Posts from February 2006.

Friday Afternoon Scratchpad

Do-It-Yourself Oscar Pool Creator

In case you missed the announcement: the Do-It-Yourself Oscar Pool Creator is available here.

The Spheniscidae Candidate

The flight from Seattle to D.C. only took 4½; hours, as we had a 100 knots-per-hour tail wind; consequentially, the return trip took 6½ hours. It was so long that they showed two films: March of the Penguins and The Manchurian Candidate.

The woman sitting beside me watched the first hour of Penguins and then fell asleep with the headphones still on. She slept through the rest of the film — in fact, she didn’t wake until several hours later, as Denzel Washington, in full uniform, kills a man and woman with an assault rifle.

The woman next to started awake to the sound of the gunfire, gawped at the television screen, and looked sublimely confused. I could almost hear her thinking, “Man, I’ll have to rent this March of the Penguins movie when I get home — there must be some major plot twist in the middle!”

Pop Quiz!

How much does an adult, male, African elephant weigh?

Go’wan, take a guess. Please don’t do any research in advance — I want your off-the-top-of-the-head reckoning. If you happen to know the answer (because you’re a professional zookeeper, or whatever) please participate as well — I’m trying to get as random a sampling as I can, so I don’t want anyone to self-select themselves out of the pool.

Let’s Sleep On It

We bought a new mattress. As The Queen and I put it on the bed, I noticed this tag.

The guys at the mattress company are fans of the blog, I guess.

Games For Toddlers

After my rundown of Games For Kids, a few people wrote and asked me to suggest games for toddler. Here are a few that The Squirrelly and I are playing (or will be soon):

  • Go Away Monster: We’ve been playing this since The Squirrelly was 18 months (though not exactly by the rules) and he loves it. Whenever the perennial “what should my child’s first game be?” question is posed on any of the boardgame newsgroups I haunt, Monster is always the consensus pick.
  • Snail’s Pace Race: I just bought this for The Squirrelly last week, but he already says “want snail game” at least once an evening. A relaxing, non-competitive game that teachers twerps colors, turn-taking, and dice rolling. Plus, the wooded snail pieces are awfully nice.
  • Cranium Cariboo: Not a party game, like the others in the Cranium line. Instead, Cariboo is designed to teach youngsters shapes, colors, numbers, and collaboration.
  • Hisss: Draw tiles from a bag and try and build snakes by matching colors. Total luck, but fun nonetheless.
  • Max: Another cooperative game from Family Pastimes, this one for the 4-5 year set. Try to race the tiny animals to their homes before they are caught by Max the cat. One of the rare games for the very young that actually has the players making real, meaningful decisions.
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Sark Defends Port Deal

Sark today sought to quell the growing controversy over his decision to grant the MCP control of several major ports throughout the region.

"I believe that this arrangement with the Master Control Program should go forward," Sark told reporters aboard Solar Sailer One. He emphasized that security would continued to be handled by Tank and Recognizer programs, with the MCP only be in charge of port operations.

But Dumont, guardian of the I/O towers, voiced skepticism. "I could understand ceding authority over ports 21 and 80," said Dumont. "But port 443? That's supposed to be secure!"

The public's reaction to the plan has also been overwhelmingly negative. "No no no," said a bit upon hearing the news. "No no no no." Others were more blunt. "Sark should be de-rezzed for even proposing this," said Ram, a financial program.

Sark, who has repeatedly denied having ties to the MCP, has insisted that the hand-over go through, and says that he will vigorously resist any effort to block it. But programs such as Yori are equally adamant that the deal be scuttled. "My User," she said, "have we already forgotten the lessons of 1000212400?"

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Plane Speaking

I’m in DC this week. I flew in yesterday. As the plane left the ground the stewardess came on the intercom and told us that this would be the captain’s last flight, and he would be retiring tomorrow. Not comforting. I’ve seen enough cop movies to know what will happens to the the grizzled old veteran (and presumably everyone on the grizzled old veteran’s plane) when someone mentions, in the first act, that it’s his last day on the job before retirement.

I had a window seat above the wing. On the engine I could see a red circle, with a pictogram of a man inside it and a line crossing him out. I wasn’t sure if this was to warn people from getting too close, or if the captain was an ex-WWII ace and was keeping a record of his kills.

Also: I must be getting old, because I now firmly of the opinion that members of a flight crew should not refer to one another as “bro.”

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Books: Hard Case Crime

Last year I embarked on an ambitious project to read the finest contemporary fiction, an endeavor I dubbed The 2005 Booklist Project. And it worked, for a while: I read House of Leaves, perhaps my favorite book of the last decade; I read other experimental fictions such as Cloud Atlas and The Time-Traveler’s Wife, as well as more traditional narratives such as Blindness and Oracle Night. And I loaded up my bedside table still more recommendations; Wicked, Gilead, Life Of Pi, etc.

And then, like a drinker who resolves only to drink only the finest Bordeaux and Pinot Noir, I rediscovered the joy off getting buzzed off of a $4 bottle of drugstore merlot. Or, in this case, I discovered Hard Case Crime.

Hard Case Crime is relatively new publishing house, one that specializes in new and vintage “hardboiled” pulp fiction novels. I’ve always been a fan of the genre (as a teen I read scores of Earl Stanley Gardner and Mickey Spillane), but, in the last decade, I had found my noir in cyberpunk, steampunk, Frank Miller comics, and films in which the cinematography is best described a “caliginous.” Hard Case Crime novels, though, are the real deal, full of deeply-flawed protagonists who reach for a .45 or a fifth of whiskey at the drop of a hat, and make unironic references to molls and mooks.

About half of the books in the series are reprints of classics for the form, and the others are brand new works by contemporary authors (though typically in the classic hardboiled era and tone). As most Hard Case Crime novels are around 200 pages, full of dialog, and compulsively readable, I can usually plow through an entire title in two evenings. Here are the five I have read since discovering the line:

  • 361 by Donald E. Westlake: 361 was my first, and a perfect introduction to the series. It’s a reprint of a classic by one of the masters of the hardboiled form, and served as a good primer on the genre. The hero finishes off a bottle of liquor on about every third page, tangles with the mob, and carries around a piece as nonchalantly as you or I might carry around orange Tic-Tacs. 361 isn’t especially well written, but I was nonetheless putting holds on every available Hard Case Crime novel at my local library moments after finishing it.
  • Plunder of the Sun by David Dodge: I don’t know if it’s because I spent a few years in South America, or because I had never read a “treasure hunt” novel before, but I enjoyed Plunder quite a bit. Like an Indiana Jones sequel written by Raymnd Chandler, Plunder has an archeologist hiring a petty criminal to help him locate a lost Incan fortune. Dodge manages to cram a surprising amount of ancient South American history into the book, too — enough that you feel like you’re learning something, but not so much that the story ever becomes academic. Plunder is a reprint, and recommended.
  • The Colorado Kid by Stephen King: Yes, that Stephen King. Apparently the editors at Hard Case Crime sent a few novels to King and asked if he would supply cover blurbs; instead he said he opted to write an book for the series. Colorado Kid is polarizing — lots of people hated it, many thought it pretty good. I’m in the latter category, though I’ll concede that the book is essentially a 70-page (and perhaps 20-page) short story padded out to 180 pages, the first third of which is undisguised throat-clearing.
  • Grifter’s Game by Lawrence Block: Block is one of my favorite modern dark mystery writers, but, honest to God, I can hardly remember a thing about this book, even having read it only few months ago. I don’t recall disliking it, but I don’t recall thinking it was anything special, either (despite its winning an Edgar award). Chalk it up as forgettable — though that’s not exactly a scathing indictment in a genre as light as this one.

    Fade To Blonde by Max Phillips: The copyright date on Blonde in 2004, but Phillips has the classic noir style down so pat that I had to double-check online to convince myself it wasn’t a reprint. He’s especially skilled at writing snappy patter, and the characters routinely exchanged banter that made me wish I was even half as clever with my own ad-libs. The story is kind of weak (and falls apart near the end), but the atmosphere, pacing, and dialogue are top-notch.

I get most of my Hard Case Crime novels from the library, but the books are exclusively paperback and typically only cost around $6, so I’ve purchased a few as well — and then, having read them, immediately give them to friends I thought would appreciate them. Hard Case even has a subscription program, where you get two novels a month for seven bucks. (I would sign up for that in a heartbeat if I hadn’t joined one of those “12 CDs for a penny!!” deals as a youth and found myself hounded by Columbia Records for years thereafter, instilling within me a lifelong fear of commercial “book clubs”. Man, there’s a Hard Case Crime novel idea right there: “CLUBBED TO DEATH: He signed on for the twelve CDs … and he never knew peace again!”)

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Games For Kids

Mail.

Could you suggest some games that adults and kids can play together? My 6 year old daughter is a great gamer, but I have trouble finding games suited to both of us. She usually beats me at Mancala, and we play Clue and Monopoly, but I'm looking for something more interesting. Perhaps Ticket to Ride?

It’s our lucky day, David: yours because I recently sent a list of just such games to a friend of mine with a seven-year-old daughter, so I’ve already done the legwork on this one; and mine because … well, because I’ve already done the legwork on this one, so I get to compose an entire post just by cutting and pasting from my Sent mail folder. Sweet.

Here’s a few suggestions. I’m sure my readers can offer more.

Family Strategy Games

  • A-Maze-Ing Labyrinth: This game is routinely cited as one of the very best for kids. Players race through an ever-changing maze, trying to acquire treasures and magical items. This is one of those rare “children’s” games you will find yourself playing with your spouse or friends, even after the kids have gone to bed.
  • Pick Picknic: Players can either play chickens (and score points by eating grain) or foxes (and score points by eating other player’s birds), and your success will depend not only on what you choose, but what everyone else chooses as well. A neat little game of bluff and outguessing.
  • Carcassonne: Hunters & Gatherers: There are a plethora of games in the Carcassonne line, but I think Hunters & Gathers is the best for children, as it captures the fun of the base game with even simpler rules. It’s part light strategy game and part jigsaw puzzle, as players assemble a map of a prehistoric landscape. Lots of fun, and another that parents will enjoy even absent the offspring.
  • Cartagena: Imagine Candyland with pirates. And a dash of actual strategy. And … well, I guess I already mentioned the pirates, but they are a real selling point. Arr!
  • Blokus: Blokus is one I recommended to adults in my 2005 Good Gift Games Guide, but the game is so simple that kids can play it as well. Though slightly more complicated, Ingenious is also a fine choice for an abstract family game.

Memory Games

  • Chicken Cha Cha Cha: If you want to get your ass handed to you by a seven year-old, memory games are the way to go. And Chicken Cha Cha Cha is one of the best. This one skews a little younger — more to the five- to six-year-old set — but slightly older kids will probably like it as well.
  • Enchanted Forest: Attractive wooden trees are randomly distributed around the board, all of which are identical except for the pictures on their bottoms. You may peek at the image beneath a tree as you pass it on the path, but when the King asks for a particular item will you remember where you saw it? Aimed at the younger girl market, but enjoyable by all.

    Dawn Under: This recent title was nominated for the “German Game of the Year” award last year. Players try to get rid of their vampire cards by finding like-colored crypts for them to sleep in. Sounds a bit macabre for a kids game, but the mechanics are simple and the illustrations are cutsey.

Dexterity Games

  • Gulo Gulo: The great thing about dexterity games is that they level the playing field: adults can usually beat kids in strategy games, youngsters will typically whip their parents in memory games, but games like this are a challenge for everyone. In Gulo Gulo players are wolverines, trying to carefully steal eggs out of a nest without setting off the “Anti-Wolverine Alarm System.”
  • Igloo Pop: Pick up a small plastic igloo, shake it, and guess how many small plastic beads are inside. That’s the entire game, but it’s remarkably fun — at least until your five year-old clobbers you at it.
  • Klondike: This game won the “Children’s Game of the Year” award. Put a mix of gold and black marbles into a dish; the active player then has to “pan” for the gold, attempting to flip the black beads out and keep the gold beads in, while the others wager on the outcome.

Cooperative Games

  • Secret Door, The: Family Pastimes makes a whole line of cooperative kid’s games, and this is reputedly their best. Race around the mansion, and try to deduce which three items have been stolen by thieves before the clock strikes midnight. It’s a take on the classic memory game, but with players working as a team instead of in opposition.
  • Scotland Yard: One player takes the role of “Mr. X,” darting around London and attempting to elude capture; the rest play Scotland Yard, and coordinate their movements to trap the criminal mastermind. This game is geared more towards older kids (10+), but if a younger child is part of an older “good guy” team she’ll do just fine.
  • Break the Safe: If catching thieves isn’t your thing, you could instead try to Break The Safe (and avoid capture) yourself. Players are secret agents, infiltrating an enemy’s compound and attempting to get away with his secret plans, dodging traps, guards, and dogs all the way. The game is played in “real time,” as the player frantically try to reach their goal before the clock ticks down to zero.

And by the way: Ticket To Ride might be a little advanced for a six year-old, but it’s a great game and you should pick it up anyway. If you’d like a train game that a youngster could certainly play and enjoy, take a gander at TransAmerica.

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Hell Is Other Patrons

A man walks up to a cashier. He wants to purchase something embarrassing: porn, say, or hemorrhoid medication. He has a few other items, too, but it’s unclear as to whether he really wants to buy them or if they are just a beard for the shameful merchandise. He has a plan: when the cashier picks up the copy of “Car & Driver” to reveal the three-pack of “mango flavored” condoms, he will feign surprise and say “whoa, how did those get there? Well, I don’t feel like returning them, so go ahead and charge me — I guess I’ll buy them …” But then, as the teller rings up the items, disaster strikes. For some reason the bar code on the product fails to scan correctly. The teller gets on the intercom system and says, “I’m going to need a price check for the jumbo pack of Tink’L Trapp’R brand adult undergarments …”

This scene is such a staple of comic strips and lazy sit-coms that when I actually saw it happen last weekend my first reaction was not to laugh, but to think “Jesus: what hack wrote this scene …”

I was in Walgreens with The Squirrelly, behind three other people at the checkout line. The guy in front looked to be about 35, maybe 37 — stubbly beard, glasses, a little paunchy. Everything was going fine until multiple swipes of some item over the scanner failed to elicit a response.

“That’s okay,” the guy said hastily. “I don’t really …”

But the teen behind the counter had already commandeered the microphone, and his voice boomed through the store as he haltingly read off the information from the package. “Claire, can I get a price check for a Super … Star Wars Clone … Super Clone Trooper Star Wars Action Figure?”

The guy flushed, turned to the next people in line, and said “I didn’t really need …” before trailing off. He told the cashier to go ahead and help the next people in line, but, no, the kid behind the counter was committed to his course of inaction. Finally the guy resigned himself to his fate. He gave the rest of us a “what can I do?” shrug, jammed his hands into his pockets, and turned to look out the glass automatic doors.

I wanted to take him aside and say. “Look, dude: I think buying Star Wars action figures at your age is a little silly. But if you enjoy it, at least enjoy it proudly. If the rest of us were stuck here waiting for you to buy something that you were unabashedly enthusiastic about, we probably wouldn’t care.” But of course I didn’t take him aside to soothe his tortured soul, because he was making me stay in a Walgreens for a few extra moments and so I wanted him to suffer.

A few moments went by. Suddenly the whole scene turned into a play by Jean Paul Sartre — “No Exit From Walgreens” or something. With no discernable activity from the back of the store (Claire? Are you back there?) we abruptly transformed from a line at a drugstore register to A Bunch Of Strangers Standing Around In Close Proximity To Each Other For No Apparent Reason.

The Squirrelly got bored, started looking around, and saw a display of enormous Valentines Day teddy bears on a nearby shelf. “Teddy bear!” he cried. The two girls behind me, both maybe 14, squealed with delight and said, “awwwwww!” in unison. Taking this as his cue, The Squirrelly charged over to the shelf and grabbed one of the stuffed animals, which was almost as big as he. “Teddy bear!!” he shouted. “That is so cute!” one of the girls behind me said.

I took a few steps over to reclaim my son; as I did so I heard one of the girls say excitedly, “oh cool, he stepped out of line.”

After separating my toddler from his ursine pal, I turned around to discover that the girls had rushed forward to fill my spot. The line at Walgreens abhors a vacuum.

“We were here,” I said when we got back, and indicating the place in line in front of the girls. “I just had to grab my kid.”

“But … you got out of line,” said one of the girls. Not defiantly. She seemed genuinely perplexed.

“Look,” I replied. “The convention of queuing up at a cash register is not a federal law, and my leaving the line for a moment is not some loopholes you can exploit without fear of reprisal. Queuing is merely a custom that we as a society collectively adhere to, because, in doing so, we make life easier for everyone. There’s no rule that states that, in momentarily leaving the queue, I have waived my right to return to my original spot, because no such rights exists. The line itself is nothing but a social construct. There’s nothing preventing me from simply going to the front of the line and ignoring everyone else. We do these things — queing up, allowing people who have momentarily left the line to return — not out of obligation, but because we are a civilized people. So with that in mind I am going to ask you, citizen to citizen, to allow me to resume my place in line.”

Hah hah! No, I’m just kidding. I’m 34 years old now and have a kid, which, by my reckoning, means I’m entitled to be an Asshole Grown-Up once in a while. So what I really said was: “You know what? I’m not going to argue about this.” The two girls scowled and resentfully moved backwards about seven inches, allowing me to wedge myself and my son into the vacated space like half a bagel being crammed into a regular-sized toaster slot. Thereafter they made a point of standing as close to my back as they could without actually touching me, to best express their sense of injustice at my unlawful usurpation of their spot, I guess.

Claire finally materialized and completed the price check. Once Darth Obstructus was out the door, things picked up a bit, though there was some doubt as to whether the cashier had ever used a register before in his life. By the time we got to the front of the line, we’d spent about 15 minutes in Walgreens for what should have been a 30-second purchase.

“Do you want your receipt in the bag,” the cashier asked when he had finally finished bagging my items, holding up the piece of paper as if it were a winning lottery ticket.

I figured that operation would take another half an hour, based on what I’d seen so far. I snatched the receipt from his hand, grabbed my bag, and made a break for the door.

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“Accidentally”

In a telling indicator of how we view the Vice President, every media outlet apparently feels the need to put the qualifier “accidentally” between the words “Cheney” and “Shoots” in their headlines, e.g., “Cheney Accidentally Shoots Fellow Hunter,” “Cheney accidentally shoots Austin man while hunting,” etc..

If you read “Bush Stabs Fellow Napper,” you’d chuckle knowingly and say “oh, that loveable bumbler — what will he do next?” But with Cheney they actually have to waste valuable headline space to clarify that, in this particular instance, shooting a septuagenarian in the face was not part of his Master Plan.

Of course now that the media has used “accidentally” in this case, they’ll be forced to clarify yet again when the Vice President intentionally attacks someone. CHENEY GARROTES ZOOKEEPER TOTALLY ON PURPOSE

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CNY

 

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The Bad Review Revue

When A Stranger Calls “Long distance information? Get me Hollywood, USA: I

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Tichu (And Other Climbing Games)

Addiction, thy name is Tichu.

When the Top 100 Modern Games list was released, I took no small amount of geeky pride in noting that I owned every single game in the top 10. However,my sense of accomplishment was muted somewhat in realizing that I had only played nine of them. I’d purchased the remaining game, Tichu, several years prior, but a quick read of the rules convinced me that it was nothing special, and it sat on my shelf untouched for years.

But it’s appearance in the top 10 made me wonder if I was missing something. So I dug it up, dusted it off, and gave the rules another readthrough. I remained unconvinced. But the proof of the pudding is in the eating, so I recruited three other players, dealt out the cards, and started playing Tichu.

And now I can’t stop.

Tichu is a partnership game played with 56 cards: a standard deck (four suits, cards ranked 2-10, Jack, Queen, King, and Ace), plus four special cards (the Mah Jong, the Dog, the Phoenix, and the Dragon). After the cards have been evenly dealt out the lead player begins a trick by playing a poker combination — three 5s, say. Every other player then has the opportunity to either play a higher combination of the same type (in this example, three 6s, three 9s, etc.), or pass. Play continues around the table until all players have passed, at which point the person who played the final combination takes all the cards and leads the subsequent trick.

The hand does not end when someone gets rid of all his cards; instead, you note the order in which players “go out,” and play until the penultimate player has gotten rid of his final card. Thus by the end of the hand everyone has a ranking, from “first out” all the way down to “last out.”

The mechanics of the card game will be familiar to anyone who played a few drunken hands of Asshole (a.k.a., President) in college. Like Asshole, Tichu is a climbing game; that is, players are generally striving to get rid of their cards as quickly as possible by playing them to tricks.

Several elements set Tichu apart from the standard climbing game, however, the first of which are Bombs. Bombs are special combinations (four of a kinds and straight flushes) that someone can play onto any trick at any time, even when it’s not their turn. A Bomb will always win a trick — unless another player follows it with a higher Bomb.

Each of the special cards has it’s own power and liability: The Mah Jong counts as a 1, but the person playing it gets to make a “wish” — they name any card value and the next person able to play a card of that value must do so. The Dog is the lowest card in the game, but allows a player to pass the lead to his partner. The Phoenix is a wild card and can be used in any combination, but is worth negative points. And the Dragon is the highest card in the game, but if a player wins a trick with the Dragon he must immediately give it (and all the points therein) to one of his opponents.

Scores are tallied after all cards have been played : 5′s are worth 5 points a piece, 10′s and Kings are worth ten, the Dragon is worth 25 points, and the Phoenix counts as -25. If a player and his partner go out first and second, their team receive 200 points and their opponents receive nothing. And any player can up the ante for a hand by declaring a “tichu” before play begins: if the declaring player goes out first, his team receives a bonus 100 points; if he does not, his team loses 100. The first team to 1000 wins.

If all this sounds rather mundane to you … well, now you understand how I felt after reading the rules. But the addictive quality of Tichu is hard to quantify. For one thing, the game is surprisingly deep — it seems that every time I play I stumble upon some facet of strategy that I’d overlooked before. For another, the dynamic of a Tichu hand is always in flux as you play. You may start with a strong full house (three Kings and two 5′s, say), but necessity may force you to break it up, playing the three kings to win a three-of-a-kind trick and leaving yourself with a relatively weak pair of fives. The dynamic nature of Tichu makes every hand engrossing.

In the last month I have been teaching all my friends how to play Tichu, to ensure that I always have a plentiful supply of opponents. And everyone who has learned to play has become a fan. It takes a hand or two to get your “Tichu legs” despite the relatively simple rules, but once you grok the fundamentals you are likely to become hooked. The partnership element of Tichu makes it perfectly suited for those evenings when you, your significant other, and another couple get together, or anytime you find with three others and an hour to kill.

Though I’ve only been playing it for a few weeks, I can see how Tichu wound up on the Top 100 Games Lists. Indeed, it’s already in my personal Top Five, and will likely remain there for years to come.

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If you’d like to try a “climbing game” but Tichu doesn’t pique your interest, here’s a few others you could pick up instead.

  • Richard Garfield (creator of Magic: The Gathering) designed climbing game about a decade ago called The Great Dalmuti, which was a favorite of my game group for years. We played so often that I eventually burned out on it, but have pressed my Dalmuti deck back into service since becoming interested in climbing games again. One nice thing about Dalmuti is that it occupies a different niche than Tichu: it’s better suited for larger groups (five to seven players, whereas Tichu really only accommodates exactly four), and is much more of a drinking game than a strategy game. If you’re looking for a light climbing game to play at bars or parties, Dalmuti is a fine choice.
  • Gang Of Four is very similar to Tichu, but is streamlined and not played in partnerships, sacrificing some of the depth of Tichu at the altar of accessibility. If Tichu has a flaw it’s that it takes a while to get new players up to speed; with Gang Of Four you get much of the the same Tichu feeling without all the overhead.
  • The cards in Frank’s Zoo do not have values, and instead bear the images of animals. You can beat the current animal by playing a better animal onto it, and the highest animal of all — the elephant — can be trumped by the lowest, a tiny mouse.
  • Pig Pile is perhaps the easiest game of those listed here, but is remarkably fun despite it’s simplicity. It is an amalgamation of a climbing game and Uno, mostly luck but with a smidgen of skill. Best of all, players keep track of their points with small, rubber pigs — what’s not to like? This is a great game for families or when copious amounts of alcohol are involved.
  • Who’s The Ass? is essentially The Great Dalmuti with a scoring system and a deck of cards that accommodates up to 12 players.
  • Or you have a few decks of cards laying around your house, you can play one of the many public domain climbing games listed at pagat.com. Tichu is descended from Zheng Fen; Gang Of Four is more akin to Choh Dai Di (a.k.a. Big Two). Pig Pile is a commercial version of Shithead. And then there’s Asshole, the climbing game almost everyone played a few times as a youth, . All these games are played with a standard deck, though a few require a special card or two — nothing you can’t jury-rig with a joker and a Sharpie.
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