A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab

Absolutely fantastic from start to finish. Nominated it for a Hugo as soon as I read the last page.

Three things it taught me about writing:

  • Keeping chapters short not only gives you an excuse to read “just one more,” it also lets you do abrupt transitions between place and mood.
  • Characters grumbling to each other (or in their heads) can give you a very compact and fun way to explain aspects of the world that are unfamiliar to the reader.
  • By shifting the metaphors used to describe a scene, you can sustain a difference of mood between locations. For instance, in a place of death and white, describing a series of building supports as “arched ribs” echoes the feeling you want to convey.

The Craft Beer Revolution by Steve Hindy

An odd mix of politics and brewing history. Gives an intro to several breweries, and how they got started, but spends several chapters going over arguments among the brewers on a blow-by-blow basis.

Really wish there had been more space given to individual breweries and going into their history. Even better would have been some chapters with advice for people thinking of starting their own microbrewery. What better way to support the craft beer revolution than to capture and pass on some of the wisdom of the pioneers?

Three things I learned:

  • The larger national breweries, like Miller and Anheuser-Busch, use corn and rice additives to extend the shelf life of the beer and make it cheaper.
  • Brewing beer at home was technically illegal until 1979 (!), a holdover from Prohibition.
  • Stone’s Arrogant Bastard Ale (one of my favorites) started out as a homebrew mistake. Before it had a proper name, they referred to it as the “hop bomb.”

Work Delays

Not much progress on the novel this week.

I’ve been in Boston for a company meetup, which has messed with my normal schedule and kept me away from my desk.

Intending to get some writing done on the flight home tonight, though, and try to catch up on it this weekend. Can’t leave my main character struggling to escape from a trap for too long, can I?

Shadows Over Camelot, from Serge Laget and Bruno Cathala

Involved, complex, and tough.

We spent our time rushing around the board, from crisis to crisis, trying to stay one step ahead of the many enemies around us. In the end, we won, but barely. Victory felt more like a staving off of defeat than outright success.

Three things I learned about game design:

  • For a complex cooperative game, leave out betrayal. It’ll increase the difficulty without increasing any enjoyment.
  • Tying your character classes to individuals (real, fictional, or mythological) is a great hook into the game world.
  • Having enemies refresh after defeat is a good way to generate a siege mentality in your players, but it makes the game as a whole feel darker. Use it sparingly.

The Wars of the Roses by Dan Jones

Lucid, detailed, and engrossing, much like its predecessor, The Plantagenets. Jones has a gift for converting a parade of names and dates into personalities and dramatic clashes.

Unlike the previous book, I could see many more parallels with events in Game of Thrones in this one. There’s a usurper claiming the rightful king is a child of adultery, there are minor houses parleying marriage to the royal house into more influence and power, there’s even a warrior king that becomes fat and indolent in old age.

Three of the many things I learned:

  • Entire Tudor dynasty descends from Owen Tudor, a minor noble that Catherine of Valois (princess of France) married after King Henry V died.
  • Wars of the Roses were less family feud and more power struggle between multiple great families due to the collapse of kingly power under Henry VI.
  • The man who became Richard III was, until Edward IV’s early death, one of the most loyal and honorable nobles in the kingdom.

Too Much Information

Novel’s at 73,653 words.

Still pushing forward, thought the last few scenes have been hard for me to write. Usually that’s because I don’t know enough about something in the scene — how a bail hearing would be conducted, or the cooking techniques of feudal Japan — to feel comfortable writing it. This time, it’s because I know too much about what’s happening in the scene.

Specifically, I know things that, if my characters knew them, would make accomplishing their goals much easier. But they don’t work in the field, like I do, and so their knowledge is limited.

But how limited? How much should they know, and how much are they ignorant of? How much would just be common sense?

And even for the things they do know, or that they stumble on that work, how much detail should I go into as to what’s happening? How much info do I dare dump on the poor reader?

It’s striking that balance — between showing too much detail and not enough, between thinking the characters know more than they should versus not giving them enough credit — that’s been difficult for me.

One Night Ultimate Werewolf, from Ted Alspach, Akihisa Okui, and Gus Batts

Took longer to explain the rules than to play the game. Not that the rules are complex, just that the game itself is so quick.

Had a good time, but it always seemed like the werewolves had the hardest job. They have the most reason to talk during the day, if only to throw suspicion on someone else. In the games we played, whoever spoke first was probably a werewolf.

Three things I learned about game design:

  • If you build discussion and argument into the game, set a time limit. Otherwise things can get bogged down, and drag on long enough to not be fun anymore.
  • It is basically impossible for players to properly execute a team-based strategy if they don’t know what team they’re on.
  • If you design gameplay that rewards players for screwing over their teammates, they need to be able to win on their own.

Flash Point, from Kevin Lanzing, Luis Francisco and George Patsouras

A bit complex to setup and rather awkward to learn. First game was really slow as we tried to figure out what we could do and what the best way to beat back the fire was.

Once we got the hang of the rules, though, the game’s speed picked up and we had a good time knocking out flames and rescuing pets (I mean trapped humans. Yes, the humans definitely took priority).

Three things I learned about game design:

  • If your game is cooperative, you can get away with more complex rules. Everyone will be helping out each other on their turns, so it won’t be as intimidating.
  • Beware using tiny markers for important game mechanics. Unless they’re anchored down, they’ll shift too easily during gameplay (dice rolling, moving pieces, etc) and players will lose track of where they’re supposed to be.
  • Design your co-op player classes around the actions available to every player. The simpler your basic actions are, the easier it will be to balance those classes.

Forward, Ho!

Novel’s at 72,337 words.

I’ve managed to fix last week’s mistake, and gotten back to making forward progress through the novel. There’s some small dangly bits of plot that are poking out around my patch, but I’ve decided to note them for now, so I can come back to fix them in the second draft.

Instead, I’m plowing forward.

Splendor, from Marc André and Pascal Quidault

Easy to pick up and learn, tough to win.

I made the mistake of playing it like a deck-building card game, only picking up mines that had victory points on them. These were few and far between, though, so I ended up with a lot fewer gems to use to purchase the more lucrative mines that opened up later on.

Three things I learned about game design:

  • Don’t rely on just color to distinguish sides or types in the game. I’m color blind, and had a hard time telling two of the gems apart, because their colors were so similar.
  • Even a rather simple mechanic — gems buy mines, which give gems to buy more mines — can yield an interesting game, once randomness and competition enter into it.
  • Introducing an unbalancing element can be ok, if it pushes the game towards a conclusion