Saturday, July 28, 2012

Origins Part 2: "Full Power To Shields!"

Another fun thing I did at Origins was play a couple spaceship themed games. One of the games was called "Artemis: Spaceship Bridge Simulator", a computer game where up to 6 players play crew members on a starship similar to those in Star Trek. There is a separate computer for each station, and a big screen up front that shows a visual display. Stations include comms (who can communicate with space stations to get upgrades and missions, and taunt opponents and demand their surrender), science (who can scan enemies to determine their capabilities and shield frequency), engineering (who is in charge of re-routing power to different systems, controlling the coolant, and using damage control teams to repair damage), helm (who is in charge of controlling the ship's heading and thrusters), weapons (who can fire beams and torpedoes), and there can also be a captain (who does not have a station, but can walk around and give orders to the rest of the crew). The goal of the game is to defend several space stations from enemy ships that are trying to invade. In addition to your primary beam, there are several other weapons including homing missiles, mines, nukes (which have a large blast radius and can take out a whole formation of enemies), and ECM missiles (which can destroy enemy shields). The most successful teams I saw rarely used beams, preferring to stand back and destroy enemy formations by launching an ECM followed by a nuke, and then using homing missiles to mop up any stragglers. (Space stations can build extra nukes and ECMs, and you can convert energy into homing missiles and refill your energy easily, so if you are careful you will not run out of missiles) In the game I played in, I was the helm officer, and we played at a lower difficulty level (3, on a scale of 1 to 11). Our captain, Andrew, came up with a technique he called the "Crazy Andrew": fly at warp speed through an enemy formation, dropping a mine right when you reach the center, then in the couple seconds it takes the mine to blow up you will have moved out of the blast radius. (When you drop a mine, the mine is not moving relative to the game's coordinate system, regardless of how fast the ship is moving when you drop the mine. This game is based on Star Trek physics, not real physics.)

There was another group I watched that was planning a bigger challenge - difficulty level 7 (where 10
is "theoretically impossible", and 11 is "double that"). One of the first groups of enemies they fought, they used the same technique of dropping a mine in the middle of them - except they weren't moving when they did so. So the mine blew up their back of the own ship. Fortunately their ship was in good enough shape to get away and go to another group of enemies, which they tried to beat by firing a nuke - at close range, which blew up the front of their ship. With only a narrow portion of their ship in the middle still undamaged, the enemies easily finished them off. Since the game ended so quickly they tried again. They did a much better job this time, carefully controlling range, using skillful maneuvering to lure enemies into pre-existing minefields, and darting from enemy group to enemy group. But at one point, a mysterious object appeared on radar, heading right toward them! The science station's scanners revealed nothing, and the object kept going toward them no matter where they went. Not knowing whether the object was dangerous, they decided to play it safe and stay away. In an attempt to shake off the pursuer, they maneuvered to put a black hole between themselves and the object, hoping to lure the object into the black hole. The object did go into the black hole, but its path wasn't even affected! The ship continued trying to warp speed away, but they weren't looking closely where they were going, so they eventually ran at warp speed right into their own mine from before! So that quest was over, and the person who had programmed the game, who was watching the whole thing, made a note to fix a bug in the program.


Another spaceship themed game I played was "Battlestations", a board game (not a computer game this time) where players are crew on a ship. This game has role-playing game elements, such as skill points and upgradeable equipment, and each time you play it is one mission. Then your character gets experience points and stuff, so you can upgrade it for the next mission. In the game we played, our goal was to warp into a sector of space and investigate a mysterious ship in the middle of an asteroid field. I was a science officer, with the ability to use a science bay to scan the area (asking yes or no questions) and use a med-kit to heal crew members. When we warped in, we first tried to go toward the ship. Normally accelerating too fast makes the ship go "out of control" and gives penalties to your skill rolls, but we were able to mitigate that problem the first round using our "stabilizing fin". (This game isn't based on Star Trek physics: the physics in this game aren't even close to that good.) I used the science bay to ask if there was anything unusual about the asteroids, thinking that they might be hidden mines or something. There wasn't anything unusual about the asteroids, but there was something unusual about the ship. It fired a blue beam at us, which created clones of every one of us, except they were hostile! One thing we noticed was that we weren't able to affect our own clone, so we had to shoot at each other's clones. The clones caused as much havoc as possible, trying to turn our ship off course, shoot at us, and the engineers' clones went through the ship and sabotage our systems. By the end of the first "round" (a round is 6 phases, and a phase is basically a turn), they had managed to sabotage all four of our life support modules. Fortunately we were able to get a couple of them back online before the lack of life support did too much damage.

At the end of the first round, the clones winked out of existence. But this was only a brief respite because they fired the blue beam again, creating more clones! Just before the beam hit, two of our crew launched themselves in a boarding missile to try to board the enemy ship and prevent the beam from cloning them, while everyone else stayed to fend off the clones and heal damaged allies. Near the end of the second round, two of the engineers launched themselves in a boarding missile just before the next beam hit, avoiding being clones but also putting themselves in a position to circle around, come back to the ship, and start repairing systems. By the end of the third round, however, the two boarders (who didn't even have "combat" as their primary skill) reported that they had shut down the beam and taken control of the enemy ship, ending the mission in success. You see, the enemy ship had a very powerful beam weapon, but it didn't really have any defense.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

The Health Care Law

So, a couple weeks ago was the Supreme Court decision about whether the individual mandate to buy health insurance in PPACA (also known as Obamacare) was constitutional. It turns out, it is, but not for the reasons you might expect.

There were basically two main issues. One is where the "Commerce Clause" - the power given to the federal government by the Constitution to regulate "interstate commerce" - covers the health care law. The other was whether, even if the Commerce Clause doesn't apply, the individual mandate can also be considered constitutional because it is a tax, and thus falls under the government's power to levy taxes.

It was a close 5-4 decision in favor of the law, and the swing voter, Chief Justice John Roberts, wrote in his opinion that the Commerce Clause does not apply, because in order to "regulate interstate commerce" there first has to be commerce to regulate, and people who don't want to buy health insurance are those that are not engaging in any relevant commerce in the first place. One counter-argument to this is that people who aren't insured will still eventually need health care and end up "engaging in commerce" sticking others with the tab. Roberts rejects this argument, because the fact that someone might engage in commerce at some point in the future doesn't justify forcing him to now. For instance, all of us will buy food at some point in the future, and the government can regulate food sales, but the government can't force me to go to the grocery store right now and buy a specific food item.

However, Roberts does cast the deciding vote in favor of the law's constitutionality on the grounds of the Taxing Clause - that it can be viewed as a tax on not having health insurance, and the government has the power to levy taxes. PPACA states that anyone who does not have health insurance must pay money to the IRS along with their normal federal taxes. Although PPACA does not call it a "tax" - it calls it both a "penalty" and a "shared responsibility payment"*, legal precedent requires that "every reasonable construction must be resorted to in order to save a statute from unconstitutionality" - i.e. if you could make the statute constitutional by re-wording it a bit, then it's constitutional.

One issue that was not discussed in the opinions was the following. Let's say that instead of saying that you have to pay a penalty of $X if you don't buy insurance, the law just raised everyone's taxes by $X across the board, and additionally said that if you do buy insurance, you get a reduction in $X on your taxes. That certainly seems like another "reasonable construction" that is functionally equivalent to the existing law. And it is very clearly constitutional: The government obviously has the power to raise taxes, and the government gives tax breaks to encourage you to buy/do certain things all the time (buy a house, get married, etc.) and nobody claims those are unconstitutional. (I am not the only one to notice this.)

As far as the Commerce Clause part goes, a major argument against constitutionality was as follows. The idea of the individual mandate is that people not buying health insurance imposes increased health care costs on others, so the government can mandate that people buy health insurance. So by that logic, since people eating unhealthy foods also increases health care costs, that means the government can mandate that everyone buy fruits and vegetables. (One version of the argument specifically mentions broccoli, although that was not part of the final opinion.) And since the government mandating that everyone buy broccoli is clearly an unconstitutional government overreach, mandating that everyone buy health insurance is similarly unconstitutional.

Here's my response to that argument:

First of all, why is it so obvious that the government forcing us to buy broccoli is unconstitutional? Again, suppose the government were to raise our taxes, use the proceeds to buy broccoli, and then provide it to us for free. Clearly each step in this process is constitutional, and the result is economically equivalent to making us buy broccoli, except with extra overhead.

But a better way of analyzing this question might be to think about why we have constitutional limits on government power in the first place. The point of such limits isn't to prevent the government from doing anything that might be a bad idea. There are lots of things the government can do that are clearly bad ideas (say, raising everybody's tax rate to 100%) but that the government clearly has the power to do. The thing that protects against these kind of bad policies is that if politicians enact bad policies, their constituents can vote them out (of course, it's not clear how well that incentive works, but at least that's the theory.)

Rather, the purpose of constitutional limits is to stop the government from doing things that are politically popular (or are inclined to do anyway for other reasons) despite being bad ideas. In other words, things that we expect the government to be over-eager to do in comparison with the actual merits. For example, consider free speech. We know that governments can be particularly eager to restrict speech, both because such restrictions can be politically popular in the short term (especially since it can be hard politically to defend the right of people to engage in unpopular speech without appearing to endorse the content of the speech) and because it can be used to squelch criticism of government. That is why it is important to make sure that the government can't easily prohibit speech. Another example is the prohibition against unlawful searches and seizures (and other limits on police power.) We know that police would likely search more intrusively than is warranted in the absence of such protections (again, because most decisions about how to search are made by individual police officers, who are not as subject to political discipline, and because it can be difficult politically to advocate for less intrusive searches without being accused of helping criminals) so it makes sense to have those limits.

So, is the power to force people to buy things a power that government has the tendency to overuse? I don't think so (at least, not more so than other government powers that nobody claims are unconstitutional). The main argument that I tend to see for why the government would overuse the power to force people to buy things is that it could be used to give favors to special interest groups. For example, if Big Broccoli gives a lot of money in campaign contributions, it could "buy" a law that forces people to buy broccoli, irrespective of its actual merits. However, I think that the risk of this happening is significantly LESS than the risk of providing favors in other ways (e.g., subsidies to broccoli producers), because forced purchases are a significantly MORE transparent and publicly visible way of providing political favors than are other methods such as tax breaks and subsidies.

In other words, if the government is going to give away political favors to Big Broccoli, I would much rather that they do it by making everyone buy broccoli, because that way everyone will know what is happening, and we can have a political discussion and ensure accountability. In contrast, giving political favors the current way (like hidden tax breaks and subsidies) is much more problematic, because most people don't know who is being given what special favors, so there isn't as much political accountability.

But anyway, I am glad that the health care bill has passed and been ruled constitutional, so that we can find out what's in it.**


*I really have to find a clever way to use this wonderfully euphemistic name for a tax. Maybe in Dungeons and Dragons, when the evil king taxes his people to get money to raise an undead army to conquer the world, he could call the tax a "shared responsibility payment." I mean, raising corpses from the dead counts as health care, right?

**I think that Pelosi has a very good point here, even if she expressed it using a poor choice of words. Before the law is actually implemented, it is very easy to come up with all sorts of scare stories - like the whole "death panel" thing and stuff. But once it is actually implemented, after a few years we will be able to tell whether any of those scare stories came to pass. I believe that once we actually see how it works, people will like it. I mean, my understanding is that most people who are on Medicare like it, even if they don't realize it's a government program.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Origins Part 1: Mage Wars

Last month at Origins I played lots of fun games. One of the games I liked the most was a game called Mage Wars. It has not come out yet; they are planning to release it soon. The game simulates a battle between two dueling mages, similar to Magic: The Gathering. Many of the game mechancis are similar: you can summon creatures and cast spells such as fireball to destroy you opponents. But there are lots of cool new features, such as the fact that there is a board consisting of a grid of zones, and you can move your creatures and mages around on the board to jockey for position. Another big difference is that unlike in Magic, where you can only use the cards in your hand, in Mage Wars you can use any of the cards in your spellbook (which is like your deck). That gives you a lot more options each turn and limits the amount of luck, but also makes the game take a lot longer than a typical Magic game. The first day I played this game I went and did the demo, and played against one of the people who worked there. I chose the "Wizard", a mage who specializes in controlling the battlefield, improving his mana generation capacity, and draining his opponent's. ("Mana" is magical energy that you use to power your spells.) My opponent chose the "Warlock", a master of fire who specializes in burning his enemies to death. As the game started, my opponent rushed forward and pummeled my Wizard with a barrage of fire spellls, damaging him and catching the creatures that I had just summoned within the blast. I quickly switched to a defensive posture, putting fire-resistant armor on my wizard and moving creatures forward to attempt to drain his mana. Since my opponenet had run out of direct-damage fire spells after the initial barrage, he pressed the attack by summoning creatures, and my own creatures were sent out to meet them. The battle continued for at least a couple hours, and the rest of the Mage Wars demo team was getting ready to pack up and go home for the night. Soon my opponent dug deep into his spell book and pulled out what he thought would be the killing blow - an enchantment that would cause my mage to rot, taking damage every turn. But he didn't anticipate my counterattack - a spell that would shift that enchantment right back onto himself! With no other counters in his arsenal, my opponent's mage quickly rotted to death. The next day I went back to compete in the Mage Wars tournament - a four-round, single elimination tournament. We were each given a random pick from the set of four mages - I got the Wizard, as I had used before. This tournament had a 50-minute time limit per round, and once the time limit is over you play until the end of the current round and whichever person has the least damage on it is the winner. During the first round the game was going slow, and when the "one minute warning" was called we were still solidly in the middle of the game. My opponent had less damage but I was in better position to attack with creatures, and I just needed one more turn to win. Fortunately my opponent didn't have any remaining actions for the a round, so I was able to rush through the rest of thr round with my creatures and move on to the next round before time was called. The next three rounds were also fairly close, and they all went to the time limit, but I squeaked out a victory in all of them to win the tournament. After the tournament one of the people who worked there gave me a business card and said to contact him if I wanted to be a playtester. After the convention I wrote to them, and suggested possible additions to the game to make sure it doesn't drag out so much. - after all, as players get better at the game and develop more sophisticated strategies, it is likely that it will require more analysis and make the games take longer. They thought that my ideas were so good that they made me an official playtester for the game, and gave me the opportunity to look over their spells and rules before release and offer feedback. (That's why it's been taking me so long to get around to writing this blog pots - because I have been so busy looking at all the cards!) Since the cards haven't been released yet I am not supposed to talk about specifics, but you will see soon enough once the game gets released!

Sunday, July 1, 2012

What We Have Here Is A Failure To Communicate

Yesterday I went to the park (Lee Martinez Park) for Dagorhir, and I was the only one there. This was the second time in a row that I had been the only one there, so I asked on the Facebook page for the group about whether it had been moved or canceled. Nobody seemed to know; I was told the name of the person who was supposedly running the event, but he had no publicly accessible phone number posted, and none of the other people on Facebook seemed to know how to contact him. Eventually I was able to find out that the reason was that it had been moved to another park (Rolland Moore Park) in Fort Collins, but that information had not been posted anywhere on Facebook or the web site and had only been passed on by "word of mouth". The only way I was able to find out was that I knew that one of the people at our park had wrote a book about battle gaming, and I was able to get his phone number off the web site for his book.

What is really confusing to me is why they distributed the information this way rather than taking the 15 seconds or so it would have taken to make a post on Facebook. Clearly the "word of mouth" method wasn't very successful; lots of people in our Dagorhir group didn't know about it. (On the other hand, I was the only one who showed up at Lee Martinez park, so maybe that means that everyone but me did in fact get the message. I think that could be because they have practices in Fort Collins and Loveland, and the people on the Facebook page are primarily those that go to the Loveland practices.) It is surprising that they would choose a method for distributing the informaiton that takes more work AND is less reliable than posting it on Facebook or the web site.

And in terms of recruiting new players (although I'm not sure how high a priority that is for them), it certainly doesn't make a very good first impression when the person supposedly in charge has no publicly available contact information, and it's not easy to find where they actually are. I was walking in downtown Fort Collins with all my stuff (arrows and bow) on my back, and a couple people were interested in what they were, and I told them about Dagorhir and that it was in Lee Martinez Park. If there's nothing publicly posted that says that that's been changed, then it's going to be almost impossible for anyone new to find our Dagorhir group.