Sunday, July 06, 2014

Board Game Review: Game of Thrones: The Board Game (2nd Ed.)

Image Courtesy BoardGameGeek.com
The Basic Premise

Game of Thrones: The Board Game, Second Edition is a territory control game by Fantasy Flight based on the A Song of Ice and Fire series of novels.  It would say that it is based on the TV show of the same name, except that the art in the game does not reflect the characters depicted in the TV show, and there is nothing in particular with the story of this game that mirrors the plot of the show.  It is not, like Battlestar Galactica, an opportunity to embody the characters you see in the show and face the same sorts of challenges they face.  It is a territory control game with some names you'll recognize.

The Object of the Game

There are 10 rounds.  Some territories have castles in them.  The first player to control 7 castles at the end of a round, or the player with control of the most castles at the end of the 10th round wins.

The Setup

Each of the 6 houses has a capital, and a set number of units that they command in set places at the start of the game.  Each has advantages and disadvantages.  The Starks are more removed from the other players, giving them an opportunity to grow before coming into conflict, but having farther to travel.  The Greyjoys are isolated on an island, but there are a lot of wealthy territories nearby on land.  The list goes on.

The Phases of the Game

Each round (except the first, which omits the Westeros phase), has three phases: Westeros, Planning, and Action.

In the Westeros phase, three events are selected at random from three different decks. If "winter comes" it means that deck gets reshuffled. I'll talk more about what the various events are later.

In the planning phase, each of the players secretly gives orders to each of its territories with units.  These orders remain hidden until all of them have been issued.

In the action phase, the orders are resolved.

The Orders

The orders that can be issued are March, Support, Defend, Consolidate Power, or Raid.  Once revealed, they are resolved in the order Raid, March, Consolidate Power.  Support and Defend orders are activated by the actions of neighbouring units, and don't need to be actively resolved.  A raid order allows you to remove the support, consolidate power, or raid token on a neighbouring enemy territory. March is a movement, or an attack if the movement is into an enemy occupied territory.  Consolidate power allows you to use the units to generate power.

Raid, March, and Consolidate Power are all resolved in the turn order, one order at a time.  So the first player resolves one raid, then the second player resolves one raid, then the third, until there are no raids left.  Then the same for marches, and the same for consolidate powers (which can effectively happen simultaneously, as the order doesn't matter).

Units

You are limited to your starting units until a "mustering" card is drawn during a Westeros phase.  Then, each castle (or stronghold, if it is a two-story castle) generates new military units.  The units are footmen, knights, boats, and seige engines.  Footmen and boats cost a single point (small castle), knights and siege engines can only be generated by a stronghold.  The units appear on the castle that paid for them.  Footmen and boats have attack and defence values of 1.  Knights attack and defend at 2.  Siege engines attack at 4, and do not defend.

Boats, in addition to being able to attack and defend sea territories, also act as bridges, essentially making land territories adjacent to one another.  Land units can use boats for transport in this way at no cost.

Armies and Supply

More than one unit in the same territory makes an "army".  You are limited in both the number of armies you can have, and their size.  At no point in the game can you have an army larger than 4 units, and then only one of that size.  The number and size of armies you can have are determined by your supplies, which are indicated by barrel icons that appear on the territories you control.  However, your available armies increase or decrease only when a supply action happens, again, at random from the Westeros phase.  So you can occupy a great deal of territories with supply icons, wait for a supply phase, then vacate all of those territories and hope that another supply phase doesn't come along until after your armies have achieved what you need done.  If a supply phase comes along and you no longer control enough supply icons to have the number of armies present, your units starve, and are removed from the board, until you have only the armies you are allowed.  A single unit by itself is not an army, and is not subject to the restrictions.

The limited number of armies also has an impact on how you defend your castles.  Leaving units there is good for defence, but when mustering, new units must fit into the available armies.  Leaving your units in your castle territories therefore reduces the number of new units you might get if a muster happens.

Power

You start with 5 power tokens.  In order to continue to benefit from the supply, and consolidate power tokens in those territories, you must leave a power token behind when your military units vacate the territory. Tokens can be gained with the consolidate power order, which generates one, or two if there is a consolidate power icon on the territory.  Consolidate power can also happen randomly from the Westeros phase, in which case it applies to all players and all territories, and you gain one power for each consolidate power icon you control.

Influence Tracks

The power tokens are also used for the influence tracks.  There are three influence tracks.  They are determined by bidding.  Highest bidder gets the highest influence.  The iron throne influence track determines turn order.  The person who is first in turn order also breaks ties in combat and bids.  The valerian sword influence track gives a one-per-round one point military bonus to the holder of the valerian sword.  The third influence track determines how many special orders (which are indicated with a star on the order token) you can issue each round.  The ability to issue special orders makes it possible to issue orders that give a bonus to your units, or simply to issue more orders of a certain type than would otherwise be available.  The person first on this track also gains the ability to change one of their orders after orders have been revealed, or to look at the top of the wildling deck.

Bids for each of the influence tracks happen at random in the Westeros phase.  The black crow player also has the opportunity to force them on certain events.

Wildling Attacks

One of the random things that can happen during the Westeros phase is a wildling attack.  The wildlings also increase in strength randomly during Westeros phases.  When a wildling attack is resolved, all the players secretly bid power tokens to defend the south from the wildlings.  If the total number of power tokens bid is higher than the strength of the wildlings, the night's watch has won the battle, and the wildlings are weakened.  Otherwise, the wildlings have won, and they are strengthened.  If the night's watch wins, something positive usually happens to the player who contributed the most.  If the wildlings win, something negative happens to the player who contributed the least.

Resolving Combat

When a march order is resolved as an attack, the player making the attack adds the strength of their attacking units, any bonuses from the attack order, and adds the strength of any friendly units adjacent to the attacked area with a support order, plus any bonuses from the support orders, and that is their attacking strength.  The defender does the same with units, defence, and support orders from adjacent friendly territories.  Each player then has an opportunity to play one card from a 6-card house deck, each with an attack bonus of between 0 and 4, icons that cause or prevent the losing side's units from being destroyed, and other special features.  These cards are where the characters from the novels appear.  This bonus is added, and the higher player wins the combat.

The losing player, if the units are not destroyed, retreats to friendly territory if it can.  Otherwise, the retreating units are also destroyed.

This hero card mechanic causes a couple of interesting strategies.  One is to wait to attack your opponent until they have wasted their best cards on another enemy.  Another is to intentionally attack a number of enemies with no chance of success just for the purpose of getting rid of the rest of your attack cards and regaining the whole deck to play with.

My Review

You are limited in the number of armies that you can have, you are limited in the amount of territory you can control, you are limited in the number of units you can have, you are forced to balance the amount of territory you control with whether you can play special orders or get attack bonuses, or play first or break ties, or fight off wildlings.  In Game of Thrones, you are constantly finding yourself a unit short and a turn late.

No one can do it on their own in this game.  You must, must, must get the help of your fellow players, whether it is in the form of a mutual truce, or an agreement to attack the leader to prevent them from running away with the game.  It is the forming and the breaking of these allegiances between the houses of westeros where the "fun" lies.  That is what brings the game drama.

The game is also one of pace.  Like a rider in the tour de france, you must recognize that winning conditions are possible to attain, but that anything near winning conditions are impossible to hold.  The only winning strategy, therefore, is to stay with the pack, and sprint at the finish.  That pacing doesn't become apparent until you have played the game once or twice.

And unfortunately, all these nice things that you learn having played the game once or twice will make you question whether you want to play it again, because it takes FOREVER.  I have played two games, with relatively experienced board game players, though only half of us are strategy enthusiasts.  Both times it has taken approximately one hour per player.  And this is not, like other games, a game in which every player's turn involves something for the other players to do.  So there are periods of sitting around waiting for the other players to choose hero cards.  This is made less serious by the fact that the action phase switches players relatively quickly.  But sitting around waiting for other people to decide is just not fun.

For my play group, this was intended as a replacement for Battlestar Galactica, which had been a huge hit.  However, the fact that everyone is doing something on everyone else's turn in BSG is not here, and the playing against one another that is forced on the players in BSG is merely optional good strategy in Game of Thrones, and so those for whom backstabbing comes less naturally are less engaged in the game, and win less, and enjoy it less.

I have to say that the rules around boats are also extremely difficult to understand, based on the manual.  Ports in land territories behave differently than land territories and differently than sea territories.  I've played it twice, and I still don't understand quite how they work, or why.

If your idea of a good time is sitting down with some friends for a 6-hour game of axis & allies or twilight imperium, and you don't mind lying to your friends or being lied to over a board game, then you're going to love Game of Thrones.  If that doesn't sound appealing to you, Game of Thrones is probably not the game for you.

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Big Brains are Sexy, but so are Peacock Tails. That's why there are no Aliens.

A while ago, I posted some ramblings about the possibility that flight was an evolutionary result of sexual selection gone insane, like the peacock's tail.  I thought the idea was interesting, in that it seemed really strange, but also really plausible.  But I didn't think it had any basis in science.

Today, a friend pointed me to the question of Fermi's Paradox, which is the question: If Earth is average, and the universe is so big, how come we haven't seen any aliens yet?

One of the (many) possible answers to that question is that there is no "ladder" of evolution.  Evolution goes off in all directions. Therefore, there is no reason to believe that intelligence is a necessary or even remotely likely result of evolution.  Essentially, technological intelligence is as likely to evolve as giant peacock tails.

As for how we humans ended up intelligent if that is true, Geoffrey Millar, an evolutionary psychologist (really? wow... ok.) has suggested that the human species may have evolved to have sexual selection for intelligence at a time in our evolution that it was helpful, and then we were stuck with it and it ran rampant. Whatever the advantages (or disadvantages) of human intelligence as it has evolved, the route that got us here was random, not imperative.

So big brains are sexy, but so are peacock tails.  That's why there are no aliens.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

9 Reasons Peter McKay is Wrong about Women and the Bench

Let's start with the nit-picking.  I'm expecting more of the national post when it reports about federally-appointed judges.
As of June 1, 24 of the 81 federally appointed judges in Canada were women — just shy of 30%.
81?  Off by about a degree of magnitude.  All superior courts are federally appointed.  That's 80 judges in Alberta alone. Do better, NP.

</nitpick>


Someone asks our Justice Minister Peter McKay why there are so few female judges on the federally-appointed courts - the courts he is responsible for the appointments to.  He says, essentially, because women aren't applying.  And then he says it's because they worry that being a judge would take them away from their families.


Yikes.


When that comment is reported on, and people express disapproval, what does the Justice Minister do?  Double down, saying that babies need their mothers more than their fathers.


Here are the things implied in the Minister's comments that I find incorrect or otherwise disagreeable.



  • Peter McKay knows why women lawyers do and don't do things.
  • Childrearing is for girls.
  • Fathering is less valuable than mothering, at least in early years.
  • Lawyers are having babies around the same time they are applying for appointment to the bench, which statistics canada suggests is no earlier than 45 years of age.  ("I was thinking about getting a job as a judge, but I'm 50, and my clock is ticking"?)
  • Women exist in a world where they are perfectly free to decide who will look after their kids.
  • The supply of possible judicial appointees of each gender is equal. There is nothing about the legal profession that drives women out long before they have the experience to apply to be judges.  
  • Children with stay-at-home dads are somehow worse off.
  • Males who apply to sit on the court don't care about their children.
  • The lack of gender equity is the result of the decisions women make about their families, but not the decisions men make about their families.
Yeah. Not so much.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

CryptoCurrency for normal people

What is a CryptoCurrency?

It is a virtual currency that uses encryption techniques to provide basic functions.

What is the Point of a CryptoCurrency?

This depends.  Some people are concerned about the impossibility of micro-transactions in a world where you have to pay a minimum fee for processing a credit card or debit card payment.  If your bank is charging you $1 per transaction, or your credit card is charging you a minimum $0.15 per transaction regardless of the size of the transaction, it doesn't make sense to pay someone $0.01 to read a story on the internet.  If we had a currency that could get rid of the middle man (read: banks, credit card companies), and which could reduce the transaction fee to nil, then you'd be well on your way to creating a micro-transaction economy.

Other people want to be able to make certain kinds of transactions that are relatively expensive or relatively slow using traditional means.  Wire transfers are expensive.  Cryptocurrency transfers are essentially free.

Other people just don't like banks.

Other people think of fiat money (the money that is money because a government says so) as susceptible to the mistakes of central bank regulators, and forever subject to inflation.  CryptoCurrencies, in theory at least, can be non-inflationary.

But the real reason they exist is because someone figured out it was possible.

So Why Do You Need Encryption?

The basic problem is that you need to make sure that money doesn't get spent twice.  In order to do that, you have to go one of two ways: you have to have each transaction confirmed with a central bank, who knows who has what, and can transfer that money from point a to point b, or, you have to make the ledger public.

The whole point is avoiding central authority, so CryptoCurrencies use the second option.  Essentially, there is a peer-to-peer network of computers that keep track of all the transactions that have happened, and they all are going off a single shared ledger of those transactions.

In order to make sure that no one on the peer to peer network can remove entries once they are on the ledger (which would allow someone to spend the same money twice), the ledger (which is called the "blockchain") is encrypted every few minutes with the new transactions added on the end.  This encryption is hard to do, but it is much harder to undo.

Once a few of these blocks of transactions have been added, it becomes virtually impossible for someone to unencrypt them, remove the old transaction, and re-encrypt them all back up with all the old transactions and a few new ones to become the new official copy of the ledger.

In theory, someone with enough computing power could do it, but generally speaking, they won't be able to beat the good guys, who are using their powerful processing power to extend the chain, not unwind it.

Why are the Good Guys Helping?

See, everyone is sort of racing to take new transactions and add them on to the end of the blockchain with the new encryption.  They want to do this because if they succeed, they are paid.  So there's lots of people trying to get those "free" coins by having their computers do math quickly.  It's called "mining."  Mining is sufficiently lucrative that a lot of people are trying very hard to do it as fast as possible.  The more successful they are, the harder it is for bad guys to remove entries from the ledger.

But isn't it for drug dealers, and stuff?

Drug dealers like it, I understand.  They also like cash.

But isn't it like, secret?

Actually, it's considerably less secret than cash.  When cryptocurrency changes hands, everybody knows, because it's in the ledger.  At one point, someone stole about $40,000 worth of bitcoin.  But everyone in the world could see the money, sitting there in someone's wallet.  They just didn't know whose.  Then, when that person started to sell the bitcoin for cash, they could see where the bitcoins were going.  Most places that convert between bitcoin and cash are serious businesses that take compliance with anti-money laundering laws seriously.  So unlike cash, which unless it is marked, or in sequential numbers, you can't follow, bitcoins can be seen, wherever they go.

What can be seen, however, is not a person, but a "wallet."  A wallet is simply an address, like an email address.  Just because you have the address doesn't mean you know who's controlling it.  And there is nothing stopping someone from having multiple addresses.

The caveat to this is that there are some people who are working to come up with software wallets that will use a separate peer-to-peer network which combines multiple private transactions into a single public transaction, thereby reducing the traceability of the money.

Isn't it used for laundering money?

Sure.  So is cash.

Can it be used to avoid taxes?

Not legally, no.  There are problems with enforcement, though, because whereas the CRA can go after a bank account and garnish it, there is effectively no way to force someone to transfer cryptocurrencies if they don't want to, and have taken adequate precautions.  A person who had all of their assets in cryptocurrency would be difficult to enforce against. But that person would also be crazy.

Why is it crazy to have all of your assets in the cryptocurrency?

Because it is incredibly volatile.  The value is unpredictable in the extreme.  Also, you can't buy groceries with it, as far as I know.  I'm sure that will change soon, but there you have it.  Also, leaving your assets in cryptocurrency so they can't be taxed also means leaving them in cryptocurrency so they can't be spent.  You'd have to really not like paying taxes to think absolute poverty is a better option.

Do people loan cryptocurrencies?

They are starting to, yes.  But with such a volatile currency, interest rates are going to have to be monumentally high for the lenders to be certain of making any money off of the loans.

Is there more than one kind of cryptocurrency?

Yes.  There are several, with slightly different features.

How are they different?

Primarily, they are different in a few ways:
a) They type of technology that is needed to successfully "mine" the currency.  Some require more specialized equipment, others have systems where your average computer might have a chance at success.
b) The total units of currency that are going to be released.
c) The speed with which the blocks are added to the end of the chain. It varies from around every minute to around every 10 minutes.

What do you mean the total amount released?

Each currency has a maximum number of units that can be mined.  Once those units are mined, there are no more automatic payments for mining.  The idea is that with a set number of units, the currency should stabilize, and not suffer deflation from the issuing of additional funds by central banks.  Funds are being automatically released into circulation at a rate that is supposed to be slow enough not to devalue the currency.

But when they stop paying for mining, why will people continue to process transactions on the ledger?

Transaction fees.  When doing a transaction, you can specify the amount that you are sending, and the amount that will be paid to the recipient.  Whatever is left is available for the miners.  So if you want to make sure your transaction gets processed quickly, you can put a small "tip" on there fore the miners.

Do people really do this?

At it's peak, nearly $100M USD in bitcoin was bought and sold on a single day.  An average day is between $1M and $20M USD.  That's people who are transferring between cash and bitcoins.  Within the bitcoin economy, an average day will see about $50M USD in bitcoin transferred from one address to another.  That's no guarantee that any value is being received for those transfers.  It might be in one pocket and out the other.

Several online retailers have started accepting bitcoin.  It is rumoured that Expedia will be announcing the availability of bitcoin as a payment method in the near future.  And that is just the single, most popular currency.

So yes.  People are really doing this.

Monday, June 16, 2014

So that is what a bitcoin ATM looks like...

I got an email from the local chamber of commerce saying a bitcoin ATM had been installed in the lobby of Franklin's Inn.  That, for me, is what you call "upstairs."  So I went to check it out.

This is it.  It is, as far as I can tell, an iPad Mini with an app running on it, and a cash counter attached.  You scan your address QR code into the camera, and insert your real-world cash into the hole at the bottom, and presto, you can has bitcoin.

I haven't tried it yet, because...  well, seriously... who uses cash anymore?

But I think cryptocurrency is going to be a thing.  Might as well get started soon.

The exchange rate on the screen was in US dollars, but it seemed higher than the market rate for bitcoins in USD.  So it seems the exchange rate is built in to the price per coin, as opposed to as a fee.

Gonna have to try it.  I understand it's one of only three the owner has in the prairie provinces.  Once I put some bitcoins in my bitpurse, or whatever it is, anyone know of a valuable way of spending them?  I hear they can be used for leaving tips.