Saturday, 8 September 2012

Memories of Japan

While procrastinating I ended up going through pictures from my travels in Japan. Below is a small selection of photos I don't think I ever shared before. It is very tempting to revisit the entire folder and see if what I've learned about post-processing in the last 18 months could bring new life to the collection!

Google+ versus Facebook for photographers

I don't promote my photography heavily or work hard on networking with other photographers, but I do post on social media sites and over time I've noticed a shift in how photo posts are received.

Take a fairly mediocre macro shot like this:

The original had some issues with the composition but it stood out from the rest of the set because of the escaping bubble which I quite liked. A crop, rotate and slight tint improved it sufficiently that I thought it would be ok to publish, so it went up on Facebook and G+. The results are shown below.

The reaction on Facebook

The feedback on G+

While the comment rate was similar, six times more +1's were received than Likes. While I do have about 40% more followers on G+ than I have friends on Facebook, this does not suffice to explain the difference in response. I do not use restrictive privacy settings.

The main differences I can think of are:

- G+ gives a nearly full screen view of the image, while Facebook reserves considerable horizontal width for the description, comments, etc. The image looks better on G+.

- Reaching the right audience for each post is easier on G+ using hash tags, circles and events than on Facebook. There seems to be a strong self-organizing photography community on G+.

- People seem to be losing interest in Facebook, especially since the much-maligned migration to the timeline. The accounts remain active but public participation (sharing, commenting and liking) seems to be dwindling.

The second point, reaching the right audience, strikes me as being most important here. For me there is no doubt that if I was only going to be posting about photography in one place, then it would be G+.

Monday, 3 September 2012

Ticket to Ride Europe

One of my friends brought Ticket to Ride : Europe to our board game night. He was the only one who had played before, with the other three players (myself included) being complete novices. Rules were explained in a few minutes, with a few special cases (tunnels & ferries) taking up about half of that time. The game concept is immediately obvious from just glancing at the board and although there are some considerations about how the colours, tickets etc interact we could dive right in.

The game was fast-paced, slowing down only when players drew new tickets and needed a few minutes to figure out which of the three cards to retain (at least one, but up to three can be kept). Ongoing scoring was quick and there was competition for longest track by all players except myself throughout the game. I dropped out as soon Amsterdam-Essen was developed by another player as I judged it a lost cause at that point.

The game ends one turn after a player hits 2 or less remaining trains and this turned out to add a lot of tension in the last few rounds. Whenever one of my competitors drew cards instead of placing trains it was a huge relief as I was working on one last ticket. In the end I didn't make it as the game ended while I was still missing the Moskva-Smolensk connection to complete the Rostow-Smolensk ticket.

Final scoring for tickets easily doubles player scores, with huge swings for incomplete tickets. We had one player with an incomplete 21-point ticket, giving him a massive penalty without which he would have undoubtedly won the game. This means that while players can have a points lead throughout the game the winner is never obvious and tension remains high. Finals scores were 108-106-100-95 so it was a fairly tight distribution.

Overall this is an enjoyable and approachable game that I'd recommend for casual gamers. We'll almost certainly play it again and it will be interesting to see if the game holds up to repeat play.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Kickstarter for VTT monster tokens

Devin Night has a Kickstarter project to create more than 150 monster tokens for virtual tabletop games such as MapTool. It hit the funding goal of $6000 yesterday but is still open for funding that will get you the tokens and could enable stretch goals.

For anybody who is using MapTool or another VTT I'd definitely recommend checking this out, Devin's art is great and having a good selection of tokens is important to maximise immersion and avoid confusion. Just $25 will get you the full set of tokens, you can check out his earlier work here and at his blog.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

Nexus 7 impressions

I purchased the 16GB Nexus 7 a week ago, this is the Google-branded Android tablet manufactured by Asus. I had delayed buying a tablet because I already had a Kindle as well as an Android smartphone, leaving relatively few areas where I thought a tablet could add value. Also since I'm usually lugging a camera, four lenses and various other photography-related stuff bag space is at a premium and carrying another device didn't really appeal.

With the release of the Nexus 7, the price/performance became a lot more attractive and I was curious if it could displace any of my other devices. A couple of clicks later an order was placed, with an outlook of 3-5 days for delivery. Just 27 hours later I had the Nexus 7 in my hands, so kudos to Google and TNT for making the order and delivery process work perfectly.

First impressions were good, it is a slick device with a quality feel to it. It started up quickly and after logging on to my Google account it synched my calendar, email etc. The larger screen provides some advantage when dealing with the everyday tasks, but after a week I still find myself reading email on the phone as often as on the tablet.

Compared to the Kindle the Nexus has several drawbacks. The screen, while great for other uses, does not provide the relaxing reading experience of E Ink and is much less usable in direct sunlight. The added weight is noticeable and depending on how the device is held I found it induces some wrist strain. Finally battery endurance is considerably lower. All things considered I don't expect the Nexus 7 will make my Kindle obsolete.

As far as apps are concerned, I've tested maybe 20 different apps and found the tablet provides a fast and stable platform. In fact I am very impressed with the overall performance of the tablet and greatly prefer using it over my phone. As an added bonus the Nexus 7 comes with a £15 Google Play credit that can be used to check out paid apps without dipping deeper into the wallet.

Browsing works well, with fast page loading and very few problems over a week of use. I did run into an issue with the captcha for Flickr login, it was displayed off-centre and partially obscured. Browsing high quality pictures works well on the tablet and is definitely preferable over using the much smaller phone screen.

YouTube video playback works well, but checking messages consistently generated an error message 'invalid response received'.

I used Skype video-calling for about an hour on the tablet. While it is not a certified device it worked great and I did not run into any problems. I used a Bluetooth Jabra Wave headset which again worked perfectly, with good sound quality and no connectivity issues.

Finally I tested the battery standby time by charging the Nexus 7 to full, then leaving it for 24 hours with Wifi turned off. Afterwards it was showing 96% battery charge remaining which I'm happy with.

In conclusion, this tablet provides a really great user experience at a very competitive price-point. If you've been thinking about getting a tablet I'd definitely recommend checking out the Nexus 7. The only exception is if you are looking primarily for a reading device as the Kindle remains superior for that particular use.

Friday, 10 August 2012

Warmachine Cygnar miniature shoot

I don't have any experience shooting miniatures so when a friend visited me this summer on his way home from a tournament I jumped at the chance. The minis are 28mm tall Cygnar faction for the Warmachine tabletop game from Privateer Press.

The setup was very simple, using just the big lamp in the sky, white paper and two prime lenses - a regular 50mm and a 100mm macro lens on a Canon 60D. No flash or reflector was used.

The full set is at Flickr. I really enjoyed the shoot and it was quite different from what I usually work with. My friend was very happy with the result as well.

Friday, 3 August 2012

Stronghold invader phase overview

Continuing my first impressions post on the Stronghold board game, this part covers the phases 2 through 6 of the turn sequence.

Phase two of each turn when the invader builds machines. In the basic games this includes covers which protect a rampart against marksman fire, something my opponent used to good effect. It also included ballista and catapult engines, with the former being used to kill defenders on the walls and the latter destroying wall sections.

Ballista seemed moderately effective, inflicting a casualty every other turn. Gradual attrition could lead to an eventual breach, but there is also an area-denial aspect as the presence of a ballista discourages placing a veteran on a wall section (due to the high cost of training them and the certainty that it will be targeted). I can see the threat of Goblin Frenzy combined with two ballista covering a single wall section being a real nightmare but thankfully my opponent used his Goblins for rituals instead after some early frustration with goblin traps.

Catapults have the same hit rate as ballista but with a new stone wall becoming available to the defender each turn this seemed less effective. Good results were achieved (much to my dismay!) when the Bloodstone ritual was used as this killed off a defending unit as well as destroy a stone wall. My opponent noted in the post-game talk that he felt that spreading the machines out was a mistake and that it would have been better to have two engines covering the same section.

Catapult deck with Bloodstone ritual marker and accurate shot tile, a deadly combination!
Phase three covers equipment such as banners, shields and bridges. As each is available in limited quantities it is important to have a clear strategy in mind when placing them. They will signal your intent so you can expect the defender to reinforce the wall sections you threaten with banners, thus possibly drawing in new victims for ballista fire or weakening other sections sufficiently to allow a breach.

Banners and bridges are very easy to understand. Shields are a little bit more confusing because they force the assault on a wall section to be calculated twice if the first assault generates a defender advantage. In the second calculation the shield value is added and casualties are only inflicted on the invader if the defender still has an advantage.

Unlike banners, the shield bonus is per unit so three orcs with banners and shields would attack with strength 7 (2+2+2+1; six for the orcs and one for the banners) and if the defender had 6 or higher strength then invader strength would be recalculated to 10 (2+2+2+1+1+1+1; six for the orcs, one for the banners and three for the shields) for calculating losses. This makes a huge difference and can really help invaders get a foothold on a wall section, letting them survive until the next turn when more units can be moved up.

Training is done in phase four, offering (in the basic game) artilleryman, master archer or saboteur. These are more valuable the earlier they are used and likely to be a focus in the first few turns. As Master Archer is placed on a rampart it is important to make sure there is a bridge guarding the path to that rampart first. Otherwise the defender can place a goblin trap, rendering the Master Archer useless.
A saboteur is in place at the cathedral, increasing action cost by 1 hourglass. One hourglass has been spent on marksmen blessing, normally it would require just one more to complete but will now require an extra hourglass. Sharpshooter in the tower has already been used this turn and is marked as unavailable.

It should also be noted that the Master Archer can be countered by moving marksmen away from any threatened wall section as Goblins can only shoot marksmen (other defenders hide behind walls). While forcing such a withdrawal may be useful, the defender can use Sharpshooter in the Tower or Marksmen Blessing to continue inflicting casualties on any rampart if he's willing to pay hourglasses. My opponent found it very annoying that I just moved marksmen away from threatened sections, replacing them with soldiers who would hide behind the walls.

Saboteurs seemed very important, increasing the cost of many actions by 50% and forcing me to waste several units sweeping them out. I lost more units to tracking saboteurs than to ballista fire! As they can be swept in any phase but only placed in phase four, there is an incentive to sweep them as soon as the third saboteur is placed. This can create interesting tension where the invader may not want to place a third saboteur at all.

Phase five is an opportunity for the invader to carry out fell rituals by sacrificing goblins. These rituals include the aforementioned Bloodstone which turns  a catapult into a deadly threat, but also spectres that turn defender casualties into undead warriors for the invaders and gale that adds extra hourglass costs to movement.

Gale probably has the clearest cost/benefit ratio. If the invader can use it to prevent enough reinforcements being moved to a critical wall section it could secure a win and in more marginal situations it could cost the defender enough hourglasses to at least grant a foothold and maybe some defender losses. While the extra cost was unwelcome I never found the gale to be very effective against me.

Three orcs and a troll, using banners and shields, attack a wall section guarded by two soldiers. Two stone walls protect the soldiers. A gale is making it difficult for reinforcements to join the fight. The defender's cannon can not target units that are already on the walls.

Spectres are a bit more unpredictable and were never used effectively in our first game as there was not enough defender casualties in the melee phase. They are perhaps best in the mid to late game when several wall sections are under pressure. Hopefully they'll see more use as we gain experience with the game.

Bloodstones were used to very good effect in our first game. While dependent on drawing a hit card for the selected engine the odds can be improved by using artilleryman training and accurate tiles. It was very frustrating for me when my first veteran stepped up on a wall section only to get a catapult bloodstone in the face, earning him an instant one-way trip to Valhalla.

Dispatch and orders are handled in phase 6 and covers the movement of troops and any special instructions. The mechanics are straightforward, with the phase card offering a major and minor dispatch. Each can be used once per turn and offers different number of units that are moved and different hourglass costs. A unit can only be moved once per order, but if both major and minor dispatch are used then a unit could be moved twice.

My opponent noted that after flipping the phase 1 card (which increases reinforcements from 14 to 16 per turn and prevents trading a unit for extra resources) in the mid-game it became difficult for him to move all units forward and his camp rapidly became congested, offering extra hour glasses to the defender.

After the defender spends the hourglasses from phase 6, the game moves on to the assault phase. This will be covered in the next post.