A Gnome's Ponderings

I'm a gamer. I love me some games and I like to ramble about games and gaming. So, more than anything else, this blog is a place for me to keep track of my ramblings. If anyone finds this helpful or even (good heavens) insightful, so much the better.

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Caving in to the Catan franchise

Lowell Kempf
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Like quite a few people, Settlers of Catan played a big role in getting me back into board games. Along with Puerto Rico and the Carcassonne family, Settlers was what introduced me to the modern world board games and turned me from a guy who only played RPGs to someone who plays a lot of board games.

To this day, Settlers is a game that I still enjoying playing. I am someone who likes a lot of variety in his gaming so that’s high praise from me. I no longer seek out Carcassonne and I am burnt out on Power Grid but I still love a good game of Settlers.

That being said, I’ve never really been interested in the Settlers card games. My two-player games tend to be casual ones on work nights when time is a premium. Everything I’d read about the original version of the card game indicated that it tended to hit the two-hour mark. While my shrink-wrapped copy of Die Maker calls me a liar when I say this, I try not to buy games that will never get played.

When Struggle for Catan came out, I initially wasn’t interested in it. After all, I’d managed to resist the original card game and its remake, Rivals of Catan. However, Struggle played up to four players, played in a half hour and, perhaps most importantly, was cheap enough to not make a real dent in my wallet.

While waiting for everyone to show up for D&D on a Sunday, my friend Bry and I broke it out and gave it a spin.

What we found was a game that had a strong Catan flavor and strong Catan theme but mechanics that were quite different. Like the original Settlers of Catan, you gather five different kinds of resources and trade them to build roads, knights, settlements and cities. However, as opposed to being a game about trade and developing an infrastructure, the Struggle for Catan is a game about hand management.

Without rewriting the rule book, instead of a board and a pair of dice that determines what resources people get, you have a draw pile and a market of five cards that you can trade with, as long as you have one road. You can also ‘trade’ with your opponents, which is actually stealing cards but having to give back the same number of cards you take.

There is also a limited pool of each thing you can build. With Settlements, Cities and City Improvements, the mix is the mix and when they run out, you’re out of luck. However, you can steal each other’s roads and knights all day long.

The ability to steal cards and roads and knights from each other was a lot of fun. In the end, though, I won because I drew almost all the ore in the deck, not because I did anything clever.

Despite luck being the deciding factor, we didn’t think it was a bad game and we do want to try it with three or four players before we make a final judgment on the game. All the elements of game play worked and turns went by at a nice fast clip. The game has enough promise to give it another chance.

With all that faint praise, though, I can’t get around this one sad truth. This is a game that would not have made it on my radar if it wasn’t for the Catan brand on its side. It’s a decent little game and it might even shine with more players. Unfortunately, it is also one more example of how a franchise can make me lower my standards and give in to impulse shopping.
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Wed Oct 26, 2011 5:41 pm
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Emergent Gameplay - a term that's new to me and a concept that I have long known about

Lowell Kempf
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A term that I recently came across for the first time is emergent gameplay. It is the idea of complex situations emerging from the interactions of relatively simple game mechanics. While I hadn’t heard those two words put together before, I’m definitely familiar with the concept.

I understand that it is more commonly used when looking at video games and is used to describe both intentional and unintentional examples. For instance, it is widely known that there is a real world market for the virtual money and goods of World of Warcraft. I’ve never played the game and even I know that. I also really doubt that Blizzard ever intended for that to happen.

At the same time, the concept of emergent gameplay is very much a part of the culture and development of board games. Cosmic Encounter has been cited as a prime example of intentional Emergent Gameplay in action. The actual rules of the game itself are really simple. I was shocked at how simple the rules were when I first played Cosmic Encounter. However, the interaction of the alien powers leads to some amazingly intricate situations.

Really, on a certain level, the idea of simple rules creating complex situations and decisions is core to the whole idea of games in general. So what I really want to know is: Where do you draw the line in defining Emergent Gameplay?

For instance, Go can be broken down into about six or so rules. (The game is played on a board. Two players place white and black stones. A stone can only be placed on an empty intersection of lines. Etc.) Yet, the gameplay itself is some of the most complex and mind blowing I have ever seen. It is a game that takes years of practice and study to even come close to mastering.

But, it’s not like that’s a surprise. Yes, as you learn more and more about how to play Go, the game play unfolds and opens up in your mind like one of those road maps that you can fit in your pocket but covers the kitchen table when you open it up. But Go’s complexity is there for everyone to see.

Is Emergent Gameplay when the interplay of the rules causes the game to create unexpected and shocking situations that you never saw coming going over the rules? Is it that moment that you never saw coming but seems so brilliant once you do see it?

I realize that it’s a term that’s open to interpretation and everyone’s definition might be different. There may be no official line in the sand that you need to cross. There might be a lot of discussion out there, trying to figure out just what is Emergent Gameplay and how it affects our experience in play.

What makes me happy, though, is that the concept is out there, as something for us to strive for and look for.
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Wed Oct 26, 2011 3:40 pm
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Checking into Hotel Samoa

Lowell Kempf
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While I did not get to go to a convention this weekend, I did get to play some games. After all, a bunch of us had been ready to go somewhere and play games so we were just as willing to play games since we were stuck at home

Among the games I had a chance to play was Hotel Samoa. I got it a while back from Tanga. In fact, it was one of my last “Oh, it’s a game that I’ve never heard of but it’s a game so I’ll buy it anyway” purchases from Tanga before I decided to start culling my collection and curbing my game buying. As such, it is a game that would not pass my impulse purchase threshold now.

Still, I didn’t want to get rid of it without trying it so it stayed in the pile of “try before tossing”. Honestly, I didn’t have the greatest expectations for it. I figured it would be one of those games that I’d get out on the table and then decide to get rid of.

Instead, what I found was a fun game that I want to play again. Now, I admit that it might not survive extensive play but it was good enough to warrant extensive play.

Hotel Samoa plays three to six players where each player is running their own hotel and trying make more money than any other player. Every turn, there is a simultaneous auction for hotel improvements and tourists. High bids will win improvements but low bids will get tourists in your rooms. Improvements can greatly increase your earning potential but you need to get tourists to get income.

In addition, you have a limited number of bid cards. Fewer than there will be auctions in the game in fact Every time you take something, you discard that card. While I’m talking about limited resources, you also only have a limited number of rooms in your hotel.

So, the whole game is about doing your damnest to manage your resources. They will be tight enough that you have to do your best to make your investments pay off and to get most out of the tourists you get into your hotel. And, of course, all your careful plans are going to get messed up by the other players

Obviously, I’m leaving a lot out. However, the meat and potatoes of Hotel Samoa is that it is a resource management game driven by simultaneous auctions. Since everyone goes at the same time, the game moves along a good clip and keeps everyone involved.

Most importantly we all had a lot of fun. The mechanics of the game kept it tense and the theme, which was married pretty well to the mechanics, kept us entertained as we couldn’t seem to attract Japanese tourists to our island but we couldn’t keep the Germans away

I haven’t come to a final opinion about Hotel Samoa but the first play impressed me. The game is a lot more fun than I expected, which is always a good thing.
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Tue Oct 25, 2011 8:40 pm
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For want of a nail

Lowell Kempf
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Alas, my plans to go to a small gaming convention in Charleston, WV, fell through.

The plan had been for a number of us from around the country who had gone to college together to go there to play games and to spend time with folks who we really only got to see once or twice a year at best. While all of us enjoy games, the real goal was to see each other.

As the time approached, we had a few people who were forced to cancel but there were still seven people planning to be there on the day we needed to leave Chicago.

Then, while I was waiting to get picked up, one of the seven remaining people called me and told me that he had to cancel as well and that another of the seven had told him that he wasn’t going either. Mind you, by the time they called me, if our ride hadn’t been stuck in traffic, we might have already been out of Illinois.

At that point, those of us in Chicago looked at the situation. Four of the five people going would be the people in car from Chicago. The drive would be ten to twelve hours each way, possibly more, with us spending one to two nights on the road. In the end, we would be spending about as much time on the road as at the convention if we were lucky. On top of all that, most of the games we would be playing were in our car.

The amount of time, money and effort we would go to no longer seemed worth the return. At that point, the money we would spend on gas, tolls, hotel, and food was greater than what it would take to fly the other guy to Chicago

So we decided not to go.

We are all certainly old enough now to know that work and family have to trump gaming. These things happen and, in all honesty, while I annoyed that we didn’t find out until it was almost too late, I don’t hold it against the friend whose cancellation made us decide to cancel.

I definitely think we made the right decision to cut our losses at that point, rather than doggedly stick to our original plans. It was a much better use of our time and money and people were able to get back vacation days and take care of other plans they had canceled to go to the convention.

Still, it is disappointing. I think we were just lucky that our ride was stuck in traffic so that we found out about the other cancelations before we were on the road.
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Tue Oct 25, 2011 5:30 pm
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What to do when the table gets crowded

Lowell Kempf
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As the head count for Charcon is starting to add up, I am seeing a familiar, age-old problem rearing its head as it always does.

Not good old too-many-games-,-not-enough-time. That particular ‘problem’ is pretty much a constant in my life. This time, it’s the too-many-gamers-at-the-table.

At this point, we’re looking at having at least six people in our group and it could go as high as nine. I can’t complain with any kind of credibility though. Feast is a whole lot better than famine and I’m sure we’ll spend plenty of time playing two different games at the same time. However, I know that since we are coming from all over the country to see each other, we are going to want to play at least a few games as a group.

Four players is the platonic ideal for a group of Euro-gamers. The number of good games that you can play well with four players is legion. Five is still solid. It’s when you get to six that things start to get a little shaky. And, when you get over six, that’s when you start asking why you’re not splitting into two tables.

In addition to the fact that they’re just aren’t that many games that play groups that large apart from party games that you can play as teams, there are two things that tend to kill games with that number of players. The time in between a player’s turn can end up being long enough for them to go play a quicker game in between turns and the amount of control a player has drops considerably.

A three-player game of Acquire, for instance, is a quick-moving, brutal affair where the players are essentially hitting each other with carefully selected sledge hammers. A six-player game, on the other hand, you are just praying that you get a tile that will let you slide a stiletto into someone, anyone, and that you can still use that tile when it gets to be your turn again.

In the end, I find that you are looking at lighter games for those kinds of numbers. Yes, there are some heavier games, like Advanced Civilization or Titan that whose long playing time and high number of players will reward you for playing them. However, those are the exceptions to the rules and you need to make sure that everyone has planned their day to spend the whole day playing them.

Over the years, I have tried out a number of games. Some have surprised me, like Who’s the Ass that proved to be a fast little climbing game. Some have disappointed me, like Citadels, which, despite its strong reputation, has fallen flat at every table I’ve taken it to.

The one game that has proven to be a winner at just about every table I’ve taken it to is 6 Nimmt. It will play up to ten people and everyone plays at the same time so adding players doesn’t add much to the play time. It is also a game where the wild card element isn’t the deck but the choices of the other players. On top of all that, it’s a deck of cards that could fit into your jacket pocket.

So, no matter what else I pack, that is going with me to Charcon. It might not be new and shiny but it is reliable and it always works. We are all going to see each other so I know everyone will want to play at least one game with everyone else. 6 Nimmt (admittedly in the cheaper form of Slide 5) will do the trick.
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Mon Oct 17, 2011 8:38 pm
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Pub Quiz helps me realize that trivia isn't all bad.

Lowell Kempf
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I am definitely a proponent of the idea of the right game for the right setting. The perfect game for one group of people at one particular time and place could be a miserable experience for someone else. Heck, even the same game with the same group of people but at the wrong time and place can still be a bad time. I’m the kind of guy who will play most anything so I try to make sure that the games that hit the table are the ones that will the folks at the table the most fun.

Despite that fact, I am still shocked to find myself going to a weekly trivia contest.

I’m not a party game kind of person in general. While I’ll play party games, I have very few in my collection and they are not what interests me in gaming. I like strategy and tactics and systems that make my brain go bing! Party games just don’t offer me that.

And trivia games are probably my least favorite form of party games. I like to learn how to play games better, to improve my tactics and strategy. With trivia games, either you know it or you don’t. Yes, that’s not quite fair. You can learn how a particular system will ask questions (Tri-Bond for instance) and you can definitely learn how to make better educated guesses. However, that’s not the same as figuring out how to optimize train freight or manage money in an auction or crush your enemies and drive them before you while listening to the lamentations of their women/men.

So how have I ended up spending so much time with trivia questions?

Pub Quiz.

Which is just what it sounds like. You go to a drinking establishment and answer trivia questions. Some places there are prizes and some places you just get to feel smart.

My fiancée and I have started to go to Pub Quiz nights. Really, for all intents and purposes, it’s just a way to add a little bit of structure to drinking with your friends. There isn’t an international, standardized format to Pub Quiz, which I had half-expected there to be. Every place has its own rules and formats and its own questions.

And, I find that I quite like it. Neither of us is much of a drinker so this lets us add some more social to our social drinking. Plus, there’s not going to be a lengthy lull in the conversation since you’ll always have more questions to discuss or curse how you got them wrong.

To be honest, I don’t think of Pub Quiz as being a game per se. I don’t go home thinking that I’ve had a night of gaming. I go home thinking that I’ve hung out with a different group of friends.

Still, board games have still managed to sneak in. In order to practice my trivia skills, I ended up downloading Trivial Pursuit onto my phone so we could play it at restaurants or on public transportation. I view it as a game that deserves the scorn Monopoly gets. It adds a die roll that helps prolong the game along with a tendency to cram popular culture into the history, geography and science categories. I view Trivial Pursuit as the kind of game that insults the intelligence of the lowest common denominator.

But it was cheap and available for my not-so-smart phone and it has improved my Pub Quiz game. And if I completely bomb in a game of Trivial Pursuit, I can always blame the dubious game design

What have I learned from this? First of all, that trivia questions can be fun if you’re with a group of friends and drinking. Second, Trivial Pursuit is still a dreadful game
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Thu Oct 13, 2011 5:07 pm
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The mysterious fascination of one line

Lowell Kempf
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Alak is one of those strange little games that I find myself playing every once in a blue moon. I only play it online at Superduper Games and I can’t see myself ever playing it in real time or face-to-face. It’s really more of an intellectual exercise than a game, if there actually is a real difference between the two. However, there is something about it draws me back.

Alak, in a nutshell, is a one-dimensional Go. In fact, the game literally did start out as an intellectual exercise as part of the book The Planiverse, which is the spiritual successor of Flatland as a game that the people of a two-dimensional flatland would play.

I have to say, Alak does seem to be exactly the kind of game that would develop under such circumstances. The board is a just a line. There are some rules allowing players to create safe groups without liberties and a rule similar to ko to keep the same patterns from repeating.

Still, when you compare the scope and complexity of a nineteen by nineteen Go board to a one by nineteen Alak board, it’s kind of hard to deny that an Alak board is very limited. And let’s be honest, since Alak is clearly inspired by Go, it’s hard not to compare the two games and there is no comparison.

So why do I ever play Alak?

The brutally honest answer is that it is a very simple and convenient game to play by e-mail. The board and the notation for play are easy to use with my not-so-smart phone’s rather simple browser so I can respond to a move anywhere. The bare simplicity of a one line board means that I can look at the board after even a long break and be able to remember or figure out what’s going on.

I also can’t get away from the fact that the idea of a game that just uses a line as a board that actually works. It’s not a great game but it’s not a broken game either. Even if you love abstracts (which I do), there are much better ones out there. However, my perverse fascination with the concept of the game means I just can’t look away and, since Supersuper Games allows me to play it without the restrictions of time and place, I find myself playing it.
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Tue Oct 11, 2011 6:55 pm
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So what's this game with the shoe laces?

Lowell Kempf
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Dicke Damonen is one of those games that has been just off of my radar for years. With a board that is made up of basically four shoe-laces, it’s one of those games that periodically shows up on lists just because nothing else looks like it. It’s visually distinct game that hasn’t had much posted about it on the geek.

I have no idea when the creator posted the complete rules and gave folks permission to make their own copies but a few weeks ago, I noticed that he had. I printed the rules out and realized that it would be pretty darn easy to make. At that point, Dicke Damonen went from just off my radar to something that I had to make and play.

All you need, apart from the rules, are four loops in red, green, yellow and blue; ten pawns in each of those colors, plus ten white pawns; and a bag to draw the pawns out of. I used miniature colored poker chips for pawns, a bag I had lying around and spent a couple bucks for ribbons for the loops.

Okay, here’s the boring rules part:

The game is actually quite simple. You lay down the loops that that each one intersects with at least two other colors. The areas that the overlapping loops create is the board. A pawn can be placed on any intersection that includes a loop of its color but only one pawn per intersection. That includes the outer row of the whole board. White pawns are special. They go in the center of an area and freeze it so that nothing else can be placed there.

Each player starts with a hand of four random pawns. On your turn, you place one pawn in a legal position and draw a new one. However, once per game, you can bet on which color is going to come out on top. You place a pawn of that color in front of you, discard the rest of your hand into the bag, and then just draw one. Once you claim a color, no one else can claim that same color.

The game ends when someone can’t play any pawn in their hand. You count up the points for each color. You figure that out by counting the intersections and knots (I like how knots are included in the rules) for each area a color controls and add all those numbers together. If there’s a tie for majority in an area, no color gets any points. White is special. They don’t count at all for majorities and just score the total number of white pawns on the board. The color with the most points wins. If someone bet on that color, they win the game. Otherwise, everyone loses.

End of boring rules segment.

On paper, Dicke Damonen looked promising. However, the acid test was actually getting it on the table. When it comes to print-and-play, making the game is often the easiest part. Selling the other players on playing the game can be a lot harder.

To add to my doubts, my two outings with Heinrich Glumpler’s games have been a decidedly mixed bag. On the one hand, Ablaze was good enough that it spent some time as our go-to game while waiting for people to all arrive for D&D. On the other hand, my fiancée and I agree that Street Illegal is the single worst game we’ve learned together.

However, I pushed to get it one the table. The short playing time and the sheer weirdness of using ribbons for the board helped me convince folks to try it out, even though we suffer from chronic too-many-games-not-enough-time.

The short answer is that Dicke Damonen falls on the Ablaze side of the equation. It's actually a pretty good game and everyone who I’ve forced to played has liked it.

The two things that make it a fun game to play are the variable board and the brinksmanship.

The loops are more than just a cute gimmick. In addition to being neat to look at, they are what gives the game some strategic depth. Since you can twist the loops into figure eights, you can actually create some pretty complex shapes and you can make sure that every board is a new puzzle to crack. On the one hand, you can easily figure out how many points each area is worth and what colors have a shot at getting those points. On that other hand, your random hand means your cunning plans might not work out. After you bet and have a hand of one, you’d better hope you set up the board in your favor.

And the decision of what and when to bet is what gives the game all its tension. Bet too soon and you lose all control and watch people kill your color. Wait too long and someone else might swipe the color you’ve been building towards. While there might not be a way to directly attack the other players, you still have a lot of ways of messing with them.

The biggest weakness I’ve found in the game is that the outer rim of the board is worth a lot of points and whatever color gets control of it has been the winner in my games. It could be that that’s just part of the learning curve that we haven’t gotten past.

In the end, Dicke Damonen boils down to a quick game that you can fit into a jacket pocket that offers some genuine depth, particularly for how quick it plays. Plus, everyone in the room will look at you when you play it. It costs next to nothing to make so it’s well worth trying out. Even if you end up hating it, you’ll only be out a couple dollars.
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Fri Oct 7, 2011 8:25 pm
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Looking forward to CharCon

Lowell Kempf
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For the past several years, I usually get at least one gaming convention a year in. Most of the time, I get in more than one.

Naturally, GenCon features pretty heavily in my convention experience. I’ve been going for years and I’ve usually had a good time, not counting the time I shared a hotel room with six other gamers and realized that I was no longer in college and sleeping on the floor just wasn’t going to cut it anymore.

However, most conventions are not GenCon. In a couple weeks, I’ll be going to CharCon, which is in Charleston, West Virginia. It’ll be the third time I’ve gone so I know that it will be a very different experience than GenCon. That doesn’t mean I won’t have a good time. I am pretty positive I will and, if I don’t, I’ll probably just have myself to blame.

At a big convention, I can go by myself and have a good time without trying hard. There are enough events, prescheduled games and tournaments to sign up for, and just stuff to see to keep me busy. However, when it comes to a smaller convention like CharCon, I go in with a completely different set of expectations and preparations.

At a smaller convention, I go as part of a group with the intention that I’ll be with that group pretty much the entire time and spending all my time playing with that group. Needless to say, I try to go to small conventions with people who live in other states than me. Otherwise, we could just lock ourselves in someone’s living room for three days

I like to get to a couple smaller conventions a year with the specific goal of playing with my old college buddies. We only get to see each other a couple times a year and the smaller conventions are a great way to do it. This will be our third time at CharCon. Among other things, we’ve found that Charleston offers a nice array of non-chain restaurants so the dining experience has been a real highlight.

I have found that you are the one most responsible for whether or not you have a good time at a small convention. That can be said about just any experience but it’s more true here. You choose the people that you’ll be spending almost all of your time with. The odds are, at least for my group of friends, we’ll also be the ones supplying most of the games we play. CharCon gives us the space and the time. What we do with it, that’s really up to us.

And make no mistake, I consider myself lucky to have this opportunity. I get to go game for a weekend with a pre-built gaming group that isn’t my weekly crew. For me, a little convention is a great big friendly living room that belongs to every one.
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Thu Oct 6, 2011 8:58 pm
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You know, he really was a big deal

Lowell Kempf
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Pausing from gaming for a moment, last night during Pub Quiz at a local tavern, I heard that Steve Jobs had passed away.

Of course, by now, everyone reading this already knows that. And, given his health issues, it wasn’t that big a surprise. Quite frankly, having known people who have suffered from pancreatic cancer, the fact that he lived with it for as long as he did is the real surprise.

I know he had quite a following and a lot of fans. Honestly, I was never one of them. Not because I ever had anything against the man. It’s just that I’m not the sort of person who tends to become a fan, my membership in the Cult of Knizia notwithstanding.

However, with his passing, I have to pause and think about the effect that he had on my life.

Wow. It’s a lot.

Forget the fact that my fiancée and I own and use things like ipads and ipods and the like. The first personal computer that I was ever exposed to was the Apple IIE that my father brought home when I was knee high to the family cat.

I’m not sure who honestly deserves historical credit from moving computers into people’s homes but Apple and Steve Jobs get the credit in my life. Since then, the impact that I know personal computers have had on my personal, educational and professional life has pretty much been huge and, with my love of board games and books, there are people who consider me a luddite.

I am sure that Steve Jobs influence on world culture has been massive but I really don’t think that I’m the person who can speak to that. However, I know his impact on my own life makes him more influential than some of my relatives. (No, I’m not going to name names.)

Other people will write much better tributes and commentaries than this. However, I want to stop and say “Yeah, I guess he really was something.”
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Thu Oct 6, 2011 4:13 pm
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