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Below are the 20 most recent journal entries recorded in Sam's Ratings' LiveJournal:

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Thursday, October 23rd, 2008
4:16 pm
[samll]
D&D 4th Edition, pre-game
D&D 4th Edition

I'm saying it up front - this is an unfair review (and when I'm willing to admit it, you know to break out some extra grains of salt). I've only read the Player Handbook and made one character for Dave's soon-to-begin online campaign. I do not yet have any actual play experience. I intend to make another posting after the online campaign has gone on for a while and re-review the game.

That said, I don't like what I've seen.

To me, the biggest issue for tabletop gaming is: in what way are you better than your major competitor, a video game? Frankly, if I want to team up with four other people and kill a dragon, I can do it with a lot more visceral excitement in Baldur's Gate II or World of Warcraft; I won't have to do a lot of fiddly arithmetic, there's almost no down time (compared to tabletop games, which have sometimes been called "ten minutes of fun packed into two hours"), and there are even visuals.

So if those are the relative strengths of video games, what do tabletop role-playing games offer? First and foremost, infinite options. You can go "off the beaten path" in a conventional RPG with a GM in a way that's, so far, totally impossible in a computer game. Second, meaningful and real story-telling. You can get this in some CRPGs, but it's never "your" story - you don't get to be a writer or even a co-writer. Third, a focus on the inside of your character's head, instead of on repeated physical conflicts: the "easiest" form of conflict, and therefore one used almost exclusively in CRPGs.

So, to me, D&D 4th heads strongly in every direction in which CRPGs have their relative strengths, and away from every direction in which tabletop RPGs have their relative strengths.

There's little to support a meaningful, believable, or engrossing world, certainly compared to other tabletop games like Reign or Exalted. A huge proportion of the book is taken up by long lists of character powers, which is about as inspiring as doing a database search for mage spells on wowhead.com. 

The game mechanics have almost nothing to do with who your character really is. If you look at, say, a GURPS character sheet, the combination of the advantages, disadvantages, skills and quirks will paint a picture to the reader of who that character is and how they would act. Likewise, Spirit of the Century's Aspects, Reign's passions, and even Exalted's Intimacies, Motivation and Virtues. D&D 4 has next to nothing; the only one I can think of is Alignment, and even those have been pared down from the classic 3x3 matrix!

In addition, the mechanics that do exist are focused almost exclusively on combat. It is, essentially, impossible to create a character for whom the majority of their abilities are not centered around killing other people, and almost all of the rules revolve around fighting.

To me, despite the obviously high level of polish and implementation skill, which I would be remiss to not point out, the very design intent of the game was a serious mistake. I already own Descent: Journeys in the Dark (to say nothing of World of Warcraft); it's a better game when I want to sit down and slug it out in a dungeon. I already own GURPS, Reign, Exalted, Spirit of the Century, etc: they're all better games when I want to actually role-play.

Where then does that leave D&D 4?


C-

Wednesday, October 15th, 2008
11:12 am
[samll]
mydebates.org
mydebates.org

I don't have a TV (well, not one that actually receives signals via broadcast or cable). I want to watch the presidential debates in real-time. That leaves me with the need to find a live stream on the internet.

Myspace, for some reason, has stepped up to the plate with their mydebates.org. I was very nervous before the first debate that it would fall over and burn down under the strain, but it worked very smoothly.

Cons: Somewhat low resolution, but not so bad that it looks unacceptable. White margins when full-screened, instead of the standard black. Some bizarre "decide which candidate is right for you" flash thingy that I always skip over as the main point of entry. The big one: shrinking the viewing area to put in yes/no polls every couple of minutes.

Pros: Free. Works with Firefox and Linux. You get to see the debate hall before and after it's on the commercial TV networks. No "branding" graphics during the debate, just a straight video feed. No pundits on hand to tell you what you should be thinking.

On the whole, a success.

B+
Wednesday, September 17th, 2008
3:10 pm
[samll]
Water
Water

When it comes to choosing what to drink, there are several factors that the drinker should consider, from least important to most.

Availability. All other things equal, the liquid that you can always get your hands on is better than the one that requires special effort to obtain. Water, in our country, is available almost everywhere in an exceptionally clean state, thanks to our public infrastructure. I would state without fear of contradiction that it is the most available choice.

Cost. Carefully avoiding bottled water, which is a real racket and usually can't pass double-blind taste tests, drinking water is almost unbelievably cheap. My city just hiked its water cost, more than tripling it, all the way up to a hundredth of a cent per liter of water. That's about 10,000 times cheaper than soda.

Taste. Certainly this is a subjective category, but chilled water is cool, refreshing, and pleasant. It is the default beverage at most restaurants. Almost nobody dislikes the taste of water. (As a side note, Los Angeles tap water is apparently the best-tasting in the country.)

Health. The human body needs to ingest a certain amount of water every day, and drinking pure water is clearly the most direct way to do so. Water has 0 calories and therefore will never cause any weight gain - in fact, drinking a lot of water is a good way to feel full when attempting to lose weight. There is no acidity or unusual chemicals to harm your teeth. You can drink as much as you want (barring truly exceptional circumstances) without any negative effects whatsoever.

In every category, drinking water comes out among the very best, or at the top.

A+

Thursday, September 11th, 2008
11:23 am
[samll]
Caylus
Caylus

Caylus is a board game (as opposed to Kaelis, who is a druid, and would get a much different rating).



The theme of the game is that the players are all builders working in the same town, deploying workers and getting favors from the ruler, trying to ... well, trying to get a lot of victory points. There's no real other way to describe the objective.

The game itself is a series of small and fiddly decisions - there's no direct player interaction other than when you accidentally or purposefully screw someone over by taking the action that they were going to take. The winner is essentially the person who correctly optimized the largest number of small fiddly decisions over the course of the game. Many games have a constantly rising intensity until the end, sometimes followed by falling intensity if one player is running away with the victory. Caylus, in contrast, has a perfectly flat and very low intensity level, broken up only by spikes of getting annoyingly screwed by the other players.

The playing pieces are nice, there are interesting game mechanics there, there are a lot of decisions to make and each decision makes a difference. In short, the game does everything right except for the fact that it's not any fun whatsoever. Because of the emotional tone that I describe above, I found the experience to be three solid hours of boredom and pain. Gamers who like to play games because of their themes, to create exciting stories ("and with the new bow I could shoot 20 squares away", "and then the top three players all allied on the 2nd turn and won"), or to socialize with friends, won't find much to like here, but gamers who are drawn solely to the intellectual feat of optimizing complex systems will have a lot to latch on to.

Personally, I found myself wishing that instead of playing the game, I were at the office fixing bugs instead. Not exactly the response a typical game designer is aiming to get from the public, I imagine.

D

Wednesday, September 3rd, 2008
2:25 pm
[samll]
Horses
Horses

When it comes to horses, I'm as much a fan as I am an expert, which is to say not very much at all. In my experience, they're big, very expensive, and they smell bad. Compared to just about any other method of transportation that you care to name, it's hard to see any relative competitive advantage whatsoever. The speed is low, the maneuverability isn't great, the fuel is expensive, and don't get me started on the user interface - not only is it difficult to switch gears, for some reason the installed user base tends to snicker at you behind their hands when you ask the question.

There is one area in which I am an expert on horses, though, and that's the area in which I intend to focus: horses in fantasy role-playing games.

In such a milieu, horses possess two distinct and considerable strengths. First, they can be used to justify almost any unreasonable travel. Want to get somewhere a thousand miles away? Well, everyone knows horses can go about as fast as a slow car when they run, so that's 30 miles an hour. A thousand miles at 30 mph? Under two days, no problem! Since, usually, nobody involved actually knows anything about horses, everyone feels free to ignore any trifling concerns such as whether your average horse can indeed proceed at a sprint for forty-eight hours without food or drink. Therefore, you can quickly elide the bothersome and tedious procedure of getting from point A to point B, and proceed directly to invading point B, slaughtering its inhabitants, and taking all their worldly possessions.

The two other positive characters of the fantasy role-playing horse go hand in hand: their infinite reliability and their equally infinite fungability. When our bold heroes are fully engaged in the soon-to-be-renowned-in-song Sack Of Point B, they are certainly unable to take with them their passel of horses. Naturally, then, the horses are tied up outside the aforenamed location, with a bit of string, a pat on the head, and fond good wishes. Of course, in such a perilous and no doubt monster-infested locale as Point B, the adventurers may as well have coated their steeds in barbecue sauce and painted "ALL YOU CAN EAT BUFFET" on their sides.

Thus, when the heroes come staggering up the dungeon steps, laden down with the renowned Point B crown jewels, it is critically important that they be able to replace the horses, and this is where the fungible fantasy horse steps up valiantly to the plate. Invariably, some handy innkeeper, stableman, or, at a pinch, farmhand is willing to sell the heroes a new brace of mounts, perfectly indistinguishable from the previous and at the universally agreed upon market price.

Due to this, any fantasy adventurer worth his or her salt goes through horses like you or I might go through kleenex when afflicted with a particularly nasty head cold. They think nothing of leaving their horses behind for the hobgoblins, zombies, evil wizards, or what have you, viewing the matter as one of those unavoidable costs of doing business to which the budding entrepreneur must become inured.

So, despite the common or real-world horse coming in on the "loss" side of the tally of assets and deficits, the reliability and capacity for noble self-sacrifice of the fantasy role-playing horse brings their score up to a solid

B


Wednesday, August 27th, 2008
4:55 pm
[samll]
Homestar Ruiner
Homestar Ruiner

As some of you may know, Telltale Games, the company that resurrected the Sam & Max computer game into a new series, has been working up a Homestar Runner adventure game titled Strong Bad's Cool Game for Attractive People. Now the first episode of five, Homestar Ruiner, has been released. So, how'd it stack up?

As an adventure game, it's merely good. The controls are easy (if possibly oversimplified compared to the greats like Day of the Tentacle and Curse of Monkey Island) and the pacing is quick, but the difficulty level seems pitched somewhat low. Analyzed "theme-lessly", as a game, it's not a smash hit.

But, of course, to analyze the game in those terms is missing the point. The charm and draw of the game is that you are in effect playing a H*R cartoon, and at that, the game is dead on. It's full of sight gags, witty dialog, and heaps of references to past Homestar cartoons and running jokes. I laughed more during the tutorial than I have entire other games.

In short, the game is enjoyable exactly to the degree that the player enjoys Homestar Runner the website. Fans will love it; those who have never found themselves repeating a Homestar catchphrase will be left cold.

The first episode is available for $9; you can buy all five in advance for $35. (If you do, they say they'll send you a physical disc at the end of the five episodes for just shipping cost, too.) I bought all five, sight unseen, and I'm happy with my purchase after just the first episode, and am enthusiastically awaiting episode two next month.

A
Wednesday, August 20th, 2008
10:48 am
[samll]
Dinosaurs
Dinosaurs

Benjamin Disraeli once said "a man who is under 15 and does not love dinosaurs has no heart; a man who is over 20 and does love dinosaurs has no brain." Perhaps he was putting the matter a bit too starkly, but there is a definite element of truth to the famous maxim.

Dinosaurs are a great enthusiasm to have when you are a small child. Plenty of dinosaur toys and books are available; you don't run the risk of having to actually encounter any dinosaurs and can therefore continue to admire them from afar without being turned off by, say, heaping piles of dinosaur crap; and, of course, you can memorize stacks and stacks of obscure dinosaur names. I'm sure many a spelling bee champion got their start in life piecing together "triceratops" and "pteranodon".

Even in later life, dinosaurs make a good 'spice', suitable for bumping up the excitement level of other things. Consider, for example, Yoshi from Super Mario World: the game wouldn't have had the oomph it did without being able to crack open that egg and saddle up. Or, for another game example, Bubble Bobble: in a game where the players eat a wide assortment of psychedelic fruits, try to collect balloons to spell out the word "EXTEND", and compete to grab musical notes, flasks, and flowers, making both of the player characters be bright green and purple dinosaurs really ratchets up the already high insanity level.

Still, although dinosaurs can be an all-consuming obsession when young, and strike an interesting note when used sparingly as an adult, when used as a main course, they grow to disappoint. Nothing shows this better than the movie series Jurassic Park. The first dinosaur you see, grazing on a tree, is impressive. By the end of that movie, they are ho-hum, and by the time the sequels haul themselves into view, the script writers are reduced to having the dinosaurs stow away on ocean-going ships and then communicate to each other via sound and gesture. If they ever make another movie, in order to keep the viewing public's interest, they will no doubt have to resort to velociraptors that wield automatic rifles and storm the beaches of Florida from amphibious landing vehicles.

B
10:40 am
[samll]
Not posting any ratings for five months
Not posting any ratings for five months

The first rule of running a good webcomic or good blog, is to pick a publication schedule and stick with it. In a way, it almost doesn't matter what the schedule is: every day, every week, every Thursday and Sunday... just as long as a potential reader can know when to expect new material. If you don't post regularly, your audience won't know when to expect new material.

Worse, by not updating regularly, you're showing that you don't think the site is worth your attention, and if it isn't worth your attention, why would it be worth the attention of your readers?

Ideally, you should accumulating postings in advance, so that you can have a reasonably-sized buffer ready to go. Don't get too aggressive - pick a reasonable frequency target for updates, like once a week on Wednesdays, say. Maybe if you go for a long time without updating, you could try to make up for it by putting a bonus second update on the day you come back.

F
Tuesday, March 18th, 2008
12:36 pm
[samll]
Removing 'Basic Accounts' from LiveJournal
Removing 'Basic Accounts' from LiveJournal

So it seems LiveJournal just removed the ability to create 'Basic Accounts': the kind of account where you don't pay them money, and where there aren't crappy ads all over your journals. I don't have a problem with ads being presented to me while I am viewing (that's what Adblock is for), but I do have a problem with ads being stuffed into my writing.

The really impressive parts are 1) not consulting their advisory council of users and 2) not including it in their official news posts, I guess imagining that it could sneak under the radar.

I'm not giving it a failing grade because, hey, trying to capture as much surplus as possible and not caring what your users think is pretty much par for the course here in the 21st century, but still, it makes a man start glancing at Blogger out of the corner of his eye, wondering what will come next.

Let me know if you start having to punch an animated monkey in order to read further ratings.

D
Monday, October 15th, 2007
10:40 am
[samll]
Elfenland
Elfenland

Elfenland is a board game whose theme is that you are elves trying to traverse as much of your elf land as possible before, uh, three turns are up, whatever that means.

I'll put the positive stuff first: the artwork is pretty. The components (pieces, chits, cards) are high quality. (Although why the players are represented as boots is inexplicable.)

On the down side: The game mechanics have very little to do with the theme. You place chits on a path that determine the only way players can move across it that turn. What does that mean? It's the only available form of transport? Then how did I place them? If I'm supposed to be one of the elves, then how do I affect what forms of transport are available across the world?

You never have the feeling that it's possible to figure out what you should be doing. Brian and I ended up just playing the relatively obvious move instead of trying to puzzle out the 'best' move. On that note....

There is a ton of waiting around. You have nothing to do while other players take their turns. Often people would have so much time between their turns, they would 'tune out' to the point where they didn't realize it was their turn again! Not a good sign.

The end of the game is not very exciting. You play three turns then the game is over. There's no rising tension or excitement. In fact, the last turn is probably least exciting since you can probably guess who is going to win, and it's very hard for other people to stop them.

There's no 'negative feedback' - if you got the lowest score on the first turn, it is probably impossible for you to win the game.

There's no sense of being outplayed: when the game was over, I didn't feel like the winners had some impressive strategy or had made some good moves that led them to being the winners. They just sort of ended up with the most points.

In conclusion, a game that looks good visually, but I don't think there's any convincing reason to play it. I would not seek out playing this game again.

C
Monday, September 10th, 2007
12:02 pm
[samll]
Casablanca
Casablanca

First off, if you haven't seen Casablanca, you should stop reading this review (spoiler warning) and make plans to go watch it. If you have seen it, and don't think it deserves an A or an A+, you are probably a bad person. So, I'm not going to talk that much about why it is such a great movie.

What I am going to talk about instead is the "letters of transit". These are the documents that are supposed to allow exactly two people to depart Casablanca. Until I listened to Roger Ebert's commentary on Casablanca over the weekend, I didn't realize that they make no sense whatsoever. They're supposedly signed by "de Gaulle himself", which is totally crazy since he is the leader of the resistance movement and has less than no authority in Vichy France. If we are willing to overlook that, it still is totally crazy that the Nazis would let Laszlo leave the country based on any document. It would be like having to let Osama bin Laden through customs because he presented a U.S. passport signed by the President.

The truly amazing thing is that despite this huge logical hole, it is really unnoticable when watching the film! The actors do such a good job of taking it seriously, and the production handles it so smoothly, that you really do believe that letters of transit like this could exist and do what they are supposed to. I didn't even notice, after three watchings, until Ebert pointed it out! For some movies, a logical error like this would be a painfully disruptive flaw; Casablanca takes it in stride, and that's part of the reason it gets an

A+
Monday, August 20th, 2007
4:35 pm
[samll]
The "Sunken City" hike in Long Beach
The "Sunken City" hike in Long Beach

Liz found this in a book of hikes around LA. The description was as follows:

"The city was once a neighborhood of exclusive homes.  Waves undercut the base of the sandstone and shale cliffs, which began slumping and sliding in 1929 and again in the early '40s.  It's now a jumble of rolling land with palm trees, isolated slabs of the old road, tilting sidewalks, streetcar tracks, remnants of house foundations, and chimneys above the surf-swept rocky seashore.  Several meandering paths weave through the bluffs.  Exploring this surreal landscape is like entering the 'twilight zone.'  A few trails drop down the dramatic cliffs to the rocky shoreline and tidal pools."

The slabs of the old road and tilting sidewalks were there, all right, but there wasn't anything that was recognizably the remants of a house. What was recognizable was the graffiti and broken glass: lots and lots and lots of it. It was like a sizable minority of Long Beach really wanted to recycle all their beer bottles, but were too befuddled to use recycling bins, so came and smashed them on these rocks overlooking the ocean instead. Then, while they were there, they realized they had somehow brought a few cans of spray paint, and didn't want to carry all the weight of that paint back home, so they might as well tag everything in sight.

Also it was a very small area. You could see from one end of it to the other. I promised Nate I would refer to it as a "hike", so here we are.

To round it off, the time driving : time hiking ratio was about 2.1.

C-
Tuesday, August 14th, 2007
2:22 pm
[samll]
Stardust
Stardust

This movie was great. The characters were vivid, the plot moved at a good speed (after the prologue) and was engrossing, and the visuals were engrossing. I would recommend it to anyone who likes fantasy in general. I saw it three days ago and I would be willing to watch it again in the near future, which is very unusual for me. The changes from Neil Gaiman's book all made sense for a film adaptation.

Literally my only complaint is one cliche plot development where one character's message for another character was misinterpreted to mean the opposite. It just didn't work and seemed very ham-handed. Still, if one minor plot element is all that's holding you back, you get an

A
Sunday, July 29th, 2007
6:22 pm
[samll]
Foodonshirt.com
Foodonshirt.com

This up-and-coming comestible-related clothing website benefits from a clever design aesthetic and a few cool high-technology extras. Did you notice the animated rollover text on the model photos? The web development team is highly responsive: I submitted a few bug reports and the fixes were live within ten minutes. The only thing to criticize is the use of only one model in all of the product shots. Still, the other nice touches, and the clever site name, more than make up for it.

A
Friday, June 15th, 2007
11:07 am
[samll]
TYPING IN ALL CAPS

On the internet, where there is (as yet) no volume associated with text, caps lock is usually interpreted as shouting. (As a sidenote, maybe there should be some sort of indicator such as a tag for volume to go with text, so that if it is read aloud, the reader knows how loud each piece should be. Then again, maybe not.)

Thus, typing in all caps is the equivalent of arriving at a fancy dress ball and proceeding to deliver all of one's polite chit-chat at the maximum decibelage that one's lungs can provide - as you might imagine, something of a faus pax.

Even in written text, emphasizing passages via all caps invariably appears gauche compared to italics, the now generally defunct underlining, or the use of the exclamation mark.

The fact that it is often a convention in some programming languages to denote constants in all capital letters brings the rating up a plus or two, but cannot hope to entirely redeem the practice.

D+
Friday, June 8th, 2007
11:41 am
[samll]
Zen koans

Two monks were watching a flag flapping in the wind. One said to the other, "The flag is moving."
The other replied, "The wind is moving."
Huineng overheard this. He said, "Not the flag, not the wind; mind is moving."

B+
Thursday, May 31st, 2007
1:26 pm
[samll]
Island Fish Jasconius



Occasionally known to the cognoscenti as "Island Fish Pandemonius", Jasconius probably ranks among the top ten fish of all time. Just look at him poking his head out of the water, maybe trying to get a good look at the palm trees on his back.

At 6/8, the Island Fish tied for the 2nd largest creature in Revised, and was without a doubt the most water-bound (narrowly edging out Sea Serpent).

A lot of people don't know this, but the name Jasconius is actually taken from the story of an Irish saint.


A-
Tuesday, May 29th, 2007
5:11 pm
[samll]
Ocean Sunfish



This guy is, I would say, the ugliest fish I have ever seen. The gloppy ridge on the back, the two fins pointing opposite directions, and the two "blowhole" things behind the eyes add up to U-G-L-Y.

The only thing the ocean sunfish has going for it is its size, which is immense (up to 10 feet long and 5000 lbs). Even that just calls attention to how ugly it is: if it were tiny, maybe you could ignore it, or put a paper bag over it, or something.

C+
Thursday, May 24th, 2007
1:55 pm
[samll]
Heroes Season 1 Finale

Spoiler warning!


B
Friday, May 18th, 2007
3:13 pm
[samll]
Fishing

It consists of long periods of boredom punctuated by wrestling with some poor dumb animal too stupid to realize that you've maliciously sunk a jagged piece of metal into its flesh. Then you pull it up onto your boat, and kill it by drowning. If you're feeling beneficient you instead tear the hook from its mouth and throw it back, leaving it merely half-suffocated and bleeding. If you're not, don't forget the gross factor of "cleaning" it later

The only redeeming grace of fishing as an activity is using it as an opportunity to get away from it all and have time to spend doing nothing and relaxing your mind.

Seriously though, hike out to somewhere peaceful and meditate. You and the fish will both be better off.

D
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