Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Theme Matters (to me).

Here's Inside Moves, a completely abstract strategy game.

I bought this once at a thrift store for almost nothing. Inside were extremely attractive little pieces, which I intended to re-use (I did, primarily in Savage Worlds games, with the larger pieces representing Wild Cards). But nothing about this game particularly made me want to play it, despite an intriguing system that is somewhat akin to a simplified chess/complicated checkers. The board was not particularly attractive, and the pieces, while cool-looking, represented nothing in my mind. I was not hooked intellectually, only interested in the pieces, shown below. 

I've recently been researching old boardgames and learned about an old game called Chivalry. It was invented by George Parker (of Parker Brothers) in the late 1800s and was his personal favorite. It was simplified and revamped in 1930 and renamed Camelot, enjoying its biggest success from the 1930s through the early 1960s. I won't go deeply into it, you can read more than you'd ever want to know about it here.

This game, however, looked cool. The illustrations, the theme of battling knights, the idea of a "quicker-playing chess" all intrigued me. Ultimately, I learned it was actually the original version of Inside Moves. The game I thought of as boring suddenly became interesting to me. It's an old game that reached its height of popularity in the 1930s. At some point in the 1980s, Parker Bros. revived it, stripping it of its medieval overtones and marketing it as a completely abstract strategy game (this is somewhat surprising, given the preponderance of medieval fantasy-themed pop culture in the 1980s spurred by D&D and movies like Conan the Barbarian, Krull, et al). The game fared poorly and it's been out of print since.

The point? When it comes to board games, theme matters. To me, anyway. Perhaps it's the inveterate roleplayer in me, but even chess, to me, is a story game. I imagine the king and queen have personalities, or posit the underlying problem. Why are these two kingdoms at war? It doesn't matter to the actual game play, but it matters on some level to me. It has to do with immersion - feeling at one with the game pieces, descending into the imaginary miniature conflict. Even the design of a board or playing pieces can greatly enhance the theme of a game.

If you're interested, here are the rules of the so-called Inside Moves, aka Chivalry and Camelot. I look forward to trying it again, this time imagining the thunder of hooves, the crack of lances on armor, and the screams of wounded warriors!

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Random Cool Stuff #4: Old Typewriters

Wandering around the internet today I learned all about the history of typewriters. I thought these pictures were really cool - first of the steampunk-ish Crandall, then of the radically utilitarian Blickensderfer (both made about 1880). Interestingly, these cost about $100 at the time - several times the value of a laptop today, when adjusted for inflation (or so my sources tell me).



Thursday, January 16, 2014

Random Cool Stuff #3: Kriegspiel Table

I've been learning a lot about the practice of kriegspiel or wargaming by the Prussian military in the 1800s in the fascinating book Playing at the World by Jon Peterson. Here are some cool shots of an old German wargaming table. I love how it's self-contained, with the playing surface and drawers for all the parts. Note that they used blocks to represent the actual sizes of forces to scale on a tactical map. When units lost men, they were replaced with smaller blocks. One can argue that the fact that Napoleon was a badass who humiliated the proud Prussian military led directly to the development of wargaming, and indirectly to roleplaying games. Thanks, Napoleon!




Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Roleplaying In Drake's Wake

In my buddy Nate's Burning Wheel game, we've been enjoying an alternate history where the Spanish Armada was successful, Queen Elizabeth I was imprisoned, and Catholic Spain seems poised to rule the world. Our characters have so far rescued Elizabeth and are leading refugees to the New World, where we hope to find Excalibur, raise a young reincarnation of King Arthur, and train and indoctrinate him to reclaim England in its time of greatest need.


One of the things I like about the campaign is that our characters are a mixture of historical and fictional personalities (of course, even our historical characters are slightly fictionalized due to the alternate history). The HBO show Rome did this to good effect. My friend Ryan is playing Shakespeare, and I'm playing Francis Drake. It's challenging to walk that fine line between the actual historical Drake and my interpretation of him (which is obviously influenced by the events of the game world). Figuring out what the historical Drake would do in a fictional situation has been a big part of the charm for me.

I had just finished The Pirate Queen, about Elizabeth's relationship with her "gentleman adventurers"/pirates, but most of my best research into Drake's life and character was done at the web site In Drake's Wake, which is a wealth of information on this fascinating historical character. There's enough interesting information there that I thought it was worth sharing.

I will continue to enjoy guiding Drake's quest to find Excalibur somewhere in the wilds of North America!

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Random Cool Stuff #2: Musician's Dice

I'm a songwriter and I'm a gamer. Obviously, I had to order these:


Apparently there's quite a tradition of using randomly generated notes to aid in composition - either as a challenge, a way to find inspiration, or whatever. From John Cage to Mozart, they say, randomization has been a part of musical experiments for a long time. Some of that is discussed here. In the meantime, I'll hold onto these as a novelty/curio, but I'm already wondering how they might aid my ambient experiments.

Cosmic Vibrations

I've been listening to di.fm for several years now, and it's almost always my background music of choice while doing something creative. I usually go for the "Space Dreams" channel. This interest must ultimately come from the Cosmos soundtrack (Vangelis), which I've been familiar with since third grade. Over the Christmas break I began to experiment with my own ambient music creations, using my battered old synth/keyboard (which still works and sounds great, btw). Perhaps I'll share some links to that in the future. The process of doing that, however, made me ask the question: what exactly IS ambient music? As usual I went straight to wikipedia and found this great quote from Brian Eno regarding ambient music:

"Ambient Music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting."

That is interesting, because I've noticed with my own experiments I've tended to make the music "too musical" - even the simplest songs tend to have layered melodies and whatnot. My most successful ambient track so far has consisted mostly of long, low, sustained E minor and A minor chords interchanging, with stream-of-consciousness synth flutes popping in and out. There's very little to it. But when I sit down to listen, it's the only one so far that is properly "ambient" in that I can ignore it on the conscious level while it still affects my state of mind and helps set a mood. 

According to what I've read, ambient music is intended to enhance a mood or environment. I hate silence, but when I listen to rock, jazz or classical, I mostly actually listen. Ambient music does enhance my creativity - it helps me get into a relaxed mood where I can let my subconscious bubble up. Most of what I create is fantastical or mysterious anyway, and most ambient music certainly helps bring that out. 

My late friend Ian Thomas began experimenting with ambient music in the year before his death with a project called Vulture Club, which consisted mostly of long, sustained whooshes and low tides of deep vibrations. It was actually atonal - almost white noise, but not quite. He was interested primarily in vibrations transferred from speakers to body. Whenever I try to write or record ambient music, I always think of him. I like to believe his spirit is riding the cosmic vibrations.