I've been a little busy this Fall with the logistics of buying a house and exploring my game designs. But I have had a hand in a few interesting projects, so I'll just throw them in here.

I joined a group of narrators to produce works for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR) research at a university in Virginia. Wikipedia defines ASMR thusly: "a perceptual phenomenon characterized as a distinct, pleasurable tingling sensation in the head, scalp, back, or peripheral regions of the body in response to visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory, or cognitive stimuli. The nature and classification of the ASMR phenomenon is controversial, with strong anecdotal evidence to support the phenomenon but little or no scientific explanation or verified data."

You can see why this is the subject of study! The researchers hope to publish an app - Silk ASMR - to reach a wider body of subjects. Reading for ASMR is very different: the reading must be soft (whispering is quite OK), languorous, with longer pauses than normal. 

Silk ASMR is currently undergoing beta testing.

Another project: The following partial post appeared on the LibriVox forum:
"I am a Norwegian art student, currently studying my masters at The Royal Academy of Arts in Stockholm. At the moment I´m working on a sound project concerning language use and metaphors in physics. I would be very thankful if some of you are interested in helping me with reading texts for this project. 

The texts includes some actual poems written by physicists like James Clerk Maxwell and Werner Heisenberg. Others are original letters by scientists like Max Planck and Isaac Newton, describing discoveries and using the english language quite dramatically, and some are examples of how science borrows language from poetry, in naming new particles and trying to put words to the unknown. 

When I went to school I was of the impression that the method of the scientist and that of the poet were as different as day and night. Later I´ve come to realize that this is not the case. As Nils Bohr wrote to Werner Heisenberg in a letter: «When it comes to atoms, language can be used only as poetry. The poet too is not nearly so concerned with describing facts, as with creating images.» This may seem absurd coming from a scientist, but what lies beneath the visible world is always imaginary. We have no other way of talking about the invisible then trying to make suitable analogies and models."

The post went on to request participants. I signed up and have done several works for him.

Finally, a new publication for the audiobook industry began publishing this Fall with a September issue. Audiobook Monthly Magazine bills itself as an innovative showplace for narrators, producers, illustrators, and distributors. It has its own website, www.audiobookmonthly.com , and Facebook page.  They published an interview with me in the October issue (accessed through Archives on the Table of Contents of the current issue).

"Read by Mark Smith, of Greer, SC"

It's been a good run, but my fellow TechSmiths and I have the end of our Simpsonville residency in sight!

It's been our aspiration & intention since retiring to move to a smaller, more modern house, once we became empty-nesters. We made the effort in 2009, but the housing market was really, really awful. In addition, our nest re-filled with boomerang children!

As 2014 began, we took stock again. Family matters had progressed to where we felt we didn't need to relocate to Virginia, where Brenda and I both grew up, and where most of our remaining extended family reside. We had hopes of again being "on our own" in 2015. So we targeted this coming year to finally sell our home and move on - probably to some other community in the Greenville area.

About mid-2014, we began seriously thinking about where exactly that might be. We toured a Parade of Homes, and started paying attention to real estate listings. We went to a few open houses. Then we chanced to tour a house we really liked. Immediately, we had to discuss whether we could consider buying a house before first selling the old. Our answer was "yes!"; in fact, the attraction of gradually moving stuff to a new home over a series of weeks or months appealed to our lazy lifestyle! The house that sparked the discussion sold before we could make an offer, but at least we were then primed for future action.

In October, it paid off. We toured a house that enchanted us with its charm factor. We bought it! Now in December, we're just beginning the shuttling of stuff. First up after closing on the house: recover a POD-load of things we put in storage 5 years ago.

We had loaded that thinking we'd see our stuff later the same year... so it had all our winter coats & sweaters. Yeah, we had to purchase some new ones that year.

It also included six boxes of board games and nine more of my military miniatures. If you've followed this blog, you know putting all that stuff away for five years was a bit of a sad story. Yeah, we had to reload the game cabinet, too.

Now we have a real incentive to get busy, after the holidays, with prepping our old house for sale. (Did you know retired folks can get 30-year mortgages??!)

But will my LibriVox intros now say, "Mark Smith, of Greer, SC"?  I think not. It may be a tiny fib, but I think I'll keep my nine-year old brand: of SIMPSONVILLE, SC.


Back to Hiking

Brenda and I have been stalwarts of our church's hiking group, attending nearly all the hikes and leading more than a few. This year our group went through a hiatus, but is now once again active. Our hike at Graveyard Fields and the Devil's Courthouse, in North Carolina, drew about 50% more than our usual turnout, in fact!


My Latest Game Design

An idea hit me (as seems to happen often) while driving home from my weekly session with The Greenville Mafia, my gaming group. When I got home I spent the next three hours writing the design document for (working title) CASTLE KEEPER.

The premise is that players represent companies that run tourist operations at European castles. The objective is to become the dominant company in that niche. To do that, players need to acquire control rights to properties in strategic countries, becoming the leading players in them and the regions of which they're a part. They get a cash infusion to start; after that, they must fund expansion through revenue from operations.

I had an inordinate amount of fun making this game! I constructed a mathematical calculation to determine the cost and value of specific castles, based on their actual condition and current use - so all the numbers are derived from real-life information. Each castle has a portrait from its Wikipedia entry on its card, making the card something of an education and an advertisement to the players.

I screened perhaps 400 castles and selected 200 as game candidates, based on having enough potential tourism potential, enough information, and a suitable picture. I later trimmed the list to 126 for inclusion. I perhaps jumped the gun a little by including Scotland as a country - the citizens decided otherwise while my game was out to be printed! Oh well, I can fix that when I do revisions.

My copy of PhotoShop Elements got a workout as I designed the cards, and eventually I sent the files to Print & Play Productions of Vancouver, WA (shout-out to Andrew Tullsen, the owner!) to make my prototype.

Comments from the Mafia are very positive. This one might have legs!


An Old Passion (Well, Several, Actually)

Though it seems a strange thing for a person who spent a career as an engineer, I had a large interest in acting, once. In my high school, I was the first person (perhaps only?) to achieve the Honor grade, the top rank in the Thespian Society. In college I spent my free time in a number of ways new and exciting to me, but still left room for participating in acting. While inevitably the drama majors got the good parts, I at least had a chance to keep my hand in, to be around a theater and enjoy the excitement of meeting an audience. I even took a course in Theater Lighting - it turned out that they had a class quota of exactly one engineer!

As a cooperative work student, alternating semesters in industry and school, I joined a community theater in New York, where my job was. At first I crewed - I've found that at each post in the drama world, you have to 'pay your dues' and become known to the local stalwarts before you're thought reliable enough to entrust with a stage role of any size - but eventually I won the lead role of Donnie Dark in "Butterflies Are Free"... which was never performed, as the theater ran out of money!

At my first job after college, in northern Ohio, I joined a troupe at the Fine Arts Center in Willoughby. We did a lot of fun shows, like "Man of La Mancha," "Camelot," and "Oliver!."  

My bachelor apartment had a spare bedroom. It shouldn't be surprising that I used that room for my game table. The walk-in closet held my new darkroom. I had taken up photography during college and took a darkroom course in New York during one of my semesters there. (I even spent a year as a photographer for our daily newspaper, The Purdue Exponent.) 

I recently uncovered some old negatives from those days, including shots I'd taken during a dress rehearsal of "Oliver!" The passage of time has not been good to them; perhaps I didn't leave the film long enough in the fixing solution. But, no matter. PhotoShop can clean up a lot of problems. So here is one of the latest of my series of hand colorizations of B&W photos - the scene where Mr. Bumble shops Oliver around on the street because he eats too much. "Boy For Sale"

Postscript -
Working on this photo got me wondering about my old haunts. A little Google work turns up that the Fine Arts Center is still knocking audiences dead, and my friends, Jim & Louise Savage, the founders, are still around.

Sadly, I also discovered that my college co-op company, Nepera Chemical in Harriman, NY, closed down in 2005. Its parent company purchased its chief competitor in pyridine chemicals and decided it only needed to run one of them. I and my family stopped by Nepera in 2004 while on a trip to evaluate colleges for my daughter, and it was still humming then. Now, it's just an abandoned and overgrown industrial site.

Post-postscript -
My theater career ended when I transferred within my company (Diamond Shamrock Corp.) from Ohio to New Jersey. At my new position as an engineer in a pilot plant, I was expected to be available for 2nd & 3rd shift work when our production plans included ultraviolet-curing esters. We usually ran them for a continuous week, instead of shutting down each night, as normal. Without being able to guarantee evenings for rehearsals and performances, I bid an unhappy goodbye to community theater. I never took it up again.


And More Games!

You would be excused for thinking that I've begun a third career, designing boardgames. Being part of a large and varied group of gamers that meets weekly is a tonic that often breeds new ideas.

When I finally discovered a place that met my graphic needs for SCAVENGE, I re-activated it and moved it to the head of the line. Because the visual elements are unlikely to be affected by tweaks to the game-play during testing, I went ahead with a professional printing of the prototype, as with SC PRIMARY FIGHT! The printer had a mean glitch in his order software, which fortunately I detected just prior to committing the order, which delayed the printing for a week but at least avoided it being printed hopelessly and uselessly wrong. I am, in fact, pleased with how it turned out!

The map is based on part of the city of Tobruk, in Libya. The dusty roads and flat-topped buildings give the sense of a city that was hardscrabble to start with, even though it is now a treasure-trove for the humans who sneak in to bag some needed items. (See my prior post)

The game has been play-tested twice now. I successfully taught it to a 6-yr old, a 9-yr old, and a 10-yr old. My target audience is age 11-14 and their families. That seems to fit with my observations - the younger kids didn't really have the attention span, even if they understood the game, and the adults who have played didn't regard it as terribly fun. My challenge in development will be to compress the play-time further, reduce the time spent on moving patrolbots, and add more interaction.

Two more designs have hit my bin of ideas to continue developing. RAILROAD MOGUL uses a patch of pre-RR countryside with several small towns and nearby resource locations, like mines and logging camps. Each player receives a commission to start short-line service between a pair of towns. As they build their rail networks, extending it to other towns and resource sites, the towns grow and evolve. The challenge is to grow smarter than your opponents, so that you can fund a bigger rail system and acquire a larger working income.

WIZARDS DEFENSE has an interesting (to me, at least!) premise: wizards are tasked with preparing the City for repelling a pending invasion by a hostile power. Starting with no standing army, they must quickly create one from raw human recruits and various beasts & birds they can acquire in the countryside. The combat system will involve Color Magic, where the interaction of colors provides buffs and nerfs - and since the days of the week are associated with colors, the line-up of who has the best chance to beat whom depends not only on their weapons & training, but the color of their unit Banner and the day they will fight!

More especially, the Invading Power can be chart-controlled. This will allow the game to be played solitaire, or by a pair of players who must cooperate to save the City, or by two teams of players.


Games! More Games!

Playing weekly with a crew of boardgame aficionados can be inspiring. It seems I often dream up designs for new games on my way home at the end of an evening's play.

I made an earlier post about designs I had made to date. That post is here, if you missed it:

Since then, I've added  four more.

SCAVENGER is about a post-apocalyptic world where our robots, told to safeguard our cities, have pushed humankind out of them. (Think about it - we're our own worst enemies!) The players represent small communities of people eking out a hardscrabble existence in the hills above the city they once resided in. From time to time, each group needs to augment or replace supplies that they are incapable of making for themselves: flashlights, batteries, blankets, canned food, and so on. Each player is sent into the deserted city with a shopping list, and each must ransack buildings until they find all the items on their list. Shortly after they sneak into town, sensors set off alarms, and police robots roll out of their stations to round them up and expel them. The game is a race to finish the scavenger hunt first, while trying to avoid the hunting robots.

I wanted to use aerial or satellite photos of a deserted/destroyed city, but haven't yet found anything suitable. I may have to draw my own, so this idea is on a back burner.

PAY DIRT is a game about gold mining. I happened upon an interesting chemistry blog, Elements Unearthed, (http://elementsunearthed.com/2012/07/), which included details of how hard-rock mining was performed in the American West. The game just rolled out of my consciousness and onto paper! Players start with a limited placer claim, which they pan for their gold. At some point, they will have to stop mining to hunt for a new strike. They can stick to sands and gravels, or they can move uphill to the deposits that are just weathering out of the rock. Hard rock claims are richer, but slower to tap. When they judge they have enough money, the players can invest in pieces of gear that allow them to process ore faster. That, of course, makes exploration ever more pressing. Eventually, players will want to take a partner, so work can keep going while exploring or, even hire a team of young bucks to work for them. That comes with multiple prices, one of them being that if not supervised, a crew can rob him blind!

This one ought to be fun and very playable, a good family game. I definitely want to prototype this one!

RUSH HOUR is a commuting game. The web of streets periodically gets stuffed with traffic, and finding the path of least resistance is critical to getting home in time for dinner. It plays as a race between the players, who each start at different entry points to the map and have different destinations.

I have the mechanisms for creating the traffic patterns worked out. I'm concerned, though, that play-testing may determine they're too fiddly and tedious, so this design is going to wait while I try to come up with a better system.

SOUTH CAROLINA PRIMARY FIGHT! is a chance to dabble in politics in the Palmetto State (where I live). I'm mindful that South Carolina was once characterized as "too small to be a republic, and too big to be an insane asylum." (!!) It turns out that both major parties change their methods of choosing candidates for major offices with some frequency. This game abstracts the process into a statewide primary election to choose which candidate will represent the Party in the general election. (We actually have such a primary next week.) I've decided that nominally, the player is vying for the chance to run for the Governor's slot.

Your own brand of politics doesn't matter in the game. You deploy a limited amount of campaign resources (Volunteers, Flyers, Signs, Print Ads, Radio Ads, & TV Ads) through the local campaign headquarters you establish in the counties, and you try to assure you will be the candidate of choice in the counties you decide to concentrate in. Meanwhile, you're also wooing celebrities for their endorsements, which improve your name recognition and vote takes. If you can work quickly, a series of "Momentum" bonuses may fall to you, as you work to acquire the necessary votes to win the primary.

An obvious benefit is that I can create a customized version for each state, incorporating its counties, dignitaries, and peccadilloes! 

I'm very happy with how this title has shaped up, so I've taken the step of having my prototype professionally printed... and it just arrived today! I'm looking forward to taking this to my gamer's group to try out!