Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Painting Runebound Third Edition

The second edition of Runebound was one of the earlier games I bought after starting my job at Ball State. It's a fantasy romp, with heroes trekking over a map, collecting gold, fighting monsters, and facing assorted trials. We had some good afternoons and evenings with this game before kids, and my oldest son has been able to play it with me for at least a year. There were some parts of it that were quite frustrating, however, including the facts that losing combat was devastating, allies were required but hard to come by, and healing was terribly expensive. After getting back into painting miniatures, I looked at the second edition hero figures with an eye toward painting them, but the game had become a bit stale for me. The miniatures were also on the small side and not very detailed.

Second Edition Box Art: None of those characters is actually in the game.
When I heard the announcement that there would be a new third edition, I was honestly a bit embarrassed over my giddiness. Could the designers at Fantasy Flight Games pull off a revision that keeps the good parts of the second edition but clean up the rough edges? I ordered my copy shortly after it was released, having just completed my Fury of Dracula miniatures, and I was pleased that the miniatures were much improved over the second edition's.

Third Edition Box Art: This character is also not in the game
I decided to paint the figures before playing the game, as has been my recent norm, still remembering the disappointment of painting the Legend of Drizzt miniatures (Part 1, Part 2) after already being kind of burned out on the game. I will present them here in the order they were completed. For this set, I tried to focus on increasing the contrast in my painting, particularly by increasing the level of highlights. The color schemes were all taken from the card art.

This is Corbin. There are a couple of details here that I am really happy with: the slightly brassy tint on his buckler and lower armor; the ruddy complexion; and the worn leather. This was the first figure on which I used my new Vallejo Air Metallic paints, after hearing Dr. Faust rave about how well they work off the brush. I had been using Vallejo Metallic Gold, Silver, and Gunmetal paints, so I picked up Gold, Steel, and Gun, from the Air Metallics line. Sure enough, the Steel and Gun are super smooth with fantastic flow. The gold is weird, though: it has a similar consistency, but the carrier (binder? medium? the liquid part) has a funny tint to it. Once the paint is dry, it has a good gold color, but it's kind of unpleasant to paint on because it's so far from what one would expect. This also meant it couldn't really mix well either since you cannot really tell what it would look like dry from what you have on the palette.

I put some of these pictures on Facebook, where I felt like I had to remind my non-painting friends that this little fantasy dwarf is smaller than a quarter. The pictures are much bigger than reality: looking at the real miniature, he looks better than the zoomed-in photos.

Each Runebound character has a thematic color, and Corbin's is pale green, which really only shows up on his shoulders and helmet. The grassy base helps bring it out a little bit.

Here's Laurel of Bloodwood, a vision in red and brown. I had a hard time figuring out how much to highlight the brown and red of the cloak, and I think the result is just OK. The quiver at her hip turned out nicely, all done by hand without washes. For her, and the rest of the set, I returned to my usual Gold paint. I was very nervous painting the forehead tattoo, in part because this was what I did last, several days after having done the rest of the skin. It looks OK, and it built in me some confidence for later freehand work in this set.

See the big leaves at her feet? These are from the seed pods of a white birch. I had read about how some folks use them for basing miniatures, so about a year ago, I collected many from a tree in my neighborhood, and my son and I separated out the seeds. This was the first time I actually used the on the base, together with the cork rock in order to give a sort of New England forest look.

Elder Mok is one of my favorite paint jobs. I think his drum turned out quite well, looking like warn canvas. For the ends, I freehanded the game's spirit icon. I was very nervous, but I think it turned out well, although if I could do it again, I would not have given it the same orientation on each side. The purples on the skull were fun to paint, and he has a soft OSL effect on the skull and his own eyes. I am happy with the skin tone and shading here too, all done by building up layers from a shade to highlights.

This was my first piece using my new magenta paint. I have known for a while about the difference between light primaries and pigment primaries, and I like to use complementary colors to darken and mix browns, but I've only been doing it with light primaries. Magenta paint was easy to find, but Vallejo doesn't have a color called "cyan." Some hunting in the usual places told me that their Deep Sky Blue was practically cyan, so that's what I've been using—we'll see more of it in a few figures. In some of the later figures, I did do some mixing with CMY, but I found myself sticking mostly with familiar recipes.

Lyssa's background narrative describes her as "half-katjie," which I assume is some kind of cat creature. It's a great miniature except I thought the pose was a little awkward, so I added the fallen log to the base to give more context to it.

I struggled with matching her flesh tone, and she's showing so much of it that earlier mistakes could not be overlooked. I ended up doing her skin differently than most of the others: instead of building up layers, I gave her a good base coat, then I used washes to add shades, then put the highlights on top of that.

Her tattoos represent the most intricate freehand work of the set, and certainly the most intricate freehand work that I have done. I did a bit of reading ahead of time, finding the consensus to be: always mix at least some of the flesh color into the tattoo color; and start with a very faint mix to give yourself an outline, and build up from there. As with Laurel, the tattoos were the last step and I couldn't exactly remix the flesh color, but it was close enough. I was so pleased that I hadn't ruined the miniature with the tattoos that I took it downstairs to show my wife. Showing her, I realized it was still not dark enough: they were only clear under my painting lamp. Fortunately, I hadn't cleaned up yet and the paint was still wet, so one more layer did the trick.

I think her abdominal area turned out quite nice. There's hardly any texture on the model, but the paint gives her the look of powerful abs. I could not think of anything very clever to do with her claw-like right hand, so I just left it all flesh colored. It's not shown in the card art, and I didn't want to add comical fingernails that were not sculpted into the model.

After all the varnish was dry, I decided to add some static grass. My usual application method left way too much on the base--it suddenly turned from an early brown into too much green. I tried to pull the grass out with my wet paintbrush, and as a happy accident, some was left sparsely on the base. I think it looks good, like the thin but long grass in the woods.

Lord Hawthorne is the brightest of the bunch, and here is where my new "cyan" paint really shines. It provides the base color for his robes and a great contrast to the orange of his gloves, boots, and hair. His skin was done like Lyssa's, trying to match the card art's base tone, then using washes for shades followed by manual highlights. There's a light brown underneath his armor that is clearly on the card art but almost imperceptible in the photographs. Still, I am happy I spent the time to add it. It was the first layer on the upper armor, with the steel added around it, followed by P3 Armor Wash for shade.

My only regret here is that I based all the figures on the same dark brown rubble, but this guy would probably look great if he had been done on something grey, like cobblestone or shale. The rock on the base picks up some of the grey, and the brown is reflected in his belt and satchel, so it's not all bad.

The last of the set is Master Thorn, who made me wonder, "Did the designers notice that there's a Master THORN and a Lord HawTHORNe?" Perhaps I am sensitive to it because I've been reading Bone with my two older boys, and they feature a character named "Thorn" as well.

In any case, for his skin, I went back to layering, and I'm really happy with how it looks. He's a muscular old coot, and I like the shadows that accent his figure. The card art gives him a snow white beard, but I decided to make it more grey, in part to get nicer shadows and contrast. As simple a detail as it is, I am really happy with the wooden part of the staff, and it turns out this was a sort of accident: I have a size 0 brush that I rarely use because the bristles don't all line up, but it turns out it's really useful for making lines of irregular width! It sure worked well here.

The thing at the top of his staff was not very well molded, and I probably could have spent more time adding manual shadows to make it more visually interesting, but by this point I was ready to be done. In fact, twice I thought I had finished the figure, only to realize something was missing: the first time it was the strap under his left elbow (which you cannot really see in the picture) and the second it was his head tattoo. That tattoo turned out very nicely, and on this one I was able to use another trick from my research, which was to use flesh colors to subtract from the tattoo. The initial "V" shape was much thicker, but I cut away from it with very small bits of flesh tone, and the result is much more visually interesting while also matching the card art.

And there they are, all together!

But, you ask, how's the game?

My son and I played this morning, me as Laurel of Bloodwood, him as Elder Mok. As with any first-run, there were a lot of pauses to look up rules, and there were a few things I messed up. Putting that aside, we had a great time. I really like the revised adventure system, where you can choose between combat, exploration, and social adventures. The market, healing, and defeat revisions are also greatly appreciated, as they make the game smoother, more interesting, and more fun. Laurel ended up defeating Dragon Lord Margath with one health remaining, but it really was just a learning game: I look forward to playing again now that we have a better understanding of the game system.

All of the event cards present you with an option, and several of them that we faced really made us think about the decision. The most interesting one was one I faced, where Laurel saw that bandits were going to attack a village, and so I could either (a) set a trap for them and have a small chance of succeeding, ending up with a trophy, or (b) letting the bandits raid the town, then swooping in to loot what remains, which would let me take a free item from any market. The latter was obviously much better reward, given that the Twin Daggers were in a market and looked like they were designed for my character, but I found myself really torn: do I do the evil thing and get rewards, or the "right" thing and maybe get nothing? Well, we decided that it wasn't me doing these things, it was Laurel, and she was an angry and bitter elf. I got the Daggers, and later on I killed the Dragon High Lord using them. It's a good story, and it's not the kind of thing we ever had happen in second edition.

Combat Tokens: Image from FFG
I like the token-tossing combat more than I thought I would. It was previously unfamiliar to me, but I wonder if we'll some other designers picking it up and running with it. At first, I thought it would just be a weaker version of dice, but the chips can do one thing much better than dice: unambiguously flip over. The fact that the chips show what's on their reverse side is clever and leads to some fun tactical considerations. Second edition combat was mostly an exercise in repeated dice rolling; the only real significant decision was which character would take the blow. This did lead to some very funny cases of throwing allies under the bus, but it was mostly tedious.

There's also an aesthetic to tossing the tokens that I cannot quite place, how they fall and roll in a way quite different from dice. I'm still unsure how this makes up for the fact that "rolling" them in your had is a little tricky. I am also a little worried about the chips getting dinged up, but I see FFG is selling spare sets for just $5. We have only played once, but I certainly like them better than the second edition's dice so far.

Winter break has been a great opportunity for me to catch up one some blogging and some painting, but it has also been very productive for my current research project. In fact, this afternoon I closed the last issue in the "finish before the new year" milestone on GitHub. Come to think of it, I haven't blogged about that project at all, nor Spring's upcoming immersive learning class. The next week and half will involve a lot of planning for the next semester, so perhaps I will find some time to share those stories in the coming days.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Painting Fury of Dracula

I had been aware of Fury of Dracula as a hard-to-find hidden movement game, and when I watched the Shut Up & Sit Down Review of Specter Ops, I was sure we'd see another printing. I have seen SU&SD reviews drive common retailers out of stock on hot games more than once, and so if Paul Dean opines about its elegance and beauty, Fantasy Flight would be fools not to reprint it.

I picked up a copy of the third edition from my FLGS, Wizard's Keep, and got to painting. The miniatures are decent but not great. With this set, I tried to be more deliberate about contrast. Regular readers may remember my work on the heroes of Shadows of Brimstone, particularly the Marshal, where I added another highlight layer after I thought I was done, and that really made the model pop.

Lord Godalming was the first out of the gate. I had some fun with his lantern, doing the OSL in a slightly different style than before. Instead of painting the whole figure normally and then trying to add the lights, I built up highlights around where the lantern shines, and then tinted and brightened at the end with a series of glazes. It worked well, and I am happier with this than my last attempt. After having played the game, I realized I could have taken the lantern light up much brighter: it looks OK in this close-up, but on the table, it doesn't register.

Next is Van Helsing, looking dapper in his spats. I'll point out how much brighter I took the highlights on his face than I normally do, an effect that I think works well on him.

Mina Harker was fairly plain in her black dress: a few layers of dark grey, and that was done. The scarf probably could have been brighter, just for more visual interest, although the faded orange matches the card art fairly well.

Here's Dracula himself, looking ... well, maybe not so good. The card art depicts him with grey, lifeless skin. I think I captured that here, like his dark purple suit. Once again, it matches the card art, but it's not much to look at. I'm unsure whether I would have been better off diverging from the card art, increasing the contrast of the highlights, brightening up the tone, or what. It's not like he's a dark menace on the game board, since figures like Mina Harker are practically as dark as he is. I'm no sculptor, but I would have gone for a more regal or powerful vampire sculpture rather than the almost comical monster-movie mouth-agape pose.

Last is Dr. John Seward, another hero in a monochromatic scheme. These gothic characters like their dark tones. The subtly different shades on his cloak, vest, and coat are nice in the picture, but on the table it's hard to tell it's there.

So far, I've only played once, and we had one critical rule backward. The heroes have turns called "day" and "night", and between these are "dawn" and "dusk." Combat happens between day and night, but several of Dracula's cards change behavior depending on whether it is night or not. That's a serious design problem, because there's already a thing called "night", and combat doesn't happen then. Does dusk count as day or night? We made a judgement call and got it backward: dawn counts as night, but dusk counts as day. Anyway, the result is that once they heroes got on my trail, it was just a matter of chasing me down and beating me up---I really had no way out, not without better combat cards. I'm eager to play again, especially with the advanced rules. For the heroes, the only difference is that they pick their starting cities, but Dracula gets a host of new powers with the Advanced rules, including several I could have used to get out of my jam earlier. (I was cornered in Eastern Europe with nowhere to go, but Wolf Form would have let me pass through a hero into Central Europe, where I would have more options.)

The figures were fun to paint despite the fairly low detail of the scultps, at least compared to other stuff I've been working on. I'm currently painting the heroes from the new Runebound edition, and so these are also boardgame-quality miniatures, but they are much nicer. It wasn't clear that painting the Fury of Dracula miniatures was worth it from an aesthetic point-of-view: they felt abstract to me, in a different way than the painted Ashardalon figures really bring the dungeon to life. Whether it's because of the game rules, or the fact I was Dracula, or the drab colors, I am not sure. Anyway, if you want to come by and play, let me know—I'd love to give it another play, but I get the sense that you really need exactly five players to get the full experience.

Monday, December 21, 2015

What we learned in CS222, Fall 2015 edition

Another semester, another "What We Learned" post!

Once again, my CS222 students made lists of what they learned in the past semester and voted on the most important items. I taught two sections, and their top items are similar; I'm listing the item as well as the vote count.

10AM Section:

  • Single Responsibility Principle (9)
  • Test-Driven Development (9)
  • Team development (6)
  • Refactoring (6)
  • GitHub (6)

Noon Section:
  • Learning from failure (13)
  • Clean Code (11)
  • Single Responsibility Principle (8)
  • Test-Driven Development (8)
  • Group programming  / team-oriented development*
* There's no vote count on this item because these two were combined after voting.

"Failure" came up as an item in the 10AM section, but it received few votes. Someone in the noon section articulated the same phenomenon as "Learning from Failure," and it got the most votes of any single item. Indeed, learning from failure came up in many final essays from both sections, and it is always a strong theme in the course.

Another interesting note about the final exam: for the first time, I heard about a student who read my blog to try to figure out what to expect on the final.

As I wrote about earlier, I introduced a few changes this semester. One of the most significant was that I replaced the overall grading scheme: previously, I took a grade as a maximum across several categories, but I switched to a model where everything contributed. I like the philosophy of the max-based grading: you're only as strong as your weakest category. However, this did cause students to lose heart when they fell behind in one category, after having spent a lot of effort on a different. This semester I used a more conventional scheme, like this:
  • Final Project (50%)
  • Final Exam (5%)
  • Assignments (25%)
  • Achievements (20%)
Those numbers are not arbitrary: I based them off of imaginary worst-case scenarios. (It may be helpful for this discussion to remember that I am using triage grading, not the arbitrary historical accident that is the 90=A, 80=B, etc..) If a student did everything perfectly except achievements, they would earn at most a B. Similarly, no assignments results in a max of B-, and no final project is D+. I didn't perceive the problem of student frustration as with the max-based system, but I still feel uneasy about this other model. I'm not sure how to combine the two models except with something more like contract-based grading. That is, I could set up a series of rules, such as capping the grade at B+ if you do no achievements, or capping the grade at D if you do not get satisfactory scores on each assignment.

The switch to GitHub went fairly well, although I am sure I can clean up a few loose ends. I plan to record a few extra instructional videos about recommended workflows as well as how to deal with merge conflicts. It was definitely less flaky than using our departmental-hosted Redmine server, and the difference between git and Mercurial was nominal for the students. I still prefer the Mercurial command line, but I am growing accustomed to git's, and I've come to really like the ease of interactive rebasing to clean project history.

Since I have been using IntelliJ IDEA Community Edition in my personal work since summer, I am seriously considering having students use this instead of Eclipse in the Spring. They barely know Eclipse coming out of the prerequisite course, so I am not too worried about cognitive load. This will make it easier for students to pick up Android Studio if they want to, and I really prefer the git integrations of IntelliJ. The only real downside is that IntelliJ's compiler warning reporting is much easier to overlook compared to Eclipse's, and it's already hard to get students to recognize that these warnings need to be addressed.

I have been using a model of assignments inspired by mastery learning: I give three assignments—one during each of the first three weeks of the semester—and students can resubmit them up to once per week until they get full marks. Again, I like the philosophy of this model, but the execution is still troublesome. The problem is not so much in the submission/resubmission policy but in the breadth of the assignments. Each has a similar form: go find some source code and apply a subset of Clean Code rules to it. I think what's happening is that stronger students already have the ability to read a difficult text, parse it out into manageable pieces, and then apply those pieces to a new context. They usually get it wrong here and there, and with some guidance, show that they have learned it. The academically weaker students struggle in many more ways, though: in addition to the inherent difficulty of the material, they also have difficulty reading complex texts, analyzing artifacts, and having a sense of focus. It has made me wonder if I should move to portfolios instead of assignments. That is, rather than proverbially throw students into the deep end to sort out Clean Code rules, what if I made a list of criteria, such as, "Refactor a variable name" and "Refactor to extract smaller methods from a long method." This could potentially help scaffold the weaker students: they would have these criteria at the time of reading Clean Code, and this could help guide their attention. When they are looking at code, they would not have to try to remember all the relevant Clean Code rules in their heads, but could instead look just for items that matched the criteria. 

I am excited about the idea of portfolios in CS222, but there is no clear best technological platform to support this. I am tempted to try to do it on GitHub using MarkDown since that would eliminate any problems with students using bad document formatting. I am leaning toward a solution like what I use for achievement submissions: make a form on Google Drive that sends data to a spreadsheet that students can see, with students submitting links to portfolio documents; record my evaluations in that sheet; use a pivot table to summarize how many "portfolio points" a student has earned. This would be completely outside of Blackboard, so I would have to copy the scores at the end of the semester, and students would have to go to the sheet to see their current tally, but I think these are fairly small costs.

I didn't do quite as much blogging this past semester as I had hoped to, but I am happy with the other work I got done. I have not made the opportunity to write about how I got involved in the Interactive Learning Space initiative, but suffice it to say that I'll be able to teach CS222 in an interesting new space in the Spring. The room has easily movable chairs and tables, multiple projection surfaces, and—really strange for my building—natural light!

That's it for this end-of-semester report. I'm still having a lot of fun with CS222, a course that is working really well despite my constant tweaking. 

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Two kinds of equality: Thinking about Java's equals method

My planning document for this coming Monday's CS222 class read something like, "Do something with equals/hashcode/toString." I took some time this morning to flesh that out into a real lesson plan, and I came across some interesting tidbits along the way. This started as a Facebook post, but I realized I wanted something more archival, so I've upgraded to the blog.

StackOverflow led me to EqualsVerifier, a recent open-source project to automate testing of the contract between equals and hashcode in Java. It looks interesting, although I have not plumbed into its documented possible false-positives. The same post led me to EqualsTester, which has been part of Guava for quite some time, although I never came across it before. I use Guava in practically every Java project, and so it looks like EqualsTester is going to have to go into my back of tricks. Writing tests for equals is kind of a drag and—in retrospect—clearly automatable, although I never really thought about automating it before, so I never looked for library support.

The most fascinating thing I came across, however, is this 2009 article by Odersky et al., which I understand to be an updated extract from Programming in Scala. The article describes four common pitfalls when writing equality-testing methods in Java, and as they point out, three of the four are covered in Bloch's classic Effective Java. That fourth one, though, hit me hard, forcing me to recognize that I had been conflating two distinct concepts in my Java programs. The first I will call content equality, which is when two objects should be considered equal because they represent the same concept in the problem domain. The second I will awkwardly call JRE equality, because it's the kind of equality that the equals method contract really specifies.

It's easy to illustrate this with an example. Ignoring all other design considerations for a moment, we can create a class like this:

public class Achievement {

    private String name;
    public Achievement(String name) {;
    public void setName(String name) {;

It might be reasonable then to expect a test like this to pass:
    public void testEquals() {
        Achievement a1 = new Achievement("Blogging");
        Achievement a2 = new Achievement("Blogging");

If you've been doing Java for a while, you know this will fail with the default equals() implementation. Let's take the same approach that most of my students tend toward: let Eclipse generate the equals and hashcode methods for us!
public class Achievement {

    private String name;
    public Achievement(String name) {;
    public void setName(String name) {;

    public int hashCode() {
        final int prime = 31;
        int result = 1;
        result = prime * result + ((name == null) ? 0 : name.hashCode());
        return result;

    public boolean equals(Object obj) {
        if (this == obj)
            return true;
        if (obj == null)
            return false;
        if (getClass() != obj.getClass())
            return false;
        Achievement other = (Achievement) obj;
        if (name == null) {
            if ( != null)
                return false;
        } else if (!name.equals(
            return false;
        return true;

OK, now the test passes, so we are happy, right? Well, maybe not. What if we add this test?
    public void testCollectionsIntegration() {
        Set<Achievement> set = new HashSet<>();
        Achievement a = new Achievement("Blogging");

This test fails, because we've hit what Odersky et al. list as Common Equality Pitfall #3: Define equals in terms of mutable fields. By changing the name of the achievement object, we alter its hash code, which means it "disappeared" from the set.

At the surface, it looks like there's no way out: you cannot make both tests pass. This makes it a beautiful error! The problem was never in the code, it's in how we think about the problem. The word "equals" is overloaded, as any student of programming languages knows, but that doesn't mean we can walk away from our fuzzy English understanding of the concept. The problem is that the seemingly innocuous unit test I introduced first assumes that Java's equals method should represent content equality, but that's not true. That is, the method is not about our tacit understanding of "equality": it's about making a complex runtime environment work in predictable ways.

It is fascinating that modern IDEs like Eclipse make it so incredibly easy to write these methods incorrectly. Indeed, the format of the equals method provided by Eclipse looks a lot like the template the Bloch himself provides in Effective Java. 

The solution suggested by Odersky et al. is simple and elegant: because there are distinct concepts for equals, have two implementations. The equals method inherited from Object will continue to do what it needs to do, and we introduce a new method to represent content equality. Following their example, we might introduce a method called equalContents, which we could test using code almost identical to our earlier misconceived test:

    public void testEqualContent() {
        Achievement a1 = new Achievement("Blogging");
        Achievement a2 = new Achievement("Blogging");

This leads to a simple implementation of our domain class:

public class Achievement {

    private String name;
    public Achievement(String name) {;
    public void setName(String name) {;
    public boolean equalsContent(Achievement other) {
        if (other==null) return false;
        if (other==this) return true;

Nice and clean, without all that crufty tool-generated code to boot, and both testEqualContent and testCollectionsIntegration pass.

I know I cannot bring a cohort of sophomores with me on this adventure on Monday, so they will only be dipping their toes into it.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Quoting myself through another's notebook

I had a student last year who recorded many choice quotations from my courses. Often these were silly or whimsical thoughts I shared with my students to keep the spirit light, although she also captured bits of wisdom. Today, she shared this one with me:
Make opportunities, not excuses. In the real world, no one cares why you're late, or why your part of the project isn't finished. All they know is that you didn't do what you were supposed to. So, what they want to know, is how you plan to make it right—how you plan to contribute despite your failure, and how will that contribution move the project along?
That's a nice quotation, but there's a story behind it that's even more interesting. This student took two courses with me last year—my colloquium on game design in the Fall and my game development studio in the Spring. As she was reviewing her notes in preparation for a presentation, she found similar quotations each semester. However, according to her, the one from Spring was much better articulated than the one from Fall.

The idea represented by this quotation is one that I fall back on regularly when dealing with student teams, but I do not rehearse any particular articulation of the idea: when the time is right to bring this up, I talk about it extemporaneously. I wonder, then, was the difference in articulation simply random, or was there something about the environment or context that inspired me more in the Spring? Both were among my favorite teaching experiences, although one was more like a conventional course than the other. The Fall meeting was late in the day, while the Spring meeting was early in the morning. In Fall, everyone had their own projects, whereas in Spring we were one team.

I realize that the difference may be inconsequential, but I cannot help but wonder, and so I am glad she shared this story with me.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Symposium on Games in Academia Redux

I wrote about planning the Symposium on Games in Academia about two weeks ago. The Symposium took place last week, and I would definitely call it a success. Approximately 50 attendees came to the symposium to hear fourteen speakers talk about the intersection of games and higher education.
The crowd before the afternoon coffee break
I had the opportunity to give the opening remarks, so I talked about some of the inherent problems of games in education: that we know that games can teach, but we don't really know what they teach, or how they teach, or in some cases, what they even are. It's a perfect storm for future research! I shared one of my favorite stories from my own work, how students playtesting a Morgan's Raid paper prototype concluded that George Ellsworth was a wizard: it wasn't the designer's intent that affected what they learned but the individual constructive and social play experience.

We had a variety of door prizes donated by Wizard's Keep, Game Stop at the Muncie Mall, and Aw Yeah Comics, as well as other local philanthropists. One of my favorite talks of the day was given by Joel Bozell, an acquaintance of mine who is immortalized as Brian van Hoose in Knights of the Dinner Table. He spoke about the Muncie and Ball State connections of the long-running comic.

Joel Bozell talks about Knights of the Dinner Table
Another personal highlight was Carisa Lovell's presentation about her experience as an English major on the Collaboration Station team. Most of our discussions have revolved around shared interests and experiences, but in this presentation, she eloquently tied the studio experience to her major.

Carisa Lovell demonstrates Collaboration Station
I took a leadership role in planning the event, and I am grateful for the assistance of Eva Grouling Snider, Jennifer Grouling, and Scott Reinke, who were instrumental in making it a success. My department also generously supported the event both with refreshments and the help of administrative staff. I should mention that Eva designed this clever little fellow, who I think needs to become a mascot for the Serious Games Knowledge Group.

Once we get the attendee list transcribed, I will be sending out a post-symposium survey to gather some assessment data. Some people expressed interest in running another event in Spring; while I am sure there are more people who would be willing to speak, I also worry about gathering too much low-hanging fruit too quickly. Others have mentioned a desire to have a bigger, more formal event next year, perhaps with outside speakers. That, of course, requires a budget, which we don't have. I am hoping that the post-symposium survey will get us a better picture of what our audience thinks, and we can use this to do some planning and perhaps some politicking.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Symposium on Games in Academia

I founded the Serious Games Knowledge Group at Ball State University about two years ago, I think it was October 2013. The premise of the group was to gather faculty from across campus who are interested in games as learning tools, defined quite broadly. From a small core, we grew to about a dozen faculty and staff. The university's concept of a knowledge group, as I understand it, is to bring faculty together to produce scholarship and, potentially, grant proposals. Our group has met roughly once a month over lunch, where we share our stories about games we are studying, games we are developing, conferences we have attended, and articles we are reading. There is great diversity in our group, but this diversity has meant that we have not collaborated with any shared purpose: while the sharing of our individual work is enriching and enlightening, it has not yielded any scholarly artifact that we can point to as our own. In some ways, we have operated more like special interest group than a knowledge group.

This came up in our first lunch, and we agreed to do something about it. This Friday, the Serious Games Knowledge Group is sponsoring a Symposium on Games in Academia, 2:00–5:00PM in BL104.

We put out a call for presentations at the end of September, and I was pleased to receive fifteen high-quality proposals—enough that we had to reserve a bigger space! The presentations represent an even wider variety of interests than the Knowledge Group itself, and presenters include tenure-track faculty, contract faculty, faculty who teach at the Indiana Academy, university staff, and undergraduate students. The event will truly be a celebration of our diversity of interests, a chance to share our stories in a more formal and thoughtful environment. Refreshments are being sponsored by my department, and there is a wide selection of door prizes that have been donated by area companies and individuals.

The event is free and open to the public, so if you're in Muncie this Friday, please feel free to come join us. Eva designed this flier to advertise the event, and you are welcome to post it and share it. I'll make some time to post a follow-up on my blog after the event.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Children of the Sun Redux: Visiting Angel Mounds

Back in Spring 2013, I mentored the team that developed Children of the Sun, an original educational iPad game about Middle Mississippian Native Americans. I wrote about the experience, and Steffan Byrne and I conducted a qualitative evaluation that is documented in our GLS 9.0 paper. The game was not widely disseminated, being developed specifically for the Indiana State Museum's summer program, so unfortunately there's no way for you to play it today.

Much of the game takes place in a village view, which shows some three hundred villagers within it. The depiction is taken from archaeological drawings of Angel Mounds.

The goal of the game is to build the largest central ceremonial mound while also surviving both natural and man-made challenges. The central brown rectangular area is where this mound is built. I don't have the winning screen on hand—and without an iPad or a current Unity3D license, I cannot generate one—but you can imagine that it looks like a large version of the smaller green mounds shown in the image.

When we made the game, the team made great use of the resources they had available. We talked with representatives from the Indiana State Museum, local experts in history and archaeology, informative Web sites, and several books from the Ball State library.

This past weekend, I visited the actual Angel Mounds for the first time. It's hard to get a sense of scale from this picture, but I can assert that after 500 years of erosion, that central mound is still big. In fact, the whole site was much bigger than I imagined.
This begs the question: why? Why is it that someone who spent a semester making a game about this very site would be surprised at the scale of it?

If you scroll up and take a look at the village map, and you compare it with the scale of actual site, the villagers are not to scale. We had a lot of discussion—some heated discussion, as I recall—about how to represent the villagers. We agreed that these villagers ought to be more iconic than realistic, but they needed to be distinguishable as people. As we worked on the game, though, the villagers were really the primary objects of interest. Even though our intention was for them to be iconic, they became the points of reference for everything else. Although we spent a lot of time on the village map's design, I don't remember anyone questioning the scale. I believe that, as a result, my memory of virtual Angel Mounds was that it was much smaller, so that the people would be the right size.

I'm sure this didn't come up in our formative evaluation, because at that point, we didn't realize it was a problem. I wonder, though, if players would draw the same conclusion, and be similarly surprised at the vastness of the actual Angel Mounds site?

Incidentally, I recommend visiting Angel Mounds. The interpretive museum area is excellent, and the site is well maintained and inspirational. My family has been talking quite a bit about what we saw here, using it as a touchpoint to explain world cultures and history.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Simple PlayN Tech Demo on GitHub

This weekend, I will be presenting a paper at the Consortium for Computing Sciences in Colleges Midwest 2015 Conference. My paper, "Teaching Undergraduate Game Programming with PlayN," is an experience report about using the PlayN game library in several different courses and student projects.

There are several aspects of game programming with PlayN that I find useful for teaching undergraduates, including:

  • using the main game loop to update game objects;
  • managing the build and dependencies using Maven;
  • incorporating cross-platform support via LWJGL, GWT, and Android;
  • building a TriplePlay UI;
  • fluent interface design; and
  • functional-reactive programming via React.
Rather than walk through a series of slides on these topics, I decided to build a tech demo to show these elements in action. Note that, as part of my current cybersecurity education game development project, I have been learning IntelliJ IDEA, git, and GitHub. I was inspired by Michael Bayne's Reversi tutorial, whose code he posted on GitHub, using branches to separate each step. I decided to take the same approach with my tech demo, Angry Cardinal PlayN Demo. Each branch name starts with a number, indicating the sequence I plan to show it during my talk. It would be an exaggeration to call this a game of any kind, but with a lot of imagination, one could see how it's the seed of an Angry Birds clone. Unlike Bayne's tutorial, which aims to show how all the features of PlayN can come together to make a working game, my tech demo is designed to only show a few features, using the least code I can. I believe I can mitigate the dangers of live coding by simply switching between branches during my talk.

I have never given a live demo in this way, and I'm eager to see how it is received. Configuring this demo required me to get some more experience with branching, merging across branches, and IDEA's copyright profiles.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Painting: Shadows of Brimstone, City of the Ancients

I cannot remember where I first came across Shadows of Brimstone, but when I heard that it mixed the wild west with Lovecraftian horror, I was sold. There are two base sets, and a friend told me that City of the Ancients was one of the most fun cooperative dungeon crawls he had played. This one includes tentacle demons and night terrors, whereas Swamps of Death has endless zombies, so I placed my order for City of the Ancients.
Obligatory Box Art
This was my first time building models from the sprue, so I bought myself a pair of sprue cutters and got to work. Honestly, I thought it would be more fun, but mostly it was tedious. I was able to delicately balance the figures around assorted desk stuff in order for the limbs, tails, and tentacles to dry in place.

Workspace, Demons, and Heroes
Once the assembly was done, there was still a lot of patching up to do. I mixed up some Milliput and got to work.
The Milliput Plague affects us all
The next step was to attach the miniatures to their bases---another step I never had to do before, having been mostly painting pre-assembled board game miniatures. Most were no trouble, but the U.S. Marshal has a "lean" to his pose. A clever balancing act helped me to ensure he was affixed at the proper angle.
Cheaper than clamps
The first figures that I painted were the void spiders, all twelve of them. Some of my other sets included multiples of monsters, but I really think that twelve is too many. Brimstone comes with a metric ton of cardboard: it seems they could have had more variety in the monsters. These were kind of fun to paint except that there were so blasted many of them. I spray-primed them white and then used blue-purple washes and drybrushing. The mouth was done more conventionally, with a black ink wash to get the depths of the mouth and between the teeth.

A horde of void spiders
A horde of void spiders, but in a different pile
I should mention, either before or while working on the void spiders, I ran out of white paint—my second bottle to finish, following black a few months ago. Next time I was out, I picked up a new bottle at Hobby Lobby... or at least, I thought I did. I noticed that the texture seemed really strange, which at first I attributed to not having properly shaken the bottle. A few more spiders, and I was sure something was strange. Turns out, I had picked up “Foundation White,” which is really a primer and not the same as “White”.
White vs. Foundation White. Not interchangeable.
For basing, I used a mix of fine, medium, and large ballast, in approximately at 8:4:1 ratio. Although the game allows the characters to go to different worlds, I decided for simplicity's sake to try to make the bases match the Brimstone mines. Turns out Americana Spiced Pumpkin is almost a perfect match for the orange shade used on the game's tiles. I had primed the miniatures before doing the basing, using a Krylon black primer aerosol.

The primer is less rough than the base, but not as much as I would have liked.
You cannot see it so well from the picture, but I must have done something wrong with the priming. I suspect I was too far from the figures, because the texture that came out was really coarse, similar in feel to when I tried the Liquitex Basics Gesso on my grells. The primer absorbed thinned paints and washes like a sponge, leaving me very little control. I went ahead and finished the tentacles—which are not very interesting models anyway—but it was unpleasant enough that I did not want to continue this way.

Finished tentacles. Tabletop-quality, but not much more.
I threw the rest of the miniatures into a bath of Simple Green for a day or two, brushed them down, and re-primed (and re-based) them. This time, I was careful to do them in smaller batches, and on a table rather than the garage floor. The results were much better, although still not with the smoothness of the Vallejo surface primer I would normally brush on and which I used to touch up areas missed by the spray.

Undercoated on a much nicer layer of primer

The next batch I worked on were the stranglers. One of my goals for this set, which I could not meet appropriately on the tentacles, was to work on having higher contrast. I think I frequently make the mistake of thinking something looks great in my hand under my painting lamp, but when it's out on the table, it lacks the contrast to be interesting. I built up the stranglers from a dark undercoat, trying to keep shaded areas dark to make the muscles ripple. This was tricky in part because the models are not actually very detailed: some of what you see is "faked" with paint, not sculpted into the model. I was pretty happy with the flesh colors and then moved on to the mouth (sorry, no halfway photos here, though I wish I had some). I mixed a fleshy glaze and applied it in multiple layers around the "lips" area, matching the visual design of the box and rulebook art. At first, I was very unhappy with the appearance, and I was worried I had wrecked them. I took some more time to mix intermediate shades and try blending them in, and I tried to bring out more highlights at the edges and ridges. The result, I think, is one of the best blending jobs of any figure I've done.
Stranglers, amassing to form a target
Next up were the night terrors. The art on these figures is interesting, as they appear almost non-corporeal, which certainly matches the name. I built up in layers from almost black up to a mix of blue and white with a hint of green. I was pretty happy with these and took this picture thinking I would be done.
Night Terrors... but not quite yet complete
Looking at them the next day, I got to thinking about my goal to practice high contrast. These guys already have a lot of contrast... but is that my own delusion? What if I added even more contrast... what if I really turned it up to eleven? The card art certainly takes the highlights up closer to white than I had painted them. I decided to try it.
Super-contrast on the left, original on the right
I am sure I giggled with delight at the effect. I went through and touched them all up.
Night Terrors, actually complete
This brought me to the Goliath—a name which conjures up the notion that this creature was created only to be destroyed by so many Davids, but that's game design for you. I think I re-started this model twice before I got colors that really clicked. I believe I was trying to make it look muscular, similar to the stranglers, but in re-working it, I realized I needed more texture. Again, the model itself is kind of drab, devoid of detail, and I needed to use the paint to add texture, not just try to emphasize what was there.
Here are an undercoat and base color. Will it work this time?
After getting the two base layers down in a fairly straightforward approach, I started adding spots and bumps to the back, following the sculpted pattern but really trying to bring it out. For the “arms,” I put in thin parallel stripes, again to give more texture. After several layers of highlights, I had a flesh style that I was really happy with. The mouth tentacles are completely smooth, and I also decided to add some more textural interest there. The eyes are barely sculpted, and so I think this part is merely sufficient but nothing outstanding. The undersides of the arms were a little disappointing. Looking at it now, it doesn't look bad, but it's not quite what I wanted. I think I ran out of steam here. I tried using a bright yellow and then a sepia wash to bring out the shadows, but that just made the whole thing look dingy. I spent a lot of time just covering up areas where the wash had left unseemly spots. Despite this frustration, I think the overall model is quite good, having good contrast, interesting texture, and looking a bit frightening. Sorry that the images are a little overexposed.
*hack hack hack*
I happened to be working on this across the first weekend of the semester. I had already told my students in my course introduction that miniature painting is a hobby of mine. On the second Monday of the semester, I mentioned that they probably were involved in a range of activities: seeing old friends, making new friends, traveling home to spend time with family before big projects are assigned. I suggested that, perhaps, they wondered how their humble professor spent his weekend? Then I brought up this image and told them that I had spent it painting a demon's butt.

It's true, I spent hours staring at those cheeks.
This brings us to the heroes. The first one I painted was the Saloon Girl. I wonder, if she marries the U.S. Marshal, will she become Saloon Woman? Anyway, something interesting about this game is that each character card is reversible, with a different gender on each side. I first saw this in Legends of Andor, but that game used standees, so it was easy for them to include both male and female versions. Brimstone, on the other hand, only provides one gender of figure. I can't say I blame them, but I did wonder... what's a male Saloon Girl? Turns out it's a piano player. Hm. In digging up this picture, I came across an interesting theory that even this side is just a woman with a fake mustache, dressed up so she can come along monster-killing with the gents. It's hard to say without being able to tell what this character's skill is like with an actual piano.

Anyway, the figure was fun to paint. I used to fear reds, but now that I understand more about how to paint them, I see them as an exciting challenge. The Saloon Girl's outfit is highlighted up to orange, but it still reads as "red." Looking once again at contrast as a goal, I think this turned out well in several parts of this model, including the black trim that is highlighted up to grey. Her face is a bit flat, and I find faces hard to paint anyway. I tried to match the colors in the card art for all these characters, and I do wonder why the artist chose Christmas colors. I think I'll call her Merry.

Saloon Girl
Saloon Girl
Remember back when I said that I scrubbed these miniatures down after a bad priming job? Well, this was not entirely without casualties. The U.S. Marshal's rifle had a weak spot from the time I received it, and my old toothbrush was too much for it: the end of it broke off, never to be found.

Necessity, like Frank Zappa, is the mother of invention. I decided to try rebuilding the gun, making this my first real figure modification. I suppose if you split hairs, it's a repair job, but calling it a mod makes it sound more intentional. I found a straight pin that was the right diameter for the barrel...

and with a few snips of my wire cutters, some filing, superglue, and a touch of Milliput, my Marshal had a new weapon.

You may also remember that this guy leans backward. Many of the figures came off of their bases when I scrubbed them down, including him, which I took as an indication that he wasn't well on there in the first place. I decided that, after getting into the hobby about 1.5 years ago, it was time to start pinning. The first time I took my pin vise to a miniature, it was a bit daunting, but everything went smoothly. The first two I pinned were actually the Bandido and Gunslinger; the Marshal came afterward.

Compared to the Saloon Girl, the Marshal was a pretty dull miniature. I decided to put him in a matching vest and trousers, so there are not a lot of colors. The wooden handle to his rifle has some texture to it, and I used brown-red ink to try to make it look like stained wood. I built up the base with Milliput to make him standing on a slight slope, which helps correct his leaning pose as well.

I had moved on to the other heroes when I looked back at the Marshal and, as with the night terrors, wondered what would happen if I took up the contrast and highlights even more. I'm glad I did, as the final version is much more vibrant than before, when it was just too much brown. (Sorry, no comparison photos.)
U.S. Marshal
U.S. Marshal
The Bandido was much more fun to paint, with lots of accessories. I like how he has a very different look than the dull 19th-century men's fashion of the Marshal and Gunslinger. I'm happy with the contrast on his shirt, pants, and accessories. The green and white pattern on the hat is inspired by the card art and is mostly freehanded. It's not perfect, but it's sufficient. If anyone asks, it's not woven into the hat: the Bandido painted it himself. Also, once again, fun with reds, this time taking the highlights on the sash toward a mix of orange, yellow, and white. He's purposefully the hero around the most large stones, by the way, since he's the guy with the dynamite.
The last of the lot is the Gunslinger. I was going to refer to him as Gunhaver, but the trouble is that they all have guns. I mentioned 19th-century fashion above, and I was being serious. I looked around the Web a bit to see how others had painted their sets, and I am amazed at the number of people who have the Gunslinger in blue jeans and a black coat. I think this makes him look like a 1990s fashion reject rather than a stranger with no name. I ended up on the Wikipedia page about 1880s fashion and I thought, "There's a Wikipedia page about 1880s fashion?!" The Internet is an amazing place. Let me be... if not the first, then one of the few... to thank the community that maintains that page. As I suspected from my rigorous research (i.e. watching Deadwood), a gentleman certainly would have worn a matching jacket and trousers. As in the card art, I used a purple-pink waistcoat to add some color to what would otherwise be a dark model.
Here are all the heroes, standing together, ready to face evil.

Bring it on, evil.

Here they are, facing evil, and perhaps regretting that decision.
Don't look behind you...

Finally, to wrap things up, some happy family photographs.

Those tentacles are clearly less interesting than the rest.
Tall people... er, things... in the back

Some days, when I look at the variety of pictures I take during this projects, I think about building a lightbox, but where would I put it?

Thanks for reading!

Wait, what's that? How's the game, you ask?

I have no idea. We're still playing the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game.