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Saturday, November 29, 2008

Celebrate the Seasons Parade & some more gaming

To start off the Holiday season Pittsburgh celebrated it's annual "Celebrate The Seasons" Parade downtown. Only having seen such events in movies, inspired me to check it out in person ^^.
The parade was quite entertaining, even though there were many high school marching bands and a lot of local "celebrities". The only annoyance was that they regularly stopped for five minutes to give the TV stations time to show commercials during their live reports.
From Celebrate the Seasons Parade


Even though it is Thanksgiving Weekend, there were still around twelve people at the CMU gaming club, which gave me the opportunity to play a couple of games:
- Ticket to Ride Europe: A short strategy game where every player tries to build train lines to fulfill his tickets.
- Nuclear War: The name says it all. A game where the players fight a nuclear war against each other. Fortunately, it is kept inquite light and thus is very entertaining, however, it heavily depends on luck when drawing cards.
- Tichu: Still a classic, still a fun game to play.
- http://boardgamegeek.com/game/36218: This time we played my copy and I actually managed to win two times (once tied for first place).
Unfortunately, everyone seemed to be heavily biased against Munchkin so my copy of Munchkin Quest was not played...

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Thursday, November 27, 2008

Spamalot - The Musical

Today is Thanksgiving the day every American spends with his family eating too much food and watching football on TV. Every American? Not quite, a fair number of people found their way downtown Pittsburgh to watch Spamalot The Musical.

Spamalot is mainly inspired by Monty Python and the Holy Grail but liberally borrows from other Python classics such as Life of Brian. All in all it works fantastically well and is a riot to observe. We were laughing so hard my cheek muscles started to ache ;).

Some merchandise for the show was also sold on location and since I noticed getting cold feet recently I got these...
From November in Pittsburgh
The Rabbit with Pointy Teeth Slippers or better known as "The Killer Rabbit Slippers" :)

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Sunday, November 23, 2008

Games & Early Thanksgiving

Even though I attended another Game Club meeting yesterday, it was cut short by other plans. But one thing after another.

At the Game Club I played Tigris & Euphrat, one of my favorites, and Brass. Brass is a strategy game revolving around the industrial revolution offering a very interesting game play, and I don't say that just because I won the game ;).

But then it was time for the official part of the evening. Our program held an early Thanksgiving Dinner at the Pittsburgh Golf Club, an event I couldn't miss! The food was very authentic - turkey, sweet potatoes (with marshmallow topping), cranberry sauce, beans and more - and extremely delicious. So in the true spirit of Thanksgiving (eating too much ;) ) I had two helpings of the main course and tried all the deserts. The Pumpkin Tiramisu was quite exotic but also very tasty. Even though the evening ended a bit abruptly, and we didn't get a chance to take more group pictures, it was a very pleasant experience ^^.

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Thursday, November 20, 2008

Christmas arrived early this year!

The best presents are the one you make to yourself ;). So when I walked into Phantom of the Attics Games, my favorite Game Store in Pittsburgh, I didn't hesitate to buy the long-awaited Munchkin Quest. At the cash register, I then noticed Monthy Python Fluxx, which I bought after studying two of the cards ;).

When I got home there were more surprises, the first package from Amazon.com with Absolute Sandman Vol. 2 and Vol. 3 was waiting for me!

And that's how the table for presents looked like:
From November in Pittsburgh

After a Toast Hawaii dinner at Guido's place we got a chance to play Monthy Python Fluxx and it is as silly as it promised to be :).

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Sunday, November 16, 2008

Social Web and World of Warcraft

Here's the paper I wrote for my Social Web Homework:

Background

Before discussing the different social aspects, I wanted to give a short overview about the way I tackled this assignment. The assigned research condition was to create a human character, first play a couple of hours solo and then a couple of hours with an assigned group. Reaching level 6 soloing, I considered my character ready for group play.

My main character:


Wanting to explore the world a bit more, and not risking running away with levels, I created an alternate character on another realm. This time I picked a dwarf priest which I also quickly reached level 5. After playing with my assigned group for a couple of hours, I had reached level 8, 2 levels shy of the 10 goal. Unfortunately, a new expansion was released just then and the realm of my main character was regularly completely congested. So I continued playing with my dwarf and eventually reached level 10 and visited both Ironforge and Stormwind City, taking the Deeprun Tram to go in the one direction and a Gryphon to get back.

My alternate character:

A more detailed account about my experiences can be found on my blog: http://pratchettfan.blogspot.com/search/label/WoW

Social Aspects

Learning the Ropes / Encouraging Newcomers
WoW tries to show new players how the game works through displaying context sensitive tips. So the user is not overwhelmed with a flood of information, but successively learns new things as they become relevant to him. This works very well for people who have played similar role-playing games, because they are familiar with the principles behind the game mechanics. So I had no problems finding my way around, picking up the first quest and getting started. However, a complete newbie to these kinds of games might be so distracted by the myriad of controls and things going on, that he might miss these tips. A possible improvement would be an optional meta-game tutorial, which would describe the function of the key elements on the screen (such as health bar, map, and tips) before the user is let loose in the world. Experienced users can choose to abort this if they are already familiar with the concepts.

There are two different elements in play which encourage newcomers to continue playing:
1) The quests which start out being quite easy to accomplish and then incrementally get more difficult, taking more time and effort to complete as the game goes on.
2) The other players which have reached higher levels and can from time to time be encountered. Such an encountered leads to a wow effect. The newbie sees how cool and powerful his character can become if he only dedicates enough time to it.
The first element definitely was a conscious design choice of Blizzard, whereas I’m not so sure about the second element. I’d guess that it is something that just naturally occurred as more players reached higher levels and kept on playing.

What can we learn from this? Even though there are advantages to keep newbies separated from the harsh reality of the game until they have got their bearings, a complete separation would eliminate the second point. So it may be a good thing to strike a balance, starting the player in a low threat area, but still giving higher level characters incentives to visit these places from time to time.

Solo vs Group Play
Playing solo at the start of the game worked well for me; it gave me enough time to get used to the controls and the quests were simple enough, that I didn’t need other people to finish. However, speaking with one of my group members, I realised that this may not be true for players inexperienced with role-playing games. All he did to level up was killing monsters; he wasn’t aware that there were quests which made levelling up more meaningful and easier.

As the game progressed and the quests got more difficult, group play became almost mandatory. With my dwarf healer I stood no chance of completing some quests, because I was regularly overwhelmed by the number of enemies around. Fighting with other players helped distribute the aggression of the enemies and dramatically increase our chance of success. So knowing a couple of people with the same level and the same goals works well at this point. But even solo players are not completely at a loss. There being so many other players around and I often was invited into short term parties were trying to complete the same quest. Nevertheless, finding a party can be quite hard for certain quests and requires a fair amount of luck and good timing (at least with the trial account and its limitations).

So we can observe two kinds of group play in WoW. First, partnerships of convenience of solo players who happen to be in the same region and have the same goals and second, groups which have a long term goal of playing together and completing several consecutive quests. More often than not this second type of group is organised around a guild.

Early in the game the first kind of groups seem to be more important than in the end-game phase, this is mainly because the quests early in the game do not require a lot of coordination and time to solve and even strangers can easily step in and help. In the end-game, however, when quests and raids become long and dangerous, coordination and trust are key, both things which don’t come naturally to partnerships of convenience and so guilds start playing an integral part in the game.

Dying
Keeping the consequences of failure low is key to keep people from becoming frustrated and quitting the game. WoW’s concept of dying strikes a fair balance between punishment and continuing the game. Whereas it is annoying to walk back to the corpse, achievements a player completed so far are retained and he can continue with his quest. In many solo games the consequences for dying are that you have to start the level / quest from the beginning again. This can become very frustrating, especially when you die close to completing the quest. Nevertheless I had a couple of problems with this mechanism of dying. Exploring the area I ventured into the Gnomeregan mines. There was no one to stop my decent. However, once at the bottom I was promptly killed by monsters far above my level. Walking back to my corpse I saw that the entrance now also was crowded with these powerful monsters, apparently a party marched in just before I ventured inside, and so was promptly killed again trying to flee the dungeon.

Having to do this several times can be extremely annoying. So in the spirit of encouraging newcomers to continue playing, I would welcome an emergency exit which becomes available if the dungeon one finds oneself in is drastically overpowered.

Conclusion
Blizzard did a good job keeping the game fun for newcomers as well as old timers, offering a wide range of activities to pursue which address the interests of the different player types, such as Achiever, Explorer, Socialiser and Killer. And so I can understand how people get addicted to the game. And if the game had come out a couple of years earlier, even I might have started playing it. But at the current moment in time there are too many other interesting things going on, not leaving enough time to play WoW economically (playing enough to warrant the monthly fee).

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Level 10!

Trying my luck again this morning, I discovered that the glitch was resolved and the elevator worked again as it was supposed to. Nevertheless, I took two times to get all the way out, because there were Addled Lepers on the way to the exit as well. At first I thought it might take longer, but fortunately a big group marched in and cleared the way for me ^^.

Now that I was back in the game, I wanted to try to solve some of the bonus assignments. And so, after reaching level 10, I went Ironforge to find transportation to another major city. After walking planlessly around for a while, I stumbled upon the Deeprun Tram, which took me to Stormwind City. From there I wanted to find an alternate way back, so I first ventured to the harbor, but had to discover that no ships were leaving for the moment. After a while I did find the Gryphon Master and took a Gryphon back to Ironforge. The view on the way was quite impressive, giving me an idea what powerful monsters await more advanced players...

So here ends my quest for World of Warcraft. My trial period is almost over and tomorrow, I'll write the homework paper about some social aspects of my experiences. Even though I found it to be a fascinating game, and I can see that several problems I had were related with the trial account, I won't continue playing, at least in the US. First, because it is very time consuming, and I have many other things I need and want to do (tonight I missed out on a game of Arkham Horror with a new expansion because I had to get back to reach level 10), secondly, it's too expensive for casual gaming, and thirdly, since the US and Europe are completely disconnected in the game, I might need to buy the game again if I wanted to play back in Switzerland...

Here's a compiled screenshot of my character:

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Saturday, November 15, 2008

Football Dominion

Today was the last game of the season for Carnegie Mellon's Football team. Since I missed all the other games, I decided to go and check it out. Even thought the weather was rather unfriendly, it rained lightly most of the time, it was pretty enjoyable. Carnegie Mellon had a good game against Chicago and won 28 to 21 in the end.

Afterwards, it being a Saturday, I joined the CMU gaming Club. This time I learned no new Games, rather I played Dominion for 6 hours straight and slowly I'm getting an idea for some of the strategies, even managing a tie for 1st place once. But even when loosing it was a lot of fun! Definitely a game I'll want to have in Switzerland. Now I need to start figuring out if I actually have enough space in my luggage to bring everything I want back home...

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Friday, November 14, 2008

Unhappy Ending

Since my assigned server was full again, I continued to play with my Dwarven Priest. I made good progress but was a bit annoyed by the amount of walking around involved, I never seemed to be able to find the right spot...

The highlight was when I was invited to join a party about to raid a dungeon. That was a pretty cool experience and this time I tried to act the priest offering healing and shielding where necessary.

Playing alone I often encountered players in distress and I was more than willing to help. Most often I got a thanks and sometimes even some help in return. Only one gay walked out on me, leaving me with one of the monsters he was fighting before...

Unfortunately, it didn't have a happy ending for me. I was doing the first quest outside Gnomeregan, when I discovered the entrance to the mine (or whatever that is). Curios I stepped in and took the elevator down... big mistake... because I couldn't get out again. I'm not sure if it was a glitch in the game, or on purpose, but whenever I stood on the elevator and it moved up, I stayed at the bottom (inside the elevator)... help would be greatly appreciated!

Update: Some research this morning revealed that it is indeed a glitch in the game, which has already been reported. Unfortunately, this means the end of my dwarf because I doubt they are going to fix it till tomorrow (when my trial account ends). And I would have needed just one more level to get to level 10...

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Task 5: Wireless Municipal Area Network

Today we just had the presentation of our fifth task "Wireless Municipal Area Network (WiMAN)" in which we had to come up with a suggestion for a WiMAN implementation for Pittsburgh. I'm writing about this task because several interesting things have happened.

  • After four tasks with my initial team, we were assigned into new teams, so we had to come up with a new organisation and a new name.
  • Presentations were open for everyone again, and so I chose / was picked to be the first presenter
  • The presentation was, as in task 1, extremely persuasive.
In the morning I gave a trial run of the presentation and I was again extremely nervous. When the presentations were about to start and we were waiting for the faculty, my nervousness wouldn't go away, so I picked up "Discworld: The Graphic Novels" and read a couple of pages. This surprisingly helped alleviate my stress levels and when it was finally my turn to give the presentation I was very calm.
The presentation was, in my humble opinion, a big success (we got the fewest critical questions from the professor), which was only possible because our team did a very good job in preparing the report and presentation. So I'm looking forward to three more interesting tasks with this great team! :)

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Trial account woes...

Yesterday, my group managed to meet up for our assigned WoW group play. To overcome some of the trial account limitations, you cannot form a party, you cannot participate in private group chat channels, we decided to physically meet in the same room, to at least simulate effective voice communication.

The first problem we then faced was that every player had completed different tasks and so it took us a while to find a task at least two of us had not yet completed. But then it got really complicated. Since we weren't in the same party we couldn't share experience and treasure, in addition, if I, who had done that quest before, attacked a monster first, it wouldn't drop the quest item. So we had to settle for playing alone together. But this ended in disaster as well, because we couldn't see the location and health status of the other players and we were constantly swarmed by Kobold miners. After dying three or more times we found our way out of the mine and started to attack enemies in a more ordered fashion. This gave us a better success rate but also decreased the fun in the game because loot and experience couldn't be shared...

After completing a couple of quests we visited Stormwind City. That was an impressive experience, first because of its size and second because of the high-level players posing all over the place ;). However we didn't find a quest adequate for our level so we had to return to Goldshire to pick another quest.

I can see the advantage of group play, however, with these limitations in place it doesn't make much sense.

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Thursday, November 13, 2008

Book Meme

As seen in Rico's Blog:
  • Grab the nearest book.
  • Open it to page 56.
  • Find the fifth sentence.
  • Post the text of the sentence in your journal along with these instructions.
  • Don’t dig for your favorite book, the cool book, or the intellectual one: pick the CLOSEST.

This happens to be The Discworld's Graphic Novels, which I just started today. This puts me in front of a couple of problems:
  1. The book doesn't have page numbers
  2. Page 56 (manually counted) only has two sentences

So I'll just take the fifth sentence from the 57th page (I might have miscounted after all):
"Don't Say It!"

Mysterious... next!

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Sunday, November 09, 2008

Join the fray

Since my server was busy and as a trial account user I had the lowest priority, I switched servers and created a dwarf priest (which would have been my first priority, if I had complete free choice). The first couple of tasks were pretty boring. But then I got into the troll cave. There I stumbled upon a group of adventurers and was invited to join their party. Charging into the fray with four people around was indeed a lot of fun. From a social standpoint it was interesting to observe that as long as everyone was in the cave the team worked great and we killed trolls left and right. But once outside the cave the group dispersed quickly, lacking a common goal, respectively communication and coordination towards what should be done next. Additional tools such as voice communication may have helped in this situation to quickly exchange the different player's goals and needs and to find a common understanding of what to do next. Now I'm really curious how it will be to play together with my classmates...

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Boardgames galore!

Of course I couldn't let a cloudy Saturday get in the way of board gaming ;) and it was totally worth it because I got the chance to play three new games:
- Dominion: A card game where players try to build a kingdom by buying different Action, Victory and Money cards. Reminds me a bit of a good Trading Card Game (without the Trading element, which is a plus in my book) and offers a lot of variety from game to game. I absolutely loved it and I highly recommend it to any fans of TCG like Games.
- Leonardo da Vinci: A game where players collect resources to create inventions in their laboratories. Pretty interesting.
- Container: A production and shipping game with a couple of flaws. First of all, the color choices of the designers are pretty poor (the ships colors don't match the players board and then there are light brown, dark brown and dark orange containers; try playing that with not enough light!), another problem is that to be successful one heavily depends on the actions of the other players. Nevertheless it was a challenging experience and I'd probably give it another go.
- Mystery of the Abbey: Clue with a twist. A monk was murdered in an abbey and the players try to solve the mystery through deduction. An entertaining and fun game which offers more options and depth than Clue.

The evening ended with another round of Agricola. Somehow I just can't seem to get the hang of it. Even though I got a head start with a good profession, I miserably lost again. Maybe next time...

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Death after Character Creation...

This morning I started playing WoW (World of Warcraft). I chose a human fighter (race and faction were assigned), figuring it would be easier to get the first couple of levels in solo play. However, searching for kobolds I got slightly lost and ended up in the dominion of brigands, they weren't pleased to see me and I didn't stand a chance. So now I know how dying feels like... ;)

After that it went better and I managed to complete a couple of quests and gain a couple of levels until I ran into a kobold ambush in a mine... Now I know to be more careful in mines. ^^

Getting started was actually pretty easy and through a little bit of trial and error I figured out most of the important key and mouse interactions. Two things struck me while playing: First, it was also encouraging to see other low level players around solving the same quests I had already done, and second, it was impressive to see a couple of high level characters with their mounts passing by. Some even gave me a helping hand in passing.

So far it has been more of a playing alone together, than interaction with other players and just running around and killing monsters didn't strike me as extremely fascinating... let's see if this changes in the group phase (next we have to play together with two other students from our class).

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Friday, November 07, 2008

Last innocent post ;)

Many of my friends played World of Warcraft (WoW) and I was frequently asked why I didn't play, my answer was always: "It just doesn't sound that fascinating to me." So peer pressure had no effect on my desire to play the game, even when I ended up being the only one at the table who couldn't join the latest WoW discussion.

But now Carnegie Mellon does what peer pressure couldn't, they get me to play WoW... It is one of the homework assignments in the Social Web class I'm taking this year. We were assigned a race and two team mates and should play about two hours solo and two hours in a team and then analyze this experience in light of the social theories we covered in class. Fortunately, there is a 10 day free trial, so we don't have to invest money for the homework, and we are guaranteed to return to the real world within ten days, at least that's what the teachers hope...

I try to keep writing about my experiences, but in case I disappear from the radar send a search party to US server Alleria ;)

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Sunday, November 02, 2008

Zack and Miri Make a Porno

After discovering that "Zack and Miri Make a Porno", the new Kevin Smith movie opened Halloween weekend, it was clear I had to see it! After all Dogma is still one of my favorite movies of all times!

Zack and Miri have been good friends (and nothing more) since high-school, sharing the same apartment without major problems until their utilities get disconnected. Now they need to get money quick or end up on the street in the deepest winter. A porno seems to be an easy way to achieve that and so they start looking for actors, producers and a location. But their problems are just about to start...

Overall an entertaining movie, which doesn't quite reach the brilliance of some of Kevin Smith's other projects. What made this movie more relevant to me was the fact that it played in Pittsburgh and it's suburb Monroeville. So it was quite funny to see local "landmarks" such as Pittsburgh Steelers and Pengiuns fans, Downtown and the amount of snow I can expect in winter ;).
If you see the movie, stay seated during the end credits because there's a cool "infomercial" placed in the middle.

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Saturday, November 01, 2008

Halloween, Whash-a-ton, Game Club

Halloween in the US is a great day. All day long you see people in costumes everywhere. On the way to dinner we even saw a huge group of people in costumes on bicycles! At first I was a bit disappointed to learn that there was no official Halloween party at the University, but then I managed to get invited to a private Halloween party through people I know from the Social Web class.

The party was in Shadyside in a private home which was decorated with a lot of care and featured a number of very funny pumpkins. The people there were great as well, everyone was dressed up and some of the costumes were fantastically detailed. Politics of course was also a theme and so we saw three Sarah Palin's, one of them a Zombie!, and one Barrack Obama. Other great costumes were Waldo, from Where's Waldo fame, Little Red Riding Hood, with a wolf in a pot, Snow White, Wilma and Fred Flintstone, the Harlem Globetrotters (five of them) and many more. It was a real blast!


Wash-a-ton
Throughout the last month I've been accumulating new clothes to postpone doing the laundry as long as possible, but Saturday morning the time finally came round again where I had to bite the bullet. This time round I had four washing machines running in parallel! So now I'll be set for another month ;)


Game Club
You now the drill by now ;), if there's nothing else going on on a Saturday it's Game Club time! And again I could play two new games:
- Pillars of the Earth: A resource strategy game based on Ken Follet's Pillars of the Earth. I liked it a lot because it offered many possibilities to gain victory points and thus allowed for a variety of strategies.
- El Capitán: A seafaring territory control resource management game. Sounds very complicated but is a lot of fun!
- Agricola: The day ended with another round of Agricola, as usual I lost miserably, but slowly I'm getting a hang of strategy and for once I wasn't clueless what to do ;). Maybe I'll be better next time ^^.

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