me had read and understood my fiction; they asked questions I'd never heard before, and I had to think of new answers that I'd never said before.

That's actually just the tiny bit terrifying. Sometimes I actually had to stop and think, and when does that happen in a media interview? I can't help but think that if President Obama could only face a few good French media interviewers now and then, there might be some point in watching a presidential press conference.


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