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Planet Interactive Fiction

Sunday, 01. October 2023

IFComp News

Welcome to the 29th Annual IFComp!

♦2023 IFComp Logo, by Etheroxyde  We’re glad you’re here. If this is your first time joining us, welcome! If you’re already familiar with us, welcome back! Either way, we hope you have a great time and enjoy exploring some of the over seventy new games we have for you this year.What’s next? Check out the games, now live at You have until November 15, 2023 at 11:59pm Eastern to vote

2023 IFComp Logo, by Etheroxyde

We’re glad you’re here. If this is your first time joining us, welcome! If you’re already familiar with us, welcome back! Either way, we hope you have a great time and enjoy exploring some of the over seventy new games we have for you this year.

What’s next? 

  • Check out the games, now live at 
  • You have until November 15, 2023 at 11:59pm Eastern to vote. 
  • You only have to play & rate 5 games to be a judge*! (Yep, just five!)

    * We would love to expand the number of judges! You can help!
    Talk about the competition on social media, and encourage others to check out all these new games. Consider playing with a friend or family member who is new to interactive fiction, talk about the games together, and encourage them to vote as well. Thanks! 

We will do a post-competition survey to capture your ideas for improving the competition in the future, so if you have thoughts about improvements, please watch for the survey in November.

Any questions? Email us at [email protected]

Thank you in advance for judging!
—Jacqueline Ashwell, October 2023

Saturday, 30. September 2023

Renga in Blue

Korenvliet (1982)

U heeft on langs ver nomen dat Uw exentrieke oom Wout overleden is. Het gerucht gaat dat deze oude zonderling het landhuis Korenvliet heeft nagelaten aan degene die zijn testament weet te vinden. You recently heard your eccentric uncle Wout has passed away. Rumor is that he left the Korenvliet house to whoever could find […]

U heeft on langs ver nomen dat Uw exentrieke oom Wout overleden is. Het gerucht gaat dat deze oude zonderling het landhuis Korenvliet heeft nagelaten aan degene die zijn testament weet te vinden.

You recently heard your eccentric uncle Wout has passed away. Rumor is that he left the Korenvliet house to whoever could find his will.

From the Home Computer Museum in the Netherlands.

The Dutch company Koninklijke Philips N.V., or just Philips, was founded in the late 19th century making light bulbs. It eventually became an electronics (and electronics appliance) titan. They survived through WWII by managing to move the company’s capital and operations to the United States and the actual listed headquarters to the Netherlands Antilles, moving back to Europe afterwards (leaving the North American Philips Company as a separate company in the US). They were (and still are) large enough that their reach spread throughout all of Europe, with groups in countries like Belgium, Austria, and Sweden.

After WWII, they would seem like a natural company to gravitate to computers; however, Philips was used to more “mass” products, and computers at first seemed like something restricted to very large companies. They ended up having more success with components (particularly their Electronic Valves division) and in the mid-50s they made an agreement with IBM to provide them with components while they stayed out of the computer market (and vice versa). This agreement eventually slid apart by the end of the decade, first with the room-scale Philips Akelig Snelle Calculator (PASCAL) which went active starting in 1959.

From the Philips Technical Review 1961.

Soon after, Philips started manufacturing computers and related devices for office settings, using the naming format P1xxx. A 1971 catalog lists a P1020 Punched Tape Reader, a P1040 Disc Control Unit, a P1075 Central Machine, and a P1086 Teleprinter, amongst other devices meant for companies.

A P1070 Data Collection Device for feeding punched cards.

They focused on office computers for a long time, and snuck in the home market only sideways in 1975 via a gaming device, one of the first in Europe for homes, the Tele-Spiel ES-2201. It included swappable “cartridges” which were the hardware for a game (rather than stored programs).

They went on to manufacture the Philips Videopac G7000 (known in the US as the Magnavox Odyssey 2), a regular videogame system with traditional cartridges that was a competitor to the Atari 2600 (amongst other gaming consoles); however, unlike the Atari it came with a full keyboard and was partly in the odd hybrid console/computer state that was in vogue at the time (see also the Bally Astrocade).

Box close-up of an Odyssey 2 from CodeDojo.

Still, the Videopac wasn’t a proper home computer, and Philips finally entered the market in March 1980 with the P2000. According to this information from a former manager at Philips, the device was originally conceived of in Sweden (using the name P1000) before getting finished in Austria (being redubbed the P2000, since the P1xxx was used for office machines). I will confess I am still nebulous about this and I’ve seen contradictory information in various places but it does seem to be true that the machine was essentially Frankensteined together from various Philips products: an electronic typewriter as the base, tapes via a Philips dictation machine, cartridges via the Videopac. The display used a teletext screen, which made things simpler in manufacturing terms but meant the system was restricted to very low resolution. (The much more successful BBC Micro had a teletext mode but also a higher res mode; the P2000 did not.)

The long association of Philips with business put up a sincere concern amongst the company that people would be turned off, hence the founding of the Philips P2000 Computer Club (P2C2) in 1980 (technically speaking, opening up a closed-membership club founded the year before for research testing purposes). Computer clubs became a strong part of the early computing culture of the Netherlands (the group p2000gg coming a year later, in 1981).

Just like any other computer club, the P2C2 distributed programs, one of them being a port of Pirate Adventure to P2000 (translated into Dutch). What concerns us today is a Dutch original game from 1982, also from the the P2C2 but otherwise with no author.

While (see screenshots above) I do have a copy of the game via the P2000T Preservation Project, and I also have a copy from the late 80s in GW-BASIC, I started by playing the modern translated version:

A short adventure by Alexander van Oostenrijk @ Independent Software
(, based on the original korenvl.bas (author unknown).
Copyright 2016.
First-time players should type “about”.
Version 1.2

You were recently informed that your eccentric uncle Wout had passed away. There is a persistent rumor that the old crackpot left the Korenvliet estate to whomever manages to locate his will – even you, his least favorite nephew.

Today, you’ve dutifully travelled down to the village where the estate is located to start your search of the grounds.

Main Street
This is the cobbled main street of the village which has grown around the sprawling estate over time. The impressive front door of the stately villa of Korenvliet is to the east, while there is a small supermarket to the west and a village clinic to the southwest. A narrow path leads to a forest to the south, and there seems to be a vacant lot to the north.

One thing I had in the back of my head was that, despite “wacky inheritance” stories eventually becoming a whole category in text adventures, it wasn’t really a thing yet. In particular, the only other game I could think of with such a plot was Stoneville Manor, a completely innocuous game and the only one known by Randy Jensen.

Then I got to mapping, and found a balloon, a boat, a stove (?), a lake with a fish, a snorkel, a book…

> read book
You glean from the book that amateur hot air balloon construction requires a balloon, a stove with some fuel, a gondola and some cable or rope. It also states that one should build that balloon in “a suitable spot”. Well, that would be an interesting if risky project. It’s amazing what old Wout got up to in his old age. Since there has been no news of hot air balloon experiments near the village, he must not have gotten around to actually doing it.

…and then with the book it hit me: this was Stoneville Manor. This is actually a quite direct port.

The opening of Stoneville Manor.

The opening of Korenvliet. This is an exact translation into Dutch, other than the name of the manor has changed.

I decided immediately to test one of the most memorable things about the original game, which was going south twice to a forest, climbing a tree, and landing in a hospital. To get out of the hospital you need to type GET WELL.

Plaats: in het ziekenhuis

Uitgangen: uit

U ziet:

Wat nu: ga uit
Ik voel me niet goed.

Yes, it’s in! (“Ik voel me niet goed” -> “I don’t feel good”.) Unfortunately, I don’t know what the corresponding pun is in Dutch to escape the hospital, and I was not able to check the source code. (LIST in GW-BASIC upon loading the code gives me “Illegal function call” — something in the code is hacked to prevent listing it, I think? Either that or something in Dutch is confusing the program.)

I did sufficient tests to decide there weren’t any other changes of note, other than the lore of the game as a whole. The original had a Mr. Stone die who was no relation to yourself; in this case, it is your uncle.

This changes the lore to be based on a Dutch series of books! Specifically the Adriaan and Olivier books, a series of nine from the author Leonhard Huizinga. They kick off when the twins in the title inherit their country house from their previously unknown uncle, the house being, of course, Korenvliet.

So just to be clear about what happened:

Somehow issues of the English magazine Creative Computing ended up in the Netherlands. Specifically, December 1980 (for the Pirate Adventure source code) and August 1981 (for Stoneville Manor). Both games were ported by the Philips Computer Club. Pirate Adventure was always known as a Scott Adams game, but the Jensen one was a bit more obscure, so it was assumed to be originally written in Dutch. This version spread to more ports in the 80s (including GW-BASIC and MSX) and from the GW-BASIC version eventually got translated back to English in TADS 3 format by Alexander van Oostenrijk who was unaware there was an English original and made it “modern” with longer descriptions.

Friday, 29. September 2023

Key & Compass Blog

New walkthroughs for September 2023

On Friday, September 29, 2023, I published new walkthroughs for the games and stories listed below! Some of these were paid for by my wonderful patrons at Patreon. Please consider supporting me to make even more new walkthroughs for works of interactive fiction at Patreon and Ko-fi. Visit Skuga Lake – Masterpiece Edition (2023) by […]

On Friday, September 29, 2023, I published new walkthroughs for the games and stories listed below! Some of these were paid for by my wonderful patrons at Patreon. Please consider supporting me to make even more new walkthroughs for works of interactive fiction at Patreon and Ko-fi.

Visit Skuga Lake – Masterpiece Edition (2023) by Ryan Veeder (writing as “Leah Naidu”)

In this spooky magical game, you begin as Ryan interviewing author Leah Naidu about her story Visit Skuga Lake. Within her story, you play as Charybdis Argile, an intern for a travel magazine, locked in a closet by a suspicious motel manager. Use totemic magic to escape the closet, find your missing boss, and fix what’s wrong with this town.

IFDB | My walkthrough and maps

Killing Machine Loves Slime Prince (2023) by C.E.J. Pacian

In this odd sci-fi romance where your options are defined by your inventory, you play as a biomechanical and taciturn killing machine whose solar sail has just crashed on the Eighth Moon of Forsaken Edge. Your love, the Decoy Prince, is dying. Your quarry, the True Third Prince, is somewhere nearby. He will not escape you.

This game was written in Dialog.

IFDB | My walkthrough and map

Arthur’s Day Out (2021) by Jason “Waulok” Oakley

In this small game, you play as Arthur. After a drinking binge, you wake up in the pub’s broom closet with a headache. When you stumble out into the pub proper, there’s no barman. There isn’t anyone. What happened?

This game was an entry in Puny Jam #1 where it took 7th place.

IFDB | My walkthrough and map

The Asian Challenge (1989) by Conrad Button

In this educational game, you are playing as a Special Investigator for the Senate Foreign Aid Committee. Your mission is to obtain information about the Asian continent, the largest in the world. You begin your tour in Instanbul, Turkey, carrying only a compass and a scrap of paper.

This game was written in GW-BASIC.

IFDB | My walkthrough and maps

A Clean Getaway (2023) by Michael Bub

In this small escape game, you play as a PhD student and research scientist in an exciting new field. While working late after midnight in the clean room, you notice you’re alone, which should be impossible. It’s time to go home, but leaving will prove to be more difficult than usual.

This game was an entry in PunyJam #3, where it took 8th place.

IFDB | My walkthrough and map

Death Number Four (2021) by Dave Footitt

In this short game, you play as a heavily bandaged supernatural entity, summoned back into existence inside a pub’s broom closet. The local police inspector needs you to get inside the locked graveyard and speak to the dead.

This game was an entry in PunyJam #1 where it took 4th place.

IFDB | My walkthrough and map

The Fantasy Dimension (2023) by Johan Berntsson

In this small game, you play as an office worker in a high-tech airlock. How did you got there? A speaker voice asks you to pick a dimension to travel to. “Home” is rejected, but “fantasy world” works. Enjoy your generic fantasy adventure!

This game was an entry in PunyJam #3.

IFDB | My walkthrough and map

The Milk of Paradise (2009) by Josh Graboff

In this short game, you are the Khan in your pleasure dome. You are a ruler, a conqueror, handsome, excellent, eternal, yet your memories are strangely gone. O, my Khan, I am but your humble servant, and I shall guide you well.

This story was an entry in Spring Thing 2009 where it took 4th place (of four entries).

IFDB | My walkthrough and map

Pub Adventure! (2021) by Tom and Robin Edwards

In this small adventure, your pub is deserted. Your customers were scared away by the ghost of the previous landlord, and he won’t stop haunting the place until he gets a zombie cocktail. Easy.

This game was an entry in PunyJam #1 where it took 5th place.

IFDB | My walkthrough and map

Reg and the Kidnapped Fairy (2022) by William and Olivia BE Moore

In this small silly game, you play as Reg, the Good Werewolf. You love your family, you love your tacos, and you love to punch bad guys into space. And that’s all you need to know.

This game was an entry in La Petite Mort, English division of Ectocomp 2022 where it took 19th place.

IFDB | My walkthrough and map

Thursday, 28. September 2023

The People's Republic of Interactive Fiction

August PR-IF Post Mortem

The People’s Republic of Interactive Fiction convened on DATE. Kathryn Li, Zarf, Feneric, JPtuttle, Hugh, Flori, Stephen Eric Jablonski, Chris Martens, and anjchang, welcomed newcomer Biyi Wen. Photo credit: Zarf Notes credit: Zarf and Kathryn Li. A special thank you to Kathryn Li and Zarf for the notes and photos from the meeting. The below […] ↓ Read the rest of this entry...

The People’s Republic of Interactive Fiction convened on DATE. Kathryn Li, Zarf, Feneric, JPtuttle, Hugh, Flori, Stephen Eric Jablonski, Chris Martens, and anjchang, welcomed newcomer Biyi Wen. Photo credit: Zarf Notes credit: Zarf and Kathryn Li. A special thank you to Kathryn Li and Zarf for the notes and photos from the meeting. The below photo is an edit of the one received from Zarf. Warning: What follows is probably not proper English, but just my log of notes from the meeting to jog people’s memories.

Apple 2c had terrible key rollover. 65C02 processor. 5.25″ floppies.

Angela reports that Baba is You was enjoyed at the Recurse Center. Recently saw the anime film “Humanity has Declined” had a post-apocalyptic story mentioning narratives in comics.

MIT Museum event on 9/13 Everyone needs tickets. If you signed up, Angela will send the list of people to Flori so we all have tickets. Fiori is digitizing and cataloging old snapshots of Infocom, digitizing photos from a large donation of IF history. Their exhibit also includes images and feelies from an Infocom booth.

Boston Festival of Independent Games – old hardware

Zarf working on interpreter bugs.

Someone just republished CityN, 1999 Myst Clone

CM played Mask of the Rose

Elex– Gothic like story

Emily Shorts Choice of Games style Game Platinum Concierge

Biyi is researching media archaeology, working on comparative histories of personal computing, She is studying 80s and 90s computer culture in China. She is visiting MIT from U Colorado Boulder for a Mellon fellowship, and will be in year-long residence at the Trope Tank.

Boston Puzzle Hunt local puzzle hunt. Green Line Extension Theme.

Google Play Developers – TInkerSTories Rerelease due to SDK update. Lack of Space on development environments, recompiling all the time for App Store updates.People trying to update Android apps with the current SDK. (Android and iOS require developers to recompile. Windows doesn’t, which is why Windows has infinite layers of patch built into the OS.). Ruffle —

The state of make tools is horrible today with all the added SDKs.

Books by Steve Jackson Games, a Lovecraftian Choose Your Own Adventure prelaunched on Kickstarter, a set of six games called “Choose Cthulu”

Talk about game books—someone made a multiplayer first person shooter in a book

Ace of Aces – Flight Simulator in 2 Books

Feneric, one week left for introcomp voting

IFcomp is coming up! Submit something.

Choice of Games LLC

Get a coupon for 15% off purchases on

For a limited time, when you buy a “Choice of Games” game on our website at, we’ll send you a webstore coupon code for 15% off your next purchase!

For a limited time, when you buy a “Choice of Games” game on our website at, we’ll send you a webstore coupon code for 15% off your next purchase!

  • You’ll get an additional webstore coupon each time you purchase. That means that you can use a coupon to get 15% off, which, in turn, will give you another coupon for 15% off. You can keep using those coupons to buy every game we make for 15% off!
  • Each coupon expires in seven days. If you purchase Bread Must Rise today, you’ll need to use your coupon before October 5th to get the discount.
  • This offer only applies to “Choice of Games” games. “Hosted Games” games and “Heart’s Choice” games won’t generate a coupon, and the coupon you get for buying a “Choice of Games” game won’t allow buy an HG or HC game. (If that changes, we’ll let you know!)
  • This offer is only available on our website. When you buy games in our apps for iOS or Android, Apple and Google take 15% of our revenue. When you buy on Steam, Valve takes 30% of our revenue. On our website, we pay Stripe 2.9% + $0.30.
  • Feel free to share your coupon with a friend! Anybody can use the coupon, not just you.

The Bread Must Rise—Spice up a baking contest with necromancy!

We’re proud to announce that The Bread Must Rise, the latest in our popular “Choice of Games” line of multiple-choice interactive-fiction games, is now available for Steam, Android, and on iOS in the “Choice of Games” app. It’s 38% off until October 5th! In this magical baking contest, you’ll team up with the Queen Undying to bake your rivals into an early grave—or out

The Bread Must RiseWe’re proud to announce that The Bread Must Rise, the latest in our popular “Choice of Games” line of multiple-choice interactive-fiction games, is now available for Steam, Android, and on iOS in the “Choice of Games” app.

It’s 38% off until October 5th!

In this magical baking contest, you’ll team up with the Queen Undying to bake your rivals into an early grave—or out of the grave, with necromancy!

The Bread Must Rise is a 450,000-word interactive comedy/fantasy/baking/eldritch horror novel by James Beamon and Stewart C. Baker. It’s entirely text-based, without graphics or sound effects, and fueled by the vast, unstoppable power of your imagination.

Also, by lots of terrible jokes.

You’ve been chosen as one of six contestants in the Great Godstone Bakeoff! Godstone, renowned throughout the twelve mostly civilized realms as the “city of a thousand bakeries,” is not what it once was. The Queen Undying, a necromancer rumored to have a taste for human blood, has filled its streets with terror, while the robe-shrouded members of the Carb Freeon cult threaten bakers with impunity. And something is off with the City Council, a group of shadowy figures who nobody ever remembers seeing.

You’re one of Godstone’s top bakers, with a scrappy little business, a mysterious confectionary legacy from your late parents, and a former best friend who stole your recipes to make his own fame and fortune. You’ve got a lot to prove in this competition, and you’ll stop at nothing to reach the top of the profiterole tower.

But everything changes when the Queen Undying herself appears at your bakery. The queen has forced you to become her newest thrall, helpless to resist her eldritch power. And, for mysterious reasons, she’s commanding you to make her your baking assistant!

Exercise your breadcraft magic to turn the saddest soggiest-bottomed bakes into stunning showstoppers; sweet-talk the judges into giving you the win; or just put in good old-fashioned hard work. If you’re not satisfied with just making bread rise, maybe you’ll start making the dead rise, too: necromancy is powerful, and the Queen Undying’s spells might be just what you need to complete that recipe…or to take down your rival once and for all.

Play up to the press, win the adoration of your fans, and navigate the influence of the Carb Freeon cult as you bake your way to fame! The farther you go in the tournament, the closer you get to learning the secrets of your own past, uncovering clues about your parents’ life and death. And the closer you come to learning the City Council’s shadowy plans for Godstone…

• Play as male, female, or nonbinary; gay, straight, bi, pan, or asexual.
• Choose your ingredients: play in omnivore, vegetarian, or vegan mode.
• Manage your budget to fill your pantry with the finest magical and mundane ingredients.
• Find love with Godstone’s fanciest food critic, a dreaded necromancer, a former adventurer, the Bakeoff’s charismatic host, or even your best-friend-turned-worst-enemy!
• Quell the Carb Freeon cult or join its ranks.
• Sell out to the realm’s biggest bakery franchise or triumph as a plucky small business owner.
• Gaze upon the horrors of eldritch dimensions.

Will you take home the trophy or fade into bland obscurity? One thing’s for sure: you’ll never look at brownies the same way again.

We hope you enjoy playing The Bread Must Rise. We encourage you to tell your friends about it, and recommend the game on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and other sites. Don’t forget: our initial download rate determines our ranking on the App Store. The more times you download in the first week, the better our games will rank.

Tuesday, 26. September 2023

Renga in Blue

Sphinx Adventure: Be Humble in the Eyes of the Sphinx

I’ve finished the game, and you can read all my posts in sequence starting here. So from last time, I really had one key puzzle that caused nearly all the rest of the puzzles to fall down easily — we’re talking puzzles like, “bring cheese to a mouse” followed by “use the mouse to scare […]

I’ve finished the game, and you can read all my posts in sequence starting here.

A map made by a fan that eventually was packaged with the game, via Stardot.

So from last time, I really had one key puzzle that caused nearly all the rest of the puzzles to fall down easily — we’re talking puzzles like, “bring cheese to a mouse” followed by “use the mouse to scare away an elephant”. Most of what remained was … well, I wouldn’t say “busywork”, exactly, but there was a lot of shuttling things back and forth, and there was one large maze left I that I just threw the towel in on and looked it up (see the upper right corner of the map above; it’s a very long desert maze leading to the Sphinx of the game). I do say “most” as there was one more obnoxious “hidden puzzle” and the final puzzle was genuinely interesting.

(And before I go on, “hidden puzzle”: a puzzle where it is unknown on surface glance to the player there even is a puzzle, and they have to try some act which reveals a secret exit or item or something of that sort.)

The lamp light issue turned out to be relatively straightforward to resolve once I decided that yes, most definitely there is no way to get through the game fast enough, and that there’s no “vending machine” equivalent. I went back to study my verb list, not terribly long…

KNEEL is still important.

… and found you’re just supposed to RUB LAMP, and only after your lamp starts to lose strength.

Out of the issues I listed last time, I had

a.) getting the hydraulic jack at the rocks

b.) getting the mouse at the castle

c.) doing something at the fairy grotto, maybe?

d.) doing something with a “friendly rabbit” that follows you around the safe area, you can feed it a carrot but that’s a treasure, and it otherwise seems useless

e.) getting out of the monster at the lake

and let me add f.) the collapsing bridge at the glacier, which I forgot to list even though I had a screenshot of it in the post.

d turned out to be, as I suspected, a red herring — just don’t go into the room with the rabbit, use the carrot as a treasure, and move on with life.

Out of a, b, c, d, and f, I needed to solve c (fairy grotto) first, which was required to solve all the remaining issues.

Yes, just waving the wand did it, the same one that created the bridges. The game is establishing a general pattern here of magical items doing more than one thing, and the ring is no different. You can rub it to teleport (you go back to the Sorcerer’s Room near the lake) or, rather more mysteriously, it lets you walk over the bridge at the glacier.

There’s no good logic to the “physics” here; you’re just supposed to find out it happens.

While I had the fairy area on my to-solve list, having a hidden puzzle be so crucial is a dangerous move in game design. You often will have players see puzzles B, C, and D, and no others, and try hopping between them in an attempt to break through; yet all the time there was puzzle A they didn’t even know about that was the crucial hook. This sort of secret observation can be enjoyable for those who find it and intense frustration for those who don’t.

Wrapping up the other puzzles on my list, the teleportation feature of the rings means it is easy to escape after picking up the hydraulic jack, and it does indeed work on the clam to get a treasure inside.

b (mouse) and d (lake monster) required exploring the area past the glacier bridge, where there’s a “Hall of the Mountain King” (of course).

(The teeth came from killing the dragon. Having powers manifest by throwing the teeth is a fantasy trope that I already had in my head but I’m not remembering from where. Did Ray Harryhausen do something along those lines?)

Other than that hall there are some gnome halls, where I found some cheese, which I could re-direct back to the mouse at the castle (trudge trudge trudge, at least I didn’t have to worry about lamp light any more)…

Via a different hand-drawn map of Sphinx Adventure, from a post on Medium by Mark Burgess.

…and then the mouse I could take back to the Mountain King area (trudging, but with a teleport making the path slightly shorter) where there was also an elephant.

This opened a path to some matches, that I immediately realized (from the bad smell, also the fact this puzzle appeared in Brand X) that they were the solution to the sea monster puzzle.

This leads to a very small area and the annoying hidden puzzle I was mentioning. So the wand has two totally different uses; the ring has two totally different uses; the word diaxos (previously used to open a vault) has two different uses.

Well, not completely different: you’re still opening something. But diaxos elsewhere causes the creaking sound of the safe opening, so I made the perfectly natural assumption that’s exactly the place it affects. I was even prepared to praise the puzzle as having a normal and solvable “physics” to the magic (unlike the ring + glacier bridge) but apparently diaxos is just a general opening spell. If I squint slightly I can see how that works, but I admit I didn’t solve the puzzle myself; I got indirect help from Anthony Hope who wrote a walkthrough. (He hasn’t even commented yet, so I’ll wave and say hi. You may remember him from the video walkthrough of Xanadu Adventure.)

Oh well. There was a bit of mop-up work otherwise but fairly straightforward, like using the keys from way back at the start to unlock a chest with treasure.

I assume this is where you rescue any treasures stolen by the pirate. The funny thing is you don’t have to even meet the pirate; he is in a room that can be stepped around, and he doesn’t “activate” and start doing random stealing until you’ve met him once.

Most of what remained was toting a large pile of treasures over to the sphinx, and this is where I hit my Maze Limit: it’s a long, boring desert. I just looked up the solution.

From Stardot. Yes, it takes that many steps. Yes, there’s a wrong exit near the end that sends you to the start.

I keep in mind with such moments that this was designed one step removed from Adventure, so it isn’t like the author experienced the many wonderful, wonderful games that dispensed with the idea of mazes altogether. Alas. (And in seriousness, it does feel like the author was trying to “recreate the experience” while still being different; the mazes loom large enough in the original game I could see their absence being felt in a tribute.)

And now we are at the final puzzle. There was a message earlier in the game, at the jar of spices, to

be humble in the eyes of the sphinx and use your brains

and I already had kept the verb list in mind, so I tried the long-awaited KNEEL:

You are kneeling down.

And … nothing. One more action!

Re-using the magic wand yet again for a new purpose. Fair enough!

Sphinx Adventure wasn’t exactly hard as much as slow; I’m eliding over “and then I had to make another trip” and my backtracking to optimize a little because it turned out to be less annoying than remembering where everything was scattered.

For its purpose — to introduce some people to adventures for what I believe is the first time, based on reactions — I think it worked. The game never tried to use its simple parser for anything too heavy, avoiding a common trap for early adventure writers. Also, while the “bring every treasure to the sphinx at the very end rather than the building at the start” seems like a minor tweak, it does make for a genuine one: having toted everything across the map felt like an epic journey, so the small change in mechanics affected the narrative significantly.

Coming up next: U heeft on langs ver nomen dat Uw exentrieke oom Wout overleden is. Het gerucht gaat dat deze oude zonderling het landhuis Korenvliet heeft nagelaten aan degene die zijn testament weet te vinden.

Zarf Updates

Unity followup

I wrote about Unity's license change a couple of weeks ago. Unity responded to all the yelling on Friday, so I guess I should follow up. The summary of the changes: The runtime fee does not apply to people using the Unity Personal or (soon ...

I wrote about Unity's license change a couple of weeks ago. Unity responded to all the yelling on Friday, so I guess I should follow up.

The summary of the changes:

  • The runtime fee does not apply to people using the Unity Personal or (soon to be extinguished) Unity Plus subscription.
  • The runtime fee only applies to games using Unity 2024 and later.
  • The runtime fee is capped at 2.5% of your game's revenue.
  • "Installs" is self-reported. They're saying "initial engagements" now, with notes that you can ignore piracy, reinstalls, and other corner cases.

Also, the splash screen requirement for Personal is being removed. (For Unity 2024 and later.) I laughed, because that was my first response to this whole debacle:

Since Unity will now benefit financially per install of a game, I’m sure they will remove the requirement to display their logo on startup. (Which was their previous strategy for benefiting per install.)

Right? Right?

--@zarfeblong, Sept 12

Points for being right, but my logic doesn't really hold. The splash screen requirement only applied to Personal, which is now exempt from the runtime fee. So this is a real concession -- just a very tiny one. Unity doesn't need the splash screen any more. Everybody knows who they are. They can afford to drop it. Well, good on them for noticing.

Bagatelles aside, what do I think of the new terms?

Short answer: there is still retroactive license screwing. My followup comment still applies:

Unity is now in the phase of “Oh, we can explain, it’s not as bad as it sounded at first."

What they do not grok is that even if this price hike isn’t so bad, developers are now terrified of next year’s price hike. Because the one thing we know about next year’s price hike is that it will also be retroactive.

How can a studio possibly budget for that?

--@zarfeblong, Sept 14

Unity backed out the current "retroactive change" wankery. Anybody using an old version of Unity can keep using that version with no new fees.

However, that is not the same as fixing the problem. Unity can still change the license terms out from under you; they can still hike the license fees at will.

Crucially, they have not restored the "no harm no foul" line from the old license terms. This paragraph was introduced in January 2019:

Unity Editor Software Terms 8. Modifications. Unity may update these Unity Software Additional Terms at any time for any reason and without notice (the “Updated Terms”) and those Updated Terms will apply to the most recent current-year version of the Unity Software, provided that, if the Updated Terms adversely impact your rights, you may elect to continue to use any current-year versions of the Unity Software (e.g., 2018.x and 2018.y and any Long Term Supported (LTS) versions for that current-year release) according to the terms that applied just prior to the Updated Terms (the “Prior Terms”).

You can still see this paragraph at, but it is marked as "Replaced: October 13, 2022". In fact the October 2022 terms had a similar paragraph. However, the April 2023 terms did not.

Unity's FAQ says:

We will make sure that you can stay on the terms applicable for the version of Unity you are using as long as you keep using that version. We will post these changes on our GitHub repository and

But they haven't done that. And even when (if?) they do, it's a small consolation to any developer who needs to update Unity because of toolchain dependencies, SDK dependencies, or, you know, all the other thousand reasons you might need to update your tools.

So that's the big thing. The rest of Unity's changes are... well, basically I don't care.

Letting developers self-report "installs" (or "initial engagements") is sensible. A big company knows about how many copies it's sold. Small studios may not, but small studios are already below the thresholds and so what if they lie? Unity needs to make its money off the big gorillas.

The real problem with "initial engagements" is that it's way too complicated. "How can a studio budget for that?" I asked. Well, the fee is capped at 2.5% of gross revenue share, so that's how you have to budget. Then you can ignore "installs" entirely. Just say Unity's fee is 2.5% revshare! It's simple! It's half of Unreal Engine's 5% revshare! (Which is blatantly the point.)

See, this is how you know this whole mess wasn't a clever scheme. You can find any number of UFO-wall-pointers saying, ha ha, first they post terrible license terms, then they change them to be less bad, and everybody is happy! It's smart PR work!

No, it's stupid. If Unity had been playing us, they would have had better terms ready to go. Not this unholy patchwork of the old terms and revshare. They also wouldn't have spent two weeks bleeding out all over the floor, image-wise. With leaks and rumors confusing the picture.

Only the very biggest gorillas (and their accountants) will work through the tangle. Maybe Unity's discounts will entice them into using Unity's in-house ad service. Maybe not. I don't care. The whole thing just underscores that Unity has stopped caring about any game smaller than Super Gacha Free Boot To The Head: Platinum Edition.

My position remains unchanged. It is stupid to use Unity for any new project.

Unity is fairly safe for students and tiny indies (like me). Like I said, Unity just doesn't care about us; we're too small-scale to pay their bills. And now they know that even seeming to threaten us is terrible, awful publicity. Unity Personal will probably remain free for the foreseeable future.

However, Unity experience is now wasted experience. If you're going to work on your own stuff, an open-source engine is probably fine for you, long-term. Might as well switch now! And if you're looking for a job -- well, the paying companies are the ones who are now switching to Unreal. Or planning to do so for the next game.

It looks like I'm not the only one thinking this, either:

It is with a heavy heart that we are announcing Wednesday, September 27th as the date of the final Boston Unity Group event. [...] Since our launch in 2010, the focus of BUG has been first and foremost about supporting developers, not the Unity company. As members of the broader Boston game developer community, we feel our efforts as organizers would be better spent creating opportunities for everyone, not just Unity users. Please join us as we all work together in the larger local development community to continue to host events and presentations for all to enjoy. -- Boston Unity Group farewell

Strong move, and I have nothing to add.

Monday, 25. September 2023

Choice of Games LLC

Author Interview: Stewart C. Baker & James Beamon, The Bread Must Rise

In this magical baking contest, you’ll team up with the Queen Undying to bake your rivals into an early grave—or out of the grave, with necromancy! The Bread Must Rise is a 450,000-word interactive comedy/fantasy/baking/eldritch horror novel by James Beamon and Stewart C Baker. I sat down with James and Stewart to talk about their unique collaboration and truly unique genre. The Bread Must Ri

In this magical baking contest, you’ll team up with the Queen Undying to bake your rivals into an early grave—or out of the grave, with necromancy!

The Bread Must Rise is a 450,000-word interactive comedy/fantasy/baking/eldritch horror novel by James Beamon and Stewart C Baker. I sat down with James and Stewart to talk about their unique collaboration and truly unique genre. The Bread Must Rise releases this Thursday, September 28th. You can play the first three chapters today, for free

Choice of Games rarely works with co-authors on a single game, but it seems you two make a wonderful team. Tell me about how you collaborated to create The Bread Must Rise.

Stewart: When they work, collaborations are fantastic. This one was fantastic! There something that’s absolutely magical about stepping away from a project for a few days and then seeing a few thousand new words pop up when you come back to it. Plus, it helps to have someone else who’s laughing at your jokes as you write them. I’ve known James for a while from Codex (an online writing group) and SFWA, and had a story in an anthology he edited, so I felt like we’d be a good fit.

On a more technical note, we used Notepad++ for writing, CSIDE for testing, and a shared folder in Dropbox to help us not accidentally overwrite each other’s work. We also met weekly for most of the last two years(!!!) to check in on where we were, and where we were going. (It’s going to be pretty weird not to have a Bread Must Rise meeting every Saturday morning.) There were a few bumps early on when we didn’t quite have Dropbox set up the way we thought we did, but otherwise it’s been smooth sailing!

James: Stewart and I have shared the table of contents before and both write humorous fiction, so we were already pretty familiar with each other’s work and could appreciate each other’s humor. I recall Stewart asking me if I was interested in writing a game. Since and I had never done that and I’m pretty quick to try something new, I was immediately on board. We pitched a few ideas to Choice of Games, The Bread Must Rise is what really resonated with everyone over there and from there Stewart and I just took off writing.

What baking competitions did you draw inspiration from?

James: I rarely watch baking competitions. I watched a couple once the pitch for The Bread Must Rise was accepted to get a better sense of the competition format. Mostly my inspiration came from Kitchen Nightmares.

Stewart: I’ve also watched a lot of Gordon Ramsay over the years. The in-game baking contest’s name is a pretty obvious nod to The Great British Bake-Off, although I think they call it something else on this side of the pond. Our contest is much more antagonistic than GBBO, though, which is generally lovely and kind even if there are moments of tension. My hands-down favorite baking competition, though, is Nailed It!, which comes through in both the failure text for the Bake-Off rounds and the overall panicked tone of those chapters, where you really don’t have enough time to do everything you want. (Netflix, if you’re reading this, I think an episode with a bunch of writers would be awesome and I promise you I’m extremely mediocre in the kitchen!)

What were some of the tropes you wanted to play against or with?

Stewart: For me, the trope at the core of this game was the idea of the “dark lord” who isn’t quite what they seem. The basic idea of the Queen Undying draws a lot from that. I watch a lot of anime, and especially like slice of life and isekai (“other world”) series, so there’s a good deal of that here, as well. That said, there are many, many, many other nods and references to tropes, movies, books, and memes in this game. I don’t think even James or I could name all of them on our own!

James: I’m a fan of trope subversion, so I look for opportunities to have fun with the well established fantasy tropes like The Chosen One of Prophecy as well as non-fantasy ones like the Nestea Plunge (both of which are in there!). Ultimately, there are few things I ever really want to play straight and this game gave me an opportunity to turn a lot of tropes on their ear.

What do you think will surprise players about a game that includes baking and necromancy?

Stewart: The brownies. Definitely the brownies. Jokes aside, I think players may be surprised that we managed to add emotional beats into a concept that seems like it has no room for anything but zany comedy. Sometimes the emotional beats even are the zany comedy!

James: I think just saying “baking and necromancy” together should be a surprise itself! I think the contrast works well to cover a range of scenarios that crop up, whether in the arena baking or on the streets of Godstone. Besides, dead things need baking… it’s the nature of food.

This is one of the funniest games we’ve published in recent memory. Tell me how humor tempers the players’ experience in taking the goals of the game rather seriously.

James: When our beta tester Aletheia said something to the effect of “I don’t really care if I win or not, I’m just having so much fun playing” that made me and Stewart geek out for a good half an hour because that was precisely what we were going for… a game where a player can have fun in both success and failure. I wanted the players to laugh at how they’re succeeding and of course, laughing at what screw ups result in. Let’s face it, failure’s funny and I think this game lets players fail in a fun way without it feeling like it’s game over and waste of a save file.

Stewart: Agreed, that was a great boost! (Also, shout out to Aletheia, who improved this game’s playability and coherence so much.) Like James with tropes, I really enjoy subverting reader expectations with humor. At least for me, I’m always looking at “what might readers expect to happen next, and how can I screw that up?” when I write comedy. But while the game doesn’t take itself too seriously, I hope readers still find the world of Godstone and characters that inhabit it engaging and memorable. Some of the characters nearest and dearest to my own heart come from series that don’t take themselves seriously at all (Discworld, Ranma 1/2, Undertale, Steven Universe) so I don’t think humor and seriousness are necessarily opposites. Although then I remember some of the absolutely ridiculous things we did in this game and feel compelled to amend that statement to: they aren’t always necessarily opposites.

What are you working on next?

Stewart: Great question! We just finished writing a short spin-off game for this year’s IFComp, titled One Does Not Simply Fry. That one’s about frying onion rings at the base of Mount Boom, and it’s also chock full of jokes, tropes, and allusions, albeit with a much narrower focus than The Bread Must Rise. With both these games out of the way, maybe I’ll find time to revisit some languishing prose fiction projects. I have a novel, a couple of novellas, and a number of short stories that need revising… I’ve also been playing with watercolors lately, and even though I’m absolutely terrible at that it’s been a really satisfying change of pace after so many words.

James: A vacation! This was the longest project I’ve ever worked on without stopping. It’s time to stop for a hot minute.

Gold Machine

Trinity: A Critical Introduction

More fear in and of the 1980s. They will take this world from ocean to oceanthey will turn on each otherthey will destroy each otherUp herein these hillsthey will find the rocks,rocks with veins of green and yellow and black.They will lay the final pattern with these rocksthey will lay it across the worldand explode […] The post Trinity: A Critical Introduction appeared first on Gold Machine.

More fear in and of the 1980s.

They will take this world from ocean to ocean
they will turn on each other
they will destroy each other
Up here

in these hills
they will find the rocks,
rocks with veins of green and yellow and black.
They will lay the final pattern with these rocks
they will lay it across the world
and explode everything.

“Long Time Ago,” Leslie Marmon Silko

Trinity (1986)

Brian Moriarty

Story format: Interactive Fiction Plus (Z4)
File size: 225.9K
Rooms: 134
Takeable objects: 49
Vocabulary: 2120

Eventually, When We’re All Turned to Ash

It’s hard to remember, let alone explain, the extent to which many Americans (others too, I’m sure, but I speak of my own experiences) internalized one of the twentieth century’s most outlandish promises: annihilation in a rain of fire and ash. That used to be the kind of thing only our gods got up to, but we humans had moved up in the world. We could end everything; we could make our planet unlivable. I’ve talked about this before: I was taught to expect nuclear war, to prepare for it. In early grade school, there were two types of tornado drills. For the first kind, we followed our teachers into mostly windowless hallways made of painted cinderblock. For the second, we hid under our desks. There, we waited on our knees, clasping our hands behind our necks, making ourselves small.

Some tornado!

The Abrahamic God made promises in scripture: this world and its creatures were ours to do with whatever we wished. It seemed that one of the possibilities was ruining everything that had ever been or might be. It might be said that, with this power, we had risen to the station of a god, but I’m not sure that’s true. While Yahweh did not return Job’s daughters to him, He did at least call in some understudies. In the wake of atomic annihilation, we could not promise the same.

Ours was not the power of creation or destruction on a divine scale. We could only ruin things.

I had a desk in my bedroom at home, and I sometimes held drills of my own. We called this practice “Duck and Cover.” The cover image for last week’s post featured Bert the Turtle, a character created by the Federal Civil Defense Administration, a likable and probable survivor meant to appeal to schoolchildren. That’s something we adults still do: make children a part of our very adult idiocies, even daring to assign them responsibilities. “Here’s some things you kiddos should do if grownups destroy the world.”

That’s something we adults still do: make children a part of our very adult idiocies.

Death by fire was a preoccupation in our media: Missile Command was a popular game in arcades. I’ve said this before: no matter how good you were at Missile Command, it always ended the same way: annihilation. An incredible variety of songs concerned with man-made apocalypse pervaded our popular culture. Films, books, and television were no different. We laughed nervously at films like Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Laughed, because they were absurd. Nervously, because World War 2 taught us that absurdity afforded us no protection.

What was it like to live in anticipation of such an event? It’s been so long since the fall of the Soviet Union that it may be hard, even for those of us who were around, to recall that mentality with sufficient force. Does this distance mean that we are safer? Can we be trusted to know? Certainly, the bombs are still around, and more countries have access to them. It may be that we struggle to appreciate danger unless it is made manifest by our ideological opposite, by a suitable enemy. They weren’t just nukes, after all, they were Soviet nukes. What is our perception of danger when its dramatizing framework falls away?

Take that classic American western High Noon. It might as well be nothing, or less than nothing, without Will Kane’s nemesis, Frank Miller.

Many children my age accepted the coming fire as inevitable. This was a helplessness we could either ignore or accept, but fighting seemed impossible. I belabor this point because this is the condition of Trinity‘s production. Inevitability (I will resist the word “futility” for now) is a central thread running through the entirety of Trinity.

This was a helplessness we could either ignore or accept, but fighting seemed impossible.

As promised last time, I’m interested in the relationship between art and history. I don’t assume that historical fact is necessarily an aesthetic virtue, but I think some features of historical fact are. For instance, it can be said that tragedy in a classical (or Shakespearean) sense deals with the inevitable. The tragic is what must be, and it is structurally geometric. This is a trait shared with history, which asserts itself to be a truth about the past. The past is, like tragedy, unchanging and therefore inevitable. It can be reinterpreted, but each new interpretation insists upon its own inevitability. While Trinity is not a tragedy, it uses inevitability–the inevitability of history–to evoke a tragic atmosphere. This feature will require a much more exhaustive reading in a future post.

Putting history aside, I think that new conditions have made the crisis of Trinity feel pressing in our time. In truth, they were present in 1986, but they have grown harder for thoughtful persons to ignore. I’m speaking, of course, of the climate crisis, in which feelings of helplessness and resignation threaten to similarly overwhelm. Even if the oven isn’t so hot this time, the end-state is ruin on a lesser yet more embarrassing scale. Lesser, because we will probably still be around to fight wars over water in a few decades. I say more “embarrassing” because it will all happen to preserve or increase the wealth of a very small–and I mean bafflingly small–portion of the world’s population. There is no Soviet boogeyman to blame. This time, we can’t even pretend to be ready by hiding under our desks.

This time, we can’t even pretend to be ready by hiding under our desks.

I suspect that Moriarty was not indifferent to the underlying issue–our relationship with the whole of creation. Consider the important role that animals play in Trinity. More than anything else, the portrayal of animals in Trinity demands a vital, urgent, and contemporary interrogation of our assumptions–our hubris–regarding our place in this world.


Our coverage of Trinity continues with a survey of the critical landscape: reviews, criticism, and other media.

The post Trinity: A Critical Introduction appeared first on Gold Machine.

Sunday, 24. September 2023

Renga in Blue

Sphinx Adventure: The Monster’s Lunch

(Previous posts on this game in chronological order here.) So despite a few more simple puzzles, this one’s been fighting back a bit. Part of the issue is logistical: the lamp timer is very, very, tight, so tight (given the conditions of where I need to go) that I have a feeling there has to […]

(Previous posts on this game in chronological order here.)

Via eBay.

So despite a few more simple puzzles, this one’s been fighting back a bit. Part of the issue is logistical: the lamp timer is very, very, tight, so tight (given the conditions of where I need to go) that I have a feeling there has to be a way to revive the lamp’s battery. I can’t even find a way to turn the lamp off to conserve power when needed (the usual suspects EXTINGUISH, OFF, TURNOFF, and UNLIGHT don’t work).

Both CROSS and KNEEL immediately stand out as rare. I’ll get into them later.

The other issue — common for these games with lamp-light timers — is logistics. Some places are far away from each other, and my last lingering puzzles are fairly spread out in a way that it is hard to do an immediate test — it may be that item X across the map is needed for puzzle Y, but it takes a while to check the possibility and it may require re-routing my entire sequence (again, given the lamp light timer is tight).

A meta-map showing connectivity, directions are not accurate. I found a method of travel across the lake but I get stuck right away so I don’t know where that goes; it requires an item from the Castle, so that’s at least one big back-and-forth.

If the inventory limit was absolutely unlimited — and it initially appeared that way — it still wouldn’t be much a problem, but there is a limit, and since one of the main gimmicks is that the treasure-destination (the Sphinx) is hard to find I’ve been having to tote all the treasures around. If it turns out, for example, the Sphinx is on the other side of the lake and it is a one-way trip, I need to be carrying every point-valuable object in the game while doing so, which is tricky because even some non-treasure-like items count for points (like the bottle).

Continuing the action from last time, I had retrieved some items in an area past a crocodile. I had the fairy grotto which may or may not have just been atmosphere; KNEEL doesn’t give any special response other than “You are kneeling down.”

Going off in another direction is an area past the troll:

A bit to the west there’s a friendly bear that just starts following (unlike the one in Crowther/Woods, you don’t need to feed it). There’s also a puzzle that I’ve yet to solve, where you tumble down some rocks and get trapped. You need to do this because there’s a hydraulic jack I am 99.999% sure is used to open a clam later (again from Crowther/Woods, in that game you used a trident to open the clam).

To the east there’s an ogre you can take down with a sword, and still the weird interface which asks if you want to use your bare hands first.

This is followed by an orc the bear takes care of (the bear the disappears); as an aside there’s a glacier which the wand works on to make a bridge, but the bridge always collapses when you try to cross, even if you have no inventory items.

Then there’s a dragon where (unlike everyone else) you say YES when it comes to using your bare hands.

This leaves behind some dragon teeth.

It’s a curious “fix” to the puzzle; certainly there’s no need to mysteriously assume the game will understand YES, but on the other hand, but having it be part of a progression of monsters, it’s confusing that a dragon would be easier to beat in fisticuffs than an ogre.

Moving on further (ignoring the fact the jack is unobtained for now) there’s a maze. Despite it being “fair” (no connections are one-way, diagonals aren’t included, it is technically drawable on paper) it pulls off a mean trick.

Specifically, it appears at first — especially with some “color” rooms — that no special effort is needed to map, and just the names of the rooms are sufficient. However, right away the game gives a “red room” that looks close to what turns out to be a totally different “red room”.

If you look closely the exits are different, but I got myself befuddled by assuming after a sequence of four moves that I landed back in the same red room I started at, when I was in an entirely different red room.

Once I realized the trick I just started dropping items as normal to map the maze. Then it just becomes the usual tedium.

Have any of the direct-imitation-of-Adventure variants we’ve seen — that is, games where the author is only one step removed — dropped having a maze? I don’t recall any.

All this leads to a castle:

Not much of interest here, other than there’s a vampire that requires using a wooden stake found back at the Everglades, so that’s another bit of forced travel sequence (you can try to not open the casket, but upon returning to the courtyard the vampire has opened the casket themselves).

The castle also contains a mouse (runs away so I can’t take it, but I assume there’s a trick) and a wooden boat that you can carry along with everything else. (The item limit is 17, so the visual is kind of hilarious. But you need more than 17 items to keep everything!)

The wooden boat can get toted back to the lake. I was stuck for a while on verbs (just THROW BOAT, GO BOAT didn’t work) until I tried CROSS LAKE, referring to the lake noun rather than the boat itself.

…and here I am stuck. To summarize, I haven’t solved

a.) getting the hydraulic jack at the rocks

b.) getting the mouse at the castle

c.) doing something at the fairy grotto, maybe?

d.) doing something with a “friendly rabbit” that follows you around the safe area, you can feed it a carrot but that’s a treasure, and it otherwise seems useless

e.) getting out of the monster at the lake

All of these might have simple answers but even given a very generous item limit I’m now having to juggle, and even making a very direct beeline for all the items possible I start running out of lamp light around the castle. This still doesn’t feel the same as being stuck on Hezarin, but being unable to make progress looks roughly the same from one game to the other, so it doesn’t matter if the underlying system is much simpler (and by necessity, any puzzle solve will have to be straightforward).

Friday, 22. September 2023

Interactive Fiction – The Digital Antiquarian

Magic and Loss, Part 2: Magic on the Screen

It seems poetically apt that Peter Adkison first met Richard Garfield through Usenet. For Magic: The Gathering, the card game that resulted from that meeting, went on to usher in a whole new era of tabletop gaming, during which it became much more tightly coupled with digital spaces. The card game’s rise did, after all, […]

It seems poetically apt that Peter Adkison first met Richard Garfield through Usenet. For Magic: The Gathering, the card game that resulted from that meeting, went on to usher in a whole new era of tabletop gaming, during which it became much more tightly coupled with digital spaces. The card game’s rise did, after all, coincide with the rise of the World Wide Web; Magic sites were among the first popular destinations there. The game could never have exploded so quickly if it had been forced to depend on the old-media likes of Dragon magazine to spread the word, what with print publishing’s built-in lag time of weeks or months.

But ironically, computers could all too easily also be seen as dangerous to the immensely profitable business Wizards of the Coast so speedily became. So much of the allure of Magic was that of scarcity. A rare card like, say, a Lord of the Pit was an awesome thing to own not because it was an automatic game-winner — it wasn’t that at all, being very expensive in terms of mana and having a nasty tendency to turn around and bite you instead of your opponent — but because it was so gosh-darned hard to get your hands on. Yet computers by their very nature made everything that was put into them abundant; here a Lord of the Pit was nothing but another collection of ones and zeroes, as effortlessly copyable as any other collection of same. Would Magic be as compelling there? Or, stated more practically if also more cynically, what profit was to be found for Wizards of the Coast in putting Magic on computers? If they made a killer Magic implementation for the computer, complete with Lords of the Pit for everyone, would anyone still want to play the physical card game? In the worst-case scenario, it would be sacrificing an ongoing revenue stream to die for in return for the one-time sales of a single boxed computer game.

Had it been ten years later, Wizards of the Coast might have been thinking about setting up an official virtual community for Magic, with online duels, tournaments, leader boards, forums, perhaps even a card marketplace. As it was, though, it was still the very early days of the Web 1.0, when most sites consisted solely of static HTML. Online play in general was in its infancy, with most computer games that offered it being designed to run over local-area networks rather than a slow and laggy dial-up Internet connection. In this technological milieu, then, a Magic computer game necessarily meant a boxed product that you could buy, bring home, install on a computer that may or may not even be connected to the Internet, and play all by yourself.

That last part of the recipe introduced a whole host of questions and challenges beyond the strictly commercial. Think again about the nature of Magic: a fairly simple game in itself, but one that could be altered in an infinity of ways by the instructions printed on the cards themselves. Making hundreds and hundreds of separate cards play properly on the computer would be difficult enough. And yet that wasn’t even the worst of it: the really hard part would be teaching the computer to use its millions of possible combinations of cards effectively against the player, in an era before machine learning and the like were more than a glint in a few artificial-intelligence theorists’ eyes.

But to their credit, Wizards of the Coast didn’t dismiss the idea of a Magic computer game out of hand on any of these grounds. When MicroProse Software came calling, promising they could make it happen, Wizards listened and agreed to let them take a stab at it.

It so happened that Magic had caught the attention of MicroProse’s star designer, Sid Meier of Pirates!, Railroad Tycoon, and Civilization fame. This was unsurprising in itself; Meier was a grizzled veteran of many a tabletop war, who still kept a finger on the pulse of that space. Although he was never a dedicated player of the card game, he was attracted to Magic precisely because it seemed so dauntingly difficult to implement on a computer. Meier was, you see, a programmer as well as a designer, one with a strong interest in artificial intelligence, who had in fact just spent a year or more trying to teach a 3DO console to create music in the mold of his favorite classical composer, Johann Sebastian Bach. In his memoir, he frames his interest in a Magic computer game as a way of placating the managers in the corner offices at MicroProse who were constantly pushing him and his colleagues in the trenches toward licensed properties. With Magic, he could have his cake and eat it too, pleasing the suits whilst still doing something he could get personally excited about. “It seemed prudent,” he writes dryly, “for us to choose the kind of license we liked before they assigned one to us.”

We cannot accuse MicroProse of thinking small when it came to Magic on the computer; they wound up creating not so much a game as a sort of all-purpose digital Magic toolkit. You could put together your dream deck in the “Deck Builder,” choosing from 392 different cards in all. Then you could take the deck you built into the “Duel” program, where you could participate in a single match or in a full-on tournament against computer opponents. If all of this left you confused, you could work your way through a tutorial featuring filmed actors. Or, last but by no means least, you could dive into Shandalar, which embedded the card game into a simple CRPG format, in which Magic duels with the monsters that roamed the world took the place of a more conventional combat engine and improving your deck took the place of improving your character’s statistics. Suffice to say that MicroProse’s Magic did not lack for ambition.

Like the cheesy advisors in the otherwise serious-minded Civilization II, the tutorial that uses clips of real actors dates the MicroProse Magic indelibly to the mid-1990s. The actress on the left is Rhea Seehorn, whose long journeyman’s career blossomed suddenly into fame and Emmy awards in 2015, when she began playing Kim Wexler in the acclaimed television series Better Call Saul.

Doubtless for this reason, it took an inordinately long time to make. The first magazine previews of the computer game, describing most of the features that would make it into the finished product, appeared in the spring of 1995, just as the craze for the card game was nearing its peak. Yet the finished product wasn’t released until March of 1997, by which point the frenzy was already beginning to cool off, as Magic slowly transformed into what it still is today: “just” an extremely popular card game. “This is the end of a long journey,” wrote Richard Garfield in his foreword to the computer game’s manual, a missive that exudes relief and exhaustion in equal measure.

In fact, by the time MicroProse and Garfield completed the journey a whole different digital Magic game had been started and completed by a different studio. Acclaim Entertainment’s Magic: The Gathering — Battlemage was Wizards of the Coast’s attempt to hedge their bets when the MicroProse project kept stretching out longer and longer. At the surface level, Battlemage played much like Shandalar: you wandered a fantasy world collecting cards and dueling with enemies. But its duels were far less ambitious; rather than trying to implement the real card game in nitty-gritty detail, it moved its broadest strokes only into a gimmicky real-time framework, with a non-adjustable clock that just so happened to run way too fast. “By the time [you] manage to summon one creature,” wrote Computer Gaming World in its review, “the enemy has five or six on the attack.” This, the very first Magic computer game to actually ship, is justifiably forgotten today.

Then, too, by the time MicroProse’s Magic appeared Sid Meier had been gone from that company for nine months already, having left with his colleagues Jeff Briggs and Brian Reynolds to form a new studio, Firaxis Games. In his memoir, he speaks to a constant tension between MicroProse, who just wanted to deliver the funnest possible digital implementation of Magic, and Wizards of the Coast, who were worried about destroying their cash cow’s mystique. “I was frustrated,” he concludes. “Magic was a good computer game, but not as good as it could be.”

I concur. The MicroProse Magic is a good game — in fact, a well-nigh miraculous achievement when one considers the technological times in which it was created. Yet Shandalar in particular is a frustrating case: a good game that, one senses, just barely missed being spectacular.

The heart of the matter, the Duel screen.

But without a doubt, the most impressive thing about this Magic is that it works at all. The interface is a breeze to use once you grasp its vagaries, the cards all function just as they should in all of their countless nuances, and the computer actually does make a pretty credible opponent most of the time, capable of combining its cards in ingenious ways that may never have occurred to you until you get blasted into oblivion by them. Really, I can’t say enough about what an incredible programming achievement this is. Yes, familiarity may breed some contempt in the course of time; you will eventually notice patterns in some of your opponents’ play that you can exploit, and the computer players will do something flat-out stupid every once in a while. (Then again, isn’t that true of a human player as well?) Early reviewers tended to understate the quality of the artificial intelligence because it trades smarts for speed on slower computers, not looking as far ahead in its calculations. These days, when some of our toasters probably have more processing power than the typical 1997 gaming computer, that isn’t a consideration.

The MicroProse game even manages to implement cards like Magic Hack, which lets you alter the text(!) found on other cards.

Wow. Just… wow.

Meanwhile Shandalar is a characteristic stroke of genius from Sid Meier, who was crazily good at translating lived experiences of all sorts into playable game mechanics. As we saw at length in the last article, it was the meta-game of collecting cards and honing decks that turned the card game into a way of life for so many of its players. Shandalar transplants this experience into a procedurally-generated fantasy landscape, capturing in the process the real heart of its analog predecessor’s appeal in a way that the dueling system on its own never could have, no matter how beautifully implemented. You start out as a callow beginner with a deck full of random junk, just like someone who has just returned from a trip to her friendly local game store with her first Magic Starter Pack. Your objective must now be to improve your deck into something you can win with on a regular basis, whilst learning how to use the cards you’ve collected most effectively and slowly building a reputation for yourself. Again, just like in real life.

The framing story has it that you are trying to protect the world of Shandalar from five evil wizards — one for each of the Magic colors — who are vying with one another and with you to take it over. You travel between the many cities and towns, buying and selling cards in their marketplaces and doing simple quests for their inhabitants that can, among other things, add to your dueling life-point total, which is just ten when starting out. Enemies in the employ of the wizards wander the same paths you do with decks of their own. Defeat them, and you can win one of their cards for yourself; get defeated by them, and you lose one of your own cards. (Shandalar is the last Magic product to use the misbegotten ante rule that the Wizards of the Coast of today prefers not to mention.)

After you’ve been at it a while, the other wizards’ lieutenants will begin attacking the towns directly. If any one enemy wizard manages to take over just three towns, he wins the game and you lose. (Unfortunately, the same lax victory conditions don’t apply to you…) Therefore it’s important not to let matters get out of hand on this front. You can rush to a town that’s being attacked and defend it by defeating the attacker in a duel, or you can even attack an already occupied town yourself in the hope of freeing it again, although this tends to be an even harder duel to win. When not thus occupied, you can explore the dungeons that are scattered about the map, stocked with tough enemies and tempting rewards in the form of gold, cards, and magical gems that confer special powers. Your ultimate goal, once you think you have the perfect deck, is to attack and defeat each wizard in his own stronghold; his strength in this final battle is determined by how many enemies of his color you’ve defeated elsewhere, so it pays to take your time. Don’t dawdle too long, though, because the other wizards get more and more aggressive about attacking towns as time goes by, which can leave you racing around willy-nilly trying to put out fire after fire, with scant time to take the offensive.

The MicroProse Magic was the first Sid Meier-designed game to appear in many years without the “Sid Meier’s…” prefix. His name was actually scrubbed from the credits completely, what with him having left the company before its completion. It was probably just as well: as he notes in his memoir, if MicroProse had tried to abide by its usual practice the game would presumably have needed to be called Sid Meier’s Wizards of the Coast’s Magic: The Gathering, which doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue.

Wandering the world of Shandalar.

You can accept quests for cards and other treasures.

When you bump into an enemy, you can either duel him for an ante or give him some money to go away.

You can reclaim towns that have been occupied by one of the enemy wizards, but it’s a risky battle, for which you must ante three cards to your opponent’s one.

Exploring a dungeon.

All told, it’s a heck of a lot of fun, the perfect way to enjoy Magic if you don’t want to spend a fortune on cards and/or aren’t overly enamored with the culture of nerdy aggression that surrounds the real-life game to some extent even today. I spent way more time with Shandalar than I could really afford to as “research” for this article, restarting again and again to explore the possibilities of many different colors and decks and the variations in the different difficulty levels. Shandalar is great just as it is; I highly recommend it, and happily add it to my personal Hall of Fame.

And yet the fact is that the balance of the whole is a little off — not enough so as to ruin the experience, but just enough to frustrate when you consider what Shandalar might have been with a little more tweaking. My biggest beef is with the dungeons. They ought to be one of the best things about the game, being randomly generated labyrinths stocked with unusual opponents and highly desirable cards. Your life total carries over from battle to battle within a dungeon and you aren’t allowed to save there, giving almost a roguelike quality to your underground expeditions. It seems to be a case of high stakes and high rewards, potentially the most exciting part of the game.

It makes no sense to risk the dungeons when you can randomly stumble upon places on the world map that let you have your choice of any card in the entire game. Happy as you are when you find them, these places are devastating to game balance.

But it isn’t, for the simple reason that the rewards aren’t commensurate with the risks in the final analysis. Most of the time, the cards you find in a dungeon prove not to be all that great after all; in fact, you can acquire every single one of them above-ground in one way or another, leaving you with little reason to even enter a dungeon beyond sheer, bloody-minded derring-do. A whole dimension of the game falls away into near-pointlessness. Yes, you can attempt to compensate for this by, say, pledging not to buy any of the most powerful cards at the above-ground marketplaces, but why should you have to? It shouldn’t be up to you to balance someone else’s game for them.

Even looking beyond this issue, Shandalar just leaves me wanting a little more — a bigger variety of special encounters on the world map, more depth to the economy, more and more varied quests. This is not because what we have is bad, mind you, but because it’s so good. My problem is that I just can’t stop seeing how it could be even better, can’t help wondering how it might have turned out had Sid Meier stayed at MicroProse through the end of the project. Which isn’t to say that you shouldn’t try this game if you already enjoy the card game or are even slightly curious about it. The MicroProse Magic retains a cult following to this day, many of whom will tell you that Shandalar in particular is still the most fun you can have with Magic on a computer.

In its own time, however, the most surprising thing about the MicroProse Magic is that it wasn’t more commercially successful. “I’ve found a wonderful place to play Magic: The Gathering,” wrote Computer Gaming World in its review. “I can play as much as I want whenever I want, and use legendary cards like Black Lotus and the Moxes without spending hundreds of dollars.” Nevertheless, the package didn’t set the world on fire. Perhaps the substandard Acclaim game, which was released just a month before the MicroProse version, muddied the waters too much. Or perhaps even more of the appeal of the card game than anyone had realized lay in the social element, which no digital version in 1997 could possibly duplicate.

Not that MicroProse didn’t try. “This game is exceedingly expandable,” wrote Richard Garfield in his foreword in the manual, strongly implying that the MicroProse Magic was just the beginning of a whole line of follow-on products that would keep it up to date with the ever-evolving card game. But that didn’t really happen. MicroProse did release Spells of the Ancients, a sort of digital Booster Pack with some new cards, followed by a standalone upgrade called Duels of the Planeswalkers, with yet more new cards and the one feature that was most obviously missing from the original game: the ability to duel with others over a network, albeit without any associated matchmaking service or the like that could have fostered a centralized online community of players. Not long after Duels of the Planeswalkers came out in January of 1998, the whole line fell out of print, having never quite lived up to MicroProse’s expectations for it. Wizards of the Coast, for their part, had always seemed a bit lukewarm about it, perchance not least because Shandalar relied so heavily on the ante system which they were by now trying hard to bury deep, deep down in the memory hole. Their next foray into digital Magic wouldn’t come until 2002, when they set up Magic: The Gathering Online, precisely the dynamic online playing space I described as infeasible earlier in this article in the context of the 1990s.

I’ll have more to say about the Magic phenomenon in future articles, given that it was the fuel for the most shocking deal in the history of tabletop gaming. The same year that the MicroProse Magic game came out, a swaggering, cash-flush Wizards of the Coast bought a teetering, cash-strapped TSR, who had seen the market for Dungeons & Dragons all but destroyed by Richard Garfield’s little card game. This event would have enormous repercussions on virtual as well as physical desktops, occurring as it did just after Interplay Entertainment had been awarded the license to make the next generation of Dungeons & Dragons computer games.

For today, though, let me warmly recommend the MicroProse Magic — if you can see your way to getting it running, that is. (See below for more on that subject.) Despite my quibbles about the ways in which it could have been even better, Shandalar remains almost as addictive for me today as the card game was for so many teenagers of the 1990s, only far less expensively so. When I pulled it up again to capture screenshots for this article, I blundered into a duel and just had to see it out. Ditto the next one, and then the one after that. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Where to Get It: The MicroProse Magic: The Gathering is unfortunately not an easy game to acquire or get running; the former difficulty is down to the complications of licensing, which have kept it out of digital-download stores like, while the latter is down to its status as a very early Windows 95 game, from before DirectX was mature and before many standards for ensuring backward compatibility existed. Because I’d love for you to be able to play it, though, I’ll tell you how I got it working. Fair warning: it does take a bit of effort. But you don’t need to be a technical genius to make it happen. You just have to take it slow and careful.

  1. First of all, you’re going to need a virtual machine running Windows XP. This is not as onerous an undertaking as you might expect. I recommend a video tutorial from TheHowToGuy123, which walks you step by step through installing the operating system under Oracle VirtualBox in a very no-nonsense way.
  2. Next you need an image of the Magic CD. As of this writing, a search for “Magic The Gathering MicroProse” on will turn one up. Note that these procedures assume you are installing the original game, not Duels of the Planeswalkers. The patches you install will actually update it to that version.
  3. Boot up your virtual Windows XP machine and mount the Magic image from the VirtualBox “Devices” menu. Ignore the warning about not being on Windows 95 and choose “Install” from the window that pops up. Take the default options and let it do its thing. Do not install DirectX drivers and do not watch the tutorial; it won’t work anyway.
  4. Now you need to patch the game — twice, in fact. You can download the first patch from this very site. Mount the image containing the patch in VirtualBox and open the CD drive in Windows Explorer. You’ll see three executable files there, each starting with “MTGV125.” Drag all three to your desktop, then double-click them from there to run them one at a time. You want to “Unzip” each into the default directory.
  5. Restart your virtual Windows XP machine.
  6. Now you need the second patch, which you can also get right here. Mount this disk image on your virtual machine, create a folder on its desktop, and copy everything in the image into that folder. Double-click “Setup” from the desktop folder and wait a minute or two while it does its thing.
  7. Now copy everything from that same folder on your desktop into “C:\Magic\Program,” selecting “Yes to All” at the first warning prompt to overwrite any files that already exist there. If you see an error message about open file handles or the like, restart your virtual machine and try again.
  8. Here’s where it gets a little weird. The “Shandalar” entry on your Start menu is no longer pointing to the Shandalar game, but rather to the multiplayer engine. Go figure. To fix this, navigate into “C:\Magic\Program,” find “shandalar.exe,” and make a shortcut to it on your desktop. Double-click this to play the game. If it complains about a lack of swap space, just ignore it and go on.
  9. You’ll definitely want the manual as well.

Shandalar, the Deck Builder, and the single-player Duel app should all work now. The first does still have some glitches, such as labels that don’t always appear in town menus, but nothing too devastating (he says, having spent an inordinate amount of time… er, testing it thoroughly). I haven’t tested multiplayer, but it would surprise me if it still works. Alas, the cheesily charming tutorial is a complete bust with this setup; you can watch it on YouTube if you like.

Note that this is just one way to get Magic running on a modern computer, the one that worked out for me. Back in 2010, a group of fans made a custom version that ran seamlessly under Windows 7 without requiring a virtual machine, but it’s my understanding that that version doesn’t work under more recent versions of the operating system. Sigh… retro-gaming in the borderlands between the MS-DOS and Windows eras is a bit like playing Whack-a-Mole sometimes. If you have any other tips or tricks, by all means, share them in the comments.

Did you enjoy this article? If so, please think about pitching in to help me make many more like it. You can pledge any amount you like.

Sources: The book Sid Meier’s Memoir!: A Life in Computer Games by Sid Meier with Jennifer Lee Noonan; Computer Gaming World of June 1995, August 1996, May 1997, June 1997, and May 1998. And Soren Johnson’s interview with Sid Meier on his Designer Notes podcast.)

Renga in Blue

Sphinx Adventure: Text Arrangement as User Interface

(Continued directly from my previous post.) In the past I’ve tried my best to point out how the various text games I’ve played (despite a very common set of elements) nevertheless have strong fingerprints which distinguish them. This game is no different, and I want to do some compare-and-contrast with two sections. This is useful […]

From The Retro Cavern.

(Continued directly from my previous post.)

In the past I’ve tried my best to point out how the various text games I’ve played (despite a very common set of elements) nevertheless have strong fingerprints which distinguish them. This game is no different, and I want to do some compare-and-contrast with two sections. This is useful from both a history-of-games standpoint and a theory-of-games standpoint.

Picking up the action from the obligatory troll’s toll bridge, I tried paying the troll and exploring a bit farther.

I was given the word “diaxos” in one of the rooms (it gets whispered like “Y2” does in Crowther/Woods). The word “diaxos” give a “very loud creaking sound” no matter where it is used, and the trick is to realize that this is the sound of the safe (back on the other side of the troll bridge, by the library) being opened.

By default there’s a bar of platinum but if you hand something over to the troll beforehand, it also ends up in the safe. So that problem’s resolved: you give up a treasure and you just get it back later.

I also had encounters with an ogre, orc, and dragon in that order, but I want to save that for what will hopefully be a final or close to final post, and focus on the Everglades area. I was getting chomped by a crocodile who just needed some food (although the exact sequence of what happens is a bit unexpected).

The upshot of the sequence above is that the trip here is one-time-only. You can safely go back in the Everglades, but the still-hungry crocodile will still chomp you if you try to go by again. Fortunately, there’s no real need for a second trip, because the whole area has no puzzles: just locations with treasures lying around.

Treasure rooms marked with color.

In a sense, this means the game reverts to the type from some early games like Explore or Chaffee’s Quest: just movement and treasures. (Probably. There is one possible secret.) Furthermore, it has the random-placement style of those games; there’s a “yellow brick road” in one spot, some quicksand in another, a treasury, and a fairy grotto.

However, despite just being rooms, there’s some semblance of environmental narrative going on. The quicksand has a plank left by a previous adventurer.

Also, you can safely go “down”, but just end up at a dead-end: “Oh dear you seem to have struggled through that quicksand for nothing”.

Similarly, the yellow brick road was only previously yellow:

And it is possible to make it to the end of the line where the road stopped being built:

The effect is really light and vignette-based. I did mention one possible secret; the fairy grotto has no treasure and it is highly tempting to think a magic word or something like that goes here. On my “best progress save” I am saving nabbing all the treasures in this area because of the fairy grotto, although it could easily be more environmental storytelling.

One other subtlety I want to point out — and this is true of every area, not just this self-contained one — is how the structure of the text is part of the user interface. If we go back to original Adventure (the only reference for this game) there is one major standard established right away:


Namely, that objects that you can pick up are separated from the main text. There is, of course, an easy technical reason for this (it is a lot harder to modify the body text than it is to concatenate a bunch of object-in-room messages) but it also serves to make the player have an easier time. By contrast, consider the ICL game Quest:

You are in a small log cabin in the mountains. There is a door to the north and a trapdoor in the floor. Looking upwards into the cobwebbed gloom, you perceive an air-conditioning duct. Lying in one corner there is a short black rod with a gold star on one end. Hanging crookedly above the fireplace is a picture of Whistler’s mother, with the following inscription underneath: ‘If death strikes and all is lost – I shall put you straight’.

The short black rod which you can pick up is placed in the middle of the text, and furthermore doesn’t have the line-skip to separate it. Despite both cases dealing just with prose, the first example more easily highlights the things a player can interact with, and so the text structure itself provides a UI.

Now consider Sphinx Adventure:

The format is

You are in a music room. [Statement of room name] Beautiful melodies echo all around. [Description of environment]
[Break to next line]
There are exits to the north, south, and west. [Listed description of exits.]

Notice how this easily gets across: the room as a short name (for ease of mapping), and the break between description and interactable parts (in this case the exits). When an object is included there is a further break.

You are at yet another dead end. [Room name, no description.]
[Break to next line]
There is another exit east. [Listed description of exits]
[Break to next line]
[Another line break, meaning the break here is different than the break between room name and exits.]
There is a cluster of opals here.

This conveys quite quickly the one direction you can go and what you can take, and the two kinds of breaks subtlety adds another bit of help in reading what the player needs.

This seems like a small and obvious thing (and it was at least started off in Adventure) but certainly not everyone followed the system so cleanly. (Having windows like the French Colditz game I played recently is another approach, but one with different issues.) One major gameplay consideration is if there’s any important objects sequestered in the “room description” portion. This game the answer seems to be no; you can’t refer to the plank at the quicksand, for example. Many a time I’ve been stuck has been when a game seems to establish this “sequestered room description” setup but then violates it. The biggest thing to remember in UI design is consistency, lest your UI gets mocked like like this chart of all the different ways to go left and right in Starfield. (I especially like how in one case it’s the letters Q and E and in another the letters Q and T and yet another the letters Z and C … why?)

Thursday, 21. September 2023

The People's Republic of Interactive Fiction

September meeting (online)

The Boston IF meetup for September will be Thursday, September 28, 6:30 pm Eastern time. We will post the Zoom link to the mailing list on the day of the meeting.

The Boston IF meetup for September will be Thursday, September 28, 6:30 pm Eastern time.

We will post the Zoom link to the mailing list on the day of the meeting.

Wednesday, 20. September 2023

Renga in Blue

Sphinx Adventure (1982)

This is the only game of Paul Fellows, published by Acornsoft for the Electron and BBC Micro. Paul was working on a graduate degree at Cambridge when he had a friend (Steve Barlow) who was working on building an Acorn Atom. This intrigued him enough to get the computer bug, and he managed to get […]

This is the only game of Paul Fellows, published by Acornsoft for the Electron and BBC Micro.

Closeup from the front cover, via Everygamegoing.

Paul was working on a graduate degree at Cambridge when he had a friend (Steve Barlow) who was working on building an Acorn Atom. This intrigued him enough to get the computer bug, and he managed to get a BBC Micro early and started writing software (while, according to this video interview, he “should have been studying for his degree, really”). His first set of publications through Acornsoft was a trio of chemistry software (Chemical Analysis, Chemical Simulations, Chemical Structures) which he followed up with Sphinx Adventure.

He had encountered Crowther/Woods Adventure secreted away at a mainframe at the radio observatory server at Cambridge and was blown away, finding that “the idea that the computer could understand English text and react appropriately just seemed awesome.” He wanted to write his own in an attempt to understand how parsing syntax worked.

Note this is slightly different to some of our other origin stories. Rather than falling for the idea of a world in the computer, our author here was particularly fascinated with the parser. When he later joined Acornsoft right out of college and his projects included the compiler S-Pascal, where supposedly he re-purposed the same parser code (presumably in a conceptual sense and not using the literal code).

There’s a cassette version from 1982 and a disk version from a year later but I couldn’t find any compelling reason not just to play the initial cassette release.

Being that Mr. Fellows went straight from Crowther/Woods Adventure to this game, it is unsurprisingly another treasure crawl: in this case we need to bring the treasures to the titular Sphinx. The main gimmick — Adventure kind of did this too, but not many ran with it — is that the game (according to the instructions) keeps careful track of score “penalties” for “errors”.

Original Adventure had point deductions for using hints and resurrection, so this seems to be the logical extension of the idea.

The building is an “old blacksmith’s forge” with a lamp and a set of keys. The bottle is instead just right to the south of the start location. No food or water for the bottle, but don’t worry Adventure superfans, you’ll see them soon enough.

The wilderness level has more or less than same conceptual geography as original Adventure also, as various directions lead to a Forest location which more or less serves to randomly loop back to the main map. I didn’t even put the Forest on my own map:

Rather than unlocking a grate to go inside the “cave environs” you just need to go down at the valley of doom.

You may have noticed so far no “diagonal” directions (ne/se/nw/sw). The game doesn’t understand any of those abbreviations so I do think (unusually for a heavily-inspired-by-Adventure game) they have been dropped entirely.

The small opening map mostly serves to dish out some items to the player: a carrot, a sword, a wand, some food, and a lake where the long-anticipated water can be found.

There’s a pirate hanging out at a “Cross-Roads” that will steal stuff as you walk by (just one item in particular, and not necessarily a treasure). You can instead attack, and the game does a strange riff on killing-a-dragon prompt from the original:

The dwarves are incidentally in; the first one throws an axe you can keep, and when they re-appear they still throw axes (just the axes now disappear). They do not seem to be restricted to any particular area and I even met one while wandering outside.

The very top of that screenshot also demonstrates me solving what is more or less the first puzzle of the game, in a “fiery passage” where you can’t go down one passage because it is too hot, but you can throw the water from the bottle in order to cool it down. This leads to another area which is slightly messier:

There’s our first treasure (a silver bar, no exclamation mark, you have to check if your score goes up) as well as a “deep crack” that is “too wide to jump” to start. Still keeping with cribbing off Adventure, you just need to wave the wand:

I might sound snarky at the re-use, I appreciate not having to do this everywhere. (I think. Maybe the wand has more uses.)

Then there’s an “oriental room” with a rug, a “straw room” with a friendly rabbit who will eat your carrot if you’re up for handing it over…

It will instead follow you if you don’t do this, so I suspect this is the wrong moment for using the carrot.

…a safe that has “no obvious handle”…

The books mentioned are from an “old library”; the hint suggests that the lake earlier (that we got the bottle water from) can be crossed.

…and a very typical troll with a toll bridge. Of course.

I’ve tried crossing by using the silver bar (which I’m sure is wrong) and there’s a friendly bear that follows the player around without even having to feed it, but I’ll save discussing the area past the troll bridge for next time.

Also, for some reason, there’s the Everglades.

This is unabashedly old-school and in the way that doesn’t bother to add realism to geography (on the other hand, only using cardinal directions makes things easier to map!) The author may have simply been going for ease of play: the inventory limit is also much more generous than normal (if there even is one?) This gives an overall atmosphere less aggressive than normal (despite deadly dwarves as usual) and tries to convey a light jaunt so far.

Mind you, maybe there’s a very tight lamp limit or some murderously-hard puzzles later. At the moment this feels out of place compared to other British games.

Tuesday, 19. September 2023

Renga in Blue

Mystery House II: The MSX Version

(First post on this game here. I realize you may need to jog your memory.) Sorry for the delay, everyone! Had a combination of life-things, work-things, and in the end, the actual game I was playing (the MSX version of Mystery House II). I will say it was definitely a slog and I completely understand […]

(First post on this game here. I realize you may need to jog your memory.)

Sorry for the delay, everyone! Had a combination of life-things, work-things, and in the end, the actual game I was playing (the MSX version of Mystery House II). I will say it was definitely a slog and I completely understand the author I quoted last time being grouchy about Arrowsoft’s port. Since the earlier versions are much different than the MSX version, I’ll mention right now sometime in the future I will try the NEC PC version (there’s enough changed that it might be akin to The Prisoner versus The Prisoner 2).

I essentially enjoyed the first game, but despite some open aspect it felt fairly linear. Here, the game tries for a bit more non-linear and the fact the player is dealing with slightly ambiguous visual scenes really starts to be a problem. (And weirdly, the puzzles are in a way simpler but worse; I’ll get to that.) The “narrow window” view (where you can’t see anything to your left and right) is also similarly grating; there’s a lot of turning in directions that either having nothing or unimportant as you’re exploring the house.

Also, the two-item limit was not in the first game, and here it means you’re taking circuitous routes just to get the right item in the right place.

Cover of one of the earlier versions, via Giant Bomb.

For example, fairly early on there’s a window in a random room. It would never occur to me just looking that it would be the type of window I’d want to / be able to open, and it especially never occurred to me to get the dinner knife from the cabinet two rooms to the right and USE KNIFE.

In one direction you can find a RACK with a LADDER. In another direction you can find a candle in a RACK (don’t take it, you can’t use it yet) and a secret door in a fireplace. The secret door leads to a safe with an MSX cartridge.

The GREENKEY is off a random table somewhere.

In the same room you can also find a chair if you face south which has the information “door opens at 3’oclock” which is useful later.

Going back to the ladder, it can be taken to a hole at the start of the game. This is another one of those “confusing visual” spots — it wasn’t clear to me I was dealing with a hole you could climb up through when I first saw it, so the ladder was not the immediate thing that occurred to me (I was originally thinking outside). After the fact, it made sense, but beforehand I wasn’t sure what noun even would apply to what I was looking at.

Upstairs there’s a bedroom and a bathroom. The bathroom has toilet paper with secret information. Would your immediately inclination be to TAKE PAPER in this scene?

The code there is for a bookcase.

This is for the safe in the basement.

Also upstairs we can apply the “3 o’clock” hint from earlier…

…and eventually find a secret MSX machine that can be used to run the cartridge. The only thing that happens is the message Break the north wall!

Easy-but-annoying: you get the hammer from outside to bust the wall in the same room. Of course I didn’t have the hammer so had to route all the way there and back.

I found the diamond already in this run. I’ll talk about getting it in a second.

My notes are honestly a bit of a jumble from here (sorry, long play time!) Inside there’s a REDKEY that can be used to get at a secret door in a different fireplace to get a PINKKEY, which can then be used to get a WHITEKEY from yet another safe and then bust outside, but that still doesn’t help with the diamond. For the diamond, you go back to the bedroom and grab some matches, then get the candle I mentioned quite a while ago (your inventory is now maxed) and then grab a shovel from …. oh wait, your inventory is maxed. Ignore the candle, grab the shovel first, then go outside, then dig:

Then get that candle, head down to the basement to find a safe, and use that R-3 L-3 code from the bookcase.

Now with the WHITEKEY I mentioned earlier you can make your way to escape (somehow you can’t just leave the way you came in).

It’s curious how much drudgery this felt like compared to the original. It really does have mostly the same elements, like moving things and finding a whole sequence of keys. But: it lacks

a.) using oil on a cabinet to discover a secret stairway inside

b.) finding a ladder that kills you by bonking your head if you climb, so you need to move it and bust the wall behind

c.) getting a secret code by lighting a fireplace

d.) putting the code in reverse to open the final safe, where the game ends upon getting the treasure and doesn’t have a weird sequence of keys for an escape

These all seem like small moments, but they were collected together in a way that built geographic suspense: what will you find when you get higher? The gameplay in Mystery House II (MSX edition) involved bouncing around the map many, many times in order to juggle the inventory, and in the end all the clues and keys felt randomly scattered and boring.

Or maybe it’s the graphics making me grumpy. There was a thread in my last post discussing the virtue or lack thereof of graphics. Y’all have read me enough to know I like a very wide array of things and am just as happy to play with cutting edge graphics or without, just like I’m fine with both books and film. But graphics can serve as a UI impedance if used badly; the original Mystery House (Roberta Williams, I mean) had some items where I had to guess what they were to pick them up; here, while I didn’t have the same guesswork, I had a lot of trouble getting into the “frame world” of the game. The need to check all directions especially got tiresome.

I’ve still got some hope for redemption from the NEC PC version, but I’m going to take a rest before taking it on.

Either way, I’m happy to be past here for the moment to get into something more traditional. I’ve got something from the Tough Britgame library lined up next. Text only! And probably puns that must be taken literally to solve puzzles! Those wacky British.

what will you do now?


Author: G.C. “Grim” Baccaris (as G. Grimoire) | Choice-based (IFDB) play time: 15-20 mins The reader plays the last remaining priest devoted to an unnamed being, whose worship takes the form of daily ritual. Loneliness and duty run through the story: this priest houses not-quite-human children, and they too make up part of the priest’s … Continue reading Devotionalia

Author: G.C. “Grim” Baccaris (as G. Grimoire) | Choice-based (IFDB)

play time: 15-20 mins

The reader plays the last remaining priest devoted to an unnamed being, whose worship takes the form of daily ritual.

Loneliness and duty run through the story: this priest houses not-quite-human children, and they too make up part of the priest’s daily duties. While there may be loneliness in unanswered prayer, there is, ultimately, solace and a kind of community in this sort of care. And if a religion lives only with belief (deity is an entirely different matter), then the player/character holds existential power.

The overall aesthetic, both in writing and visual design, is appropriately gloomy and formal. There are subtle nods to a deeper backstory, but the focus still lies squarely on the earthly: the priest, the children, the physical setting.

Different levels of choice are made transparent to the reader with the text formatting to indicate its importance in the narrative’s progress. The story has shallow branching which converges in a suitably ambiguous ending, as befits a deity which may or may not exist – whose existence may, in fact, depend on the player’s choices.

Sunday, 17. September 2023


IFTF Grant Program Open for Applications

The IFTF is delighted to announce that we are opening our very first grant program! We are seeking to disburse small amounts of money to projects serving the interactive fiction community. Projects might include the development or maintenance of tools for writing and sharing IF, educational initiatives to promote IF, or research projects that will shed new light on IF history. We will consider prop

The IFTF is delighted to announce that we are opening our very first grant program! We are seeking to disburse small amounts of money to projects serving the interactive fiction community. Projects might include the development or maintenance of tools for writing and sharing IF, educational initiatives to promote IF, or research projects that will shed new light on IF history. We will consider proposals for any type of project that advances the culture and artform of interactive fiction!

The total pool for this round of the grant program is $3,000. Individual proposals can request up $1,000 and must request at least $150.

Please refer to the full guidelines before applying. Feel free to reach out to the Grants Administration Committee with any questions: [email protected]!

The application portal is now live and will remain open for submissions through the deadline of October 27, 2023. Submit applications here.

Please note: this is very much a trial run for us! The response and interest that we get from this call of proposals, as well as how the process goes and feedback from applicants, will inform our approach, i.e. subsequent rounds, future funding, etc.

Friday, 15. September 2023

The People's Republic of Interactive Fiction

Night at the MIT Museum: After Dark Trip Report

You find yourself outside the MIT Museum on a gorgeous afternoon. It’s September 14, 2023, breezy but sunny. The After Dark party starts at 5pm, and you’re right on time. You enter through the glass doors, not knowing what to expect. You recognize a PR-IF friend, Chris Martens, as you look for the desk person […] ↓ Read the rest of this entry...♦

You find yourself outside the MIT Museum on a gorgeous afternoon. It’s September 14, 2023, breezy but sunny. The After Dark party starts at 5pm, and you’re right on time. You enter through the glass doors, not knowing what to expect. You recognize a PR-IF friend, Chris Martens, as you look for the desk person to check you in. You two chat– it’s your first face to face meeting. You could:

  1. stay and mingle at the front desk
  2. go up to 3R, where the PR-IF event will be.

Although it’s still a bit early, you choose 2) because you’re supposed to be an event volunteer. It’s the first time you’ve met the MIT Museum team in person. Fiori and Kate say hello. They’ve been setting up tables and monitors. You meet Deb, the director of collections. Zarf soon joins, lugging a small collection of IF books from his private stash. You ogle the museum’s displays of Zork, IF, and old technology exhibits around the room. You get the computers setup. You take a picture to celebrate.

Biyi, Flori, Chris, and Zarf

You get a text from Jules, asking about parking. You recall what an amazing IF writer Zarf as your browse his collection, reminiscing about Shade, Dreamhold, Hadean Lands. Biyi and Alberto arrive to help. You haven’t eaten all day because of traffic and errands. You’re hungry so you:

  1. leave briefly to find some food
  2. stay and try to get the exhibits loaded up with IF games

You can’t ignore your hunger any longer, it’s going to be a long night. You choose 1) and head to the 2nd floor. The place is filling up. There is a rad DJ pumping sonic vibes into the crowd. It’s a sold out crowd tonight. You wander around and find some pizza in a volunteer room. You know the DJ, and you exchange pleasantries. It’s a good scene and you just want to chill.

DJ Phillip Tan

You can decide to:

  1. Stay and chat with the DJs, and you are into EDM
  2. Head back to the Play IF room

You feel slightly guilty enjoying the fun while knowing that others are up there ready for guests. You say bye to the DJs and choose 2). You head up back to 3R in the museum’s giant elevator. You put together the zoom names to the new faces.

It’s delightful to meet in person finally, and they’ve brought stuff to share. Chad strolls in flashing a physical copy of Suspect!


Jules has good parking karma and has brought flyers for Tempus Fugit.

Angela and Jules

The room starts to fill with animated party goers. The museum team has set up 3 tables for people to gather around 80s, 2000s, and more recent IF. Zork is at being played at one prominent table. Time passes. Much IF was consumed that night including Photopia, 9:05, and Use Your Psychic Powers at Applebee’s.

The special guests of the evening, Dave Liebling and Michael Dornbrook make an appearance. The room is awed by the presence of the creators of the Zork Empire. Michael had donated a treasure trove of Zork materials that are now on display. Dave talked about the origins of Zork, and the fun they had. They were charming and you got to experience some gameplay and feelies. You shook their hand. You were able to jot down some nuggets of wisdom about making IF experiences magical. At the end of the night, you were happy to share this celebrated favorite pastime with others, including these amazing people.

Partygoers playing Zork and listening to Dave Lebling
Partygoers playing Zork and listening to Dave Lebling
Chad, Zarf, and Michael Dornbrook
Chad, Zarf, and Michael Dornbrook
Dave, Chad, and Zarf
Dave Lebling, Chad, and Zarf

You play 9:05 a total of 6 times with 3 different groups. It was amusing to sit down with newcomers and play together. Many people wanted to experience multiple narrative branches and replayed the game. Funny how people wanted to figure out the flavor of the pop tart. And when they seem to need satisfaction from “eating” the pop tart, rather than rushing to “work” in the game. Everyone seemed happy and they took a card. You hope they come to a pr-if meeting someday, or at least sign up for the mailing list. Whoops, you had forgotten to mention the social media. Ah well!

Happy Partygoers
Happy Partygoers
Happy Partygoers playing Zork with Dave behind them
Happy Partygoers playing 9:05

You realize after the event that you didn’t take as many pictures as you would have liked. You can

  1. keep the memories to yourself because you are not a great photographer
  2. share your photo album anyway because people might want to see them. Maybe they’ll even add their own photos…

You choose 2) to share the photos, and you wake up smiling the next day with memories of the great night. You are inspired to continue writing your IF story that’s been on hold for the past n years….

Partygoers with Dave Lehbling, creator of Zork

Thursday, 14. September 2023

The Rosebush

The 2023 Interactive Fiction Top 50

Every four years, starting in 2011, one of us (Victor) has organised a community poll on the best interactive fiction ever written; this year the other one of us (manonamora) joined in and did most of the data processing. The rules of the poll have remained consistent over the years: everyone can participate by making a list of at least one and at most twenty titles. Each title equals one vote. The

Every four years, starting in 2011, one of us (Victor) has organised a community poll on the best interactive fiction ever written; this year the other one of us (manonamora) joined in and did most of the data processing. The rules of the poll have remained consistent over the years: everyone can participate by making a list of at least one and at most twenty titles. Each title equals one vote. The votes are then tallied, and a list emerges that reflects to some extent what the community views as the best interactive fiction so far.

What is ‘the community’? How far is ‘to some extent’? And, for that matter, what is ‘interactive fiction’? To start with the last of these questions, the organisers have always been vague about this on purpose. One of the aims of the poll is to find out what this community, the ‘interactive fiction community,’ considers to be the works that are central to its identity. The organisers prejudging this issue would be counterproductive and might also stop people from participating.

Of course, this only makes the first question more pressing. What is this community whose opinion we are soliciting? This is all the more important because there are numerous communities that could be described as focused on interactive fiction in one form or another. The impact of the organisers’ decision to post the call for votes on the forum, rather than on, say, the Failbetter Games forum or the Choice of Games forum, cannot be underestimated: it completely changes which people will react and which games will end up being voted for.

The best way to characterise the participants in the poll may be this: they are people who might hang out at, who might engage with the Interactive Fiction Competition and the Spring Thing, and who might post or read reviews on the IFDB. This is certainly not a monolithic community. One person might be engaged in writing old school text adventures that run on legacy hardware, while another likes to explore deeply personal topics through choice-based narratives; and one person might hanker for weird experimental parser pieces, while another likes link-based exploration or resource management games. But even though it is not monolithic, it also does not encompass the full range of people who are engaged in interactive fiction.

Why not strive for this full range? In part because once you have people from relatively unconnected communities vote in the same poll, the poll turns into a sociological experiment to determine which community is larger, rather than an investigation into the artistic judgments of a particular group. If we did promote the poll on the Failbetter Games forum, then no doubt Fallen London would be the number one game; and while this would accurately reflect the size of its player base, it would perhaps not be very useful to get a sense of how this particular game relates to other games. This is not to say that a poll involving a much broader community than the one we have been actively trying to reach could not be interesting. But – and this is the second and more fundamental reason to not pursue this course for our particular poll – it would not have much continuity with earlier editions of the Interactive Fiction Top 50. It would not give us any insight into changing tastes and attitudes. If it were organised, it were better organised under another name.

(Of course one can legitimately ask why the first edition of the poll was not organised among a broader group of people. The answer is at least in part that the community around, which had evolved from that around the and newsgroups, was much more isolated then than it is now. This was true both as a fact – some of the communities mentioned above just weren’t around at the time, or were much smaller than they are now – and as a matter of self-image, which was heavily centred on a shared history and the use of the parser.)

Having said all that, it should be stressed that the current poll was also promoted on social media, and votes could be sent in through email, so there were certainly participants who were not active forum members.

We still have to answer the second question: to what extent does the current poll reflect the views of the community? There were 880 votes cast by 59 people (an average of almost 15 votes per person). So that’s quite a large number of votes. However, these votes were distributed across no fewer than 341 games, for an average of about 2.6 votes per game. Since getting into the top 50 required 4 votes, the difference between games that did and games that did not pass the threshold should not be taken too seriously. Do the poll three months later, and a game could easily have three more or three fewer votes, totally changing its place or inclusion in the Top.

Luckily, creating am authoritative ranking from best to worst is not the purpose of the Top 50 anyway. Rather, we hope that the poll – the outcomes presented here, the full list of games linked to below, and the public comments made by many of the voters when they voted – serve as a powerful impulse to explore the wide world of IF games, both new and old, both those that are universally acclaimed and those to which only one or two people have wanted to draw our attention.


There are 48 games which received 5 or more votes; once games with 4 votes are added, the total rises to 70. We make the same decision we made in the 2019 edition, and err on the side of inclusion, turning the Top 50 not into a Top 48, but into a Top 70.

1Counterfeit MonkeyEmily Short201226
2AnchorheadMichael Gentry199821
3Spider and WebAndrew Plotkin199817
4Hadean LandsAndrew Plotkin201415
5The Impossible BottleLinus Åkesson202013
6The GostakCarl Muckenhoupt200112
=PhotopiaAdam Cadre199812
8Eat MeChandler Groover201711
=Lost PigAdmiral Jota200711
1080 Daysinkle & Meg Jayanth201410
=AdventureWilliam Crowther & Donald Woods197610
=Blue LacunaAaron Reed200810
=CursesGraham Nelson199310
=The Wizard SnifferBuster Hudson201710
15A Mind Forever VoyagingSteve Meretzky19859
=Superluminal Vagrant TwinC.E.J. Pacian20169
=Suveh NuxDavid Fisher20079
18BirdlandBrendan Patrick Hennessy20158
=Cragne ManorRyan Veeder, Jenni Polodna, et al20188
=Plundered HeartsAmy Briggs19878
21According to CainJim Nelson20227
=ColoraturaLynnea Glasser20137
=Open SorceryAbigail Corfman20167
=SpellbreakerDave Lebling19857
=SuspendedMichael Berlyn19837
=The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the GalaxyDouglas Adams & Steve Meretzky19847
=TrinityBrian Moriarty19867
28AisleSam Barlow19996
=howling dogsPorpentine20126
=The Archivist and the RevolutionAutumn Chen20226
=The Fire TowerJacqueline A. Lott20046
=The King of Shreds and PatchesJimmy Maher20096
=The WandArthur DiBianca20176
=VioletJeremy Freese20086
=Will Not Let Me GoStephen Granade20176
=Worlds ApartSuzanne Britton19996
=Zork IMarc Blank & Dave Lebling19806
38A Dark RoomMichael Townsend20135
=A Paradox Between WorldsAutumn Chen20215
=Choice of RobotsKevin Gold20145
=ComputerfriendKit Riemer20225
=GrooverlandBrian Rushton20215
=Horse MasterTom McHenry20135
=Make It GoodJon Ingold20095
=Savoir-FaireEmily Short20025
=ShadeAndrew Plotkin20005
=SPY INTRIGUEfurkle20155
=WishbringerBrian Moriarty19855
491893: A World’s Fair MysteryPeter Nepstad20024
=And Then You Come to a House Not Unlike the Previous OneB. J. Best20214
=A Rope of ChalkRyan Veeder20204
=BabelIan Finley19974
=BeeEmily Short20124
=EnchanterMarc Blank & Dave Lebling19834
=Even Some More Tales from Castle BalderstoneRyan Veeder20214
=Fallen LondonFailbetter Games20094
=GalateaEmily Short20004
=Inside the FacilityArthur DiBianca20164
=KerkerkruipVictor Gijsbers et al20114
=Lime ErgotCaleb Wilson20144
=PlasmorphosisAgnieszka Trzaska20224
=Queers in Love at the End of the WorldAnna Anthropy20134
=Repeat the EndingDrew Cook20234
=Ryan Veeder’s Authentic Fly FishingRyan Veeder20194
=Slouching Towards BedlamStar Foster & Daniel Ravipinto20034
=Treasures of a Slaver’s KingdomS. John Ross20074
=TurandotVictor Gijsbers20194
=VespersJason Devlin20054
=With Those We Love AlivePorpentine & Brenda Neotenomie20144

A sheet with all the games (including those that received 1, 2 or 3 votes) and their vote totals can be found here. Results of earlier years can be found here: 2011, 2015, 2019. Also of interest might be the forum topic in which the call for votes was made. The opening post contains links to discussions of earlier editions, and many of the other posts contain voters’ explanations of their votes.


It is perhaps not too interesting to tease out little factoids such as which game lost most places, which authors had most games voted for, and so on, though anyone who wants can use the publicly available data to do so. The primary thing we would like to comment on is the apparent dominance of parser games in the Top 50.

The distinction between a parser game and a choice game is not always a useful or easy one to make. Not only does the ‘choice’ category group together many different types of interface; but the rise of ‘limited parser games,’ in which the supposed natural language parser only recognises an extremely small number of pre-given commands, as well as the existence of parser-like choice games, has made the distinction seem far from clear-cut. For purposes of this discussion, we have somewhat arbitrarily grouped all games in which you type in commands as ‘parser’, and all others as ‘choice’. (One game in the list, Coloratura, has been released in both parser and choice format. We’ll count it as half a parser and half a choice game.)

With this distinction in place, we see that among the top 17 games, there are 16 parser games and only 1 choice game (80 Days). Among the top 37 games, 30.5 are parser games and 6.5 are choice games. The entire top 70 contains 49.5 parser games and 20.5 choice games.

Top …# parser# choice% parser% choice

At first sight, these numbers seem to indicate that the community’s sense of the canon is quite parser-centric. Or it could just be the case that a higher percentage of parser enthusiasts participated in the poll. In fact, however, the numbers tell a very different story once we delve into them a little more. First, as can be seen from the table above, the percentage of choice games steadily rises as we move to the many games that received only a few votes each. What this seems to indicate is not so much a dominance of the parser, but a greater consensus about which parser games are the best ones. At least two, mutually compatible, hypotheses can explain this. First, when it comes to older games, we can notice that critical consensus is often only reached after a certain amount of time has gone by; and so it is perhaps not very surprising that there has crystallised a canon of ‘classic’ older games that does well in the Top 50. Older games are almost universally of the parser variety, so this explains in part why the very highest regions of the Top 50 are parser-centric. Now there are also some newer games up there; and here a second hypothesis can be launched. When it comes to new games, parser enthusiast simply have fewer games to choose from, and therefore, their votes will not be scattered across as many games. While we don’t have precise numbers for the amount of parser and choice games that are being published, we can note that the 2022 Interactive Fiction competition has approximately 1/3 of its games listed as parser, and this competition could well be more parser-heavy than the total output of interactive fiction games.

These hypotheses are speculative, but more enlightenment can be gained by looking at only recent games in the Top 50. If we look at games that were published in 2013 (the year after howling dogs drew attention to Twine) or later, we find the following. In the top 70, among the 33 games that were published in 2013 or later: 17.5 or 53% were choice games. If we add in the next category of games that received at least 3 votes, we arrive at 49 games, of which 30.5 or 62% were choice games. (We did not at this time put in the rather daunting work of sorting all 341 games that received votes on into choice and parser categories.) So when we put things in a historical perspective, the apparent dominance of parser games in the Top 50 is revealed as based in the fact that the parser has a longer history, not as a reflection of current interests or a selection effect among participants.

The historical distribution of games is of some independent interest, so here is a table indicating how many games in the full (70 game) Top 50 came from which 5-year period:

Bar graph showing how many games per 5-year period.
1976 to 1980: 2 games.
81 to 85: 6 games.
86 to 90: 2 games
91 to 95: 1 game.
96 to 2000: 8 games.
2001 to 2005: 6 games.
2006 to 2010: 8 games.
2011 to 2015: 15 games.
2016 to 2020: 12 games.
2021 to 2023: 10 games.

There’s a clear dip in the period from the late 80s to around 1995 when commercial IF was disappearing and the hobbyist age had not yet begun. It is also obvious that more recent games are very well represented (one should note that the lowest bar represents only half of 5-year time period, so there is a sense in which it contains most games per year). Possibly there’s a recency effect here, where currently active players are more likely to have played and to remember more recent games. Or perhaps the golden age of interactive fiction is now… or yet to come!

More news four years from now.

Zarf Updates

A quick note about Unity, plus a surprise

You may have heard that Unity, the game engine company, announced new terms this week which amount to shooting itself in the foot with a hand grenade. A handfootgrenade, if you will. "Fusshandgranate" in the original German. I have nothing to ...

You may have heard that Unity, the game engine company, announced new terms this week which amount to shooting itself in the foot with a hand grenade. A handfootgrenade, if you will. "Fusshandgranate" in the original German.

I have nothing to add to the discourse beyond that questionable neologism, but I want to be transparent about what this means for me as a developer. Short answer: No direct impact, but it may affect my future plans.

I have released two games using Unity: Jason Shiga's Meanwhile and Leviathan. The Win/Mac/Linux releases of both these apps are currently on the 2021 release of the Unity engine, using the Unity Personal (free) plan. (The iPhone/iPad/AppleTV versions do not use Unity.)

These apps are way, way below Unity's stated threshold for the install fee. Meanwhile (the Win/Mac/Linux release) has about 600 installs and $3200 revenue over its five-year history. Leviathan, which shipped last year, has 90 installs and $500 revenue. These apps will never ever reach either 200,000 downloads or $200,000 in revenue. They're also not involved in any big bundles, streaming deals, or promo giveaways -- which are the models that Unity has burned the worst.

(This, by the way, is why I'm not trying to make it as a solo indie developer! I love these apps -- and Jason's work -- and I'm happy to keep supporting them. But they're a hobby.)

Therefore, Meanwhile and Leviathan will remain available on the same platforms for the foreseeable future. I have no plans to withdraw them or change how they're built.

However... if Unity was willing to retroactively change their licensing terms once, they're willing to do it again. The next price change could hurt me. Or they could go out of business entirely! (This week's news isn't the sort of announcement you make when you have a sustainable business.)

So I am keeping in mind the possibility of reimplementing both games using a different engine. Preferably an open-source engine. Godot is the leading candidate right now, but I'll decide when the time comes.

(In case you're wondering, the Win/Mac/Linux release of Hadean Lands uses Lectrote and Electron, which are open-source tools. All my iOS apps are native ObjC code built in Xcode using only Apple's frameworks.)

What about future games? Well, there's no way in hell I'm using Unity for any brand-new project. That would just be stupid.

But what about future Jason Shiga games? I mean, I have this engine all written, and... hang on, the doorbell just rang.

Adventuregame Comics #2: The Beyond. The cover shows a Hispanic man holding a harpoon, watching red books tumble by. The cover of The Beyond by Jason Shiga.

I'm (almost) not kidding: my copy of The Beyond arrived in the mail yesterday. (Thanks Jason!) It was released just a few weeks ago.

I can confirm that it's another interactive graphic novel full of secrets and tricks! But you knew that.

Of course, I am now evaluating how a game version would work. The secrets and tricks are little different than in the previous books; it will take some thought to figure this out. But I definitely want to continue the series.

For the moment, it makes sense to continue using my Unity-based framework for this. It won't hurt me financially. But again, I am keeping an eye on the future. If I need to change tracks, I can do that.

Watch this space! And, you know, stay away from Unity from now on. It's not going to get any better.

Monday, 11. September 2023

Gold Machine

The Big One: Trinity

Trinity, or It’s Almost Entirely Downhill from Here I’m just an Internet Person Who Likes Video Games I made an Inform 7 game not too long ago, and I’m making another one now. They are quite personal, which might be a surprise to readers of this blog. Here, I mostly keep things at arm’s length, […] The post The Big One: Trinity appeared first on Gold Machine.

Trinity, or It’s Almost Entirely Downhill from Here

I’m just an Internet Person Who Likes Video Games

I made an Inform 7 game not too long ago, and I’m making another one now. They are quite personal, which might be a surprise to readers of this blog. Here, I mostly keep things at arm’s length, attempting to write with the arch incision of a certain sort of online critic. I am seldom–I hope–obnoxious, but perhaps I am often close to the line.

I played a lot of video games when I was young. Games of any kind, really. I just wanted to play games. Games to me weren’t just an entertainment, they were a refuge. I thought that, unlike life, games were fair. If you did things the right way, if you did the right thing, you were rewarded. You could even win. I needed fairness in my life. For a time, that was what Infocom’s games represented to me: fairness.

I needed fairness in my life. For a time, that was what Infocom’s games represented to me: fairness.

Take Zork‘s Adventurer, or the Enchanter: they are mostly the sum of the player’s choices, rather than a collection of impressive qualities or capabilities. The Adventurer rarely performs impressive physical feats. He kills the troll, and, later, dives for the amulet in a frigid lake. Most of the time, though, his power rests solely in his ingenuity. The Enchanter, despite being the most powerful enchanter ever, casts spells the same way that they do at the beginning of their trilogy. Their power is their capacity for problem solving.

In all of everyone’s (and mine, too) discussion of how “anyone” could be the Adventurer, it’s worth noting that, in some senses, “anyone” still applies. The Adventurer has no history. The Adventurer is not defined by his history. The question Zork seemed to ask me was this: “If we boiled away everything that was yours and yet not you, would you know what to do with this?”

Shaft Room
This is a large room, in the middle of which is a small shaft descending through the floor into darkness below. To the west and the north are exits from this room. Constructed over the top of the shaft is a metal framework to which a heavy iron chain is attached.
At the end of the chain is a basket.

To me, that was fairness. That was a fairness I needed to experience somewhere, somehow. I feel I should distinguish a general sense of fairness in one’s life as compared with Jimmy Maher’s concept of “fairness” in game design. I am talking about the former, of course, and Infocom games seemed overwhelmingly fair when compared to real life. So, I loved those games, and many others besides. I have been interested in many sorts of games over the years and remain interested in them today. I spend most of my free time writing my own game or writing and researching for this page, but here are some of the games I’ve played this past year:

  • Resident Evil 4 (remake)
  • The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom
  • Persona 3 Portable
  • Spellbreaker, Ballyhoo, and Trinity
  • A ton of choice-based (Twine, Dendry, etc.) games from IFDB
  • Baldur’s Gate 3

There are lots of games that I haven’t gotten to, including a couple of Gust’s Atelier games and Like a Dragon: Ishin! I just like playing games. If I hadn’t started writing my own interactive fiction, I think that list would be a lot longer.

This meandering noodle does serve a rhetorical purpose. I’d like to demonstrate that I am not merely a neutral and unbiased critic. I don’t think that such a critic exists, honestly, but disclosure and self-reflection make for strong writing. Let me disclose the obvious: after much reflection, I must admit that there are emotional stakes for me when I write about games. They have always given me something I’ve needed. They’re important to me.

Before I ever thought to be a critic, I was a fan. Like everybody else, I have favorites. There are things I don’t like very much, too. In some cases, I have good reasons, in other cases, I may not. Whether I like or do not like something, I promise that I have been thinking about these Infocom games for forty years or so. I may be wrong, but I am not, for lack of a better phrase, knee-jerking my way through the Infocom canon.

Before I ever thought to be a critic, I was a fan.

Cards on the table: here are my favorite Infocom games. Not necessarily “best,” mind you. Just my favorites, in no order.

  • A Mind Forever Voyaging
  • Suspended
  • Spellbreaker
  • Deadline
  • Plundered Hearts
  • Zork III

Is this a provocative list? Maybe. Deadline certainly is not a widely-held favorite. I really, really love it, though. Zork III is probably not considered the best game out of the Zork trilogy, but I admire its ambition.

Hey Wait. Isn’t This Supposed to Be About Trinity?

Wait. Trinity isn’t on this list. Isn’t this a post about Trinity? No, it’s not, and yes, it is.

It seems that one cannot talk about Trinity without contending with the legacy and reception of Trinity. This is different from, say, writing about Zork, which has the fact of its own historicity. I have said before that–not everyone liked this–in a certain sense it doesn’t matter if one likes Zork. It is beyond likability. Sometimes somebody will write a review asserting that Zork is a bad game, or that it has aged badly. What does that prove? It is a phenomenon as much as it is a text, and phenomena are resilient when it comes to media criticism.

Infocom’s other great games, however, must sing for their supper. Or, perhaps better still, find someone to sing on their behalf. My father knows, in a very general way, what Zork is, but would be lost when it comes to Trinity or Deadline. In such a rarefied, specialized space, the critic’s role in media conversations can be pivotal, provided that the right critic appears at the right time, and that they are concerned with the right content.

Even though I quote Jimmy Maher often, someone will occasionally ask me whether I have read his piece on this or that. Of course I have. I have read everything he has written about Infocom more than once. I think A Mind Forever Voyaging is every bit as good as I say it is, but I also felt, nine years after Maher’s own three-part series, that AMFV deserved more than faint praise. I thought, in fact, that it deserved what I guess I would call the “Trinity treatment.” I didn’t have the kind of historical material that Maher had for Trinity, so I instead dove into the “new” Republicanism of the Reagan years, as well as questioning some widely-held assumptions about the influence and legacy of 1980s parser games. It’s media criticism, because that’s what I know how to do. I don’t really do history, mainly because Maher has already done it, and secondarily because that isn’t who I am. I don’t have “new history” to disclose; history is history.

I don’t really do history, mainly because Maher has already done it, and secondarily because that isn’t who I am. I don’t have “new history” to disclose; history is history.

Still, distinguishing between those games hardly mattered to me in 1986. I owned a Commodore 64 computer with a 1541 disk drive. I couldn’t play A Mind Forever Voyaging or Trinity, as they were 128k games. All I really knew about them was what I could read in The New Zork Times newsletter. In both cases–their releases were less than a year apart–Infocom asserted a new ambition toward literary seriousness that went far beyond the boilerplate “get inside a story” ad copy they’d been using for years.

There is a hard line to toe here. I celebrate the aspirational nature of both of these games. I think it is fine–great, even–to speak of one’s art as an artist might, whatever that might mean case-by-case. And yet, I think that if one must tell the audience that they are serious, or else that they are attempting to do something serious, then they have failed in some way. Perhaps they have no confidence in their work and are unwilling to let it speak for itself. Perhaps, on the other hand, they have no confidence in their audience.

A Mind Forever Voyaging dipped a toe in those dangerous waters, and its NZT launch announcement attempted to situate it among works like “such great works of science fiction as 1984 or Brave New World.” However, half of that article was concerned with the novelty of the “Interactive Fiction Plus” designation that made its debut with AMFV. This is hardly “can a computer game make you cry?” material:

Thus, large projects, like A Mind Forever Voyaging, are now entirely within our capabilities. Unlike the new Whopper®, or New Coke®, this revolutionary gaming technology promises to please the tastes of even the most discriminating player, allowing for more of just about everything (game bugs being no exception).

The “seriousness” of AMFV was complicated by Infocom’s ad copy, which said things like “Roll Over, Orwell.” Elsewhere, a press release asserts:

With its highly literary focus, A Mind Forever Voyaging is a departure from other Infocom stories. Instead of being puzzle-oriented, the story involves you in a highly-detailed… chilling world of the future.

Messages regarding AMFV‘s tone and ambitions were mixed. I think this is all to the good, as it leaves the reader room to make of the game what they will.

Whatever the cause, Infocom was far more consistent in its presentation of Brian Moriarty’s Trinity, which was set before potential customers as a serious game about things that have happened, or else things that are likely to happen. In fact, most of the content about Trinity in its respective New Zork Times launch issue is concerned with the historical rigor of its production. Moriarty’s research trip to New Mexico is covered in greater detail than the game itself. How many games in that time were as concerned with the conditions of their production, with themselves? This is an interesting and unusual authorial approach, then or now, and worthy of future discussion.

I’m interested in finding a link between historicity and artistic merit, which is something Infocom (and some highly visible critics) appear to have accepted as a truth that goes without saying. There’s a lot to think about, here!

How many games in that time were as concerned with the conditions of their production, with themselves?

The fact that Trinity isn’t one of my favorite Infocom games in no way means that I’m going to dump on it for ten thousand words. It was one of my twenty nominees for “the best interactive fiction of all time.” Even if I do not like it as much as some of you might, I certainly do respect it.

I don’t know how long this series will take. More than three posts, I am sure. I’ll write until I’m done, and I hope that you’ll come along for the ride–no matter what your favorite Infocom game is.


Cold war anxiety, duck and cover, and adventure games! Join me on yet another trip back to the fabulous 1980s.

The post The Big One: Trinity appeared first on Gold Machine.

Sunday, 10. September 2023

Zarf Updates

Summer even more miscellaneous puzzle games

It's still summer and I'm still playing games. (Pace xkcd, but New England meteorological seasons line up with the astronomical seasons. September is a summer month; December is a fall month.) (Sometimes it snows in the fall months, is all.) ...

It's still summer and I'm still playing games.

(Pace xkcd, but New England meteorological seasons line up with the astronomical seasons. September is a summer month; December is a fall month.) (Sometimes it snows in the fall months, is all.)

  • Verne: The Shape of Fantasy
  • Void Stranger
  • Chants of Sennaar
  • The Case of the Golden Idol: The Lemurian Vampire
  • Obsidian

Verne: The Shape of Fantasy

A shortish pixel-art point-and-click in which the adventurer Jules Verne runs around a lot of locations familiar to fans of the writer Jules Verne.

This is heavier on the exploration and dialogue than it is on the puzzles, but the puzzles are pleasant and offer a nice variety of form and subject. There's a few fairly forgiving stealth scenes. Took me a few frustrating tries to get the timing right, but not awful. The art is excellent; lots of grand environments and ornately detailed spaces.

The plot is more of a mess. I don't mind an in-medias-res on a burning submarine, but the res it's in medias is a rather awkward mashup of other dramatic scenes from future and past. Some of which are on the submarine. There's a lot of submarine. It's not exactly confusing, but there's not much of a through-line to get hold of. You solve all the puzzles and then the heavenly light of the ending shines forth.

The real problem is the English translation, which is almost never anything that an English-speaker would say. It's just bad. And you spend a lot of time listening to dialogue -- this is a talky game. The voice actors (who speak perfectly good English) give it their darndest, but there's only so much they can do without changing the lines. (I think in a couple of places someone put their foot down in a "You can't say this, George" way, but only a couple.)

Not perfect but I had a good time.

Void Stranger

A grid puzzle game where you push blocks, swap blocks, and dodge turn-based monsters. Sort of midway between Sokoban, DROD, and some other game I'm not sure what the title is. No undo, but you can restart levels freely -- except that [spoiler omitted].

The [spoiler] (and some other stuff) hints pretty strongly that you're meant to play through the game, solve all the puzzles, discover the secrets, and then replay from the beginning to solve the real puzzles. The fairy-tale-ish frame story points the same way -- and not just because it's a stylistic Undertale homage complete with offbeat combats.

I haven't gotten that far myself. The puzzles are, as puzzles go, pretty intense. I've solved a whole lot of them but I'm getting worn down. (DROD-style monsters and step-by-step planning are not my favorite puzzle format.) So I may put this one aside. But if you're up for lots of thinky puzzles plus a whole lot of (implied) secret tricks, you should definitely take a look.

Chants of Sennaar

An alien-language puzzle game that really commits to the language puzzle aspect. You ascend the Tower of Not-Babel, translating five languages as you go.

The game plays out as a point-and-click. Talk to people; figure out what they want; sneak past a few guards; solve a few light environmental puzzles. "Figure out what people want" is the interesting part. That's where the language aspect comes in, and that part is pure evidence-based deduction. The game even borrows the Obra-Dinnish "verify three at a time".

The languages have some distinctive features but they're not outré as conlangs go. And the construction puzzles go easy on the fancy features; mostly you just have to pay attention to word order.

The upshot is that the game is intricate but not very difficult. Not only does the verifier let you brute-force guess (as in Obra Dinn, Golden Idol, etc), but it also gifts you the exact meaning of each verified word. So it's impossible to go any distance with subtle misinterpretations of what's going on. That made me a bit sad; subtle misinterpretations are the most entertaining part of language games. (Contrast Heaven's Vault, which lets you reach the end with completely wrong notions about various locations and characters, never twitching an eyelid.)

(Some people on the puzzle forums are playing without ever verifying a word, for exactly this reason and for extra challenge. Go you.)

Anyhow, it's all in the service of a smooth play-through, and there's plenty to tangle with even on not-very-hard mode. Big intricate world. Lots of social stuff in the background to figure out. Vivid geometric architectural style. Trippy ending. I really enjoyed it.

The Case of the Golden Idol: The Lemurian Vampire

Speaking of Golden Idol, the second DLC episode has launched.

Very much more-of-the-same except harder. The final scene works up to a full Holmesian "figure out the chain of events based on a few tiny specks". I fell back on hints for the first time in this game. (And the last, as the story is now complete.)

No need for recommendations; you already know whether you're a fan.


A repackaging of the 1997 adventure game. (One of the earliest reviews on this site!) Props to ScummVM for the modern engine support.

I'll tell you, I appreciate the nostalgia hit, but actually playing a 90s-era Myst-like is exhausting. I have no idea how I got through so many back then. The slideshow view of the world is cramped; the movement animations are like being stuck in stop-and-go traffic.

I'm delighted that this game is available again, but I may not bother to push through it.

On the up side, the voiceovers are great, aren't they? I said "amusingly written" in my original review, but let's give full credit. It's worth kicking each NPC a few extra times just to see how the game dodges repetition. "Here are your entry cards... again."

Friday, 08. September 2023

Interactive Fiction – The Digital Antiquarian

Magic and Loss, Part 1: Magic in the Cards

  Imagine a card game where there are hundreds of cards, with more being made all the time. Some cards are rare and some are common. You build a deck with whatever cards you want. You have no idea what’s in your opponent’s deck. And then you duel. — Richard Garfield to Peter Adkison, 1991 […]


Imagine a card game where there are hundreds of cards, with more being made all the time. Some cards are rare and some are common. You build a deck with whatever cards you want. You have no idea what’s in your opponent’s deck. And then you duel.

— Richard Garfield to Peter Adkison, 1991

Most revolutions have humble origins. Magic: The Gathering, the humble little card game that upended its industry in the 1990s, is no exception. It began with an ordinary-seeming fellow from the American heartland by the name of Peter Adkison.

Adkison grew up in rural Idaho in a family of Seventh Day Adventists, an idiosyncratic branch of evangelical Christianity. When not in church, the household played card and board games of all descriptions, a hobby for which the dark, snowy winters of their part of the country left ample time.

Adkison had moved to eastern Washington State to attend Walla Walla College when the Dungeons & Dragons craze of the early 1980s hit. Unfortunately, the game was soon banned from his college, itself a Seventh Day Adventists institution, because it was believed to have ties to Satanism. But fortunately, his mother, who had recently left both his father and the faith, gave him and his friends a safe space to play in her basement during vacations and holidays.

In 1985, Adkison graduated with a degree in computer science and went to work for Boeing in Seattle. Half a decade later, having grown disenchanted with the humdrum day-to-day of corporate aerospace engineering, he founded a would-be games publisher called Wizards of the Coast in his own basement. Looking for the right ticket into the hobby-game industry, he posted an open call on Usenet for designers who might be willing to sign on with a new and unproven company such as his. It was answered by two graduate students in mathematics at the University of Pennsylvania, whose names were Mike Davis and Richard Garfield. They all agreed to meet in person on August 17, 1991, in Portland, Oregon, the home of Garfield’s parents.

Adkison realized quickly at that meeting that the specific design the pair had come to pitch to him was untenable for Wizards of the Coast, at least at this juncture. Called Robo Rally, it portrayed a madcap race by out-of-control robots across a factory floor, the players continually “programming” them a few moves ahead of time to deal with whatever obstacles looked like they were coming next. The game was (and is) pretty brilliant, but it required far too many bobs and thingamajigs in the box to be practical under Adkison’s current budgetary constraints.

Nevertheless, he was impressed by the pair — especially by Garfield, a PhD student in the field of combinatorics, who seemed the more committed, passionate, and creative of the two. Mind you, it wasn’t that he cut a particularly rousing figure by conventional metrics. “Then, as now,” says Adkison, “he wore mismatched socks, had strange bits of thread and fabric hanging from parts of his clothing, and generally looked like someone who had just walked into the Salvation Army [Store] and grabbed whatever seemed colorful.” It was Garfield’s sheer love of games — all kinds of games — that drew Adkison in: “His vision was clear, and went to the heart of gaming. He was looking for entertainment, social interaction, mental exercise, creativity, and challenge. I suddenly felt stupid, remembering the time I had refused to play Pictionary, even though I knew I would probably enjoy it.”

Still, Adkison recognized that he had no choice but to let this weirdly inspiring new acquaintance down as gently as possible: It’s not your game design, it’s my lack of the resources to do it justice. Whereupon Garfield spoke the words that would change both their lives forever: “If you don’t want Robo Rally, what do you want? Describe a game concept — any concept — and I’ll design a game around it for you.”

Adkison was taken aback. He had been hoping to serendipitously stumble upon the ideal game, and now he had the chance to have one designed to order. What made the most sense for getting his company off the ground? It ought to be something small and simple, something cheap and easy to produce. Perhaps… yes! A card game would be ideal; that way, there would be no need for the manufacturing complications of boards or dice or injection-molded plastic figurines. And yet it could still be colorful and exciting to look at, if he brought in some good illustrators for the cards. It could be a snack-sized game for two people that was playable in twenty minutes or less, perfect for filling those down times around the table while waiting for the rest of the group to show up, or waiting for that week’s designated away team to return with the pizzas. There always seemed to be a shortage of that kind of game in the hobbyist market, where everybody wanted to go epic, man all the time. It could be displayed next to the cash register at gaming stores as a potential impulse buy, could become a little stocking stuffer for that special gamer in your life. Such a game would be a splendid way of getting Wizards of the Coast off the ground. Once that was accomplished, there would be plenty of time for the likes of Robo Rally.

A nodding Richard Garfield took it all in and promised to think about it.

They all met up again at a Seattle gaming convention a week later. Here Adkison learned that, true to his word, Garfield had indeed been thinking about his requested snack-sized card game. In fact, he’d been thinking rather hard. He proposed a game in which the players would be wizards who engaged in a duel, summoning minions to do their bidding and hurling spells at one another. Thematically speaking, it wasn’t exactly groundbreaking in a gaming milieu that had J.R.R. Tolkien and Gary Gygax as its patron saints. Nevertheless, as Garfield expanded on his concept, Adkison’s eyes kept getting wider. And when he was done, Adkison ran outside to the parking lot so that he could whoop for joy without inhibition. Garfield’s idea was, he was convinced, the best one to come along in the tabletop space since Dungeons & Dragons. He could already smell the money it was going to make all of them.

The true genius of Garfield’s idea — the reason that Adkison knew it could make him rich — was ironically external to the core gameplay loop that is the alpha and omega of most games. That said, that loop needed to be rock solid for the rest of the magic of Magic: The Gathering to happen. And this it most certainly was. I should take a moment to go over it here before I continue my story.

You Can Do Magic: A Very (Very, Very) Brief Introduction

While it is possible for more than two players to participate in a game of Magic, we’ll play it today as a one-on-one duel, by far its most common incarnation in its glory days of the 1990s. Indeed, because we’re doing history here, I’ll be describing the game in general as it was played in the 1990s. The modern game had not changed markedly, but there has been some tinkering here and there.

Unless another number has been agreed upon, each player starts with twenty life points. The objective is to reduce your opponent’s life points to zero before she can do the same to you. Alternatively — and less commonly — you can win through attrition, by causing her to run out of cards to play before you do.

Each player starts with her own freshly shuffled deck of cards. How many cards? That’s a little bit complicated to get into right now, involving as it does the aforementioned revolutionary aspects of the game that are external to the core rules. Suffice for now to say that the range is usually but not always between about 40 and 60, and that the number of cards is not necessarily the same for both players.

These cards fall into two broad categories. There are land cards, which provide mana, the fuel for the spells you will cast. And there are spell cards, which represent the spells themselves. There are five different types of land, from Swamps to Mountains, and each provides a different color of mana. Likewise, most of the spell cards require some quantity of a specific color of mana to play.

One of the key attributes that sets Magic apart from most card games is its asymmetry. As I already noted, each player has her own deck of cards, and these decks are not identical, what with their contents being selected by the players themselves. Some might go with a completely White deck, some with all Black. Slightly more adventurous souls might mix two colors; the really smart, brave, and/or foolhardy might dare to blend three. To use more colors than that in a deck is generally agreed to be a recipe for disaster.

In theory at least, the cards of each color are equally powerful in the aggregate, but they lend themselves to divergent play styles. White (using mana drawn from Plains) is the color of healing and protection, and its cards reflect this. Black (Swamps), on the other hand, is the color of decay, corruption, and pestilence. And so it goes with the other colors: Blue (Islands) is the color of trickery and deception, Red (Mountains) of unbridled destruction and mayhem, Green (Forests) of nature and life. The Magic colors you prefer to play with are a sort of Rorschach test, defining what sort of player you want to be if not what sort of person you already are.

On the theory that the best way to learn something is often by example, let’s begin a sample duel. I’ll play a Red and Green deck against my much cleverer wife Dorte, who is playing Black and Blue.

At the beginning of the match, Dorte and I each draw the seven cards that compose our starting hand. The game then proceeds in rounds, during each of which each player takes one turn. I’ll be the starting player, the one who takes his turn first each round. (This is not always an advantage.)

Each player gets to draw one more card at the beginning of his or her turn, and each player is then allowed to deploy a maximum of one land card during that turn. I do both, placing a Mountain on the table in front of me.

Most spell cards require you to tap your store of mana — signified by turning one or more deployed land cards sideways — in order to play them. I happen to have in my hand a Lightning Bolt, which, I can see from the symbol at the top right of the card, requires just one Red mana to cast. That’s perfect for an early strike to wake up my enemy! I tap my freshly deployed Mountain and hurl the spell, doing three points of damage to Dorte just like that, reducing her life total to seventeen. “Instant” spells like this one go directly to the graveyard — known in most other card games as the player’s discard pile — once they’ve been cast. They’re gone forever from that point on — except under special circumstances, such as a spell that lets one pull cards out of the graveyard. (One quickly learns that every rule in Magic comes with that same implied asterisk.)

On her turn, Dorte draws a card, deploys a Swamp, and does nothing else. Presumably she doesn’t have any spell cards in her hand that cost just one Black mana to cast — or any that she wants to cast right now, at any rate.

The first round is now finished, so I can untap the Mountain I’ve already put on the table. This means I will be able to use it again on my next turn.

I draw another card to start my second turn. But after doing so, I find that there’s nothing else that I’m willing and able to do with my current hand, other than to grow my Red mana stockpile a bit by deploying another Mountain. Quick turns like the ones Dorte and I have just taken are not at all unusual during the early rounds of a game. Most spells cost more than the Lightning Bolt I happened to have handy at the start, and it can take time to build up the supply of mana needed to cast them. Because land cards that have been deployed in one turn stay deployed in those that follow, the amount of mana in play escalates steadily during a game of Magic, allowing more and more powerful spell cards to be played.

Unhappily for me, Dorte doesn’t need to wait around anymore. After drawing a card and deploying a second Swamp, she has enough mana to summon a Black Knight. As a summoned minion rather than a one-shot spell, he goes out onto the table in front of her, next to her supply of land. He will soon be able to attack me, or do battle with my own minions, should I manage to summon any. Thankfully, though, he is not allowed to attack on the same turn he is summoned. And so the round ends without further ado.

I get some luck of my own on my next turn; I draw the Forest card I’ve been looking for. I immediately deploy my Forest alongside my two preexisting Mountains, giving me one Green and two Red mana to work with this turn.

I use one of each to summon my first minion (or rather minions): a group of Elven Archers. (The symbols at the top right of this card tell me that it costs one Green mana and one additional mana of any color to play.) And then, because they too aren’t allowed to attack on the turn in which I summoned them, I can do nothing else.

Dorte deploys an Island on her turn, giving her one Blue and two Black mana in her reservoir.

Then she sends her Black Knight to attack me. I’m about to respond with my Elven Archers as defenders. Take a close look at both cards. The numbers at the bottom right tell us that both attack with a power of two, but that, while the Black Knight dies only after absorbing two points of damage, my Elven Archers are more fragile, dying after taking just one point of damage. Both also have special abilities. The Black Knight is invulnerable to White enemies, but this is irrelevant in this match, since I won’t be summoning any of them. On the other hand, both the Black Knight and the Elven Archers have a “First Strike” ability. This requires a bit more unpacking.

When minions clash, they normally damage one another simultaneously. A creature with First Strike, however, damages its enemy first; if and only if the enemy is left alive by the attack does it get to inflict retaliatory damage of its own. Yet in this case, both attacker and defender have First Strike. Their special abilities cancel one another out, causing them to inflict damage on one another simultaneously as usual. The result ought to be that both are killed, going to their respective players’ graveyards. I am, in other words, prepared to sacrifice my Elven Archers in order to get Dorte’s Black Knight — a slightly more formidable pugilist on the whole — out of the game as well.

But that’s not what actually happens here — because Dorte, who hasn’t yet tapped any of her lands, does so now in order to cast a Terror spell, killing my Elven Archers outright before they can move to block her Black Knight. With his way thus cleared, the Black Knight can attack me directly, reducing my life points to eighteen. And so the round ends.

On my next turn, I deploy another Mountain, giving me a total of three Red and one Green mana. That’s more than enough to summon another minion from my hand, a Gray Ogre this time. Having done so, I end my turn.

Dorte now deploys another Island, giving her a pool of two Blue and two Black mana. She uses one Black mana to cast Unholy Strength on her Black Knight, increasing his attack power to four and his hit points to three.

Then she uses one Blue mana to cast a Flight spell, giving the same Black Knight the “Flying” special ability, meaning it will be able to soar right over my (non-flying) Gray Ogre and do four points of damage to me directly. This match does not appear to be going my way.

But appearances can be deceiving. It so happened that I drew another Lightning Bolt on my last turn, and I still have one untapped Mountain left to use to cast it — not directly against Dorte this time, but rather against her augmented Black Knight. The spell’s three points of damage will be just enough to kill him, even with his newfound Unholy Strength; nor can his ability to Fly save him.

But I did tell you that Dorte is clever, right? Not wanting to lose her Black Knight permanently, she hurriedly casts Unsummon with her last remaining point of Blue mana. This allows her to take him back into her hand, to be summoned again on some future turn to fight another day — minus his buffs, which now go to her graveyard without him.

The outcome of the last round has been mixed, but by no means ruinously so for me. I’ve been able to avoid taking any more damage, have forced Dorte’s only minion out of play for the moment, and now have a minion of my own poised to take the offensive next round. I’ll chalk the round up as more successful than not, even as I worry about what Dorte might still have up her sleeve — or rather in her hand — for dealing with my Gray Ogre.

And so it goes. A game of Magic is a cat-and-mouse one of move and countermove, strike and counterstrike, feint and counter-feint.

Although the explanation above is highly simplified, the core gameplay loop of Magic really is fairly easy to teach and to learn. The game’s ability to obsess its players over the long term derives not from its core rules but from the cards themselves. Through them, a simple game becomes devilishly complex — albeit complex in a different sense from, say, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, with its hundreds of pages of closely typed rules. In Magic, by contrast, all of the rules beyond the most basic are literally printed right there on the cards. The rules thus rewrite themselves every time somebody brings a new card to a session. This was unprecedented enough in the early 1990s to be called revolutionary — and not only in the sense of pure game design, but in a cultural and commercial sense as well. For Magic, you see, was envisioned from the start as a collectible card game, the world’s first.

This meant that there wouldn’t be a single monolithic Magic game to buy, containing everything you needed to play. Each player would instead assemble his own unique deck of cards by buying one or more card packs from Wizards of the Coast and/or by trading cards with his friends. All of the card packs produced by Wizards would be randomized. No one — not Wizards, not the store that sold them, definitely not you the buyer — could know for sure what cards any given pack contained. You would have to pay your money and take your chances on whatever pack seemed to be calling to you from its shelf in the store on that day.

The concept was utterly original, arguably more so than anything that had been seen in tabletop gaming since Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson had unleashed their “single-unit wargame” Dungeons & Dragons. But because of its unprecedented nature, Magic took a long, long time to turn into a reality. For, whatever its other merits, Magic did not live up to Peter Adkison’s request for a card game that would be simple and cheap to turn into a finished product.

First there was the work of making up hundreds of cards and their abilities, then of testing them against one another over and over to find out which ones were too powerful, which ones weren’t powerful enough, and which ones had been a bad idea from the get-go. Richard Garfield’s expertise in combinatorics was a godsend here, as was that of the other mathematicians who surrounded him at the University of Pennsylvania. “Richard would grab people for games all the time,” remembers one of those colleagues, the fellow who had the office across the hall from his. “If you said yes once, you were in the loop.” Magic became a way of life at the math department, threatening to derail graduations and theses. The University of Pennsylvania was the first educational institution to be so afflicted; it would not be the last.

The process of hewing a real game out of Garfield’s stroke of genius took so long that Peter Adkison came close to writing the whole project off, notwithstanding his bellow of enthusiasm in that Seattle parking lot after he had first been told of it. While he waited to see if Garfield would come through, he tried to bootstrap Wizards of the Coast by making supplements for established RPG lines. But his very first effort in this direction, a source book dealing with deities and their religions, nearly brought an end to the whole operation; the included notes on how to use the material with The Palladium Fantasy Role-Playing Game got him sued. He wound up having to scrap the source book and pay Palladium Books a settlement he really couldn’t afford. All he could do was chalk it up as a lesson learned. It wasn’t worth it to piggyback on anyone else’s intellectual property, he decided. Better for Wizards of the Coast to build its own inviolate empire with Magic.

Early in 1993 — fully eighteen months after that eureka moment in Seattle — Garfield finally delivered an initial slate of 300 different cards that he judged to be adequately tested and balanced. Now Adkison’s work began. He considered it essential that Magic look as good as it played; a part of the appeal of collecting the cards should be purely aesthetic. He farmed the illustrations out to a small army of freelance artists, most of them students at Seattle’s Cornish College of the Arts, who agreed to work for royalties and stock in lieu of the up-front fees that Adkison couldn’t afford to pay them; he also offered them the unusual bonus of seeing their names featured right there on the fronts of the cards themselves.

You would begin your journey into the realms of Magic by buying a 60-card “Starter Deck,” at a price of $7.95. After that, you could add to your deck’s possibilities by buying 15-card “Booster Packs,” which would sell for $2.45 each. Working out the top-secret algorithms that would dictate the card packs’ contents was an enormously complicated exercise in combinatorics, one that put even Garfield’s skills to the test. Starter Decks, for example, had to be reasonably playable all by themselves, with a balance between types of land and spells that required that color of mana. To introduce a modicum of balance into the Magic economy as a whole, Garfield classified each card as common, uncommon, or rare, with their proportions in a print run and in each individual pack within that run to be dictated accordingly. Adkison awarded the contract to print the cards to a firm in far-off Belgium, the only one he could find that was willing and able to piece together so many bespoke packages.

He planned to introduce Magic to the world in August of 1993 at Gen Con, the highlight of the hobbyist-gaming calendar. It very nearly didn’t happen. Having paid for a booth at the tabletop-gaming Mecca, he was flustered when the cards he intended to show and sell there failed to arrive in time from Belgium. He spent the first and most of the second day of the four-day show standing in front of the empty booth, telling nonplussed gamers about the revolutionary game he would like to be showing them but for a logistical snafu. Needless to say, it was not a good look.

At long last, on the afternoon of the second day, the truck he had been waiting for arrived from the East Coast. Adkison and his people ripped open the shipping boxes right there on the show floor and began stacking the card packs around them. The show attendees still looked skeptical, still didn’t quite seem to understand the concept: “What? Each player needs his own deck?” But eventually a few took the plunge on a Starter Pack, then a few more. Then a lot of people did so, even as the earliest adopters started coming back to pick up Booster Packs. And then the second wave of Starter Pack buyers returned to buy more Booster Packs, as the future of Magic played out in microcosm right there in the hallways, hotel rooms, cafeterias, and gaming halls of Gen Con. Adkison sold $25,000 worth of Magic that weekend. On Monday morning, he walked into Boeing and tendered his resignation.

Dragon magazine, the journal of record of hobbyist gaming on the tabletop, had a reporter on the scene at the show. Allen Varney’s article is prescient in many ways, although even he couldn’t possibly know just how big Magic would become.

Through the Gen Con Game Fair, people clustered three deep around the Wizards of the Coast table, craning to see the ongoing demonstrations of this game. Everywhere I went I saw someone playing it. In discussing it, some players showed reserved admiration, others enthusiasm, but body language told more than words. Everyone hunched forward intently, the way you do in deep discussions of politics or religion. Onlookers and devoted fans alike felt compelled to grapple with the idea of this game. It achieved more than just a commercial hit; it redefined gamers’ perspectives on their hobby.

The Magic: The Gathering card game, the trailblazer in what may become an entire industry category, combines card-game rules with trading-card collectability…

The Magic game requires a medium to large league of players to bring out its magic. Fortunately, its low entry price, simplicity, and quick play make this easier to achieve. It makes an ideal choice for conventions or lunch boxes. Its drawbacks seem minor beside its groundbreaking achievement.

Things happened quickly after Gen Con — so quickly that Dragon saw the need to append a hasty postscript to Varney’s original review in the very same issue in which it first appeared. Already at this point Magic could only be described as a “phenomenon.”

As I write this postscript, about six weeks after the game’s release, Magic has attracted legions of instant fanatics. The decks have sold out everywhere. Retailers frantically await follow-up shipments of millions of cards. I know lots of gamers who play the game long into the night, and weigh trade offers the way home buyers study mortgage contracts. I wonder what these junkies did before the game appeared; probably the junkies wonder too.

Yes, if you must know, I have become a junkie myself. The review above fails to highlight the game’s addictive quality, which clicks in when you appreciate the diverse strategies you can pursue in tailoring your deck or decks; you may create decks for different situations, like a golfer choosing irons. These decks display fascinating contrasts keyed to the colors and creatures they use, and to the players who use them…

Owning a large number of different cards seems to confer an odd, unspoken status. So does ownership of a particular rare card that no one else owns. Because every deck contains rare cards, this means a neophyte can buy one Magic deck and acquire instant stature among these long-time players: “Wow, he’s got a Lord of the Pit!” This seems to me something new in the gaming subculture, another sign of the game’s pioneering nature…

The allure of the rarest cards was partially down to the collector instinct alone; while those who called Magic the nerdy kid’s version of baseball cards overlooked much of the full picture, they weren’t entirely wrong either. In addition, though, uncommon and especially rare cards tended to be, when played properly, more powerful than their more plebeian comrades that might have been acquired inside the same cellophane wrapping.

It’s extraordinary to think that all of this was happening already just six weeks after Magic‘s debut. No other game in the hobby market had ever exploded out of the gates like this. Peter Adkison had used every dime he could scrape together from family, friends, bankers, and personal savings to fund an initial print run of 2.6 million cards, which he had thought should get him through the next year if the game took off like he hoped it would. It sold out within a week, leaving him scrambling to put together a second run of 7.3 million cards. That one too sold out in pre-orders before it had even arrived Stateside from Belgium. Not only were gamers demanding more cards in general, but also more types of cards. Adkison set Richard Garfield, who had just received a PhD after his name that he would never need to use now, to dreaming up and play-testing new cards.

Why was Magic such a hit? The answer is not that hard to grasp in the broad strokes, but there were some troubling ethical dilemmas lurking behind its success. While there’s no doubt that Magic was a genuinely great, compelling game, there’s also little doubt that it ruthlessly exploited the insecurities of its primary fan base: teenage males of a, shall we say, mathematical rather than athletic disposition. As anyone who has ever seen a computer-coding contest or a DOOM deathmatch can tell you, these kids aren’t a jot less competitive than the jocks that they mock and are mocked by; they’ve just transferred their competitive instinct to a different arena. It does seem to me that hyper-competitiveness is rooted in personal insecurity. And who is as insecure as a teenage boy of any high-school clique, other than perchance a teenage girl?

In practice, then, the story might go something like this:

A kid keeps hearing about this neat new game called Magic, and finally goes out and buys himself a Starter Pack. Now, he needs people to play with. So he shows his cards to some of his buddies, and convinces them to go out and buy Starter Packs of their own. They all start to play together — in fact, they start to play every chance they get, because the game turns out to be really, really fun. Taking less than twenty minutes to play a match as it does, it’s perfect for squeezing into school lunch breaks and the like.

So far, so good. But one kid in the group is having a bit more trouble than the others coming to terms with the game. He loses more than any of his friends, perhaps even becomes known as the pushover of the group, to be teased accordingly. Being a teenage boy, he likes that not at all. He’s been seeing these Booster Packs at the local gaming store. Could one of those give him a leg up? He decides to take a chance. And he’s rewarded for his initiative: he gets one or two powerful new cards, and suddenly he isn’t losing so much anymore.

Of course, the other kids in the group are hardly unaware of the source of their friend’s novel formidability. They grumble about how pathetic it is to go out and buy your way to victory. Eventually, though, one of them breaks down and buys a Booster Pack of his own. And so the arms race begins. Soon the boys are spending allowances, lawn-cutting and paper-route earnings, paychecks from Burger King on more and more Booster Packs. They tear each new one open, flinging the common and even uncommon cards into a big pile of the undesirable in the center of their bedroom, which sits there like vanities awaiting the bonfire while their owners look desperately for that Time Walk or Ancestral Recall that will let them dominate. The blessed day comes they do find what they’ve been looking for — but then they find that it’s still not enough, because the other boys have also upgraded their decks. And so the vicious cycle continues, fueled by the more cards that Wizards of the Coast is constantly inventing and churning out as quickly as a body ludic of adolescent addicts can absorb them into its bloodstream.

I hasten to add that it never had to go down this way. Theoretically speaking, a group of friends could decide to get into Magic, buy a Starter Pack or two each, and agree that that was as far as they would go. Such disciplined souls would be rewarded with an entertaining, deceptively intricate little card game that was well worth the relatively paltry sum they’d paid for it. But still, the chance that someone would give in to the shrink-wrapped temptations beckoning from the shelves of the local gaming store was always there. And after they did so, all bets were off.

I must acknowledge here as well that the motivation to buy more and more Booster Packs wasn’t always or even usually purely egotistical. Deck-building became a fascinating art and science in itself. Among advanced players, Magic duels tended to be won or lost before they even began, being determined by the mix of cards each player had in his deck. Remember that the number and types of cards in a deck were entirely up to that deck’s owner. Refining a deck into a precision-guided killing machine was an education in itself in probability and statistics. For example, how many land versus spell cards were optimal? If you drew too few land cards, you might find yourself unable to do much of anything while your opponent pounded on you; too many land cards, on the other hand, were clutter in your hand that just as effectively prevented you from getting summoned minions and other spells into play. And how many cards should you have in total, for that matter? Inexperienced players with more money than sense tended to assemble motley monstrosities of decks with 80 cards or more, only to learn that their probability of getting the right combinations of cards into their hand with such a deck was far too low. Lean and mean decks that did just a few things extremely well were almost always better than a random smorgasbord of even the rarest, most powerful cards.

All of which is to say that, at the most advanced level, Magic came to revolve around specific, devious combinations of cards that multiplied one another’s strengths in unexpected ways. Allow me to cite a simple example, laughably so by the standards of skilled players.

Consider the case of the Lifetap. This card is deadly against an opponent who relies heavily on Green mana, because it lets you gain one point of life every single time he taps one of his Forests for the mana he needs. It puts him in a place where literally everything he tries to do to kill you only makes you stronger. Yet it’s useless against an opponent who isn’t using Green mana, nothing but clutter in your deck. Or is it?

If you can put it into a play alongside a Magic Hack, it becomes an all-purpose game changer. For Magic Hack, you see, will let you change the word “Forest” on the Lifetap card to whatever land your opponent happens to be relying on most of all.

Of course, you have to balance the number of Lifetaps and Magic Hacks in your deck to give yourself a reasonable chance of getting them into play in combination, without having so many that you don’t see enough of the other cards you will need to win. And so begins the endless process of tinkering and honing that is the fate and the passion of the serious student of Magic

By way of summation, then, Magic: The Gathering was simultaneously a great game in its own right and a downright dangerous pastime for the right (or wrong?) kind of mind. It could deliver an enormous amount of satisfying fun, or it could eat up all of one’s money and free time, distracting from other, less zero-sum forms of social interaction and trapping its victims into a wallet-emptying spiral of addiction. Even teenage players could recognize its dangers, for all that they often couldn’t see their way clear of them; they took to calling those tempting Booster Packs “Crack in a Pack.” In Generation Decks, his thoughtful book-length history of Magic, Titus Chalk describes the unhealthily cloistered air of the shop backrooms in which Magic thrived.

These shops are turf. The tangible space a community has carved out for itself, and which it is loath to surrender again. Here there is safety in numbers. Reassurance in peers who look, act, and speak the same. And a comfort to looking inwards rather than out through cluttered windows. Hiding in the shadows, these places preserve the community’s cosiness, without holding it up to scrutiny or opening it up to others whose different values might enrich it. The physical environment is a symptom of its inhabitants’ insecurities. In gloomy backrooms, Magic cloaks itself in stigma.

How do you encourage a community to look outwards when it is so accustomed to lurking in the margins?

Richard Garfield insists that exploiting his young players was never on his mind when he was designing Magic, and we have no reason to disbelieve him. Indeed, his original vision for the Magic economy was actually quite different from what the reality became. He imagined that Magic would become primarily a trading game, in which a pool of cards that grew only slowly if at all would circulate busily among a community of players. Barry Reich, a fellow graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania who helped Garfield refine the game before its release, says that they imagined back then that “extravagant people might buy two [Starter] Decks and [thereafter] a Booster Pack or two a year.”

The game’s most notorious early rule stemmed directly from this vision of a semi-closed economy with only limited external stimulus in the form of new cards. That rule was the “ante.” It stipulated that, before beginning a game, each player would randomly draw one card from his deck and set it aside; the winner of the match would then get to take the loser’s ante card home with him. If you squint just right, you can sort of see this rule through Garfield’s eyes. The ante would get and keep cards moving through the Magic community.

Still, its problematic aspects ought to have been obvious even to an innocent like him. How much fun could it be for a new player, trying Magic for the first time, to pay for the learning experience by losing card after card? As if that wasn’t argument enough against it, the rule effectively turned Magic into a Wizards of the Coast-sanctioned form of gambling, one that was literally illegal according to the laws of many American states; you were, after all, playing a game with a strong element of chance for objects of real monetary value. The fact that the gamblers in this case were mostly underage only made the optics that much worse. Small wonder that, within a few years of Magic‘s release, the ante would be quietly retired and scrubbed as much as possible from the game’s history. Its only saving grace while it existed was that it was officially described as “optional.”

In the spirit that every rule in Magic comes complete with a card-provided asterisk, some early cards played with the ante mechanic. This one, which lets you draw seven new cards into your hand for the price of just one Black mana, is very potent. But you also pay for that potency by risking two cards instead of one on the outcome of the match.

Wizards of the Coast grew from a handful of people working out of Peter Adkison’s basement in 1993 to 50 employees in 1994, then to 250 in 1995. It even started publishing Magic novels — a rather cheeky move, given how thin the fiction and “universe” of the card game was, drawing indiscriminately on everything from the myths of King Arthur to the mythos of H.P. Lovecraft. (Lots of Magic addicts bought the books mainly for the coupons to be found at the back of them, which could be mailed in to receive a card that was otherwise unavailable.) The company was drowning in money, with profit margins on the ubiquitous little cards that the makers of traditional tabletop games could only dream of.

It soon became all too clear that, although Magic was certainly drawing some new folks into the circle of tabletop gamers, most of its success was coming at the expense of every other company in that market — not least the 800-ton mothership, TSR of Dungeons & Dragons fame, the host of the Gen Con convention where Magic had gotten its start. The marketplace calculus proved to be as relentlessly zero-sum as a Magic duel: the new game’s young fans had only a limited amount of funds to splash around, so that every dollar they spent on Magic was a dollar they couldn’t spend on Dungeons & Dragons or the like. Anyone from the industry’s old guard who might have been sleeping at the switch was fully alerted to the magnitude of the crisis at the 1994 Gen Con, which seemed to be about little else than this little card game that was now celebrating its first birthday. “The joke of the convention was that if there was any horizontal space, Magic players were playing on it,” says Mark Rosewater, then a writer for The Duelist, Wizards of the Coast’s new in-house magazine. “As you walked through the convention halls, you could see Magic players camped out all over the floor.” The first annual Magic World Championship was held at the convention: 500 players dueling for the title of best in the world, overshadowing everything else that went on there. Soon there would be a Magic Pro Tour to compete with the World Series of Poker.

The growing chorus of grumbles about Magic that could be detected underneath all the hysteria was the very definition of sour grapes, on the part of gamers and companies who saw a silly card game stealing away from them a hobby that they loved. But be that as it may, there were valid points to be detected amidst the chorus. In Dungeons & Dragons, you lived through the triumphs and tragedies of the dice together with your friends; in Magic, you did your level best to beat them. Something about the game seemed to bring out the worst in many of its players. The vibes in the room at Magic tournaments weren’t always the most pleasant.

Then, too, Dungeons & Dragons was a creative endeavor in a way that Magic wasn’t. Although it was easy to forget amidst the torrent of source books and adventure modules unleashed by the TSR of the 1990s, Dungeons & Dragons had once taken it as a given that you would make up your own worlds and adventures from whole cloth, and that ideal was still lodged somewhere deep in even in the current game’s DNA; in principle, you could still have a marvelous time exploring realms of the imagination with your friends after buying no more than the core trio of rule books. Magic, on the other hand, belonged to Wizards of the Coast, not to its players; the latter could only play with the content their ludic overlords deigned to give them, content of which they were forced to keep buying more and more by peer pressure and the need to stay competitive — which were largely one and the same, of course.

Yet such philosophical objections didn’t stop the other gaming companies from doing what they felt they had to in order to survive: making Magic-style collectible card games of their own. TSR was actually one of the first to do so, rushing out a product called Spellfire, reportedly designed over a weekend and then slapped together using recycled Dungeons & Dragons art. When it didn’t set the world on fire, they tried again with Dragon Dice, which at least scored some points for innovation by replacing cards with piles and piles of bespoke dice. Many, many others joined the fray as well. There were collectible card games based on Mortal Kombat, on The Lord of the Rings, on Babylon 5, on Star Wars and Star Trek, even on Monty Python, to say nothing of the dozens of also-rans who tried to make a go of it without the benefit of a license. Some did okay for a while, but none came anywhere close to Magic numbers. This applied even to Netrunner and The BattleTech Collectible Card Game, both designed by Richard Garfield himself for Wizards of the Coast, both commercial disappointments.

And then too there was a Magic computer game, to which one of the most famous designers in that industry lent his considerable talents. It will be our subject next time…

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Sources: The books Designers & Dragons: The 80s by Sheldon Appelcline, Slaying the Dragon: A Secret History of Dungeons & Dragons by Ben Riggs, and Generation Decks: The Unofficial History of Gaming Phenomenon Magic: The Gathering by Titus Chalk, Of Dice and Men: The Story of Dungeons & Dragons and the People Who Play It by David M. Ewalt, and The Fantasy Roleplaying Bible, second edition, by Sean Patick Fannon. Plus the Dragon of January 1994 and the January 2018 issue of Seattle Met. Online sources include interviews with Richard Garfield on Board Game Geek, Vice, Star City GamesMagic F2F, and the official Magic YouTube channel.