Biomes in Minecraft - here the swamp gives way to the desert.

Minecraft is due to be released in just a few weeks at a dedicated Minecraft convention in Las Vegas. However, even prior to the official release, the alpha, beta and pre-release beta versions have sold almost 4 million copies. This success is even more surprising when one considers that the game is written in Java, is still largely incomplete, has no clear goal, is buggy, employs low-resolution “blocky” graphics and textures, often requires players to sacrifice their work when new versions come out, and was initially developed by an independent programmer in his spare time.

Minecraft was developed by Markus Persson, better known to his followers as “Notch”. Notch had left his role with a game company to focus on independent game development, and had an idea for a game focused on building. Encountering the game InfiniMiner, Notch discovered the direction he wanted to take and started work in earnest. InfiniMiner was a mining game where the intent was for players to compete to find resources and bring them to the surface. But the payers went somewhere else: instead of competing to get resources and points, they started spending all of their time using the resources to construct in-game objects.

Zombie attack

Minecraft took this further. There are no points in Minecraft: just mining and building. The game places the player in a large procedurally generated world. Although deliberately blocky in design, the world is a mix of environments, including oceans, lakes and rivers, mountains and plains, and deserts and icy tundras. Populating this world is an unusual mix of creatures, from the mundane (pigs, cows and squid) to the violent (zombies, giant spiders and creepers). The more typical animals provide food and resources – from cows you can get beef, milk and leather; squid provide ink; sheep give wool; and chickens provide eggs, meat and feathers. The more aggressive inhabitants can also provide resources, but they are predominantly there to make your work a tad harder. (On the plus side, zombies and skeletons burn in sunlight, so they only present a threat at night or when you are in darkness, and spiders are non-aggressive during the day – although creepers, who explode when they get too close, are a constant threat). Along with the fauna is the flora, which includes grass, trees, flowers, mushrooms, bamboo, cacti and watermelons. These also provide much needed food and resources. But the point of the game isn’t the flora and fauna. They help to create a varied world, but the threats are easily overcome and the resources they provide are simple enough to come by. The really valuable stuff comes from the “mine” in Minecraft. Digging and exploring caves underground provides a wealth of useful ores, from rock and coal through to diamond and obsidian. By mining the world players are able to get the resources they need to build and survive.

This, of course, is where the “craft” comes into play. These resources can be used as they stand (cobblestone floors, wooden walls), or crafted into new things. For example, combine eight blocks of cobblestone in the correct fashion, and you’ve got a furnace. Toss in some iron ore and coal, and you have iron ingots. Take three iron ingots and add two sticks and you have an iron pickaxe: and with an iron pickaxe you can mine diamond, and with diamond you can make a diamond pickaxe. The diamond pickaxe can be used to mine obsidian, which in turn has some particular uses. The more you dig and explore, the more raw materials you get, and the greater the opportunities you have to combine them into something interesting. From chests and beds, through to castles suspended in the air, powered mine carts running along iron tracks, and virtual circuitry – including logic circuits to build computers and music sequencers within the game. When complete, you can share your designs through videos, by building them on multiplayer servers, or just through screenshots and shared save files.

For a while I foolishly found the success of the game curious – why, I wondered, would people be so devoted to a game that has no goal? It seems that I’m an idiot. I spent my younger years dedicated to Lego, and, like Minecraft, that has also no goal beyond the fun of creating. Thinking about it, there is nothing new or unusual about playing building games. It is simply that I forgot, somewhere along the line, that I can have fun without high resolution graphics and complex targeted gameplay. Fortunately Nothch didn’t forget. And fortunately, my children have discovered it as well.

A village from Minecraft 1.9

That said, Minecraft is a wonderful sandbox, but it has never been perfect, and I think it is reasonable to question whether or not the direction it is heading in is a wise one. Minecraft has been developed using an iterative model. Every so often Notch and his team would release a new version of the game, from the early alpha releases, through the on going beta versions, and more recently they started dropping buggy “pre-release betas” onto the market. Each version contains new features and modified functionality: for example, 1.8 beta introduced ravines, villages and strongholds, whilst the 1.9 pre-releases populated the village and introduced enchantments. To a large extent this has been working, but it relies heavily on the goodwill of the consumers (which, I should say, has been in abundance), and I fear that the increasing complexity may loose the enjoyable simplicity seen in the earlier versions. That second fear is something I see echoed in my son – he loves the game, and when he isn’t playing it he’s looking online to find out what is happening with the new releases, reading the Minecraft wiki, and watching every video he can get his hands on. Yet with each new version he expresses reservations, concerned that it won’t be as good as the old version was. So far that hasn’t happened, but it is an interesting aspect of the development model employed for the game.

It is also worth noting that the game has a rather idiosyncratic view of physics (and in particular gravity), but I suppose that can be seen as a feture as much as a a bug.

At any rate, I highly recommend Minecraft, and getting involved during the beta means that you will can get a copy a bit cheaper than when it is officially released. It is cross platform, relatively cheap, and it is genuinely enjoyable to play a game about building, exploring and avoiding zombies.



Publisher: Bully Pulpit Games

Price: US$25 (Print)/US$12 (PDF)
Rating: Great 

One of the more popular sub-genres of role-playing games of recent days is the story-telling game. In this genre, whilst you are usually playing the role of a character, the objective is not to have adventures with the character in order to benefit the character, but rather to collaboratively tell an interesting story with the character. The investment of the player being in the story, not the character. And if the best stories end up having the character meet a grisly end, then this is something that is more likely to happen with a story-telling game than a traditional tabletop (or computer) role-playing game.

This is particularly true in the case of Fiasco, by Bully Pulpit Games. This storytelling game is inspired by those cinematic tales of small-time capers that go disasterously wrong for all involved. We are talking Fargo, Burn After Reading, Blood Simple, A Fish Called Wanda, A Simple Plan, Oh Brother, Where Art Thou, Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Office Space. Basically anything with a cast of ordinary people with powerful ambitions and poor impulse control. Where “it seemed like a good idea at the time” is the watch-phrase, and things start going rapidly out of control. Where poorly executed plans soon collapse into a glorious heap of jealousy, murder, and recrimination. Where lives and reputations will be lost, painful wisdom gained, and if a character is really lucky (or truly vile or innocent), they may just end up back where they were to begin with.

The first thing to do when playing Fiasco is to gather three to five people in a circle. Like many story-telling games, this is a collaborative activity, and so there is no gamemaster. Instead the rules provide the formal method of interaction that govens the interactions of the players.

The players must then decide what sort of setting they want to use. In Fiasco these settings are called Playsets, and they contain the detailed information to set up play. There are several Playsets to be found in the rules, and a new one each month is put on the Bully Pulpit Games website. Additionally it has become quite popular for Famous Game Designers™ to write and publish their own Playsets. Here are some of the Playsets that are available:

Once they have decided on a setting, they must generate the relationships that exists between their characters. They each take two black dice and two white dice and roll them in the centre of the table, creating a pool of dice. They then each take turns selecting a die from the pool, and converting this is converted into a specific Relationship, Need, Location, or Object by consulting the Playset. Each player will have a Relationship with an adjacent player, and there should be at least one Need, Location, and Object.

For example, a player using the Objective Zebra Playset might decide to take a black 6 to detail a Relationship between two characters. This translates to “Family,” and so he writes down “Relationship: Family” and places the index card between two players, indicating that the two players are family of some kind. During a later turn a player (either another or the same), takes a white 4, looks up “Family,” and discovers that the actual Relationship is that they are “Blood Brothers,” so the index card is amended to read “Relationship: Family – Blood Brothers.” A player then decides to attach a Need to this Relationship by taking a black 3 and looking up the result for this Need in the Playset, discovering that it is a “Need: To hide that…” A later white 1 added to the index card indicates that it is a “Need: To hide that you didn’t exactly follow orders concerning Objective Zebra.” So you have two blood brothers with a need to hide the fact that they didn’t exactly follow orders concerning their mission. Of course, each of these characters will be further defined by the Relationship and Detail on the other side of their player.

The players now have to interpret how these relationships define their characters, and in return, how their characters define the Relationships and Details. Remember that this is a collaborative activity, so it’s important to share your thoughts. Once this is done they can begin with the actual game play.

The dice are returned to the centre of the table. They will be used for scoring. At the conclusion of your turn you will be given a die from this pool by the other players, which will reflect the outcome of your story. A black die indicates negative consequences, whilst a white die indicates positive consequences. During the first Act you must give this die to another player. During the second Act you get to keep it. It’s better to get all white or all black dice, so naturally people will try to give you dice you don’t already have. The trick is to tell a story such that they don’t want to accept the consequences of giving you the wrong colour die.

During your turn, you get the opportunity to either Establish a scene or Resolve a scene. If you Establish a scene, you get to set the scene up, invoking whatever relationships and details you think are important. Based on your performance, the other players will give you a die. If you Resolve a scene, the other players will generate a scene for you, and you will choose a die. In either case the colour of the die will affect how the scene actually plays out, and whether the outcome of the scene will be a success or a failure.

One great thing about this game is that character death doesn’t matter. In fact it can be weirdly liberating, as it allows you to tell the rest of the story in flashback. Although it is considered impolite to kill anyone before Act Two.

Act One is basically used for setting up the inevitable fiasco. Between the Acts, further complications will emerge; this is known as The Twist. Then play proceeds to Act Two, where the wheels generally come off and everything falls apart. Then comes The Aftermath, where your character’s actual story is resolved.

The Aftermath is resolved by rolling the dice that you were given in Act One and Two, and generating a white total and a black total. Subtract the lower from the higher. That’s your overall result, with the higher the better. This is why you generally want dice of a single colour. Finally, for each die you have, you can make a single short statement about what happens to you. So characters without many dice soon disappear from the narrative (inevitably down-trodden and probably dead).

Now this is only the basics of the game. The actual rules discuss all of this in detail and provide examples of how it all fits together, and explains in greater detail the interaction that occurs. They are something you really want to understand before you attempt to play the game, no matter how simple it sounds. In particular, the trick of trying to tell the story in such a manner as to ensure that the other players give you the die you want is something that takes a little practice. It also relies on the players being able to take the set-up and run with it, and purposefully engage with the other characters.