It’s hard to make a good game

It’s easy to come up with a new game; my kids do it all the time. But coming up with a good game, one that people will enjoy playing over and over, is really difficult. It needs just the right combination of luck and skill (or if not skill, at least the opportunity to make choices that influence the outcome). Grownups have fun playing Candy Land and Chutes and Ladders with their kids at first, because, hey, it’s their first game! But it’s not long before a game that is entirely based on luck becomes too much for the adults to bear.

Trivial Pursuit is a good game. It’s got a die for luck, but you get to choose which way to move around the board, and which categories to choose, and you have to know some things. The main drawbacks are that either you eventually have the whole deck of cards memorized, or you wind up pulling out your original deck of cards with questions from 30 years ago, and nobody can answer any of them. So occasionally you get a new deck of cards. (We recently bought a family version with different questions for parents and kids, and a shorter playing time, and it’s pretty good.)

But the Harry Potter Sorcerer’s Stone Trivia Game, which is Trivial Pursuit with Harry Potter questions, is a pretty bad game. For one thing, the entire deck of questions is drawn from the very first book of the series, so unless you have read that book recently and familiarized yourself with incredibly minute details, you’re going to get a lot of questions wrong and the game will go on forever. (Even my kids, who had just recently re-read the book, only answered about 1/3 of the questions correctly.) For another thing, the game adds on two or three levels of rules that feel like they were brought in from other games: ways to go to detention, or get out of detention, or curse another player, or defend with a counter-curse, or get extra points with a charm, etc. And like many games with complex rules, the printed rules don’t cover all the permutations of the different situations, so at some point you wind up making an arbitrary ruling that sends at least one of the kids into a tantrum.

Similarly, Knowledgewhich is kind of like family Trivial Pursuit, is not a good game either. It tries to differentiate itself from Trivial Pursuit by changing up the rules a little, but it winds being a little too complicated and a little less satisfying. Also, some of the questions are a little vague (and some of the answers are flat-out wrong), and some of the questions are not really appropriate for the age range to which they are assigned.

One of my favorite games is Set (you can play it online here). The concept is a little difficult to grasp at first (find three cards which, for each of four characteristics, are either all the same or all different), but once you get it the rules are very simple, and there’s a laugh of recognition when you tease out a “less obvious” set from what looks like a blocked board. And interestingly, though it seems like a grownup game because of the higher-order thinking involved, I find that kids do quite well at it. I taught both of my kids when they were about 4 years old, and soon they were beating the pants off of me; it seems that that kind of quick pattern recognition is something that young and malleable minds are very good at.

I have played a few other Set-like games, some from the same company that makes Set, and most of them haven’t been nearly as enjoyable. But one game in the same genus which has been an absolute favorite for the last six years is QwirkleIt’s like Set in that it requires you to look at the ways that objects are all the same or all different, but it changes the parameters up (six values on two axes, instead of three values on four axes) and also extends the game into a bigger playing space; instead of just identifying sets in a 3×4 grid of cards, you add wooden game tiles to the playing area as you go, so that each game differs from the others. It’s also like Set in that kids and grownups can play together without either side feeling either overwhelmed or bored. It has been one of our go-to family games since the day we got it.

Last night in our local toy store I saw a new game called Iota. It’s a further spin on the Set/Qwirkle idea: you add cards to a playing area, like Qwirkle, but the cards have four values on three axes, more like Set. I picked it up right away, and Rebecca and I sat down to play this afternoon. I was intrigued at first, and then slightly overwhelmed by the effort needed to keep track of everything in the playing grid and to find new places to put my cards. And then I made an unfortunate discovery: Because Iota, like Set but unlike Qwirkle, allows you to make a line in which all four cards are different along all three axes, it’s possible for any two cards to sit next to each other, regardless of whether they have anything in common. This makes it far too easy to keep chaining lines together out at the edges of the grid which are connected in only one spot, rather than thinking about how your cards might fit into the inside of the grid for more points (as the game flow in Qwirkle encourages you to do). And once I realized that, that I could just keep putting down cards with very little thought, I lost all interest in the game.

So for me, Iota — cross bred out of two of my favorite games — is a near miss, a great example of how finicky the alchemy of a good game can be. There’s a reason that the roster of games which you can find in stores year after year is pretty small.

Postscript: It occurred to me as I was writing this that Iota might be improved by disallowing sets in which the four cards are different on all three axes, so that any two cards next to each other have to have at least one thing in common. I’ll have to try playing that way.

September 28, 2014   Tags:

Art and intent

In August, we visited the Museum of Contemporary Art in Montreal, where we saw an interesting exhibit called A Matter of Abstraction. One of the pieces we saw there was a sculpture by Ulysse Comtois called “Column No. 6”.

The piece looked sort of like an IKEA CD storage unit: a number of rectangular aluminum slabs mounted on a pole which ran through their center. The slabs were arranged in a gentle spiral pattern all the way up, except for the top three, which were more visibly staggered. I wondered about the appearance of the piece, especially since it was sitting in the middle of the floor, with no barrier or guard rope around it. Did the artist intend to have those top three slabs set off differently? Had a curator set it up that way during installation, either on purpose or accidentally? Or had a museum patron bumped into the piece, or perhaps mischievously moved the slabs?

My wife thought it was obviously intentional, that Comtois was trying to say something by not having the pattern be regular all the way up. I wasn’t sure. There were more works in the exhibit which featured regular patterns than there were ones which had patterns with a tweak, so I was inclined to think that it was accidental in some way, that it did not reflect the artist’s intent.

When we got back to the hotel that evening, I Googled a bit to see if I could find out more about the work. What I found surprised me greatly, because it raised more questions than it answered.

Here’s a photo of “Column No. 6” from a PDF of an academic article I found online. (Incidentally, this is the same photo used in the Museum’s own catalog of the exhibit.)


Wow. Suddenly, instead of my just wondering whether the top three slabs were positioned differently on purpose, now the question became whose hand was responsible for the even spiral of the other slabs in the work’s current installation.


Here’s another photo of the work, from a different PDF. This time, the slabs are still staggered, although it’s a different configuration from the first photo. (I suppose it’s possible that this represents the same configuration, photographed from a different angle, but judging from the different background I think this is unlikely.)

If we assume that the artist was involved with setting up the work for both photos and for the current exhibition, then we have to ask whether he considers the specific arrangement of the slabs to be important to the work, or whether the essence of the work is simply that it allows for a multiplicity of arrangements. I would be inclined toward the latter view if I were looking just at the two photographs, although the museum installation would make me think that he was making a particular statement with the spiral pattern. (I’m still not sure about those top three offset slabs.)

But maybe Comtois had nothing to do with the arrangement. Maybe that’s left to the discretion of the curator, either implicitly or explicitly. Maybe Comtois envisioned installations of the work in which the public is allowed to interact with the work and change the positioning. In each case, we question what the artist’s intent was, and how far it extends.

The question of intent resonated with me because a certain section of the Internet was abuzz around the same time with analysis of a possibly incorrect note in the flute part at the beginning of the second movement of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto. The note is part of a theme which recurs several times throughout the movement, but the note is different in just this one instance. The pianist Stephen Hough, who had long been bothered by the discrepancy, initially wrote about his apparent discovery that Tchaikovsky himself had corrected the note in a manuscript copy of the score; the next day, he followed up with more information, indicating that the correction was more likely made by the pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow, who premiered the concerto, but stating that he nonetheless felt certain that the correction was valid (i.e., that the note in the score was still wrong). And in case you think that settles it, the Russian pianist Kirill Gerstein wrote his own essay in the New York Review of Books which brings in ideas about Russian vs. European cultural norms to support his conclusion that Tchaikovsky either intended the “wrong” note or at least was not bothered by it.

This kind of sleuthing, or inferring, comes up frequently in my work with the Martha Graham Dance Company. Much of the music that Graham used was written for her, and many of the pieces from the 1930s and 1940s are unpublished, so that the only sets of material are the ones in our possession – and sometimes the various sources that we do have (sketches, piano score, full score, parts) disagree on certain points. (I’ll post a lengthier examination of one such piece soon, as a companion to this post.)

Sometimes, even in the case of well-known works written for Graham, like Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring or Samuel Barber’s Medea, an examination of some of the unpublished material that I have access to brings up interesting discrepancies. Do the published scores represent intentional changes by the composer? Or do they have mistakes that crept in and were never corrected? Or do the earlier holographs have mistakes that were corrected when the work was published?

The question I keep coming back to, the one that’s most important to me as a conductor, is: Which reading best represents what I believe to be the composer’s intent? Like Hough, I do my best to answer that question with the information I have available, guided by my own musical sense. And sometimes, over time, either because I have more information at hand or because my sense of the piece has evolved, my answer changes. Since almost all of Graham’s composers are dead and therefore unable to comment, I may never arrive at a provably definitive answer. But the process of asking the question continues to have value.

October 31, 2013

You never know

Funny story, from a mostly forgettable memoir by a prominent conductor:

After a performance of the Meistersinger Prelude, I asked Sir Georg Solti why he still used the [score] after what must have been his three-hundredth performance of this piece.

“You never know what you might discover.”

September 15, 2013

Amplification in the theater

In Look, I Made a Hat, the second volume of his collected lyrics and attendant observations on theater, Stephen Sondheim writes:

What bothers me [about amplification] is the softening effect it has on the audience’s concentration. [S]itting in those ceiling-scraping seats, hearing an orchestra hundreds of feet away, and squinting at Mary Martin’s face, which was the size of a dime, we had to concentrate. Mary Martin had a small, coy voice, and in order to hear her, we had to lean vertiginously forward. None of the luxury of sitting back and letting the show come to us – we had to lean into it. The concentration required was so great that we had to shut out the real world, and in so doing we became participants in the experience, all of which made it easy to suspend disbelief and enter another world; and the more of that in the theater, the better. With the advent of amplification, ears became lazy and audiences now tend to visit rather than enter.

Sondheim nails it here. I long ago stopped enjoying the act of seeing musicals in the theater (though I still have a great love of the works themselves), and amplification was a big reason why. Even when the amplification is done well, it puts you at a remove from the performance, not much better than sitting back in your sofa and watching it on television.

I’ve experienced this in my performances with the Martha Graham Dance Company as well. When we perform with live music, we are often in halls which are larger than the ones the works were conceived for. Appalachian Spring, for example, was written for 13 instruments and was premiered in a hall which seats 500; we are now frequently asked to perform it with the same size orchestra in a hall 3–4 times as large. So we occasionally do a little judicious sound reinforcement, to make sure that the sound reaches the entire audience. I admit that I’ve come to accept this as a necessary evil when the size of the house requires it, and so long as the primary impression remains an acoustic one.

But I have sometimes been asked by dance personnel to goose the amplification higher than that (or sometimes just to have the orchestra play certain sections louder). That part is too soft, they say; it’s hard for the audience to hear. My response is that it’s soft because Copland (or Barber, or whoever) wrote it soft; it’s a feature, not a bug. These composers knew what they were doing and what effect their music would have, and Graham knew what the music sounded like when she choreographed to it. They wanted to draw the audience into the world of the piece, not just lean them back comfortably in their seats.

December 15, 2011   Tags: ,

Presenting with VLC

I lecture quite a bit on musical topics, often having to do with opera or dance. Putting together one of these lectures, or a set of them, often used to involve traveling with a bag full of LPs/CDs/DVDs/VHS tapes. Over the past few years, I’ve moved to digitizing everything, extracting just the excerpts I need. So now instead of a bag of stuff, I have a folder of MP3s and MP4s which I copy onto my laptop, and I’m good to go. It takes some upfront time the first time I prepare a lecture, but it’s well worth it.

On my old laptop, the video card had a feature which would automatically play videos fullscreen on an external monitor or projector even while they were windowed on my monitor. This meant I could still keep an eye on how much time was left or look for the next excerpt in Explorer while one was playing on the projector. But my new laptop doesn’t do that.

Windows 7 presentation mode is the first part of the solution; Win+X to brings up the mobility center, where I can quickly turn off my wallpaper and screen saver, and then Win+P lets me configure the projector as an extension of my desktop, rather than just mirroring it. The second part is setting up the excellent VLC to play all videos fullscreen on the projector while keeping the controls on my monitor. This isn’t my regular config, so I didn’t want to save the settings – I wanted something I could fire up easily when I was presenting. A little Googling and trial and error gave me the answer. I set up a shortcut called ‘VLC Presenter Mode’ with the following command line:

vlc.exe --fullscreen --no-embedded-video --vout=directx --directx-device=\\.\DISPLAY2

This tells VLC to separate the controls from the video and to open all videos fullscreen using DirectX on the second monitor (the projector). The controls stay right on my desktop where I want them. The DirectX option is needed to allow me to specify the output device; it also means that Windows will turn off Aero Glass (the pretty desktop effects) when I play a video, but that doesn’t really matter in this context.

Although VLC lets me control its output volume with Ctrl+Up and Ctrl+Down, I also want to give a shoutout to freeware volume control 3RVX. This lets me assign my own hotkeys for adjusting system volume and also gives an onscreen slider that doesn’t emit the Windows default beep when I change the volume, which can be annoying when you’re hooked up to an amplifier. (My laptop does have its own volume hotkeys, but due to some poor design choices by Dell, they’re hard to find when the lights are lowered.)

December 4, 2011   Tags: ,

Let’s run it in.

An often-repeated story: In 1993, still a couple of years away from getting to the major leagues, future Yankee captain Derek Jeter was in spring training with then-captain Don Mattingly.

The shortstop and the veteran first baseman were finishing up a workout on a back field, all alone, the seats empty, not a player or team official in sight. A spent Jeter had started walking off the field – no urgency or bounce to his step – when a jogging Mattingly came up behind him and in passing said, “Let’s run it in. You never know who’s watching.”

September 20, 2011   Tags:


This is a screenshot from the iTunes page of a handy iPhone app called Quotebook which allows you to collect your favorite quotes from different sources. I especially like the way it includes two autocorrect-induced typos.

April 24, 2011

Now it’s the Core Three

A wistful adieu to Andy Pettitte, one of my favorite Yankees. He always showed up and did his thing, and were it not for those three seasons in exile in Houston, he would very likely be the winningest Yankee pitcher ever.

January 12, 2011   Tags:

Efficient communication and trust

Let’s say I’d like to accomplish the following task with some code: I’ve got a list of names of fruits, and I want to know how many contain the letter ‘a’. Back in the day, this might have been done in assembly language, very low-level instructions which directly tell a CPU the details of which bytes to move into which memory locations and how to examine them in order to find out the answer.

A more recent way of doing this in a typical high-level structured programming language (like C#) would look like this:

int CountOfA = 0;
for (int i = 0; i < FruitNames.Count; i++)
   if (FruitNames[i].Contains("a"))

Now we’re laying out for the computer a repeated sequence of logical steps to follow. What this says is, “Start with a variable to count the number of  ‘a’ fruits we find, and set it to zero. Then loop through the list of names, looking at each name in order, and if the name has an ‘a’, increment our counter.” This is very straightforward, the kind of code that developers write all the time. But to a non-programmer looking at this, it’s not necessarily clear what steps the code is carrying out or what the goal is.

Here’s a slightly more legible version, using a different syntax that many languages support:

int CountOfA = 0;
foreach (string fruit in FruitNames)
   if (fruit.Contains("a"))

We’ve dropped that pesky index variable (the i), and the use of foreach makes it a little more clear what we’re doing. But it’s still 4 lines of code (6 if you count the braces) to ask the simple question, “How many of these fruit names have an ‘a’ in them?” Can’t we do better? Well, nowadays we can:

int CountOfA = FruitNames.Count(f => f.Contains("a"));

If you’re used to the older style of telling a computer to loop through a list, this syntax takes a little getting used to. It basically says, “Take the list FruitNames and count all the fruits f such that f contains ‘a’.” Which is only slightly more complex than posing our task in plain English.

But in addition to getting more concise, there’s something very interesting going on here in the way that we’re giving our instructions to the computer. We’ve moved from a syntax which tells the computer what steps to perform while somewhat obscuring the goal, to a syntax which just tells the computer what we want to know and omits the details of how to find that out. In doing this, we’re also in a sense being more trusting that the computer knows how to do what we want, so that we can just say “count these things” without explaining that this means examining each item and looking for an “a” (or, to go back to the assembly level, explaining how to move bytes around to accomplish this).

I’ve been thinking about this since my post about Leonard Bernstein conducting with his face. The essence of what a conductor does is to communicate his musical ideas to the orchestra as efficiently as possible; by “efficiently”, I mean simply, directly, and with a minimum of extraneous information. In the context of this particular performance, it turns out that the beat itself is largely superfluous, and Bernstein can tell the orchestra all they need to know through his expressive and well-timed facial expressions.

This relates to the above programming discussion in a couple of ways. First, like the FruitNames.Count example, the most effective way to let the orchestra know what he wants is for the conductor to indicate to them what the music should sound like, not how they should produce that sound. In rehearsal, for example, it’s often better for the conductor to sing a little of what he wants rather than trying to explain it in words, because that’s a more direct representation of the desired effect. Here, Bernstein’s face, free from any other distracting gestures, mimes the  character of the music.

Second, by limiting his instructions to conveying what the music should sound like, a conductor trusts his players – who almost certainly know more about technique on their various instruments than he does – to handle all the implementation details of how to make it sound that way. This kind of trust is important here because orchestral music-making, unlike computer programming, is a collaborative endeavor; the conductor who insists on dictating every last jot and tittle of a performance will often find that what he gets out of the orchestra is just exactly what he puts in, while the conductor who gives the musicians their share of responsibility gets the benefit of the sum total of all the artistry and years of experience sitting in front of him.

December 23, 2010   Tags: , ,

Look, no hands!

A friend of mine linked to an NPR story called “What Happened to Leonard Bernstein’s Hands?”, which includes this wonderful video (skip ahead to 25:25 if you’re reading this on a Flash-less device):

As my teacher, the late Frederik Prausnitz, used to say, “You just have to figure out where you need to beat. It is a myth that orchestras need every beat of every bar. Some bars they don’t need it altogether.”

Giving a clear beat is in some sense both the most fundamental and the least important thing that a conductor can do. This Bernstein video is kind of an edge case, but it’s very illustrative nonetheless. Bernstein was a great conductor, and the Vienna Philharmonic is a great orchestra, and they worked together often and had a close relationship. Haydn’s music is not technically challenging for this orchestra; they could probably play it quite well with their eyes closed. And in this particular case, what the video shows is an encore of a movement they had just finished performing, with Bernstein conducting normally.

So does all this mean that Bernstein is doing nothing and just letting the orchestra have at it? Not at all. A conductor’s face can be as important as his hands in communicating with an orchestra (if not more so), and Bernstein had a very expressive face. What he is showing, very clearly, is the desired character of the music, along with an indication of how different parts of the orchestra take the lead at different times.

Most importantly, his face telegraphs changes in the music right before they take place, just like a good preparatory beat with the baton.

December 21, 2010   Tags: