Saturday, 24 November 2012


Last blog I wrote a little about Thunder Alley, a racing game that is being kickstarted by GMT Games at the moment, this post I’m going to be writing about a totally different racing game: Pitchcar.

The cars line up on the grid...

If Thunder Alley, Formula D, Rally Man and so many other racing games are characterised by tactical choices about whether to play this card, advance this gear or take that corner, Pitchcar must stand in sharp defiance as a game that lacks any of those sort of choices, but which manages, nonetheless, to be a rollicking good game.

Pitchcar manages to remain a good game because it is not a game about choices, it is a game of action, it’s a dexterity game, and the name: Pitchcar, almost describe the rules in their entirety.  You have a car (disk) on the track, and you flick it...  It is as engaging as any game that involves some level of physical skill, whether that be something like darts, or something more obscure (well - obscure in Australian terms), like Carrom or Klop.  It is engaging because every flick is important, every straight, corner and jump has an angle and a speed which, in the players mind, is the perfect choice, but it’s not a choice, it’s down to flicking prowess.  Watching a race-car pitch off the track wildly because a shot had too much ‘pepper’, or limply slide a bare disk-length forward is hilarious.  Getting that perfect shot where the car slides around the bend and shoots down the straight just so, is exciting.  Pitchcar is a fun game, and that, to me, is all the recommendation I need.

Can red make the corner and the jump in one flick?

Pitchcar comes in two varieties, normal, and mini.  We have the mini version, because it takes up less space.  Both are highly enjoyable, but require a nice flat surface to rest on - if any track piece is slightly higher than any other it can really affect the disks as they move.

For my son’s birthday we bought a Lego table - this is a thing one wheels that is designed to slide under a bed out of the way, and which is the perfect surface to play with Lego on (and I might further suggest that trying to put one together an hour before work is not necessarily a good idea, it has more pieces than a Lego Technic set, and about a million screws). For Lego this table is fantastic, but my wife, bless her heart, suggested that an equally good use for the table might be as a surface to play Pitchcar on - a wonderful suggestion from a wonderful wife!

My son loves Pitchcar; being only a lad of formative years, the objective at this stage isn’t a tense race, but rather a simple enjoyment of flicking (sometimes swatting) the disks about the track.  We’ve played plenty of Disk Drivin’ on the iPhone/iPad (basically the same game), so he understands the idea of Pitchcar easily, being a simple game, it’s something we can easily play together, and is hilarious fun.  Pitchcar is a great fun game, totally different from most of the racing games out there - but as a game can be judged by the fun it induces, it stands as a great game.

Disk Drivin'


Thursday, 22 November 2012

Thunder Alley...

Kickstarter is a new(ish) force in board gaming that has already had a big impact,and is something that seems to attract a love-hate attitude. Personally I don’t have a horse in the race, I’m not worried that Kickstarter will diminish or flood the game market, and I do think it is most certainly a positive thing for small game publishers.

In fact, the only reason that I’m writing about this is not because of Kickstarter itself per se, but rather because I noticed that GMT, a publisher that already pioneered it’s own approach to crowd-funding, has put it’s first game up: Thunder Alley.

GMT is a company that is very well respected within the wargame niche of the board game market, they produce a huge range of wargames on a wide variety of conflicts throughout history.  Some are massive simulations, some more accessible for the non-wargamer out there; the sort of person who wants a game that is easy to enjoy and play.

Without a doubt they have had several run-away successes: Twilight Struggle, Command and Colours Ancients, and Combat Commander are the ones that spring most immediately to mind.

So why does a company with a proven and well-honed crowd-funding system (The P500 system), turn to Kickstarter?  From the KS page for Thunder Alley GMT notes that they want to bring the game to market more quickly, and hope that KS assists in getting news about Thunder Alley to a wider audience than those who frequent

I think the latter is the most pertinent point, GMT has previously published games that are more family style games, games with themes that are not wargames.  But without a doubt they are most strongly associated with the wargame market - and it seems that more recently, with games like Dominant Species, Urban Sprawl, and of course Thunder Alley and Title Chase Basketball, GMT is looking to broaden their market, they are interested in good games, not simply good wargames.

Does sitting in a publication list of games about various engagements through history make it harder for games like Thunder Alley to stand out and be noticed?  Are the markets for the different games different enough for there to be some level of dissonance?  Perhaps the P500 system, well known and very successful for their wargaming market, is the perfect place to keep pushing those games, while Kickstarter allows the company to break the typical attachments associated with the GMT brand, and reach a different audience.  

Whatever the reasons I’ll be interested to see what, if any, other games GMT pushes out into the KS world.  I’ll also be watching Thunder Alley; I loved Jeff Horger’s ‘Manoeuvre’, and Thunder Alley seems to be a really interesting design.  I’ll also be interested to see how GMT approach the KS world of stretch rewards and such.

In any case, Thunder Alley looks like a fun and interesting racing game, and GMT are certainly a company I have a lot of respect for, best of luck trying this out!


Monday, 19 November 2012

Heavens Above...

Watching the moon slowly crawl across the disk of the sun through some eclipse glasses was a moment of duality - two competing senses, one of excitement at seeing so wonderful a spectacle, and one of stillness, a quiet sense of marvel at the machinery of the cosmos.  It inspired me to again lug my telescope outside, something I had neglected doing for most of the past winter.

The eclipse...

Winter is gone, and though the evenings are comparatively cool, they can hardly be used as an excuse.  I have four favourite things to look at in the night sky, probably because they are easy for an amateurs amateur such as myself to find.  The first is the moon; most obvious.  Next are the two largest planets in our solar system, Saturn with its rings is great to view, even with my telescope and surrounding street-light induced light pollution it appears an orange-y/yellow-y marble with the the rings clearly visible, and the most prominent moons as stars in a neat line around the planet.  Jupiter, which is visible now quite clearly is also nice.  And lastly my one-of-four favourite things is the nebula in Orion, M42, a dusty cloud in space punctuated by bright new stars.

Saturn isn’t visible during any of the hours I like to keep (it’s rising around 5.00am at the moment), but Jupiter certainly is.

Jupiter - a shot of this planet with no added equipment (just from my phone).

Viewing anything in the night sky from the backyard is always an exercise in mild frustration, the incoming flood of light from nearby street-lights can be annoying to say the least, and can also serve to wash out some of the colour from the things you’re viewing.  Nonetheless, Jupiter appears as a large bright white marble, and sometimes, on a dark night, creamy rather than white.  Several dark brown bands are also clearly visible as lines across its surface, on a dark night some of the detail of these bands can be seen, the turbulent edges, the spots.  The largest of Jupiter’s moons are also clearly visible - though these appear as stars in a rough line, changing position night to night.

Jupiter - the poor camera loses all sense of the colour and bands, but three moons are visible.

Tonight I also took some time to view the moon, since it is a crescent phase at the moment it makes for excellent viewing, the angle of the sunlight on it’s surface means the craters and mountains stand with long shadows, making the three dimensionality of the surface really stand out.

A phone's view of the moon...

I tried to take some photos using my iPhone through the eye-piece of my scope, but the results are (obviously) far poorer than what one sees with ones own eyes.

The brightness of the moon is overwhelming for the phone camera.  Nearly all the detail: lost.

It’s a cathartic experience, gazing heavenward; a good time to pause and contemplate life, the universe and everything.  The implacable march of the celestial machinery that drives the cosmos invites us to experience a sense of smallness in comparison.  A window into the fleeting nature of time and yawning enormity that surrounds us.  Far from being a depressing thing, it is humbling, a chance to to ponder the things that we as individuals invest importance in.  A vast yardstick against which my own troubles seem trifling and trivial things.  What do I think about?  The universe of course, and existence - how can one not.  But also my family: my larger family often, my friends occasionally, but most certainly my wife and my kids.

The solar system I can come at, the solar system I can wrap my mind around, but gazing into deeper space, into the turbulence of new star formation, of the death of stars, of galaxies, gazing into time itself... that I can only wonder at.  Trying to establish a mental foothold on the concept of something so... immense.  Rather than finding a foothold I end up feeling adrift, it is simply too large to fit within the confines of my small primate mind.  Adrift and in wonder.  Quietly marvelling.  

Through a smaller eyepiece...

Even through the smaller eye-piece most of the detail is lost...



Friday, 16 November 2012

A day in the sun...

We spent the morning class in the garden planting seeds.  A fantastic morning.  Let me stop there and explain a little.  It’s been awhile since last I blogged about some of the happenings at my school.  This term our theme is science, a topic I much enjoy teaching, and that covers far too many areas for the time we allot to it.

One of the things we are doing as a part of our theme, aside from the more general joys of making light bulbs shine, balloons pop and volcanoes bubble, is planting vegetables, fruit and herbs in the school’s kitchen garden.

This pleasant little hide-away seems a world away from the typically poorly lit and stuffy classroom (and don’t get me wrong – I love my stuffy classroom).  It’s a small garden, with room for several large garden beds, many more smaller ones, fruit trees, a work shed, a chicken pen (currently on the lookout for tenants) and a nice bit of lawn.  It had spent a little while overgrown, but with the advent of our science theme, myself and the teachers in the middle section of the school were intent on getting our students out of the rooms and into the garden.

On the face of it this may not seem an academic pursuit, if your concept of education or the purpose of school is all about spelling patterns, phonographic knowledge, syntax, place value and renaming numbers you may well ask what the point of such a diversion is.  For me, the point is rather simple: it’s real.

That’s not to say that verb conjugation or decimal/fraction equivalencies aren’t real, or to slight or malign the importance of such things in the general scheme of education.  But there is a visceral, tactile, physical, and invigorating reality to burying your hands in soil to plant a seed, or watching a plant grow that you have tended that is immediate and apparent: it is directly experienced, not a thought experiment or conceptual framework.

Burying your hands in the garden is an experience that can be used as a basis for writing, or maths, or drawing or science, or any other subject for that matter.  It’s an experience that speaks to the kids about the nature of nature, about the science that describes the beautiful machinery of this world in which we live.  It’s an experience you can lay your hands on, you can succeed at and fail at and watch the results play out as a consequence.  It’s an experience that pours information to the brain through all our senses, the sights, smells, sensations and sounds.

I find gardens and such places cathartic, that’s not to say I’m an avid gardener; I avoid weeding wherever possible and can kill the hardiest of plants with seemingly little effort.  But I find the experience of nature, well, nature that isn’t trying to eat me, pleasant and refreshing.  Sitting in the warm shade while the leaves twitch in the breeze, suddenly starting, and then easing to calm as the breeze dies away, where insects crawl, fly, buzz, drone and wander about going on with their business oblivious of us idly observing, is a great environment for learning.

Yesterday we watched the moon occlude the disk of the sun, today we caught a gecko, and planted pumpkins and beans, basil and lettuce.  These are the moments I love as a teacher.

A poor photo of the eclipse - taken on my phone through protective glasses.

Monday, 12 November 2012

Cupboards, cups, and entropy...

The cupboards in our kitchen seem to be unduly influenced by the laws of thermodynamics. At least, insofar as my little golden book of thermodynamics level of understanding is concerned.

As the arrow of time has progressed the neat order that once represented our methods of storing cups and pans and whatnot has been slowly replaced with a system dominated by chaos.  Additionally, the owning of children has seemed to have sped up this process.

Stage one, ‘Order’: In this low entropy state, the state of highest structure and order, our cups and pans were grouped in sets, occasionally by colour or size, a favourite perhaps jostling for front position, but otherwise neat.  Some of the shelf they rest on is even visible.  This stage does not last long.

Stage two, ‘The descent’: Energy is added to the system in the form of that mug set given as a birthday/moving out/engagement gift. An ill-conceived Tupperware party brings new vessels into the house demanding storage. A cup or two from this set and that is dropped and broken.  Individually these additions and subtractions can be roughly accommodated into the system without completely destroying it, but the accumulation of new cups/pans/utensils/whatever has the net effect of increasing the entropy of the system, order is giving way to chaos.

Stage three, ‘Disorder’: Eventually the cupboards reach a point where cups and mugs are piled higgledy piggledy; they become a veritable teetering wave of crockery.  We stack the front ranks carefully, as a bulwark against the tide behind, but beyond that porcelain structure pure chaos rules.  This is the high entropy state, the laws of thermodynamics have taken hold and carried what was a very structured system into the realms of disorder.  Any further and a cupboard door opened too swiftly could precipitate a wave of ceramics that would take man, child and beast along with it.  The only upside of such a tidal wave would be finding that cup I used to love for tea and haven’t seen in years.

There seems little I can do to reverse the process, this is simply my story.  It could happen to you, you have been warned...


Pirates of the Spanish Main

Many moons ago, in the early days, when my board gaming was but a dalliance between roleplaying and table top games like DBA and Warhammer I found much to like in, what was then, a new and exciting game - Pirates of the Spanish Main.

This was a collectible/constructible card game, where the pirate ships were pieces stamped out of plastic cards (like credit cards) that one popped out and clipped together to make a little 3D ship.  The game was enjoyable, but also wildly unbalanced, and being of a collectible nature the imbalances in the ship powers, particularly as the number of different sets grew, forced players to continue buying more to stay in the ‘arms’ race.  I left it long ago for greener pastures, but kept my various ships and bits in a box in my classroom in case any kids wanted to play with them.

Since my days of playing this game passed by, the various plastic ships have been carted from school to school, from class-to-class.  Many have broken or fallen to pieces, and I didn’t lose much sleep over the matter.

In the last few weeks there have been a group of kids in my class that have shown a real interest in these ships, and not just playing with the ships, but playing the game.  Last week I worked my way through my box of Pirates of the Spanish Main, finding and putting back together the ships, matching them with ship cards and so on in an effort to build a basic set that can be boxed together and be played - and what’s more, provide a roughly balanced experience.

In the end I managed to salvage some 20 ships or so, and with various islands, treasure tokens, crew tokens and so on, they now sit apart, ready to be played.  We’ve had a couple of games so far, and the kids seem to really enjoy it.  The basic game: find treasures and sink your opponents, is simple, and because of it’s simplicity a lot of fun.  It’s still not the most balanced game in our school games collection, but it’s one that is enjoyable, easy to pick up and play, and exciting!

Seeing those pirate ships hauling-to across the table-top again after so many years of neglect and dry-docks is somewhat pleasing.  Hoist the Jolly Roger and chase down the treasure, and whether it be the crash of grape-shot through the mizzen or the clatter of dice on the table - the spirit of the Spanish Main is alive again.

And apparently there is a new card game due out soon based on the Pirates of the Spanish Main property, published by WizKids and designed by Bryan Kinsella and the Australian game designer Phil Harding... I shall have to investigate further...