Union Pacific, Magic, Time’s Up, Wits and Wagers

Thursday evening was the official start of Christmas vacation for me. I made the 2 hour drive out the coast yesterday afternoon and arrived to find a houseful of family and friends.

This is a great crowd to try out some gaming with, and folks jumped at the chance to play Union Pacific. I had to refresh myself on the rules but we were in full swing within about 15 minutes. Geoff took a strategy of diversified ownership of about 6-7 lines and managed to finish 1st or 2nd in all of his holdings throughout the first two scorings, putting him squarely in the lead with me in second place. Karen and I shared / alternated ownership of a few lines and held our own, but in the end Geoff pulled off the victory.

Union Pacific

Next it was time to bring out some of my ancient Magic: the Gathering decks and have a three-way match with Jacob and Matthew. Jacob played a green growth / enchantment / regeneration deck that was too slow to get started – he was shy creatures throughout the game. Matthew played our favorite deck, a black/white denial deck with a healthy dose of Hypnotic Specters, Mindtwists, and some big flying creatures like the Serra Angel and Sengir Vampire. I played a white weenie deck with a bunch of banding / first strike white creatures, and a small dose of red for direct damage.

Matthew played his deck well and managed to get out the angel and vampire, making short work of Jacob and me.

Matthew and Jacob Playing Magic

We then got a group of six to play some Time’s Up, easily my favorite party game right now. Teams were Julie/Karen, Dave/Mike, and Chris/Geoff. Geoff and I had a good thing going, maintaining a solid lead into the final round. We slowed down a bit as we played the final no-words round but held off the charge from Julie and Karen to pull out the victory.

Times Up

Finally, we rounded up the whole crowd for a game of Wits and Wagers, the new party game from Eagle and North Star Games. I plan to post a complete review next week, but suffice it to say that everyone had a blast and there was much laughter and groaning. Average rating from everyone was about 7-8. A good sign was everyone asking to play a second game immediately after the first.

Wits and Wagers

Railroad Tycoon and 10 Days in the USA

I took advantage of a free evening without the family here to invite over the crew for an unscheduled game night at my house. George and Mike responded and we dove into a game of Railroad Tycoon at about 7:40pm.

The game started with Mike concentrating in the northeast with a small bit of competition from me to the south, and George going it alone in the midwest around Chicago. I managed to pick up some early card bonuses that put me in good shape income-wise, allowing me to only take out three shares in the game. Mike got some similar early payouts from deliveries and remained close behind me for the remainder of the game. George’s choice to work out of Chicago may have cost him too much in debt, but he certainly faced no competition there.

Railroad Tycoon

Things got very interesting around mid-game as I tried to ensure I would get my 6 point bonus for the greatest number of links. Mike was going for the longest single route which indirectly put him in competition with me and put my bonus in jeopardy. I managed to get some breathing room allowing me to build out enough links to surpass him by one. In the end I pulled out the victory with Mike about 5-7 points behind and George a distant third.

I remain bullish on this game but wonder if the board is too spacious as is for three players. There always seems to be one player out on his own and it is easy to avoid conflict. Still, it was fun and we finished in about 1 hour 20 minutes – an excellent time/fun ratio.

George only had about 30 minutes after tycoon, so we decided to try out 10 Days in the USA. This is a fun, light little game designed by Moon and Weissblum that should come out more frequently at home and at school. Maybe too light for serious gamers, but there’s a nice bit of tension as players try to complete their routes.

10 Days in the USA

Given the choice I would still rather play Transamerica, a similar game but with a bit more player interaction and strategy.

Snow Day

Little did we know as we spent the first half of the day up on Mt Hood skiing that we would return to a winter storm that started with high winds and freezing rain and turned into a mild snowstorm. I suspect about half an inch fell but it is pretty slick and nasty out there.

Skiing was good but coooold. The northeast winds were brutal up on top and conditions were icy but on the groomed slopes things weren’t too bad. It was nice to get back up on the mountain but by 1pm we were done and drove back home. Good thing we did as the storm was hitting greater Portland by then and traffic started to get a bit snarled.

Surprisingly, despite complaining about the cold today both boys went outside to play in the snow. No, that’s not Matthew with Jacob in the picture below – that’s our neighbor boy Michael.

Jacob and Michael in the Snow

Looks like the weather will not improve tonight, with a winter storm warning through the night with a promise of frozen rain. Looks like the boys might be staying home from school tomorrow.

Off to Mt Hood Meadows

Mt Hood Meadows

We are going to head up to Mt Hood Meadows tomorrow early for our first ski of the season.  We missed all of last year, probably for the first time since Julie and I got married.  The only problem is that it is exceptionally cold here (for Oregon), and I wouldn’t be surprised if we see temperatures in the teens tomorrow morning when we start.

Given that it’s been about 2 years since we last went, Jacob has of course outgrown his equipment and Matthew has moved into Jacob’s.  That meant a drive over to GI Joes tonight to rent equipment for Jacob.  At $14 a pop, we’ll probably stick to that for this year as I doubt we’ll go more than 3–4 times given our other commitments.

What I Learned from My Lego Robotics Team

Don’t expect anything too earth shattering here, but it is an important lesson about the power of simplicity.

I volunteered to coach a Lego Robotics team for Jacob’s school back in September, with Jacob on the team along with 5 other 4th and 5th graders. The team has been meeting weekly ever since, working on their solution to the Challenge 2005 – Ocean Odyssey. I took a very hands-off approach with the team, focusing on facilitating their own design and decision-making process by giving them some basic tools. We started with simple exercises to get familiar with programming and controlling the robot and gradually worked into the mission challenges. Eventually they settled on four of the missions after prioritizing based on points and complexity.

Last Sunday was the big day – the competition where they joined 23 other teams (elementary and middle school) at Mentor Graphics HQ for the challenge. While the team had to give a presentation on some challenge we face with our oceans, the focus was definitely on the mission challenges with the robot. They had three chance to get their best score – each chance is a 2.5 minute trial where they attempt to complete as many missions as possible.

Lego Team in Prep

Given that the team only prepared to do 4 of the missions, their maximum possible score was going to be 156. The highest score for the day was about 310, with most teams scoring 125 or below. Their first trial saw them getting two of their four missions completed, scoring 89 points. The second trial was the highlight, with the robot completing all four missions and the only downside being a 2 point penalty for retrieving the robot away from base (this was to rescue it from doing something that would have cost them one of their missions – a great reaction). Their score was 154. You should have seen the looks on their faces!

Lego Robotics Team

So what did I learn from the team? They reaffirmed my belief in the power of simplicity, the elegance of design for function without clutter. Their robot as designed likely could not have solved all of the mission challenges, but for the four they achieved it performed magnificently. There were no moving parts other than the wheels and they designed their solutions with a high degree of fault tolerance. They also built in an approach to running the robot that greatly increased the odds of success. If any of these kids participate next year I think they will likely move to more complex solutions designed to address more of the challenges (hinging arms, retractable hooks, etc.) but I’m thrilled with how they approached the challenge this year.