Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Play By Web: Part II

Ok, now you have some idea what's out there. The sites are filling up with players. Lots of good games. Lots of opponents. I don't know about you, but I can have 10 or more games going at once. So how do you make the most of this? How does the site designer do the same?

Tips For Players

Game Links: Keep your game links grouped in your browser. Depending on your browser, use tabs, or a toolbar, or a submenu. This will prevent you from forgetting about one, and give you a nice picture of what you are currently playing. I use the Firefox extension "Favicon Picker" which allows me to set an icon per toolbar item even if the site doesn't have a "favicon.ico" defined.

Reset Yourself: Each time it's your turn in a game, especially if you are playing more than one of the same game, take stock of your situation. What color are you? What were you planning to do? What happened since you checked last? I've caught myself making suboptimal moves thinking I was a different color, or using the plan from one game in another.

Play Speed: Even though the games are offline in the sense that they are not real-time like BSW, be mindful of the expected play speed. I think one turn per day should be the default, but some groups may specifically want to play an entire game in a single sitting. Others may not be able to play every day.

Skype: For playing PbW games in real-time, try using some form of voice chat like Skype. You can listen to each other hem and haw over your decisions. You can get to know each other better by chatting while you play.

Slow Motion: As mentioned in Mark Johnson's podcast, it's easy when only playing one move per day to want to do more with your turn than you would face-to-face. There's a certain psychology at work making you think you need to speed up the game. Play normally as much as possible.

Local Problem?: Don't be too hasty reporting a bug. Sometimes when you are having trouble taking your turn, it might be a browser problem. Close it and all other browser windows so the process is no longer running, and try again.

Feedback: Give constructive feedback to the PbW sites. If something's not working, let them know the specific game, what you are trying to do, and your specific browser and OS (if you think it's interface-related). If something is hard to use, tell them or suggest an alternative. In my first games of Hansa and Richelieu on MaBiWeb, I made several suggestions for improvements, and they were implemented right as I was taking my next turn.

Web-Friendly Games: Many games are under development. One of the main issues in PbW is the amount of interaction required during a turn. Every time a player has to give input, the game must "halt". Consider Caylus--a virtual nightmare in the PbW format. In a 5-player game, there are potentially 30 workers being placed, although that would be rare. Some of those workers result in choices to be made when the buildings are activated. Say 20 places where the game needs input each round. 10-15 rounds per game. That's 200-300 times where the server needs to email a player to do something. If each of those happens 10 times per day (very fast play), that's still 3-4 weeks! So be aware of the pitfalls and problems in your PbW expectations.

Cheating: I mention this not because I think it is rampant. Quite the contrary. I find most gamers to be fair to the extreme. But online gaming is not without its temptations. There are two forms that I can think of: hidden but countable information, and secret communications. If you are playing a game with hidden money/score/etc., but this information is countable (eg Euprates & Tigris, St Petersburg, Reef Encounter, Wallenstein) do not get out pen and paper to track it all. If you are playing a multi-player game, do not collude against player(s) by talking outside of the game, unless that is part of the play (eg Diplomacy).

Tips For Sites

Play By Web designers can also go a long way to making the experience better for the players. This will invariably attract more players.

Game Manager: This is perhaps the most important thing to me. A game manager let's you create new games, find games looking for players, see your games waiting to start, games in progress, and even finished games. It should show you the game name, the players, the current round, and the current player. Highlight the current player. In finished games, highlight the winner.

Email: Send an email immediately when it's a new player's turn. Also, see Unification below.

Cookies: Allow players to login on the site's home page and stay logged in without having to login per game. This is a real problem with sites like Biskai and Ludagora. The latter even embeds your plaintext password in some of their URL's. Ugly.

Interface: Every game has its particular issues. You must weigh the value of keeping the actual game board graphics with the utility of play and screen space. On one extreme we have a game like Puerto Rico (BSW). While I find the interface to be unacceptable, I do know that it must be made into a table. Trying to show all the player boards, the ships, the trading post, etc. as they are in the board game would be too cumbersome. On the other extreme, we have Caylus (again BSW). They did an incredible job keeping the look of the original while keeping wasted space down to a minimum. Although I have some real issues with the interface, I still give them an A for effort.

Resolution: Who really uses 800x600? According to my blog's stat counter, only 3% of the visitors have 800x600. 50% have 1024x768, and 35% have more than that. Of course, the best result for the player is to have the web server customize the layout based on the resolution. This is the most difficult to implement. As it is right now in almost every PbW game I play, only the left half of my screen is used (1600x1200), yet I still have to scroll down to see the table of information. If this table was coded as a module (a la BGG), then it could be positioned below or to the right of the game board with a simple style change. I would have your children for this feature.

Feedback: Be willing to tweak your site and your games when users make good suggestions. This not only keeps the players happy, but also shows the site is not stagnant.

Unification: I'll throw this idea out here as a plea to some savvy web person who perhaps doesn't want to go so far as to develop games. Create a single site that can be used as a hub for all PbW gaming. I don't mean simply to have a page full of links to all the other sites. I mean that the status of all my games appears on your site in a single table. Define a standard communications interface for the information. I'm guessing that it would be popular enough that PbW sites would want to be included, and would accommodate that interface. I'll help with this if anyone wants to try.

Now where was I?...

Monday, February 27, 2006

Game Day

Sunday was game day with my girlfriend. We do not schedule these regularly; we just play when we both have the time. I prefer to wait until there's a large block of time to play many games in a row rather than play a filler every day of the week.

Mastermind: This is one of our regular games over breakfast. As a game in itself, it is fairly boring and random, but it's good to kickstart your brain over coffee. We keep a running tally using the peg track on the side of the board. We play once each way, the winner getting the difference in points. The first to 29 wins the match.

Kahuna: Our first real game of the day, and a casual favorite. This game of sticks and stones has the unusual quality that your "front" is always vulnerable. Bridges support stones (islands), and stones defend bridges. You cannot build a wall of defense because whatever bridges exist on your front can be destroyed by a new stone, causing a ripple effect. Very neat. I won 9-1.

Magna Grecia: Our first time playing a full game. Despite the yellow/orange/red/brown palette, this game looks pretty nice as it starts to build up. Although we finally understand the mechanics of the game, the strategies elude us. It seems that any player-player connectivity or market competition is an almost a break-even endeavor. The only real points seem to come from oracles. I'm hoping lightning will strike some day, since this game is a favorite of some respected gamers. I won 45-24.

Carcassonne: The Castle: Another light and fun game. I built a very large tower. My girlfriend built a very large house. I finished off my tower on the second to last tile for 20 points. She could not complete her house. She managed to cancel out (ie share) my huge market area. Our tiny completed houses cancelled out. She won 77-66.

Alhambra: I don't remember ever winning this game against my girlfriend, and this time was no exception. She always seems to be able to buy with exact change and has an uncanny ability to buy every tile I need just before I am able. Regardless, I pushed on with the longest wall on all 3 scoring phases. I had a 10 point lead going into the 3rd round. She got majority on 4 of the 6 colors, giving her an easy 94-72 win.

Online I have been playing Through the Desert, Alhambra, Richelieu, Hansa, Tikal, Torres, and Shazamm!

[Magna Grecia image by Fawkes]

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Play By Web

At this point it looks like 2006 is going to be the year of the explosion of Play By Web games. Many of these games are gamer's games, and they are being implemented exceptionally well. Good graphics. Good interfaces.

For me, it's been an opportunity not only to play games I haven't tried before, but also to play games I don't often get to play face to face. I am not familiar with every Play By Web site, nor all the games on the ones I do play on. This is my scorecard for those which I have. Games in red are possibly under development.

MabiWeb: A

Hansa, Richelieu, Samurai, In the Shadow of the Emperor

This is the newest of the bunch, and the best. It's currently lacking in variety, but the developer is active and mentioning lots of great possibilities. The interfaces are exceptional. Consider Hansa, for example. Click the stacks to replenish. Click on the destination city to move the ship. Click on a disc on the board to buy it. Click on a disc in your reserves to build markets. Click "sell" to sell the checked discs. He's even going out of his way to accommodate us with tweaks as we play the games.

The server has a game manager, showing all your games in progress, and the completed games of the previous month. The site also has a nice forum.

SpielByWeb: A-

Amun-Re, Reef Encounter, Wallenstein, La Citta, Santiago, Caylus, El Grande, Hacienda

Very close behind is the other relatively new site that was recently a victim of its own success. It was getting so many hits, the owner had to shut down one of the more popular games until he could find a new home.

Like MaBi, SbW uses actual game graphics with very good interfaces. They are slightly lacking in reasonable screen layout for most of their games, and the in-game messaging system is poor. They also have a nice game manager and forum, and are fairly active.

Ludogora: B

Medina, Through the Desert, Vinci

Good games. Good interfaces, although Through the Desert could have been a little better. The main reason for the B is that there's no real game manager. Each game listing is per game. With no cookie support, you need to login each time you take your turn. Thank goodness for browsers with password support.

Boite A Jeux: B-

Alhambra, DVONN, Finstere Flure, GIPF, Torres

This site's games are well implemented, but that is far overshadowed by the terrible game manager, lack of passworded game support, and general slowness of response. Also, you do not get emails (at least I don't) when it's your turn, forcing you to check frequently.

Yucata: C

Kahuna, Rosenkonig

This site has a general lack of interesting games, a poor game manager, and no way to view other games in progress.

BoardGameGeek: D-

Euphrates & Tigris

Even with as much love as I have for BGG overall, I cannot bring myself to say good things about their one good game implementation except that "it works". I can't really imagine a way to make it worse than it is. The graphics and colors are horrid. The way you interact with the tiles, leaders, and the board is ridiculous. And the off-board player information is laid out like it's been through a blender. If Aldie were to ask me how to fix it--and I doubt he has time for blogs--I'd say redo the entire thing from scratch. There is absolutely nothing to save. And if that wasn't bad enough, it doesn't even implement the rules correctly.


I am excited about things potentially coming down the pipe. Even with Play By Web, you can still use Skype and almost turn it into a face to face experience.

My one huge pet peeve is that everyone seems to be coddling those with 800x600 desktops. Most of the games I play go only half way across my screen, with the players tables going off the bottom. Why is it ok to make me scroll down, but it's not ok to make them scroll right? Is it really that difficult to generate CSS that accommodates, say, two resolutions? Every game I play, all the information could fit on my screen with no scroll bars. Such a waste.

The SpielByWeb crew had once mentioned the possibility of opening up their site for others to develop games there. Legal issues aside, that would be a fantastic thing. Not only could we see more of the games we love, but we could also implement our own game designs to share. Think of the possibilities.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Simultaneous Action Selection = Randomness

There are many games with a mechanic such that all players choose an action in secret at the same time, then reveal them and resolve. This is better known as "Simultaneous Action Selection" or SAS. It is used in games as diverse as 6 Nimmt!, Caribbean, Fairy Tale, A Game of Thrones, Himalaya, Hoity Toity, Niagara, Nobody But Us Chickens, Piranha Pedro, Pirate's Cove, RoboRally, and Wallenstein.

It is my contention that SAS is simply another form of Randomness, not too dissimilar from rolling dice or drawing cards.

When players make choices, they are making intelligent choices, not random ones.

True. But given a finite set of choices, there are usually a small number that are directly beneficial. Given that, the choices are somewhat predictable. This means that you should not always be predictable. A certain amount of reverse psychology and reverse-reverse psychology ensues.

The best play for me is A, but everyone knows that, so I'll take B. But everyone knows I'll probably take B, so I'll really take A. What if they think that as well? Maybe I should take C just to through everyone off.

With multiple choices and multiple players, the final choices basically become unpredictable. Although they are being made intelligently, they are statistically random.

Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily. Some games mitigate SAS very well. Wallenstein, for example, handles it by giving each player the same set of chocies. You put them in a certain order. Each player will always do (or have the option to do) all the choices. So it's less about what actions you ar choosing, and more about when they occur and how much money wil be available to carry them out.

In most games, however, SAS significantly lowers how seriously I take a game. Most of my list above shows the typical SAS game to be relatively light. This is where I think SAS belongs for the most part.

What heavy games have SAS? How is the "randomness" of SAS mitigated? Are there any really clever or novelle SAS mechanics?

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Is Blogging An Open Or Closed System?

I read about 16 gaming blogs every day. I'm sure there are plenty more, but I like to add them organically rather than go looking for various blogrolls and adding dozens at a time. I keep the ones I like, and delete the ones I do not. If there's anything of interest in an article, I try to give some form or feedback, comment, agreement, disagreement, etc.

I have noticed that the same people seem to be reading and replying to the blogs that I read. Most of them tend to be bloggers themselves. Are we just a small circle of people in a closed feedback loop? There's nothing wrong with this. We all like to bounce ideas off each other. People who care enough to write a blog in the first place must have something to say, something they want to share.

But is blogging an open system? Are new people reading blogs every day? It's not a readership issue for me. It's the notion that it would be nice to write for--and get feedback from--more people than our small circle of writers.

That being said, I do have a counter on my blog. Some days it goes up over 200 hits, even though I may get only a couple of comments. That doesn't even count RSS feeds. So it makes we wonder. Is there really a much wider reader-base than I think? If so, who are you? Speak up! Or are the same 20 people hitting refresh 10 times a day?

Whatever the case, I will continue to write...for myself. It's been a great learning experience trying to formalize my thoughts and ideas into words, and I've really been enjoying trying to write my fiction series.

See you next time.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

A Gamut of Tiles

Tile laying games (TLG's) are very popular. I think this is because players have a sense of building something, and also because players usually have lots of choices on their turns. Like most categories, some games are pure, some less so, and some are improperly labelled as such.

For me, a TLG is a game where players place "tiles" at chosen locations onto a gridded playing surface. The tiles may be any shape, but must have at least one property making them different from other tiles. This property must either make some placements illegal, or, at least, different in effect. Tiles must stand on their own; they must have the sense of being separate from each other for the entire game. The playing surface can be an actual board, or an implied surface using the tiles themselves to form the grid.

Carcassonne: The quintenssential TLG. Build the cities, roads, farms, and cloisters. The simple beauty of the game is that all players have a chance to score points from most tiles played. The tiles form the board, but the meeples placed upon them are what score points.

Euphrates & Tigris: In this game, a tile can be an actual civilization tile (settlement, temple, market, farm), a leader (king, priest, trader, farmer), or a catastrophe. As in Carcassonne, the tiles themselves are unowned, except for the leaders. Anything in play is up for grabs. Unlike Carcassonne, E&T's tiles can be removed from the board, causing the various kingdoms to ebb and flow as conflicts occur. Also unlike Carcassonne, E&T's tiles are the scoring mechanism.

Alhambra: Each player manages their own separate set of tiles. Tiles come in six colors, with a number of different wall configurations on their edges. Players compete to buy tiles they want from a common pool, adding them to their Alhambras. You want the most tiles in each of the six colors, but also the longest continuous wall.

Ingenious: In this game, the tiles are formed by two merged hex shapes. Tiles have a color on each end. The board has a hex grid.

Samurai: One of the most unique TLG's. The tiles do not form any sort of connected shape or structure; they simply provide their support for the purposes of ownership of the objects on the map. Again, the board is a hex grid...in the shape of Japan.

Through the Desert: Another very unique TLG. The tiles are pastel camels. In this case, placement is restricted to extending camel groups of like colors, but you can choose which colors of camels you place each turn.

Some games may be thought of as TLG's by some, but fall a little short under my definition. I would call these pseudo-TLG's.

Entdecker: This game may feel somewhat like Carcassonne in it's flow and the way pieces are placed on the tiles, but it is really a game of Exploration. You only add tiles from a pre-chosen starting point, and then only if they fit. I'm sure this game would qualify as a TLG for many.

Lost Valley: Again, an Exploration game. You control approximately where new tiles are added, but you can't place a tile anywhere that it fits.

Tongiaki: At various points during play, tiles are drawn and placed. Tile placement is only initially controlled by the choice of which beaches to fill. However, the location(s) of subsequent tile(s) (when travelling across water) and even the orientation of these tiles is not under control of the player.

These games are not TLG's at all to me.

Torres: All tiles in this game are the same. There is no notion of orientation. You do not acquire them; you start with them. Yes, when it's your turn, you must decide where to place a given tower block, but placement is not restricted by the properties of the blocks themselves, just their configuration on the board. It's a fine line, but one I boldly draw.

Settlers of Catan: This game has a modular board of hex tiles, but is not a TLG. Players do not place tiles on their turns. The board is randomly setup at the start of the game.

Go: Not a TLG either. Each player uses a single color stone, all alike. Although the placement of the stones is *very important to their value, there is no difference between the pieces.

I don't think I've played a TLG that I didn't like. My lowest rated one is Reef Encounter, and even that is a 6.5. However, not everyone likes Tile Laying Games. You know who you are. I heard a humorous story from a playtester who failed to see the value in Carcassonne. When asked by the publisher what should be changed, he said, "Remove the tiles."

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Online Communications

The internet is an amazing thing. It gives us instant and direct access to each other, whether we want it or not. Communications has become more and more an instant gratification event. My choice of which form to use varies based on my activity level, my mood, the topic, and, of course, who is on the other end of the line.

In general, I like being "offline". That is to say, I don't like being interrupted at random times, partly because I have a weird sleep schedule, and partly because I get rather focused/involved and don't like the distraction. My friends and family email me rather than call most of the time. This works out really nice for me. I can reply at a time of my own choosing.

Depending on the methods you use to communicate online, this sense of being offline can be affected.


Perhaps the most archaic of all methods. You compose a message and drop it into a black hole. You don't know if it will arrive at its destination unless the recipient responds. This is my preferred method of communicating with "the masses". I don't have to reply immediately, or at all. I can ignore it. I can pretend I am not at home, or at the computer. If I do reply, I can carefully construct my response.


One of the best forms of communication because of the persistence of information. Anyone can post and reply. The flow of each conversation is maintained for future referral. You can post when you want to, and unless the forum has some kind of "who has logged in within the last 24 hours" kind of feature, you can be invisible.

Instant Messaging

ICQ, AIM, MSN, etc. This invention put us all just a click away from each other. However, for me, it still falls firmly in the less interactive side of things. Even when in an active conversation with someone, I do not hesitate to walk away from the computer, or simply stop replying. You can also choose your own status: online, away, do not disturb, etc. You decide if and how people see you, and if you are willing to be interrupted.

Internet Phone

This has been around for a long time (iParty, TeamSpeak, and built into various games), but didn't really become visible to the mass consumer until the advent of Skype. Just like with instant messaging, you click a button and you are connected to your buddy. Except now, you simply talk. It's better quality than a real phone call, and it's free.

This one clearly crosses the line for me. There is an immediacy to it, just like a real phone call. You cannot walk away in the middle of a conversation without being impolite. The huge advantage Skype has over a real telephone is that you decide who can call you.

What you give up in "being offline", you gain in familiarity. You can have a ten-minute conversation that would take an hour using text. You can teach complex games in minutes. You have tone of voice to convey emotion. Have you ever caught yourself spelling out LOL or ROFL over the phone?

I'm sure some day, video chat will be the standard. I know some people do it already, but it's not common. Of course, that is even more invasive. You are not only transmitting tone of voice, but also body language. You can no longer sit and chat in your underwear (unless you want to *wink*).

Friday, February 10, 2006

Puzzle Time #2

Welcome to puzzle number 2. I did the first one back in November. This time I'm going to do something different. The final answer is game-related, as always, but all of the clues to get there are about movies. I hope this isn't as difficult as the last.

1. What movie is this quote from: "I can't kill my friend...Kill my friend."

2. Who played Iceman in Top Gun?

3. Who was the voice of Donkey?

4. Star of the movie with the following quote from an unlikely source: "Would you like to play a game?"

5. What movie starts with the following narration: "I was 12 going on 13 the first time I saw a dead human being."

6. What movie is this quote from: "I was thinking of the immortal words of Socrates, who said, 'I drank what?'"

7. What actor exclaimed: "As a duly designated representative of the City, County and State of New York, I order you to cease any and all supernatural activity and return forthwith to your place of origin or to the nearest convenient parallel dimension."

8. What actress said: "Glasnost gives everyone the right to complain and accuse, but it doesn't make shoes."

9. What is the first name of the actor in both #1 and #5?

10. What is the last name of #2's character in the movie #6?

11. What is the last name of the rich guys in the movie starring #3 and #7?

12. What was the job title of the antagonist in the movie starring #4 and #8?

FINAL. What game do you get from #9, #10, #11, and #12?

Monday, February 06, 2006

Name Change

I recently discovered that my blog name is the same as Ward Batty's blog. For some time, he has been working on publishing professional content using that title for his articles. I have also been thinking that the title was too generic, or maybe a little less personal than I wanted.

So my blog title is now changed. I hope you like it, and continue to read and give feedback. I wish Ward Batty success with his efforts. The link to his blog is in my sidebar.

Saturday, February 04, 2006


Subjectivity is essential in everyday life. All around us, the world is created and run based on the opinions of individuals and groups. In addition, real life is analog. We don't all move around on a hex grid. We don't measure all quantities in whole numbers.

For me, however, subjectivity in gaming is unwelcome. In all situations, the rules, the mechanics, and the resolutions should be 100% objective. For example, if the same situation came up in 100 different game groups, the result would be the same.

Let me begin by dismissing one kind of subjectivity: ambiguous rules. While the gaming world is occasionally infected with this disease, I don't think this is a matter of opinion. Right? We all want clear unambiguous rules? If you disagree, you better stop reading now, or your brain may melt.

The first form of intentional subjectivity is analog games. Mostly this pertains to miniatures, but has some carry over into traditional wargames. Units move around using rulers or other measuring devices. Line of sight is determined by looking at a target from a unit's point of view and "guessing". There is no instantaneous point at which a unit goes from seen to unseen. It's a guess. If the players disagree, there has to be a "random" resolution. On two different days, the decisions may be different. Range is a similar problem. You have to measure the distance between two units. Does the line touch his foot or not?

Likewise, with wargames. Line of sight may need to be measured across hexes that contain buildings o or other obstructions. In many cases it's perfectly clear that the "string" crosses something or does not. But often, there are edge cases. Well you gave me that last one, so I'll give you this one. Yuck.

I'm sure that miniatures players actually enjoy the unpredictability of the system. If I move there, will I be able to see him? Will I be in range? I'll admit it is more "realistic". But it also forces the need to "argue" about all the close calls. I've heard of various solutions, like allowing a player to make a call in his favor 3 times, etc. Or perhaps you roll a die on all close calls. How does this solve anything? It's just changes the conditions to say something is close. Close call, I'm going to roll. It's not close enough to roll; It's clearly blocked. No it's not...

I can't imagine playing a game where I have to constantly either argue to get something in my favor, or give in all the time. The end result will always feel unsatisfying. I won only because I'm more assertive, or I lost because I didn't want to argue.

The second type of intentional subjectivity is by rules. This is not the same as ambiguous rules where the designer forgot some case or combinations. It is the kind where the designer is intentionally leaving it up the players to decide how things should go. Again, yuck! Two examples of this are Shadows Over Camelot and Mystery of the Abbey.

In Shadows Over Camelot, the rules on collaboration are as follows (from SoC rules © Days of Wonder):
"Declarations of intent can be made freely; resources and capabilities can all be discussed openly, as long as your comments are general and nonspecific. However, you must never reveal or discuss the explicit values of cards in your hand, or volunteer any other specific game information not readily available to your fellow players."
This is ridiculous, and is the sole reason I would never buy a game that otherwise sounds incredibly fun. I've seen all the arguments. Even among those who play and enjoy SoC, there is disagreement as to what is acceptable. Some play it's ok to say exactly what you have as long as you role-play it. Some play that you cannot say anything that gives away your holding even indirectly. Still very subjective. If any given statement by a player cannot be 100% resolved as allowable or unallowable by the rules, then the game is broken.

In Mystery of the Abbey--another game by Days of Wonder--the problem is again to do with player interaction. You are allowed to ask questions of basically any kind, but you are not allowed to lie, even if the question is about the future. This leads to some interesting paradoxes and other unpleasant things. Fortunately, there are other reasons not to buy this game, so the subjectivity wasn't the deal breaker for me.

If I want a role-playing game, I'll play a role-playing game, not a board game. Player interaction in board games is fine. There are lots of board games with huge amounts of player interaction that are completely objective: Diplomacy, Traders of Genoa, Werewolf, Bohnanza. I'll stick to those.

Friday, February 03, 2006


We speak it, read it, and write it every day, whether it be English, German, French, Italian, or Japanese. We worked hard to learn it when growing up, until it became second nature. It makes sense to us out of habit because we associate meaning with our words. But it is not logical.

Language is an organic thing. It evolves. It is affected by the world around us, by progress, by our personal interactions with each other, by politics, by social class.

Language should be designed. By this I do not mean that language should be controlled or even made more strict of meaning. I mean that our current languages are rife with technical problems that impede the conveyance of intended meaning. If you want to be ambiguous then do so, but don't be ambiguous because your language compels it.

Most languages--written and spoken--have many of the same pitfalls. I'll examine the larger ones here using English as my target.

Spelling/Pronunciation: If someone tells you a word you do not know, you may not know how to spell it. Not because they didn't speak clearly, but because spelling is commonly not phonetic. Likewise, if you read a word you do not know, you may not know how to pronounce it.


The o's in each of these words are all pronounced differently.


Sometimes c is pronounced like a k, sometimes like an s. It is a wasted letter.


The letter x is really just a k followed by an s, or simply a z. Again a wasted letter.

Synonyms: This problem plagues the English language. While it may be useful for humor and other wordplay, it is another example of the written-to-verbal ambiguity.



Homonyms: These are words that are spelled and pronounced the same, but have different meanings. This can also lead to confusion.

It is mine.
Stepped on a mine.
The mine collapsed.

Conjugation: One of my all-time pet peeves. Conjugation is simply a vestigial construct. It serves no purpose in language other than to give children useless things to memorize.

I am, you are, he is
I write, you write, he writes

The base verb itself is sufficient to impart exactly the same information, and should be consistently used in an unmodified form.

Verb Tenses: Each verb has a different way of being written depending on its tense (and conjugation). Again, this imparts no additional information beyond when.

I am
I was
I will be
I would have been
I will have been

Additionally, negation requires excessive modifiers.

I like pizza.
I do not like pizza.

Why 2 additional words to negate a simple verb?

I liked pizza.
I did not like pizza.

Why modify the negation words to show the tense change rather than the verb itself? Inconsistency again.

Pronouns: The notion of pronoun case (subjective or objective) is useless. It's just a set of arbitrary rules.

I am tall.
Play with me.

Also, pronouns break the rules used by all other possessive forms. When making a noun possessive, you usually add 's to the end.

Tom's game
Dick's book
Harry's foot
his car
its paw

Questions: To form a question in English, the syntax change is often mind-boggling.

He went to the store.
Did he go to the store?

General Ambiguity: Because some words have multiple uses, and their syntax is often ambiguous, we can construct sentences that are technically ambiguous.

Time flies like an arrow.

The verb could be any one of the first 3 words.

(Time) flies like an arrow.

Take out your stopwatch and time those flies.

Time (flies) like an arrow.

Just like it flies when you are having fun.

Time flies (like) an arrow.

Those strange hourglass-shaped "time flies" really do enjoy that arrow.


Lojban is a language that was invented to address all of the above. That being said, I did not bring all this up to advocate Lojban. But by understanding a language designed from the ground up to be logical, it makes it easier to see where our natural languages fail.

There's also something called the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis which states that there is a systematic relationship between the grammatical categories of the language a person speaks and how that person both understands the world and behaves in it.

I dove into Lojban a couple times a few years back. Although it is very compelling from a logical point of view, I never could keep up the motivation to become fluent, and have forgotten all but the basic concepts and a handful of words.

What's so interesting about Lojban? It really does solve all of the above issues in some very clever ways. First a quick overview.

Gismu: A gismu is a root word. They take the place of nouns, adjectives, and verbs in English. They are always of the form CVCCV or CCVCV (C = consonant, V = vowel) and are structured so no two sound alike.

Like any language, the actual meaning is based on the context, but in Lojban, the locations of words in a "sentence" determines their function and denotation.

One such gismu is klama which means to come, to go, or to travel...sort of. Words that express "functions" in Lojban have a place structure. This defines the parameters for the function, and their default order. The place structure for klama is:

x1 klama to x2 from x3 via x4 using x5


mi klama do

means "I go to you". The places for x1 and x2 are filled in, and the rest are left unknown. You can use as few or as many of the places as you want. You can even rearrange them or skip some.

mi do klama
klama mi do

Both of these mean the same thing as the first. The change in order serves to emphasize different words, just like:

I love you.
You are loved by me.

does in English. You can use the words fa/fe/fi/fo/fu to imply a specific place location:

mi klama fi do

means "I go from you" (I leave you) but does not say where I am going to.

But remember a gismu does not have to act like an English verb. If you precede a function word with le, you are effectively making it a noun. So:

le klama

means "the goer" or "the one who goes" or "the traveler". karce is another gismu that basically means "car", but again it is still a functional word:

x1 karce for carrying x2 propelled by x3


mi karce (I am a car)
mi klama fu le karce (I go by car)

Spelling/Pronunciation: In Lojban, every letter is always pronounced the same way, and every spoken sound translates to a unique letter. If you see a word, you know how to pronounce it. If someone speaks a word, you know how to spell it. Furthermore, because of the defined structure of the words, it is even impossible to mistakenly think that two spoken words are one word, or vice versa.

Synonyms: Because of the above, it is impossible to have two words that sound the same but be spelled differently.

Homonyms: Lojban has a unique word for everything.

Conjugation: There is none. Can I have a round of applause? Anything that "goes" uses klama. There is no other form of the word.

Verb Tenses: In Lojban, tense is controlled by simple modifiers. The base function word does not change.

mi klama (I go)
mi pu klama (I go in the past, I went)
mi ba klama (I go in the future, I will go)

In English, tense is purely limited to when and if. In Lojban, you can add modifiers to describe where.

mi ri'u va klama (I go to the right a medium distance)

Pronouns: In Lojban, the word mi stands for I, me, and my. There is no artificial notion of subjective and objective words.

mi klama (I go)
do klama mi (You go to me)
do klama mi karce (I go to my car)

Questions: To ask a yes/no question, you simply precede a statement with xu:

xu mi klama (Is it true that I go?)

To ask a question about one or more place structures, replace the normal word with mo:

mo klama (Who or what is going?)
mi klama mo (I am going where?)
mo klama mo (Who or what is going where?)
mi klama fu mo (I am going by what means?)

General Ambiguity: Because of the strict structure of the language, you are free to use the words you want to express ideas without worrying that the statement itself will be ambiguous. The actual meaning is still contextual. You may be trying to be sarcastic, or metaphoric, etc.

mi zdani (I am a house)

What you really mean by this is up to the reader, but the literal translation is not.

This was really meant to be a rant of natural language, using Lojban as an example of how things could be so much simpler. But if you are curious about Lojban itself, check out the following links:

PDF Intro Book

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Spielland: Chapter 2

The scruffy man sauntered over to Derek. "My name is Philippe. Welcome to my...neighbor'ood." He bowed with a flourish.

"I'm Derek Small," said Derek.

Philippe pointed his blade at the closed door. "I tried to get in there when it was being constructed. Tell me, Monsieur Small. 'ow did you manage it?"

Derek stood up, now frightfully aware that his pocket jingled. "I climbed into a barrel of coffee beans, and climbed out of a barrel of wine," he said plainly.

Philippe looked him up and down, then quickly sheathed his blade. "Merde! Silly 'ouse rules!"

"I beg your pardon?" said Derek.

"We all have a job to do, eh?" said Philippe. "When I was just learning my trade, everything was so easy. Then things started to get a little...unpredictable. Don't even ask me about ze dragon."

"And what exactly is your job?" asked Derek.

Philippe laughed. "Pray that I do not show you, my friend. For your own safety, I really think you should not stay, eh?"

"But how do I get out of here?" asked Derek.

"Mmmm," said Philippe, thoughtfully. He looked to both sides, then came closer and whispered, "Follow this road for about five or six tiles. When you come to an intersection, make sure you take a left. You may find some 'elp. And keep off ze grass."

"Five or six tiles?" repeated Derek. "You mean miles?"

"Incroyable!" said Philippe. "It's not far. Please make 'aste, Derek Small. Au revoir."

* * *

Derek was amazed at how sparse and regular the countryside looked. Every so often, a small ditch crossed his path which he hopped over. Shortly after he crossed his third ditch, Derek came to an intersection. He stopped.

Ahead was a large open field. A man wearing overalls lay on his back making grass angels. Derek decided he was better off not talking to this person. In the distance to the left was a small church. To the right...

Interesting, thought Derek. He'd had nothing to wear before. He'd had nothing to eat, and nothing on his mind. But he'd never seen a real nothing until now. Reality just sort of got blurry. There was no light, no dark, nothing at all. It would have chilled him to the depths of his soul if he wasn't exceptionally good at blocking out really important things. Derek turned left.

He had walked a couple more tiles towards the church when he heard it. A deep guttural roar that was almost more vibration than sound. Looking behind him, Derek could see a red glow in the sky. It grew larger every second. Now there was the distinct flapping of wings.

"Shit!" shouted Derek, completely missing the onomatopoeia.

Derek made it to the church just in time--as protagonists often do--pulling the massive wooden door closed behind him. It slammed with a booming echo that was lost in the angry roar of the dragon passing overhead.

Silence crept back in. Derek's eyes slowly adjusted to the dark chamber lit only by torches. The sound of footsteps came from a nearby room. Derek decided that meeting more people was a bad idea altogether, but could find no barrel to hide in.

A long row of robes along the west wall afforded Derek the only semblance of protection. He donned one, pulling the hood over his head.

"Saluti," said someone in a timid voice.

Derek jumped. A man stood next to him dressed in a similar robe.

"Have you seen any bearded men?" he asked.

"What? Bearded men? Um. No. Sorry? Why would I be looking for bearded men?" said Derek.

The man took some notes. "Is that really your question for me?"


The man smiled. "To catch the murderer of course!"

A loud bell chimed in the distance.

"Come," said the man, "or we will be late for Mass."

Derek followed the man through a series of chambers and hallways until they reached a large chapel. Many men in robes poured into the room and took their places among the pews. One rather large chap stood near the front of the room obviously counting people.

"Ahem," he cleared his throat, bringing the chapel to silence. "We have 24. The murderer is among us!"

The room erupted.

"Who is it?"

"Is it you?"

"It most certainly is not me!"

"How can we tell who it is?"

"I think it was Basil! He looks guilty!"

"Has anyone seen my cheese?"

"I think it was Cyrille."

"I wasn't even near Adelmo! Or your cheese!"

In the confusion, Derek took the opportunity to slip away from the crowd and through a door behind the altar. Stone steps led down into darkness. He paused. It's either this or back to that madness, he thought.

Derek plodded into the darkness. A tiny flickering light appeared ahead. The walls became rough. Derek proceeded forward, tripping over the occasional rock, until he reached the light.

A lantern dully illuminated the tunnel. Next to it on the ground were 2 shiny white gems. Could these be diamonds? Derek wondered, adding them to his booty.

Suddenly there was a sound ahead as if the tunnel collapsed, followed by screams. Footsteps quickly approached, bringing with them a large man dressed entirely in orange and wielding a pick axe. He stopped and looked around on the floor, holding his axe threateningly.

"How's about we split 'em?" he demanded.