Monday, August 29, 2011

Hurricane Game Night With Matt Shafeek

As I left my apartment to prepare for the ultimately underwhelming hurricane approaching New York City yesterday, I grabbed a few important items - necessities that were key to my survival. My three bags included clothes, toiletries, water, snacks, my laptop, a writing pad, and a ton of board and card games. Were I caught midway through my journey dangling precariously from a cliff with each of the aforementioned items about to fall from my grasp, after saving my laptop (which frankly, is mostly due to its financial value and host of valuable, earth-shattering secrets I could never allow to be uncovered), I'd risk my neck to save any and all games next. What I'm basically saying is: with any sort of limitations or Sophie's choice-type situation on my supplies, I'd be arriving to my shelter will little to no sustenance, attire or means of personal hygiene, but filled to the brim with time-killing entertainment for all to enjoy*.

I love games of all kind, but lately I'm especially into board and party games. Essentially, if I spend my gaming time socially with other human beings in the room, I never feel like I should have been doing something more productive with my time, which is both a convenient justification and a legitimate excuse. Spending time doing something fun with people I like is ultimately what I live for, and I'm always looking for more chances to do it.

But enough about me. As I've done a few times before, I'm going to write about some more great social board and party games today for you, my loyal readers, to use with your own time with families, friends, or strangers you've insisted are your best option instead. The three games I'm going to talk about today run the gamut from  the more casual, to the more party-oriented to the more hardcore/serious time investment. The latter category of course is for people who can still look at a box of Monopoly at this point with fond memories.

Enjoy these three new games, and let me know if you ever wind up trying them out, or need an extra player!

Hurricane Game Night With Matt Shafeek
For Use In Any Natural Disaster, Work-Related Social Event Or Family Gathering In Which There Are Many Hours To Kill
[Note: Some preparation may be required, so be sure to read well in advance of your next natural disaster!]

"I know this seems weird, but trust me. We're playing a game."
Mind Meld
Category: Party/Social (Casual) 
# of Players: 2 or more
Prerequisites: None (beyond reading these instructions)

The 'official' name for this game is lost on me - I've heard of a few others (they call it 'What Am I Thinking?' on The Comedy Bang Bang Podcast, and I think it was introduced to me as 'Mind Reader,' but nothing tops the title I've given it, straight out of Star Trek, which gives me extra nerd cred.

Basically two people are going to think of a word (or two) and they're going to say them to each other at the same time. The word(s) chosen can be anything, person, place or thing. They'll count down from '3' together, then each say their word over the other. Once the two words are spoken, the point of the game is try to find, together, the connecting word between the two. After a quick beat to think of a new word (applying time pressure makes this game a lot more interesting) both players again count down from 3 and try to say the connecting word at the same time, repeating as necessary (the next round is the common word between the two new words that were just said, and so on) until the two of you say the same word at the same time.

As an example, if one player's word is 'Mike Meyers,' and the other is 'Pork Chops,' obviously the word in between these two is 'Canadian Bacon.' That was an obvious one, I know, but I wanted to make sure you got the idea.

You don't lose this game unless you neglect to guess after the countdown. Technically words are not supposed to be repeated, but this rule usually gets tossed aside once the two of you have been dancing around 'The Sea Captain From The Simpsons' for seven minutes. Just establish which way you're playing in advance, it's totally fine either way.

This game could easily be played with a group of people, even at a party. Just have everyone go around in a circle, moving around the circle clockwise or counter clockwise (your choice readers - I'm tossing this rule out to you!) after each round. The way my improv team plays it, people can jump in at anytime, tagging one of the other players out (presumably the dumber one) if they think know what the common word is.

"Wait, stop flirting for a second, I'm trying to explain the rules here."
Quick anecdote: I was on a date recently where during a brief lull in the conversation (also known as "gamertunities" to me)(oh, and side note - this date was not going especially well) I suggested we play a game of this. After a few back and forths we arrived at the words 'Nightmare' and 'Blackout' which led to us saying "Date Rape!" at the same time on the next turn. We both had a terribly uncomfortable laugh. Needless to say I haven't suggested this game on another date since.

Hopefully that story doesn't ruin the game for you - it's definitely fun - but maybe play it with friends as opposed to recent acquaintances just to be safe.

You Don't Know Jack
Category: Party/Trivia (Casual) 
# of Players: 2-4
Prerequisites: A video games system (PS3/Xbox 360/Wii) and multiple controllers

Let me start by saying I'm really not a big trivia guy. Jeopardy!, Trivial Pursuit, you name it, I'm finding excuses not to play/watch them. I generally prefer games that don't run the risk of revealing how embarrassingly little I know about the non-video game & television world at large. Having said this, I've always been a huge You Don't Know Jack fan. This trivia game series, while at times tricky, is so entertaining and fast paced along the way, that even if you seem to be getting all the answers wrong, still makes you feel like you're part of the action, and more importantly, that you're having fun.

Every round of YDKJ works basically the same. There are 10 questions, and during every question the sooner you buzz in (if you choose to, there's no penalty for not guessing) the more money you stand to win or lose. Throw in some bonus mini games like Dis Or Dat, screws, which force the other player to answer a question, and the game-ending Jack Attack, and you've a nice amount of variety to keep things moving for the fifteen minutes or so that each game lasts. The writing is excellent and the host is funny without being a distraction. You really do feel like you're on a game show with the people in the room with you.

The game runs for about $30.00 new and on the Xbox 360 at least, you can download the entire game on the system's online service. There are 73 'episodes' in the full version with at least 4 downloadable packs available for $5 each that bring the total number of episodes to well over 100. My sole complaint about the game is that the prize structure allows for wild swings in the final round, where each question (more like a fast-buzzing matching game) is worth significantly more than all the questions that proceeded it. It's an active choice on the developer's part to make players feel like they always have a shot, even when they're behind everyone else, but it can sometimes feel like the previous 9/10ths of the game was irrelevant, which can be frustrating for front runners who've been playing smart.

The game is more fun with the maximum of four players, but even a hyper-competitive two player is fantastic. Check out Gamespot's video review below for some more information as well as a good idea of what gameplay looks like (they spoil maybe one or two puzzle answers, but don't reveal the answers so don't watch if you mind this at all).

And here's another great review from Joystiq:

Category: Card Game (Hardcore)
# of Players: 2-4 
Prerequisites: The Board Game (plus any expansions you want) or else, one laptop per player

You'll notice I've labeled this game as hardcore. I realize this might scare a few of you away. So before I say anything else, I'm going to let this kid introduce the game to you. Watch as much of this as you can stand:

What we have here, as Hayden would no doubt adorably attest to, is a dangerously addictive game. To anyone who's ever found themselves sinking hours upon hours into any kind of game before, Dominion will no doubt tap into the same part of your brain, slowly releasing a steady stream of dopamine game after game while you slowly learn to master it. If that thought kind of scares you, back away slowly now. If you're intrigued, keep reading.

At its heart, Dominion is a card game in which you're trying to gain a specific set of cards known as Victory Cards. Every round you draw five cards from you deck to play with. All players start with a basic deck of 10 cards, but will eventually grow to have a wide variety of Victory, Treasure and Action cards. Action cards do a variety of useful things, like increasing the cards you have in your hand, trashing cards you don't want, as well as forcing your opponents to draw worthless cards and making them discard cards in their hands. Treasure cards are used to buy new cards for your deck at the end of every round.

While at first it might seem like you should buy up every Victory card you can as soon as possible, you'll soon realize that all Victory cards do early on is take up space in your hands, and you want to first build up the ability to make larger purchases before you start buying them. So you build your deck slowly over time, making bigger purchases that allow more cards in your hand or better treasure cards to make better purchases. Every turn has a player playing his action cards, making a purchase, then discarding all used cards. After all of your cards have been played, you shuffle everything back in and start using the deck again. This repeats until three stacks of available cards have been depleted or the highest level Victory cards (Provinces) have all been claimed. The player with the highest number of Victory points wins.

Games can last anywhere from about 10 to 25 minutes depending on the layout and the experience of the players. The game can be played by up to four players but unlike YDKJ, it really seems to be the most fun with just two.

Every game will have a different combination of cards available for players to purchase and use. This variety leads to a high level of variety and strategizing that can be incredibly satisfying once you get the hang of the game. I've seen no less than five people become incredibly addicted to Dominion this year alone, not including myself, who totally has his investment of time in the game under control..

Originally, Dominion was a card game with many expansions released over the years, and if you're interested in making the game as social as possible, this is the way to go. However, there is also an online game available at that reduces all need to shuffle cards or look up rules, as well as paying for the game, since it's free. This is my mode my friends and I have all taken, though it tends to make for some quiet parties.

Once you get the game, there's plenty of way to learn to be a better player. Playing against strangers online works for me, but if you want to bone up before getting your butt kicked (I love the game but am a low-ranked player with a terrible win/loss record), check out this page.


That's all for today kids. I realize today's games are mostly for smaller groups, so if you're looking for games that accommodate more people, definitely refer to either of my previous games posts, where I discuss some of my other favorite group/party games:

Games Post #1: Celebrity and Werewolf
Games Post #2: Telestrations and Munchkin

At some point before the end of the year, I'll do a review of my favorite straight-up board games of the year for those of you looking to abandon all pretenses of leaving the house or even standing up on any given night.

Game on,

*and naturally, the ability to check and post on Twitter.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Well, That Was Easier Than I Thought (Rubik's Cube Redux)

I have an update to my blog post from a few weeks where I discussed My Life As A Rubik's Cube. I recently received my Rubik's Cube in the mail, and as soon as I did I decided I wanted to record my first real attempt to solve it. Check out the video below (and apologies for the darkness, my new apartment is apparently in need of a lamp or two) and see how I did:

So there ya go. Either I solved one of the world's most difficult puzzles in less than ten seconds, or I also very recently discovered how to edit video. You be the judge.


Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Adventures In Online Dating: Soul Geek (A Critique)

A few weeks ago I was introduced to a new dating site I hadn't heard of before by close friend and fellow improv, video game and musical theater enthusiast Justin Moran. He told me it sounded perfect for people like us, and if he were single that would be the dating site he'd be on. I was intrigued, and later the next day I logged onto the site and immediately created an account.

What followed were about two hours of heartbreak that I'm going to describe in great detail. Before I begin, I want to say that while I am about to critique this small, relatively unknown niche dating site, I sincerely hope I do not come across as an angry internet troll, but rather an opinionated man who is well-versed in the ways of online dating. A man who once ran his own small online service and a man who is of course, a total geek, who would very much like to see a well done dating site dedicated to people like him.

So without further ado, here are my thoughts on Soul Geek:

(Note: I did not pay the $9.99 monthly membership fee, so this review is simply based on the services available to me as a free member. I thought about paying the fee and giving Soul Geek a month in order to give the service a more thorough review, but I decided that due to lack of patience or frugality, I'd rather just write my review based on what I'd experienced before I'd given them any of my money)

The site, if anyone wants to see what I'm talking about:

1. The site is unattractive, and the interface is dated.

Let's get this out of the way right up top. Some of these complaints might come across as a little unfair for a small business that probably doesn't have as much money to spend as some of the bigger dating sites out there. But the fact is, they're charging money for this site, and one of their biggest competitors (OKCupid, who I'll be comparing this to site to regularly) is free, is easy on the eyes and is much easier to use.

Look, I wore a Simpsons t-shirt nearly every day in high school. My desire to show off my obsession with the show (and to get dressed with less than 10 seconds of thought) was clearly stronger than my desire to look like I had any sense of style. Maybe that's the idea here - function over fashion. But I also never had sex in high school. So you know, there's that.

I really think even the site's formatting is clunky and dated. Take a quick look and tell me where you'd rather spend some time online:

Forget this rcjester guy, let's talk about that handsome Phil Proctor!
OkCupid, for comparison. I'm really throwing any kind of online anonymity caution to the wind at this point, it seems.
Aesthetic opinions aside, Rule #1 of internet business is to not make your customers embarrassed to be on your site. (Rule #2 involves not giving your customers epileptic seizures, which I'm happy to report this site is on the up and up with) And some of this stuff is super obvious - ditch the flashing banner ads, have a better homepage and find a more attractive color scheme. Also - they make you wait 24 hours to approve any changes you make to your profile. All this stuff was unacceptable five years ago. You might as well have a Myspace link at this point.

2. The sign-up/profile creation process is tedious and homogenizes geekery.

When you start filling out your profile, the site cannot wait to let you check the appropriately cheeky-geeky boxes that apply to you. Stuff like: Stuff I Enjoy: TAKING OVER THE WORLD, Faith: THE FORCE, and Languages: STANDARD FEDERATION.

Under 'Size of Penis,' I checked off 'Sword of Omens x3'
These would be cute and somewhat original entries had there not been a way for EVERYONE WHO SIGNS UP TO JUST SEE IT AND SELECT IT. Guess what % of people I saw who have Tribbles and talked Wookie? The answer: way too many.

Next, the profile you create for yourself on the site winds up being about 20% about you personally, and 80% about what you're into as a geek. I suppose this is sort of the hook of the site, displaying your 'geek badge,' loud and proud. But still - I personally would like to know that you're a normal, stable human being before we dress up like Cloud and Aeris from FFVII and I show you my Buster sword. But maybe that's just me.

When you sign up, you're supposed to check a box off for every single interest you have, and then on the following page you're expected to list all (or at least some) of the things you're into in that genre, and then describe why you like it. I found this incredibly annoying. Here's how my page turned out:

It's cut off in this image, but my final interest is: 'filling out agonizingly long internet profiles'
Seriously - if you want to know why I think video games or anything I'm into is swell, feel free to ask me. I'll be happy to tell you. But filling out the above section made me wish I was less of a geek, if anything. Too much work!

3. There are other kinds of geeks, you know.

I know traditionally geeks are into swords, lasers and pocket monsters, or pockemons, but I don't see why the site has to limit itself to just these particular interests. Maybe you're a food geek, or a tech junkie. Maybe you're a huge Quentin Tarrantino fanboy or you're obsessed with all things Apple. Maybe you've seen every episode of Shark Week ever made, and are desperately searching for someone to discuss DNA-attacking microsharks swimming in our drinking water with after a long night of lovemaking. Guess who can help you out with that? Not Soul Geek, that's for sure.

"Did you know that the mako shark...hey no wait, I was gonna segue that into some flirting!"
If a girl on OKCupid  lists under her "favorites" section that she is a fan of Community, she instantly becomes 27.5% more attractive to me. I ran the numbers, this is a fact. So once again here's a competing (and still free) site essentially doing the same thing this site is setting out to do, but better. 'Brilliant Comedy' isn't a regular topic you can select under hobbies, and while you can dump it under the section entitled "extra stuff I enjoy" it feels like an afterthought, especially if it's something I'm into more than the other subjects.

You could argue that this site for a specific set of geek interests, but c'mon, this isn't J-Date. The wider you cast the net for the kinds of geeks you seek, the more people you'll have on your site. And people who aren't into the same things can easily avoid ever seeing each other. Case in point, I've already written: "DON'T MSG ME IF UR IN2 DR. WHO!!!" and "DR. HOUSE > DR. WHO (CARES)???" all over all my online dating profiles, and so far all Dr. Who fans and countless others have graciously steered clear.

4. The site adds no real value/features over it's competitors.

As it stands, without paying the monthly fee of $9.99/mo, you cannot directly message fellow geeks on the site. You can freely browse, do some version of "poking" (letting others know you're also not paying a subscription), and if you happen to be messaged by a paying member, you can supposedly respond (I have not been messaged as of yet, though I haven't checked in the past 10 minutes. Maybe I should one more time just to be safe. Ok, yeah, still nothing). But once again, with a slicker, cheaper competitor just a click away, it's incredibly difficult to drop money for the sake of a niche pool of people who are more likely to know what I'm talking about when I reference Leroy Jenkins.

I think the site needs to be more than a copycat version of all the other dating sites out there that are already established and doing it better. I can think of two things off the top of my head that would add value to the site:

(1) Meetups. There's a site called nerdnite that already does this, organizes events for geeks/nerds (I believe these two groups get along) in cities across the country. Soul Geek needs to either mimic this idea on some level (even if they're doing something on a very small scale, an organized board game night or movie screening for 10 people or something would be a start) or partner up with Nerd Nite (who also organizes speed dating nights, at least in NYC) to have some truly outstanding geek-related events that can bring in clientele for both groups.

Right now the Soul Geek site list upcoming cons, which is a start, but I would start thinking about getting booths or organizing events (speed dates, kissing booths, cosplay setups?) at these cons to spread the word about the site.

Finally, Batman and Rogue(?) have found each other.
(2) Games. Hey, geeks love games, right? Why not get some on this dating site for geeks! Start with small, facebook like-games, or dig deep and get some real D&D style stuff going. Allow me to run around slashing orcs while asking all the female avatars how they doin' (oh, and please, make sure only women are allowed to play as women. I'm so sick of being wrong). And some geeks I would imagine are a little shy, and this could be a way around the traditional route of blind messaging that's required on other dating sites.

'You guys go fight that monster. Trisha, you come over here and help me...buff my stats.'
Both of these things can be included as part of your paying membership, and/or maybe allow even non-paying members to partake in, at least a little.

5. Closing Thoughts

To be clear, the Soul Geek site isn't all bad. I do like that the site allows (and seems to encourage) stylized drawings to be one of your profile photos (but it wisely insists that at least one photo be real). And every profile comes with a fan fiction tab, which, you know, if you're into that stuff, is great. And the site is promoting an upcoming redesign which, for all I know, could be addressing all this and more.

I really would love for the site to be successful, and to be the destination for single geeks looking for love. In reality, any site that could potentially set me up with the video game/anime/role-playing/Batman-loving, attentive, gorgeous and independently wealthy woman of my dreams is a very good thing. I'm trying to help my odds here. Because c'mon guys - I still haven't met her yet!