Tuesday 28 April 2020

Where's the Conversation?

This is my eighteenth post for Blapril 2020, the latest incarnation of the annual Blaugust blogging festival that the Leaflocker has been a proud member of the last few years. I am well behind schedule, but that's nothing new, and I'm still enjoying keeping more-or-less up to date with what others have been creating over the month. This has led me to sign up to a collaborative game of Civ VI being oranised by Naithin, so look out for more on that topic soon.
I've been appending some variation of this footer to the last few posts after being inspired by similar notices on other people's blogs. Back in the days when Blaugust was big on rules and you 'had' to have something like it I used to find it an imposition, but this time around I'm finding it a good addition, even if my blogger quote version isn't as attractive as the sort of thing that people are doing over on their wordpress sites.

As I alluded to earlier in the month, I'm a little bit too much of a rebel to enjoy being told that I have to do things a certain way, and that extends to little things like this, but now that I can include it as an optional extra if I want to without feeling like I'm going to lose internet points if I don't, I'm finding the footer a useful tool. Not only does it force me to stay up to date with what others are writing if I want to find someone else's post to link to, which is a handy reminder if I've slipped behind, but it also provides a nice jumping off point if my readers want to keep exploring Blaugust instead of being trapped at the Leaflocker, which has helped me to feel more of a sense of community about the whole thing.

Today, though, I stuck the footer in and realized that the footer and what I'd been planning to talk about were inextricably linked, and it didn't really make sense as a footer anymore. I guess it's a header this time. With that prelude out of the way, then, let's start the post...

Where's the Great Conversation Post?

Last week was a bit of a disaster on the creativity and productivity fronts. I'd say it was a bit rubbish on pretty much every front, but given that so many people that we know and hear about around the world are struggling so much, the fact that we've been having headaches or sleeping poorly or feeling lethargic but are still together and well fed and generally healthy seems to be taking the piss a little bit.

Nevertheless, I haven't had a good week for doing things in general and the blog in particular. No posts since last Tuesday, not even any slow progress on drafts, just a slowly mounting pile of potential topics, most of which are video game related, which is not exactly surprising given the way that games are definitely the way that I've been spending most of my time. When I go into shut-down mode like this I tend to retreat into old familiar games for extended binge periods, and this time has been no different.

Lately my go-to game has been Slay the Spire, a deck-builder that I only got into in the last few months and which I am distinctly terrible at. The battles often make for fun little puzzles, with the added advantage of them being randomly generated, meaning that there isn't necessarily a 'right' way to do them, and when I stumble across a deck that really works it makes me feel extremely smart. It also has the added advantage of being an easy game to play with one hand while lying in bed, which is a big plus when I'm just not feeling it.

Mahjong never stops being a distraction. Last weekend I played in the first week of the new ARMA league, a nine-week long online team competition being run by the Australian riichi scene, and then watched the other games and participated in the after-show analysis, which ate a significant portion of the weekend. Thankfully my game wasn't on the stream since it went terribly for me, but I still learnt a lot from talking about my games with good players and learnt more about some higher-level concepts to try and incorporate into my play.

Add into the mix reinstalling Civilisation VI in preparation for the co-op game, never a great idea for productivity (I've had it back on this machine for three days and it's been running almost constantly in that time) and it's a wonder I have time to get any work done at all.

My humble monthly just dropped for the month, so I was able to gift a friend with Optus Magnum, so I need to try and improve my scores so that she thinks I'm smart. I just picked up Chimera Squad, too, and XCOM games are famous time sinks. Honestly, I might have to give up eating and sleeping just to get all these games played. Blogging will just have to wait a little bit longer.

Tuesday 21 April 2020

A Love Letter to Saboteur

Games night this week saw a return to boardgamearena.com, which has quickly become our home base on Monday nights.

We started out with what I had assumed would be a quick game of Love Letter while we were gathering players, but I hadn't counted on either my player's unfamiliarity with the game slowing it down far too much, or on BGA using the 'premium' 5-8 player rules, which I'd never met until I was suddenly and unexpectedly thrust into teaching them to new players;na frustrating experience for everyone involved.
Love Letter wasn't necessarily a completely intuitive game in the first place, indeed a lot of the attraction comes in puzzling out the competing relationships and strengths and weaknesses of the different combination various cards for yourself as you play, but a few things about this implementation haven't helped the learning process. The original rule book, as well as being insanely cute, has extremely clear detailed descriptions of each of the card interactions, as well as having well-written descriptions on the cards themselves. In this version, a shorthand iconographic notation which might work as a reminder but does nothing to help a new player has been used on the cards instead (possibly this is included in some international versions of the game, so it might not be BGA's fault). On top of that, the rules written on the board have been shortened so far as to lose their meaning, so they don't make the situation any better.

The extra cards themselves, though? They are very cool, speeding up the game overall and creating more of the supremely satisfying what-just-happened-there moments which are where Love Letter shines. Definitely an improvement over the double-base-deck version that I was expecting we would be playing when I suggested the game, even if they do make for a considerably more complex game to teach.
Next up we played a couple of palate-cleansing games of 7 Wonders, which I wouldn't normally mention further since I've talked at length about this always excellent in the past, but one of the games was a little notable. I was playing as Giza, and realised early on in the second age that since I'd missed out of the marketplace cards and neither of my neighbours had built any stone at all, I was going to have to shell out for the two-stone quarry if I wanted to finish building my wonder, bringing my stone production to an excessive 5. A little later on, with none of the other players having realised their predicament just yet, I was able to tuck the second quarry under my wonder. The outcome of this was that a number of players had access to either only one piece or even no access at all to stone for love or money. A similar situation has also arisen with the cloth supply, which all resulted in a wildly uneven game where those who had free builds or gotten lucky in the resource lottery did very well, and some other players, even those with otherwise fine resource bases and stacks of cash, had a terrible final round (one player had two turns in which they could do nothing and another two where they only had one option.). I have played more than 100 games of 7 Wonders, and I don't remember ever seeing one like this.
Finally, the remaining six of us played Saboteur. Personally I think six players is one fewer than the ideal number of players for this hidden traitor card game, but we made it work. BGA actually has a handy option to force there to be the maximum number of saboteurs, which I would say is a must for a six-player game to give the bad guys a chance, but unfortunately I missed it when setting up the game, as I was dazzled by the number of variant rules on offer. One house rule that isn't enforceable, but that I think greatly improves the game, is to force players to play cards if they can and to only discard if they have literally no other option, but we enforced this via a gentleman's agreement, and it worked well. The highlight was the moment when the miners, having uncovered and neutered the saboteurs early on, debated the wisdom of potentially deliberately fixing their opponent's equipment in order to force them to play useful cards where we needed them, which wouldn't have ultimately worked but made for an interesting thought experiment that wouldn't have otherwise been possible in a game that I generally feel like I've played out.

All in all, it was another enjoyable, well executed Monday night games night. The games are just the oil for the wheel of conversation, of course, but it helps when they add to the fun rather than just stressing everybody out as they wrestle with technology and mechanics.
This was my seventeenth post in Blapril 2020, the latest incarnation of the annual Blaugust blogging festival that the Leaflocker has been a proud member of the last few years. Do check out some of the posts that others have been creating over the month. I'm looking forward to seeing what Stargrace does with their new socking knitting machine!

Monday 20 April 2020

Image Problems

I don't tend to go near the blog on Sundays, but today I got a message from a friend who was reading my post about making acorn coffee that I posted earlier in the week who was asking what was wrong with the images on that post.

Sure enough, when I headed to the site myself, some (but not all) of the images on that post and a number of the other posts from the past few weeks had disappeared from the Leaflocker and been replaced with the dreaded missing image icon. I figured that it was just an internet issue or some kind of temporary problem with Blogspot, but as the hours passed and they pictures didn't come back, I figured that I'd better try and fix them.

Strangely enough, all of the images that are missing are Blogspot hosted images that are still visible when I look a the blog's image album, which at least means that they were all pretty easy to restore, but makes it even odder that they've all disappeared from the blog. There doesn't seem to be any rhyme or reason to which images have been affected, either.

When things like this happen, it makes me think again about possibly looking into some more permanent or premium hosting for the Leaflocker than the ever-precarious-seeming Blogspot, as I'd miss it if it suddenly disappeared or a I lost some of the things that I've posted here over the last ten years, even if no-one else would. The idea that the blog has outlasted about 5 computers and numerous harddrives makes me think I really ought to put some thought into preserving it better than I have the rest of the places that I've kept my precious memories, which is so say, not at all.

Then I remember that this is only maybe the second time that I've actually lost content on blogger over the last ten years, and that for a service that I don't have to pay for it really is remarkably stable, and I figure I can risk hosting it here for a little bit longer. Blogspot's frustrating interface and limitations might annoy me every time I actually try to attempt consistent formatting or to do anything more than just shove some words and pictures down higgeldy-piggeldy, but it's been a good home to me for a long time now, and as long as this sort of thing doesn't become a regular occurrence, I'm not going to be rushing out to change it just yet.

Guess I'm spending the last little while going through the last little bit of the archive trying to restore what images I can, though. If you notice a file missing somewhere around here, do let me know.

This was my sixteenth post for Blapril 2020, the latest incarnation of the annual Blaugust blogging festival that the Leaflocker has been a proud member of the last few years. Do check out some of the posts that others have been creating over the month. One of the things I enjoy about Blaugust is vicariously experiencing people's adventures in games I'm never likely to pick up myself, and my favourite post for today was this one by Kluwes over on I'm not Squishy, which managed to make a game that I have always been utterly uninterested in sound like the kind of thing that I just might want to try out, with the right group.

Saturday 18 April 2020

Leaflocker Cryptic 003

Following just three months after the last Leaflocker Cryptic, here's the latest installment in the series. Pour yourself a cup of tea and give it a go, then let me know what you thought in the comments. 

Click on the image to enlarge, or download it in .puz format  or as a printable PDF.

Edit 19/4: Fixed error in clue for 1D. Thanks, M Cats for noticing it!

Thursday 16 April 2020

Acorn Coffee

One of my targets for this month-long blogging festival was to complete as many of the posts from the last Blaugust that I planned but never got around to completing as I could. When Blaugust rolled around last year we'd just moved from Oxford to Southampton, and were particularly enjoying the novelty of having the wonderful Southampton Common, a lovely rambling public park on our doorstep. To celebrate, I was hoping to do a series of posts about collecting various edible bits and pieces from the park and turning them into delicious goodies. This plan didn't eventuate as we gorged ourselves on blackberries (Mrs Owl more than me, as is our custom), but that's about it, except for a slowly-growing bowl of acorns that we collected by our kitchen window. 

That post never happened, but the acorns have been sitting there taunting me, growing slowly older and occasionally smaller as I threw out the obviously mouldy and wormy ones. And here we are, on a sunny afternoon in April, and I've decided that I'm going to do something with them: it's acorn coffee time. Sadly, we don't have all that many acorns left, but hopfully it'll be enough for a trial run, and if it's terrible at least I won't have needlessly deprived the local squirrels of too many lunches.

I first heard of acorn coffee being drunk by desperately under-provisioned confederate soldiers in the Starbuck series. The Starbuck books (Rebel, Copperhead, Battle Flag and Bloody Ground) are possibly the most Bernard Cornwall of all the Bernard Cornwall books, so if you like the sort of thing where the ragged but dashing apolitical but caught in the wrong place at the wrong time bad-boy hero beats the baddies and the fancy boys, wins the war and gets the girl, a genre that I admit I have a bit of a sort spot for, you can do a lot worse. If you search acorn coffee online you do seem to get a lot of hits from civil war reenactors and the like, a few posts saying boring things like "don't eat acorns they're poison", but not a whole lot of links to people actually selling it as if it's the sort of thing that people would actually want to put in their bodies, which isn't a great sign, but we've started the post and we're committed now, so we gotta follow through.

First things first, pop your acorns in a pan and boil them for quarter of an hour or so, to soak off some of the poisonous tannin stuff and to kill any bugs that you've somehow missed in the last few months.  This was a good chance to use this pan, which Mrs. Owl brought back from India and is useless for almost everything, since anything and everything sticks to it and it's impossible to keep clean. I think we only keep it because it seems cruel to inflict it on someone else.

Drain off your acorns and proceed to shell them. This could take a long time if you had a big pile of acorns, but with this many it was pretty easy, especially since these acorns are all getting a little old and soft. Most of them I could easily pull apart with my fingers, and those that I couldn't could be cut into with a kitchen knife easily enough. The nuts produced ranged all over the grey-brown-black colour spectrum, but mostly seemed solid and, I guess, nutty, so that seemed hopeful.

Roast the nuts until they smell like roasted, earthy nuts, I had them on for about 10 minutes, and then coarsely grind. Sadly, my mortar and pestle is in storage on another continent, but we have a stab mixer with a chopping attachment that works pretty well for this sort of stuff. It went a little weird and discouloured a few years ago when we were making gingerbread and can't be cleaned properly, but it still cuts and it's stopped infusing everything that you put in it with nutmeg, so it does the job. At this point, the grind smells almost like nutmeg, but it has nothing to do with the mixer, it's all the acorns!

Lightly roast the grind again, being careful not to burn it. Once the edges start going a darker brown, grab the whole thing out of the oven. I think I left mine in a little bit too long when I got distracted reading Plato, which gave the whole thing a strong smoky aroma, but I think I rescued it just in time. 

Grind again, then serve like you would coffee. I imagine pretty much any coffee-brewing method would work as long as you can get the grind about right. Unfortunately, we're not coffee family, and I don't have a coffee pot at home, and I'm not quite sure how I managed to get this far along in the process before I realised this slight snag in the plan. I tried using a tea-ball, but I'd already ground my 'coffee' fine enough for filters , so it more or less went strgiht though. In desperation, I emptied some tea bags in the pot, refilled them with my grind and stapled them closed again.

Here it is, the moment of truth. I make a few cups, one with sugar, one without, one with milk, and force Mrs Owl, who doesn't like coffee but does like trying new things, especially if they're a little bit out of left field, to take a short coffee break and act as guinea pig. She proclaimed the smell 'smoky, like Russian Caravan', the first taste 'not like poison', and eventually opted for the milky option, which she said tasted like 'a mix of coffee, tea and wood, but in a nice way' and 'better than coffee, at least'. Most importantly, she said she'd happily try it again, which I though was pretty encouraging.

For myself, I found the black coffee to be a little weak (possibly something that could be overcome by just using more), but generally pleasant, without the sharpness of coffee but with a lot the same bitter and sour notes, especially in the aftertaste, and I also opted for a slightly sweetened option with milk (the same way I take my coffee normally). I found this to be reminiscent of a homemade mocha of  instant coffee and hot chocolate: I definitely wouldn't say that it was better than coffee, but it hit a lot of the same buttons. I would also happily try it again sometime, which is a little unfortunate because we probably only have enough left for about one more cup each and it's a long time until the acorns start dropping again. 

Assuming that this isn't the last post on the Leaflocker when we both drop dead later this afternoon, we're definitely going to have to pick up a lot more acorns next year; so if you see a couple of people scouring Southampton Common next August or so, do come and say hi!

This was my fourteenth post for Blapril, the latest incarnation of the annual Blaugust blogging festival that the Leaflocker has been a proud member of the last few years. Do check out some of the posts that others have been creating, especially if you're interested in the daily adventures of the gamerfolk. I've been enjoying Dextraneous' ongoing Pokemon review series since he began it, and he's just reached the end of the first generation, showing no signs of slowing down.

Wednesday 15 April 2020

Any game that has a mummy in it

It's hard to remember how long we've been in lockdown, now. What month is it? What year? It's starting to feel like the only constant is Monday Night Games. We had a chance to try out a couple of new board game implementations on Board Game Arena this week, after I decided to put a few bucks towards their extraordinarily reasonable annual subscription, which allows you to play even more games from their already generous selection with any-number of non-premium members.

First up, 7 Wonders, which was a regular event back in the days when we were allowed to see each other since it is a relatively in-depth game that can support up to seven players. It can look and feel daunting to newbies, though, as it has a lot of bits and pieces and often takes nearly as much time to set and to pack up as to play. The BGA implementation not only comes with no set-up time, but also has handy tool-tip explanations of all of the sometimes obscure iconography, presents all the options clearly, gives the players all sorts of useful information about what they can and cannot afford, and also greatly simplifies working out who around the table is doing what (a process that can be a bit of a challenge when sitting around a table). I thought this was excellent all-around on my wide-screen monitor, but some players did struggle with seeing information about what was going on on other player's boards, especially at the higher player counts, so it might not be perfect for everyone. We blitzed through two games in no time at all (there are only 18 simultaneous turns, after all, so it's not a long game when you don't have to do any cardboard-handling) and everyone had a god time, so this excellent implementation is likely to be added to our regular rotation.

A slightly less barn-storming implementation is the one provided for Diamant, found on BGA under the older title of Incan Gold. I was originally introduced to the game using the old name and artwork and feel a certain nostalgic fondness for them, but players who had only seen the newer artwork were rather put off by the old aesthetic. I also found myself missing the in/out meeples instead of the clumsy cards and the player colour-coded chests, but neither of these clear improvements were present in Incan Gold board game, so I guess it makes sense that I faithful reproduction wouldn't use them. All that could be overlooked for the sake of the game, which works perfectly well, but unfortunately, some pretty poor design choices have been made in the creation of the implementation itself which make it frustrating to play. The gems, which had a satisfying jade, topaz and obsidian quality to them in the tabletop game, have been changed to a garish neon green. Many actions happen one-by-one instead of simultaneously, killing off a lot of the suspense and sudden take-that moments that are the thing that usually give this game it's real stand-out tense atmosphere. The expeditions display is bugged, confusing players about how many turns they have remaining to score points in. And displaying the player scores in an arial font on the player cards (but not in the middle, so that people usually miss it) is just ugly. Overall, I think this is probably a pretty dated implementation that could be greatly improved by a little bit of a facelift, which I hope that it gets at some point, because Diamant is a good little game that more people ought to know about. I suspect we'll keep playing it now and then because it fills a good niche, but the downsides listed above prevent it from being the hit that 7 Wonders definitely was.

It seems like BGA is here to stay, then, and as more and more of the gang get accounts, the barriers to entry become lower and lower. So far we've been keeping to well-trod paths, but I hope to branch out a little in the coming weeks to teaching people a couple of games that I know well, like Puerto Rico and Sushi Go!, and even maybe even launching into games that I know by reputation but have never gotten a chance to try out, like Race for the Galaxy. I reckon that teaching something from scratch will be a much more challenging and imprecise process that doing so in person, but it seems like this is going to be the shape of our life here for a little while yet, so I suspect I'll have plenty of time to perfect my method.

Happy gaming!

Monday 13 April 2020

Gandalf, dwarves, just missing Mr Baggins!

Today's post is part 2 of the tale of my first steps into the world of Lord of the Rings online, the only MMO that I have any interest in playing, because I am a sucker for that sweet Tolkien juice.

I am still working out the camera controls.
My first moments in middle earth, and I am immediately accosted by a behatted fellow and instructed that I need to hang out with him for a bit. So here we are, presumably starting out in a flashback, for a couple of cameo appearances from Thorin and Company so that we can get our first big hit of that I'm really in the Lord of the Rings feeling. Then I meet my first non-canon character, who Thorin evidently trusts despite his name being Dourhand, so I'm pretty sure that I can can mark him down as someone I'm going to have to fight before the end of the tutorial right now.

Maybe I'm not a great listener, but it took me quite a few goes to get used to the targeting system used for both talking to folks and attacking things in LoTRO. My first forays into the mines to fight some rats is an even worse struggle with the controls for targeting and camera controls than usual, but thankfully that's utterly irrelevant since it seems like my character heals fast than these things can damage me and I have 100s of hit points, so there's plenty of time to experiment. I experiment a little with my skills, too, since they're available even though I haven't been told about them yet, but none of them seem all that much more effective that just clicking on heads and waiting for things to die just yet.

After fighting a good number of rats and getting to watch the cinematics for a bit, I prepare myself to help Gimli fight a mountain troll, which seems like quite an escalation for a level two character, but at this point it seems like I'm going to need something that big to provide a challenge. Just as I'm about to leap into the fray Gandalf saves the day, though, so I don't get a chance to find out just how many hit points a hit from something like that can do to me. I'm guessing it's a lot, but presumably I'm going to have to fight a lot more rats until I get to that point.

The timeskip ends suddenly, catapulting forward in time, and I'm a bit worried that I missed something in the tutorial, as I only got the very basics of talking to NPCs, using the inventory and hitting stuff with my knife, still nothing about using skills, grouping up, interacting with other players or anything else. Then I hang out with the sons of Elrond for a bit and realise that I'm still in the tutorial, such as it is, after all when I finally get some skills training, which consists of buy skill, press button, profit. Welp, that's something, I guess.

I get lost on my the way to my first quest that doesn't have a flashing icon right in front of me when I go for a run down the mountain. Eventually I more or less work out the basics of using the minimap, but I'm sure they could have made things more obvious; already the lack of some quality of life features that people talk about when discussing LotRO are becoming evident.There are some mobs down here, but they're very passive, I can sit there and beat up their friends right next to them and they'll just sit there politely until I decide it's their turn to be attacked. I assume that this is just a setting for the beginning areas, because otherwise walking around middle-earth is going to prove to be very boring very quickly.

Sure, they're evil, but you have to admire what they've done with the place.
I complete a couple of basic fetch quests and meet up with Dwalin and Dourhand again, and surprise surprise, it looks like the fellow with the obviously evil name has some kind of dark secret cult thing going on over here. Guess I'm going to have to break that up soon, but for now I get to play it friendly with everyone. Dwalin and his buddies send me to fight some poisoned bears and I collect some antidotes to heal up some fellows who've suddenly gotten very sleepy while fighting off a bunch of meanie dwarves, and then I take a rest myself (unsure if this was a new mechanic that I was being introduced to) and Galadriel takes me off to a cutscene dreamland for some sweet cinematic prophetic visions. All properly epic.

Somewhere along to way I pick up this ridiculous hat, which isn't very dwarvish to my eyes, but is very minstrel, so of course I equipped it and immediately headed off to the mirror to make sure it's tilted at just the right angle to properly accentuate Wolomur's manly face. I'd previously been thinking of him as more of an ancestral voice of my people kind of guy, but am a bit worried if he wears this hat too long he might not be able to resist suddenly morphing into a rakish fop like every other bard I've ever played as.

As I level up and have to choose a specialisation, this seems like a good place to stop for the week. I'm assume that I'll decide on the Warrior Skald path, since I'm likely to be playing this game solo and that seems to be least party-focused of the options, but at least thematically I'd pegged him as a Watcher of Resolve fellow, so perhaps I'll go that way in the hope of making myself vaguely useful to a group somewhere down the road since none of that looks even vaguely useful to a solo player. If there's any old LotRO hands out there that have any advice before I next venture out into middle-earth again, do let me know.

Meme Time

I've given up hope of getting the theoretical weekly quiz up on a Wednesday Thursday Fri... at all for the second week in a row, I was once again left unsure about what to fill the empty slot with. I turned to my blog feed for inspiration, and found that I've been tagged in a meme. Somehow I feel like viral images and videos have taken over the term these days, but the old faithful circular blog meme reminds me of my youth in the big wide scary exciting livejournal internet days and I never fail to smile a little whenever my little blog garners a tag; so I refuse to give up using the word 'meme' to describe them even if the world has moved on without me and the children look at me like I'm crazy.
One could pretend to be dank, or one could post cats.

The Rules

  • Thank the person who tagged you for the award.
  • Answer the 7 questions set out by your nominator.
  • Tell everyone 7 things about yourself — you can spread them between answering the questions!
  • (Optional) Write another 7 questions to ask the people you tag.
  • (Optional) Tag 7 people to carry forward the Real Neat Versatile Blog Award and answer your questions while revealing 7 facts about themselves. :)

The Thanks

It feels a little cheap now that I've been specifically told that I have to do this, but thanks for Naithin for the tag. Naithin is one of those folks that really gets across a strong sense of his personality in his posts, so much so that it feels like he's one of the folks who've been around the Blaugust tracks for ages, when I've actually only known of him since last Blaugust (unless my memory is playing tricks on me?). His blog is always human, down-to-earth, considered and interesting, and I always click when I see him come up in my reader, something that I can't say about all that many others (sorry guys, I just gotta be in the mood, that's all!). I think it helps that while he's a little older and a little more of an MMO guy than I am (who isn't?), we seem to have a pretty similar gaming background and shared videogame canon, so his posts always feel relevant. Of particular interest to me of late has been his ongoing Humble Choice series each month to help me decide which games to grab, and more importantly which to actually dive into instead of leaving them in the ever-increasing backlog pile, when my monthly bundle comes through. If you're not familiar with his blog, do check it out.

The Answers

If you were to start another blog, or branch off your current blog into a whole new direction, what would it be about?

The Leaflocker is quite the meandering, haphazard, all over the place kind of blog. If I were spin off something new I'd like it to be something with a laser focus on a single topic that I'd decided to explore in depth. Actually, somewhere back in the deep dark past I did start a blog like that for my adventures in heraldry inside the Society for Creative Anachronism. It's called Orle Athwart, it has three whole posts, and though I haven't touched it in almost five years and prior to this moment I don't think that I've ever even mentioned it to anyone, suddenly I have rekindled fond hopes of getting it off the ground and really diving into heraldry again in a big way at some point.

Somewhere about ten years ago now, I can't even remember how or why, I started getting interested in the heraldry aspects of the SCA. The actual dressing up and saying 'forsooth' stuff would take me many years to begin to even think about getting involved in, and was cut off when I moved to England where people view the inherently make-believe aspects of role-players like the SCA with suspicion in favour of more authentic historical reenactment, but I've remained involved in commentary on heraldry matters the whole time. It's a weird thing that's very divorced from every other aspect of my life (except when people from my 'real' life see SCA stuff on facebook and get very confused), but something in the combination of research, pedantry, repetition, artistry and faux-seriousness just strikes a chord, so I keep coming back to it.

What mix of mechanics or genres would form your absolute dream game?

Looking at the games that I've poured the most time into over the years since I had a choice about what to install on my own computer, there are two standouts. One is CounterStrike. I am terrible at  CS mechanically, but the rhythm of the game, the need for teamwork and communication, the flow of the game back and forth, the thinking on the fly, exploiting weaknesses and getting inside people's heads is intoxicating. The other is turn-based strategy games like Into the Breach or Invisible Inc, games with small scope where each and every tiny detail is important, where every moment presents a new puzzle to be solved, a new danger to overcome with a limited number of resources. So, combining the team/real-time aspects of CS with the intimate but deep nature of TBS's? Something like Captain Sonar, enforced by the computer and turned up to eleven, would be great. I feel like you probably have to pick a theme for a dream game too, but honestly, I'd take anything that's not grim-dark-souls-esque, as that aesthetic does nothing for me.

Wait just a second... Is "off to grease my abacus" a euphemism?
My father was constantly bringing home bits and pieces of old computers from his work at the national telecom provider and botching together old machines, so we always had computers in our house, but apart from a couple of exceptions like Myst and Civilization II (I was the only person I knew that actually had a legit version with the manual and everything, and was very confused when my friends looked at me strangely when I quoted the video clips from the advisors) we didn't tend to have games other than freeware versions, demo disks and things that had 'accidentally' ended up there. We didn't have consoles at all (I inherited a NES when I was about 15, I think) and didn't have to buy expensive cartridges and play the life out of them to justify the expense, so as a result largely I was playing bits and pieces of lots of different games but never really dived all that much into any one thing, right up until about high school.

What thing (game, book, movie, anything) have you experienced recently, thinking it should be right up your alley — only to find it very much was not?

With the advent of the whole 'locked in our houses all the time with nothing to do' thing, my old role-playing group back in Australia is getting the band back together digitally. Well, I say my old role-playing group, but we got it all set-up and ready to go and then I left for England and got a day job, so they've been playing without me for the last four years or so. Tabletop roleplaying games (the group is actually playing Pathfinder) seem like they'd be right up my alley; you get to fight stuff, take a break for a cup of tea and to consult a large and esoteric encyclopedia, rules-lawyer to your heart's content and think of creative solutions to problems if the fancy strikes you. Unfortunately, though, when it actually comes down to it and I'm in these situations, I just freeze up and end up going through the same old mechanical motions. I have no idea why and I wish it wasn't the case, but there you go. We're going to give it another try starting some time in the next few weeks (once I actually design my character, that sounds like a blog post right there), and I'm half-excited because I still like the idea of getting into it and just hanging out on the regular with some friends that I don't see enough of, and half-terrified because deep down I know it'll be another unmitigated disaster.

I found it pretty difficult to find something to stick in this category, because these days I'm finding myself to be pretty stuck in my ways. It's not that I haven't been trying new things, reading new books, playing new games and the like, but for the most part I'm straying out of my comfort zone a lot less. Every now and then I worry that I'm becoming a more boring person than the adventurous youth that I once was, but it's more comforting to think of it as knowing myself pretty well and having a pretty good idea what I like. Oh no...am I old now? Do I have to start voting Conservative?

The opposite! Have you been convinced to try anything you thought you wouldn’t enjoy, only to discover you very much loved it after all? What was it?

On finding an old-school nib pen I recently did a little bit of experimenting in calligraphy, trying out of a sort of casual interest to see if I could find a style that I could execute somewhat proficiently with it. I didn't expect to do any good at this, since I don't have the eye for detail, a sense of perspective needed in all visual art, or good hand-eye co-ordination; and indeed I really didn't do very well at all and some of my attempts at the more complex letter-forms are truly laughable. Despite this, I found the act of trying to replicate consistent letters and the slow progression of forming more and more difficult words as I worked my way through a few tutorials extremely centering, and quickly burned through page after page of my working notebook.  The unsightly blue-black inkstain on my fingers that takes a serious scrubbing to remove is very satisfying too.

I have tried many, many hobbies over the years and I have a pile of theoretically ongoing but actually stalled projects that dates back well over a decade, but I suppose readers of this blog aren't likely to be surprised by that, since there's projects just on this blog that are approaching that kind of age. I tend to throw myself into something for a week or two, devoting all my free time and thought and a significant number of sleepless nights to thinking about it, before moving on to something new, never exactly abandoning or consciously stopping anything, just not keeping it in my short-term memory banks. Actually, the usual time is about twelve days (for confirmation, see my pattern of Blaugust posting over the last few years), which is just a couple of days short of the supposed magical line that you need to reach to solidify new habits. Maybe that is why I'm still stuck in many of the patterns that I developed years ago and the structure of my days has barely changed since I was a teenager. Hrmm, maybe a person only has room in their head for so many habits, and since I've avoided making new ones for so long that's why I'm still stuck with my childhood ones of chewing my fingernails and starting to talk before other people have finished their sentences.

What new thing do you most want to achieve with your blog this year?

I've always wanted the Leaflocker to be an outlet for creativity. Somewhere to share new experiments and skills, to revel in others' projects, to show some progress and to drive me on to bigger and better things. Occasionally I feel like I started out more that way and got distracted by 'blog busywork' of either producing the same old thing week after week (for the week that I produce anything) or consuming more and more media without it sparking any output, along the way. I know that in a lot of ways this is a reflection of the fact that I just don't produce all that much stuff, but if I could find a way to conjure the occasional feeling that I get during a Blaugust that the Leaflocker can act as an engine for creativity not an anchor for it, that'd be one heck of a goal for the ole blaug.

Not sure I have a fact on my mind that really gels with this one, so I guess I'll just share something on my mind at the moment. We live in a small terrace house quite close to our neighbours, which isn't usually a problem (apart from my love/hate relationship with a pair of perpetually yapping dogs), but sadly during this quarantine, (at least) one of our neighbours has been smoking pot twice every afternoon, once around noon and again later on (around the traditional time for such activities). The smell spreads quickly throughout our whole house each and every day, and it never fails to give me an absolutely terrible headache. I'm just glad that I only developed this reaction the the stuff later in life, or I would have been a lot worse off at high school.

What’s on your wishlist that you most want to buy, but for whatever reason you haven’t pulled the trigger on purchasing yet?

First visitor we've had in months
Since we've moved to Southampton we've been strongly considering getting a car, as we're within excellent day and weekend trip distance of lots of interesting bits and pieces, and we'd also like the ability to travel back to visit folks in Oxford and the occasional mahjong tournament without being at the mercy of the vagaries of the UK's rail network and it's frankly mystical pricing system. We went from being a two car family back in Australia to being strictly public transport or cycling people in Oxford, but even though here in Southampton we can easily do all our day to day stuff the same way,  as we hope to have more free time now that the thesis is over it feels like it might be time to think about investing in a vehicle again. There are lots of reasons not to, of course. We don't have a garage and would need to park it on an already-crowded street, we would have to go through the process of securing driver's licenses here, we probably wouldn't use it often enough to keep it in good condition (there are a lot of cars failing to start around here, after not having been used for a few weeks, and seeing people standing over an open bonnet looking perplexed is a regular feature of my exercise walks), the environmental concerns (we're already climate baddies due just to emissions from our  biennial flight to Australia), and of course, the main one is the cost of keeping and maintaining a car, even a little one. That said, we are Australians, I suspect the siren call of the road is something that comes from growing up breathing the air of a wide brown country and that it will ultimately prove irresistible.

All this being stuck in a house with only me and YouTube for company has finally pushed Mrs. Owl over the edge on the purchase that she has been putting off for the last four years or so, and I opened the door late last week to find a guitar on our doorstep. We're enjoying being a musical household again, even if neither of us can hold a tune and the amount of time that she can strum at the moment is very limited given the strain that it puts on her out-of-practice arthritic fingers. I cannot stress enough how much joy just having access to a musical instrument in the house has brought us both over the last few days, and don't know how we went so long without one. If I had my way, no household would be without a musical instrument. If I'm subjected to our neighbour's questionable musical taste for too many more weeks I might change my mind on that point, but for now I'm sticking to it. At least until someone on the street gets a set of bagpipes.

When this whole lockdown thing is over; and the shops/services currently closed reopen, what is the first thing you’ll visit/do?

Well done, ye generally rubbish but surprisingly faithful servants
For months, even pre-quarantine, the answer has been the same. I most desperately need some new shoes. My old ones, which were never all that good in the first place, are now held together with prayer and duct tape and it's only a matter of time until I'm better off going out barefoot than wearing them. Thankfully I don't really have to wear shoes a whole bunch at the moment (my slippers are getting some good use), but as soon as the restriction on non-essential shopping is lifted I'll have to pull the trigger.

I'm bad at shoe shopping. I've always been bad at shoe shopping. To be fair, I'm bad at almost all shopping that's not a regular food shop that I go into with a clear categorised list; I tend to wander up and down the aisles, looking at everything and putting nothing into my trolley, desperately hoping that the attendants don't try to talk to me. Clothes shopping of any kind is just a strange mixture of intimate and public that makes me uncomfortable. Shoes are the worst, though, because while I can and do wear clothes for decades and people can buy them for you if they think you're getting unbearably daggy, you have to buy shoes for yourself, and to do so just regularly enough to be annoying but not often enough that you can get used to it. I also have weirdly shaped bulgy feet, so I tend to have to try on a lot of different pairs to find something that works (which is also why I can't just do it online, the chances of getting lucky with a pair I haven't been able to actually physically try are slim). To top it all off, I inevitably wear through the heel and sole of new shoes in next to no time, make the whole exercise feel generally pointless. So yeah, shoe shopping. Yuk.

The Questions

I am ever-reluctant to tag others in these sort of things, which seems strange given how much I enjoy them, but what can I say? I guess I contain contradictions. Nevertheless, if you've stumbled across this little corner of the internet and find the questions below vaguely interesting or just want an excuse to talk about yourself (I've found this whole experience a lot more enjoyable and involved that I expected to when I set out), please make my day by taking a shot at answering them and filling in some additional facts of your own. No worries if you don't have a blog yourself, either, you can email me or stick your response in the comments, I'm always keen to hear what people have to say.

Tell us about:

That one thing that you're good at that people looking at you, or even that some people that know you, wouldn't guess.

That project that's been sitting on the back-burner for ages that you somehow just never manage to get down to.

The piece of art/music/poetry/game design that most recently made you want to stop in your tracks and just soak it in.

A memory that you remember one way but other people have a completely different take on.

That place, physical or mental, out on the internet or in the real world, where you most feel at peace.

Something that people just don't seem to get about the way that you think, act or react that you wish that you could get them to understand.

A fun website, video or gif that you've recently stumbled across. 

Here's one I stumbled across today that I enjoyed more than I should have. Behold the chicken, bird of prey.

Tuesday 7 April 2020

Getting into the groove

For our weekly board games night this week we resorted to the tried and true Codenames, Hanabi and Istanbul implementations that we've used the last couple of weeks, partly because they worked well last time and we're not sick of them just yet, but also because we're still looking around for more diversity of free options that could work well for a large and changing group of people. What we've already tried can keep us rolling for a while, it's never actually about the game but about the people, after all, but a little something new every now and then is always good. Something that can support a lot of players, is free and isn't just Codenames again is our holy grail at the moment, but none of the options that we've tried so far have really hit the jackpot.

Tabletop Simulator seems to be the option that most people seem to swear by, but apart from the occasional really well-put-together game, most of the implementations just lack a level of user-friendliness to allow me to recommend it as an option. Yes, I could definitely get used to using it and hosting people via screenshare, but it's too fiddly for me to reasonably expect my friends to all use successfully, especially given that they'd all have to pay for the engine just to get started.

Tabletopia seems like a slightly better option, if only because the subscription model there allows me to buy an account that will allow my friends to play a pretty decent range of games without having to buy it themselves. It has a lot of the issues of TTS, but at least it's theoretically more accessible and has a really solid range of titles. Unfortunately, the web version seems to be pretty unreliable, and both it and the Steam versions are extremely resource intensive (even my relatively beefy laptop starts to chug a little). I think I'm likely to try this out with those friends that have Steam some time soon, but it's not going to provide a solution for the main games night as it stands currently.

Pretty much the same experience as the card game.
We had some good success with playing Innovation on Board Games Arena this week. I'd been pretty dubious about it given that Innovation is a relatively complex, information rich game, but the interface worked really well despite the limited screen real-estate, so well, in fact, that I think it's actually better than the card game version, and is certainly easier to teach. It probably helps that the art in the card game is nothing to write home about either. Sadly, Innovation isn't really the sort of game that most people really get the hang of in one play and it's definitely not a game for everyone, but I have a little more faith in the BGA interface now and am keen to try it out on an even more ambitious game. It says that it can support Keyflower, and if it actually can, that will be positively miraculous.

I find myself wishing for the IRC days, when folks ran many and varied chat bots that could facilitate all kinds of excellent games. It seems like there are an awful lot of discord bots out there and that most of them seem to be pretty useless on the whole, but I have been meaning to learn to program anyway, so if I'm not able to find something that works for us, perhaps trying to program a game playing python discord bot will become my big quarantine project...

Please, save me from this fate and recommend me something I can use to entertain my friends when Monday rolls around again. I'm a thirty year old man. If I try to learn something new my brainy might overheat as much as my computer does trying to play Village.

Monday 6 April 2020

Just sit on the line

Last week, I set myself the usual weekly reading target with the best of intentions in getting through the readings and then some, hoping that by this time it got around to this Monday I would not only have blitzed the set readings but also managed to get through some of my other backlog on the side. Despite having a tab with Les Mis open on my pc browser, Plato on my kindle and Dickens ready for me on my phone, I was able to bring myself to complete almost exactly zero reading over the week.

At least one step too far into this series.
The one thing that I have attempted to spend the most time reading, The Long Utopia, the fourth book in Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter Long Earth series, continues at a snail's pace, a source of great frustration to me because I really ought to throw it on the life is too short to care pile, but I just want to like it a tiny bit too much to bring myself to do it. The series is based on a Pratchett short story that I enjoyed, but as it has gone on it has become more and more like every Stephen Baxter book I've ever read, which is to say  ponderous, touching on interesting concepts in the least interesting ways imaginable and either leaving a number of plot points dangling for the inevitable sequel or tying making them irrelevant along the way. The fact that I've spent the time since Christmas when I checked it out of the library trying to get through it when I'd normally demolish a book this size in a week maximum is a good indication of just how well it's going.

As frustrating as I've found this novel, the fact is that it's not the novel's fault that I'm not getting any reading done. It's not the novel's fault that I've struggled to engage with my writing or to produce a crossword this week either. For someone who has been feeling generally like all this being cooped up indoors isn't having that great an affect on his life, I sure am wandering about the house listlessly staring at walls a lot, so maybe I'm just not as unaffected by everything that's going on as I'd like to think I am.

So I've decided to be gentle with myself and just let things happen. Reading is supposed to be fun, so is the blog and so are videogames after all. If that means there's not a weekly Great Conversation piece, somehow I feel like both I and the readership will survive.

In lieu of that, then, let me leave you with this delightful little poem from Jeffrey McDaniel that a  friend linked me just when I needed a good sob earlier in the week.

Let's talk some other time.

Friday 3 April 2020

The Search for SURY

Here's a post about something weird that I'd planned to write about back in August last year, but didn't quite manage to get out. It's still a fun little mystery, though, so grab a cuppa, have a read, and then help me solve this puzzle that's been stuck in my head for months.

Some time in about July, a strange medallion was glued to the masonry on the external wall of Brasenose College. For at least a couple of weeks, I walked past it each day, noting that it seemed pretty weird but not thinking all that much about it. After a while I mentioned in to the head Porter, wondering if there was strange in-joke that I wasn't it on, and he was a little perplexed by it too. A couple of days later, with some significant effort, the workshop team were able to pry it off (they take a poor view of people making unsanctioned additions to the 500 year old facade).

Deliberate damage to a heritage-listed building. That's a paddlin'.

They handed the coin to one of the students, and as these things tend to do, it migrated to the common room and became the topic of much discussion over cups of tea, and later into the evening, other beverages. What was this medal? Who had placed it on the college? What is SURY? Why the latin for something like "He will not be alone" (I left this bit to others, I have no Latin)? What was with the strange code-like drill holes? What could it all mean? 

14 lines? Like a sonnet?
The puzzle has a way of worming itself into your mind so that you can't stop thinking about it. We started googling everything, seeing strange, half-imagined connections between unrelated webpages on weird corners of the internet. When I came in the next day, I found this (actually, this is the board a couple of days later, I don't have a photo of it in its original state, but it didn't change that much after the first day).

Sometimes you just have to embrace your inner conspiracy theorist
A bit of googling turned up that this logo (oh, it's a winged handshake!) had been posted on the 4th January 2019 on designcrowd.com as a response to a design competition, albeit with different latin. Someone with a decent amount of cash to splash around  had commissioned this, and recently. From the design discussions there are some fascinating insights:
SURY which is just an acronym for (Snob, Urban, Rural, Yob) refer to attachment. It is not really a department store but this is probably the best way (analogy) to explain what the business is.
SURY is not compulsory either. If you have a better name suggestion that you would perhaps use for a "secret mens club" then propose that also. The name itself is not important as it is to be built as a brand hence the importance of the logo.
So, there's a brand, but at least back in January 2019 they're still not really committed to their name, which appears to be an acronym of some nonsensical string of descriptors. There's also a more in depth design pdf, which is pretty baffling all around as a business concept, but does include a proto-version of the logo with the different Latin.

At this point, I'm thinking either that the whole business brief is just a front for getting the logo designed without actually expressing what the 'brand' is really about, which seems like the sort of thing that someone designing a cryptic puzzle game might do, or that this logo was found on this site and co-opted by whoever placed the medallion. I found a couple of potential uses of the latin phrase Sine Qua Non for Australian registered companies, but nothing that seems that promising, so for now this angle feels like a bit of a dead end.

But wait, "He will not be alone".

There's a post on reddit of someone who'd found another coin attached to Blarney Castle on July 5th, which assuming that it was soon after it arrived there would put it at a similar time to the one at Brasenose. Over the next little while a few other people have found them at other locations too, Balloch Park in Scotland, Bolton Abbey, Caerphilly Castle in Wales, Bootham Bar in York. The medallions are all identical, but they all have different holes drilled in them. The turn around from logo design to being cast on coins, drilled strangely and stuck on landmarks no more than six months later (maybe earlier, some of them look more weathered) is pretty impressive.

All(?) our little ducks in a row.
This is not just some freak Oxford thing, this is some kind of deliberate puzzle hunt at historic locations around the UK and Ireland, or even further (who knows what other coins could have been out there and never found, or just not reported to reddit?).

So onto the code itself. Each SURY medal is made up of a grid of 21x14 drilled holes, but every second line is offset. After transcribing the digits and getting rid of the blank columns, I've ended up with six 21x7 binary blocks that just about feels like maybe something like ASCII binary letters if you assume each have a leading 0, but the letters that you come out with don't make any sense. I'm either missing some part of the puzzle or missing something staring me in the face.

21x7 doesn't mean anything to me, but maybe it's sparked something inside your head. If you'd like to jump in and have a play, feel free to take a look at the google sheet here. Maybe it's not a puzzle that can be solved without every single constituent part, but if that were true, why would someone travel hundreds of miles knowing that their coins are going to be removed in short order and people might never find them all? Personally, I hope I haven't seen the end of SURY just yet.