Archive for September, 2009

Playing Old Games

September 30, 2009
Due to indecision on my part, I’ve neglected to write a new article. As I’ve overheard elsewhere on the Internet, "not blogging is easy". I thought about writing on my nephew’s budding game designer ambitions, but it felt to personal for these pages. I thought about writing my thoughts on health care reform, but the topic fills me with negative emotions I’d rather avoid. I thought about writing about my recent trip to SPX, but thought it’d just be an exercise in name-dropping. Thus I fall back onto writing about… old boardgames. Gaming is pleasant, and politics is not.

Ian returned from Massachusetts with a truck full of old stuff, among which was a trove of games from the early 1970s. There were many classics in there, like Backgammon, Othello, Mah Jongg, and Risk. There were kids games like Careers. There was a 1960s edition of Acquire, of which I had recently bought the 2008 edition. But the most intriguing games in the pile were three: The Inventors, The Boston Game, and Anagrams. (None of the following pictures are mine: I borrowed them from BoardGameGeek.)

The Inventors was published in 1974, and bears some similarity to the old war horse Monopoly. Like Monopoly, the winner is the player who makes the most money. Like Monopoly, the players roll dice and move clockwise around the square board’s outer track. Like Monopoly, there are properties, in this case Inventions, to buy and profit with.

Otherwise, The Inventors is quite different. Inventions generate money for you only after you decide to enter the separate Royalty movement track. The value of the Royalties depends on the type of Invention (A, B, or C), the strength of the patent on it (0, 1, or 2), and whether any opponents have declared themselves as partners on the venture. After you leave the Royalty track, the invention is returned to the buying pool. The same invention can be bought and invested several times during one game, but there are only 20-ish patent chips. Each patent chip is used once, then is removed from the game. When the patent chips are all gone, the game ends and the player with the most money, including held inventions, wins.

The first thing that grabbed my attention was The Incredible Patent Picker Move Maker Machine, a quirky plastic contraption that does double duty as a dice tower and as a token dispenser. It’s a catchy toy… put dice in the top, push the button, and listen as the dice clatter invisibly through the machine’s interior, then it rings a bell as the dice tumble into view. Evelyn likened the bell to that of a cash register; every time it rang, she got money.

The style of the game is that of the Golden Age of Invention, from Edison to World War I. The art calls to mind the advertising style employed during the Gilded Age, with gratuitous scrollwork, pointing arrows and hands, and a wide sampling of loud bold fonts. The inventions are real, ripped from the sillier annals of the US Patent Office, such as the Air Conditioned Rocking Chair, the Horse Water-Wings, the Eye Protector for Chickens, the Automatic Hat Tipping Device, and the Dimple Maker. I am not making any of these inventions up.

The four of us really got into it, buying up the pool of twelve inventions, collecting patent chips, then taking our patented inventions to market. Unwanted business partners leeched profits, bargains were haggled, and money was earned and then lost. And after it was all done, we agreed that it was better than Monopoly. It took less time, had a more lighthearted sense of humor, and didn’t eject players before the game’s conclusion. Given the choice of playing Monopoly or The Inventors again, I’d choose the latter.


The Boston Game is a time capsule, a love letter to the Boston T written in 1973. The concept is simple… somebody looked at the Boston subway map and said "There could be a game about this". Indeed, the game was designed and published by two people (spouses or siblings?), whose only other fruit was the similar New York Game. For a 25-year-old self-published game, the production values are excellent, with decent graphics, cardstock, and printing quality to shame even some modern day game publishers.

The game is simple. Start off in the Boston suburbs as a tourist with a half dozen sightseeing destinations in the city. Roll the die and move along the train line until you get to your destination, then play it when you get there. Beware of line transfers, as it requires you to first take a chance on the Jeopardy Deck, just like real life. You could be suddenly teleported across town, or force a station to close. Make it to all your destinations first, and return to your starting place, and you win.

You can read a more elaborate write-up of my Boston Game session on BoardGameGeek. We three gamers all liked the experience, and felt that, despite its faults, there was a fun game to be had here. It begged for an overhaul, to throw out the bad bits, polish the good bits, and inject some lessons learned in the last thirty-odd years of game design history. The end result would be The Boston Game v2.0, allowed to shine its brightest. Would you be surprised to learn that I’m already making The DC Metro Game?

Lastly I tried Anagrams, a word game ancestor of Scrabble. BoardGameGeek says that Anagrams was first published in 1911, with a haphazard free-for-all publishing history since then. Let me tell you, the Anagrams set I played with could have been one of those ninety-year-old sets. The homemade box held the ancient hard plastic letter tiles, possessing all the heft and smell of reverent history. It called to mind the age of straw hats, buffalo nickels, Model T’s, brass nickelodeons, and ragtime. Each tile was jet black, as if carved from coal, with a raised white letter on it. The white paint had flaked in places, enhancing the sense of time these tiles had sojourned through.

Ian summoned Anagrams rules from the Internet, and we played. Start with a common pool of tiles. Draw another tile, and form a word with them. If you can, great. If not, add your tile to the pool and give your opponents a chance to grab the word you overlooked. You can even snipe claimed words from other players, by making a longer unrelated word from a previously played word. I am really good at this last part. I think it would be a great idea to have an assorted heap of letter tiles around, for inventing folk word games on rainy days, so I’m keeping my Goodwill eyes open for orphaned Scrabble tiles and cheap Bananagrams sets.

Nifty Wikipedia Thing: St. Elizabeths, DC’s abandoned mental asylum.

Movies I’ve Seen:

Shaft (1971) ~ surprisingly slow funky noir blaxploitation

Bound for Glory (1976) ~ Woody Guthrie digs a hole

Earth Girls are Easy (1989) ~ B52-s are the perfect soundtrack

South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut (1999) ~ cruder than Carlin for naught

Futurama: Into the Wild Green Yonder (2009) ~ worthy capstone and series finale (?)

What I’ve Been Reading:

"A Fine and Pleasant Misery" by Patrick McManus

"The Federalist Papers" by Madison, Hamilton, and Jay (#45)

"The Sound and the Fury" by William Faulkner

"Candide" by Voltaire

"The Devil in the White City" by Erik Larson

Kill Anthony!

September 5, 2009

As a collector and coin geek, I love coinage, but even I can’t love the Susan B. Anthony dollar coin. The Susan B *does* look too much like a quarter, having the same color and same style of edge. Visually, the difference in diameter between a quarter and a Susan B is not obvious, and even I confuse the two.

The Mint made a similar mistake in 1875 when they introduced the 20-cent coin. Intended as a convenience when buying ten 2-cent postage stamps, this coin was only minted for a few years before being discontinued. The reasons for failure are all too obvious in hindsight. The 20-cent coin used the same obverse (heads side) as the quarter. It was the same color. It’s diameter was 91% that of the quarter, was only 0.2mm thinner, and weighed only 0.7 grams less. In fact, the only apparent visual distinction between the two was on the reverse (tails side). On the 20-cent coin, the eagle faced to the right, while on the quarter the eagle faced to the left. to quote Wikipedia: "One would basically have had to read the small, easily worn text on the reverse in order to determine the value (TWENTY CENTS vs QUAR. DOL.) without a side by side comparison."

The Sacagawea/presidential dollars have a different color and a smooth rim, so they are sufficiently distinguishable from a quarter. (The Canadian loonie coin is identical to our dollar, and they have no trouble telling it apart from their quarter.) The only stupid thing about the current dollar coins is the government’s refusal to withdraw the obsolete and wasteful dollar bill.

The penny and dime are in a similar boat. They are very similar in diameter and thickness. Yet they are easy to tell apart because of differences in color and rim.

I think that the public anathema to the Susan B has unfairly contaminated public sentiment of the "golden" dollars. They associate the failure of this dollar coin with the failure of *any* dollar coin. Its continued circulation reminds the public of the dollar coin’s "untouchable" status, and I avoid putting Susan B’s into the hands of cashiers. Its existence damages the very cause it was designed to promote. In 215 years, the US Mint has never demonetized a coin, but in the Susan B’s case, I wish they would make an exception.

Without the Susan B still kicking around, dollar coins would not have the stigma of failure that this Carter era relic still carries. Kill the Anthony, and dollar coins might live.

Movies I’ve Seen:

Futurama: Bender’s Big Score

Futurama: The Beast With a Billion Backs (the best of the three)

Futurama: Bender’s Game

Xanadu (1980)

Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)

What I’m Reading:

"Time Time Traveler’s Wife" by Audrey Niffenegger

"A Fine and Pleasant Misery" by Patrick McManus

"The Federalist Papers" by Madison, Hamilton, and Jay (#42)

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (who is, by the way, my idea of The Model American)