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Off the Grid: Thanksgiving edition (or industry favorites)


Every other week Scott Jon Siegel contributes Off the Grid, a column on gaming away from the television screen or monitor.

Between the launches of the PS3 and the Nintendo Wii, we're just about up to our ears in digital game coverage. So I've taken it upon myself to balance things out a bit with some analog lovin'. Fail to secure the hottest consoles on their launch dates? Looking for something a little less expensive to get you through the week? Or are you just jonesing for something other than Zelda? No need to worry; Off the Grid's got you covered.

This week, in honor of Thanksgiving in the States (ok, not really), I've asked a few developers and industry personalities what their favorite non-digital games are. Like a great big turkey dinner with your relatives, let's dispense with the formalities and just dive right in.

At present, it's probably Alan Moon's TICKET TO RIDE, a railroad game. Multiplayer, simple rules set but with surprising strategic complexity, playable in less than an hour, and sufficient randomness that games are not monotonously similar, but not so much that luck overwhelms the better players. I first played it in a wood-stove-heated country house in the depths of a Finnish winter night, but these days play it more often with my kids.
-- Greg Costikyan, Manifesto Games

My GO anecdote is actually stolen from Mahk LeBlanc, ex-Looking Glass guy. Mahk said that when the aliens finally land, and we learn to communicate with them, and then we describe Go, they'll reply, "oh yeah, we have that game". It's the uber game. Most complexity and subtlety and beauty from fewest rules. It will never be bested.

After that, it's a long way down, but maybe Sid Sackson's DOMINATION?
-- Chris Hecker, EA/Maxis

My favorite analog game is GO.

What can you say about Go? It's a game you can devote your life to. I understand that in Asia serious players consider it a martial art, and even as an amateur player I feel like the game has taught me a lot about patience, discipline, and balance. Go is so beautiful, on one level it's just a giant algorithmic puzzle, but it feels so organic, like a living thing. There is no better object-lesson in the relationship of local to global. In terms of the specific material qualities of analog Go, it's extremely beautiful – the wood board, the grid, the shape and texture of the stones, the sound they make when you place them down. However, I'm not sure if it makes sense to call Go an analog game. It's the same game whether played on a board or online. If you think about it, Go is far more digital in its very essence, than, say, baseball. And, in a way, far more digital than a game like Counterstrike, which is all about the complicated fuzziness of real-world physics and real-world environments. But I guess that's a different discussion!
-- Frank Lantz, area/code

SCRABBLE, ever since I read Stefan Fatsis' great book, Word Freak.
-- Dennis McCauley,

Favorite analog party game: MAFIA - A game of pure social strategy that doesn't require any special materials to play. It's so elegant that it almost isn't there, and never fails to hook gamers and non-gamers alike.

Most enjoyable analog games: - PUERTO RICO, SETTLERS OF CATAN, CITADELS, and other German (or German-style) strategy boardgames. I have more fun - on both social and strategic levels - playing a great boardgame with friends than just about any other game activity, on and off the computer.

Best experimental analog game experience: The recent Come Out & Play Festival in NYC featured dozens of games that took place in the real world. While some of them did involve digital technology, others - from the frantic stock trading of INSIDER to the city golfing of MANHATTAN MEGAPUTT were purely analog.

Most beautiful analog game: GO - As ancient as Chess, Go is a game with less rules but far more mathematical complexity. The aesthetic simplicity of the board and two-color stones and the many rituals of play make this game one of the most elegant products of human civilization.
-- Eric Zimmerman, Gamelab

My favorite analog game is one that I made up with some friends in high school. The game is called TOAST and is played thusly:
1) Gather four to eight friends. (These will henceforth be referred to as "players")
2) Dress players exclusively in black. (trench coats and ski masks are for experienced players only.)
3) Obtain one pickup truck with an open bed large enough to fit all players comfortably.
4) One player is designated as the driver, while the other players lie in the back of the truck to minimize passerby visibility.
5) The game begins at around midnight when the driver slowly cruises the truck and hidden players up and down major streets in the vicinity.
6) The driver's goal is to locate single pedestrians or pairs of pedestrians walking along these streets minding their own business late at night. Because of the late hour of gameplay, pedestrian sightings will be minimal, which adds to the challenge.
7) When a "target" is located, the driver must stop the vehicle abruptly (skid marks earn extra points).
8) The players in the rear of the truck then jump up from their concealed positions, while pointing at the target(s) and yelling as loudly as possible, "TOAST!!!! TOOOOOAAAAASSSSTT!!!!!" (wild gesticulating, and exaggerated hoopla is encouraged.)
9) When a suitable level of panic in the target is achieved, the players hurl as many pieces of toast as possible before the driver guns the engine and skids off into the night.
10) Points for the game are awarded on a sliding scale based on the target's transition from surprise to fear to horror to confusion when confronted with a gang of black-clad figures jumping from a vehicle pointing and screaming to all hell, and then hurling harmless pieces of bread at them.
11) Gameplay continues until the police (referees) call off the game or supplies of gasoline and/or toast are depleted.
-- Elan Lee, 42 Entertainment

Scott Jon Siegel is a fledgling game designer, and fancies himself a bit of a writer on the topic as well. His words and games can be found at numberless, which is almost always a work in progress.

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