August 2005 Archives

Board Game House?

After watching tonight's "Airplane House" episode of Monster House, where the family's mother was none too pleased to find the front 30 feet of a Boeing 727 in her backyard, I cruised by the show's web site to see if they had an update on the family. No such luck, but I did discover that the show has expanded its reach. Applicants used to be limited to the Los Angeles and Las Vegas areas, but now they're inviting applications from Indianapolis, Kansas City, Atlanta, and... Seattle! Oooooooh yeah, baby, sign me UP! Board Game House? Game Show House? Gourmet House? My home is your palette, Steve-- come on over!

There's no way to discuss this book-- or at least, anything I really want to discuss about it-- without spoiling it. Fair warning, then-- spoilers ho! If you're OK with that, click on through the More... link.

Comments (15) | last by goo goo plex!, Jun 25, 5:43 PM

What's Your Sign?

The contents of The Mooncurser's Handbook itself, much of which I either wrote or edited, are now online. To help avoid any need for Google or internet access, we preloaded a bunch of common encoding schemes into the Handbook for easy reference. One such list (not used in the Game, as it happens) is the solar Zodiac. I just happened upon it for the first time today, and was surprised to see thirteen entries instead of the expected twelve. The unfamiliar entry was Ophiuchus, the Serpent Bearer or Snake Wrestler. Even more surprising is that my birthday falls within this sign! All my life I've thought I was a Sagittarius, but in fact I'm an Ophiuchus! Apparently this is a long-standing controversy within astrological circles, with Ophiuchus being left out of the tropical zodiac with which we're all familiar. Sources I've found say Ophiuchus is another name for the healer Asclepius, who sailed with the Argonauts and healed Orion after he was bitten by a scorpion.

Next time someone asks me what my sign is-- perhaps on my next trip back in time to a 1977 disco-- I can blow their minds. I suppose it could have been worse-- that extra constellation could have been Kobayashi, the Competitive Hot Dog Eater.

Comments (4) | last by Grubs, Aug 29, 3:35 PM

Ah, Apollos...

I had a surreal moment yesterday when, in the hallway right outside my office, I heard a vaguely familiar but incongruous voice in conversation. I looked up to see a profile that tugged at my memory, and suddenly the light bulb went on. I ventured into the hall and sure enough, standing there was Dave Sklar, who taught my CS 11 class at Brown back in the fall of 1986. Standing next to him was graphics guru Andy Van Dam, my professor for CS 123 a couple of years later. I'm not entirely sure why they were here-- and if I was, I probably couldn't talk about it anyway-- but the serendipity of having them stop right in front of my office was wild.

Comments (3) | last by Pablo Fernicola, Dec 16, 11:45 AM

The Mooncurser's Handbook

The Game is a 30 hour mobile puzzle challenge in which team of 6 players each travel in a van, solving a clue at each destination that leads them to the next. Information about the Game's history can be found here, and official details about our event can be found at The Mooncurser's Handbook web site. Early in our planning process, we agreed that we wanted our Game to be more social than most. Often in a Game you see very few other teams, and even when you do you're all embroiled in whatever puzzle is facing you and may not take time to chat. We wanted teams in our Game to have a chance to get to know and interact with each other. Towards that end, we tried a few experiments. We knew going in that reactions would range from love to hate, and decided we were OK with that. Hopefully more people were in the former camp than the latter.

The big experiment was dividing the game into four legs, with a pit stop between each one, and serving teams a meal. When teams arrived at the pit stop, they were fed a complete meal and given time to relax, chat with other teams, and participate in an activity that would translate into a slight advantage in the following leg. This structure meant that all teams would start on roughly equal footing four times during the Game, and no team would get too far out in front of the pack. Everyone would be seeing each other throughout the event.

The second big experiment was running a trading game concurrent to the traditional puzzle-based Game. The trading game was inspired by Sid Sackson's Haggle, but tweaked to better fit a Game format. Instead of getting a bunch of stuff at the beginning and then first trading for info and then trading their commodities, teams got a few goods at the start of each leg and more upon arriving at each clue site. Upon leaving a site they got a manifest of what would be available at the next one, with the idea that figuring out what they wanted at the next stop would give teams something to do during the drive between sites. Information was also doled out a little at a time through the Handbook itself (see below), but all teams got the same information at the same time-- so trading information wasn't really a factor. Teams [mostly] didn't have to worry that everyone else knew something they didn't. At each pit stop teams had to hand in their goods to us for scoring, and anything they kept was worthless in the next round.

The goods themselves were custom-made trading cards with the name of the item, an illustration (all drawn by GC member Dana Young), and pertinent stats about the item (in round one, this meant whether the item was ANIMAL, VEGETABLE, MINERAL, or MANUFACTURED; in round 2, items were given some combination of additional qualities FOOD, DRUG, SEX, UNETHICAL, DANGEROUS, and RARE; in round 3, each item had a QUALITY rating of 0 to 10). Additional information about each item could be found by looking it up in the Mooncurser's Handbook.

The trading game existed to give teams something to do during drives, to encourage teams to interact, and to manifest the smuggling/trading angle of the Game's theme. Rather than have an overarching story, we decided to make the trading game, and the universe revealed by the Handbook in the course of pursuing it, our story. Some teams found it to be overwhelming, with too much data to synthesize effectively. Others really got into it and were actively trading right up until the last possible moment.

The Mooncurser's Handbook itself was a Zire app loaded with data, none of which was initially available to players. Upon finding each clue teams got an arrival code which, when entered into the Handbook, started the automated hint system for that clue. At predetermined intervals, the Handbook Intelligent Neural Tracer, or HINT system, sifted through players' unconscious thoughts to detect any brilliant ideas just below the surface and alerted players to insights they were about to have. Entering a correct answer into the Handbook unlocked a page of content about that answer in the Mooncurser universe, providing GPS coordinates of the next clue site and possibly unlocking additional Handbook entries. Some Handbook entries contained information about bonuses that could be achieved through certain combinations of trade goods. The full content of the Handbook will eventually be posted online.

Another experiment involved bringing teams to a hotel on Friday afternoon and hosting a banquet and pre-game event there on Friday night, with teams staying overnight to start the Game itself early Saturday morning. Something similar had been done once before for the Jackpot Game, but we had something a little different in mind. The combination of the hotel rooms and pit stop meals meant that other than keeping their vans gassed up, teams would incur no incidental expenses from their moment of arrival to their moment of departure. This "Club Med" all-inclusive aspect of the experience was one of our big design goals, carrying through all the way to such details as creating a Galaxy Today newspaper for teams to enjoy with their Saturday morning breakfast.

Another design goal was to make the route more than just a bunch of clue drops. Whenever possible, we designed puzzles to fit our sites. Big Rock Garden, Binary Garden, Conway (skipped by most), Rock Paper Scissors, UW Bothell, Tolt River, Galaxy 12 theater, the corn maze, Seattle Center, Guild 45th theater, Sunset Bowl, downtown Ballard, Sturgis (skipped by everyone), Constellation Park, and the Museum of Glass sites all had puzzles designed specifically for those locations, usually incorporating features found there.

While I created a couple of puzzles (the signpost, which most teams skipped, the corn maze tiles, and blackjack) and collaborated on a few others (sculpture garden, Galaxy 12, early charades concept, bowling, some crossword-style clues at Elements (the split-up-each-team site), and Blinky), my primary responsibilities were for the trading game, the Handbook content, the pit stop activities, the Friday night post-banquet event, the newspaper, and the soundtrack audio CD.

The soundtrack CD was inspired by a similar disc we received during Shelby Logan's Run. I realized pretty early on that each track was connected with a site. That Game was entirely over the top, with helicopters, scuba diving, power boating, machine guns, and ATVs-- so when one of the last songs was Van Halen's Jump, I was convinced a tandem skydive was in our future and spent much of the game psyching myself up to do it and not let the team down (the song actually referred to a bungee jump). I'd really enjoyed using the CD to try to anticipate what was coming at each site, so I convinced the rest of GC to provide a similar CD for our Game. We told teams outright that it wasn't a puzzle, however, so I fear most teams may not have given it any attention.

More thoughts beyond the [More...] link.

Comments (15) | last by Bruce, Oct 30, 9:35 PM

It's finally over.

I'm not yet in a mental state to post any sort of recap-- I'm sure that'll come later. But nobody got hurt, all 22 teams finished, and I think we accomplished our major goals. Which doesn't mean there weren't snafus along the way. I'm just not sure how much the snafus were visible to players. We heard a lot of very positive comments from people, but comments are somewhat self-selecting-- I think people are more likely to congratulate you on-site than they are to complain (unless the problems are severe). From the inside looking out, the flaws and mistakes loom larger to me than the successes. But that's perhaps more a reflection of my personality than it is a reflection of the Game itself.

With only about 3 hours of sleep on Friday night and none on Saturday, I crashed around 11 AM on Sunday. Almost literally. I was driving to the final location at Owen Beach in Tacoma as I started dozing off at the wheel. I cranked the radio, opened the windows, and tried other tricks to keep awake, but nothing was working-- I couldn't keep my eyes open. I pulled off at the next exit and parked for a nap, and another GC member picked me up and brought me to the finish.

I hope teams enjoyed themselves and are glad they came.

Comments (6) | last by Wesley Chan, Aug 24, 10:49 PM

Game On

The creme de la creme of the galaxy's gray market movers and shakers will gather this weekend on an inconsequential mudball called Earth to celebrate the release of the 42nd edition of The Mooncurser's Handbook. If you're not fortunate enough to have secured an invitation, you'll be missing a once-in-a-lifetime event that's been a long, long time in the making.

But you'll get a full report when it's all over.

The Dunk Tank Returns

I may be hip deep in The Game right now, after a week of intense production and prep, but there's no way I'm going to miss Battle of the Network Reality Stars. I only recognize the Survivor, Amazing Race, Big Brother, and Apprentice alums (plus Matt Gould from Joe Schmo), but the people behind the show obviously have fond memories of its namesake. This is an homage, right down to the return to the Pepperdine campus, and they got the feel right. Great stuff, even if the "stars" in question can barely muster a twinkle. If you missed it, no worries-- it's on Bravo.

Comment (1) | last by Matt J., Aug 18, 9:55 PM


I've been insanely busy lately, and I can't really talk about any of it. I got some great-- really, truly great-- news last week that I can't tell you about yet. Work's been frantic as a number of things begin to converge this week, the details of which would be excruciatingly boring to most of you. And, as ever, work on the Mooncurser's Handbook Game continues in secrecy.

Virtually all my free time-- and much time that really isn't free-- is being consumed by the Game. We've run 1.5 betas now and gotten some outstanding feedback. It amazes me that some people actually run these things without testing them first. Sure, it's quite a bit of work to run a beta, but the real event will be vastly improved as a result. There are some parts we just can't test ahead of time and are therefore leaps of faith for us. We trust that we can pull them off, if not with aplomb, then without disaster. Now we're tidying up loose ends and working on the little details.

As with any Game, our biggest concern is about timing. Some of our teams will be superstars, others will be a few thrusters short of a hyperdrive. Managing the experience for that wide range of performance levels is a difficult challenge. Some of the top players have told us that they don't mind if they have to wait around sometimes because they're at the front of the pack and we're not ready for them yet, but that's my biggest fear. That doesn't seem like fun to me. But that top end represents just a couple of teams, and we need to optimize for the rest of the curve while still trying to preserve the fun of the leaders. We won't know if we've gotten it right until Game day.

Still, I suppose I'd rather outsolve other teams and the organizers' estimates and spend an hour relaxing while we wait for everyone else to catch up than spend a couple of hours strugging fruitlessly with an obscure, completely intractible puzzle.

When it's all over, I will of course give a full report and I'm sure some attendees will chime in with their impressions of the experience. Once we regain consciousness. And then maybe someone can tell me why we agreed to invest such a staggering amount of time into a one-time, 30-hour event.

Comments (3) | last by Chris M. Dickson, Aug 17, 2:56 AM

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