Saturday, December 30, 2017

Poker Solitaire Rubric

I've mentioned Poker Solitaire, the card game, to a few people lately (mostly when introducing them to my new polyhedral dice solitaire game, Throw Down Seven), but apparently not everyone is familiar with Poker Solitaire so I thought I'd give a run-down of it, the way I like to play.


Also known as Poker SquaresPoker Solitaire is a simple but challenging game with a nice mix of strategy and chance. I learned it from a book on card games, maybe one of the Hoyle books, decades ago. It's not as simple (and mindless) as Clock (click through for someone else's YouTube video that will give you an idea of the version of Clock that I grew up with), but it also has a nice tactile feel like Clock does. This is one reason I prefer to play it with real cards though there are many online and app versions available. The other reason is that none of the digital versions that I've found use my preferred scoring rubric. (I admit we adjusted the one from the original book slightly for more appropriate scoring, e.g. at only 2 points, pairs, were almost meaningless, but I get ahead of myself....)

Poker Solitaire can be played as a win/lose (binary outcome) game, like Clock, or it can be played for score. In Poker Solitaire you try for high score, unlike in Throw Down Seven where lower scores are better. Win/lose Poker Solitaire was featured in the old western TV series Maverick, from the late 1950's and early 1960's. It was in one of the episodes with James Garner, but I don't know which one. (Please let me know if you do!) I'm not sure if they played it as Jacks or Better, or some other level. I find it harder to win at that level than Clock, which you should win about 1 out of 13 tries. I'll sometimes play the win/lose version if I'm only playing one or two rounds, but generally I prefer to play five rounds at a time.  

So How Do You Play?

Simple, if you know your poker hands. Take a standard deck of  52 cards, shuffle it. Then draw cards from the top of the deck one at a time, placing them in (an imaginary) 5 x 5 grid. Once placed a card cannot be moved. (Apparently some people allow the location of the 5 x 5 grid to shift, but I call that cheating.) Like this:

Poker Solitaire (hand in progress)

You build 10 poker hands simultaneously, 5 horizontally and 5 vertically. In the picture above you can see that the second row has a flush and the first column has a full house. I'm building toward flushes in three of the other rows and hoping for two pairs, three of a kind, etc. in the other columns. (There's a long shot of a straight in the second column, and the best I can do in the fifth column is a pair at this point. The bottom row is usually trash, though you never know.)

What about Scoring?

As I said above, I like to play 5 rounds with a goal of scoring a total of 1,000 points, or an average of 200 points per round. That's a challenging mark. Here's the scoring rubric:

Hand            Points
Pair                  3 
2 Pair             10
3 Kind            20
Straight          25
Flush             25
Full House     40
4 Kind            60
St. Flush        75
Royal Flush  100

(Didn't get at least a pair in a hand? That's zero points, sorry.)

A perfect round is 775 points (4 Royal Flushes and a Straight Flush, with the 4 of a Kinds all lined up in columns but in practice rounds over 300 are very rare while it's easy to botch a round and score under 100.)

I haven't found an app or online version that let's me set the scoring system, but if you know of one I'd like to see it!

This is a good version for two players who don't want to compete against each other, you can alternate who plays a round and try to get to 500 together. The second time the other person will get to play three rounds.

Win or Lose Version

If you don't want to keep score you can try to get a certain level of hand, or better. I usually play this as Jacks or Better, but laying out 10 hands with at least a pair of Jacks or better is tough (for me, at least). No junk row! It's much easier if you play it as Ace High or Better, or Any Pair or Better.

Have fun!

Sunday, September 03, 2017

GenCon The Second, Part Last

Once More into the Fray...

None of the five of us, all strangers to each other save two, had braved the food truck lines as of Saturday morning, so face-painted Matt-the-game-runner took the first turn. We were playing "Truck Off: The Food Truck Frenzy" for the first time. It's a terrific board game where each player operates a food truck and chooses which venue to sell at (sporting event, convention, brew pub, etc.). From moment to moment you can cooperate or you can screw the others (I found this latter most entertaining). It also uses polyhedral dice, but only a little bit. I did not win. I did get the secret password, "roadkill", to get a discount to purchase a copy at the Adam's Apple Games booth, which I did. (This game was successfully Kickstarted for original delivery in March 2017.)

Here We Go A-Paneling

He was late but it was still too early in the day for Patrick Rothfuss as he hurried into the packed meeting room. The ticket-taker caught up with him half-way down the aisle, "Sir, do you have a ticket?"

"I'm on the panel," Rothfuss replied clearly through his full beard and hurried on. The room cracked up and the tension retreated.

Geoffrey Girard was also among the panelists. I listened to his Cain's Blood after seeing him at my last GenCon. He's good. Girard own's his New Jersey roots and only moments into the panel he was self-deprecating and deferring to Pat Rothfuss, touching him briefly on the shoulder. "Pat does not consent," came quickly from Rothfuss's mouth. And the tension gripped the room once more. Rothfuss let Girard off the hook shortly, but not before he'd squirmed just a bit.

They'd demonstrated more than they could have planned for this panel: Writer's Craft: Resolving Tension While Holding Interest. Susan J. Morris was moderator again. Other panelists were Maurice Broaddus and Leigh Perry.

Example of opening with tension: "They say he rode into town on a horse the color of milk but I saw him come out of the woods." (Attribution?)

Write small or go home - P. Rothfuss. You don't need death-stakes for tension.
It's about desire and what do you as a reader feel - M Broaddus

Rothfuss: watch out for false tension, it's like a wine glass placed near the edge of a table, it distracts focus as all seeing it worry it will fall and the other drama fades.

Tension needs release.

"Can't have tension without expectation," said Rothfuss, "and managing reader expectation is the hardest thing."

He also told us about "bathos", that it is half of dramatic tension (Wikipedia: bathos is associated with anticlimax, an abrupt transition from a lofty style or grand topic to a common or vulgar one. This may be either accidental (through artistic ineptitude) or intentional (for comic effect)). 

And then he plugged his Name of the Wind playing cards Kickstarter and offered preview art of the playing cards that could be shot and posted as selfies by us attendees. #NOTWArtDeck

Writer's Craft: Can a Hero Be Too Powerful? With Howard Tayler and I didn't note who all else. Short answer: Yes -- stories where the hero isn't vulnerable aren't very interesting, e.g. Superman without kryptonite, otherwise it has to be about the other characters.

My biggest takeaway was Howard's distinction among various types of good guys:
Hero - drives the plot forward
Protagonist - Has a story arc, i.e. character development, finds out who they are
Main Character - lots of focus on this person but they may have no power and may not have much of an arc, depending on who else does or what else the story is about

Writer's Craft: The art of Adding Details: Brandon Sanderson, Howard Tayler, Mary Robinette Kowal with Steve Diamond moderating.

So this was essentially an unrecorded Writing Excuses podcast (missing Dan Wells, but they are often missing one or more cast members). It was sometimes silly and always fun, but still managed a few pearls.

Details: Focus -  Internal motivation. Breath of Rhythm - Meaningful motivation

Tone, Pacing.

Mary gave nice examples of how details can change a scene: 
1) He entered the room, there was a blonde sitting in a chair.
2) He entered the room, there was a blonde sitting in a chair with legs that went on for miles.

Zelazney: provide 2 details about a character, maybe later add a third.
Readers will fill in the rest, if the action is rich enough.

Exercise: take some of your own writing and pull out all the adjectives and adverbs. Put back just one or two per page. See which is better.

Scaffold and Fade (quoted from Kelly McCullough). Provide a few details and then just hint at the world around those details. Especially with dialect in dialog -- if you keep it up and keep it true it gets tiresome and distracting, but sprinkle them in to keep the characterization, distinction, and tone.

Writer's Craft: How to Write Micro and Flash Fiction with Karen Bovenmyer. This was a small seminar and Bovenmyer had PowerPoint slides, which was great. I wish more of these sessions would use visual aids. She has published a bunch of micro and flash fiction (typically under 500 words and 500 - 1500 words, respectively, though definitions vary and other terms and constraints are widely used). She also has a fresh novel out.

Someone said that of the 3 facets of story, character, setting and plot, a given flash fiction only really gets to explore any two of them -- but that may have been a different panel.

Bovenmyer uses the 7 point plot structure popularized by Dan Wells. The one time I really tried to use it I ended up with a 15,000 word novella, but she says it works. I plan to try. I liked her layout. The plot points appear in the story in numerical order, but you generally try to identify them in the order tagged by the letters, i.e. A then B then C, etc.:

1. Hook           (A)  Something to grab the reader
2. Plot Point I   (D)  Reveal of what the story is about
3. Pinch I        (F)  Bad thing happens/complicating
4. Midpoint       (C)  Characters commit to what's happening
5. Pinch II       (G)  Big bad thing, building to climax
6. Plot Point II  (E)  Climax itself, growth, attain power to win
7. Resolution     (B)  How things work out, or don't

I'll give a high level outline of her presentation, but not the details, you should really get that from her.

Character - what do they want (really?) why can't they have it. POV?
Language - engage the senses, evoke emotion through word choice
Setting - story could not take place elsewhere
Balance - short -- need to show but have to tell sometimes. Get in, get it done, get out
Editing - Sit on it first, cut 10%
Let it fly - get critique group feedback. Cry. Revise. Submit to pubs. Cry. Revise? Believe.

I was saturated. Left the Con for the night and picked up a local pizza en route back to my La Quinta home. Revised my piece for Sunday's professional critique. Fought with the hotel printer a bit. Channel surfed, and slept.

Everyone's a Critic

Sunday morning I read aloud two minutes worth from my WIP (Work In Progress) to two published authors and seven other writers who had brought something to be professionally critiqued. It was less painful than it could have been. (I've done this before. Still not easy.) Everyone got a crap sandwich -- some good comments, then some bad comments, followed by some good comments. Things which came up with more than one author went up on the wall.

I celebrated by hitting the expo again. I bought dice, including a 30 sided one. I got a free GenCon50 die with a coupon. I collected another button or two for my lanyard (note the Dicey Peaks one from when I played on the Expo floor a couple days earlier.)

Shortly after noon I pointed my car south. Despite total eclipse watchers gathering in Tennessee and slowing Nashville traffic to a crawl, it was a sedate drive. After the last four days at GenCon50 almost anything would be.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

GenCon The Second, Part Two

No Dice

I was scheduled to play Dicenstein on Friday morning, but the other players were no-shows. So I watched the previous round finish up and read through the rules. Waaaay too complicated for me. I still had some time before my writing panels began so I started a systematic perusal of the exhibit hall. There are some 29 aisles and each one took about 10 minutes -- if all you did was browse along.

A Panel

Writer's Craft: How to Write an Amazing First Page (Susan J Morris (mod), Dan Wells, Leigh Perry, Marco Palmieri, Dave Mack)

Dan: Don't worry too much about the first page at first.

Leigh (who writes cozy mysteries with a skeleton sidekick): Get your (dead) body out there as soon as possible.

Marco (editor): likes to be dropped in the middle of things without preamble: total immersion; challenge readers to keep up.

Some like to be grabbed by the throat, some like to start with dialog (to get the characters rolling)
Emotion. visceral. Double duty: show the promise/genre, e.g. magic (for fantasy), tech (for sci-fi).

Ground the reader pretty quickly, if not the first page then the first (short) chapter.

Great first lines: 

"The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel." – William Gibson, Neuromancer.

'He punched the door with a code combination, and awaited face check. It came promptly; the door dilated, and a voice inside said, "Come in, Felix."' -- Robert Heinlein, Beyond this Horizon (cheating here, that's 2 sentences, a full paragraph. And, heaven forbid, a semi-colon. I guess things were different in 1942.)

"The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed." Stephen King, The Dark Tower.

Make the reader want answers. Start with dramatic tension -- readers will read on without knowing exactly what's going on.

Too Many Panels

I walked past a long row of food trucks with lines up to yar and on to lunch at the 24 hour Steak'N'Shake. It was booming but I grabbed a stool at the counter without a wait. They were handling the crowd with aplomb, yes-sirree Bob. Then back for two panels and a reading. 

The first was Writer's Life: An Introvert's Guide to Interacting with the Public. Sandra Tayler was sage.

The reading was Ilana C. Myer and Sandra Tayler. A very small audience of about 7 of us. Highly recommended because we got insights into the evolution of the things they read.

The next panel wasn't part of the Writing Symposium, it was over in the Convention Center (the Symposium was in meeting rooms of the Westin hotel, attached to the CC by a skywalk). Immoral Women in RPGs  and Why We Need More of Them. It was packed but largely lost on me. Margaret Weis, a big name apparently in early Role Playing Game design was there, I think folks came to hear her.

Beware the Kickstarter, My Son

(Always with the apologies to Lewis Carroll)

I had a bit of a Hero's Journey of my own just to find my next presentation, Kickstarting your Game, Book or Film 101. It was at the Crowne Plaza hotel on the far side of the convention center. The Plaza was converted from the old central railway station with some rooms still in train cars and the architecture is of massive steel girders. My meeting room was in the farthest basement corner. 

It was worth the trek. A trio of funding-woes weary Canadian game and film producers from Lynnvander told the several of us all about losing money through successfully funded Kickstarter campaigns.Kickstarter takes 5% off the top, Amazon payments another 3%. If you use a pledge manager (like PledgeManager, Backerkit or Stripe), and you should, that's another 5 to 8 percent. 

If you account for those, the one that most first-timers don't see coming is the delinquent accounts. Credit cards that expired or got canceled between pledge and funding -- and they don't feel like ponying up for that super-double-deluxe package they signed up for. Count on another 2%.

And shipping will kill you. If you include it in the pledge you pay fees on it, too, so a $10 postage stamp costs you more like $12. Count on $11 to $16 to ship a two pound game within the continental US. What to do about a problem like Hawaii? (and Alaska?) More campaigns are handling shipping as extra after the pledging.

Give yourself at least a 15% cushion if you just hit your goal. You're gonna need it.

On the up side, if you blow past your funding goal you look super successful. on the down side if you sell a lot of copies of a game via Kickstarter then no stores will want to stock it. And 1,500 is about a minimum print run for a game, in order to get a good price from the (presumably Chinese) manufacturer. (Lynnvander had a bad print run, ended up telling the backers to throw them in the trash and Lynnvander paid for a second manufacturing run out of their own pockets -- your Kickstarter reputation will follow you, for good or ill. Oh, and so will your Kickstart, you'll be answering emails for years. Tell everybody what's happening every step of the way. It will make (almost) everyone less cranky.)

Consider paying for art, like box cover art, yourself up front. Shows everyone you have skin in the game and you can use it on your Kickstarter page. And backers love the pie chart that shows where their money is going.

Board Game Geek is a great resource. These guys were funny and forthcoming. And they've kept their bank accounts above water, unlike others who have used the next Kickstarter to pay for the shortfalls in the prior one.  Uh-oh.

Your mileage may vary.

Writing Excuses LIVE!

I made my way back to the friendly and familiar surrounds of the Westin, determined never to run my own Kickstarter, The recording sessions for the Writing Excuses podcast had sold out before I got my tickets but I got in as overflow part way through the first hour. The full regular cast was present: Brandon Sanderson, Howard Tayler, Mary Robinette Kowal and Dan Wells. This season they are interviewing experts in things other than writing. I saw a falconer (Larry Dixon), a street artist (Illus), a rap producer (Wild Style) and a lawyer whose name escapes me. All good shows. They ended after 8:00 pm.

I called it a night.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

GenCon The Second


I like dice. I'm not a gamer -- not a larping, cosplaying, role-embracing, miniature painting, up-all-night D&D-er. But I do like dice. I'm designing a polyhedral dice solitaire game. Maybe two. And I like board games. And I wanted another chance to discover new games and to hang out with writerly folks and friends from Writing Excuses and to hear wise instruction and tales from living-making authors. So I traveled to GenCon again this year.

It was bigger than ever. Mostly that meant more crowded, even though they spread things out more, too, more, that is, than the other time I attended, which was 2015. But I'm getting ahead of myself. First there was The Journey, a leisurely six hour drive to Indianapolis with a stop in Louisville for some Skyline Chili. I listened to a small portion of The Wise Man's Fear by Patrick Rothfuss. It's 36 CDs long, so when I say a small portion I mean about a twelfth.

It turned out I drove a little too leisurely, forgetting that Indianapolis, despite being almost due north of Huntsville, is eastern time; so instead of checking in to my hotel first I went straight to the Indianapolis Table Tennis Club. I played a good couple of hours there and then headed back to the other side of town and my La Quinta home for the next 4 nights.

Like all the area hotels it was sold out largely with GenCon attendees. I smiled to see the lobby full of gamers gaming. Even the desk clerk had done her hair blue for the occasion. It was late and I went straight to bed after showering and eating and channel surfing for a couple of hours.

On to the Show

I really wish my first Writer's Symposium panel had been truer to its title: Writing 101: The Basics -- From POV to Punctuation. At one point Kelly Swails (moderator) started to dive into something, maybe dialogue attribution and when you could skip including "she said" and the like but quickly stopped herself saying that was more like Writing 201. Exhale. We did get some story and self-motivation basics:

Persistence, Time, Discipline. Know what the characters want. Know what the villains are planning to do. (Eric Scott DeBie)

First Draft: What you want to say (Heart). Final Draft: How you want to say it (Head)(Howard Andrew Jones).

Starting reluctance means the scene isn't right (work your outline?) Read. Look at grammar and sentence structure in what you read. Butt in chair. "I won't screw this scene up if I don't write it." Allow yourself to write a bad story. (Swails)

Time management. Write for yourself first. (Dan Wells)

Panel Two: Real Monsters and Vicious Animals (Elizabeth Vaughn, Larry Corriea, Christopher Husberg, Eric Scott De Bie)

Do description through POV reaction.
Use other senses (than sight).
Contrast the mundane with monsters.
More on YouTube than most of us can stand. Shaved bear. Cryptozoology. Wikipedia.
Perception gets blurry in a fight -- go a little bit random and sparing.
Action scenes can be wordy and okay but really wordy can confuse a reader. Movies have the luxury of dragging a viewer forward to the next scene, words on a page can't.

Quick Trip to the Convention Floor

After two panels I had a break and hit the exhibit hall. It is huge. Hundreds of vendors and thousands of people. I found Howard Tayler's booth and chatted with him briefly while he drew. I bought the well-worn version of the Schlock Mercenary Maxims book. Howard signed it for me. Then I found Brandon Sanderson and Dan Wells' booth and bought some of Dan's audio books. Later I had him sign them for me.

Next I went to the Calliope Games booth. I had backed a Kickstarter for a new game called Dicey Peaks. The game wasn't expected until October but had come in early and they had arranged pick up and demo games at GenCon, which was sweet. I picked up my signed copy and later got to play a round with the game's designer, Scott Almes. I did not win. But I did get to ask him whether there was a way to play it as solitaire. He said there was no official variant in the rules but that you could play and try to minimize the number of turns it takes to plant your flag atop the mountain. Did I mention I'm designing my own solitaire dice game? Cool to get to talk on the subject with an accomplished designer.

More Panels

Worldbuilding: Creating a Universe of Worlds (Susan J. Morris, Brandon Sanderson, James Sutter, Dave Mack, Marco Palmieri)

I was here, like dozens of others, to get a dose of Brandon Sanderson, but as usual everyone was terrific. In particular Susan J. Morris is a great moderator. Marco is also an editor so brings that perspective.

How to avoid info dumps? Have a newbie/fish-out-of-water character that has to have other characters explain stuff to them. or just bring stuff in gradually, sci-fi/fantasy readers don't need everything clear from the get-go.

Brandon: A grand skill is to be informative AND entertaining.

Avoid tokenism, consider having more than one character from a culture and show differences and similarities.

James Sutter is with Paizo who's new science fantasy role playing game, Starfinder, dropped on Thursday. Their booths had hundreds of people in line all day to pick up copies.

Writer's Craft: Are You Overthinking the Story (Kelly McCullough, Richard Lee Byers, Beth Cato, ??)

Stay in writer brain for first draft, keep editor brain at bay.

World building iceberg -- only a seventh may end up visible in the story but the rest needs to be there, but not fully formed. How much? Who knows...

Stuck on a scene? Look at it from another (tertiary) character's point of view.

I'm interested to check out Beth Cato's Breath of Earth.

Not To Be Missed

An Evening with Patrick Rothfuss

He sold out the large ballroom, so 1,000 or more seats and it filled. Once again he had us agree to not share the grittier details of his regalations, but if you get the chance, he is funny and real. A good storyteller. He's a relatively new parent and has found new connections with parents, the way he had with geeks before that -- just another tribe.

He also asserted, strongly, something that I had already settled on in my mind: in stories, you don't have to kill people for drama. There doesn't have to be horrible death to make a story compelling. You need tension, and stakes, but it doesn't have to be gruesome and final. Especially not for works targeted for all ages. He had some psychology to back up why it might not be good.

He also had some psych on why "spoiling" very young children is a good thing. The young brain decides what kind of world it lives in: nurturing and safe or cutthroat and dangerous. It gets ingrained and manifests in "do unto others". (My words, but I think I got the meaning.)

Late Dinner

Me and some of my fellow Writing Excuses Retreat alumni met Dan Wells for dinner about 10:00 pm at the Ram restaurant. They had reprinted their menus just for GenCon (this con is a big deal for downtown Indianapolis). I had the occasionally named "Fry Haddock and Release the Dogs of War". It was delicious. They had also swapped the in-house TVs from their normal sports fare to showing Bladerunner. It had been a long day and dinner was cozy but sedate.

It was followed by my 15 minute drive to La Quinta and a much shorter session of channel surfing.