How can you have your pudding

I finally, finally finished reading A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius today. It was really good, absolutely deserving of the plaudits it received, and by the end I really, really just wanted it to be over already. I kept checking how many pages I had left, closing the book so I could compare “distance before the bookmark” to “distance after the bookmark,” and in general feeling like reading it was much more of a chore than anything I really wanted to do.

And yet.

I’m actually happy that I read it. Not in a “I’m glad I made it through that tortuous ordeal” sense, although there’s definitely a bit of that; as difficult life situations go, reading a book that you’re just not really feeling ranks very low. It really was good, and had a lot of interesting things to say about life in the nineties and the genuinely tragic situation that Dave Eggers found himself in. My life is better for having read it. But it was also clearly not the right book for this moment in my life, which made it painfully slow going. For someone who has been known to read three or four novels in a day, taking weeks to read a single normal-length book is a sign that there’s some deep mismatch between the two of us1.

I tend to be one of those people that like to finish novels I start, or at least ones where I get past the first ten pages or so. Part of it is because the majority of fiction I pick up I know is good; I’m basing my picks off of recommendations or reviews, and I’m a pretty easy-going reader in the first place, perfectly content to read a popcorn novel if it’s fun, so surely it gets better, right? Surely by the end I’ll be happy that I stuck it out. Honestly, though, most of it is just sheer cussedness. I have a habit of dropping projects once they get tough, but damn it I’m gonna finish this stupid novel even if it kills me. Figuratively.

I wrote a bit, ages ago, about how many of the novels I’ve tried to write during NaNoWriMo over the years end up discarded somewhere around the 4,000 word mark, when I realize that they’re less interesting (or harder to write) than what I’m willing to tolerate during the accelerated churn-out-as-much-as-you-can time period of November. My hard drive is littered with these “4K corpses2.” A few years ago I forced myself to finish one despite the overwhelming feeling that I should scrap it and write something else instead; the resulting novel is a hot mess, filled with boring anecdotes from my life (with various levels of fictional-ness slathered on top) until I hit the 50K mark and could put the damn thing away for the year. In that case, the pride of finishing is basically all about making it through the tortuous ordeal, and nothing to do with the “pleasure” of writing. It’s garbage and I know it.

But other people’s books are different, thankfully. If I still bought novels with any regularity, I’d just set it aside for some other time, but nowadays I try to get most of my reading material from the library, and keeping a list of “stuff I tried but couldn’t get into” would extend my already-near-infinite backlog that much further. So I force myself to eat my vegetables3 sometimes, and for the most part it works out for the best. Even though I feel the pain of having that backlog pushed back further and further, as days that could have contained me reading a book or two now see me barely making it a tenth of the way through some difficult work.

Fortunately I already have some delicious popcorn reading lined up next, ready to be torn through at maximum speed. At least until I hit the next weird roadblock and once again slow down to a crawl…

(Seriously, though, if you haven’t read it, you should read A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. It’s good!)

Here’s a videogame thing: Destiny of an Emperor

Badness is worse when it’s surrounded by quality.

There are many terrible videogames. Most of them let you know they’re bad within the opening moments; they control poorly, play worse, and you immediately know, “yeah, this isn’t good.” If you soldier on, you do so with the knowledge of what you’re getting into. Hell, there’s a whole culture on YouTube and Twitch around playing bad games for the schadenfreude of it all: this person is doing this dumb thing, and we get to enjoy it, so doesn’t that make it–in a twisted way–good somehow1?

What I find much worse is slow-reveal awful. You’re enjoying a thing, be it a book or game or whatever, and slowly but surely it becomes more and more terrible. Characters make less sense, the game designers appear to have gone on vacation, and all the previous hours of pleasure are retroactively ruined by the sudden onset of suck. With literature, this often takes place across a long-running series, and so knowing when to get out while the getting’s good is important. (For example, I deny the existence of any Dune books past the second one, and sometimes even that one too. No, you can’t change my mind.) And that happens with videogame series as well… but it also tends to happen in individual games, due to a fundamental problem with how videogames are made. Namely: on a schedule, whether the game’s ready to be released or not.

Dragon Warrior II2 is notorious for having an absolutely relentless endgame, one that basically amounts to “is the pseudo-random number generator in this NES cartridge smiling upon me today?” in terms of how much control you the player have over its success. It sours an otherwise solid game, one that improves on the original along basically every axis, other than this one brutal misstep that pretty much pisses away all the goodwill the game built beforehand. And the folks who worked on the game later acknowledged the real source of the problem: they were in a rush, and the entire endgame went basically untested by any mortals before it was shipped out on carts to the world at large.

Well, Destiny of an Emperor is clearly inspired heavily by the Dragon Quest/Warrior series, from its menus down to many of its core mechanics, and apparently it took a little too much inspiration from Dragon Warrior II. I liked it at first, loved it for most of the midgame, and then right at the end the whole thing came tumbling down in a series of fights that basically amounted to, well, “is the pseudo-random number generator in this NES cartridge smiling upon me today?” Ugh.

For those of you unfamiliar with the game itself–which, I imagine, is most of you, as it’s definitely on the obscure end of the NES’ library–Destiny of an Emperor (hereafter DoaE) is a retelling of the extremely famous Romance of the Three Kingdoms, one of the formative pieces of Chinese literature. It’s a historical novel about the end of the Han dynasty, and it has been adapted mercilessly for film, television, and in videogames. Boy howdy has it been adapted for videogames. There is an entire series of strategy games that just steal the name outright, and the Dynasty Warriors hack-and-slash kill-’em-ups are all re-tellings of Romance. DoaE is a classic Japanese RPG rather than a strategy or action game, but otherwise fits in a very comfortable lineage of “things adapted from an old novel that is seminal to an entire culture.”

And, while DoaE is clearly, ah, let’s be polite and say heavily inspired by the Dragon Quest series, it also does some genuinely clever new things on its own. You control Liu Bei’s army, by way of leading a party of up to seven generals; each of those generals has some number of troops under his3 command which act like hit points in a more traditional JRPG. Weirdly, resting at an inn “heals” your dead soldiers, and by the end of the game you’re traversing caves with armies of a quarter million men or more, so it’s best not to think too much about that abstraction… but the game does some neat tricks with army size. Basically, each digit of troops you have active doubles your attack power, so you really want to hit 1,000 soldiers and keep over that number. By the end of the game you control generals with upwards of 30,000 troops apiece, and the scale of the battles feels genuinely significant.

The generals are handed in a very clever way as well. The army “levels up,” as in traditional RPGs, but that only affects a limited number of the generals’ troop sizes. Instead, you spend much of the game recruiting other generals–a procedure anyone who has played a Dynasty Warriors game will feel very familiar with–and popping them into and out of your party based on your needs. Some hit hard, some are good with tactics (the game’s equivalent of spells), and most have a fixed number of troops following them, so they can either immediately dramatically increase your armies’ survivability or are fodder for the recruitment office. The game only allows you to keep 64 generals back at the office–and just where are their massive armies?–and I had to clear out a bunch of dead weight at least once in the game to make room for more, higher-level generals.

The battles are also considerably more engaging than most JRPG combat of the time. You can have up to five generals in combat at a time, and they can pick their targets individually or use the aforementioned tactics to help themselves or hinder your enemies. Success is dependent on their strength for fighting or intelligence for tactics, and there’s quite a variety in what you can do to make tough fights easier. For the trivial ones, the game has an auto-battle feature where the two sides duke it out as quickly as the game engine allows, making the (too-frequent) random battles little more than a nuisance. Auto-battle? In a JRPG from the ’80s? Is this real life?

The game has a number of small-to-middling issues, unsurprising given its vintage. The tactics are untranslated from Chinese, other than being Romanized, so prepare to refer a lot to an instruction book or FAQ until you learn the names of the abilities and what they do. You should also take notes as to the locations of various towns and people, as you sometimes have to do non-trivial amounts of backtracking to similarly-named locations to find the next point to progress. And there are a couple of “dumb mechanics involving the fact that you’re playing a videogame” bits that probably felt clever at the time but now feel like unnecessary and obtuse fourth-wall breaking nonsense.

But those are all tolerable issues. No, the reason that Destiny of an Emperor soured hard on me is that the last series of plot-related battles all involve high-level enemy strategists. And those strategists use some pretty stupid abilities, which can:

  • cause your generals to literally not be able to attack for the next 1 to… I don’t know how many rounds, but I know at least one enemy use of it lasted ten turns… or
  • instantly heal the enemy general of all the “damage” (i.e. dead troops: are they zombies?) you’ve dealt them, potentially setting you back eight or more rounds of battle… or
  • decapitate one of your generals, causing all of their soldiers to instantly die. (Are they routed? Are they all decapitated too? Don’t think too much about this…)

Of course, rather than any of those patently ridiculous options, they can just choose to attack for a small amount of damage–they’re strategists, after all, weak on strength–while you wreck them in the face.

Which result will you get? Who knows! Only the PRNG can decide.

If I were still in the business of giving review scores to things4, I’d give the first ninety percent or so of Destiny of an Emperor a solid four stars out of five. It’s a little rough, sure, but the game came out in 1989 and is still quite captivating. (It also has an amazing soundtrack, and some really impressive spritework that I didn’t have time to get into, given how overly long this article already is.) But the last ten percent is a flat-out one-star experience. And it drags the whole thing down with it.

Is it still a good game? Yeah… sure… I guess. But it’s not great, and it could have been. It was so close. And that hurts a lot more than if it were just terrible from the start. What a shame.

The sequel’s supposed to be better, and despite being a Japanese-only release on the Famicom, it has a fan translation. I look forward to playing it… but not immediately. I need some distance from this particular take on the Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Right now, revisiting this world doesn’t seem very romantic at all.

Weekly status update [0062/????]

Ugh. I’m pretty sure I’m having a (mild) gall bladder attack right now, one that woke me up after only getting four or so hours of sleep. It’s not so bad that I can’t function, which is a nice change from the previous ones, but: can this damned thing be out of me already?

  • My streaming adventures continue apace. I’m still playing Destiny of an Emperor, which sadly decided for its last hour or so to become way, way too hard. A total party kill after a long, grueling path through a series of caves set me off on stream Friday afternoon, with a non-trivial amount of cursing. It’s all the more painful because, up until this point, the game has been a lot more fair than other titles from its time period. You were so close, game designers. So close.
  • Speaking of which, I got my first subscriber who is not someone I know personally, a major milestone for any Twitch affiliate. That prompted me to take the time to finally make subscriber badges (for those unfamiliar, they appear next to your name on my stream’s chat, based on how long you’ve subscribed) and the first emote assigned to the channel as well. I actually did the first draft of the pixel art on-screen, although I spent much of the rest of the day tweaking the badges bit by bit until I was happier with them. Behold:
Four subscriber badges showing a gradual sunset, plus a larger emote image of a Black Belt from Final Fantasy III brandishing his arms.
Hopefully I don’t have to explain the whole sunset thing, given my Twitch username… and, yes, I’m still taking those sweet, sweet free Twitch Prime subscriptions if you want these.
  • An online friend of mine has been interviewing at various big tech companies over the last couple of weeks, and that includes the one that once paid me moderate-to-substantial sums of money. Her experience was… negative, in several very stupid ways, which is deeply frustrating. This is not the first time that I’ve sent someone that company’s way to have said company stumble, and stumble hard, on the whole process. Ugh. Fortunately for her she already has one competing offer and is likely to get another in the next few days, so it’s not all bad, but still: get your shit together, former place of employment.
  • After not really touching them for a bit, I’ve swung back to puzzling some more. It’s been mostly digital; I’m still working my way through Picross 3D Round 2‘s post-game puzzles, which continue to be really hard, so much so that I generally can only tolerate one or two of them a day at most. I’ve also been poking at Mario no Picross 2, a Japan-only picross game that I’ve been playing off and on for over a decade now. It overcomes the limitations of the Game Boy’s screen size by making the full images out of four 15×15 quadrants which are solved individually. It’s a great game, but strictly for Picross Maniacs Only, as it starts harder than anything in the original Mario’s Picross–a game I’ve 100%ed at least twice–and escalates from there.
  • We finished up our Normal difficulty run-through of Earth Defense Force 5 and pretty much immediately started playing it through again on Hard. One of the regulars reminded me just yesterday that we actually also have the paid DLC missions to play through, which are always way harder than the core story missions, so hopefully we’ll be able to play again soon; we’ve had scheduling issues the last several days.
  • The usual Thursday evening digital tabletoppery occurred, this time with the son of one of the regulars joining us. We played Fine Sand, which is still a perfectly okay game, then switched over to dominion.games for a game of, well, Dominion. I screwed up in that game thanks to not noticing it was a Colony/Platinum joint but still came in a strong second after lagging hard most of the game.
  • Current attack aside, my apprehension for my upcoming surgery continues to grow. I wish it were already done so that I could be recovering rather than waiting for it to happen.
  • Chocolate Toast Crunch is amazing. It’s like a cereal version of Chuao’s stellar Spicy Maya chocolate bars, but without the cayenne pepper. Easily a top-ten cereal of all time. If you at all like chocolate-y sugar cereals, give it a try; I guarantee you’ll love it. (Guarantee not valid within one parsec of Sol. Limited time offer; some restrictions may apply.)

I feel a bit better after taking the time to write this up; that’s nice, at least. Chances of an early afternoon nap today: 95% and rising.

Phil’s Puzzle Primer: Kakuro

As discussed before, I’ve met several people who have been scared away from Sudoku due to the numbers. “I’m bad at math,” they say. “I just don’t have a head for it.” And I usually explain to them that, no, Sudoku doesn’t really use math, at least not in the sense that they mean, but in the back of my mind I’m thinking: don’t touch any kakuro, then.

A sample kakuro puzzle from Wikipedia. (Licensed CC-BY-SA by Octahedron80.)

Kakuro are sometimes referred to as “math crosswords.” That’s a name that better fits Figure Logics, a puzzle type I’ve never quite wrapped my head around, but it’s a reasonable stab at describing these gridded challenges as well. The rules of kakuro are very simple, if (almost necessarily) more complex than sudoku:

  • Each row and column sums up to the number on its top or left edge1,
  • Cells contain only the digits one through nine, and
  • A digit cannot repeat in a given row or column.

It’s that last rule that makes kakuro such an interesting design. For example, a clue of 4, which in a well-formed kakuro is always clued by two boxes rather than just one–they almost universally follow “American-style” crossword construction rather than Japanese- or British-style, with their looser cross-hatching–is always a 1 and a 3, because two 2s make for an invalid puzzle. If a 3 and a 4 cross each other, the only shared digit is 1, which gives you an easy “break in” to the puzzle.

And let me not sell this short: while all you have to do is a bunch of addition, you do a lot of addition when solving a kakuro. The math is relentless. The smallest number that fits in a four-cell row is 10 (1 2 3 4) and the largest is 30 (6 7 8 9), and there are sums other than the obvious ones that have hard-set requirements; 7-in-3 is always 1 2 4, for example, which is something you’ll have drilled into your head after you’ve solved a half-dozen of these whether you like it or not. I still count on my fingers sometimes to double-check my math, and I count on my fingers a lot while solving kakuro.

The solution to the example kakuro. Also from Wikipedia, of course. (Licensed CC-BY-SA by Octahedron80.)

Like sudoku, kakuro originated in the pages of Dell’s puzzle magazines here in the US, and like sudoku it blew up in Japan well before it became anything like a phenomenon in the rest of the world. That said, while kakuro are reasonably popular here and elsewhere, they’ve never reached anything like the same level of popularity as sudoku, and honestly they never will. Their fundamental reliance on math will always make them a little too scary for a large segment of the population, which is definitely a shame.

Kakuro’s format doesn’t lend itself to quite as much in the way of variation as sudoku, although there are definitely several tweaked versions available. I’ve seen ones that use multiplication rather than addition as the core operation–lots of big numbers!–and some that have rectangles drawn over portions of the puzzle that act like the rows and columns, their contents summing to a particular value with no repeated digits. But I suspect the format inherently lends itself to fewer wacky alternate takes than sudoku, never mind the fact that it’s a less-popular type and so inherently has less incentive to come up with interesting tweaks to the formula.

As for me? I’ve been seeing kakuro for decades, thanks to my early fascination with puzzles–they were called Cross Sums back then, although nowadays Dell fully embraces the kakuro name–and they always intimidated the heck out of me, even though I’m actually pretty good at math. Hey, look, I was part of the problem! I admit it. But about a year ago I finally buckled down and decided to Git Gud2 at them, and now I actually quite enjoy the type. It’s not my favorite, to be sure; I’m not always in the mood to show the world (or at least the ants in my living room) that I still have to count on my fingers whilst verging into middle age, and they can feel a little same-y, so even when I am in the mood I often intersperse them with other puzzle types. But there’s a good reason they’re one of the most popular puzzle types in Japan, and they’re definitely worth trying out.

Even if you don’t like math.

Getting started with kakuro

The most important part about getting going with kakuro is understanding some simple, but vital, solving techniques. The puzzle type simply isn’t as intuitive as sudoku, and so it’s a bit harder to break into. Fortunately there are plenty of excellent tutorials and guides online. I’ll point you to Krazydad’s superb step-by-step solving guide, which covers both basic and advanced techniques, but a quick Google search will turn up many, many options, including interactive formats if that’s your style.

One of the things you’ll want to have a copy of, at least until you internalize most of its contents, is the “forced number” chart that you’ll see in Krazydad’s guide (and most of the others as well). You’ll quickly remember off the top of your head that 29-in-4 has to be 5 7 8 9, but getting to that point takes some practice, and having that chart will make it easier in the early going.

Krazydad’s site also has a bunch of kakuro of all sizes to try. Here’s a link to a nice web-based implementation he wrote, starting with the smallest puzzles. You can of course find a whole bunch of other sites full of computer-generated puzzles online, at pretty much any size and difficulty you like.

Getting good kakuro

As is the case with sudoku, the best hand-made kakuro come from Japan. Nikoli has a long history of publishing the puzzle type, and they have tons of volumes of Kakuro that you can pick up off of their website or from amazon.co.jp. I’m also partial to 頭脳全開足し算クロス, a magazine you can snag from Amazon Japan that contains nothing but kakuro. It recently started including several of the “rectangle restriction” variation puzzles that I mentioned earlier, and in the back has a pair of puzzles on an enormous sheet of newsprint that will keep you busy for weeks, but the opening puzzles are easy enough for even a beginning kakuro solver to tackle.

That said, I definitely get less of a “feel” in terms of difference between hand-made and computer-generated kakuro than I do with sudoku. Maybe it’s because I’ve solved less, or maybe it’s inherent to the format, but in any event there are plenty of books and websites chock-full with more kakuro. Amazon has the “Martial Arts” series of books, Djape puts out a whole bunch, I’ve already linked Krazydad’s site… you should be able to find something that suits your timeframe and level of competence without too much effort. (Sadly, Simon Tatham’s Portable Puzzle Collection doesn’t have kakuro in it.)

Fair play in an unfair world

I played El Grande for the first time tonight, despite owning the game off and on for over twenty years. It was tense, highly strategic, and deeply intriguing the whole way through, and I’m angry that I had never managed to get it to the table before.

But it was clear, during the game, that one of the other players thought that I was picking on them. Specifically, there was a point where I gave a different player–someone new to this whole “complex strategy games” thing–some advice about what they could do; they followed that advice, and then a turn or two later it set up a situation where I benefited greatly1.

My first response to this was something close to outrage. Of course I wasn’t trying to game the system in my favor, and how dare they think that that was the case? But this person hasn’t played all that many games with me and isn’t aware of the precepts I bring to the table.

The first and most important precept is this: I want everyone at the table to have the best time possible. For newer players, this often means giving them suggestions as to what they could do, in an attempt to winnow down the often overwhelming field of choices that modern board games can provide2. For other players, it means keeping far away from their decision process. I tend to err on the “help” side, and try to keep myself in check if I feel like what I’m doing is steering too close to my alpha-gamer tendencies, but of course this sort of thing isn’t perfect.

The problem comes in a game like El Grande where just about every decision a player makes hurts someone else at the table. The game has very few “just good for me” moves; almost anything that improves your position on the board is messing with someone else’s plans, or even directly stealing points from them.

Now, I try to be scrupulously fair with my advice–and I’ll admit that there is almost certainly some unconscious bias as to the hints and tips I give, no matter how hard I try to make that not the case–but when anything I suggest is, by design, going to hurt someone at the table, I can understand why it might seem like I’m trying to inveigle some advantage under the cover of providing in-game suggestions3.

This is hard for me. I can of course just sit back and never provide any advice at all, but I know that for some people that would make for a quantitatively worse experience, and I’m definitely one of those “some people.” I like looking for the great move another player has lying in wait, even when they don’t see it themselves. I think a game’s more interesting when people are playing at close to the same level, and if I can help nudge it in that direction I feel almost obligated to do so.

But I think I need to be more careful when it comes to games like El Grande, where every move has deep and lasting consequences that can sway the game hard one way or the other. It’s a tough line to walk, given my propensity for advice, but a line I clearly need to get better at finding.

Fortunately, everyone seemed to really enjoy the game, even the person who felt picked on, and we had a discussion afterward that (I hope) cleared the air. I don’t like that that had to happen in the first place, though, and I’m going to give serious thought to how I should manage similar situations in the future. Hopefully it’ll result in even more fun at the table for everyone involved, which is right in line with my first precept4. And any game night with no hurt feelings is a better game night indeed.

Not so super heroics

[Mild spoilers for the game Watch Dogs below, although I don’t name names.]

At the very end of Watch Dogs, a mediocre Ubi-like I beat last night1, you are given agency in the story for literally the first time in the entire game: you can choose to shoot a man in the head or walk away.

I was streaming the game at the time, and I said: “Well, if it were up to me, of course I wouldn’t shoot this guy. But Aiden Pearce is such a raging asshole that there’s no way he doesn’t shoot him.” And then proceeded to put a (virtual) bullet in the character’s head.

By this point I had already completely disassociated myself from the actions the main character was taking, something that doesn’t happen very often in games. Hell, I’ve played a ton of Assassin’s Creed titles, all of which involve high-to-extreme body counts, and even there I could empathize with Altaïr and Ezio far more than I could Aiden. There’s a difference between an anti-hero and a villain protagonist, and in my mind Watch Dogs crossed that line early on and kept cruising further away like it didn’t matter.

It does matter, though.

I watched all of The Sopranos with my mother. We enjoyed it immensely, but the entire time I was watching I honestly couldn’t stand the main character (or most of the cast, to be honest, with Dr. Melfi as the obvious exception). Years later, I watched the first season of Breaking Bad, swayed by the plaudits and the recommendations of my friends. As the final episode of that season ended, I went “nope.” I had no desire to see what happened to anyone else in the show; as far as I was concerned, Albuquerque could have been nuked from orbit and the world would have been a better place2.

Apparently The Sopranos basically tapped out my willingness to watch shows with villain protagonists. Conflicted characters are fine–I love me some Firefly–but when my gut reaction to the main character’s actions is mostly “someone should stop this person,” that’s a good sign that I’m not going to enjoy it.

Part of getting the platinum in Watch Dogs3 involves doing a certain number of online missions against other players. And I noticed something deeply strange to me when I was hacking these players scattered around the world, playing their own stories out in the game: so many of them were in gunfights with the police. So many. It was baffling to me, as someone who generally plays games in a way that minimizes conflict; the only times I ever got into trouble with the police in-game were when the plot forced me to, or when I was getting the last couple of stupid trophies that necessitated that antagonizing. But clearly I was the exception to the rule.

Then I thought of the game’s characterization of Aiden Pearce. Of course most players would gravitate to maximum antagonism; that’s what the game all but spells out for you! No matter how good I was outside of the scripted missions, those missions relentlessly drive home the point that Pearce shoots anyone who gets in his way, police or otherwise. If anything, I had been playing the game strongly against type the entire time, acting like a do-gooder between the plot points then grimacing my way through the story where all my actions felt undone. I was pushing as hard as the game allowed against the villain protagonist role… up until the end, where I shrugged and said, “nah, this one time I’m going to do what the game has taught me it wants me to do.” Cue bullet.

Don’t play Watch Dogs, by the way; it’s not a very good game. You can fairly ask why I played it, and I can only say that I really want to play Watch Dogs 2 and have a stupid compulsion to play games in sequence, hence putting up with its aggressively mediocre “Assassin’s Creed meets Grand Theft Auto, only worse than both” design. That’s separate from the villain protagonist problem, which may or may not be an issue for you personally.

As for me, I think Watch Dogs tapped me out on that front, the same way The Sopranos did for television years ago. Playing the villain is just not for me, I’m afraid.

I’d rather nuke them from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure.