The Oregon Trail Card Game

August 19th, 2019 12:21 PM
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I spend my workdays at Workbar, a co-working space that lets me host a monthly game session. This month, I volunteered my copy of Oregon Trail: The Card Game.

I'd picked up the game from Target when it was released in the summer of 2016, but I never got around to playing it or its expansion pack. Finally, five of us gathered into a covered wagon to collaboratively make our way through a round.

Before departing, I read the enclosed instructions but found them lacking clarity. This complementary video helped clarify a few things.

Then the five of us departed Missouri. We didn't choose our roles (farmer, banker, carpenter), nor did we elect how to spend our allowance — supply cards were randomly distributed to us.

Four adults playing a card game

An unlikely family of pioneers.

We each had a hand of trail cards that we played to span the distance between the starting card of Independence and the ending card of Willamette Valley. The trail cards fell broadly into three categories: no effect; ford a river; or calamity strikes. The latter two cards occasionally left room for interpretation, which confused our merry band. For example, "Roll an even number to cross the river; roll a 1 and die!" But what about 3 or 5? What I should've done before playing was read the Pressman Toys website for "Oregon Trail Rules Updates", whose three bullet points address some of these concerns.

Even with that added knowledge, the game relied mostly on luck of the draw. The rules imply there's some strategy, such as "Sometimes you may want to let one of your friends die", rather than expend a supply card. But we didn't encounter such a scenario, nor could I imagine one. Now I understand what Kate Szkotnicki meant when she reviewed this game for Juiced.GS:

Some people may also be put off by the amount of luck the game is based on—players looking for a game where they can finesse the rules, manage their cards and play well against their opponents may be disappointed.

A complete round, including occasional pauses to consult the instructions, took about a half-hour. Now that we better understand how to live and die on the Oregon Trail, I expect future games will be faster, and that the expansion pack might introduce additional options and choices. Still, it's not a game I recommend rushing to Chimney Rock to buy.

A card saying 'You have died of dysentery.`

A noble (and notorious) death.

Traveling with Agent USA

August 12th, 2019 1:41 PM
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My grade school had an Apple II computer lab filled with educational software from Scholastic. As one of the few students with an Apple II at home, I was allowed to borrow from this collection over the weekends. While issues of Microzine attracted most of my attention, I fondly remember another title: Agent USA, from Tom Snyder Productions.

This game takes the horror of a pandemic (think a cross between Dustin Hoffman's Outbreak and the Borg) and makes it fun! Players control a government agent (represented as a hat with feet) in a United States whose population is being slowly converted to mindless drones. The only thing that can save them is a self-replicating crystal in the agent's possession. A single crystal can turn a drone back into a citizen, but a hundred of them can defeat the brains of the operation, the Fuzzbomb. If Agent USA can cultivate the crystals, read the train schedules, buy train tickets, and adjust to time zones, he just might save the day.

Wikipedia says this game teaches "spelling, US geography, time zones, and state capitals", though I'm unsure how much of that I absorbed. For example, with many cities to be explored, capital cities were distinguished by an info booth where players could see projections of the Fuzzbomb's spread — but I don't recall memorizing which cities had these maps. Learning how cities connect to each other has transferred to understanding which airlines fly to which cities and where their hubs are, but reading train schedules might've proved more useful had I lived in a city that had good public transit.

What I remember most fondly about the game was not the moral lesson my Catholic school wanted me to learn! Trains left the station every thirty seconds, and if you tried to board without a ticket, you'd be summarily ejected. There was little reason to encounter this scenario, since tickets were free (provided you could spell the destination's name). But if you were strapped not for cash, but for time, you could bypass the ticket booth entirely. Trains would call all-aboard moments before departing, and in that brief window, boarding the train would not leave enough time for the player to be returned to the platform; the train would leave with player in tow.

Having only ever borrowed this game as a kid and wanting it for myself as an adult, I bought a copy of this game five years ago on eBay from Ian Baronofsky, whom I would later meet at KansasFest. I didn't get around to opening it until just last month. It's not the clamshell-edition packaging I remember, but inside is the same train-jumping adventure I grew up with.

Feeling Floppy Happy

August 5th, 2019 11:39 AM
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Steve Weyhrich, purveyor of fine Apple II music videos such as "Week of the KFest", "KFest Funk", and "The KFest Show", as well as creator of the Apple II in Minecraft, has done it again. Although he debuted the video "Boot Up and Run" just a month before KansasFest 2019, he followed it up in short order at KansasFest by premiering "Floppy" a parody of "Happy" by Pharrell Williams.

This latest creation already has more views than many of Steve's previous music videos. I attribute that to two qualities of his song: its source material is well-known; and the video incorporates many members of the Apple II community, lending itself well to being organically shared.

But even without the visual component, it's still catchy! Using iTube Studio for Mac, I downloaded Steve's entire playlist in audio format, quickly and easily adding them to my iTunes library.

List of YouTube videos being downloaded as MP3s

If you've ever wished your iPhone could play floppy disks, well, now it kind of can.

Siri playing a song in response to being asked to "play floppy"

Thank you for yet another hit, Steve!

Apple-1 jigsaw puzzle

July 29th, 2019 12:09 PM
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Earlier this month, I came across some online purchases I'd made 5–6 years ago that were still in their shipping boxes. That era was the height of my YouTube channel, so I must've been saving these purchases for unboxing videos. But since my channel's popularity has waned, I figured it was time to open them off-camera and free the space the boxes were occupying.

I couldn't remember what it was I'd bought, so to allow myself a bit of surprise, I shook the boxes to see if I could guess what was in them. One sounded like it had dozens, if not hundreds, of loose pieces… a puzzle?! Yes!

Boxed jigsaw puzzle of the Apple-1

I bought this Apple-1 puzzle on October 21, 2013, from Subatomic Puzzle Lab on Etsy for $22.22, shipping included. It's a 500-piece puzzle that measures 19" x 13.5" when assembled. The paragraph on the front of the box matches the first paragraph of text in Apple's original Apple-1 advertisement; the back of the box is blank. The top half of the box is taped to the bottom half; I've not yet opened it and inspected the contents.

If you're surprised to find this product exists, you're not alone. I haven't been able to find any photos or news reports about it from that era, and it seems to no longer be available: the Etsy store is empty, the Facebook page hasn't been updated since December 2013.

But the manufacturer's website is still active. It describes itself as a small business whose services "allow owners and distributors of Video or Print media to monetize their content", so you might think the domain name has changed hands. But the company's postal mailing address matches the return address on the box the puzzle shipped in, so this is indeed the same business, just taken in a new direction.

Six years later, this puzzle has gone from a hot commodity to a historical curiosity. I may still record a time-lapse video of me assembling the puzzle. In the meantime, if anyone else has one of these puzzles or can recommend similar products, please leave a comment!

Apple II-inspired photos from PAX East

July 22nd, 2019 12:14 PM
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Every year I attend PAX East, a Boston convention of video games and board games that attracts 70,000 people. I always snap plenty of fun cosplay photos and selfies, but except for whatever I tweet in the moment, I rarely take the time to sort the photos and get them published.

So last weekend I caught up on four years of pictures, sorting through 621 photos and publishing most of them to Gamebits.net. And as I sifted through nearly a half-decade of memories, I came across a few photos that were inspired by the Apple II.

Apple II Forever!

This 2016 photo depicts the Nintendo 3DS handheld of Juiced.GS associate editor Andy Molloy. This game console has a feature called StreetPass, which allows 3DS systems in proximity to each other to exchange avatars. Here's what Andy's avatar says to greet other users.

These two photos are from the 2018 panel "You Have Died of Dysentery: Meaningful Gaming in Education" (which originated in 2016 at PAX West was reprised again in 2019 at PAX South). Its description:

Teachers and parents are continually looking for innovative ways to keep students and kids motivated and engaged. As gamers, we know first hand how elements of video games can keep a person riveted and motivated for hours. How do we take motivating elements of gaming and add them to various education environments? Join a teacher and seven-time PAX presenter as we investigate some simple yet effective ways to take tips from video games and turn them into best teaching practices, without gimmicks.

Though I attended this panel, a downside to waiting so long to share the photos is that I no longer have meaningful context or memories.

But what I remember most aren't the panels or even the photos, but the joy of attending this event with other people who know, love, the Apple II and the games it inspired. ❤️

Prince of Persia is turning 30!

July 15th, 2019 11:46 AM
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The original Prince of Persia game turns thirty years old this October 3, and in anticipation of that anniversary, the game's original creator, Jordan Mechner, has some news to share.

First, his 1980s development journals, which were previously published in paperback and ebook editions, will be re-published in hardcopy with new illustrations. This version will come from Stripe Press, whose "books contain entirely new material, some are collections of existing work reimagined, and others are republications of previous works that have remained relevant over time or have renewed relevance today." The book will be finalized in time for the game's release anniversary this fall, with autographed editions available next February at PAX East, an annual video game convention that Mechner keynoted in 2012. Since Juiced.GS already reviewed the paperbacks back in 2013, we probably won't go as in-depth with the new release, though we'll certainly report the news in DumplinGS!

Being able to publish a book is as magical to Mechner as making a game once was. The democratization of publication he something he attributes the Apple II to initiating:

For me as a kid who dreamed of creating mass entertainment, in the pre-internet days, when you still needed a printing press to make a book and a film lab to make a movie, the Apple II was a game-changer: a technological innovation that empowered every user to innovate. Suddenly, I didn't need adult permission (or funding) to tell a story of adventure that might reach thousands — and ultimately millions — of people.

Second, Mechner was recently interviewed at Gamelab, a game development conference held in Barcelona. Venturebeat has an edited transcript in which Mechner recalls some of his original inspirations:

Anybody here remember Choplifter? This blew my mind in 1982. It was the first game I’d played that told a story. Asteroids, Space Invaders, you had three lives and you had to get a high score. All of that was based on the business model of putting quarters into machines. Choplifter told a story, and at the end it said "The End." That was the inspiration for my next game, Karateka.

Jordan Mechner plays Prince of Persia in 1989.


Third, Mechner not only reflected on the past but also looked to the future, noting that there is no new Prince of Persia game to announce — yet:

Many of you have asked when there will be a new PoP game (or movie, or TV series). If you feel that it's been a long time since the last one, you're not alone. I wish I had a magic dagger to accelerate the process… [but I'm] in the midst of longer-term projects whose announcement is still a ways off.

Until the new books and possible new games come out, there's still plenty of Prince of Persia to enjoy. The source code is publicly available; maybe someone can hack in a two-player mode, as Charles Mangin did with Karateka.