Blue Max, 2nd Ed.

If you’ve never seen the components of a Blue Max game, it’s difficult to explain just how beautiful those plane counters are. Maybe just by saying each was produced first as a detailed full-size color painting, which was then shrunk down to fit a counter about an inch across.

The designer was a serious war gamer who had done lots of research into the various plane capabilities, and his game mechanics reflect that care.

I’ve been a fan of WWI air combat since discovering Richtofen’s War at about 18 years of age. I love Blue Max. And while I respect the designer’s observation that these planes could not change altitude enough to be reflected in the time scale of the game, I find fascinating that jockeying for altitude and losing it during maneuvers. I also admired the altitude abstraction of Frank Chadwick’s Sky Galleons of Mars game. So while on staff at GDW, I convinced Frank to let me marry those to Blue Max during a reprint.

Later, during my years at TSR, the Creative Services department (we designers, developers, and line managers) were allowed a 90-minute lunch, with 30 minutes paid, if we’d use it playing games. I brought in some 1:72 scale airplanes, mounted each on a “pick up stick” (remember those?), mounted that to an upright dowel, using a couple of checkers and a wing nut to allow the plane to bank and nose up or down (signalling climb or dive next turn), mounted the whole of that on a base about 3 inches across, and played on the mat from Milton Bradley’s Battle Masters.

The resulting 3D dogfighting was awesomely fun! I’m looking forward to a chance to reconstruct it all and play it with my teenage grandson.

I’m sort of stunned to realize my work on that 1992 edition was 25 years ago.

Condition: New in shrinkwrap
Price: $75
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2300 AD Bundle

Beanstalk was the first adventure module, and it launched my full-time career in game publishing.

(I had sold a 4-paragraph “capsule review” to Space Gamer magazine about a year-and-a-half before, but that was as a hobbyist only. I’d also sold Space Gamer a 2-player board game; back in the day, game magazines often published a game in the center, and Space Gamer did it nearly every issue for awhile. The editors delayed my board game for one issue, because they were selling the Space Gamer title to someone else, and they figured they were doing me a favor. I wish they’d have published it as scheduled: better to be in the last issue of the mag published by SJG than buried in the “Space Gamer” section of the first issue of VIP of Gaming. Ugh. But I digress.)

Back to Beanstalk launching my career. I had been proofreading for GDW part-time for a few months, as professional practice in college, and making helpful comments in the margins (often from my medic experience). One day Marc Miller came to me and asked, “Would you like to write an adventure module for us?” Starry eyed, I responded, “Absolutely!” He handed me a cover painting, said, “The book has to be 64 pages. It has to work this cover scene into the adventure somehow. And it’s already overdue.”

The longest thing I’d ever written before was a 2,000-word paper for an English class. A 64-page module averages 50,000 words. Somehow I survived, and it whetted my appetite for RPG publishing.

At the end of that work, I left a 2-page memo on Frank Chadwick’s desk, saying “When you reprint Traveller: 2300, I’d suggest these changes to the text.” Things like an experience system, so PCs could actually progress during a campaign. That was on a Friday. On Monday morning Frank called me into his office, where he and Marc said, “You’re right about these things. But we don’t want to wait for a reprint. We want to republish the game as 2300 AD. Would you like the project?” Starry eyed, I replied, “Of course!” And suddenly I had a full-time game design job.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the power of the memo.

From there, I went on to manage the line, which included writing The Deathwatch Program and editing Ranger and Invasion (pictured here), among many other things.

Who Can We Trust?

This video has nothing to do with politics, but the title matches my thesis, and as a comedy soundtrack it keeps things light. 🙂

It’s only natural that human beings start life with a set of beliefs and values passed along by their parents. And as we grow up and those beliefs begin to conflict with other people’s views, it’s easy to either cling to our own and deny everyone else’s, or to toss up our hands and exclaim, “Who knows what’s really true?”

Often, politicians rely on this. Intent on gaining office, they either shade the truth, distract from it like hand-waving magicians, or bury it in a landslide of half-truths and outright falsehoods.

Facing that, it’s tempting to throw our hands in the air, call them all liars, and walk away. However, our founders expected that we would at least try to sort out the mess and make the most informed political decisions we can. For that, we need the media. Our founders figured we’d take responsibility to navigate it and gauge its value.

Our founders expected that we would at least try to sort out the mess and make the most informed political decisions we can.

In recent years, some politicians have made a special point to undermine even that. Probably most prominent (and most effective and influential) have been Sarah Palin with her “lamestream media” slogan and Donald Trump with his “false news” tag. I’m not broadly accusing any entire party, just those two individuals.

I think it’s obvious that someone who dismisses all unfavorable news as “unfair and biased” is using that hand-waving magician trick to dismiss their own sins.

So how can we evaluate media reports? Here’s my own set of guidelines:

  • Does it agree with what I already believe? Be suspicious of my own bias.
  • Is it an opinion page? Not worth my time.
  • Is it group discussion (i.e. a talk show)? Not worth my time.
  • Is it from a news source I’ve never heard of? Visit the site to see if other articles there show a clear bias.
  • Are its photos clearly unflattering of the subject? (Trump gloating, Obama slumping, etc.) Don’t trust it.
  • Does it use judgmental descriptive terms? (“Today X made the despicable decision to do Y.”) Don’t trust it.
  • Does it use suspicious graphics?* Don’t trust it.
  • Is it a news source with a long history of journalism? Weigh its story against others from respected sources and average it all out to make a reasoned opinion. (Examples: Christian Science Monitor, C-SPAN, The Economist, USA Today.)

*I feel obligated to share an example of a source I no longer trust, because of it’s abuse of graphics. Below are a reconstruction of the TV version, followed by same information as any competent schoolchild would have graphed it. By starting the numbering at 100, the top chart suggests that O’Bannon’s spending is 10 times Shrubb’s spending. The actuality is that they’re very close in spending, as the bottom shows. Notice also the use of colors. In graphic design terms, red suggests danger, blue trustworthiness, and green serenity.

That top graph is based on a TV broadcast I saw on Fox News, while traveling for business.

And yes, using the phrase “Any Competent Schoolchild” is a “judgmental descriptive term.” In my defense, (1) I held my ire until a footnote; (2) this is a personal blog, not a news report; and (3) it serves as an example of a loaded phrase. (Gotcha!) In any case, the graph comparisons remain valid.

Defeating Ithaqua

Yesterday at the breakfast table (after breakfast; I’m not a barbarian), I finally beat Ithaqua with a random team of investigators. I mean beat him. This crew was so well prepared they could have walked out his cave right into the Nyarlathotep scenario, beat him, and so on down the line of Elder Gods to the original Yig.

(I’m speaking, of course, of my years-long obsession with the Elder Sign: Omens app.)

The success was part luck, of course, but also careful strategy.

The luck came into play first in the random selection of investigators: Mark Harrigan (completes tasks in any order); Luke Robinson (can spend 4 trophies to open an other world); Diana Stanley (gets a Clue for defeating a monster); Jenny Barnes (can turn anything but a Unique Item into both a red die and yellow die). Jenny’s arguably my favorite character, packing a wallop at low cost. Mark’s ability to tackle numbered tasks out of order is great for knocking off those adventures. In a scenario like this one, where monsters pop up often, Diana can easily end up with a dozen Clue tokens or more. And saving Luke to unlock numerous Other World adventures once the Alaskan wilderness part turned out to be very effective, guaranteeing multiple ways of gaining Elder Signs to quickly reach Ithaqua’s cave.

The second bit of luck was that not much Doom piled up in the Museum portion, and enough adventures allowed Doom reduction that the team managed to hang out there until nearly 30 supplies had been amassed—without spending any of Luke’s Trophy points, and without using much in terms of equipment. That meant they could tackle the Alaska part in a leisurely fashion. Between time at the Museum and buying at the Alaskan trading post, all the characters were loaded with plenty of Clues and Spells to back up their Common and Unique items.

And the third element of luck was that instead of stampeding the horses and destroying all supplies, forcing the team into the typical panicked starvation mode, the ravine actually gave them more supplies. They had literally two dozen left upon entering Ithaqua’s cave.

The good strategies started with using Mark and Diana to tackle the toughest Museum events, with Jenny acting as backup, while Luke cherry picked the easiest just to rack up trophy points. The group spent a last few nights in the Museum just so Jenny could buy Clues as a stockpile of cheap tokens to convert later to those powerful yellow and red dice.

When the Doom track finally reached about 4, they headed to Alaska. With the Doom track that low and supplies so high, their time in Alaska remained leisurely. They could even afford time to heal at the Trading Post as needed.

Once in Alaska, Luke began opening Other Worlds left and right. (Note that tackling an Other World adventure just before midnight arrives means no risk of solving a real world adventure only to have a random adventure with a midnight penalty pop up unexpectedly.) Careful choice of which adventure with an Elder Sign to tackle in what order meant the crew accumulated 8 (placing them just before the ravine), and then that massive 3 from R’lyeh, putting them an easy one Elder Sign away from Ithaqua’s cave.

And this is where the final bit of strategy paid off. I used Jenny (who’s tokens were nearly depleted) to score that last Elder Sign, which meant the next three investigators would tackle the three rounds of Ithaqua battle without needing her help—and they were all loaded down with Spells and Clues to back up one Common and one Unique item apiece.

Ithaqua never stood a chance. The overall battle was ridiculously easy at this point.

If I’d put the team together myself, Mark should have gone into the second or third slot instead of first in the lineup, because his ability to choose task order would have been even more effective. But I was most surprised at how effective Luke was in preparing the path to victory. Against some Elder Gods, his special ability might be less effective, but it worked surprisingly well here.

But enough effusing. Time to load up another team of investigators and squeeze the last bits of life out of this game app. Like Cthulhu squeezing the life out of a hapless sailor.