November 2006 Archives

My Taco Is So Itchy

If this doesn't delight you, you're dead to me.

Comments (3) | last by Brad Berens, Dec 21, 5:45 PM

How to Win $100,000

I thought Jonathan was crazy for switching tribes a couple of weeks ago on Survivor. Even if the members of his old tribe distrusted him-- and many did-- they didn't outright hate him. Abandoning them for another group guaranteed that whichever of them survived to the merge would be gunning for him. And on his new tribe, he'd be the odd man out. When they had to vote someone off, who was more likely to go-- the people who'd been bonding with each other for days, or the new guy who already demonstrated that he had no tribal loyalty at all?

Except, miraculously, Jonathan's new tribe voted out three of their own in successive tribal councils and kept Jonathan. He survived to the merge. And then stabbed his new tribe in the back by flipping AGAIN and voting with his old tribe!

I'm not sure what game Jonathan's playing, but it sure isn't one that ends with him winning a million bucks. There's nobody left on that island who likes him now. I'm wondering if Jonathan switched game plans and, instead of trying for the million, decided to play for the $100,000 second prize. Because if his opponents play smart and not emotionally, he's a shoo-in. Which of them wouldn't want to stand next to Jonathan in the final two? The genius of Yul's move-- revealing to Jonathan that he had the hidden immunity idol-- is that Jonathan couldn't tell his new tribe about it. Because they would have no reason not to make sure Yul knew Jonathan blabbed, thus guaranteeing that Yul's crew would vote for Jonathan. So Jonathan had to remain silent. He could have still voted against Yul and taken his chances with his new crew, but I wouldn't be surprised if he saw that his chances for the million are slim and decided to maximize his chance at the second prize instead.

It's going to be very interesting to see how this plays out.

Comments (2) | last by Ernstine, Feb 16, 6:21 PM

Show Me the Shatner

With Howie Mandel on Deal or No Deal and Bob Saget on 1 Vs. 100, the game show trend du jour is using comedians as hosts. Comedians are used to ad-libbing and interacting with audiences, lending their performance a less cheesy quality than, say, your Todd Newtons or Wink Martindales. But the choice of comedian is important, lest you saddle your show with a [shudder] Louie Anderson. The mind still boggles at that decision. So traumatic were the Louie years that the producers of Family Feud ultimately replaced him with an actor, Home Improvement's Richard Karn, instead of another comedian. And when Karn left the show, the producers tapped Seinfeld's John O'Hurley-- who at least has hosting experience from the short-lived Celebrity Spelling Bee and the revival of To Tell the Truth. For the new game show Show Me the Money, the producers went with what can only be described as a Hail Mary play and tapped William Shatner to be the host.

When you hire Shatner, you know you're getting a guy who not only has the image of a buffoon, but who has given in and embraced that image to make it his own. You're hiring high camp, on a show giving away hundreds of thousands of dollars. Not the direction I might go, but ok. When you hear that Shatner's hosting, you might expect the producers to have crafted the show around his particular style and talents, giving him ample room and opportunity to ham it up and grab attention. But you'd only be half right. As last night's premiere proved, Shatner is relaxed and not afraid to goof with the contestants, but in today's market a marquee host and big money are apparently not enough. After all, Howie Mandel doesn't open briefcases himself-- he's got two dozen attractive models to do that for him. But models just stand there and look pretty. What game show viewers really want to see are sexy, gyrating dancers, and ABC delivered.

Shatner is joined on stage by thirteen "Million Dollar Dancers" who strut their stuff on three levels of platforms. Each platform-- and dear God, I'm not making this up-- is equipped with a gleaming pole for the dancer to incorporate into her routine. Shatner and the thirteen beauties dance their way in and out of commercial breaks.

It's like High Stakes Laugh-In.

The structural problems of the game itself (the contestant has three choices of questions to answer at each level, but can choose to pass on two of them with no penalty and no dramatic tension) are dwarfed by the absurdity and cheesiness of the presentation. The models on Deal or No Deal are unnecessary and the gameplay is brainless, but at least it's sharply assembled. This things looks and feels like what it is-- a slapped-together knock-off of a successful format that fails to appreciate what made the original successful. Ultimately, what keeps Deal or No Deal on the air isn't the array of fashion models it trots out each week, it's the drama of watching someone push their luck and either hit it big or walk away disappointed. Show Me the Money strips all of that away, leaving us with... Shatner meets Solid Gold.

Show me the moron who greenlighted this turkey.

Comment (1) | last by barb, Nov 16, 5:35 AM

Space Dealer

I think I've got a piece of my life back now.

For the past three weeks or so, most of my spare time has gone into writing presentation software to run a large, massively-multiplayer game of Family Feud at live events. This is actually the second time I've written such software. The first iteration was about five years ago, when I wrote something in DHTML and Javascript. I didn't know how to make text dynamically scale (to simulate flipping the answers over), but I knew how to scale images-- so I reluctantly made bitmaps for every single answer in the game. That was a pretty horrible solution-- certainly one that made me less excited about running the game again with different questions. So I rewrote the software, using it as a chance to learn how to use the Windows Presentation Foundation-- the product I've been working on for the past five years. And while I was at it, I improved the interface to automate the scoreboard and utilize two monitors, letting me set up a control panel on a laptop to run the game and a display window on a data projector. It turned out great, and I ran the game at an event this weekend with about 20 teams of 4 players each. The program worked without a hitch, and the game itself ended with a single point separating the top two teams. Best of all, it'll be a snap to reuse the program in the future with new data. Sweet!

Also this weekend, I got to play Space Dealer-- an innovative but flawed new board game. Players build mines and other tech, advance their tech tree to gain access to better stuff, and deliver resources to neighboring planets to satisfy demands. The big twist to the game is the unusual use of sand timers. There are no turns in the game-- everyone plays simultaneously. Doing anything-- build, produce resources, move your ship, etc-- takes time, measured by flipping one of a player's two sand timers. When the timer runs out, the action is completed and the timer is freed up to be used for something else. Players must therefore plan ahead and optimize the use of their timers, quickly harvesting and redeploying a depleted timer. The game takes exactly 30 minutes (an audio CD with trippy synth music is provided as a timer).

The timer schtick is fresh and clever, but a bit of a one trick pony. Once the novelty wears off-- which for me was after just two games-- the game itself fails to hold interest. It seemed to me to have three big problems. First, the English rules (provided with the game) appear to have gotten a rule wrong (they say the fusion mines produce 4 goods at once, when the card's iconography and common sense suggest they only produce 2). Second, it feels like there's only one main strategy-- advance as quickly as possible to the highest tech level and only build things from that level, ignoring everything else. The advanced stuff is much better than the basics and take the same timer-flip to produce, making the basics pointless. Third, the game is just too fiddly. Everyone's reaching across the table to move cubes and timers around, inevitably knocking things over and just generally making a mess. Space Dealer wants to be a computer game, which would make all that fiddliness go away. Moreover, players can easily forget to advance scoring markers for opponents or otherwise make mistakes (which happened in both games I played), and odds are such errors will go unnoticed and uncorrected.

The idea of an economy based on time, played in real time, is intriguing, but ultimately I don't think Space Dealer's development of the concept is successful. With luck, however, it will inspire someone to evolve the timer mechanism into a better, stronger game.

Comments (3) | last by Dug, Nov 16, 10:26 PM

Iron Puzzler

I've been extremely busy lately-- too busy even to blog. But not, apparently, too busy to devote an entire weekend to a new Seattle puzzle event, Iron Puzzler. Inspired by Iron Chef and a similar event in the Bay Area, in Iron Puzzler all the puzzles are created by the competing teams themselves. Four secret ingredients were announced at 9 AM on Saturday: CLOCK, L, MERCURY, and SPOON. Each team had 15 hours to create one paper puzzle and one non-paper puzzle, each using at least one of the theme ingredients. Sadly, neither Alton Brown nor Will Shortz was on-hand for color commentary ("I see a bunch of ones and zeroes on the challenger's side, I believe he's going to turn that into Morse, a fairly traditional but versatile preparation.").

Fourteen teams participated, meaning each team had to turn in 30 copies of the paper puzzle (2 per team, including the organizers) and 15 copies of the non-paper one. Then, at midnight (as it turned out, closer to 1 AM), the puzzles were distributed and the 15-hour solving period began. Teams scored points for each puzzle solved (with a small bonus for being one of the first three teams to solve each puzzle), and each puzzle earned its creators points according to how many teams solved it (with the sweet spot at 10 teams). At the end of the event teams also awarded each puzzle points on quality/fun, presentation, and use of the ingredients.

Creating a puzzle by committee under time pressure proved to be a challenge. Our group largely focused on the physical puzzle first, because we knew we'd have no trouble putting together a paper puzzle. Meanwhile one member of the team went off on her own and produced a terrific paper puzzle independently. In the end, only two teams solved our physical puzzle (which was a solid puzzle that we overstreamlined, removing a couple of hinting elements that we should have left in place) while everyone solved the paper puzzle and voted it their favorite. A rather disheartening result, actually, since it undermines what for me is the most interesting aspect of the event-- creating puzzles collaboratively. These results suggest that we'd be better off splitting into individuals or pairs and developing puzzles independently, then coming together to test them and pick the two strongest. That's a less interesting challenge than producing puzzles as a group. On the other hand, we could also interpret the results as an indication that next time we should value elegance less than solvability and internal hinting.

As expected, there were a lot of puzzles that involved periodic tables and clock faces, but surprisingly little semaphore. I think most teams thought as we did: "Oh my God, CLOCK-- everyone's going to do semaphore, so let's do something else." Interestingly, that kind of reasoning resulted in two spoonerism puzzles presented as bags of plastic spoons with parts of spoonerisms written on each spoon. We also got no less than four crosswords (one involving spoonerisms!), but sadly none of them cryptic.

The overall quality of the puzzles was surprisingly high. One of the things I found most interesting about the event was the different interpretations of the ingredients. Quite a few puzzles incorporated the periodic table or other chemical elements, for example, but none focused on the planets or car manufacturers. Analog clocks were prevalent, but nobody made a digital clock puzzle. And regrettably, nobody did a superhero battlecry puzzle ("Spoooooon!"). As a constructor, it also seemed we could leverage the fact that everyone would view every puzzle through the CLOCK/L/MERCURY/SPOON filter, enabling them to make leaps that might otherwise seem unfair.

The event was put together in about a month. It was an undeniable success, but the rough edges show. The scoring system in particular needs some massaging. The number of teams solving a given puzzle does not seem like a good basis for awarding points. The premise that a puzzle with 10 of 13 teams solving it is more desirable than one solved by all teams is specious. I'd argue that a puzzle that everyone solves is more desirable than one only 75% of teams solve. The catch is that you want puzzles to be a challenge-- you don't want everyone to solve it immediately. Nobody wants to see teams submit a 6 letter anagram and call it done. But I don't think we need an entire scoring vector to capture that. If a puzzle is too easy or too hard, teams can reflect that in their ratings. If a puzzle is just right in difficulty but not fun to solve, teams can dock it points.

This event was created to fill a gap formed by the delay of the next MS Puzzle Hunt, but it was intriguing enough in its own right to warrant repeating. Since it requires far less effort to organize than traditional events, the chance of that happening seems high. In fact, if someone creates a back-end that allows teams to register their puzzles and answers and then allows teams to submit answers to solved puzzles electronically, organizers could play along, too. Allez cuisine!

Comments (6) | last by dana, Nov 9, 8:57 AM