Axe To Grind

Do you think run-of-the-mill murderers get upset about the undue recognition axe murderers get? Man, I would. It’s all so unfair. You shoot someone and you’re not a Gun Murderer, or you cook your roommate some Drano Waffles and you’re not a Household Cleanser Murderer, but you whack one measely guy with a hatchet and suddenly you’re in a class of your own. I guess cannibals get singled-out too, but, you know, if you’re willing to go that extra mile and eat someone, I figure you’re entitled to some extra credit. Axe murderers, though — those guys are getting something for nothing. They’re a bunch of glory hogs, that’s the real problem.

Games: Puerto Rico

An entry for Tim of Mooselessness, who is apparently on the verge of buying Puerto Rico.

I have been a board game enthusiast all my adult life, but the thrill, as they say, is largely gone. When I returned from the Peace Corps in 1997 and started collecting modern board games, each one I bought was a wonder to me, full of innovative mechanics and fascinating ideas. It helped that the first few games I purchased were among the best ever made: Manhattan, Modern Art, and the sublime Settlers of Catan. But since that time I have played scores of games, and its become ever more difficult to impress me. I enjoy board games as much as I ever have, but it’s rare that I encounter one that fills me with the rush of admiration I felt for those first few. Still, occasionally a game will come along that manages to overcome my indifference and knock my socks off. El Grande did it, Euphrat & Tigris did it, Princes of Florence did it, and now I have been wowed by Puerto Rico.

In Puerto, each person begins play with his own “player mat” — a small map of the island divided into an upper and lower half. The bottom portion is for plantations, of which there are six types: Corn, Indigo, Sugar, Tobacco, Coffee and Quarries. The first five produce agricultural goods; the Quarries enable you to purchase buildings for cheaper. Buildings, placed in the upper part of the player mat, come in two types: Production Buildings (which allow you to refine your agricultural output) and violet Special Buildings. The object of the game is to acquire the most victory points, which is primarily acheived by shipping goods to the Old World, and by constructing buildings (each of which is worth some measure of points).

Players must manage two other resources. Plantations and buildings do not “work” unless they are manned by Colonists: plantations lacking a Colonist do not produce agricultural goods (or, in the case of the Quarries, do not reduce the cost of buildings), while buildings lacking a Colonist do not do whatever they are designed to do. Players will also earn doubloons throughout the game, which are used to purchase buildings.

Puerto Rico is played over a series of rounds, during which each player takes a turn. On a turn the Active Player chooses one of the seven Role Cards, and then every player (starting with the Active Player) gets to take the Action associated with that role. The Active Player also gets a Privilege — the opportunity to do a little more than everyone else. The Roles are:

Each player takes an agricultural plantation (corn, indigo, sugar, tobacco or coffee)
The Active Player may take a quarry instead of an agricultural plantation
Each player may buy a building.
The Active Player spends one doubloon less for his building
Every player gets a colonist.
The Active Player gets a bonus colonist.
Each player produces agricultural goods.
The Active Player produces one bonus good.
Each Player may sell a good to the back for doubloons.
The Active Player gets a bonus doubloon.
Each player loads goods onto the ships, and receives one victory point for every good loaded.
The Active Player gets a bonus victory point.
The Active Player gets a doubloon from the bank.
Once a Role is taken, no one else may take it that round, and at the conclusion of a round all unchosen Roles receive a doubloon. When a player picks a Role with one or more coins on it, he keeps the money for himself. So a Role that is ignored in this round becomes more attactive in the next — a feature that ensures that Puerto never stagnates.

Whenever the Craftsman is selected, each player produces goods. One good is produced for each manned agricultural plantation that has a corresponding manned production building — a coffee plantation and a coffee roaster, for example. This is the function of the Production Buildings. Each violet building, meanwhile, confers some special advantage onto it’s owner (but only, as always, if manned). The Hacienda allows the owner receive an extra Plantation in each Settler phase; the Market gives the owner a bonus gold every time he sells in the Trader phase, and so on.

If all this sounds overwhelming … well, it is, the first time you hear the rules. But Puerto Rico is so remarkably designed, and everything “flows” so well, that halfway through your first game you’ll already have a good grasp of what to do. Managing your resources is the key to success: you need plantations and buildings to produce goods, you need goods to earn money and victory points, you need money to buy buildings, and so on. The varieties of different strategies you can use in the pursuit of victory are seemingly endless.

The appeal of Puerto Rico is widespread, and it’s easy to see why. The game features quite a bit of player interaction, but it is all indirect: you cannot attack another player, but you can take the Role he wants before he gets the opportunity himself. The feel of the game is very positive, as you are building up (constructing buildings, producing Goods, making money) rather than tearing down (as you would in, say, a wargame). These two traits combine to make this a great, nonaggressive game for families. Furthermore, it works wonderfully well with three, four and five players, making it suitable for any gathering of friends.

I typically play a new game a few times and then get ready to move on; with Puerto Rico, however, I would be happy to play nothing but. One thing I have noticed is that the quality of a game is usually commensurate with the amount of discussion it engenders, and by that standard Puerto is one of the best. As soon a game ends the players are eager to talk about the strategies they employed and the ideas they have for future playings. And I find myself pondering Puerto even between matches, sipping my morning expresso, for instance, and wondering how well I would fare if I spent my next game growing nothing but coffee.

I’ve been suffering Board Game Burnout for a year or so, but Puerto Rico’s rave reviews convinced me to pick it up. And I couldn’t be happier I did. Puerto takes me back to those halcyon days when I first entered the hobby, and marveled at the skill that went into game design. Anything that can do that to a jaded old player like me must be a great game indeed.

Spam, For The Trash Folder

Date: Wed, 28 Aug 2002 22:24:23 +0800
From: Halina Jameel
Subject: matthew, For the Ladies

I am totally going to use that at parties.

“Hi, I’m Claire.”

“I’m Matthew … For the Ladies.”

Rumors of My Death

I had the same English instructor both my sophomore and junior years of high school. She was my favorite teacher of all time, but had two minor character flaws. First, while should could list every proper noun from Tess of the D’urberville, she had a habit of forgetting or mixing up the names of her students. Second, she was a bit cynical about the capacity for Today

xxx Exclusive! Matt Drudge Dumb!!! xxx

Matt Drudge is horrified that those attending a summit on starvation are “enjoying” a meal of lobster, caviar and champagne. Yes, it must be disheartening for Mr. Drudge to see his long, hard battle on behalf of the starving get undermined like this.

People who work to alleviate starvation while eating well are one infinity less hypocritical than people who call this hypocritical while doing nothing themselves.

Books: The Botany of Desire

I have this rule. The rule is simply this: I’ll abandon a book if, after reading a third, I find that not enjoying it. There is just too much good reading material out there to waste my time plowing through the final 600 pages of Underworld. On the other hand, I force myself to at least read a third, even of something that doesn’t immediately float my boat. I may well miss out on some terrific novels that happen to get interesting 2/5 of the way through, but I’m comfortable with that.

The Botany of Desire is divided into four sections: Apple, Tulip, Marijuana and Potato. After finishing section one, I was ready to return Desire to the library unfinished. But, in accordance with my rule, I decided to read at least until the 1/3 point, and then opted to go ahead and finish the second chapter. I finished section two on my morning bus ride and decided to give up on the book, but then Some Random Guy In An Elevator talked me into finishing it. I entered the car carrying the Desire, he glanced at it and said “Oh wow, I just finished that and it was great. How far are you?” I said I had just finished “Tulip”. He said “That’s just where it starts to get really good!” Dad nabbit!

So, yeah, I read the whole thing. And, in retrospect, I’m glad I did. The problem I was having with The Botany of Desire wasn’t that I found it poorly written or uninteresting, but simply that it wasn’t what I wanted it to be. Picking up the book at the library, I had assumed that it was going to be a book about, well, botany – that is, the science and evolution of plants. And it even bills itself as such, claiming to take “A Plant’s-eye View of the World”. I had imaged something akin to Richard Dawkin’s The Selfish Gene, a story told entirely from the point of view of an organism’s genetic matter, being passed down from generation to generation. And according to the introduction, this is the book that Michael Pollan set out to write. But he fails, and instead resorts to telling the tale of these plants from a human’s point of view – and sometimes seems to forget about the plants altogether.

Take the first chapter, “Apples” — the one I almost quit after. He starts out talking about how the apple first reached the shores of America, and how they were propagated throughout the land. This story cannot be told, obviously, without mention of John Chapman, better known as Johnny Appleseed. But as soon as Johnny strolls into the picture, he becomes the focus of Pollan’s writing. Pollan occasionally remembers that he’s supposed to be talking about fruit, but the “Plant’s-eye view” is dropped almost from the get-go. Halfway through I flipped to the “About the Author” section to see what else this guy had written, only to find that he’s not a science writer by trade. He is, in fact, a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine. And that’s what these chapters seem to be: essays written on the topic of plants, but certainly not scientific investigations.

Worse, when he does spell out the science, he often gets it wrong. Take this passage, explaining why cloned apple tress are at risk from new preditors:

The problem very simply is that apple trees no longer reproduce sexually, as they do when they are grown from a seed, and sex is nature’s way of creating fresh genetic combinations. At the same time, the viruses, bacteria, fungi and insects keep very much at it, reproducing sexually and continuing to evolve until eventually they hit on the precise genetic combination that allows them to overcome whatever resistance the apples might have once possessed.
Of the four predators listed — viruses, bacteria, fungi and insects – the first three reproduce asexually (although fungi have been known to shack up from time to time). Lines like this drove me crazy.

But once I accepted the fact that Pollan wasn’t a scientist and I wasn’t reading a scientific book, I came to enjoy Botany of Desire a lot more. Take as essays, each chapter is quite enjoyable. Pollan is a fine writer, and it’s clear he has done his research — if not into the science of each plant, then at least into the people who work with them. So pick it up if you’re interested in Science Lite Lite. If you’re looking for anything deeper, you’ll find Botany leaves something to be desired.