Saturday, August 24, 2013

GenCon 2013

Last week I got back from GenCon. Here are some of the highlights.

Part 1: The Long Journey

My original plan was to leave on a flight from Denver at 6:00 AM going to Champaign, IL; this way I could spend a few hours in Champaign, and then take a bus to Indianapolis (it is about a 2 hour bus ride). However this plan didn't work because the flight from Denver was delayed until 12:30. Fortunately I explained to them what I wanted to do, and they saw there weren't any other flights to Champaign, but they rebooked me on another flight going from Denver to Detroit and then from there to Indianapolis. I was actually very surprised at how easy this was; I expected it to be a big problem that I wanted to go to someplace that wasn't on my original itinerary, and I expected to have to explain the story to several different people, pay an extra fee, etc. but that didn't happen. So it was a bummer that I didn't get to go to Champaign, but at least I ended up where I wanted to in the end.

Part 2: This Is A Test

At GenCon there was a "First Exposure Playtest Hall", where game designers bring prototypes of new games to playtest. The games are scheduled in two-hour slots, where you pick up a ticket for the type of game you want to play - each game is described with a brief blurb like "Super Hero Deck Building Game." I did a few of these and some of games I did included the following:

1. Board game based on Greek mythology - each player is a Greek hero and they run around the board completing quests. I liked the theme of this game, but didn't really like the "political" aspect - there are lots of cards that you play on other player's turns to interfere with them, so if everyone gangs up and plays all the cards on one player it is difficult to win.

2. Dungeon crawling game based on video games - this game was a game where you go through a dungeon and fight monsters, and the artwork style is based on those old "8-bit" video games (i.e. like the original Nintendo Entertainment System). I didn't really like this game, because it just didn't offer anything that dozens of other games where you go around and fight monsters don't.

3. Two player adventure game where one player is the hero and one is the villain - this game was very different than other ones. The way it works is that the hero chooses a random "adventure card" from a pile of several dozen, and each of those has 4 stages on it, and it is arranged in a "choose your own adventure" format so that the villain reads the card aloud, and the hero chooses which choice he wants to determine which encounter comes up at each stage. During these encounters the hero and villain both have powers they can use to try to win the encounter, and the winner gets rewards. After going through three different adventure cards there is a "boss fight" where encounters are drawn from a special boss fight deck, and best 3 out of 5 encounters wins. I thought this game was really cool and very different from other games.

Also the group that does this runs another convention called "Metatopia" later in the year, which is much smaller and is basically just playtesting. I haven't been to that one before, but I might go this year.

Part 3: Made in America

I also went to a seminar about board game manufacturing, titles "Why does your game cost so much to make?" Here are some interesting facts that I learned.

- If a game costs $X to make, the designer will usually sell it to distributors for $2X (to cover other expenses, taxes, profit, and the possibility of having unsold product). After you add in the distributor's markup (when selling to the retailer) and the retailer's markup, the game costs $5X to buy from the store.

- There are about 1,200 board game stores (I don't know whether that number is just in the US, or if it includes other countries). For a new game from a new designer, a store buying 3-6 copies of the one game is a lot.

- There are lots of factors that go into the price of a game, and smart designers will learn how the manufacturing process works to they can make changes that might make the game cheaper. For instance, cards are printed in "sheets" which usually have 110 cards. So if your game has 120 cards, that's not good because you're wasting most of the second sheet. So if you can get down to 110 cards, then you will only need one sheet. Also, many rulebooks will be a multiple of 16 pages because the rulebooks are printed on sheets 16 pages in size and then folded up.

- If the game is relatively low on the scale in terms of size of order, the printer will not ship it directly to the distributors. Rather, the printer will ship it to the designer (so the designer will either have to rent warehouse space, or store all those games in his garage) and then the designer will handle getting orders from the distributor and shipping them. I thought that this seemed like an inefficient process, and didn't really understand their explanation of why they did it that way.

- There are two different types of processes that designers can use. One is a "turnkey system" where the designer will hire one company to manage the production process including sourcing all the components and packaging them all together. This is the recommended method for new designers because it is easier. The alternative is for the designer to manage the process himself, including sourcing the different components (e.g. boxes from one company, cards from another company, little wooden pieces from a third company) and arranging for them to be shipped to one place and put together.

- One of the designers at the panel described the process as "just like any economic management board game that you've ever played, except it's more complicated, it's with real money, and there is no rule book, you have to figure it out as you go along".

Part 4: Report To The Bridge

A really cool game they had was called "Artemis: Spaceship Bridge Simulator." This is sort of a cross between a computer game and a LARP - it is a computer game where all the players are on the same team; they are a crew of a spaceship, kind of like on Star Trek. There are up to six players, each of which controls a different station, from a different computer (they are all networked together), and they are are in the same room. The different stations are as follows:

Captain - The captain does not have a specific station, but he is the one that orders the other players what to do, like "Go to warp factor 2," "Increase power to shields," or "Launch nuke at the enemy."

Helm - The helm controls the ship's movement. Since this game is based on Star Trek, it uses Star Trek physics rather than real physics. That means that you can only move in the direction you are pointing, so there is a lot of "dogfighting" where you try to get behind the opponent. You can also go in reverse, although only using the impulse engines and not the warp engines. Just be careful not to run into your own mine or be too close to your own nuke when it goes off.

Weapons - The weapons officer controls the photon torpedoes torpedo tubes and the phasers primary beams. Just like in Star Trek, he also has the ability to change the "beam frequency" of the primary beams to match the weakest "shield frequency" of the target. Also the weapons officer has a button he can push to raise and lower the shields. The helm officer does too, so it is important to be clear in advance who is responsible for the shields, so that when the captain orders the shields raised, you don't have both the helm and weapons officers pushing the shield button, thus turning the shields on and back off again.

Engineering - The engineering officer controls the amount of power going to each of the ship systems. Increased power makes that system perform better (again, just like in Star Trek) but too much power too fast can overheat and damage the system. The engineering officer can also control the "damage control teams" to repair damage.

Communications - The communications officer can communicate with other friendly and enemy ships in the sector. He can taunt enemies to get them to go after him, order the starbases to produce different types of torpedoes, and order friendly ships to help defend the starbases (The team wins if they destroy all the enemy ships, and loses if all starbases are destroyed or if their ship is destroyed.)

Science - The science officer controls the ship's sensors, and can scan enemies. The first scan gives basic information about what type of enemy it is (like "Kralien Dreadnought" or "Stage 3 Bio-Mech") and the second scan gives more detailed information, such as the shield frequencies, and sometimes additional "Intel", which includes things like "The captain is unmarried". When this item came up, at first I thought that it was just a random blurb that popped up to be funny, and wasn't relevant to gameplay. But actually it turned out it is, because one of the "Taunts" the communications officer can use is insulting the captain's wife, which obviously won't work in that case.

This game is really cool because it feels like Star Trek, except that you're in the show. Also there can be funny moments like this one, where I was the captain:

Captain: Go to warp factor 1.
Helm: Warp engines appear to be off-line.
Captain: Engineering?
Engineering: Engineering reports all systems normal.
Captain (looking back at the Helm screen): You're in reverse.

Part 5: For the Record

Another event at GenCon was "The Big Game", an attempt to set a Guinness World Record for most people playing in one board game at one time. This was a game of Settlers of Catan, and there were 1000 tickets sold (which all sold out) but only 922 people ended up coming. The way the game worked was that there were a whole bunch of specially designed boards put side by side to form a very long chain of islands, with two players per board. The dice rolls were generated by randomly choosing cards from a deck of 36 cards, one for each possible combination of two dice, and reshuffling once 31 cards have been drawn. (This ensures a roughly even distribution of rolls.) The dice rolls were projected up on a big screen, and you have 90 seconds to do each turn. The whole event laster about 3 hours, of which only about 1 hour was the actual game, most of the time was spent going through the line getting people signed up, explaining the rules, setting everything up, and finally, it was like the finale of the whole thing was the actually game. At the end of the game they gave us a code that we could use to order a "Certificate of Participation" from the Guinness World Records web site.

More coming soon...

Sunday, July 28, 2013

More math mistakes

According to a picture that is making the rounds on Facebook, Halliburton will make enough money to pay off a $200,000 fine in "just 23 seconds".

$200,000 per 23 seconds is $274 billion per year. The "23 seconds" number appears to come from an article in the Huffington Post:

This article claimed it uses the 2012 revenue numbers. However, Halliburton's revenues are actually only about $28.5 billion per year:

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

News Quiz

55 of Colorado's 62 county sheriffs have joined a lawsuit against the Colorado state governor to block two recent gun bills, including one which bans high-capacity magazines that can hold more than 15 rounds. Which of the following is an actual legal argument that was used in the court filing?

1. The ban discriminates against people with disabilities, because people with disabilities are less able to reload weapons quickly in a self-defense situation.

2. The ban interferes with the First Amendment right to freedom of the press, because the definition of "high-capacity magazine" is so poorly worded that it could refer to newsmagazines more than 15 pages long.

3. The 2nd Amendment's "right to bear arms" literally refers to "arms powerful enough to kill a bear", and some species of bears native to Colorado are tough enough that they require more than 15 shots to kill.

4. The 2nd Amendment's "right to bear arms" is geared toward weapons that the public is familiar with, and the most common way the public becomes familiar with weapons is from movies and video games, most of which include weapons with more than 15 rounds of ammunition.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Missing the Target

Did you see the recent news story about the lawsuit against Target for racial discrimination?  Apparently they had a training document which the employees thought was offensive:

I don't understand why the first three items (not all Hispanic employees eat tacos, wear sombreros or dance
to salsa music) would be considered offensive. It sounds like these items are saying that Mexicans DO NOT
always follow the stereotype. (For instance, it seems obvious that if the document said "Yes, all Hispanics
do all these things" then that would clearly been  even more offensive. It seems weird to me that it is possible for
a statement to be racially offensive AND for its exact negation to also be racially offensive.)

However, the other three items, as well as some of the other descriptions of the conduct involved, do seem to be
racially offensive. But the one part that did stick out to me is the item about "some Hispanics are undocumented
workers." And the context of this document is talking about other employees.

So Target is admitting to hiring undocumented workers? Isn't that illegal? I'm surprised none of the stories
picked up on that.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Increasing Your Stats

In my last post, I mentioned show how when creating a Dungeons and Dragons character, you have the ability to choose your character's strength, intelligence, dexterity, and so on. Unfortunately, it isn't that easy in real life - but that might be changing thanks to new technology. In a series of articles in Slate magazine (,
The author discusses how new technologies and medical developments are enabling people to improve
human performance in a variety of areas. If you are interested, you should read the articles, I don't want to just repeat
them here. The article that was my favorite was "Spark of Genius", especially the link to the YouTube video and
the thing about the effect being reversed if you switch the positions of the electrodes. My general comments about
all of these ideas for human enhancement are as follows:

- Just to get this out of the way, I don't have any plans to try any of these on myself, so don't worry.
- Yes, some of these procedures may have long-term negative health effects. But there's lots of stuff we do that we
KNOW has long-term negative health effects (junk food, cigarettes) and there are no calls to outlaw those. So why
are there calls to outlaw human enhancement on that basis?
- A common argument against human enhancement compares it to the use of steroids in sports. But there is a very
important difference. Let's take, say, sprinting as an example. If by taking steroids I can run 5 percent faster, then
that is a huge advantage. If everyone takes steroids our relative ranking is the same, and it's not really significantly
more exciting to viewers, so nobody really benefits. If, in contrast, I can take some sort of cognitive enhancement drug to make myself do 
5 percent better in a test, and everyone does that, then yes, it's true that relative ranking doesn't change, BUT
now everyone learns 5 percent more, which is good. And considering the hundreds of billions of dollars we spend
each year in education, anything that improves learning even by a few percent could have huge economic benefits.
And, if the problem is that the drug makes you do better on the tests but doesn't improve actual learning, then that
is evidence that the tests don't measure actual learning, so a better approach would be to improve the tests rather
than blame the cognitive enhancement drug.)
- Another common argument against human enhancement is that it will increase inequality, because the poor won't
be able to afford it. However this argument seems seriously flawed to me:

--- 1. It is easy to come up with scenarios where enhancement helps the poor, rather than hurts it, even if only
the rich have access. For instance, let's say there are two classes of jobs, skilled and unskilled, and enhancement
moves some people from the unskilled to the skilled labor category. That increases the supply of skilled labor
relative to unskilled labor, and thus reduces the wage premium for skilled labor. Thus this could increase wages
even in the unskilled labor sector. Or let's say that scientists use cognitive enhancement on themselves, and that
makes them smart enough to invent a cure for cancer, then that will obviously benefit everyone, both rich and poor.

--- 2. There are lots of things that improve life outcomes that are more accessible to the rich than the poor
(good schools, access to educational resources, good role models, etc.). It would be silly to say that those should
be banned in the name of equality; rather, it makes sense to try to improve access so that the poor can have them too.
The same thing could be done with cognitive enhancement, if it works. And the problem of cheaply manufacturing
and distributing small electronic devices or synthesized chemical compounds (whichever enhancement method we
would want to use) is MUCH better understood than the other educational and social problems I mentioned.

(Of course, all of the above analysis assumes that the enhancement methods work long-term. That is still somewhat
speculative at this point, and if it doesn't work, then, well, it doesn't work, so no reason to use them.)

Dungeons and Dragons Part 1: "I am Domingo"

So, a couple weeks ago at the Haunted Game Cafe I met a group of three kids and we played a game of Catacombs (I was the Overlord). After the game they said they were interested in playing Dngeons and Dargons. So we agreed that next Saturday we would get together to create characters.

Theat day I went to the store and got a text saying that they weren't able to get a rids, so they wouldn't be able to come. I suggested that maybe we could meet somewhere else closer to them, and they said they were still looking, and maybe they could get a ride from someone else. In the meantime I went across the street to the mall to get some food. Wile I was there I got a text saying they had found someone else to take them, and were on their way. I finished my food and started walking back to the store, and while I was on my way (about 10 minutes after the text) saw that I had texts on my phone saying "Where are you" and "If you don't answer we are leaving." I had just assumed that they were much farther away than that, because they weren't able to come at all at first with no car (and the buses were running, so I assumed they were out of the bus service area as well). I texted him back saying "I am coming", but I spelled it wrong and the auto-correct corrected it to "I am Domingo". He said "what?" And I rushed back, and fortunately managed to get there before they left.

Anyway, with that resolved, we got into the actual character creation process. Only two of them were there but we started the process, and they made a warlock and a wizard. Some interesting things that happened were the following:

-They were well aware of how to exploit time inconsistency. When you determine your character's stats (strength, intelligence etc.) you have two choices. One choice is to roll dice, the other choice is to use a "point buy system" where you have a fixed number of points to allocate between the different stats. They chose the rolling method, knowing that if they really did roll poorly then there was no way I would actually be so mean and make them keep the poor rolls.

- It seemed like one of them wasn't interested as much in the fighting aspect. A few times during the session he asked if it was possible to negotiate with monsters rather than fight them, and even asked that question at the end when I set up a simple combat encounter not part of any actual adventure, just to show them how the combat worked.

- I am thinking that it may be a good idea to switch to a different role-playing game system. That is for a few reasons. First there are only three of them, and it seems likely that not all of them will be able to make it on any given day. The Dungeons and Dragons combat system is really designed for having at least four players to fill all the roles in the fight, and battles will likely be very tough with only two or three, especially since neither of the two characters they made had any healing or special defense abilities. 

- After this session I have been thinking about what to do for the actual adventure. One good source for adventure ideas, or ideas for things to put in the adventures, is the (real life) news, and I will tell you about what I have come up with when the time comes.