Category Archives: Games

Dragon Age: Origins

This post is in the theme “A Long Waltz Through Nerddom”. Read the first.

January 12, New York: This is an inherently nerdy post. It is, in fact, so rotten with nerdstuff that I am going to divide it into two parts, one for a non-nerd audience and the second specifically for my nerds out there.

Dragon Age: Origins for the non-nerd
I stopped playing video games at some point in my teenaged years. Aided by the fact that my father never allowed us to own a video gaming system— only ever a desktop computer— gaming was something that most often happened at friends’ houses. As I grew older and moved over to Mac computers, my focus became casual games or passing the time with a little bit of Sid Meier’s Civilization. The multi-hour first-person epics were built for Playstations and Xboxes and PCs that I would never own.

It was Robin who first sold me on Dragon Age. He explained it as a fascinating evolution in story-telling techniques. Video game technology had come to a point where it could look about as good and feel about as rich as a movie, it just happened to be interactive. And the creators of Dragon Age had made an incredibly satisfying genre story— the fantasy role-playing game— with a rich and multi-branching story. This is what is great about this game: your game is substantively different based on the choices you make. Are you virtuous or are you sinister? Two different games.

I first played Dragon Age in a year that Jill and I had to spend multiple months apart. It was perfect to pass those long weeks. I would come back to my apartment and wile away the hours. This year I had less available time and it seemed to take forever. I started playing it again in July and I only just finished it in January. In all, I committed sixty hours of gameplay to this. Sixty! And you know what? It was pretty fun.

Okay, here’s the nerdstuff.

Dragon Age: Origins for my nerds
I never thought I would play this game a second time, but I’m so glad I got to. That first choice you make— who will your character be— is so deeply important. The first time, following the rules of all RPGs that the early game is easiest with a sword, I was a human warrior. Bo-ring. In Dragon Age’s real-time tactics gameplay you mostly just set the warriors off to go hack and bludgeon things and you spend your time with the mages being creative.

So this time I played it totally different: elven mage. I made my character black with dreadlocks and answered every question sarcastically. It was a very different game!


It was so much better to play the mage, especially as the game progressed. I could end a battle before it really began by charging out and firing off the right combination of spells while my warriors hung back and picked at their teeth with their battle axes. The climactic one-on-one battle with Loghain in the Landsmeet ended before his blade ever once touched my robes.

It was also a supreme advantage to have played before and remember the secrets. I got to the final battle with the Archdemon and made a beeline for the ballistae. I’m pretty sure I had to look that up on a strategy website the first go-round, after failing a dozen times to defeat it. This time? Beat the Archdemon on my first try.

Both my first play of Dragon Age and this one ended with the same resolution: I want to play more contemporary video games. Luckily, there’s a new installment that’s just out. But even beyond this one: there is a whole world of deeply complex branched storytelling out there to explore. My only challenge is being a Mac-based gamer. And also all that time. Who has sixty spare hours these days? Oh right, that’s also about the length of The Wire.

Go ahead and give in to your nerdself, buy and play Dragon Age Origins. And then, later this year, let’s all play the new one.

Conquer Club

September 14, New York: Conquer Club is based on Risk: an online, multiplayer community of Risk-players. But it’s also a community of map designers, constantly creating new maps upon which to play out global conquest. Imagine playing Risk, but on the city of San Francisco, the continent of Africa, the island of Iceland. I love Conquer Club, have loved it for some years now.

Screen Shot 2014-09-14 at 2.56.47 PM
Here’s a current game I have going on the Eastern Front of World War II

The best way to describe Conquer Club is as an addiction. Like cigarettes. There have been multiple times in my life that I have been debilitatingly addicted to this game. The pattern goes like this (note the similarities, reformed smokers): A friend invites you to join a game and you think oh what could one hurt. Shortly thereafter you join four, that’s the limit for a free membership. Then late one night you’re clicking refresh on all your four games and none of them are updating and you’re like AUGH ALL I WANT IS TO CONQUER so you set up the monthly free and suddenly you can play unlimited games. From then on you basically do play unlimited games. You play them from your phone, on your computer during meetings, at home after your spouse has gone to sleep.

I belonged to a few communities through which this addiction raged. At work one year, there was a group of us on a project that was being decommissioned. We had a lot of downtime and we played it like crazy. We would jump up and run over to a colleague’s desk and yell “Take your move, damnit!” Another: a large group of my friends that also included my wife. Bitter rivalries ensued, people earned reputations as untrustworthy allies. Angry text messages were exchanged over hundreds of miles.

Screen Shot 2014-09-14 at 3.08.46 PM
Here’s a current game that’s nearly to stalemate in Brazil.

This time I was determined to not get addicted again. Play for one month (beginning August 17th) and then put it aside. I almost immediately filled up my free four game slots. And then I quickly lost three games in succession. See, the thing is, I’m only pretty average at Conquer Club (current rank: “Corporal”). When I put my mind to it, when I obsess over a single game, I’m good. But if I have a ton of games going I just make whatever move and then I very quickly whatever lose. I was determined to win this time. I kept joining new games. I kept bumping up against the four game limit and was desperate to pay for membership.

Screen Shot 2014-09-14 at 3.08.22 PM
Here’s a game I’m about to lose spread across Eurasia.

But I’ve held firm. I still haven’t paid. Nor have I won a game. But I’ve got another three games going, and a few more days I’ve allotted myself to play. We’ll see how my luck fares!

Join Conquer Club at your own risk. Probably best if you didn’t invite me to any games.

Sid Meier’s Civilization

This post is in the theme “A Long Waltz Through Nerddom”. Read the first.

August 9, Scituate: Sid Meier’s Civilization is the video game that I have played the longest. I started with Civilization I on our old DOS computer, then played years of Civ II with my best friend Chris (especially after we set up the multiplayer network in his house!). A few years ago I bought Civ IV and found myself re-addicted once again, on planes, in hotel rooms, passing the time on the road. Civilization is one of those games that can keep me up all night, processing orders, moving troops, just fixing a hundred tiny problems.

I still have Civ IV, but that wasn’t going to work for the Thirty-Three Project. I needed to go back to the source. So the first step was finding an old DOS version and then finding a DOS emulator, and then… installing the game to my C:/ drive! What fun, typing in “run civ.exe.” I’d forgotten all about copy protection on those old games; Civilization had its own system and would “test your knowledge” (make you look at the manual), about ten turns in. Luckily I’d memorized all those questions.

I kicked off as Ceasar, leader of the Romans.

Screen Shot 2014-08-02 at 6.11.27 PM

But man, had I forgotten how difficult this game could be. I’d turned cocky with all my Civ IV knowledge, and suddenly here I was in a pared down and vicious game! Quickly: The end.

Screen Shot 2014-08-02 at 6.39.25 PM

I responded just as young me would: I dialed down the hardness level to “Chieftain”, took my own name, and set myself up on Earth in North America. About six hours later, I’d conquered the world.

Screen Shot 2014-08-03 at 9.22.47 AM

Note that: Six hours! Just like old times, I stayed up until three o’clock in the morning. At 1am I said to myself, “Andrew, it’s late. You should go to bed at 1:15.” Then I repeated that a couple more times. I just couldn’t sop conquering the world, one troop movement at a time.

Screen Shot 2014-08-03 at 9.24.42 AM

I found that I miss much of the simplicity of Civilization I. The only impassable barriers are oceans and lakes (the stopping power of water!), the negotiations are simple, the knowledge building is pretty much single track. There are far fewer knobs and levers at the city level which makes the whole thing frankly easier. I do enjoy some of the later additions like cultural influence, but I didn’t miss them here. I’ll tell you what I did miss: automating troop movement. HOLY CRAP I SPENT SO MUCH TIME CLICKING MOVE BY MOVE. And when you’re moving an army of Armor into Africa from cities across Asia and the Middle East, well that just takes a ton of time. But it was time very enjoyably spent.

Play the old version! Download Boxer and the game.
Play the new version! Buy it here.

Oregon Trail

July 6, New York: What do we remember about Oregon Trail? Well, everyone remembers hunting buffalo and bears. Everyone remembers “[INSERT NAME] died of dysentery”. But what I had not remembered was how much learning was packed into this game. Of course, it makes sense, there had to be a reason why it was okay to plop teams of second graders in front of Apple IIEs for whole class periods just to play a video game. But there is so much learning!

I found a playable version online and settled in for an easy jaunt across the West. I took my wife, her siblings and the cat along with me.

Screen Shot 2014-06-28 at 10.31.46 AM

We started in Independence, Missouri and had to buy supplies. The first thing we learned was math.

Screen Shot 2014-06-28 at 10.34.29 AM

The learning didn’t stop there. Every decision we made was informed by historical fact. Every landmark we arrived at included an optional tour. Even the well-remembered hunting came with a poorly-remembered bit of context: you can only retrieve 100 pounds of food from every hunting trip, so if you shoot a bunch of buffalo in a single go, it’s wasted meat. A fellow traveler informs you they’re being hunted out of existence.

I also did not remember how to play this game well. I ran out of money almost immediately, took a lot of rests, and spent an ordinate amount of time hunting. I lollygagged my way across the West until suddenly it was November and it was snowing and fifty miles away from my nearest checkpoint I couldn’t repair a wagon axle and had to wait for someone to trade me for one. Each unsuccessful trade cost me a day and more food consumed. Fabulous the cat died first and then the deaths just kept piling on until I also perished.

Screen Shot 2014-06-28 at 3.39.15 PM

I had so much fun re-playing this game. It made me wish for an alternate universe in which Oregon Trail had just been the first in a long series of successful educational games that everyone played. Specific slices of history carved up into resource-management titles. How fun that even at 33 I am still learning details of the migration to Oregon from this simple decades-old piece of software?

You can play Oregon Trail on the Internet! Right now!