What I’ve Been Doing – Episode 1

So, for the last year, the biggest new thing I’ve been doing is doing a lot of tabletop wargaming.

I used to do a bit of tabletop gaming before I left Texas but because I played with just a couple of friends it never grew into anything bigger. The game we played at the time was Heavy Gear, which hss a futuristic sci-fi setting and you move around small piloted robots kind of like Gundam or Robotech, but they are much smaller than the robots in those settings. I really enjoyed playing these games and it was just very casual with terrain (buildings, walls, etc.) made from old boxes and styrofoam packing materials. I still have all the models I built and painted from that time. Good stuff!

Last May or June one of the guys I play Dungeons & Dragons (and other tabletop roleplaying games) with said he started collected some of the newer Warhammer 40K models, so I checked them out and bought an army from a guy I work with. Fast forward a couple of months and my fellow D&D player, the guy from work and two more guys from work are playing regular games, every week or two, at mine, in the dining room. Fast forward a couple more months and I’ve got a second army, the original guy from work has a second army and we’re playing pretty much every week, sometimes a couple times a week!

So it’s been pretty busy on this front, which is why this is my first ‘episode’ of what I’ve been up to for the last year or so. So busy, in fact, that we’ve got a website that I maintain, plus a Youtube channel that has all of our latest tabletop battles. There’s also a big online photo album of most of my models I’ve painted up for my armies, and another online album of pictures taken during the battles (once we moved to video battle reports the flow of pictures has slowed down quite a bit).

To give you an idea of the painting I’ve been doing (which takes up a LOT more time than actually playing the games), here’s a few of my favorite models I’ve done:

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Brilliant (I think) Minecraft idea: Minecraft Wars!

I play only survival single player right now but this would definitely get me REALLY interested in SMP. I posted this on Reddit and Something Awful but it’s not getting much traction in either place, so I’ll waste some more space on the internets and post it here.

Here’s the idea:

Groups of people like to build stuff on shared servers

Most servers have a home web forum where members chat and discuss whatever

None of these server members have any way of crossing over and killing each other

So…make a central website called MinecraftWars.com or whatever so there is one site where members of various servers can call out groups on other servers and choose a date for a battle.

This combines several things: FPS combat; building defenses, traps & dungeons; the need for quick, targeted crafting by the attacking team & lots more!

Here’s how I see it working:

  • The group leaders agree terms and a time (after lots of smack-talk of course)
  • For example two back-to-back Capture the Flag battles take place, for a certain amount of time (say 1 or 2 hours max), one battle on each server, one right after the other.
  • Another example couple be a single battle of attack & defense, such as a raid for a hidden block of wool or whatever, once this hidden block is destroyed the game is one, etc. – the possibilities are endless.
  • The server admins are able to allow a certain number of members and a certain number of non-members (like 16 on a side) this is one part I’m not sure about, but there must be a mod that can do this
  • The home group build up defenses, traps, dungeons, towns, whatever, and place a ‘flag’ block in the fortified area, or hide The Block That Must Be Destroyed somewhere
  • The visiting group spawn in an area chosen by the home group, but they are not to be attacked for, say, 5-10 minutes to allow for scouting, crafting, etc. The visitor spawn must be in an unmodified, unbuilt-up area, etc., basically a safe zone. The spawn point must be a certain number of blocks away from the fortifications, for example the maximum draw distance at max resolution, but the attacking team must find the fortress.
  • The terms of the battle could include details on arms & armor that must be supplied by the home group (see below), to speed things along. Once the supplies have been accounted for and the visiting team is ready, the visiting leader announces in chat that the battle is on.
  • Negotiations could be made for respawns in the case of death, etc.: no respawns (hardcore!), 3 respawns, 5, unlimited, etc.
  • The visitors must locate the home group’s fortifications, destroy the block that has to be destroyed or find the ‘flag’ block and get back to the spawn point as quickly as they can
  • Lowest time wins in the case of CTF

There must be mods that can be written up for this, if they don’t exist already: new server world for each new game, turn off mobs (optional), visitor spawn area for users logging in using a certain ID/password, countdown timer to be shown on everyone’s screen for the safe time at the beginning of the game, the ‘flag’ block, the detection of the flag block in the area of the visitor spawn, etc.

Supply Chest
For the chest of supplies that the visiting group can negotiate for, I was thinking it would have a certain pre-agreed number of suits of armor, swords and basic tools to get started. For example, for a squad of 10 attackers the negotiation could be: 5 shovels, 5 picks, 10 swords, 5 suits of armor, 2 crafting tables – and that’s it.

I can imagine a well-disciplined group of attackers would have everyone with a pre-arranged role right from the start, so like in the first couple of minutes a couple of team members build basic fall-back shelter (a hole with a wooden door) while the others are scouting and the leader is taking in all the info and generating a map (not with a server mod, I mean ‘getting the lay of the land’), then deciding to send scouting parties out to find whatever, etc.

…so, what does anyone think?

I’ve been playing a lot of Minecraft lately

This game has been sucking down a few hours of my time lately. It’s been the only game I’ve been playing on my computer for a while, and it came along at just the right time. I’ve been wanting to play something I could get lost in for a long time, and I even bought a few games off Steam (basically a pay-to-download game service) but I didn’t get into the games I tried.

Recently I’ve tried Machinarium (beautiful and atmospheric, but I’m not good with puzzle games) and World of Goo (fun, but not that involved for me), plus I looked at Psychonauts (looks alright but I didn’t really get to the gameplay part). I’ve also wanted to play Civilization IV in preparation for Civilization V, but I’ve been reading so much about Civ 5 I’m just going to wait for it to come out. Alien Swarm off Steam is free and looks cool but my friends are never online to play it. Then I read about Dwarf Fortress, which is a simple 80’s-style game that is hardcore and usually ends up with your colony of dwarves dying horribly.

That’s about when I found out about Minecraft.

Basically, it’s a first-person (i.e., you see out of the eyes of your player character) game where you start off in a randomly generated world with nothing but your hands to punch things with. Over time, you create (or ‘craft’, in the vernacular of the game) pickaxes, axes, shovels and hoes to mine, chop, dig and plant things to create as simple or elaborate a game world as you like. After all, you’re the sole inhabitant of the whole world – which is about 8 times the surface area of Earth.

Well, alone apart from the zombies, skeletons, spiders and creepers, which come out at night and try to eat you. So the first thing you have to do when you spawn into the world is chop down a tree, make a couple of simple items and then quickly make a shelter to pass the night safely.

At daybreak, most of the monsters burst into flame (so don’t exit your shelter too soon!) and you can go hunting for cows to make armor, pigs for food, sheep for cloth or chickens for feathers (for your arrows).

It sounds like a lot to remember and do, but once you get into the game exploring empty caves for coal, iron, gold or diamonds becomes  an exciting ritual of placing torches, hacking at the walls or ceilings and avoiding the creepy crawlies.

So what’s the point of the game? Basically, it’s a ‘sandbox’ type of game – you can make anything you want within the constraints of the game world and its related physics. There are floating islands, magnificant arches, deep valleys, dangerous-looking caves, sky islands, underground lava lakes and more – and that’s before you get building and digging! Basically, you dig for coal to make torches and to fire the furnace to smelt iron ore and other stuff, build castles or houses or towers out of the rock you dig up and explore, explore, explore!

Here’s some videos of what you can accomplish with enough time and effort: a massive castle, a working railway station, a functional adding computer, or just check out any of the other videos of epic Minecraft builds!

The game plays mostly in the web browser, but I think most people download it because if you play on different computers the game worlds are all different – the game data is saved to whatever computer you’re playing on and you won’t be able to play in the browser in the same world each time if you swap computers.

Some versions of the game are free to play, but it’s only €10 to buy the ‘alpha’ release, which is the pre-pre-release version so features get added on about a weekly basis. That’s about $13 or £8 for a game that will easily take up several hours of your time in the first couple of weeks.

The official site where you can play/buy Minecraft is here.

There’s a wiki here that will tell you some of the crafting ‘recipes’.

For a good beginner’s walkthrough, check out this series of videos: one two three four

If you try it out, stick with single player unless you have friends that have a secure multiplayer server (otherwise you might get folks that come and wreck your castle or steal the ore you’ve worked hard for.

Timeline of a PC upgrade

The last upgrade: late 2004, when I was given a development AMD FX-53 CPU. I had to get a new motherboard because at the time I was using an older AMD CPU with a different pin configuration. The new motherboard (an ABIT Third Eye with on-the-fly overclocking ability) featured then-new DDR RAM, so I got new RAM as well: 1GB of OCZ Platinum Edition with a lifetime warranty so I could overclock the CPU safely. I kept my current AGP video card. Several months later, I upgraded the video card to an ATI X1600 Pro and have had this setup ever since.

I ended up never overclocking the hardware.

Fast-forward to several months ago, when I started detecting a dangerous feeling of inadequacy as my computer gaming friends were upgrading their computers. Previously, I’d been the owner of the fastest computer at our LAN parties, but I’d fallen well behind the times. Losing the bragging rights didn’t bother me much, nowhere near as much as knowing I was basically unable to play the latest computer shooter games like Crysis and Fallout 2. So when the mediocre reviews came out for these games I felt a bit justified in waiting so long.

In the meantime, about a year ago, I’d bought a faulty (RRoD) Xbox 360 off eBay, plus all the cables, etc., to make it work. Microsoft told me it’d never been registered, so they fixed it for free (yay! very cool). I’d purchased a grand total of two games for it (Forza 2 and Colin McRae: Dirt) but that was it, I hadn’t played it for several months by the end of the year.

Towards autumn I decided I’d have to start doing a bit of research to find out what was going on in the world of PC upgrading. This is when I found out about DDR2, DDR3, AM2, AM2+, socket 775, i7 and much more. I already knew about PCI-E so hey at least I could skip learning about that.

Basically I found out that I couldn’t upgrade just the CPU because the 939 chip die was basically obsolete now. Upgrading the DDR RAM would cost 2 or 3 times as much as getting new DDR2 RAM, and there was no way I could upgrade the AGP video card to a PCI-E…it became clear that a completely new set-up would be required: RAM, CPU and motherboard, plus video card. Luckily I already had a PCI-E video card from a home theater PC that never got finished, but it’s only as fast as my current AGP card – but it’ll do until I could afford a whiz-bang PCI-E card.

After carefully considering things, I came up with a long checklist of features:

  • best bang-for-the-buck CPU (fastest for the money)
  • dual- or quad-core (didn’t matter which, I do enough multi-tasking to justify a quad-core)
  • 4GB of RAM that’s safe to overclock
  • PCI-E 2.0 spec, for a bit more PCI bus speeds
  • easily overclocked and updated motherboard
  • ATX size to fit in my current case

Not a terribly long list but some of these requirements would push up the cost from what could have been quite cheap.

Finally, the time would come. Just a couple of weeks ago, I decided to trade in my unused, dust-collecting Xbox 360 and get store credit from a nationwide chain of stores that buy and resell video games, consoles, hardware, etc. The £120 I would get (according to their site) would pay for an Intel Core 2 Quad processor (used) – ideal!

So…here, the story truly begins:

Friday, the 19th February: pop down to the local mall to trade in the 360 console, hard drive, power adapter, video cable, wireless joypad, headset and some games. I’m told they can’t take the console without an official Microsoft video cable, so I hand over everything and say fine, just give me the credit. £64 store credit, to use online or in the store. Cool. I go home, get on the store’s website and order a video cable – £1.50 but the minimum purchase is £2 so I order a PC copy of Colin McRae: Dirt for another £6.

The following Tuesday I receive the replacement video cable.

Thursday, the 27th of February: pop down to the mall (again paying £2 for parking) and hand over the console with new (used) video cable. Am told the store can’t take consoles without the controller. To avoid strangling everyone in site I ask to talk to ‘the tall guy’ who is the store manager. He remembered me from the previous week and sorts out something so that I can trade in the console and they use a wired controller from their stock. I forget about reminding him that I traded in a wireless controller to avoid any further pain. I walk across the street while the console is tested. I come back 15 minutes later to the news that they can’t take my console because the video cable doesn’t work. To avoid strangling everyone in site I mention the cable came from the store’s online site and I’ll just have to deal with returning it to them.

The next day, Friday, I send an email to the company telling them about the faulty cable and I get a reasonably quick reply telling me their returns policy. They’ll even pay for the return postage, which is nice of them. I decide that since today is payday I’ll go ahead and order the 4GB of OCZ Reaper RAM (with not just aluminum heatsinks, but heatpipes with additional heatsinks) and a Gigabyte motherboard, plus a PCI-E power adapter for the future video card purchase. Total cost is about £160 from ebuyer. Later that day, I receive an email saying my order is processed and ready for delivery, expected delivery date is Monday.

Monday, the 2nd of March: receive the motherboard and RAM, woohoo! A fire alarm forces out of the building and I regret not taking my fresh new parts with me to the safety area, just in case it was a real fire. I decide that I’m getting a bit impatient so I decide to use my credit voucher to order the Core 2 Quad CPU from the exchange store site, but the buggering thing is out of stock. Besides, in order to claim the voucher online, one must order the part online then MAIL the voucher receipt to the company for a credit to the order. How Web 0.9! I go back to trusty ol’ ebuyer.com to place an order for a new CPU.

Tuesday, the 3rd of March: send off the faulty cable with all the documentation the company require and sit and wait.

Wednesday, the 4th: receive the new CPU and a couple of other small bits, but I have no time to work on the new build after work as I have to go gaming (actual, face-to-face gaming). I start transferring the last MP3 files to spare hard drives and set off. When I return I find that there’s some problem and only about 25% have transferred. Great. Start the transfer again.

Thursday: wake up, only about 20% of the remaining files have transferred. Try transferring again. Do some quick addition and subtraction and realize I don’t have enough hard drive space to do the install. Ack! Let the computer rest for the night while I think and scheme. Borrowed an SATA to USB adapter from work to hopefully speed up things. Meanwhile, I’m told that if I really want to use the 1GB video card I want to get, while still utilizing the 4GB of RAM I have now, I’ll need a 64-bit OS, meaning buying 64-bit Vista. That’s another £80 or so of unexpected spending there.

Friday: Get home from work and the laptop is now full to bursting with MP3s. The 20GB drive won’t fille up more than 10GB for some reason and the 120GB drive that could be my saviour isn’t getting recognized by my laptop or the desktop. Decide that I could try transferring the files at work or try temporarily installing XP to the 120GB (if it is recognized), transfer files to it and that would be fine. I also decide that instead of ordering the 8-pin 12v plug adapter I need to get the motherboard to work I’ll just pop into an electronics store during the weekend.

Sunday: get the power adapter while out of town. Get home, and can’t find it. Dammit! Where the hell is it?! Hook up the new motherboard to the 120GB drive just to have something to do.

Monday (today): look one final time in my room and the car…no idea where that damn cable is!! If I left it out of town I’m considering buying a whole new one (just £2.50) so I can at least have something to work with on my half-day holiday this Wednesday. And I still haven’t heard back from the shop with my faulty video cable.

Fallout 3 and the perils of PC gaming

Well I’ve been really enjoying my playing of Fallout 3, it’s an amazing game and the first ‘current’ game I’ve played in ages. Usually I’m happy to play older games with good content, such as Colin McRae: Dirt, Civilization 4, Colonization and other games, but a chance purchase of Fallout 3 back in December has prompted me to upgrade my computer, which I’ve got fully planned out, but not actually spent the money on yet.

The problem is, with my computer being 4 years old, not even dual-core, still on AGP graphics and DDR RAM – all of which adds up to it being slow compared to most of the ‘recommended’ spec of today’s PC games. Basically I’ll ‘have’ to spend about £450 to bring it up to current spec so that games are playable with good detail and quick speed. (The plan right now is to spend about £300 getting a new motherboard, RAM and CPU, use an AGP graphics card I have already, then upgrade to a £150 graphics card when I can.)

So where do the ‘perils of PC gaming’ come into play?

Easy – I could spend the £450 on a PS3 and a copy of Fallout 3 for that console, or spend £30-45 on a copy for the Xbox 360 (which I have already). When I picked up the game I thought, ‘Cool! £20, that’s way cheaper than the console versions.’ – but now comes the sting in the tail. If you’re not up to date with your PC hardware and are a generation or two behind like I am, you’re buggered because it then becomes cheaper to have a console on hand already, that you don’t have to spend money to upgrade (until a new one comes along).

I suppose if you’re a regular gamer, consistently picking up the newest releases, it makes sense to have one of the latest consoles. If you’re a regular PC gamer, you have to spend more over the long run because every 18-24 months you need to do a moderate-to-major upgrade of your hardware. When you consider how much this costs (for me it’s about £450, as I said above, over  4 years), the cost of a brand new next-gen console platform is roughly the same I suppose…360’s and PS3’s were going for 350-450 when they were released, depending if you had to get them on eBay or not. If you factor in the cost of games, for consoles they cost slightly more, so that extra £10 per game adds up as well.

An additional but not as major consideration are platform-exclusive games, like Gran Turismo 5 and others – granted, these are less common (Fallout 3 and many other new games are out on all 3 major platforms) but they still happen. I suppose that’s the additional cost of sticking with one platform only – how many people actually have the money and time to have 3 or 4 current-generation gaming platforms (yeah, I’m including the Wii there)? and what about playing them all online? People have lost families and jobs just playing constantly on just one platforum (WoW addicts, anyone?)! It’s just impossible.

I haven’t touched my 360 in months, and I’ve been considering selling it. I’ve only had it a year, but who knows. There just hasn’t been anything on it that I really had to have, other than Forza Motorsport 2, and there are PC games that are way more customizable and even more realistic (like Grand Prix Legends, which I recentlygot off Freecycle).

This could easily be called ‘PC vs. console gaming’, I realize…but these are just my individual factors. Add all this up and consider everything else you can do on a PC and to me it’s a no-brainer.

RIP Gary Gygax

Gary Gygax, considered the father of role-playing games, died last week. Whether or not you care for or ever played Dungeons & Dragons, it’s very likely that if you’ve watched movies or TV in the past 2 or 3 decades your life has somehow been touched by someone who was inspired by this guy’s work.

I’ve been playing D&D and other role-playing games (RPG’s) in some form or another since I was 13 or so, and I still play pretty much every week. It’s no longer a massive obsession for me, but it’s still a big part of my life.

Wired has a great article about Gary, with more stuff about Gary to come.

Another win

Well what can I say…I really am speechless! I won again playing No Limit Hold ‘Em poker with some workmates.

While in Germany recently, we played 3 nights of poker, all of which I won (either outright, or splitting the winnings because of the late time), so the guys at work (who aren’t that experienced at playing, I guess) attached this ‘rep’ to me and my amazing luck/skill/whatever. I didn’t think I played very good, I did have some amazingly lucky draws but whatever – ‘the legend was born’ I suppose.

So after we came back no one else was organizing anything but a few of the guys wanted to play, so I set up a poker night and we played our first game tonight and I won! £35 profit after a £10 buy-in and a £10 rebuy (I won £55 total), so I’m still up. I played some really stupid hands, went way down a bunch of times and had to go all-in several times to double up, but in the end I was chip leader by far after a couple of good hands of hole cards, and I split the winnings 60/40 with the other last person standing after I couldn’t convince him to see my raise that would have made him go all-in.

Hey, it’s a good way to spend the evening! Good times.

Want! 3D gaming!

A Phd student at Carnegie Mellon University has written software that allows game developers to combine a Wiimote and UV LED’s into a 3D game world! Basically this means you can duck and move to see new targets/things and dodge things that are chucked at you, like missiles and buildings.

Check it out here, skip to 2:20 on the timeline if you just want to see it in action.

Royal Shrovetide Football

Now here’s something that I’ve wanted to do for a few years now.

A town near where I live holds an annual game the day before and the day of Ash Wednesday. The origins of the game are lost in the mists of time, but basically it involves hundreds of local residents and visitors in a game of ‘Royal Shrovetide Football‘.

Shrove Tuesday is the day before Ash Wednesday, which is where the ‘shrove’ comes from, and the game is similar to (English) football (what Americans call soccer) in that the ball is round and there are two teams of multiple participants trying to get the ball through one of two sets of goal posts. The ‘Royal’ title came when King Edward was the official starter of the game in the 1930’s. So we now have Royal Shrovetide Football. Sorry, I just like things like etymology 🙂

The main differences between this game and normal football is that there are hundreds of people in a game, the local shops are boarded up and closed, residents and visitors are told to park well outside of town and the ‘field’ consists of several fields (usually wet and muddy), plus parts of the local river.

My kind of game!

Which is exactly why I seriously want to take a day off and attend at least once. This year’s game days are kind of out, since I’m headed to Germany for work, but I can at least schedule time off for next year! February 24th, 2009, here I come!