Stones Under Yetzin

For the last few months, I’ve been GMing a GURPS campaign (that was originally a Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 1st-edition campaign, in turn built upon a mixture of commercially published and homegrown modules, including, in turn, an AD&D module…) for a few friends.

So far, it’s included such gems as a player-written poem in a fictional language, another player’s drawing of the most-cinematic action sequence they’ve experienced so far… and the opportunity, during a play session that coincided with a player’s birthday, to explain the layout of a ruined tower by presenting them with a cake baked into the shape of the terrain.

Cake shaped sort-of like The Lone Tower.
“So we’re… here?” asked a player, jabbing with his finger at the cream-filled section of the tower at which he was standing.

If you’re interested in what we’ve been up to, the campaign has it’s own blog where you can read about the adventures of Newman, Bret, Lythil, Keru, and (the late) Sir Bea.

But mostly I wanted to make this post so that I had a point of context in case I ever get around to open-sourcing some of the digital tools I’ve been developing to help streamline our play sessions. For example, most of our battle maps and exploration are presented on a ‘board’ comprised of a flat screen monitor stripped of its stand and laid on its back, connected via the web to a tool that allows me to show, hide, or adapt parts of it from my laptop or mobile phone. Player stats, health, and cash, as well as the date, time, position of the sun as well as the phases of the moons are similarly tracked and are available via any player’s mobile phone at any time.

Players fight a basilisk across a paper RPG map.
A rare instance of us using a paper-based battle map. Despite the fact that we play in-person, we’ve used digital tools to save table space!

These kinds of tools have been popular for ‘long-distance’/Internet roleplaying for years, but I think there’s a lot of potential in locally-linked, tabletop-enhancing (rather than replacing) tools that deliver some of the same benefit to the (superior, in my opinion) experience of ‘proper’ face-to-face adventure gaming. Now, at least, when I tell you for example about some software I wrote to help calculate the position of the sun in the sky of a fictional world, you’ll have a clue why I would do such a thing in the first place.

The Hardest Hangman

What’s the hardest word to guess, when playing hangman? I’ll come back to that.

A game of hangman; SCAT_A_, wrong guesses are R, E, O, P, L, H.
Whatever could the missing letters be?

Last year, Nick Berry wrote a fantastic blog post about the optimal strategy for Hangman. He showed that the best guesses to make to get your first “hit” in a game of hangman are not the most-commonly occurring letters in written English, because these aren’t the most commonly-occurring letters in individual words. He also showed that the first guesses should be adjusted based on the length of the word (the most common letter in 5-letter words is ‘S’, but the most common letter in 6-letter words is ‘E’). In short: hangman’s a more-complex game than you probably thought it was! I’d like to take his work a step further, and work out which word is the hardest word: that is – assuming you’re playing an optimal strategy, what word takes the most-guesses?

A hanged man being quartered by his executioner.
The rules of hangman used to be a lot more brutal. Nowadays, very few people die as a result of the game.

First, though, we need to understand how hangman is perfectly played. Based on the assumption that the “executioner” player is choosing words randomly, and that no clue is given as to the nature of the word, we can determine the best possible move for all possible states of the game by using a data structure known as a tree. Suppose our opponent has chosen a three-letter word, and has drawn three dashes to indicate this. We know from Nick’s article that the best letter to guess is A. And then, if our guess is wrong, the next best letter to guess is E. But what if our first guess is right? Well, then we’ve got an “A” in one or more positions on the board, and we need to work out the next best move: it’s unlikely to be “E” – very few three-letter words have both an “A” and an “E” – and of course what letter we should guess next depends entirely on what positions the letters are in.

A tiny fragment of possible states for the tree of three-letter words, in hangman.
There are billions of possible states of game play, but you can narrow them down quickly with strategic guessing.

What we’re actually doing here is a filtering exercise: of all of the possible letters we could choose, we’re considering what possible results that could have. Then for each of those results, we’re considering what guesses we could make next, and so on. At each stage, we compare all of the possible moves to a dictionary of all possible words, and filter out all of the words it can’t be: after our first guess in the diagram above, if we guess “A” and the board now shows “_ A _”, then we know that of the 600+ three-letter words in the English language, we’re dealing with one of only about 134. We further refine our guess by playing the odds: of those words, more of them have a “C” in than any other letter, so that’s our second guess. If it has a C in, that limits the options further, and we can plan the next guess accordingly. If it doesn’t have a C in, that still provides us with valuable information: we’re now looking for a three-letter word with an A in the second position and no letter C: that cuts it down to 124 words (and our next guess should be ‘T’). This tree-based mechanism for working out the best moves is comparable to that used by other game-playing computers. Hangman is simple enough that it can be “solved” by contemporary computers (like draughts – solved in 2007 – but unlike chess: while modern chess-playing computers can beat humans, it’s still theoretically possible to build future computers that will beat today’s computers).

Pile of stones, and the text "the best word to choose in hangman is the word that your opponent will not guess"
Zen Hangman asks the really important questions. If a man has one guess left and refused to pick a letter, does he live forever, or not at all?

Now that we can simulate the way that a perfect player would play against a truly-random executioner, we can use this to simulate games of hangman for every possible word (I’m using version 0.7 of this British-English dictionary). In other words, we set up two computer players: the first chooses a word from the dictionary, the second plays “perfectly” to try to guess the word, and we record how many guesses it took. So that’s what I did. Here’s the Ruby code I used. It’s heavily-commented and probably pretty understandable/good learning material, if you’re into that kind of thing. Or if you fancy optimising it, there’s plenty of scope for that too (I knocked it out on a lunch break; don’t expect too much!). Or you could use it as the basis to make a playable hangman game. Go wild.

The hardest three-letter hangman words: xxv, xxx, wiz, oak, vex, vox, aux, fox, yuk, www...
The hardest three-letter hangman words. “Sly” is particularly… well, sly.

Running the program, we can see that the hardest three-letter word is “xxv”, which would take 22 guesses (20 of them wrong!) to get. But aside from the roman numeral for 25, I don’t think that “xxv” is actually a word. Perhaps my dictionary’s not very good. “Oak”, though, is definitely a word, and at 20 guesses (17 wrong), it’s easily enough to hang your opponent no matter how many strokes it takes to complete the gallows.

The hardest four-letter hangman words: xxxv, quiz, jazz, zinc, faux, foxy, hazy, jibe, quay, buzz, gibe, guan, huge...
Interestingly, “oaks” is an easier word than “oak” (although it’s still very difficult): the addition of an extra letter to a word does not make it harder, especially when that letter is common.

There are more tougher words in the four-letter set, like the devious “quiz”, “jazz”, “zinc”, and “faux”. Pick one of those and your opponent – unless they’ve seen this blog post! – is incredibly unlikely to guess it before they’re swinging from a rope.

The hardest five, six, and seven-letter hangman words, including jazzy, quaff, foxed, foxing, queued, favour, vaquero, jazzier, quizzed...
“Hazing foxes, fucking cockily” is not only the title of a highly-inappropriate animated film, but also a series of very challenging Hangman words.

As we get into the 5, 6, and 7-letter words you’ll begin to notice a pattern: that the hardest words with any given number of letters get easier the longer they are. That’s kind of what you’d expect, I suppose: if there were a hypothetical word that contained every letter in the alphabet, then nobody would ever fail to (eventually) get it.

The hardest eight, nine, and ten-letter hangman words, including quizzing, puppyish, picklock, jazziness, pollywogs, cufflinks, humbuggery, juxtaposed, bucketfuls...
Some of the longer words are wonderful, like: dysprosium, semivowel, harrumph, and googolplex.

When we make a graph of each word length, showing which proportion of the words require a given number of “wrong” guesses (by an optimised player), we discover a “sweet spot” window in which we’ll find all of the words that an optimised player will always fail to guess (assuming that we permit up to 10 incorrect guesses before they’re disqualified). The window seems small for the number of times I remember seeing people actually lose at hangman, which implies to me that human players consistently play sub-optimally, and do not adequately counteract that failing by applying an equal level of “smart”, intuitive play (knowing one’s opponent and their vocabulary, looking for hints in the way the game is presented, etc.).

Graph showing the proportion of each word of a given length that take a given number of "wrong" guesses to optimally solve.
The “sweet spot” in the bottom right is the set of words which you would expect a perfect player to fail to guess, assuming that they’re given a limit of 10 “wrong” guesses.

In case you’re interested, then, here are the theoretically-hardest words to throw at your hangman opponent. While many of the words there feel like they would quite-rightly be difficult, others feel like they’d be easier than their ranking would imply: this is probably because they contain unusual numbers of vowels or vowels in unusual-but-telling positions, which humans (with their habit, inefficient under normal circumstances, of guessing an extended series of vowels to begin with) might be faster to guess than a computer.

Word Guesses taken “Wrong” guesses needed
quiz 24 20
jazz 22 19
jazzy 22 18
quaff 22 18
zinc 21 17
oak 20 17
vex 20 17
vox 20 17
foxing 22 16
foxed 21 16
queued 20 16
fuzzy 20 16
quay 20 16
pinup 20 16
fox 19 16
yuk 19 16
vaquero 22 15
jazzier 21 15
quizzed 21 15
hazing 21 15
favour 21 15
yoking 21 15
quays 20 15
quark 20 15
joked 20 15
guyed 20 15
foyer 20 15
bumph 20 15
huge 19 15
quip 19 15
gibe 19 15
rump 19 15
guan 19 15
quizzed 19 15
oaks 19 15
murk 19 15
fezzes 19 15
yuck 19 15
keno 19 15
kazoo 19 15
Download a longer list
(there’s plenty more which you’d expect to “win” with)

If you use this to give you an edge in your next game, let me know how it works out for you!

What’s Wrong With Monopoly?

Monopoly – the world’s best-selling board game – sucks. I’ve said it before, but it bears saying again. I’ve never made any secret of my distaste for the game, but it’s probably worth spelling out the reasons, in case you’ve somehow missed them.

Monopoly (British Edition) in its current branding
Monopoly (British Edition) in its current branding

Broadly-speaking, there are four things wrong with Monopoly: the rules, the theme, the history, and the players.

The Rules

The following issues have plagued Monopoly for at least the last 75 years:

  • It takes a disproportionately long time to play, relative to the amount of fun it provides or skill it tests. A longer game is not intrinsically more-exciting: would a 1000-square Snakes & Ladders be ten times as good as a 100-square one? Monopoly involves a commitment of three to four hours, most of it spent watching other people take their turns.
  • It’s an elimination game: players are knocked out (made bankrupt) one at a time, until only one remains. This invariably leads to a dull time for those players first removed from the game (compounded by the game length). In real-world play, it’s usually the case that a clear winner is obvious long before the game ends, leading to a protracted, painful, and frankly dull slow death for the other players. Compare this to strategic games like Power Grid, where it can be hard to call the winner between closely matched players right up until the final turns, in which everybody has a part.
  • It depends hugely on luck, which fails to reward good strategic play. Even the implementation of those strategies which do exist remain heavily dependent on the roll of the dice. Contrast the superficially-simpler (and far faster) property game For Sale, which rewards strategic play with just a smidgen of luck.
  • It’s too quick to master: you can learn and apply the optimal strategies after only a handful of games. Coupled with the amount of luck involved, there’s little to distinguish an expert player from a casual one: only first-time players are left out. Some have argued that this makes it easier for new players to feel like part of the game, but there are other ways to achieve this, such as handicaps, or – better – variable starting conditions that make the game different each time, like Dominion.
  • There’s little opportunity for choice: most turns are simply a matter of rolling the dice, counting some spaces, and then either paying (or not paying) some rent. There’s a little more excitement earlier in the game, when properties remain unpurchased, but not much. The Speed Die add-on goes a small way to fixing this, as well as shortening the duration of the game, but doesn’t really go far enough.
  • The rules themselves are ambiguously-written. If they fail to roll doubles on their third turn in jail, the rules state, the player much pay the fine to be released. But does that mean that they must pay, then roll (as per the usual mechanic), in which case must it be next turn? Or should it be this turn, and if so, should the already-made (known, non-double) roll be used? Similarly, the rules state that the amount paid when landing on a utility is the number showing on the dice: is this to be a fresh roll, or is the last roll of the current player the correct one? There are clarifications available for those who want to look, but it’s harder than it needs to be: it’s no wonder that people seem to make it up as they go along (see “The Players”, below, for my thoughts on this).
Calvin and Hobbes demonstrate exactly what's wrong with Monopoly, by demonstrating exactly what's wrong with Monopoly players. Click for the full comic.
Calvin and Hobbes demonstrate exactly what’s wrong with Monopoly, by demonstrating exactly what’s wrong with Monopoly players. Click for the full comic.

The Theme

But that’s not what Monopoly‘s about, is it? Its purpose is to instill entrepreneurial, capitalist values, and the idea that if you work hard enough, and you’re lucky enough, that you can become rich and famous! Well, that’s certainly not its original purpose (see “The History”, below), but even if it were, Monopoly‘s theme is still pretty-much broken:

  • It presents a false financial model as if it were a reassuring truth. “The Bank can never go bankrupt,” state the rules, instructing us to keep track of our cash with a pen and paper if there isn’t enough in the box (although heaven help you if your game has gone on long enough to require this)! Maybe Parker Brothers’ could have simply given this direction to those financial institutions that collapsed during the recent banking crisis, and saved us all from a lot of bother. During a marathon four-day game at a University of Pittsburgh fraternity, Parker Brothers couriered more money to the gamers to “prop up” their struggling bank: at least we can all approve of a bailout that the taxpayer doesn’t have to fund, I suppose! Compare this to Puerto Rico, a game which also requires a little thematic suspension of disbelief, but which utilises the depletion of resources as an important game mechanic, forcing players to change strategies in order to remain profitable.
  • Curiously, this same rule does not apply to the supply of houses and hotels, which are deliberately limited: the Monopoly world is one in which money is infinite but in which bricks are not. This makes it more valuable to build houses when there are few resources (in order to deprive your opponents). In actual economies, however, the opposite is true: houses are always needed, but the resources to built them change in value as they become more or less scarce. Watch the relative perceived values of the huts available to build in Stone Age to see how a scarcity economy can really be modelled.
The more houses I build on a street, the more each one is individually worth. Wait, what?
The more houses I build on a street, the more each one is individually worth. Wait, what?
  • Also, it has a completely-backwards approach to market forces. In the real world, assuming (as Monopoly does) a free market, then it is consumer demand that makes it possible to raise capital. In the real world, the building of three more hotels on this side of the city makes it less-likely that anybody will stay at mine, but this is not represented at all. Compare to the excellent 7 Wonders, where I can devalue my neighbour-but-one’s goods supply by producing my own, of the same type.
  • It only superficially teaches that “American dream” that you can get ahead in the world with a lot of work and a little luck: this model collapses outside of frontier lands. If you want to see what the real world is like, then wait until you’ve got a winner in a game of Monopoly, and then allow everybody else to re-start the game, from the beginning. It’s almost impossible to get a foothold in a market when there’s already a monopoly in existence. This alternative way of playing might be a better model for real-world monopolies (this truth is captured by the game Anti-Monopoly in a way that’s somehow even less-fun than the original).

You might shoot down any or all of these arguments by pointing out that “it’s just a game.” But on the other hand, we’ve already discovered that it’s not a very good game. I’m just showing how it manages to lack redeeming educational features, too. With the exception of helping children to learn to count and handle money (and even that is lost in the many computer editions and semi-computerised board game versions), there’s no academic value in Monopoly.

The electronic banking edition of Monopoly.
The electronic banking edition of Monopoly makes an already slow game even slower, unless you’re REALLY bad at arithmetic: in which case you should be playing with money so that you can learn some arithmetic!

The History

You’ve seen now why Monopoly isn’t a very good game both (a) because it’s not fun, and (b) it’s not really educational either – the two biggest reasons that anybody might want to play it. But you might also be surprised to find that its entire history is pretty unpleasant, too, full of about as much backstabbing as a typical game of Monopoly, and primarily for the same reason: profit!

You can think of a baby as a Monopoly piece, but I wouldn't recommend it.
You can think of a baby as a Monopoly piece, but I wouldn’t recommend it. Click for the full comic.

If you look inside the rulebook of almost any modern Monopoly set, or even in Maxine Brady’s well-known strategy guide, you’ll read an abbreviated version of the story of Charles Darrow, who – we’re told – invented the game and then published it through Parker Brothers. But a little detective work into the history of the game shows that in actual fact he simply made a copy of the game board shown to him by his friend Charles Todd. Todd, in turn, had played it in New Jersey, to which it had traveled from Pennsylvania, where it had originally been invented – and patented – by a woman called Elizabeth Magie.

A home-made 1920s "Landlord's Game" board.
Home-made “Landlord’s Game” boards, like this one, were popular in the early part of the 20th century.

Magie’s design differed from modern interpretations in only one major way: its educational aspect. Magie was a believer in Georgian economic philosophy, a libertarian/socialist ideology that posits that while the things we create can be owned, the land belongs equally to everybody. As a result, Georgists claim, the “ownership” of land should be taxed according to its relative worth, and that this should be the principal – or only, say purists – tax levied by a state. Magie pushed her ideas in the game, by trying to show that allowing people to own land (and then to let out the right of others to live on it) serves only to empower landlords… and disenfranchise tenants. The purpose of the game, then, was to show people the unfairness of the prevailing economic system.

Diagram from Lizzie Magie's 1904 patent application.
Lizzie Magie’s 1904 patent application shows a board with familiar features like streets for sale (which can then be rented out), stations, taxes, utilities, and the “public park” (free parking).

Magie herself approached Parker Brothers several times, but they didn’t like her game. Instead, then, she produced sets herself (and an even greater number were home-made), which proved popular – for obvious reasons, considering their philosophical viewpoints – among Georgists, Quakers, and students. She patented a revised version in 1924, which added now-familiar features like cards to mark the owned properties, as well as no-longer-used ideas that could actually go a long way to improving the game, such as a cash-in-hand “goal” for the winner, rather than an elimination rule.

An early boxed copy of Monopoly.
An early boxed copy of Parker Bros’ “Monopoly”.

Interestingly, when Parker Brothers first rejected Charles Darrow, they said that the game was “too complicated, too technical, took too long to play”: at least they and I agree on one thing, then! Regardless, once they eventually saw how popular Lizzie Magie’s version had become across Philadelphia, they changed their tune and accepted Darrow’s proposal. Then, they began the process of hoovering up as many patents as they could manage, in order to secure their very own monopoly on a game that was by that point already 30 years old.

Rich Uncle; a 1940s Parker Bros' game.
The “Rich Uncle” character, from the Parker Bros’ game of the same name, would eventually come to be the familiar mascot of Monopoly.

They weren’t entirely successful, of course, and there have been a variety of controversies around the legality and enforcability of the Monopoly trademark. Parker Brothers (and nowadays, Hasbro) have famously taken to court the makers of board games with even-remotely similar names: most-famously, the Anti-Monopoly game in the 1970s, which they alternately won, then lost, then won, then lost again on a series of appeals in the early 1980s: there’s a really enjoyable book about the topic, and about the history of Monopoly in general. It’s a minefield of court cases and counter-cases, but the short of it is that trade-marking “Monopoly” ought to be pretty-much impossible. Yet somehow, that’s what’s being done.

What’s clear, though, is that innovation on the game basically stopped once Parker’s monopoly was in place. Nowadays, Hasbro expect us to be excited when they replace the iron with a cat or bring out yet another localised edition of the board. On those rare occasions when something genuinely new has come out of the franchise – such as 1936’s underwhelming Stock Exchange expansion, it’s done nothing to correct the fundamental faults in the game and generally just makes it even longer and yet more dull than it was to begin with.

The Players

The fourth thing that I hate about Monopoly is the people who play Monopoly. With apologies for those of you I’m about to offend, but here’s why:

Firstly, they don’t play it like they mean it. Maybe it’s because they’ve come to the conclusion that the only value in the game is to waste time for as long as possible (and let’s face it, that’s a reasonable thing to conclude if you’ve ever played the game), but a significant number of players will deliberately make the game last longer than it needs to. I remember a game once, as a child, when my remaining opponent – given the opportunity to bankrupt me and thus win the game – instead offered me a deal whereby I would give him some of my few remaining properties in exchange for my continued survival. Why would I take that deal? The odds of my making a comeback with a total of six houses on the board and £200 in my pocket (against his monopoly of virtually all the other properties) are virtually nil, so he wasn’t doing me any favours by offering me the chance to prolong my suffering. Yet I’ve also seen players accept deals like like, masochistically making their dull pick-up-and-roll experience last even longer than it absolutely must.

Burning money on a Monopoly board.
Kill it. Kill it with fire. Image courtesy Daniela Hartmann.

Or maybe it’s just that Monopoly brings out the cruel side of people: it makes them enjoy sitting on their huge piles of money, while the other players grovel around them. If they put the other players out of their misery, it would end their fun. If so, perhaps Lizzie Magie’s dream lives on, and Monopoly really does teach us about the evils of capitalism: that the richest are willing to do anything to trample down the poorest and keep them poor, so that the divide is kept as wide as possible? Maybe Monopoly’s a smarter game than I think: though just because it makes a clever point doesn’t necessarily make a board game enjoyable.

It’s not that I’m against losing. Losing a game like Pandemic is endless fun because you feel like you have a chance, right until the end, and the mechanics of games like Tigris & Euphrates mean that you can never be certain that you’re winning, so you have to keep pushing all the way through: both are great games. No: I just object to games in which winning and losing are fundamentally attached to a requirement to grind another person down, slowly, until you’re both sick and tired of the whole thing.

Monopoly for the Sega Master System.
Nowadays, with computerised Monopoly games, you don’t even have to have friends to play. Which is great, because if you’re suggesting a game of Monopoly, you don’t deserve any.

The second thing that people do, that really gets on my nerves, is make up the damn rules as they go along. I know that I spent a while further up this page complaining that Monopoly’s rules are pretty awful, but I can still have a rant about the fact that nobody seems to play by them anyway. This is a problem, because it means that if you ever play Monopoly with someone for the first time, you just know that you’re setting yourself up for an argument when it turns out that their crazy house rules and your crazy house rules aren’t compatible.

House rules for board games are fine, but make them clear. Before you start the game, say, “So, here’s the crazy rule we play by.” That’s fine. But there’s something about Monopoly players that seems to make them think that they don’t need to. Maybe they assume that everybody plays by the same house rules, or maybe they don’t even realise that they’re not playing by the “real” rules, but it seems to me that about 90% of the games of Monopoly I’ve been witness to have been punctuated at some point by somebody saying “wait, is that allowed?”

Free Parking
The “Free Parking Jackpot” is probably the worst house rule for Monopoly that’s ever been invented. But it’s incredibly popular.

Because I’m a bit of a rules lawyer, I pay attention to house rules. Free Parking Jackpot, in which a starting pile of money – plus everybody’s taxes – go in to the centre of the board and are claimed by anybody who lands on Free Parking, is probably the moth loathsome house rule. Why do people feel the need to take a game that’s already burdened with too much luck and add more luck to it. My family used to play with the less-painful but still silly house rule that landing exactly on “Go!” netted you a double-paycheque, which makes about as much sense, and it wasn’t until I took the time to read the rulebook for myself (in an attempt, perhaps, to work out where the fun was supposed to be stored) that I realised that this wasn’t standard practice.

Toothpaste For Dinner comic: World's Worst Boardgame.
Toothpaste For Dinner has the right idea. Click through to the original comic.

Playing without auctions is another common house rule, which dramatically decreases the opportunity for skillful players to bluff, and generally lengthens the game (interestingly, it was a house rule favoured by the early Quaker players of the game). Allowing the trading of “immunity” is another house rule than lengthens the game. Requiring that players travel around the board once before they’re allowed to buy any properties is yet another house rule that adds a dependence on luck and – yet again – lengthens the game. Disallowing trading until all the properties are owned dramatically lengthens the game, and for no benefit (why not just shuffle the property deck and deal it out to everybody to begin with: it’s faster and achieves almost the same thing?).

I once met a family who didn’t play with the rule that you have to spend 10% extra to un-mortgage a property, allowing them to mortgage and un-mortgage with impunity (apparently, they found the arithmetic too hard)! And don’t get me started on players who permit “cheating” (so long as you don’t get caught) as a house rule…

Spot something in common with these house rules? Most of them serve to make a game that’s already too long into something even longer. Players who implement these kinds of house rules are working to make Monopoly – an already really bad game – into something truly abysmal. I tell myself, optimistically, that they probably just don’t know better, and point them in the direction of Ticket to Ride, The Settlers of Catan, or Factory Manager.

But inside, I know that there must be people out there who genuinely enjoy playing Monopoly: people who finish a game and say “fancy another?”, rather than the more-rational activity of, say, the clawing out of their own eyes. And those people scare me.

Further Reading

If you liked this, you might also be interested in:

Non-transitive Games

Non-transitive dice

Have you ever come across non-transitive dice? The classic set, that you can get in most magic shops, consists of three different-coloured six-sided dice:

A "Grimes" style set of 3 non-transitive dice. Notice the unusual numbering.
A “Grime’s” style set of 3 non-transitive dice. Notice the unusual numbering.

There are several variants, but a common one, as discussed by James Grime, involves one die with five “3” sides and one “6” side (described as red below), a second die with three “2” sides and three “5” sides (described as green below), and a third die with one “1” side and five “four” sides (described as blue below).

They’re all fair dice, and – like a normal six-sided dice – they all have an average score of 3.5. But they’ve got an interesting property, which you can use for all kinds of magic tricks and gambling games. Typically: the red die will beat the green die, the green die will beat the blue die, and the blue die will beat the red die! (think Rock, Paper, Scissors…)

Red beats Green beats Blue beats Red.
Seemingly paradoxically, the dice will generally beat one another in a circular pattern.

If you want to beat your opponent, have them pick a die first. If they pick green, you take red. If they take red, you take blue. If they take blue, you take green. You now have about a 60% chance of getting the highest roll (normally you’d have about a 33% chance of winning, and a 17% chance of a draw, so a 60% chance is significantly better). To make sure that you’ve got the best odds, play “best of 10” or similar: the more times you play, the less-likely you are to be caught out by an unfortunate unlucky streak.

But if that doesn’t bake your noodle enough, try grabbing two sets of nontransitive dice and try again. Now you’ll see that the pattern reverses: the green pair tends to beat the red pair, the red pair tends to beat the blue pair, and the blue pair tends to beat the green pair! (this makes for a great second act to your efforts to fleece somebody of their money in a gambling game: once they’ve worked out how you keep winning, give them the chance to go “double or nothing”, using two dice, and you’ll even offer to choose first!)

Double Red beats Double Blue beats Double Green beats Double Red
When you pair up the dice, the cycle reverses! While red beats green, double-green beats double-red!

The properties of these dice – and of the more-exotic forms, like Oskar van Deventer’s seven-dice set (suitable for playing a game with three players and beating both of your opponents) and like the polyhedral varieties discussed on Wikipedia – intrigue the game theorist and board games designer in me. Could there be the potential for this mechanic to exist in a board game? I’m thinking something with Risk-like combat (dice ‘knock out’ one another from highest to lowest) but with a “dice acquisition” mechanic (so players perform actions, perhaps in an auction format, to acquire dice of particular colours – each with their own strengths and weaknesses among other dice – to support their “hand” of dice). There’s a discussion going on in /r/tabletopgamedesign

I’ve even written a program (which you’re welcome to download, adapt, and use) to calulate the odds of any combination of any variety of non-transitive dice against one another, or even to help you develop your own non-transitive dice sets.

Penney’s game

A coin being flipped.
Heads or tails? Image courtesy David M. Diaz.

Here’s another non-transitive game for you, but this time: I’ve made it into a real, playable game that you can try out right now. In this game, you and I will each, in turn, predict three consecutive flips of a fair coin – so you might predict “tails, heads, heads”. Then we’ll start flipping a coin, again and again, until one of our sequences comes up. And more often than not, I’ll win.

[button link=”https://danq.me/penney/” align=”center” size=”large” caption=”Click here to play a non-transitive coin game.”]Play “Penney’s Game”[/button]

If you win 10 times (or you lose 20 times, which is more likely!), then I’ll explain how the game works, so you know how I “cheated”. I’ll remind you: the coin flips are fair, and it’s nothing to do with a computer – if we played this game face-to-face, with a real coin, I’d still win. Now go play!

Edinburgh 2012 – Day Four

For our fourth day at the Edinburgh Fringe, Ruth, JTA and I decided to take a little break from the rushing-around-to-comedy-shows game and get out and see the sights. Ruth had somehow acquired a somewhat romantic idea of nearby Leith: that it would be full of quays and boats and suchlike, and not – as we would come to discover instead – full of rain and a foul-smelling burst sewer pipe.

Self-important seagull sits solemnly, soaked, surveying South.
Self-important seagull sits solemnly, soaked, surveying South.

We started with breakfast from Snax Cafe, under Matt‘s recommendation, which turned out to be a good one, as this tiny greasy spoon/takeaway turns out to serve a fantastic selection of fried foods ready-to-eat at great prices. I opted for a fried egg sandwich, with which I quickly made a mess of my t-shirt and shorts when I accidentally spilt the yolk all over myself.

Ruth and JTA trudge through the wet suburban streets of Leith.
Ruth and JTA trudge through the wet suburban streets of Leith.

A combination of the weather quickly turning against us, Leith being significantly further away than it first appeared on a map, and the three of us still being remarkably tired since the previous day turned this expedition into a far more arduous affair than we had initially expected. By the time we’d reached the pretty little boats and bars of the waterfront, we were damp (admittedly, we’d all but JTA underdressed for the excursion: his overcoat helped protect him, but it had the side-effect of making him look like a flasher, his bare legs poking out from under it).

Ruth and Dan playing Scrabble[TM] in a pub in Leith.
Ruth and I playing Scrabble[TM] in a pub in Leith.
We escaped from the weather just as it began to get sunnier again, into a pub called the Teuchter’s Landing, which Ruth had discovered earlier during her research into the area. There, we drank beer and played some of the boardgames made available by the pub: Scrabble™ (at which I scored abysmally low, for which I partially blame rotten luck on draw after draw: my final hand – representative of my fortunes – was R-R-R-L-L-U-O; my starting hand contained only one consonant), the Who Wants To Be A Millionare boardgame (which took a significant amount of sorting to put it back into a working order, and in which we had to work around some missing pieces), and a few hands of Knockout Whist (with the most static-electricity-inducing deck of cards I’ve ever encountered: almost impossible to deal without giving each player four or five cards at the same time).

(Veggie) haggis stovie (in a mug), a bowl of oatcakes, and a pint of beer.
(Veggie) haggis stovie (in a mug), a bowl of oatcakes, and a pint of beer. Is there a better lunch? The shiny white thing is my new phone: oh yeah, I have a new phone. the old one broke. I should probably do a blog post about that rather than just mentioning it in the caption of a picture of an unrelated post, shouldn’t I? I’ll try to remember to do so.

The food was good, though: we lunched upon freshly-made haggis stovies, served in mugs, with chunky chips (in further mugs) and oatcakes. And when we were done, and set out into the world again to explore the waterfront… that’s when it began raining again, even harder than before. Fucking marvellous.

JTA and Dan by the waterside in Leith.
JTA and I by the waterside in Leith. For some reason, at this point, a whole queue of Three Rings clients decided to phone me (about unrelated things), in a row, so in most of the photos I seem to be on the telephone.

By the time we’d worked our way around the docks, we were damp and tired, so we found a bus to take us back to Princes’ Street, cut across to a cheesemonger in Grassmarket to stock up on delicious cheeses, and then returned to the flat for a quick nap, because we were all pretty pooped.

Ruth aims a harpoon.
Ruth aims a harpoon. I’m not sure what she’s hoping to hit from here: it’s too rainy for whales. Whales hate the rain, right? Everybody knows that.

Later, we went out for another helping of Peter Buckley Hill and Some Comedians. Being Tuesday – the day before Buckers’ day off – and close to the end of the Fringe, he was clearly exhausted, and kept digressing from the usual (awesome) shite to random stream-of-consciousness new shite. Still all funny, and some enjoyable guests.

And then we slept. A lot.

Three Parties

I’ve had a few weekends fully of party. It’s no wonder I’m knackered.

Andy’s 30th

First, there was Andy‘s 30th birthday. Ruth, JTA and I slogged our way over to Cardiff to celebrate in style with pizza, booze, and dancing.

Dancing to Black Lace at Andy's 30th birthday.
Dancing to Black Lace at Andy’s 30th birthday.

Siân‘s got more to say on the subject, but suffice it to say this: it’s been a long, long time since I’ve found myself dancing in a nightclub until half past two in the morning, then grabbing a thoroughly disgusting-looking (but remarkably good-tasting) portion of fried food as an after-club snack. Oh, and Alec drooled all over himself long before he ended up sharing a bed with me.

Honestly, I didn’t think I had it in me to party like that any more: I’m such an old man (having myself turned thirty a good year and a bit prior). Didn’t stop me from getting up before anybody else the following morning for a quick geocaching expedition, though…

Summer Party On Earth

The following weekend was the Summer Party On Earth: an event that started out with Ruth saying “Let’s have a summer party!” and finished as a nostalgia-themed marathon of epic proportions.

This… was a party with everything. It had kids’ toys like Brio wooden railway, Lego bricks, and a marble run; it had soup and buffets and a barbeque and cakes; it had board games and party games and drinking games; it had beer and wine and cocktails; it had the world’s tiniest and most-nettley geocaching expedition… and from the time that we first started entertaining guests to the moment that the last of them left, it lasted for an exhausting 36 hours.

Some early guests play Ca$h 'N' Gun$, a live-action game of gun-toting gangsters.
Some early guests play Ca$h ‘N’ Gun$, a live-action game of gun-toting gangsters.

It was particularly interesting to get together with people from all of our varied social circles: workmates, former workmates, local friends, distant friends, partners of friends… all kinds of random folks coming to one place and – for example – pointing foam guns at one another.

Gareth, Rory and Adam put the finishing touches on their (second) wooden railway layout.
Gareth, Rory and Adam put the finishing touches on their (second) wooden railway layout. I’m pretty sure we ‘lost’ them for more than half of the party as they disappeared into the ‘playroom’.

In order to help us identify, classify, and dispose of some of the vast collection of booze that Ruth has recently inherited, JTA invented a drinking game. What can I say about it? Well: it certainly brought us all a lot closer together to suffer through some of the drinks we were served…

Everything seems a little blurry, and Alec isn't grimacing as much as he did with some of the other drinks he's been forced to try.
Everything seems a little blurry, and Alec isn’t grimacing as much as he did with some of the other drinks he’s been forced to try.

As usual for any party at which Ruth caters, everybody was required to consume their own weight in (delicious, delicious) desserts, and we only just finished eating the very last of the party food, almost two weeks later.

Matthew & Katherine’s Wedding

Finally, then, just the weekend after that, was the wedding of two folks I know via the Oxford Quakers: Matthew and Katherine.

Matthew and Katherine cut the cake in the garden of the Quaker Meeting House.
Matthew and Katherine cut the cake in the garden of the Quaker Meeting House.

I turned down the curious “What to expect at a Quaker wedding” leaflet as I entered: after all, I felt like an old-hand now, after helping make Ruth & JTA’s wedding into one of the most spectacular events ever. Well, maybe I shouldn’t have, because every wedding is as different as every bride and groom, and Matthew and Katherine’s was no exception. They’d clearly put so much thought into exactly what it is they wanted to do to celebrate their special day, and – with their help of their friends and family – had pulled everything together into a beautiful and remarkable occasion.

The céilidh. More weddings should have cèilidhean.
The céilidh. More weddings should have cèilidhean.

For me, particular highlights included:

  • One of the most adorable couples ever.
  • Not just a “vegetarian-friendly” meal, but one where vegetarianism was the norm (and guests were required to state if this wasn’t okay for them).
  • Catching up with folks who I don’t see as much of these days as I might like (and meeting new people, too).
  • A céilidh! More weddings should have these (although it’s the first time I’ve ever seen a “first dance” where the bride and groom were given instructions on what steps to do right before the music started).

My Very Excellent Liz Just Brought Us Sixteen Pizzas

I hadn’t really talked about it yet, because I’ve been too busy… I don’t know… blogging about Marmite and beds and computers or something… but I had the most fabulous time at a New Year’s party hosted by Liz and Simon at their house in Macclesfield. There was drinking, and board games, and truly awful Troma films, and then at midnight we all counted down from 7, or 12, or something, and spontaneously broke out into a chorus of Auld Lang Syne. See: there’s a video and everything –


(can’t see the video? click here to watch on YouTube)

It seems that my mnemonic (as used in the title of this post) is broken, unless we reinstate Pluto as a planet and rename the fourth and eighth planets in the solar system to Lars and Septune, respectively. Which I think are better names, anyway.

It was a fantastic opportunity to catch up with folks I don’t see enough of, to talk about what had gone right (and wrong) about the year gone by, and what we were looking forward to in the year to come. Liz suggested that perhaps this should become a regular thing, a little like “fake Christmas” has begun to, and that seems like a good idea (and I’m pretty sure I heard Bryn volunteer to host it next year…).

By the way: do you remember how last year Paul, Ruth, JTA and I invented Argh! It Burns Night? We’re doing it again this year, and because so many of you expressed an interest in joining us, we’d like you to come too. It’ll be on the evening of Saturday 4th February (yes, we know this is a little late for a Burns Night, but the second part of Ruth & JTA’s honeymoon is going to get in the way otherwise): drop me an email if you want to come along for a night of haggis, whisky, and fanfiction.

Instead Of Blogging…

Things I’ve been doing instead of blogging, this last month, include:

  • Code Week: hacking Three Rings code in a converted hay loft of a Derbyshire farm, as mentioned on the Three Rings blog.
  • Hoghton Tower: as is traditional at this time of year (see blog posts from 2010, 2009, 2005, 2003, for example), went to Preston for the Hoghton Tower concert and fireworks display, accompanied by Ruth, and my sister’s 22nd birthday. My other sister has more to say about it.
  • Family Picnic: Joining Ruth and JTA at Ruth’s annual family picnic, among her billions of second-cousins and third-aunts.
  • New Earthwarming: Having a mini housewarming on New Earth, where I live with Ruth, JTA, and Paul. A surprising number of people came from surprisingly far away, and it was fascinating to see some really interesting networking being done by a mixture of local people (from our various different “circles” down here) and distant guests.
  • Bodleian Staff Summer Party: Yet another reason to love my new employer! The drinks and the hog roast (well, roast vegetable sandwiches and falafel wraps for me, but still delicious) would have won me over by themselves. The band was just a bonus. The ice cream van that turned up and started dispensing free 99s: that was all just icing on the already-fabulous cake.
  • TeachMeet: Giving a 2-minute nanopresentation at the first Oxford Libraries TeachMeet, entitled Your Password Sucks. A copy of my presentation (now with annotations to make up for the fact that you can’t hear me talking over it) has been uploaded to the website.
  • New Earth Games Night: Like Geek Night, but with folks local to us, here, some of whom might have been put off by being called “Geeks”, in that strange way that people sometimes do. Also, hanging out with the Oxford On Board folks, who do similar things on Monday nights in the pub nearest my office.
  • Meeting Oxford Nightline: Oxford University’s Nightline is just about the only Nightline in the British Isles to not be using Three Rings, and they’re right on my doorstep, so I’ve been meeting up with some of their folks in order to try to work out why. Maybe, some day, I’ll actually understand the answer to that question.
  • Alton Towers & Camping: Ruth and I decided to celebrate the 4th anniversary of us getting together with a trip to Alton Towers, where their new ride, Thirteen, is really quite good (but don’t read up on it: it’s best enjoyed spoiler-free!), and a camping trip in the Lake District, with an exhausting but fulfilling trek to the summit of Glaramara.
Setting up camp at Stonethwaite.

That’s quite a lot of stuff, even aside from the usual work/volunteering/etc. stuff that goes on in my life, so it’s little wonder that I’ve neglected to blog about it all. Of course, there’s a guilt-inspired downside to this approach, and that’s that one feels compelled to not blog about anything else until finishing writing about the first neglected thing, and so the problem snowballs.

So this quick summary, above? That’s sort-of a declaration of blogger-bankruptcy on these topics, so I can finally stop thinking “Hmm, can’t blog about X until I’ve written about Code Week!”

Spirit of the Century

A couple of weeks ago, the other Earthlings and I played our very first game of Spirit of the Century. Spirit of the Century is a tabletop roleplaying game based on the FATE system (which in turn draws elements from the FUDGE system, and in particular, the FUDGE dice). Are you following me so far?

Four sets of FUDGE/FATE dice. Each die is labelled with 2 “blank”, 2 “minus” and 2 “plus” sides, and all four are rolled to obtain a result between -4 and +4, on a probability bell-curve trending towards 0. Neat.

Spirit of the Century is set in the “pulp novel” era of the 1920s, in the optimistic period between the two world wars. The player characters play pulp-style heroes: the learned professor, the adventurous archaeologist, the daring pilot, all of those tropes of the era. Science, or – as it should be put – Science! is king, and there’s no telling what fantastic and terrifying secrets are about to be unleashed upon the world. Tell you what… let me just show you the cover for the sourcebook:

Yes; that’s a gorilla flying a biplane away from a stricken zeppelin, fighting a masked hero. Meanwhile, a female mechanic clambers under the fuselage and man wearing a jetpack pulls alongside, guns blazing.

Everything you need to know about the game is right in that picture, right there.

The character generation mechanism is different from most RPGs; even other fluffy, anti-min/max-ey ones. All player characters (for reasons relevant to the mythos) were born on 1st January 1901, so the first part of character creation is explaining what they did during their childhood. The second part is about explaining what they did during the Great War. During each of these (and every subsequent step), the character will gain two “aspects”, which they’ll later use for or against their feats in a way not-too-dissimilar from the PDQ System (which may be familiar to those of you who’ve played Ninja Burger 2nd Edition).

The third chapter of character generation involves telling your character’s own story – their first adventure – in the style of a pulp novel. The back of the character sheet will actually end up with a “blurb” on it, summarising the plot of their novel. Then things get complicated. In the fourth and fifth chapters, each character will co-star in the novels of randomly-selected other player characters. This can involve a little bit of re-writing, as stories are bent in order to fit around the ideas of the players, but it serves an important purpose: it gives groups of player characters a collaborative backstory. “Remember the time that we fought off Professor Mechk’s evil robot army?”

Johnny Sparks is a character of my creation.

That’s exactly what Johnny Sparks did in “Johnny Sparks and the Robot Army”. When Professor Mechk released his evil robot army on the streets of New York City, Johnny Sparks – government-sponsored whizkid – knew he had to act. With his old friend Jack Brewood (and Jack’s network of black market contacts), he acquired the parts to build a weapon powered by lightning itself. Then, alongside Mafia child and expert pugilist Michael Leone, he fought his way up the Empire State Building to Mechk’s control centre. While Michael duelled with Mechk, Johnny channeled the powers of the heavens into the gigantic robot brainwave transmitter at the top of the tower, sending it into overload. As the tower-top base melted down and exploded, Michael and Johnny abseiled rapidly down the side to safety.

And so they have a history, you see! And some “aspects” for it: Johnny got “Master of Storms” from his lightning-based research and “With thanks to Jack” for his friend’s support. Meanwhile Jack got “On Johnny’s wavelength” to represent the fact that he’s one of the few people who can follow Johnny’s strange and aspie-ish thought patterns.

Beer, crisps, and roleplaying. What more does an Earthling need?

In our first play session, Michael Leone (Paul), Jack Brewood (JTA), and Anna Midnight (Ruth) found themselves in a race to rescue aviator Charles Lindbergh from the evil Captain Hookshot and his blimp-riding pirates. Hookshot hoped to use the kidnap of Lindbergh as leverage to get his hands on some of Thomas Edison‘s secret research, which he hoped would allow him to gain a stranglehold on the world’s aluminium supply, which was only just beginning to be produced in meaningful quantities. So began an epic boat (and seaplane) chase across the Atlantic to mysterious Barnett Island, a fight through the pirates’ slave camp and bauxite mines, a Mexican-stand-off aboard a zeppelin full of explosives, and a high-speed escape from an erupting volcanic island.

Highlights included:

  • Jack’s afraid of flying, so while the others arrived for the first scenes of the adventure by seaplane, Jack trundled well behind in a cruiser. As a result, he completely missed the kidnapping.
  • When Hookshot was first kidnapping Edison, his attempt was foiled when Ana threw a cutlass at him, severing the grapple he had tied to the scientist.
  • Michael’s a badass at barehand combat. When he wasn’t flinging wild dogs into trees, he was generally found crushing the skulls of pirates into one another.
  • Spirit of the Century encourages a particular mechanism for “player-generated content”. This was exemplified wonderfully by Jack’s observation that he “read once that there was a tribal whaling camp on an island near here, called Ingleshtat.” He paid a FATE point and made an Academics roll, but because I wouldn’t tell him the target of the roll he only knew that he’d “done well”, and not that he’d “done well enough.” He and the other player characters weren’t sure that his knowledge was accurate until they reached the island (and thankfully found that he was right). Similarly, the motivation for the kidnapping wasn’t about aluminium until one of the players speculated that it might be.
  • Ana Midnight’s spectacularly failed attempt at stealth, as she crept via a creaky door into a building full of armed guards. Also, Jack’s fabulous rescue attempt, as he dived and rolled into the building, firing his pistol as he went, while Michael climbed up the zeppelin’s boarding tower, leading to…
  • The tense (and, surprisingly, combat-free… barely!) stand-off and negotiation aboard Hookshot’s zeppelin, towards the end of the story.

There’s a lot of potential for a lot of fun in this game, and we’ll be sure to play it again sometime soon.

Apples To Alternative Vote

The other Earthlings, Statto, and I this week came up with a fun and topical variant of hit social board game Apples To Apples (which you might well have played with us at some point or another: if not, come over and we’ll show you). We call it AAV, or Apples To Alternative Vote, and it goes a little like this:

How'dya like them apples? An Applies to Apples (British Isles Edition) set and a sense of humour are all you need to play this game.
  1. Each player draws a hand of seven red cards, as usual. A deck of green cards is built to represent the voting populace. We used 9 green cards for 5 players, and I reckon that was too few: try doubling or tripling the number of players to get a green deck size. Round up to ensure you have an odd number.
  2. In turn, each player (or “candidate”) draws a green card from the constructed deck and explains: “Opinion polls show that voters in this constituency desire things which are…”, and then read out the card as normal. Play about with the language! “I represent the interests of voters who demand…”, etc.
  3. As usual, the other candidates play face-down red cards (policies) that will attract those voters, and the judge flips them over and chooses the one which best-reflects the interests of their constituents. The winning candidate wins their vote, and takes the green card as a prize.
  4. Play until one candidate holds the majority of the green cards. If you run out of green cards before this happens, eliminate the player(s) with the fewest votes (green cards): then they act as judge for these green cards among the remaining candidates. Continue eliminating and redistributing in this fashion until one candidate has a majority. This player is the winner.
  5. If this is all somehow too challenging for you, then declare that AV actually is too complicated, like the No-to-AV people say it is, and give up. Also: you should probably buy yourself some simpler board games, thicko.
An explanation of what all those complicated numbers mean for those too stupid to get their head around Alternative Vote.

We have in mind a possible variant in which different voting issue (green cards) represent different numbers of voters (perhaps using the “values” deck from For Sale), and the aim is to have a majority of voters, not issues, won over by your policies. “12,000 voters desire things which are… scary!” Give it a go, and let us know how you get on. And don’t forget to vote on Thursday!

The Board Games Are Breeding

A a means to take a break from the code I was working on for half an hour (I’m doing some freelance work for SmartData in my spare time, since I left them to go and work for the Bodleian Library, in order to help wrap up a project that I was responsible for at the end of my time there), I decided to go downstairs and do some packing in anticipation of our upcoming house move.

The first four boxes full of board games.

I packed about four boxes worth of board games, and then stood back to take a look at the shelves… and damnit, they look just as full as they did before I started.

I swear that my board game collection must be breeding, somehow. “Perhaps that’s where expansion packs come from,” suggests Paul. Perhaps: but that wouldn’t manage to explain the optical illusion that makes it look like I’ve got four boxes full of games when in actual fact they’re all still on the shelves, unless they’re breeding as fast as I can pack them.

This might take a while.

Offshore Oil Strike

The Metro have a fabulous article about this board game:

Yes, it’s a game about drilling for oil using offshore digs. With a remarkable picture on the front of a rig in distinctly stormy seas. And look – there’s BP’s logo on it: yes, Offshore Oil Strike got their official endorsement when it was released in the 1970s, but it’s coming back to haunt them now as board game collectors dig out their old copies and give it one last go (apparently it never sold very well, not least because it’s a dull and uninspiring game).

I was particularly amused by the card which reads “Blow-out! Rig damaged. Oil slick clean-up costs. Pay $1 million.” – one of the worst cards to draw as a player. A whole million dollars?

That diversion aside, there’s more fun and games here on Earth:

  • The other night, we got the chance to try Fat Boyz Pizza, our second-nearest local pizza place (after the Pizza Hut Express just around the corner). I was reasonably impressed: good-sized pizza at a reasonable price, very tasty, and only slightly too greasy (we’re talking a little bit too much grease, not Hollywood Pizza – from whom we ordered for many, many years back in Aberystwyth – here).
  • We have a green woodpecker who visits our garden. I’ve never seen a woodpecker in an urban environment before, but this one certainly seems keen. We speculate that his appearance right after we overturned a couple of ants’ nests while digging the garden is not a coincidence, though, but rather a tasty treat.
  • We’ve started planting! Only herbs and flowers, so far – and we’re probably too late in the year to kick off many vegetables – but it’s a start. Our garden still has a long way to go.

Nostalgia Isn’t What It Used To Be

It’s been a bit of a day for nostalgia. It started even before I woke up, when I was dreaming about an argument that could have marked the end of Claire and I’s relationship, if it weren’t for the fact that it didn’t even slighly represent the actual circumstances of our seperation (I’ll spare you all the details). I was woken by a phone call from a company with whom I used to deal. Later, I caught up with an old friend via instant messanger, in what was probably my only delibrate act of nostalgia of the day. Finally, while working this evening on a techy project that’s been part of my life for about the last eight years, the random number generator in my MP3 playing software decided all of its own accord that what I’d really like to listen to is the same music I was listening to when I first started on the project.

Did I not get the memo that this is National Nostalgia Day, or something? Is everything conspiring around me, or is this all a coincidence?

The thing I’ve learned about nostalgia is that it’s generally best left as it is: a collection of figments in your mind. Some are accurate, some mis-remembered, and all are seen through glasses tinted with the colour of hindsight. And that’s great: that’s exactly how your brain is supposed to experience times past. If you’re an optimist, like me, it’s easy to pick out your favourite memories and pretend that your life gone by was all as great as your happiest moments. If you’re a pessimist, well: you probably do the same thing, but compare those great memories to how awful things are right now (and you’re wrong, but I can’t just tell you that and give you a more rational worldview, just as your cynicism won’t “fix” me, either).

That’s inevitable, of course: think back to the moment in your life at which you felt the most content that you ever have – at least that comes right to your mind. Unless your time on the planet has been a continuous curve of improvement, with no ups-and-downs, then there’s something remarkable about that moment: it’s not right now. Well duh, of course it isn’t. The most elementary mathematics would indicate that of all of the experiences in your life, there has to be some kind of regression toward the mean going on: what you’re experiencing now should, on average, be representative of your life so far even before you factor in the Von Restoroff effect and other cognitive biases.

But I digress. My point was this: I would love to be able to finish what I’m working on and go play a game of Chez Geek in the Ship & Castle with folks like Bryn and Kit and Liz and Strokey Adam, just like I did over six and a half years ago. But that’s not my life nowadays. And while I can get all doe-eyed about how awesome the Ship & Castle used to be before they gutted it and made it look like a trendy wine bar (apologies to those of you for whom this is the news being broken of its demise), or I can pine for the days that those friends – now long-gone – used to all live a stone’s throw away from me, but that’s not the full story. I don’t miss being even poorer than I am now, I don’t miss having to juggle my academic life with holding down a job, and a certainly don’t miss being quite so arrogant as I was back then (for those of you who’ve only recently met me; think of me now, only more so).

Nostalgia is like alcohol: it’s great in moderation, but if you get too much of it, or you become dependent upon it, then you’re liable to get stuck and not be able to move on. And I think that’s the message I should be taking away from this morning’s dream.

(and now, in a somewhat ironic and roundabout way, I’d better stop writing so I can go and play board games with the current Aber crew, as part of a tradition that started with Chez Geek in the Ship & Castle, all those years ago…)