Friday, December 30, 2005

I Spy

Like a lot of young boys, I went through a phase where I was terribly interested in spies, and spying, and codes, and ciphers, and all sorts of cloak-and-dagger endeavors. While on this kick I picked up a book called something like "Mossad" (it might have been this book, but it was a while ago so I can't be sure). This was during a period when I was reading very little non-fiction, but this book just engrossed me. It was written by a reporter who had interviewed a supposed ex-Mossad agent, and detailed both how the organization worked and described some particular missions.

The Mossad is Israel's intelligence service, similar to the US's CIA. As a tiny country surrounded by hostile nations, Israel has good reason to feel paranoid, and that paranoia pervaded the book. Mossad is used as a tool in situations where the Israeli government needs something done that it cannot, for diplomatic reasons, do it themselves.

One major episode in the book is Israel's reaction to the Munich massacre, when the Israeli Olympic team was killed by the Palestinian group Black September in 1972. Mossad was tasked with tracking and killing the individuals who had planned the attacks, partly as retaliation but more to discourage future attacks on Israelis.

There was a lot in the book that gripped me. It was filled with guns and violence and intrigue, all which were like candy to me at that age. However, it also made the secretive world of espionage accessible to me in a way that it hadn't been before. Sure, these spies got to do cool stuff, but they were part of an organization, were supported by Israeli tax dollars, and had their own code and procedures to follow. One of the most memorable parts of that book were instructions to the agents on the importance of retaining receipts for everything. An operations man tells them, "You can use the money for practically anything; we won't pay for a diamond ring for your wife, but we will pay for your hotels. Just make sure you keep the receipts." An agent speculates how you could detect a Mossad agent: create a disturbance in a cafe, and just watch to see who there responds by immediately grabbing the receipt.

All this was happening simultaneously with the flowering of my QBASIC programming kick, where any vaguely interesting thought that flitted through my head would start a corresponding game. This time it was a game called, appropriately enough, "Spy". This is one of the games I partially recovered this week, and it's much as I remember it.

Spy casts you as a team leader in an intelligence service. You can choose your affiliation: CIA, MI-5 (should have been MI-6 but I didn't know better at the time), KGB, Mossad, or S.M.I.L.E.Y. (San Marino Intelligence Liason / Espionage Yard). Each nation had different advantages and challenges.
  • The CIA had the best technology, but had the most inconsistent funding (publicly fail in a mission and Congress responds by slashing your budget).
  • The KGB has unlimited government support (you can take as much cash as you want and don't need to worry about leaving messes), but is the most corrupt organization, so you run the highest risk of leaks and betrayals.
  • The MI-5 is the most well-rounded service, neither the best nor worst at anything.
  • Mossad has the second-best technology but is hampered by a limited (though consistent) budget.
  • S.M.I.L.E.Y. has the special advantage of being so secretive that nobody in the world knows about them; therefore, its agents can never be targetted by anyone else. However, their budget is even smaller than Mossad's.
Like the majority of my games, this one never got finished. The basic idea was that you would hire agents, train them, go out on missions, and over time get promotions and ascend in your organization's hierarchy. The political world was dynamic, so as time goes on (and depending on what actions you took), different nations would realign and change relations. This was all going on after the USSR had started collapsing, which made me really want to represent the fluid state of international affairs. You could choose your starting year, which would determine whether the KGB was the KGB or something else. Depending on your actions, the Soviet Union might never disintigrate, or it might annihilate Britain.

Even though I never completed the game, it really stuck with me, partly because it was one of only a few non-fantasy-themed ventures. A few years ago I got pretty far into designing a Web-based game loosely based upon it. It was designed with a three-tiered architecture (database, server, web client), very loosely inspired by NationStates but with much more of a game component. This game removed you further from the action; now you were the agency director instead of a team leader, and while you would pull teams together and send them off on missions, you would have no control over them until they returned back to your headquarters. Success or failure would depend on your ability to anticipate the needs of a mission and equip them appropriately (a fast driver for the getaway, surveillance cameras to scope out the target, etc.). Rather than tie everyone to real-world agencies, each player would create their own agency, tied to a fictional or real state. One little twist is that you could start a rival agency within an existing nation, such as both the CIA and FBI, and compete with one another for funds and jobs. Since the game was multiplayer, you would find yourself running up against other players whose goals diverge from yours, and even try to infiltrate and thwart another agency with your own agents.

As I said, I got pretty far, but when I started to actually play it it just wasn't very fun. At least, it didn't seem like it would be fun at the size I was expecting to start with (just around 5 players); it seemed destined to combine all that I hate about "Diplomacy" with all that I hate about "Nation States." It got put on indefinite hiatus where it remains today. If I ever pick up the concept again, I think it would be fun to put a more cooperative spin on it, perhaps allowing each player to create their own free-lance agent and have then naturally coalesce into teams. Personally I find specialization more interesting than balance, and think people would have more fun trying to create the world's best sharpshooter or the world's only quintuple agent instead of managing balance sheets and reporting to Congress.

It was an odd little bit of synchronicity that I managed to see "Munich" this week. Watching it in the theater, I was surprised by how much I remembered about that story, considering that my only contact with the Munich attacks was that one book I read well over a decade ago. The bit about receipts was even in the movie, and some of the assassinations (many of them bomb-based) seemed familiar.

Thinking it over afterwards, I'm struck by the difference of my reaction to the movie versus my reaction to the book, and how it shows how much I have changed since then. The big thing, which is probably just part of growing older, is my increasing comfort with moral gray. Although I'm not sure if the book was written this way, I know I read and accepted it as portraying the perfectly virtuous Mossad who could do no wrong; they were, quite simply, the "good guys." With Munich, we definitely sympathize with the Mossad agents, but (as has been said far more elegantly by people far more knowledgeable than I), it refuses to come down absolutely on the idea of retaliatory violence. It never apologizes for the brutality of the original sin at Munich, as the final lovemaking scene attests: the people who did this were monsters, unredeemed by their political motivations. Yet, as the death toll climbs and retaliation begets retaliation, the agents and the viewer cannot help but wonder what purpose this serves, and where it will all end. Brinksmanship can work (see the Cuban Missile Crisis), but it is a dangerous game to play (see the entire Middle East today).

And of course I'm a pacifist now, so that kinda makes it hard for me to root for people blowing each other up with bombs, even if they're preventing more bombs from being built.

This is where my concluding paragraph should be, I suppose. It would probably be appropriate to not give a proper conclusion. "Munich" is like the real world, where there aren't clear-cut answers, not every story has a happy ending, or even any ending at all. In much the same way, there's a certain metaphysical beauty to seeing once again how 75% of my games never reach completion. I am left with a gallery full of interesting ideas, rather than a display case of fully constructed gems.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Abort, Retry, Ignore, Fail?

I hope you all are having a good holiday season! I've been blessed with the chance for an extended stay with my family. My vacation has been front-loaded with lots of busy, traditional Christmastime activities, some of which I may later describe in excruciating detail. The last few days, though, has been a lot of conversation, eating, mini-outings, and odd projects. The one that's most exciting and frustrating is my big archival project.

For years I've forbidden my parents to throw out our first computer, an Epson 8088 running DOS 5.0. Partly because the computer itself has a lot of meaning to me (it's where I played my first text adventures, where I learned to program, where I first encountered Sierra games), but even more because it was the only location with a lot of my earliest games, from my 5th through 8th grade period. I'd never backed any of it up, of course, and wanted to capture some of it before it was too late.

I've already lost the very earliest games forever. After my family got a 286 I'd copied over my earliest games, Adventure I and Adventure II and Big Business and more that I don't even remember any more, and then erased them from the 8088 because, well, I needed the space. (The 8088's hard drive holds a whopping 20 megabytes of data; the 286, if I remember right, had 40). Unfortunately, the 286's hard drive had crashed, hard, a little after we got the Acer, and of course I hadn't backed up that data, either. It makes me a little sad that I'll never get back those really old games, but I wanted to have a crack at retrieving what was left.

The difficulty, of course, was how to get the files off. The 8088 only has a 5.25" floppy drive - no 3.5", no ethernet card, nothing modern. In my first crack at this problem, over Thanksgiving, I'd bought a new 5.25" floppy drive from Ebay and installed it in my brother's PC. The drive turned out to be bad, though, so while I could copy a lot of data to my floppy disks, I couldn't pull it back off again.

I debated trying again over Christmas with another drive, but decided to try another solution instead. The 8088 did have a serial port, which meant I should be able to use a null modem cable. This is a simple connection that allows two computers to directly exchange data without a network. The cable was only a few bucks at Fry's so I picked it up. However, it turns out that the software I wanted to use (INTRSRVR) didn't ship with DOS until 6.2, so the elegant solution I wanted (drag and drop entire files across the cable) wouldn't work.

On Monday I spent a fair amount of time online, searching around for other options. I ended up deciding that, in a bizarre but somehow appropriate solution, the best answer would be for me to program my own data transfer program using, of course, QBasic. I'd never done anything like this in the old days, but with the online help I found the commands I needed to open up the COM port and put data on the wire.

I first wrote a very simple program to test the connection itself; whatever you typed in one computer would appear on the screen of the other. This worked fine so I adapted the program into a classic client/server application. The 8088's program ("NULLSEND.BAS") would prompt for a filename, then send that filename and the file contents across the COM port. The other program ("NULLSRVR.BAS") listened on the COM port, would read in the file name, create the file, and dump all the data out.

All in all, an elegant solution, and while it took me far too long to write, I was happy to have it working. However, there was another wrinkle to the story. The bits on the 8088 are decaying before my eyes. None of my larger programs (School Simulator 1000, The Project Game) can be read in their entirety because some of their sectors are bad. So I've been spending the last two days poking around and trying to reconstruct them as much as I can. My current approach is to copy the files onto a floppy disk (which, ironically, is far more stable now than the hard drive is), use an editor to snip out the trash copied from bad sectors, and then use NULLSEND to rescue the damaged file.

Using this strategy I've been able to retrieve about 80% of my files intact; unfortunately, these are all the small, unfinished programs. I still haven't gotten good copies of SS1k, TPG, or Thieves' World (which is incomplete but still quite large). This is because the 8088 is dying every second I leave it on. As I write this I am no longer able to run Edit (to trim files) or QBasic (to send them). I've gotten PART of every file off, but only about 10-50% of the larger games. I want to tinker with this some more before I give up for good.

Right now this feels kind of frustrating, and I'm really wishing I would have done this a while ago. The bit rot had taken hold by Thanksgiving, but just a year ago Andrew was able to play the games without any problems. Still, I'm delighted that now I'll have at least SOMETHING to show from this early period in my programming career.

In other news, Pat got Civ IV for Christmas (congratulations, bro!) and has already discovered Flight and Radio and a bunch of other stuff by the year 1860. Keep up the good work! Vicariously living through his Civ experiences has helped me avoid painful withdrawal symptoms this week. When not lying on the floor desperately typing at the 8088, much of my time has been spent talking with my family, playing with our new dog Truman, reading some really cool books Pat gave me, and watching movies with my folks. Special activities post-Christmas included a trip to the Brookfield Zoo, a particularly nostalgic location for the King household.

Anyways, I'm off to jigger some more bits. Hope all is well with you, and be sure to have fun on Saturday!

Saturday, December 24, 2005


First, some administrative stuff: if anyone here still uses my ignmail address, I will no longer be checking that account. I went through a month's worth of unread mail, it was 98% spam and 2% mailing lists that I can move to my other accounts. Please use either my gmail or cirion accounts; I check them both, but gmail email will find me more quickly these days.

Also, Happy Holidays to everyone! I'll be celebrating here in Winfield with my family for the next week. I obviously have Internet access (we have like six functional computers here), but unfortunately no computer capable of playing Civ IV, so I'm afraid you won't be hearing much from me on that point. Except to say that patch 1.52 came out earlier this week, so if you have the game (or get it for Christmas or Chanukah or Festivus or Capitalismas), be sure to run the update from the main menu. This patch is supposed to include huge improvements to memory use in the game, and early reports are that it resolves many performance issues people were having. Anyways, I'll probably blog once or twice in the coming week, and if any of my readers are in the Greater Wheaton Region, let's go out or something!

The other night I cancelled my subscription to World of Warcraft. I can continue playing a few more days without being charged, but I probably won't. I'll look on this experience as a bit of hands-on research and be glad I walked away with my shirt.

I was fascinated for a long time by the idea of MMORPGs. These games are the modern-day descendents of MUDs and MUSHs, which predate the Web and play prominent roles in some of the more exciting computer history books. These games, often fantastically themed, would seem a perfect match for me; they provide a fully constructed alternate reality, in which you can create your own persona and really lose yourself in the world, while still interacting with other (unpredictable) human players that keep the game from getting old.

Again, while I found the idea intriguing, our family didn't even own a modem until 1996, and the hourly charges (remember those?) kept me from investigating the idea. However, I knew I was doomed when I picked up a copy of "PC Gamer" and saw that there was a new game under development: Ultima Online, which took the mythos of my favorite franchise game and turned it into a living, breathing, evolving world governed by player dynamics.

This was the first time I had ever heard the term MMORPG (now often just MMO or Massive); UO was the latest innovative child of the MUDs, building on the promise of Meridian 59, which added a graphical frontend to the text-dominated features of earlier games. The more I read the more entranced I became. The game would be truly massive, with thousands of players together at the same time. Everything in the game would be dynamic; if players sold lots of animal skins in a city, the price of those skins would go down, which in turn would allow other players to pick them up cheaper and sew clothes with them, etc.

One of my favorite things about the Ultima series is how meticulously detailed and full the world has traditionally been. In Ultima VI, you can go into a field and pick cotton from plants. You can then go to a spinner and turn that cotton into thread. You can take that thread to a loom and turn it into a garment. You can do similar things like churn milk (collected from a cow) into butter, etc. Of course, almost nobody will want to spend all the time it takes to do those things; but the fact that the game ALLOWS you to do that helps make the entire world feel real. Because of this historic attention to detail, my hopes were high that the online game would provide an immersive experience, made even better by the other players. I was encouraged by information about all the skills present in the game. You didn't just have combat abilities; you could train in skinning, in forging, a variety of trade skills. Pompous press releases announced that players could lead entire lives as a shopkeeper or tradesman without once setting foot in a dungeon.

I was also intrigued by the backstory. The original Ultima game, from way back around 1980, featured an evil wizard named Mondain. At the end of the game you slew him and destroyed his magic crystal. According to UO, this crystal actually contained the world of Brittannia; when it shattered, each shard became a parallel universe, initially identical to each other but steadily diverging based on the choices made by each player. The events of Ultima II-VII (not really VIII) took place in just one of those, the canon or Avatar shard. In other shards, the Avatar never appeared, and the citizens of Brittannia needed to control their own destiny.

Man... now I'm trying to decide whether or not to get into Richard Garriot's moral philosophy and the System of Virtues. It's fascinating stuff but even less relevant to the topic at hand, so I'll let it go for now.

Anyways. In the UO shards, Lord British still rules Brittannia. He advocates the System of Virtues, a moral code by which its citizens should live. He is generally all about promoting Order. His best friend but ideological opposite is Lord Blackthorn, who fears the controlling, invasive aspects of British's philosophy and preaches freedom for the individual, loosely described as Chaos. Lord British has built Shrines for the Virtues; Blackthorn has constructed a Shrine to Chaos. They argue with one another about the best way, and meanwhile the people must choose for themselves how to go.

As plots go, it's a little loose - there's no "Evil people are taking over the world!" here - but I did like its open-endedness. After all, you'd want the game to keep on going, it wouldn't be much fun if, a week after it started, a ten-year-old in Indiana slew the Dark Lord and everyone's game ended.

UO seemed to be in development forever, but it finally came out. I saved up my money and bought... the strategy guide. Still wasn't sure how to play the game online, but I was so into it that I wanted to devour everything about it that I could. The guide had black-and-white pictures and I spent hours pouring over it, looking at different animals, examining the strength of weapons, trying to plot a skill path.

I finally figured out how to play the game without putting us over the hourly limit on ATT Worldnet, and picked it up. Like all Ultima games it came with a lovely cloth map of the world, as well as some extra goodies. I made a new account under my standard online handle, Cirion, chose a shard (Great Lakes), and started to play.

Like in most RPGs I played a rogue/thief character. My name was Cirion. My base of operations was in Vesper. Early on, I spent a lot of time wandering around and absorbing the world. I would chat with NPCs, sit in an inn, explore the city. I'd already read about the explosive threat of Player Killers, and didn't want to stray far from the city before getting stronger.

As my confidence grew, I traveled further afield. I went to Brittannia, the capital city, and explored Lord British's castle and Blackthorn's manor. I went to Minoc and traded with tinkers. In my most daring exploit, I stole a ship and sailed to Buccaneer's Den, a lawless city, in search of a guildmaster for the Thieves' Guild. (I never found one.)

I played on weekend nights for three or six months, and called it quits. It was an interesting experience, and I learned a lot about myself in the process.

The first was probably the most disturbing: I think I might not like people all that much. Oh, I like individual people a great deal, but taken as a mass, I'm less social than I thought. I'm quite shy in real life, and had just sort of assumed that, naturally, if I was interacting with others virtually that shyness would drop away and I would develop a gregarious and infectious alter ego. It turned out, though, that I was just as unlikely to strike up a random conversation online as I was in real life, and felt just as awkward when a stranger started chatting with me in Vesper as I would in Wheaton.

What's funny about this is, I really like role-playing. I had a blast for several years as both the GM and as a PC for a MERP campaign with some friends; I also enjoyed playing a character in several "How to Host a Murder" parties. In these cases I stepped outside my normal personality and play-acted at an extroverted personality, and had a lot of fun doing it. My experience with UO makes me think that this only feels natural if I'm doing it with friends, people who already know me; I get a kick from seeing them adjust to my new behavior, and I don't feel disengenuous because they know what I'm really like.

(A corrollary to this, though, is that while I think I'd have stuck with UO if I'd brought in some real-life friends, I also hate the scheduling and committments required to make that happen. I even saw this in the past when trying to schedule online games of Civ II with Justin and David; I wanted to do it and would nag them to play, but as soon as we set up a regular schedule to meet online, I instantly began to resent the [miniscule] intrusion on my schedule. This gets at something essentially selfish about me, that I wanted friends to be available when I wanted them, but didn't want to be available to them. I hope that I have matured since then in that regard.)

I also learned that, while immersive worlds can make games great, there has to be a game there first. This may seem self-evident to you but was a discovery to me. I'd always thought of Ultima's vibrant world as the key to its success, but they were really essential roots for a good game to grow out of. Consider Tolkien: his fantasy is the best because he fully realized Middle-earth before writing it; but if it wasn't for Lord of the Rings, nobody would bother to learn Sindarin. In UO, there was a world and there was a theme, but there was no grand action, no ultimate goal to reach. This is realistic, but not very much fun. It ended up being thousands of players running around, each doing their own thing.

Some particular memories from my time with UO include:
* Getting drunk in Vesper
* Seeing someone summon a demon in town and instantly getting zapped by guards
* Some jerk stealing my wand in Minoc and try to sell it back to me
* Stealing another jerk's bone armor outside Vesper, then running away from him for like 20 minutes
* Walking down a line of ships, trying to get into each one until I found one that was unlocked
* Talking with the guy who was holding like 2000 stone of gear for his guild
* Sailing to Buccaneer's Den with 1000 gold (guild entrance fee) and being really frightened of getting PK'd.
* Wandering around the guildhall, wondering where on earth the guildmaster was
* Massive crowds of people around every bank

So, I was glad to have done it, but I wasn't sorry to leave it behind.

In the intervening years, I've vaguely been aware of other MMORPGs as they are developed and executed, simply because I keep up with the gaming press and not because I'm very tempted to join. UO was the groundbreaker, they made all the mistakes, and every subsequent game has sought to improve on it. I watched in amazement as Everquest, which seemed to be some fantasy-themed fluff, zoomed in and dominated the industry. My senior year in college, a classmate's husband did much of the artwork for Planetside, a MMO FPS and an intriguing extension of the Massive philosophy.

The one game I was most tempted by never saw the light of day. In the late 90's, Sierra Online had the rights to develop a MMO based on Tolkien's Middle-earth. The team doing this work sounded incredible; they were true fans of Tolkien's work and wanted to create a game that was true to his vision, not just milk his name for extra cash.

One of the most controversial elements was handling death. Pretty much every MMORPG has a forgiving attitude towards death - you die, resurrect a short time later, and can retrieve stuff from your corpse. Tolkien's world has no allowances for such reanimation of dead tissue - when you're dead, you're dead. (The situation with elves is slightly more complex but essentially the same for game purposes.) And so they made the radical decision that, in Middle Earth Online, death would be permanent. When you're gone, you're gone.

Now, there are a couple of qualifiers to that - they basically had a system where, once your HP reaches 0, you are "knocked out". Animals and NPCs will leave you alone until you groggily recover. Other PCs have the option of actually killing you, at the cost of being branded as murderers (unless you are a criminal yourself, in which case they are doing good). While the press howled about this, I think it would have had a radical and compelling effect on the game. Death is far too lenient in gaming in general and MMORPGs in particular; MEO's system would have tied people to their characters, making them seem less disposable, and made people think more carefully before taking large risks with other players.

The whole issue became moot, though, when Sierra fired everybody on the project and brought in a completely new team to start over from scratch. I, along with other Tolkien-philes online (there are a lot of us), was outraged. In 2000, Sierra announced they were killing off the project altogether. My lament for Sierra will be yet another long and rambling post, but I view this announcement as the kiss of death for the once-amazing company. If they had kept with the original project, they would have launched in the heart of the frenzy over Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" films, and might have saved the company from irrelevance.

Beyond MEO, though, I've never been tempted to even try another MMORPG; the bits I would read implied that the games were getting a lot more fun, but due to my inability to derive social satisfaction from them, they just didn't seem personally promising. I jumped back into the pool last month when some of my co-workers talked me into trying World of Warcraft.

(Actually, that isn't totally true: I did try another MMO for about 15 minutes, so I'm not sure if that counts. It was a really innovative free game called "A Tale in the Desert", and had absolutely no combat at all; you basically build up a society, literally, and seek to gain fame and reputation in ancient Egypt. Once again a fascinating idea whose innovation I applaud without personally finding it entertaining.)

I regularly read Penny Arcade, and knew how popular WoW was with them. That fact, combined with my regular desire to socialize with folks in the office, made me decide it was worth a try. I found out what server they played on, created a character, and started going.

As usual, I played a Rogue, this time a Gnome named Cirion. My officemates were great, shepherding me around with their much-higher-level characters for a while as I got used to the game.

Let's hit the positives first. The game is gorgeous, absolutely the best MMORPG I've seen. The interface is extremely clean and intuitive. There are keyboard shortcuts for everything. The quest management system is good. There's a good crafting system in place.

Now on to the problems. The biggest ones are with me, not the game: it was cool knowing other people playing the game, but I didn't know anyone at my peer level, and I wasn't going to ask anyone to start from scratch with me. I'd run around doing my quests and studiously ignore all the other newbies in the area.

My biggest issue with the game itself, though, was how combat-oriented everything is. Now, I'm told that this changes at higher levels, and since I only reached about level 10 I'll need to take their word for it. But in the game I was playing, nearly every quest was of the form "Kill seven X and take their hides!" There's a good crafting system, but even that was far too tied to combat, since all of your skins, cloth, etc. came from dead enemies.

And I hated the Rogue class. I'm used to rogues/thieves being interesting to play, stealth-based characters who avoid combat to reach their goals. WoW turns this on its head, making Rogues some of the most powerful characters. Oh, there are sops to traditional RPGs, like a "Stealth" and "Pickpocket" skill, but it's clear that all the creativity went into coming up with "combos" and "finishing moves" for one-on-one combat.

My favorite games are those with alternate paths to a goal. I fell in love with RPGs via Hero Quest/Quest for Glory, where you would take entirely different strategies depending on your character. In WoW, though, every strategy was the same: "Wander around until you find X. Kill it. Takes whatever it's carrying. Repeat if necessary."

So, that was that. To this day I'm still intrigued by the IDEA of MMORPGs, and as we see further specialization in this realm I grow more hopeful that I'll find a game I really like. When I do, though, I think it will be key to start the game with some people I know from real life, so we can explore the game together, have common experiences, and so on. Because going it alone just doesn't seem to cut it for me.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005


Let's see. First off, here is a web site that amused me. I'm guilty of far too many things on this list. My favorite definition is for Blogosphere: "It's what idiots like to call a collection of 'blogs,' otherwise known as a tragedy." Oh, beware of the foul language on that page.

Secondly, for the few of you who have picked up Civ IV, there's a poll on Firaxis's web site asking for input for the first expansion pack. In case you're curious, here were my responses.
  1. New components - no "Must Have It" or "Don't Need It", but most excited about more promotions and great leaders.
  2. New civilizations: Babylon, Byzantine, Dutch, Ireland, Otoman, Zulus.
  3. New leaders: Lincoln, Churchill, Marcus Aurelius, Lenin. (Actually, I'd prefer Augustus over Aurelius or Julius, but since they already took Julius I'd rather take a later emperor.)
  4. Additional units: 18th-19th Recon, 20th WMDs, Near Future WMDs.
  5. Specific unit: Privateers.
  6. Rule change: Better representation of modern units' strength, perhaps by giving them automatic Cover and Shock promotions.
I haven't been posting Civ IV reviews since the first parcel, but that's because they've been pretty uniformly positive. Of the 65+ reviews reported by CivFanatics, only 2 have given it below 90%.

I would like, though, to call out some special accolades. IGN is giving out their "Best of 2005" awards. Civ IV has won Best PC Strategy Game. More surprisingly, it has also won Best Online PC Game - certainly the first time a turn-based game has ever won this distinction. A quote from the award: "Firaxis took this brilliant game and built it from the ground up as a multiplayer game, adding in all sorts of features and options to provide a terrific platform for online gameplay". And, for the coup de grace, Civ IV was declared PC Game of the Year. So, congratulations to Firaxis!

Similar awards were bestowed by Gamespy, IGN's sister site, namely PC Turn-Based Strategy Game of the Year and 2005 Game of the Year.

Monday, December 19, 2005


As promised, here are some photos. Thanks to Jennie for the wedding pictures and Rajiv for the party pictures!

Jennie says: "The Guys. Some things never change." Josh and Nate to my left, Dave lurking ominously in the background. This is at the reception, I think prior to dinner.

Jennie says: "Maturity. The behavior improves eventually." Ever notice how, whenever you have multiple people in a shot, one of them is always doing something goofy? This time it was me. Sorry.

Jennie says: "Chris! The most I've ever seen Chris dance." What I love about this photo is how dark and muddled it is; if you sort of squint, you can convince yourself that that actually is Chris in there. I hope to see this spread through the Internet and spark endless debates on a scale not seen since the Loch Ness video. "I tell you, that's totally Chris dancing!" "Are you crazy? That could be anything. And anyways, scientists have proven it's physically impossible for Chris to dance."

On to Rocket Mobile '05!

Repeat this scene by about 100 times and you'll have an excellent idea of how we spent our evening. From left to right Jim (my boss), Young, Charles (who interviewed me) and Barry (my new office mate). In the foreground, some "It's only water, Chris! Just drink it!"

On my left is Jerry. Every time we have a party I end up spending a good half hour pestering him for more stories about his tenure at Sierra.

Wayne holding the plaque we gave him as Robert looks on. Ho ho ho!

There are more photos, but these should give you a general idea of the event without embarassing anyone too much. For Eyes Only. This web page will self-destruct in five minutes.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

System Up

Yesterday (Saturday, December 17th), I played my first multiplayer game of Civ IV with David. I thought I'd share my thoughts here because, well, isn't that what this blog is for?

First thought: you need a Gamespy ID to do multiplayer. (Well, you can do a direct connection, but that causes trouble with most people's routers and leaves everyone at risk if the host computer goes down, so in practice you'll want the Gamespy route.) It took me a long and frustrating time to figure this out, so save yourself some hassle: even though they claim you can use a pre-existing Gamespy ID, I wasn't able to log in with either of my accounts, ever. So choose "Create new account" even if you already have one.

Once you're in, you're in the lobby. This really stinks. There's just one huge room and chat window with every single game in the world thrown in; it reminds me a lot of the old HalfLife multiplayer screen, except every second there's a new message about "NO FAGS IN HERE!!!!" or similar eight-year-old nonsense. They really should have multiple lobbies, say some for duel games, others for In-Character matches, some for Epic games, etc.

In our case, we just coordinated on AIM what we wanted to do, and I created the game. (If you have to ask what it was called, you didn't know me at Wash U.) I slapped on a password, waited for David, then we launched. Our game was a 5-civ match played on a Normal Archipelago map. We each took Noble difficulty and a random civ.

I wound up as Spain, which made me very unhappy. Spain's attributes are Expansive and Spiritual, neither of which I really wanted. David was Inca, which he may or may not have wanted, but he definitely didn't complain as much as me. (I think he's more polite.)

Chatting is easy; you just hit tab, type it in, and press enter. It pops up in the upper-left like any other in-game message. You can also do private messages, although obviously we didn't do any of those in this game.

I can't help but compare this with Civ II's multiplayer; forgive me the digression, since I know of only two or so people who ever did that, and one of those was David. For the record, though Civ II's chat interface was pretty bad. It was a whole other MDI window that you could drag around but would always cover up the map. It kept a good record, but it was impossible to view or type messages while doing anything else. The Civ IV system is a bit better, since you can, say, look at message popups while moving your units. There are some annoyances - if you're typing when a turn ends, you can't continue typing until your next turn begins, and you can't close the text box, which means you'll need to deal with it while you're being asked to make build selections, research goals, etc. On the whole, though, I'm very happy with it. I'm curious whether there'll be more conversation in larger games, since more people are involved, or less, since there might be more focus on just playing the game as opposed to evaluating it.

I'll try and spare you the blow-by-blow of this game. It'll be hard. Um, let's see. Since I started with Mysticism, I decided to go ahead and try for an early religion. I grabbed Buddhism, then decided I'd go ahead and try to get as many religions as I could. At the same time, though, I was trying to research everything else. This was very different from my normal strategy, which is to just grab the techs I need to develop the space around my capital and then rush towards Alphabet; I needed Sailing since I was on a dinky island, I needed Animal Husbandry because of my pigs, there were a bunch of religious techs I wanted, I wanted Bronze Working to try chopping down forests, etc. Despite some apprehension, though, I didn't slow down that much, which was nice. IV is much better than II in that each tech has a specific beaker cost, as opposed to II where each tech cost something like 1.5 times as much as the previous one, meaning Horseback Riding could cost more to research than Computers. Now, you can research 4 early techs in the time it would cost to get, say, Alphabet, and it can be very smart to do that. (And also because civs are often very unwilling to trade; even once I got alphabet, only David would trade ANY of his techs.)

I founded Buddhism, then while I was getting some other early techs Asoka founded Hinduism and Judaism. I swung back, though, and over the course of the game founded Christianity, Confucianism, Taoism, and Islam. I very gradually expanded my empire, and every single one of my civs became a holy city. My capital Madrid started working on Stonehenge immediately after its warrior and worker; I used the eventual Great Prophet to create the Buddhist shrine. I decided to make this my official religion and propagated it to all of my cities. I became Pacifist and kept cranking out... more Great Prophets. Even though I'd built other wonders and assigned other specialists, and the odds of the GP being 40% scientist, 40% artist and only 20% prophet, something like six out of the seven GP produced by Madrid were Prophets. At first I used some to get even more religions; one let me get Divine Right almost immediately, which was nice. After complaining some more, at David's suggestion I used the rest to create shrines. Once I'd built all of those, I had to use the rest as Super Specialists. (Prophets give some production and gold.)

Meanwhile I built some Galleys and started exploring. My main island was mainly island; there was only room for two good cities, though by the end of the game I'd squeezed four on there. Asoka was to my south, David to my east, Tokugawa around the world and poor Frederick all by himself in the south. Asoka had by far the largest island, which would prove crucial in this game. Tokugawa, like in the other game I've met him, was absurdly isolationist, refusing to Open Borders even once we were at +3 relations.

I belatedly decided to go for the religious strategy I described in a previous post and try to convert everyone. I spent more time on missionaries than ever before and sent them forth. Unfortunately, I first targetted India. I think that the AI won't ever accept one of your religions (permanently, I mean) if they founded one of your own. I couldn't get Tokugawa to take Buddhism because he wouldn't open his borders. I sent a few to David but he was infected by all sorts. The one place I had success was Germany; I converted three of his cities (after he had converted to Taoism, which spread on its own, much as Tokugawa would later convert to Islam). This kept us on good terms. Unfortunately, he was always the weakest player in the game, but it felt nice to have a +6 with an AI for once.

I wasn't in the mood for military conquest and didn't have the size I needed for a military or space race victory. So, almost by default, I decided to shoot for Cultural. I'd learned a lot from my previous attempt and felt fairly confident at my chances. Of my five cities I chose the three with the largest populations and commerce and began some long-term preparations; the other two cities focused on building up their commerce and providing military support.

The key to a cultural victory is multiplicative buildings. Some of the late wonders, like Broadway and Hollywood, give your culture a 50% boost. However, Cathedrals are available much earlier, are cheaper, and provide the exact same bonus. I actually put off discovering Scientific Method for a few turns so I could get at least one Monastary for each religion. I began spreading the religions internally. I was surprised at the success rate; I'm not sure if a missionary ever failed, as opposed to my foreign attempts, which had roughly a 2/3 success rate if there was already a religion in the city. Anyways, by the end of the game, each of my cities had all 5 religions. Each built a Temple. This allowed each of my three culture cities to build their Cathedrals. I realized that, since I could build a Cathedral for EVERY three Temples, I'd be in better shape with six cities. So I squeezed a fourth city onto my first continent, had all five religions in there before it reached size 3, and rushed a series of temples. That meant that I had a total of 10 Cathedrals, 3 each for Madrid and Barcelona and 4 in Seville.

When I reached Mass Media, I decided to go for Democracy so I could take Universal Suffrage, then get serious about my venture. I took Culture all the way up to 100%. The big three built Cathedrals as they became available, and otherwise were working on Broadway, Hollywood, Rock and Roll. Incidentally, this is where religion really paid off for me, literally. Having all those shrines and spreading the religion around meant that I was bringing in enough cash in shrine income alone to support my empire; in other words, despite having either 100% Science or 100% Culture, I was generating a profit every turn.

In parallel with all this, David started the first war of the game in the 1700s by attacking Tokugawa, who had arrogantly settled an island between him and David that clearly belonged to Inca. With technical superiority and tactical excellence, David routed him. This also kicked off an odd series of diplomatic snafus, as Asoka would regularly demand we go to war against Japan and then pull out of the war himself.

As a sidenote, has anyone else noticed that the AI never seems to go to war in ancient times? Maybe it's just the games I've played so far, but they never seem to go on the offensive until around the time of Gunpowder. There's no way a Civ II game would get all the way to 1700 before the first war.

I ended up winning the cultural victory, but it was close; David built the UN at around the time Madrid reached Legendary status, and with a little more maneuvering might have been able to snag a Diplomatic victory. We kept playing after my win so David could finish taking Kyoto. It turns out that that the AI still tries to win the game if you keep playing; Asoka was building spaceship parts and trying to vote himself Supreme Leader.

One difference between single player and multiplayer games is that multiplayer has much fewer popups. When discovering a tech, you don't hear the cool quote and see the tech description; it just says "You have discovered Monarchy!" and you get prompted for a new research goal. There also are no wonder or victory videos. I'm curious if there are options that control these, since I kind of missed them.

The game seemed to go a lot faster than our Civ II games, though it's hard to compare the two; Civ II was always much more about socializing (we weren't on AIM then), and this was all over once session. At the end of the game it said it went for 7 hours and 7 minutes, not bad at all for a game that literally stretched from men with clubs up to modern armor. That even counted breaks for lunch and dinner when we'd kept the game running, though it does not count the time my game froze and I had to shut down and restart the program. Anyways, this makes me optimistic that we could do games in a reasonable time.

I'm serious about wanting to do multiplayer games, though not until January. If anyone is interested in joining, drop me a line; we need to figure out what people want to do and what games will work best. Right now I'm envisioning weekly games of maybe 3 hours each; based on our game, that means we can probably finish a game in about two sessions (though a combat-heavy game would take longer). Depending on the skill level of the people joining, they will probably be low-key, designed as learning experiences to give people a chance to try stuff out and ask questions without worrying about getting backstabbed.

Um, that's it for now. I have some more posts coming up next week, but anyways, Happy Holidays everyone!


Having written a post about my routines, it's time to follow up with a post about a specific instance in which that routine was broken. This time it was the Rocket Mobile Christmas Party. (I was going to call it the Annual Rocket Mobile Christmas Party, but that's just silly.) Actually, I think it was a Holiday party. Which is totally fine with me; we weren't celebrating the birth of Jesus during this party, so it would be disingenuous to call it a Christmas party.


I've been looking forward to it for a while; we got the invitations back in October so I knew a lot of thought was going into it. Casual conversations with other Rocket Mobilers (Mobilites? Mobilians?) revealed that previous parties had been a lot of fun. One interesting characteristic was that the attire was semi-formal. Fortunately for me, I'd stolen a nice sportcoat from my dad over Thanksgiving, so I wore that, some khakis, a gray dress shirt and my favorite blue tie. (Not to be confused with the other blue tie I own. Actually, the other tie I own.)

The party was at the California Cafe in Old Town Los Gatos. (Weird synchronicity: the comparable party at Cerner was for the "completion" of the 2004 project, and was held at Californos in Westport. Two companies, both California-related restaurants. Peculiar.) It's a very nice restaurant, maybe not five stars but certainly attractive and formal. This year we had a whole wing to ourselves close to the bar.

The first hour or so was just cocktails, hors d'oeuvres and conversation. I really enjoy settings like this; as I keep hammering home, I am a shy person, BUT I can extrovert myself in situations that are suited to it, and enjoy doing so. (Sure, liquor helps, but the same pattern has held since junior high for me.) In other words, if I'm at work it's hard for me to just wander into someone's cube and start talking about their weekend or whatever; at work I'm in working-mode and don't socialize well. But when I'm at a party I'm in socializing-mode and it feels natural to start asking people hypothetical questions and start drawing them out.

Significant others were invited to the soiree, and more than half the people brought along a wife or girlfriend. (We only have two female employees, one of whom did bring her boyfriend.) I was happy to see that the typical corporate thing didn't happen, where all the employees end up in one bunch and their spouses are left alone looking forlorn. It helped that some were coming for their third or fourth year; beyond that, though, this was a night that was about fun and not about work, and people made an effort to make sure everyone was introduced and included.

We sat down for the meal itself, a very delicious three-course affair. I sat down with Mike and his fiancee Judy and we had a great long conversation about the Bay area (he is a native and has never moved more than 15 miles), San Jose, SJSU (where they met), other companies we'd worked at, movies, and a bit of speculation about the table full of gift bags. Full up, we turned our attention to Wayne as he stood up to give his speech.

It was short and wonderful, a little emotional too, as he praised everyone for all their work. For those of you who don't know, our company wrote a large chunk of the software that is built into the new Motorola Razr V3, the first Razr for Verizon, which was just released two weeks ago. This is a huge accomplishment and a phenomenal step for our company, and even though I personally didn't write any of that code, it is directly responsible for me being at Rocket Mobile today. Anyways, he thanked us all and said "Every company I've worked at has its A-team, B-team and C-team. Rocket Mobile has more A-team players than I've ever seen before." We applauded him regularly throughout, and some of the more inebriated individuals added their voices to the accolades. We were getting some looks from the rest of the restaurant. I'm sure they were impressed.

The Person of the Year award was bestowed upon Young, who was well on his way towards winning an entirely different award for that night. Robert presented Wayne with a poster we had all signed of his "It's here!" email. And Wayne and Robert put on Santa hats and started handing out the gift bags.

It was a wonderful Holiday present. Ask me sometime and I'll show it to you.

The party broke up somewhat and the rest of the night people mingled between the tables. A lot of bonding took place. I regretfully took my leave later and headed out after thanking Wayne and everyone else.

At one point in the evening, I said, "Eric is a vengeful god who demands tribute!" For which I was told, "Chris, you're going to fit in well here."

Several incriminating photos were taken that night, but not by me. I'll try and track them down and then store them on the blog for safekeeping.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Toca's Miracle

"So, Chris, how do you spend your time?" What an excellent question, dear reader! I will be happy to illuminate you.

Like most people, my schedule breaks down into weekdays and weekends. The weekdays are fairly consistent from week to week, the weekend much less so - last weekend was the first in a month that I was actually in the state.

On a typical day my alarm will wake me up around 6. A while back I invested in one of those "progressive" alarm clocks, and it actually works pretty well - it starts quiet and gradually gets louder, giving me some time to wake up on my own before it reaches a typical alarm screech. So on some days I'm up and moving before 6, on others I'll hit snooze a few times, but it's generally in the ballpark of 6.

I get up and take a shower and eat breakfast, gradually waking up with each step. Dressing is easy now that I'm in a casual environment - I'll grab a pair of jeans and a t-shirt, throw on a long shirt if it's chilly outside, and I'm good to go. I'll amble out the door at various times, depending on how pokey I've been so far, but usually around 7.

My commute is wonderful - I never have bad traffic, and from my carport to the Rocket Mobile lot takes about 9 minutes, 5 of those on the freeway.

I'm generally the first or second person in the office; Cathy often beats me there. Working early is something I started while in the War Room at Cerner, and was practically a necessity there; the place got so noisy and distracting that I could only reach peak productivity in the few hours before the place filled up. Noise is much less a factor at RM, but I still like the calm and quiet of the office early in the morning. Depending on how busy I am I will sometimes take a half-hour or more to read the (online) paper and my email; other times I'll open Visual Studio immediately and get cracking.

Another nice change from Cerner is the dearth of meetings; I average just about two meetings a month now. So my workday is pretty much mine to manage however I want. Usually that means coding, coding, coding. This is occasionally interrupted, though, by:
* Lunch runs. A few times a week some of the guys will run to Whole Foods or a carryout place and grab food to bring back and eat. For special occasions (birthdays, etc.), we'll eat at a restaurant.
* On non-lunch-run days, I'll often eat the Kimchi noodles that are always stocked here (I never ate ramen and so my appetite for noodles appears boundless) or bring in a sandwich. The kitchen is well-stocked with chips, cookies, soda, and more awful stuff, so my lunch budget is practically nil.
* I'll sometimes track down someone to get clarification on a specification or bug report, or to brainstorm ideas for how to implement something.
* While we don't have a formal design phase, I'll sit down and spend some time with a notebook (solo) or whiteboard (collaborative) and figure out how to tackle a problem.
* When there's some spare time, I'll often try to better myself through KNOWLEDGE! I have a stack of CDJs (C/C++ Developer's Journal) to go through and programming resources to be found on the boundless Internet.
* Twice or so a day, I'll walk around the building outside and marvel at the good fortune that brought me to California. Lately I'll give a moment of silence to my brothers and sisters in Illinois who are no longer able to go outside without a jacket.
So that's that. Now, the specific things I work ON can change a lot, and obviously I can't talk about that here, but the general pattern of my days remains fairly similar.

On Thursdays, between two and six of us will show up at the Southern Kitchen. Everyone will order Eggs Benedict. It tastes really good, and that relaxed time is often a highlight of my week; it's the perfect opportunity to pick the brains of the folks who've been here for a while.

I start to wind down around 5; I'll typically finish whatever I'm currently working on and make sure everything compiles before shutting down. I'm usually out the door between 5:15 and 5:30.

The drive home is harder than the drive to work, though nowhere near as bad as almost anywhere else in the Bay area. It can take a little maneuvering to get into the right lane for the Hamilton exit, and I need to deal with more stoplights on the way home. (Now that they've stopped construction onto Southwest, though, my return commute can be just as quick as the morning one.)

I'll turn on NPR (now pretty much the only thing I listen to in my car) when I get home and start preparing supper. Since I live alone, this usually means I make one new thing every week and eat the leftovers the next five days. It's fine, though, and I try to add variety with the side dishes.

I'll either eat dinner at the gatefold table while reading something (often the New Yorker) or on the coffee table while watching last night's television (often The Daily Show or the Colbert Report.) The rest of the evening is mine and can go pretty much anywhere. Lately it's been pretty Civ IV-heavy; other activities include running errands, going for a walk (only in the summer, it's too dark now), reading (books, magazines, websites), watching TV or DVDs, DDR, going to the library, going to a lecture or performance, catching up with friends via email, AIM or this blog, cleaning the apartment, going to bed early. The fun never ends!

I usually shoot for hitting bed around 9:30, although "One... more... turn!" syndrome has lately been pushing that back. I'll read for half an hour (currently either the New Yorker or my re-reading of "Reading Lolita in Tehran" (trying not to fall asleep while reading this time though). I'm falling asleep really quickly now, which is a blessing; I still remember the agony of lying awake for hours desperately wishing for sleep that wouldn't come. These days I'll usually hear the train go by once and fall asleep before it comes again, which probably means it's taking me 15-30 minutes.

Weekends are another beast. Friday I'll often stay out later, either going to something downtown or just giving myself an extra-long run at a current game or book. Saturday I'll sleep in; I usually still have an alarm set but make sure I give myself no less than 8 hours. Most often I'll go for a hike on Saturday morning. I pick all my hikes out of "South Bay Trails," a good though occasionally infuriating resource. I've never done the same trail twice and will be able to continue for over a year before it becomes a necessity. My three big criteria are:
1. Variety. I don't like to hit the same park twice in a row, and will generally opt for a region I haven't been to lately.
2. Weather. The book gives good suggestions for when to hike certain areas; the Diablo Range has very few trees and gets incredibly hot in the summer, so I'm focusing on a lot of those trails now that the weather is cool.
3. Duration. The ideal hike for me is about 4 hours over varied and challenging terrain; I've gone as high as 6 and as low as 2 depending on my energy level and what else I have to do.

I'll usually return from my hike shortly after none and fairly hungry. This is a perfect time for a tuna melt sandwich. Twice now I've tried to stop by an In 'n Out burger on the way home, but haven't been able to locate it yet.

I sometimes nap in the afternoon, though less often than I'd think. Saturday is a great day for projects and ventures. All my personal coding gets done on Saturdays; I'm usually not up for it after a day at the office. I've gone up to San Francisco a few times on either Friday or Saturday, often intending to attend one particular event but inevitably discovering other diversions along the way. All my weeknight activities are fair game for this time as well.

If I didn't take a nap I'm usually sufficiently tired to go to bed around 10 on Saturday and go right to sleep. I'll wake up early on Sunday, often still grabbing 9 or so hours of sleep. The first thing I do is walk down the street to Albertson's, where I will buy myself a Sunday paper and a donut (and, if necessary, one or two items I've run out of). I return home and have my second big breakfast of the week - eggs, cereal, donut - while reading the paper. I hop in the shower and plan my day.

I've been church-hunting on Sunday, although I haven't gone since October (due to the afore-mentioned never being in town on the weekends, plus now everyone's doing Christmas stuff which makes it harder to evaluate them). I'll usually pick out a place the night before; I like to run searches on Google Maps for denominations ("Presbyterian churches near 95126") and look at their web sites until I find one that looks promising. The closest match so far is a great city church, but I'll probably expand my circle and keep looking. I hate being a "pick-and-choose' Christian, but at the same time I really want to find a home that's right for me.

I'm back a bit before noon and usually hunker down the rest of the day. Saturday is my activity day but Sunday tends to be my relaxation day. I'll go through the paper, watch some football games if it's on and I can get a signal, lay on my back on the couch and plow through a book. I'll usually call my parents now (free minutes on weekends!) and occasionally friends as well. My main goal on Sunday is to eliminate whatever residual stress may be left (less now than at any time since high school - I love my job and I love California) and get recharged and energetic for the following week.

So, now you know! This system has been working well for me, and I feel like it balances my work obligations, personal pleasures, and need for intermittent human contact. There are two possible changes in the near future. First, I may shift my schedule forward an hour or two. While I psychologically enjoy getting an early start on the day (and, incidentally, remaining in synch with many of my Midwest friends' schedules), physiologically I am still a night person. On the rare days when I sleep in and don't get into the office until 9, I feel more alert and awake throughout the day. So I might start doing that more regularly to take advantage of my body's preferences. The other big change is my commute; a few people here bike to work, and I think I might do it as well. There's a great multi-use trail that runs most of the way between my apartment and the office, and I'm very tempted to make use of it.

So, there you go. Nobody asked for this... again, a big purpose of this blog is for me to chronicle the stages of my life for myself. Ten years from now, when I'm juggling a career and raising kids, I'm going to wonder, "What on earth did I do with all my free time when I was 25?" I'll read this post, shrug, and say, "Apparently, not very much."

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

La Mordida

Earlier today Pat and I were chatting about combat in Civ IV. I was doing my patented backpedal, explaining that combat really wasn't as bad as I thought, that I LIKED seeing my tanks defeated by longbowmen, etc. Somewhere in there we started comparing II and IV, and he asked about how units affect happiness IV. I started to answer, then realized the explanation was long enough to merit its own post, so here it is.

For those unfortunates who never played Civ II or I, your military had a huge impact on your cities' happiness. Under authoritarian governments (Despotism, Monarchy, Communism), every unit you had stationed in a city would turn 1 unhappy citizen into a content one. Under representative governments (Republic and Democracy), the opposite was true: every unit you had which was outside a city (and thus presumably "at war") would cause citizens back home to become unhappy.

This had radical implications for the game, the most direct of which was that you wouldn't choose a representative government if you planned on going to war. Now, with some strategy you could gain a little breathing room - have each city produce one or two units, and construct some strategic wonders and improvements (United Nations, Shakespeare's Theater, police stations), and you could field a small army. Not enough to conquer the world, but hopefully enough to fight back if someone decided to invade. Any more and you needed to switch governments.

This distinction is largely gone in Civ IV. To explain how it works now, I need to first describe how happiness works.

In some ways, Civ IV seems more complicated than its predecessor; it has many new features like religion and promotions that players will need to tackle. However, in one way it is much simpler, and that is that the amount of micromanagement needed has greatly decreased. Happiness was an area that historically required a lot of time to manage; every turn in the late game, I would flip through each of my 30 or 40 cities to make sure they were adequately happy. Not happy enough and they would go into civil disorder, becoming completely useless and possibly toppling my entire government. Too happy and they were spending resources on entertainment that would be better funneled into production and trade. So I spent way too much time making sure the number of happy citizens exactly equaled the number of unhappy.

Civ IV works around this by changing the effects and cases of unhappiness. Most crucially, when your unhappy factors exceed the happy ones, it's only the excess unhappy ones who stop working. Suppose I have a city of size 10 with 10 happy and 12 unhappy factors. In Civ 2, that would mean 0 of the 10 would work; in IV, 2 would stop working and 8 would continue. This means that happiness continues to be an important factor, but is no longer as crucial as before; you can afford to let a city finish what it's doing before addressing it. They also cut down on micromanagement by eliminating the Entertainer specialist. In simple terms, this means that there are no longer short-term fixes for unhapiness; you'll need to tackle a more strategic problem (acquiring a luxurious resource, changing your civics, constructing certain buildings, etc.) instead of a tactical one (calculate how many people to turn into Entertainers).

The factors for unhappiness are also different. In II, every new citizen beyond a certain threshhold was automatically unhappy. In IV, population is one of the factors; larger cities generate unhappiness due to overcrowding, and will need to be met with offsetting happiness factors. There are other factors as well. People will become unhappy if the city is unprotected; if you are at war with a religion this city observes; if you have recently drafted people into the military; etc.

Another factor is "War Weariness." This is roughly analogous to the old Civ II system for unhappiness in representative governments, but is much less severe and more equitable. First, as the name implies, war weariness doesn't immediately kick in. In my war with Elizabeth, nobody was upset for a while; by the end, my largest cities had 2 or 3 unhappiness because of it. Again, because there are no longer home cities, these costs are spread evenly through your empire.

You can treat war weariness in a variety of ways. The simplest is to end the war. You can also build some buildings, noticeably Jails. And your civics can help as well; if you're planning on frequent, long wars, Police State is probably your best choice.

I much prefer this new system, for a variety of reasons. First, it is just more realistic. I like the way unhappiness gradually grows. Consider the United States' recent wars; when they were fought and quickly ended, there was no serious opposition. It is only when they stretch into several years without a clear end in sight that the citizens start getting restless. At the same time, other governments can maintain wars for far longer without serious opposition (consider the 10-year Iran-Iraq war). Secondly, it allows for more strategy. If you want to undergo a long war but will not be producing new units, you might consider a Police State/Free Speech/Organized Religion combo; on the other hand, if you are ramping up to war but are not actively fighting anyone, you'd be better served by Universal Suffrage/Nationalism/Theocracy. Or you can just shift into "Bread and Circuses" mode, funding lavish exhibitions in your Collosseums while your sons die in foreign lands. The point is, there's more strategy involved and it becomes feasible to wage war without necessarily giving up science.

That's a far longer explanation than was requested. Bottom line, happiness is very different from before, and it's possible to wage war without being paranoid about revolting citizens. These are good changes.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

What Chris Did

Now, on to Civ!

I am loving my current game. This is my third attempt at playing Qin Shi Huang; I abandoned the first two after a few thousand frustrating years. I'm finally getting the hang of his attributes and capitalizing on it.

This game is also notable because it's the first time in Civ IV (remember, I've had the game for two months and have completed three full games and have a few abandoned ones) that I have deliberately started a war. I'm playing on a Normal Archipelago world. I do like archipelagos, but in this case, they sort of smooshed together and I ended on a vertical continent in between Mali and England. I made a few crucial changes in this game that I haven't done before. First, I did NOT sign Open Borders agreements when I could. Instead, I found chokepoints on my northern and southern borders and quickly built cities there. This kept them from moving into my territory (and them blaming ME for our "close borders"!) and, as a nice surprise, kept them separated. (Hey, hey, don't pay no mind...) To my surprise, even though they shared a continent they didn't establish contact until around 500 AD. I filled out the rest of my interior at a steady pace; my Financial attribute makes it a bit more cost-effective to build new cities (though not as well as Organized would), new cities would quickly build a Lighthouse and collect resources from the ocean, then switch to working cottages as they grew larger.

Once I filled in several thousand years later and started expanding to some nearby islands I finally signed open borders with them. Mali promptly plopped a city down on some crummy jungle squares in between two of my cities. Our relations quickly deteriorated. I had just acquired my unique unit, the Cho-Ko-Nuk, and started attacking with those and some Macemen. It turns out that Mali's Skirmishers are good defenders, plus his city was built on a hill. I reloaded, then had one of those moments: "Gee, what am I going to do with this army I have?" England beckoned. I swung south and, together with some Catapults and Horse Archers, began my assault on a surprised Elizabeth.

Combat is a lot of fun in Civ IV, once you get the hang of it. The biggest thing is just getting psychologically ready to lose units. To take a city, here's what you do:
1. Bring in catapults and barrage the defenses down to 0.
2. (Optional) Attack with the catapults or another unit that causes collateral damage. Your unit will die, but in the process you'll take down a lot of them.
3. On the same turn, attack en masse. You WILL lose some of your attackers. However, every one who dies will greatly decrease the health of any survivors. With overwhelming force, you will destroy the defenders.
4. Move everyone into the city. Have people fortify until healed.
5. If you have promotions, and are damaged, consider using it immediately to boost your health. Otherwise, wait until you see what you're up against and then take it opportunistically. (Take Cover if you'll be attacking archery units, etc.)
6. Move everyone to the nearest enemy city and repeat.
7. Have cities in your industrial base churning out new units to replace the ones you lost, and to defend the cities you're taking. You want the captured city to immediately build a Theater or something to keep it from revolting.

Basically, the aim is to get some of your units extremely high promotions, so that they will win any fight; the rest of the units become fodder, unless they survive, in which case they also become elite. Try and spread around the promotions to give a useful balance. You'll want one Medic, for example, so units can heal while in enemy territory. Always engage units in the field when you can beat them; even if it isn't a strategic gain for you, you're gaining immediate experience that will help you take the next city.

I came up with this strategy while experimenting on the English countryside. I came up short when I reached London - Elizabeth had just started building Longbowmen, and giving them City Garrison promotions. Combine that with the fact London was on a hill, and the losses were unacceptable. I left behind some horse archers to ravage the countryside and moved my main army down to Nottingham.

Oh, and another note: know your enemy. Elizabeth had no access to horses (which I knew because my horses showed as tradeable in the diplomacy window), so I didn't bother building any pikemen. I also felt fairly safe with my horseback archers since I knew none of her units could move more than 1 square in a turn (3 if roads were present).

While this was all going on, my research was advancing. Due to the cost of the war I was setting my science rate down further and further, finally flattening at 60%. Still, the bulk of my science was being produced by Beijing, which had 3 science specialists, an Academy, library, observatory, university, and a super-scientist. (It is currently building Oxford University.) So I was still advancing at a respectable pace. For once, though, I was actually pursuing military techs, instead of trading for them or giving them up altogether. While encircling Nottingham I discovered Gunpowder and, soon, Military Tradition.

Musketmen are overrated; sure, they can ignore fortifications, but they still need to contend with cultural defense, so you'll most likely need to bombard the city anyways. Their attack is barely stronger than Macemen, and they don't get any good inherent bonuses. Worse yet, they can't take the City Raider promotions.

Cavalry, though... ah, that's the ticket! Can you say 15 strength, double any pre-Gunpowder unit? Their ability to evade combat is also useful; give them two Flanking promotions and they can escape almost any harm, as well as gain immunity to First Strike.

Cavalry became my new city killers. The basic scenario remained the same - encamp, bombard, attack - but now I could often kill off a city without any casualties. Even if they had Pikemen, I could usually (barely) take it out with one Cavalry, and have the rest inflict their pain.

So where did the cavalry come from, you ask? A few were promoted from Horse Archers who had done enough combat to get good promotions. The rest, though, were churned out by Shanghai. In much the same way that Beijing is singlehandedly responsible for almost half my science, Shanghai is responsible for my entire offensive army. Early on it built the Heroic Epic, which allows it to build military units twice as quickly. I put a Barracks in there and started building my invasion force a while before the war began. Once I had Military Tradition, it built West Point which provided still more experience to new recruits. The result was that my cavalry were taking the field with both their Flanking promotions already in place. (It is currently building a Drydock as I contemplate bringing my travelling show overseas.)

This is one of the things Civ IV really gets right. Much as I loved Civ II, building a military was annoying because of the "home city" concept; to keep from getting killed by support costs, you had to spread military production throughout your whole empire. I like the "Specialization" mantra of Civ IV, where it makes perfect sense to pick one particular city and turn it into your death engine.

So, I had fun experimenting with new units as they became available. After taking all of Elizabeth's southern cities (Nottingham, Oxford, one or two others), I moved my army back north and laid London under siege in earnest. Even with my cavalry, those promoted Longbowmen on hills were tough, but the went down, and the city with it. To my surprise, I did not receive a "You have defeated the English!" message; I later discovered that they had escaped to some nearby islands. However, for my purpose the war was complete: I now fully controlled the southern two-thirds of my continent. I signed a peace treaty with Elizabeth to stave off encroaching war weariness, gave Shanghai time to build some useful non-military improvements, and began massive troop movements to my northern border.

In Civ games, I have a flair for the dramatic, and I decided to declare war on Mansa Masu once I established my communist government. A few turns before, though, I had a little chat with him. I offered him... I forget exactly what, perhaps Replaceable Parts, in return for Guilds, all of his gold, and his map. With a clear view of my targets, I started the revolution, upgraded my Macemen to Grenadiers, and waited.

As you probably already know, Civ IV uses an Alpha Centauri style "Civics" system. This means you can select a government system, economic system, etc., which allows for much better variety as well as better representation of real-world states (the United States, Germany and Venezuela are all democracies, but are radically different otherwise). My current system, which I'm very happy with for my current game, is Universal Suffrage/Free Speech/Serfdom/State Property/Free Religion. (Which, now that I think about it, isn't that different from Chavez's Venezuela.) The big difference between this and earlier games is substituting Serfdom for Emancipation and State Property for Free Trade. Serfdom combined with Steam Power (and, before that, Hagia Sophia) lets my workers work twice as fast, which is incredibly useful now that I'm repairing the English and Mali infrastructure. I like the free trade routes of Free Trade, but in my current game all my trade routes are pretty puny, with only my very largest cities having any worth more than 1. In contrast, even though my empire isn't all that widespread (1 continent, some surrounding islands, and a foothold on a nearby continent), I was paying a ton of maintenance. Before the revolution I was breaking even on income each turn; afterwards, I could jack my science all the way up to 80%, and I still have an average income of 40/turn. Yes! All hail the People's Glorious Revolution!

On the other points: Free Religion, as I've remarked elsewhere, makes it easier to get along with other civs. I founded Confucianism but wasn't good at spreading it or getting a shrine, so none of the other religious civics would do me much good anyways. Early in the game I had built the Pyramids and established Representation, which helped me grow some large cities and seize my science lead; Universal Suffrage is better for mature nations, though, because the hammers from towns add up to a lot. Free Speech helps my newly-conquered cities establish culture quickly.

Back to war:

Remember that one city Mansa Masu built in my empire? It was already on the verge of collapse (only 40% Mali), so I peeled off a small contingent (1 Grenadier, 1 Cho Ko Nuk, 1 Cavalry, 1 Catapult) to sit on their doorstep for a while. The rest moved north. He definitely wasn't expecting it, and his first city fell within three turns. Right after I invaded he switched to Theocracy and Vassalage, but despite having a Golden Age could not create new units quickly enough.

After taking the first city, my next priority was destroying a Pasture he had built on his one Horse resource. With that gone, he could no longer produce Knights, his strongest offensive unit. I proceeded further inland, following the same strategy as before. Even though Grenadiers cannot normally take City Raider promotions, if you upgrade Macemen they get to keep those promotions, which proved devastating. I didn't even bother to reduce each city's defenses all the way to 0 before I started launching in my grenades.

Due to my long period without open borders, I hadn't had a very good idea of what Mali's empire looked like. After getting his map I was surprised to see that he only had four cities on the continent, although he also had established a few island outposts. The second city I took, Timbuktu, was also the best defended. It seems that the AI tries to always put its highest-rated defenders in the capital. The third city I took was the Christian holy city, sadly without a shrine but a feather in my cap nonetheless. One more city down and I made my magnaminous peace offer, eternal friendship in exchange for a mere 10 gold. He bitterly took it and presumably retired to one of his watery outposts.

So, this is where we stand. It is nearly 1800, and dawn is breaking on the glorious Chinese empire. We are the largest and most advanced civilization in the world, bestriding its largest continent like a colossus, inspiring our free citizens to work ever harder and longer for us. Where do we go from here? I decided early on that I wanted to go for a Space Race victory, and the sensible thing would probably be to hunker down, further strengthen my industrial and financial base, and turn all my energies towards that pursuit. On the other hand, I have now had my first taste of bloodlust, and part of me really wants to see what it's like to carry on a full-fledged modern war.

I consulted with my military advisor, Bradley Schneider, on what to do. His advise was cogent and wise: "Give me more soldiers, noble leader, that they may sheathe their swords in the beating hearts of our enemies!" He's an old hand at this so it sounds worth a try. Roosevelt is my most likely opponent in a space race, so I will be preparing a surprise for him. Having just acquired my first source of oil, fighters and bombers will be joining the party.

This is slightly off topic, but I'm already thinking about what to do in my next game. I'd like to try playing as a religious civ. Up until now, I've never put much effort into spreading my religion; I can usually get people to convert early on, but by the end of the game only a few are following my religion. What I'd like to do next is focus on religious techs, gobble up as many as I can, and found a bunch of religions. Pick one of them and spread it all around, converting everyone I meet. If I can control the other religions (and they're hard to control, but I can make sure they don't spread as quickly as the chosen one), I stand a good shot at uniting most of the world under my faith. I anticipate falling behind in the tech race while I focus on spreading the faith, but hope that once I build my shrine the income will allow me to catch back up.

Enough rambling, sleep calls.

What Kate Did

Thoughts on Lost. Every sentence in this post contains a spoiler.

I go through the same cycle everytime I see one of Kate's flashbacks. As it starts, I go, "Oooh, now I'll be able to find out whether she's really bad or not." As it gets moving I think, "Okay, I can see how circumstances would bring her here." By the end I think "Well, I guess I misjudged her. It would be nice if she was a villain, but she's just this mixed-up kid on the lam." Later that night, I sit bolt upright in bed and say, "Waitaminute! She BLEW UP her OWN FATHER because she didn't want to be related to him?!"

This is really just rationalizing on my part; I want so badly for her to be a vengeful angel of death that I naturally orient towards facts which support my theory. Still, I stand by my original premise: if she wasn't so cute and expressive, we viewers would find her far more disturbing and untrustworthy.

Oh, and while it's pretty soap-opera-ish, I am looking forward to the new world order of relationships. The Sawyer/Kate/Jack love triangle had done pretty much all it could. Sawyer/Kate has some promise (I'm holding out hope that they will morph into the "Bonnie and Clyde" of the island as Kate tempts him into a life of wild violence), but I'm really gearing up for Jack/Ana-Lucia pairing. The Jack/Locke division nicely teases out the conflict between reason and faith; the new relationship will hopefully do the same for order and passion. The behaviors which were lifesaving in the wilderness become liabilities within civilization, although A-L will argue that they are just as necessary here.

Sure, I know some people are annoyed by Ana Lucia. Some may even wish her bodily harm. By equating everyone with a metaphysical principle, I find it's easier to enjoy everyone on the island.

(In case you were wondering, Boone's metaphysical principle was annoyingness.)

Anyways. Mr. Eko is my favorite tail section person. Seaking of divisions, I'm wondering if his doctrine-based faith will conflict with Locke's experience-based faith. (Sounds like an oxymoron, but you know what I mean - Locke believes because of what he has experienced, he's like a prophet. Mr. Eko is more rooted and secure in his faith, but lacks some of the visceral connection Locke has.)

Predictions for January? I dunno. I hope we'll see another "Incident" in Sector 3, but I kind of doubt it. Charlie and/or Claire will finally remember more of what happened to them, and that will prove key to getting back Walt, who is not dead, but just using his freaky supernatural powers. (I still am not sure if that's really him at the computer or not.) And, uh, hilarity will ensue. The end.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Above us, only sky

Two things:
First, you may have seen this already, but another innovation has emerged from Google Labs: Google Transit. I've wanted something like this for a while, it's basically Google Maps but for public transit. So far it only covers Portland, OR, but they will be adding more cities. Most major transit sites already have "trip planners", but tend to be difficult to navigate and customize, so I'm looking forward to seeing that functionality unified under the user-friendly Google imprimatur.

Secondly, there was an excellent interview with Stephen Colbert on Fresh Air yesterday. I should probably warn you that it isn't very funny, but it is an excellent out-of-character conversation that really highlights Stephen's intelligence, his plans for the show, and his thoughts on the media.

Quote from "Collision"

"She doesn't have a plan. She only has her guilt... and a gun." - Sayid

Plot development in "Lost," or subservise commentary on President Bush's Iraq strategy? You be the judge!

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Crazy theory

I had a cool idea. I would continue watching "Lost" this season, but always be two weeks behind. Whenever I finished an episode, I'd post my thoughts and predictions on the blog. What would be cool is that that way everyone could see me being wrong in real-time, instead of needing to wait another week and trudge through the archives to find my mistakes.

Still, doing that would take time, and in any case Pat is badgering me to catch up now, so I will. Maybe I'll do it for the second half of the season. But I did want to put my totally wrong thoughts about Kate down before I see "What Kate did," which might crush my favorite theory.

Some background: the first few episodes of "Lost" were some of the most amazing pieces of television I've seen. The rest of the series has been cool, but has rarely touched the quality of the beginning. The first reason for this is that the series has turned away from the cool supernatural aspect of dark forces lurking in the jungle, which made possible the incredible atmosphere. Another, though, is that they've lost all their villains. One by one, every single castaway on the island gets their flashbacks shown, and as a result we see that everyone is really just a misunderstood person.

Sawyer was cool, an elementally selfish, devil-may-care persona who stood in thematic opposition to Jack's social pull. Yet we find out that he's really just a sad, rejected person who pretends to be bad to mask his softness.

Jin was dangerous, a vicious fighter and brawler, a true gangster who tormented his wife and didn't hesitate to kill. Except, he really was an honorable and courageous man who stood up against evil.

Michael was cruel, a domineering father who takes sadistic pleasure in ordering around Walt. Only, he is actually filled with so much love that he doesn't know how to express it.

Time and time again, we find out that none of the castaways are really bad, they're just victims of fate and misunderstood. Now, from a philosophical standpoint, this is interesting, and pretty close to the way I see the world. (My maxim in relationships is "Never ascribe to malice that which can be explained by incompetence.") But, from a dramatic point of view, it saps the tension out of the fledgling society and leaves only the island in opposition, which except for occasional bursts has actually been pretty well behaved since the show's beginning.


Wouldn't it be cool if, as the show goes on, the reverse starts to take place? What if the people who we thought were good and kind and caring are revealed to be violence incarnate?

Personally, what I would love to see happen is for Kate to emerge as the dominant villain of the series. Making this happen would be extremely cool. Here's why:

More than anyone else (that we know about), Kate has lived outside the law. She steals, she kills, she drives recklessly. But, we are led to think that she is somehow innocent. When I watched the first season, the impression I was left with was that Kate was falsely accused of something, ran away from her unjust punishment, and as a result got into increasingly serious scrapes as she attempted to redeem herself.

Now, why do I think that? Basically, I think it's because she's cute and she cries. As any guy will tell you, a cute crying girl can get you to believe pretty much anything.

With that in mind, it would be AWESOME if this continued for a season or two, as her backstory gets more and more filled with violence, until we finally accept that, yes, Kate was in fact a very bad person. And she's manipulative and heartless, unwilling to give up looking for what she wants. And unlike others, she doesn't see the island as a second chance, in the sense of a way for her to reinvent herself. Rather, it's a chance for her to inflict more pain upon the world than would have otherwise been possible.

The great thing is, this wouldn't at all contradict anything that's gone before. All that stands in opposition is some scenes of her crying (she was faking) and helping people on the island (she's trying to earn their trust for when she starts her killing spree or whatever).

Like I said, this will probably be blown out of the water when I finally see "What Kate Did," but I wanted to let you all know so you could laugh at me. No spoilers in the comments yet, please!

Monday, December 05, 2005

That's it, this is my rhyme. Let's take it to the street!

Not long enough for its own post, but whatever.

I love dreams and dreaming. I don't dream enough any more, or at least I can't remember them. I'm probably down to about three or four dreams a year now. When I get one, I treasure it.

It was probably a combination of (1) a tiring schedule, (2) seeing high school friends twice in a few weeks, and (3) messing up my sleep patterns, but whatever the cause, I had a good (as in interesting) dream last night. It was set back in Wheaton North, where for an English-type class I had to write and direct a play.

It wasn't an ordinary play, with three acts and a small cast of characters. It was pretty experimental, though I think this was more because I wanted to write it that way than because it was required. The tone of the play was very similar to some stories I'd read the prevoius days in "Best American Non-Required Reading 2004." It was just slightly sinister, with very precise dialog that seemed perfectly ordinary but peppered with odd gestures and glances that infused everything with a sense of unease and dread. Ooh, a better analogy might be the second act of "The Courier's Tragedy" (courtesy "The Crying of Lot 49"), in which the audience is presented with a Presence that infuses the dialog but is never named.

Anyways. The structure involved me writing a lot of little roles. Each of my classmates played a part, with each person having just a few responsibilities but each part was also indispensible. I went through the dress rehearsal and made some adjustments, switching some roles between actors and making some changes to the blocking. I don't remember many details, except that I made a change so at one point Josh and Nate both stood on small platforms, parellel to each other, speaking out to the audience; each character was only aware of what he himself was saying, but each only made sense with the participation of the other; it was essentially a monologue with each delivering alternating lines.

Jennie and at least one other girl were mad at me. Well, more upset than mad, though I don't remember why; they played their parts but weren't happy about it. I wanted to fix it for them but knew that the play wouldn't make sense unless they were in it, and there weren't enough extra people to take over their parts.

There was going to be a performance that night at the school, and while going to class I was worrying about the performance. I was taking notes and sketching out diagrams for the stage, seeing if I could make it any better. It occurred to me that I wasn't in the play; I'd been happy to only be the writer and director, but I wondered if maybe I should give myself a part.

When I started writing this post I had no idea what the dream meant. Now I have a few ideas, though nothing's solid. Part of it definitely has to do with the way I construct realities within my own mind. I think all people do this to some degree, but probably more than most I have a tendency to turn the world and my life into a story, projecting motivation and design where there probably is none. In the same way, I think, it's probably significant that in my dream I can't interact with high school memories as they occurred, I need to create a narrative to place people inside.

Another possibility is that the dream is showing my unease at my creative drought. Part of the reason I started this blog was despair over how long it had been since I had written anything besides emails and code; I would much rather be writing fiction, but I've felt it's better for me to write something, even if only rambling reflection on random events, than risk whatever skill I might have had slipping entirely away. I can't say I'm that pleased with the results here, but it is making me confront my desire for creation. Back to the dream: a lot (not all, but probably most) of my dreams are driven by anxiety, and my creativity or lack thereof is therefore a worthy topic.

A darker interpretation has more to do with relationships. The people I'm closest to in my life are now far away from me. I try to keep in touch as best I can, but I'm naturally reticent (well, when it comes to actually talking, anyways) and I worry I'm slipping away from them. I try to keep appraised of what's happening in their lives, but as time goes on, the reality of who they are will slip further and further away from my memories of who they were. Can I maintain true friendships in these circumstances? Or will my interactions with them be surface-level only, "acting" out our connection instead of actually having it?

Of course, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and sometimes a dream is just that polish sausage you ate in the airport. Either way, it's interesting, and I like to think about it.