A blog for fans of Bananagrams, word games, puzzles, and amazing things

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

A review of the word-tree building game Konexi

I previously posted about how intrigued I was about a new game that involved assembling letters into a precarious tree of words. Now, I have finally played this game (Konexi), and it exceeded my expectations.

The first player places a letter on the table, and then every successive move involves building letters off of that first letter, such that no other letter touches the table. The letters have little notches and also little isolated teeth, like the teeth of a gear, that fit nicely into the notches, while allowing a little bit of movement. By matching up a tooth of one letter with a notch of another letter, you can add the new letter to the tree, subject to the physical stability of the placement.


On your move, you have a choice between two (effectively) randomly chosen letters. You take one and try to add it to the tree in a way that allows you to connect together a set of letters that can be anagrammed to form a word. The letters must be a contiguous set. Your score is the number of letters in the word that you were able to make.

Even once you find a set of letters in the existing tree that you can connect your chosen letter to, to form a new word, it can often be a huge challenge to place that new letter. It must connect one of its notches or teeth to a complementary tooth or notch of one of the letters in your word, and it must result in a balanced structure that continues to stand on its own. Consequently, whenever someone is placing a new letter, there is a tension to the process that is similar to those moments when someone is removing a piece from a Jenga tower (though it is generally not at the Jenga level of pressure). However, Konexi is actually better than Jenga because you have far more options as to where and how you can place letters. It's also a good game for building intuition about concepts like the center of mass of an object.

This game can play out in very different manners, depending upon the structure of the tree that the players form, and the letters that they choose. With enough vowels in your tree, you may find that it is easy to make four- and five-letter words on every turn. If insufficient vowels are available, players may at times struggle to form any words at all.

If someone accidentally knocks down the tree, that player loses three points, and a new tree is started on the next play. Play continues until someone scores 20 points.

This game is basically exactly as cool as it looks, so if you think it might be your kind of game, you will probably enjoy it. Click here to see the reviews of others and buy it at Amazon.

Friday, November 16, 2012

My addiction to, and subsequent recovery from, Drawception

In my last post, I explained the wonderful sentence-illustrating, drawing-captioning game of Picture Telephone. In the wake of the recent brief popularity of a game for mobile devices called "Draw Something", a lone developer created an online version of Picture Telephone called "Drawception". This is not the first such attempt, having been preceded by such implementations as Broken Picture Telephone and Doodle or Die, but it may be the best.

The first night that I played Drawception, drawing anything using a mouse and the simple controls was a struggle. The resulting drawings were crude. My goal that first night was to unlock the ability to start new games (which allows you to write the initial description that seeds the game). In order to unlock this ability, I had to first earn ten points.

While Picture Telephone is a purely cooperative game, Drawception has some competitive aspects, since players earn points when other players vote for their panel. Once the game has reached its pre-designated panel limit (typically 12 or 15 panels at present), the participants, and often other players, read through the game and have the opportunity to click a little upward-pointing thumb symbol on any panel that they want to give points to. Such voting is anonymous and has no direct benefit to the player, except that it lets them express approval and have some influence on what is considered "good" in the Drawception culture.

Many of the drawings from my first night earned zero points, but some earned a few, like my depiction of the description "Rubber ducky, you're the one":

The next morning, enough of the games that I had played in had finished that I had earned the privilege to start my own first game. This is how it turned out:

I was hooked.

This went on to become the top game for the day (where top games are determined by how many people "favorite" it).

As I got better at the game, technical aspects of the game were also being improved. Bugs that slowed down the drawing process and made the results look worse were fixed. Previously you could accidentally paint over minutes of detailed work with one false swing of the cursor; a new Undo button rectified this, expanding the horizon of what could be drawn in ten minutes. Sites of this kind are frequently plagued by trolls who draw offensive panels and try to disrupt games, and one of the biggest successes of the Drawception developer has been implementing a system that mostly negates the effects of such trolling by filtering out or hiding such panels (though there is still enough potentially objectionable material that does not get flagged by the community that children and the easily offended should still not play).

There was a satisfaction that came with contributing panels to ten or twelve games in a night: it felt like an investment because I knew that the next day, I would be getting some funny or entertaining finished games as a result.

One of the highs that I got from playing Drawception was the feeling that, within that small drawing box, I could draw anything. Not just anything that might appear as a Drawception description, but anything that I could conceive of.

The feeling of possibility led me to experiments such as starting games with a particular phrase, just to see what one person's imagination and drawing skill could do with it. If that first drawing then spawned a great game, I viewed it merely as a bonus. When I spotted this kind of description in the pool of possible drawing prompts (and yes, it is possible to develop a sense for which descriptions are the initial descriptions for a game), if I felt that I could do the description justice, I found it satisfying to produce for the game creator a drawing that would make them happy. So, for instance, when I encountered the description "Richard Feynman plays the bongos", I realized that since I knew who Feynman was, I might be the best person playing at that moment to attempt to give it a shot. I found a Google Images result showing Feynman playing bongos to use as a guide and did my best to convey it, but as time was running out, I notice that it was not sufficiently obvious who the bongo player was supposed to be. Then, in a moment of inspiration, I realized that he should be thinking about physics while playing (as this seemed like a very Feynmanesque thing to do), so I drew a thought bubble and put a Feynman diagram inside it.

That my Feynman was subsequently mistaken for Elvis did not bother me. The player who had started the game was pleased and left me a positive comment, which made me smile.

At the peak of my Drawception addiction, I wondered how long it would go on and imagined that it could be part of my daily life indefinitely.

As I become habituated to the initial wonder of Drawception, many of the next hundred games began to seem pedestrian. The games where the same picture and phrase got repeated for most of the 12 or 15 panels, with artwork that was not particularly striking, became old after a while. I yearned for more novelty.

The more common a reference or idea is, the more likely it is for the person writing or drawing the next panel to correctly interpret it. Consequently, it is generally the most widely known references and characters that manage to propagate without distortion across multiple panels. This leads to the majority of games involving pop culture references or Internet "memes" at some point. If you play enough Drawception, you will likely see a lot of whoever the popular characters are at the moment (Batman or Spider-Man or Worf) and you will learn to identify others (such as Trogdor and Nyan Cat and Chthulu and various anime characters).

From this active tide pool of Internet culture emerged a new lifeform: Trouble Muffin. It started out as an in-joke between two friends who played Drawception and created games about someone named "Trouble Muffin". Soon, other players wanted to participate. Trouble Muffin evolved into a muffin with an eye patch and a tough-guy persona. Those who did not recognize him when playing Drawception typically described him as a cupcake or a pirate muffin, but as his fame grew, he became an icon of Drawception. At the peak of his popularity, most of the top games were about Trouble Muffin and his many adventures.

The fun I had watching and participating in the development of Trouble Muffin helped me understand why people can be so enthusiastic about such Internet memes; it's just different when you are on the inside.

Since Drawception is played all around the world, little bits of the language and culture of other countries can manifest during the process of repeated translation between language and pictures. British English has a major presence on Drawception, so if you play long enough you will see police officers described as "bobbies", panties described as "knickers", mathematics called "maths", redheads called "gingers" (though according to this BBC article, the use of the phrase "ginger hair" in American English is growing because "ginger" appeared in Harry Potter books published in the U.S., even though there was an attempt to remove all the British English), and cookies called "biscuits". None of that prepared me for what happened when what appeared to be a speaker of British English encountered a picture of Cookie Monster:

I'm pretty sure that Sesame Street characters are fairly well recognized all over the world, but obviously not quite as well as Robocop is... At least he wasn't referred to as "Biscuit Monster".

As I continued to play, I became more selective in what descriptions I would draw. Only things that I had never drawn before, only descriptions that were inspiring. Sometimes I would skip descriptions for half an hour without finding anything I wanted to draw.

Toward the end, changes to the way the game worked by the developer tended to detract from my enjoyment of the game. Too many games were stuck in the queue, causing games to take days to complete. The blame was placed on descriptions that no one wanted to draw (typically because they were too difficult to draw or to understand). The developer dubbed these "dustcatchers" and decided that whenever a description panel had been skipped by too many players, it would be rejected, and the game would be backed up to the previous panel, which would be reinserted into the pool of available drawings to describe. My first two descriptions after this change were both rejected. I basically stopped playing at that point, feeling that the game was being dumbed down (as recently finished games suggested). The dustcatcher sensitivity was set too high initially, and while this was only a temporary state (I believe the developer must have started silently adjusting it (maybe even the next day)), my addiction to Drawception was finally broken.

It would be easy to say that I am done playing Drawception, that I have lived through a 15-panel pseudo-narrative arc and that my days of playing Drawception are over. But I still check in on the game periodically, and whenever the developer introduces new features, I play with them for a while. Mainly, I prefer to just start games now. It requires very little time and can sometimes yield cool results. And it is ultimately the privilege that motivated me to start playing in the very beginning.

Playing Drawception was a great experience. I got to draw a lot, which is something I enjoy. I honed my ability to paint tiny pictures using a trackpad to levels that didn't initially seem possible. I created popular games and panels. I enjoyed the challenge of trying to read the mind of the player who had drawn a particular panel, to try to come up with the most correct (or most amusing) description of it. And I participated in and enjoyed lots of hilarious and creative games with a good group of players.

The game has now entered a monetization stage, so the nature of the game, and the community around the game, are continuing to change, but there are enough good things about the game that I think I can still recommend Drawception to anyone who wants to try something new.