Boardgame Kaiju

Don’t Break the Ice -vs- Mouse Trap

In a world where giant kaiju roam the Earth, battling for supremacy of the boardgame metaverse…

I read an article about the digital artist Simon Stålenhag (I recommend googling him!) that really got me thinking about the strange and gloriously meta worlds in which small things are huge and giant mechanical things are commonplace. My personal meta worlds are almost always populated by games, especially board games, so why not a universe of giant, kaiju games?

Here are several drawings that came to me during that weird liminal phase between dreaming about games and waking up completely. I drew them as soon as I got up so that I would not forget the strange visions I had. I think I must have recently see that horrible “Battleship” remake that looks like a cross between “Pacific Rim” and “Jumanji.”

Contact the artist for commission inquiries (hahahahaha).

Kerplunk -vs- Rubik’s Cube -vs- Trouble
Candyland -vs- Chutes & Ladders
Battleship -vs- Mastermind

Binocuwords

Here’s my attempt at finding a new format for crossword puzzles. Imagine you are looking at a normal, everyday crossword through a pair of binoculars. The lenses are fixed, as is the crossword page itself, so that you cannot scan around. You are stuck with exactly this view of the clues and this view of the grid.

I’ve constructed this crossword specifically for this puzzle, although I started with a square area. The idea is that with limited visibility and a limited section of each clue and entry area, you can still piece together all the answers. In some cases, there is an ending for a word that is guessable, in other cases it’s the beginning of the word.

After a certain point, a theme should emerge which will give you further insight as to what all the other clues are about. With a bit of guesswork at the start, a complete puzzle solution will finally emerge.

This particular one was a test. As it is my very first Binocuword, it has a few rough answers. I don’t really expect you to know what the original name of one small part of the ISS was, but perhaps you’ll forgive me in the spirit of this being a “prototype”. On the other hand, if you love it, let me know and I’ll make more!

DAILY COMBO: The Pursuit of Happiness + The Bride Game

A glutton for punishment, I allow BGG to randomly pick two games for me to combine and I am duly punished. What nasty ideas are out there in game designers’ heads? Read on to see…

Today’s two randomly generated games: The Pursuit of Happiness + The Bride Game

The Pursuit of Happiness (2015): Imagine Sid Meier redesigned The Game of Life but added in horrible stereotypes of what “ought” to bring you happiness.
The Bride Game (1971): Imagine Don Draper redesigned Pretty Pretty Princess and added in horrible stereotypes of “what women want.”

Initial thoughts: Hey, I don’t write the rules, I just occasionally let BoardGameGeek pick two random games to combine. And then I write the rules for it, so I guess I lied. Can you believe this combo? Can you imagine Selchow & Righter releasing “The Bride Game” today? I don’t even know where to start on how wrong it is by today’s standards. Rest assured, today’s combo will be making fun of how horrible this Bride game concept is, even for 1971! Okay, here we go…
The form of Pursuit is basically worker placement with points being accumulated during the course of each player’s “life.” The spirit of the game is collecting Happiness. Period. By contrast, the form of Bride Game is collecting items for a “successful” wedding day. The spirit of the game consists of the following (horrible) ideas: Being the first to get married in your group of girlfriends; finding a white, middle class man who will marry you; and using luck and luck alone to do this. Oddly, both games involve accumulating items, money and fame in order to be “happy.” Hmmm. Maybe these were meant to be combined…

Game Combo: Do I need to combine these? Okay, concept number one would be using the form of Happiness (worker placement, collection of money, things and life partners) and the spirit of Bride (being your best white, cis-female). I could easily see this as simply playing Pursuit of Happiness with an agreement that all of you are role playing simplistic, cliched 1971 stereotypes of women as seen in the eyes of the worst parts of the 1950s. Why 50s and not 70s or at least 60s? Because the designers of this game were no doubt raised in the 1950s and are not even representing the best of what the 60s had to offer let alone the 70s. Concept two would be the form of Bride (collecting dumb items) with the spirit of Happiness (collecting happiness!). I can already see where this is heading…
Let’s play The Pursuit of Happiness as straight white 1950s-inspired women who find themselves being marketed to in 1971. The board for Pursuit is simple enough for us to map Bride onto it. All Projects should be twisted by the players into the Bride version of it. All Activities can be re-cast into terrible 1970s analogs. Jobs should be the most degrading, low paying, sexist versions possible. And Partners are exactly what they look like on the Bride Game standees. In fact, just place those skinny white dudes onto the Partner spaces on the board right now.

The other elements of the game, short term happiness, studying, interacting and playing, should all be overplayed to the hilt. Imagine the cast of The Brady Bunch being their worst selves. Heck, just imagine the Brady girls marrying the Brady Boys on some Appalachian compound with Alice officiating. The rest of the items from Bride can be incorporated as needed, including the cake, bouquet and the ring.
Needless to say, the “something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue” items in Bride can and should be added as items that need to be purchased in the Happiness system. Finally, the victory condition of having the Most Happiness is not necessarily the end of the game.
Instead, the player with the most Happiness points gets to be the bride and have a wedding, but the other players all get to be at the ceremony. This is where the others get to take one last stab at making the wedding a failure. Take the action/project cards from Happiness and deal them out to the wedding attendees. Use the final mechanics of the “Wedding March” from the Bride game and allow the others to play those actions, taking turns, each time the bride takes another step down the center aisle to the altar. The bride can then use anything in her possession to fight back. If she spends all the cards, she loses. If she has any left, she gets to go off and have a horrible life with Mr. Paper Standee.

Final thoughts: It may seem like The Bride Game got the short end of the stick here. Rest assured that The Pursuit of Happiness is an abysmal game too. It’s basic tenet is that the more short term happiness you give yourself, the easier it is to buy long term happiness. IT’s one of the basic mechanics of the game. IT’s sort of like saying “You’re in the dumps? Well, pull yourself out of them! Smile a little more!” Not to mention the unforgivable concept that “well” people are entitled to an easier time of getting even more goods and services while everyone else gets marginalized.
Okay, I need a shower. Hopefully the next random combo is Battleship + a kiddie pool.

DAILY COMBO: Wingspan + Robo Rally

Today I throw caution to the wind and combine two of the most popular games ever published. Call it RoboRobin…. Call it Eggs ‘n’ Lasers. I call it never turning down a combo challenge. Here we go again…

Today’s two randomly selected (popular) games:
Wingspan (2019):
Bird enthusiast card game of nests, food and feathered chain reactions.
Robo Rally (1994): Map-based, programmed movement game of robot conflict set in a deadly factory.

Initial thoughts: Why did I ever agree to trust the Excel Randomizer Function. It clearly has it in for me with this combo. You couldn’t have picked a more preposterous combo if you did it on purpose. Well, today we are combining two random “popular” games, and Wingspan and Robo Rally definitely fit. On the one hand we have Wingspan, whose form is basically card placement and hand management of birds, eggs and food. The spirit of the game is more or less feeding and populating birds and nests in order to fill the forrest. Contrast that with Robo Rally, whose form is card-based pre-set movement on a rectilinear board. IT’s spirit is of course destruction and the inevitable random chaos of pre-set movement with multiple players and unseen snowball effects of many players all in a small space.

Game Combo: Egads, let’s do this. First combo to consider is the form of Wingspan (cards, tokens, powers) with the spirit of Robo (destruction, randomness). The players could be either birders or robot-makers, I guess. The other combo is the form of Robo Rally (deadly maps and movement) with the spirit of Wingspan (nurturing baby birds). Wow, I really can’t decide, but let’s start with the the second one since it sounds more fulfilling. So cue up Raymond Scott’s “Powerhouse” and let’s throw some baby chicks into a factory.
Take any board you like from Robo Rally’s vast assortment, but let’s use Wingspan’s tokens from here on out. we could let players have momement cards and play Robo Rally and move birds, but here’s a thought: have the cards move nests and let the cards be random. Then have the players be placing birds and eggs into the nests as they move around the board of their own accord.
This is basically becoming that rare game combo where nearly all elements of both games are used. Since there are no forrest boards, we would have to drop the “locations” element of Wingspan. The rest of Wingspan could be played out, including food drops and eggs. As added fun I would skip the dice rools and drop the food tokens directly onto the rally map where they would be subject to the conveyor belts and move around. Then the birds can eat any food they are near or that pass by them.
As for victory conditions, I think we all know that the game has to keep going until the last next falls into a pit, or all the other birds starve due to lack of nearby food.

Final thoughts: Do I think this is playable? Umm… At least once? Yes! As with any good game combo, it ought to be good for at least a half hour of play and a laugh. And it’s also good if it doesn’t mix up the two games’ components too much. Sorry about that. This might get messy.

DAILY COMBO: Chess + Global Thermonuclear War

Today is a classic combo I’ve wanted to do for some time. The Game of Kings + The Game of Kilotons. I often imagined one or the other in a combo but never the two together. Let’s see how this plays out…


Today’s two (not) randomly generated games: Chess + Global Thermonuclear War

Initial thoughts: When practicing my “elevator pitch” for game combining, always go to chess for a random game to start with. And then I think of some other random game off the top of my head. Today, for some reason, that other random thought I went to was: Global Thermonuclear War (GTW). I could totally imagine someone suggesting that as a way to break my game combo streak. But I refuse to be broken! And the more I think about it, the more it makes sense as a good combo! Chess has a definite form and spirit. It’s form is a board of black and white squares with a specific set of six pieces; and it’s spirit is to force your opponent into conceding by surrounding and pinning them down. GTW also has a definite form: stockpiling and perhaps sending flying munitions at opponents across the world. Its spirit would be deterrence, followed by overwhelming one’s opponents with great force before they can retaliate.

Game Combo: First up, let’s imagine the form of chess: pieces with varying powers on a board, and one special piece to be targeted, with the spirit of GTW (deterrence and overpowering). On the other hand, we have the spirit of chess (capturing the king) with the form of GTW (blowing each other up with missiles). I can’t even imagine creating the latter, so let’s focus on the former…

Let’s start with an empty board except for a king, and then add a simple rule for “stockpiling” pieces. Perhaps a pawn (a Scud missile?) is cheap, but a Queen (multi-payload inter-continental missile?) is much more expensive to place on the board. You could add nuclear tests: most pieces are not necessarily effective unless you test them, with tests being publicly viewable and results being both partially public and partially secret. Maybe roll 2d6 your opponent sees one die roll and you see the other and if the total, which only you know, is high then the missile is good?). In this manner, some missiles on the board are known to be at least half-effective (if not completely!).

At some point, one side will start the war, via either choice or a mechanism. With a completely random setup of chess pieces and more queens than normal, the game will doubtlessly become a chaotic barrage of nothing but piece-capturing for the first dozen moves. A timer would definitely be in order so that the spirit of “quick launches and counter-launches” is maintained.

The middle game would be more subdued, with targeting of the opponent’s king and tactical maneuvers. Perhaps there are further rules to bring an element of damaged infrastructure or diminished launch capabilities into the game. I would also love to add a way for moves to be set in place a turn ahead with only the vague direction of the piece is known ahead of time. That way the other player can choose to retaliate or to stand down. Obviously, with stacked turns, there would need to be a way to judge piece movement into squares that are now occupied, but that might actually be fun!

Finally, since there are no winners in GTW (like there are in chess), I would add a set of “un-victory” conditions that simulate how horrible the aftermath is in terms of population loss. Perhaps the pawns could all represent population centers instead of SCUD missiles. A moving pawn could be imagined as a “growing metropolis” with the pawn’s current location as a metropolis’ moving center of culture or power. Also, since pawns block movements by the enemy, you could consider them, using the GTW analogy, as “must-hit” or “soft” targets before striking the king. That way it makes more sense that populations would be hit first.

Final thoughts: I feel ill now, because global war makes me ill to imagine. However I also feel pretty confident that you could throw together the rudimentary rules of stockpiling and test this game out yourselves. Maybe even add a random die roll each turn… another 2d6. If it comes up snake eyes, the next player must start war. This would simulate an itchy trigger finger. Honestly, I have enough sets of chess that it would be simple enough to get four queens and a cadre of bishops to square off against six queens and a dozen rooks, with a few handfuls of knights on each side and a mess of pawns (or not). Now, go out there and play some global thermonuclear war, but play nicely kids!

The “Year” in Review: Online Immersive

Like all of us, the first weeks of the 2020 pandemic saw my scheduled entertainment plans to grind to a halt. My predictions for the lockdown’s length careened from “a couple months” to “a year at most.” So when my awareness of the severity finally settled in, I began to realize that even if I refused to change, the world of entertainment was going to drastically change all on its own. It was then that I decided to dip my toes into the world of online interactive content. From virtual escape rooms to immersive VR theatre and then onward into every nook and cranny I could find.

Here is a rundown – and belated review – of several of the immersive and interactive pieces I tried out in the last twelve months…


Chaos Theory: Digital Edition

When the pandemic hit, nearly every theatre had an incomplete production left in the lurch. Many were halted mid-run, some were still in rehearsals, and others, like one I had just built a set for, had a single performance that was both opening and closing night. When they weren’t worrying about Covid, the theatre world sat idle, wondering when they could get back to something… anything! Then, as cooler heads prevailed, many companies realized they could mount virtual versions of their works-in-progress.

One of the first artists to right themself was Jessica Creane whose “Chaos Theory: Digital Edition” found new life via the dreaded Zoom window. Jessica, founder of her own I Kant Koan game and theatre company, ran Chaos Theory for over a year at Caveat in New York before COVID struck. Her ability to pivot shines as a beacon that many others quickly emulated.

For her “Digital Edition” Jessica took her live, one-woman show about an awkward technologist giving a TED-style talk and successfully brought it into our living rooms by capitalizing on what we were all feeling in the early days of the lockdown: social awkwardness. Combine that with our newfound unease with video conferencing tools and you have a heady mix: an awkward narrator using confusing technology to reach out to an uneasy audience. The chaos was bound to follow no matter what.

Her tagline of “What happens when a TED talk about chaos theory goes wildly off the rails?” didn’t need to change at all for the virtual remounting. During the session, she put her Zoom attendees through a series of exercises designed to fail, and the audience gets the joke from the first moment. Jessica’s fictitious Dr. Genevieve Saoch pirouettes from scene to scene like a vaudevillian plate spinner.

The games themselves are things you’ve probably seen at corporate retreats, and the conceit of doing it with complete digital strangers is delightful. You begin to think that this production was almost meant for the video format.

But the climax of the show, as preposterous as it is, doesn’t hold a candle to the wonderful after party. After all the plates have come crashing down, Jessica drops her scientist façade and has a meet & greet. The switch is seamless and instantaneous. The tables are turned as you now become the showrunners, asking her about all the intricacies of the beautiful little immersive gem you’ve just experienced. You won’t even notice the change, though, as you realize she is one and the same person.

Chaos Theory has completed its online runs at both Caveat (NYC) and Curious Theatre Company (Denver), but is available through special arrangement through her website: IKantKoan.com


The Telelibrary

The Telelibrary won No Proscenium’s “Audience Award” as well as its overall top award in 2020 for “Outstanding Achievement in Immersive & Experiential Production” and it’s easy to see why. Or “hear” why, rather. The entire experience is basically a simple audio phone call with telelibrarian and artist Yannick Trapman-O’Brien. After registering for a time slot (which is considerably hard to come by due to the popularity of this show) you simply wait by your phone until the day arrives.

Well that’s what I did: I waited. But you might prefer to go about the rest of your life for the roughly 2 weeks between RSVP and call time. From what I was hearing, this was an experience so singular and so head-and-shoulders above the rest of the immersive world that it was singlehandedly inventing a new genre.

So when my call time finally did arrive, I was there at the allotted time with bells on and headphones in place. I made extra sure, per recommendations I’d gotten, that I had no idea what was in store for me. What followed was a 55-minute audio tour of the imagination.

What is the Telelibrary? In Yannick’s words, it’s “part theater, part game, part self-care.” A virtual audio library that is “constantly changing and evolving… to adapt to your needs and preferences.” You get the feeling it’s going to be a robo-voice guided concierge service that will result in perfectly-tailored selection for your reading pleasure. AKA, a computer is going to listen to you for a bit and spit out a book it recommends you read. But in reality it’s way, way more than what you can possibly expect.

Without spoiling much of anything, the performance built around YOU!. No matter what the telelibrarian may have in mind for any particular call, you, the listener, are fully in charge. It might be as simple as 45 minutes of call-and-response, or as deep as a 59 minutes and 59 second test of the limits of Yannick’s improvisational abilities. But you won’t break him.

One thing is for sure, no two people will have the same experience. This is due partly to the fact that each person is unique, with differing literary likes and dislikes. But also to the fact that Yannick likes to play with the meta-experience of a librarian AI built to cater to humans.

For my call, I expected nothing more than a line on a good book I might like. An hourlong call resulting in a good book recommendation would be, for the price of FREE, a wonderful way to spend an afternoon.

What I got was a trip down a rabbit hole; a lesson in how to be clear and concise; and a reflection on my innate flaw of never asking for what I want in life. I miss the Telelibrarian dearly and I truly wish that one hour had lasted much, much longer. Did I find a good book? Doesn’t matter. I made a friend.

The Telelibrary is free and is ongoing, albeit sparingly doled out, at YannickTo.com/telelibrary.


Pursuit of the Assassin Artist

“Pursuit of the Assassin Artist” is an online-only escape room put on by Omescape. This San Jose entertainment  powerhouse is responsible for some of the most well reviewed escape rooms in the California Bay Area and this is their first foray into the virtual room market. Since the game’s premiere in early 2020, there have been many other offerings in the play-by-computer escape field, but Assassin Artist is the one getting by far the highest marks from reviewers… and rightfully so.

Deftly pivoting early in the Covid lockdown from in-person games to online, Omescape co-founder Sarah Zhang took a look at what was popular out there and set her team’s sights on delivering a best-in-show online experience. The result is an avatar-based, time-looping actor’s delight that has been running and selling out for over a year now.

Avatar-based games are a subgenre of escape rooms that lend themselves exceedingly well to the virtual arena. In them, an actor in the room’s real-world location gets commands from players using a video interface (eg. Zoom). Meanwhile, players watch through the “eyes” of the actor, in this case via a mobile phone which the actor is holding.

Delightfully complicating this setup is the time-loop idea. Every time the actor fails at a task given them by players, the result is invariably death. In fact, your avatar agent will come across numerous ways to get killed by the most innocuous of scenarios. Have no fear, however, for the dauntless actor is blessed with infinite lives, and thus so are you. Each time they meet their demise, either by being told to touch something they shouldn’t or undertake some other an ill-advised action, they are restarted at the beginning of the game, with no knowledge of what has transpired. Brilliantly performed, as our show was, your avatar will make a meal out of not remembering a single shred of your team’s accomplishments each time they are reincarnated. They will convincingly scratch their head and question why you aren’t letting them touch the dangerous items a second time (for them, the first time) or when you know a password that they are pretending to forget. The responses from your avatar are half of the fun in this escape room-slash-performance piece. The other half comes from the delicious flood of one-liners and puns your avatar will mutter while you think of your next command. I can only imagine the delightful hours spend comparing notes on which puns elicit the most groans and which get shared amongst cast members.

Time-loop games have become one of the hottest items in the escape room scene. And when executed well, as they are here, they are a thing of beauty. “Escape the Assassin Artist” may not have invented a new genre, but it has combined several elements of tried-and-true entertainment into an altogether new and exciting beast.

“Pursuit of the Assassin Artist” continues its run indefinitely. Tickets available at Omescape.us/sanjose/online-games


Collider

The Collider is an example of how to do immersive VR theatre right. The brainchild of Canada’s Single Thread Theatre Company, it ran for a scant 4 performances in late May/early June of this year as part of a crossover between the Festival of Live Digital Art (FOLDA), and the rEvolver Festival, put on by Up in the Air Theatre, also of Canada. Their short run was free and basically served as a preview or proof of concept more than anything else.

The production took place in Altspace within a bespoke world created by Single Thread ‘s Alex Dault. Right off the bat, the most impressive thing about Collider was the world’s size. It was larger by maybe two orders of magnitude than any other world I had visited in Altspace, due predominantly to Alex’s artful use of the “basic shapes” kit, which allows worlds to hold more visitors and take up more volume.

Participants in Collider, were given only the vaguest set up story: we were helping to track down a group of scientists that had gone missing in the Arizona desert near a top-secret research facility. Further instructions would be given upon arrival. Arriving in the private world at the arranged time, I was immediately struck by the scope of the environment. There were about 30 of us in the staging area and after several minutes I was able to ascertain that about 20 of us were “audience” members, with the remaining 10 or so being staff/actors. Even with this large group size, the comparatively enormous world size made us feel like a drop in the bucket.

We arrived via choplifter, as we pieced together from the large, futuristic Apache helicopter prop and the huge chain link fence-enclosed landing strip we were constrained within. After the cargo off-loading was completed (ie. waiting for everyone to arrive in Altspace), we were deftly corralled into the plotline. A crack team of actors took over with amazing skill and in no time we felt like we were in the middle of a story. The Collider team’s world construction, in-game objects, avatar costumes and background music seamlessly combined to coerce all twenty attendees hush up and fall in line.

The first fifteen minutes of the show were spent descending into an underground, alien world. Deep under the Arizona desert, we were introduced to our guide, a representative of the alien race that was populating this underworld. Speaking gibberish, the alien scientist beckoned us along labyrinthine corridors and subterranean vaults, along the way rescuing several teammates, all with no spoken words. The wordless communication became one of the production’s most endearing qualities in that it made us care deeply for the protagonists. Through elaborate avatar gestures and grunts, the actors goaded us deep into the alien world, eventually cluing us in to the fact that we were actually inside an abandoned starship.

To prevent the audience from wandering off – and to keep hooligans from sneaking into set pieces that we weren’t ready for – there was always a staff member leading up the rear, reminding stragglers via elaborate charades that there was a show going on… please move along. The result was a well-behaved audience that played along nicely but never was made to feel like they were in a “show.”

Along the way, we were treated to avatar fight choreography, puzzles to solve, quite a few staggering vistas, and at least one scene in which our guides were incapacitated, forcing the audience to work as a group, make a quick group decision, and run for our lives! Future immersive VR producers could learn a lot from this scene. The audience should always be treated like they are the smartest people in the room… and reminded occasionally of how much agency the storyteller is allowing them.

By the end of our journey, we had rescued our new friends, defeated an ancient villain, discovered new life and run ourselves ragged… whether virtually or not. Finally, as we were out of (virtual) breath, we were given perhaps the most imaginative curtain call I’ve ever seen in: the entire cast performing a dance number using every trick in the Altspace hand controller repertoire. And for the first time since pandemic had shut down theatre, I was able to do one of my favorite things: rush up to a show’s cast as they come out from backstage, heaping them with praise and asking them “How’d you do it!?”

Although Single Thread is unofficially reserving the right to bring it back in its original form, we are more likely to see something built on Collider’s technical backbone than any remounting. At the very least, we will be seeing more theatres pushing the limits of VR as we get more content creators into the growing metaverse.

Keep up to date on Single Thread Theatre’s happenings here: SingleThread.ca


Finding Pandora X

Despite its rave reviews, “Finding Pandora X “ is a good parable of how and how not to run a play in VR. With “Best VR Immersive User Experience” and “Best Interactive XP” awards in tow, Pandora seemed like a sure bet for me to further dip my toes into the immersive theatre scene.

Billed as “professional actors and Broadway talent,” Double Eye Studios certainly led with their pedigree. Their debut at the Venice International Film Festival clearly turned heads and ticket sales were reflective of a not-to-be-missed experience, but from the moment I bought my ticket the cracks were beginning to show.

There was one and only confirmation email: the one that came at the time of purchase. Leading up to the event, there were no other communications. Going back to my original invite, I saw in the fine print that I was not mistaken… other emails were supposed to arrive, up to and including the day before the show. Since I had waited almost until that day to start worrying, I decided to await the day-before emails. There was none.

The morning of the performance, I sat and watched my inbox and the hour before the event I even went into VR Chat and patiently sat in my home space, decked out in a spiffy new Rick Sanchez avatar skin. No messages came to warn me that anything was amiss, so I assumed that the show was still on and that I was just not getting the emails. Lest you wonder, I’m an email automation professional by day, so I had already done my due diligence in checking spam folders!

At ten minutes before curtain, I began searching for VR Chat worlds with “Pandora” in the name. After some digging, I found several people online with oddly spelled Roman god names that sounded like possible cast members. Plus, they all ended in a capital “X” just like the show’s title, so I pounced on them.

I friended everyone with an “X” in their name and started clicking the “Join World” button. Eventually, four minutes after the top of the hour, one of them finally let me join them. I found myself whisked into a gargantuan VR Chat world with gray-cloaked figures and a sign telling me all the things I needed to do before the show started. Lucky for me I had only missed that window by nineteen minutes!

One of the few non-gray cloaked avatars (a cast member at last) noticed me in my drunken scientist lab coat. “Hey, are you here to help us fix Apollo? Why are you still dressed like that? We can’t have a mad scientist in Olympus. It’ll surely confuse the gods.” But I think the gods were already a little confused.

On the plus side, they were in character from moment one. I truly appreciate that dedication in an immersive show, so things were starting to look up. I also appreciate the concept of making the audience all look the same. Like The Under Presents,” having an anonymous chorus lets the actors know who they are performing for. It also gives audience members a chance to feel less vulnerable.

The staff quickly set me up with a gray cloak and were very sweet about it, with only a few references to how late I was and that the show would be delayed slightly. Then they launched into an improvised scene that was clearly halfway between “setting the tone” and “communicating in code with the backstage crew to see if the show could begin”. Unfortunately it also came across somewhere between “Improv 101“ and “two good actors stuck vamping slightly longer than expected.”

Once the performance started, however, I was delighted to see actors who know how to project, how to manage crowds while staying in character, and who know how to deliver somewhat stiff material with a whimsicality that lets you know that they know that we all know it’s a little schlocky.

The rest of the show was a relatively straight forward retelling of the Pandora’s Box fable. There was nothing to write home about as far as the story: Apollo has a problem, Apollo needs the audience and later the audience would come through and we would all go home as heroes.

What really shone through the many rough spots in this tale was Double Eye’s use of VR elements in their theatrical experience. Their use of world gravity to make statues too heavy for us but light as a feather for Apollo. The ability to “fly” around us mere mortals who were stuck on the ground. Plus their use of world portals to move from act to act. In each case, the cast demonstrated these in-game elements and used them to heighten the dramatic tension. They even allowed the audience to play with them as a foreshadowing to later events. In-game items and props were freely strewn about and the cast was patient and even encouraging in their use. At times, these free-for-alls led to a bit of chaos, which inevitably caused the show to go overtime, but generally these moments were a source of entertainment and allowed the frustrated audience to let off some steam.

However the production’s live elements, like the pre-show logistics, were not without glitches. Upon joining we were assured that falling off the edge of the world was not to be feared. At one point, while we were being put through our paces on some light puzzle elements at the top of a precipice, we were reminded several times that the worst that could happen if we fell was we would respawn into the same scene. When I fell, however, I was stuck in a freefall that could not be exited. I eventually had to restart VR Chat. Pulling up the cast member list, I tried re-entering our guide’s world to no avail.

I tried all the other performers and eventually resorted to entering the world via their host bot. In what turned out to be my favorite, unintentional part of the experience, I found myself in the empty lobby with free rein of the entire worldspace. No Apollo, no guides, no actors (they had all moved on to the next world). With nobody guarding the henhouse and no way to rejoin the show, I entertained myself by playing with the gravity and numerous items laying about, as well as flying around the world. After discovering the final scene’s set, the green room and the after-show bar, the cast finally returned from their Act 2 worlds. I may never know what happened there, but Act 3 was a private joy for me as I (barely) contained my fly ability and only messed with the gravity controls a little bit. Sadly, the finale was as predictable as picking up a key in front of a locked door and using it on the lock in the door. To the company’s credit, the audience loved the show and stuck around to chat with the cast and crew and any production team willing to do that is aces in my book.

“Finding Pandora X” recently played at SXSW 2021. News on future productions available at doubleeye.co


A Thousand Ways

The La Jolla Playhouse has long been a bastion for new works and events that make you think outside the box, including their WOW Festival (Without Walls) which seeks to take the public “outside the confines of a traditional theatre.” Add to the mix longstanding guerilla performance troupe “600 Highwaymen” and you have a match made in immersive heaven.

“A Thousand Ways” is a three-part theatrical experience involving progressively deeper connections between two parties. Part One was a telephone call between two strangers. Part Two was an in-person meeting between two strangers. And Part Three is imagined as an in-person freeform meetup between strangers, this time with nothing separating the participants. In each stage of the show, the strangers could be, but are very much unlikely to be the same participants from previous performances.

When I first became aware of the show, Part One had finished, so I eagerly jumped in and got tickets for Part Two. Since then, additional performances for the telephone call have opened up and I was able to experience Part Two as well. Part Three has yet to be ticketed or even scheduled, but more on that later! First, let me explain the first two… in the order they were intended to be seen.

PART ONE: A PHONE CALL

For the phone experience, two strangers enjoy an awkward phone call, neither one with any preparation beforehand. The awkwardness comes from the fact that you are guided by a disembodied voice which serves as both telephone operator and go-between for the duration of the show.

Starting with a simple prompt, each caller is asked to introduce themselves, but only in vague terms. No personal information. Then, through a series of disjointed and somewhat contrived prompts, each participant gets to reveal more and more about who they are. “Person A, Please tell Person B something you see in front of you.” Pause for answer. “Person B, please tell Person A about an item on the wall to your left.”

The disembodied voice, for its part, waits until the answer is received and then moves on to the next prompt. The effect is a lot like your stereotypical therapist trope: “Tell me what’s bothering you. Hmm. Tell me more about that. Hmm.” But there’s significantly more thought put into the prompts than that, with each section of the dialog deepening the conversation.

During my call there were several times when the instructions were garbled or too quiet or were just plain covered up by line noise. In most cases the voice simply waited a split second and then asked the question a second time. But I wanted to determine whether it was a computer talking or an actual person with a computer voice, so I took several of these opportunities to push back a little and see if I could figure out if it was a human. My investigations told me this was a computer — it pretty much ignored my jokes and accepted any answer I gave, even my firmly worded “I’m not answering this one” answers.

Nonetheless, the voice pushed us forward. During the experience I learned that my mystery partner cant sew, likes to read, has very little family, does not play any musical instruments, loves cats and does not cook. I, on the other hand, went into depth about everything I do and took every chance I got to crack wisely, which caused my co-caller to laugh (sure, I was also making sure the other caller wasn’t a computer too… you can never be to certain!).

In the end I also learned that I like to guide conversations and that I bristle at random prompts. I guess it’s fair to say I bristle at computer AIs in general. After our hourlong conversation was ended, I didn’t feel changed by the encounter except perhaps in my willingness to open up to a stranger.

Whether the 600 Highwaymen were hoping for this result or for something more tangible and life-changing, I may not know until Part Three. As for Part Two…

PART TWO: AN ENCOUNTER

The in-person version of the performance was altogether different from the phone call. Moving from a phone call to a sit down encounter presents a chance to heighten the experience. The two ticket holders arriving at the La Jolla playhouse could either be repeat attendees who had already done the phone call, or brand new participants. They may or may not even have any knowledge what Part One was at all.

The only requirement is tat you do NOT know the other person attending. You can randomly hook up participants for a phone call, so it was clear that this was added for Part Two. My wife and I both chose the same performance. We dutifully clicked the “we understand we will not be in the same show” disclaimer. And we drove down to La Jolla and we waited for the unknown.

When I was led into my room I was the second person to arrive. Already seated was a girl perhaps 10 years younger than me. Between us was a plexiglass wall mounted on a desk. Since she was in a chair it followed that I was to sit in the chair opposite her. On the desk were two stacks of seemingly identical white index cards.

I managed to start the proceedings off with unintentional drama. I misread the first card which said that my desk mate would read their top card first. Specifically, it was wo begin as soon as I placed my hand down on the table. Since I read it too fast, I didn’t see that last part. To her credit, my partner waited for me to put my hand down. I, however, waited for her to read her card. And I waited. And she waited. And I reread my card. And I missed the last instruction a second time. And then I sighed. And I waited and she waited. Then I read it a third time and (realizing my mistake) slammed my hand down on the table.

When ensued was an hour of back and forth questions and answers prompted by the cards. Much like the phone interchange, our questions were personal, but not too deep. There were queries into our childhood memories, our ability to drive a stick shift, our cooking skills… and every so often a doozy like “Can you remember the last time you were truly happy?”

It seemed like the questions had stepped up a notch into the personal, character-revealing category. Perhaps the playwright’s intent this time around, given the face-to-face nature of Part Two, was to push us into leaving our safety zones.

My answer of “NO!” regarding whether I could remember the last time I was happy threw my partner off. She visually blanched at my answer. To me, the beauty of Part Two lie in the fact that we had all the time in the world to give our answers. For my part I choose succinct ones as often as possible, but then launched into longer answers when it felt appropriate. I’ll admit that as an actor my ulterior motive was always to entertain while being entertained. My costar in this performance, clearly not an actor, was choosing instead to give curt answers. When asked if she could cook or sew (there were lots of repeats from the phone call) she was almost reluctant to give her “no” answer, while I practically jumped up and said “Yes I can drive a stick shift like no one’s business!”

The experiment worked. By the end of the hour, when we were told (by the final cards) to go our separate ways, I made a meal of my departure. I adhered to the strictest possible meaning of the instructions on my last card as I left. From what I could see as I watched my cohort getting into her car across the parking lot, she was affected by the performance and by my abrupt, silent departure.

Contrast this with my wife’s experience in the room next door to us. She had been paired up with someone who like she was also an actor. The two of them blew the experiment up from card one. By her recount, they debated the mysterious nature of the cards’ instructions and interpreted them together as a group, chewing the scenery with their answers and really getting to know each other in the process. In the end, however, they departed as they had arrived… strangers…deeply affected by the experience.

Who’s to say which of us had the “intended” theatrical experience?

A Thousand Ways Parts 1 and 2 are in and out or production as of this writing. Part 3 has yet to be announced. Watch their website for information:  600highwaymen.org


Box One by Neil Patrick Harris

The play-at-home market benefitted from a renaissance in the past year and a half, thanks of course to a lockdown-induced captive audience. While quite a few new players (Vampire Pizza) and some experienced ones (Hunt-A-Killer) entered the market, it was also refreshing to see celebrities putting their mark on this overlooked industry. Magician Helder Guimarães and renowned Japanese game developers SCRAP both came out with popular offerings as well. Then Neil Patrick Harris, no stranger himself to the escape-room field, announced “Box One” in cooperation with theory11.

The box itself is a joy to behold (and hold). It’s surface is a glimmering delight from its gold embossing to its precision 3-D carvings. This comes as no surprise given theory11’s long history of putting out stunning magic tricks and card decks, all constricted with high quality die cutting and dazzling faux-gold overlay printing. In this case, you are getting your money’s for a coffee table conversation piece if nothing else.

But the proof is in the content, and from moment one, you will be impressed with Box One. As you unbox, you are met with a meticulous instruction sheet. Neil’s writing shines from the moment you start in on the step-by-step guide. “Open this”… “set that aside”… “pay attention now.” You get the feeling you are being guided by not just a dedicated performer, but a real person.

Eventually, you are instructed to open a mysterious pack of cards and read the first one. What follows is a puzzle experience on rails, but with exceptions. You will be given cryptic instructions, asked to answer trivia questions, solve light geography riddles, do wordplay and cryptograms (not hard ones) and eventually start piecing together a larger set of codes, clues and rules that will open up more content and more hidden stuff and…

Not giving anything away, what you initially see inside the box is very much the illusion that Neil wants you to see. I have not solved Box One (I’m slowly savoring it), but so far I am honestly gob smacked by the amount of content that is hidden at first blush.

A lot of hoopla is made in the game’s marketing about this being a game BY ONE person and FOR ONE person. Whether this is a sneaky ploy to discourage sharing among friends or an honest plea to keep the integrity of the game’s design from being watered down, I won’t know until I’ve finished. I do know that we tried it as a group and found it very engaging and even beneficial to have a few hands working various angles on each puzzle. At a certain point there are multiple directions the solving can go which leaves plenty for a group of two or three to do. Maybe it’s best to start it alone and then bring in some friends!

Box One Presented By Neil Patrick Harris is available at Target and from Theory11’s website: theory11.com


The Under Presents, 2-years-later

When Tender Claws debuted “The Under Presents” in 2019, it was like nothing else in VR. Their immersive, theatrical experience grew it’s audience, eventually adding “live” shows and a rendition of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”. This is not a review of either the game or the performance, however. This is a synopsis of the world as it stands now, empty except for the audience that came to play… and stay.

TUP, as its referred to by fans, is still a playable game. You still get the original experience, minus the live shows and the play. There’s a twisty-timey mini-game called “Time Boat” which showcases the team’s wonderful user interface, plus main stage, where a dozen recorded acts play in a loop. And then there’s the other players themselves.

The magic of TUP is truly inside the world created by YOU and your fellow players. With no instruction beyond the basic maneuvers, newcomers are forced to learn the finger snap  magic system on their own, perfect it with the help of strangers, and then teach it to the next newbie that arrives. I refused help for the longest time, having convinced myself that these were AI bots and NOT other human beings.

I was so, so wrong! Once I accepted their help, I was swept into an underground world of mysterious passages, workshops, upgraded gear and an entire hierarchy of competing guilds, all communicating via hand gestures. So if you want to experience the heady feeling of power growing slowly in your hands, snap your fingers and head on down into The Under Presents.

Tender Claws’ The Under Presents

DAILY COMBO: Snorta + Boggle

I love it when a combo seems preposterous at first and then something clicks and you have a game. Today’s combo was randomly chosen from my personal collection. In fact I have a new system just for rolling up the bookcase, bookshelf, stack and specific games to be matched up!

Today’s two randomly generated games:
Snorta (2004): Animal sound matching and memory game with colorful plastic miniatures.
Boggle (1972): Timed word-building game with randomized letter board.

Initial thoughts: Snorta is basically “Anomia” with animals. It’s one of those games where you the draw of a card pits you against a random other player and you each have to do something based on what the OTHER player is. In Anomia, it’s naming something from the other players category. In Snorta it’s making the noise of the other player’s hidden animal. It’s hard, but fun, and a little anxiety-triggering for a lot of people. I can’t for the life of me see how one can play Boggle using animal figurines… So we might be left playing an animal-based game using the Boggle equipment, with animal noises thrown in for fun. I still want to keep the “must use the other player’s entity” mechanic, though. Let’s see if I can make it work.

Game Combo: Here’s what I have in mind. Play Boggle, but also assign each player a hidden animal. When the timer starts, each player tries to find words associated with the other animals (not their own), keeping the lists separate for each animal. During play, you may only make your assigned animal’s noise, which will be the only clue as to what animal each player is (no fair staying silent or making an incorrect noise!). When the timer is expired, compare lists just like in Boggle, except for the following additional rules: When your word is not on any other person’s list, it is ZERO points. When your word is on exactly one other list (for that same animal), it scores a point for each letter like normal Boggle. When your word is on more than one other player’s list for that animal, it scores one point LESS for each additional list it’s on. So if you match 2 other players (ie. three of you have that word for that animal) and it’s a 4-point word, your final score for the word is 3. These new rules do basically serve to discourage assigning a generic word to an animal, since others wouldn’t likely assign that word randomly to that animal. Finally, during scoring when you speak up to indicate that a word is on your list too, do so by making your animal’s noise.

Final thoughts: Like many game combos, this might be played only once as described. However I can see many variations on this style of Boggle play. Instead of animals, you could assign famous historical figures to each player, or countries, or cities. You could even just give each player a category that the others have to find word for. For these variations I would NOT recommend hidden identities.

DAILY COMBO: Cosmic Encounter + Illuminati

Another challenge from a friend who thought this would break me but I am strong like Servants of Cthulhu! Thanks to Tom L for this one! I think I made a (at least initially) playable combo that ought to make for a good afternoon of fun.

Today’s two (not) randomly generated games: 
Cosmic Encounter (1977): Classic game of space alien war and colonization built on powers and flares.
Illuminati (1982): Chaotic and satirical game of world domination, secret societies and special interest groups.

classic Steve Jackson (I) game of world domination. Each player takes on the role of a secret society attempting to spread its tendrils into special interest groups throughout the worl

Initial thoughts: At first blush this seems like an impossible combination. Two games with impossibly large setups, both very modular and non-board-based, both based on flare play and power-borrowing. And yet, there are ways to make the similarities a benefit to combining them as opposed to a detriment. So should we play Cosmic using Illuminati groups, or Illuminati using Cosmic tiles? All the color of Illuminati play would be lost without the individualized group chits. On the other hand, Illuminati’s setup is already Cosmic-like, so I think I’ll overlay one on the other…

Game Combo: Use the aliens from Cosmic as the core of each player’s play area (instead of the secret societies from Illuminati). Their powers should still allow you to do all the things in a normal Cosmic game. The difference is that you are now connecting organization (cards) from Illuminati to the four sides of your alien, imagining an outward arrow on each side of it. The alien card acts like the secret society in all other ways, such as making it harder to control/neutralize/destroy a nearby org card. You will be connecting orgs using their arrows as per normal just like in Illuminati. Whenever you want to, however, as one of your actions you may place a Cosmic base moon tile underneath an org card. This would have the same effect as if the card were directly attached to the base alien. Instead of money, orgs generate ships (the discs in Cosmic). Alignments still make attacks harder/easier. The natural Resistance of an org equates to an imaginary number of ships on the card as far as attacking it. The alien card has no “Income”, but still give each player the normal starting amount of 20 ships. To make it an even more complete combo, add more of Illuminati back in: Place a random Illuminati secret society card under each player’s alien so that nobody can see each other’s society. These cards do not have any effect other than to add that society’s secret Victory Condition (in addition to the player’s normal Cosmic victory condition of 5 colonies). In this case I would also add money chits back in as well!

Final thoughts: Playability? Probably only once. Or a half a play. Actually, I think it would be a very enjoyable complete game-crash experience to wholeheartedly attempt this once and try to complete a game. I imagine you would have to make many rule decisions on the fly and the Zombie or Void would probably win (especially if the Gnomes of Zurich were underneath it).

PatGame Archive: Chopstick Mazes

Digging back into the PatGame archives to 2006 for this pencil-and-paper maze game based on using pencils like chopsticks to solve a double-path maze!

Here is the original post from October 3rd, 2006:

Equipment: printout of Chopstick Maze #1
Players: 1

RULES
Are normal mazes too easy for you? Looking for something to increase your potsticker-picking-up skills? Why not kill two birds with one pair of chopsticks!?

Chopstick Mazes look like a regular maze, but here’s the part where I mess with you – Noodle Planet-style:

You have to solve TWO intertwined mazes at the same time using two pencils AND you have to do it while holding your pencils like chopsticks.

Start at the lower right corner of Maze #1 with your pencils in hand. Enter the side-by-side starting gates and try to make your way all the way to the twin exit gates on the left side.

Now here’s where it gets tricky. Both pencils have to stay in the same color at the same time. So, starting from the green section, neither pencil can enter the blue section until they BOTH do. Same goes for the pink section, and finally the purple section.

Think your gyoza-fu is up to it?

Les Misérables Love Letters

Love Letters is almost the perfect game. You can keep a copy of it in your wallet or your car glovebox. You can print your own set of it on a letter size sheet of paper. They aren’t sticklers about people making their own playable copies. You can change just ONE card to make it fit a whole new book or movie, and the new card’s powers can completely change the feel of the game without ruining the gameplay. I’m just glad they made the game, turned a little profit and then showed you how to run with it on your own. No fuss, no expansion packs, no overpowering the game just to sell more versions.

Here is a copy I made almost 7 years ago with new art for Les Misérable fans. No new powers… just new art. For rules on how to play just Google “love letters card game”.