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How the World's Greatest Game Designer Designs Games

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If you like board games, you've probably run into one designed by Reiner Knizia. Knizia is probably the most prolific designer of games working today, one of the few who designs games full-time, and has a number of extremely successful titles to his credit. Among the hundreds of games he has designed are my favorite two-player card game, Lost Cities, which I reviewed in July); its board game analog Keltis (which won the Spiel des Jahres award as game of the year in 2008); the 2001 game adaptation of Lord of the Rings; and hardcore gamer favorite Tigris and Euphrates. That last is one of four Knizia games to win the Deutscher Spiele Preis, another game-of-the-year award generally given to a more complex game than the one honored by the Spiel des Jahres, and those four wins give Knizia almost one of every five Deutscher Spiele Preise given in the award's twenty-one year history. I spoke to Dr. Knizia in early December to ask about his process and philosophy of board game design. [Image credit: Mat?j Ba?ha.]

Knizia has been designing games for a living since 1997, when he quit his job as operations director for a 300-person mortgage company in England, although he says he's been designing games since he was a child. My thought was that the hardest part in designing that many games – Wikipedia has Knizia's published total over 500 – would be conception, but Knizia says that's not the case. “I think it's not very difficult to have good ideas. We have plenty of ideas floating around; the real challenge is really to develop these ideas into excellent games – and that is a very long process. Of course you have to start out with the right idea, and you have to have a good selection process to decide which one can we bring into a perfect product.”

Knizia himself is a very process-oriented designer, moving quickly to prototype from initial concept and play-testing frequently with multiple groups of testers. “The lifeblood of design is testing, then refining,” according to Knizia. “The changes are quite radical early; then it becomes more fine tuning. That's the normal cycle of developing a design.” The testers offer pointed criticisms of game designs and mechanics, forcing new changes and sometimes even termination of a game concept that just doesn't work, something Knizia confesses to doing on a regular basis. “One challenge is falling in love with one's game. One needs to see the reality of it – this is nice, but there are some problems we can't overcome, so we need to kill the game.”

Game design involves both the creative side, coming up with the theme and concept, and the mechanical side, determining exactly how the game will be played, including the balance of chance and skill. Knizia himself says he sits somewhere in the middle, but also views himself as a “moderator” of the group at his small game-design outfit, nurturing ideas and directing conversations to constructive ends.

Donald X. Vaccarino, designer of the highly popular card game Dominion, told me that most board game enthusiasts are “math people” at heart, but Knizia wasn't sure he'd agree with that. “When I look at audience, games are played by all representations of different people, and with respect to game design I'm not so sure either. What I enjoy is that people are brought together by the love for games from many different designers, like a big group of different colorful birds … This is good. It gives us a big variety of games.” As for whether you need math skills to design a game, he cautioned, “It would be dangerous to say you have to be a mathematician. It's a good background” - Knizia himself has a Ph.D. in mathematics - “but we all have strengths and weaknesses. If you say math is the only way I can do this, I think you will fail. You need to take yourself back and say, 'Do the math models help me?' I'm pushing games I think are fun.”

Knizia is German by birth and while he lives and works in England now, Germany remains the major market for the style of game Knizia designs, although the U.S. market is developing. He says there remains a significant difference in how consumers and publishers in the two markets view games. “In America, the game is much more defined by its theme, whereas in Germany the game is defined through its mechanics. Many years ago, I was in America and I showed a new game design and it was an Egyptian game.” (Knizia didn't specify the game, although his Egyptian-themed game Ra has been very successful.) “I was told, 'No, we already have an Egyptian game,' and they wouldn't play it at all. Just a few weeks later I was in Germany, showed the game to a publisher who said, 'We have a similar game – but let us see your game first.' It's completely fine to use the same mechanics in America where you just put another theme on it. In Germany the critics will kill you for that because it's just the same game.”

One thing that sets Knizia's design group apart from others is that he has moved aggressively to license games for iOS, with roughly a dozen Knizia titles available on iPhones and iPads (including my personal favorite, Samurai). He recognizes what only a few other designers have – that given the relatively high price ($20-40) of these German-style board games, a $5 app can be the perfect gateway to introduce a player to the game's concept, potentially upselling him to the physical game later.

“People say, 'Oh there's a board game of this' - even though it was the other way around!” That kind of exposure in a market where reaching consumers through traditional channels has been difficult is invaluable, and Knizia's titles, which tend to involve simple rules that play out in complex ways, have translated very well to the small screen.

So why board games, other than the fact that designing them beats a typical office job? “Games are one of the great leisure activities,” says Knizia. “It doesn't matter how old you are or what background – we are here in this game together.”

Keith Law of ESPN is an occasional contributor to mental_floss. Check out his blog or follow him on Twitter.

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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Health
One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]

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