Rear Left

Mod Cons – a Roundabout Review of Tri-Ominos for iPhone

Posted in Dog Food, Gaming the System, Personal/Meta by rearleft on August 24, 2010

Until he left, dad was around a lot. My old man is a disabled veteran of the Korea and Vietnam wars, and thanks to a pension from the US military, he has generally been able to get by for most of my life without having a job as such. As a kid I remember his house as a sort of social club where he and his buddies would hang out, smoking and drinking, playing games. First in North Queensland, and later in Texas, the revolving cast that made up his motley crew over the years fall into a certain range of misfit characters: bikers, ex-pat hippies, broken-down soldiers, sci-fi philosophers, undisciplined Jedi, petty outlaws. These men on the edges of society sought each other out for support and companionship. Games provided a ritualised order for these men to structure their time together around.

They would play the games with a casual intensity, sometimes spending many hours a day for weeks or months on end with a certain game before spontaneously moving on to another. Backgammon was the default that they would return to time and time again. Other favourites were chinese checkers, darts (usually 10-20 cricket rules), Jenga, Othello (aka Reversi), and some lesser known titles like Abalone and Slide-5. I don’t remember them ever playing cards. To my knowledge they never played for money. It was never about gambling, just the exchange of play.

House rules ruled. In the case of Tri-ominos, a simple augmentation resulted in a modded game that became the staple for a number of years. Tri-ominos is itself a mod of dominos, a game that is played in an over-simplified form in Australia, making it uninteresting game for children above the age of about 8. In other spaces, especially the sidewalks in front of Nuyorican bodegas, dominos is elevated to a way of life. For a while, multi-set triominos became that way for my dad’s crew. The standard Tri-ominos set contains 56 equilateral triangle tiles with a number from 0-5 in each of the three corners. All possible permutations of the triad appear in the set once and once only. Points are scored by adding the numbers represented on a laid tile. Bonuses are scored by completing a hexagon (six tiles laid in a radial pattern) or making a bridge (connecting branches of the pattern by touching a tip on one side and a side on another. The game is entertaining in itself, but after some play, certain fundamental limitations  appear. The presence of only one instance of each tile leads to a predictable and stifling defensive mode of play, where players can easily read the board to see that certain tiles have already been played and cannot therefore appear again. A second limitation, that can feel frustrating to the point of seeming a design flaw is the incompatibility of many apparently playable tiles. This effect is a result of the numbering of the tiles corners always being inscribed in an ascending clockwise direction. For example, the 1-2-5 tile exists, but the 1-5-2 tile does not.

My old man’s crew’s reaction to their frustration with these aspects of the game was to change the game itself in a subtle way. They did this by adding first a second set of tiles, and then multiples into their game. I believe that they ultimately played a 5-set version. This meant that they were playing with 280 pieces, usually with around 4 players in any one game. The multiset game required a great deal more strategy around the management of risk associated with play, as it was considerably more difficult to predict the unseen hands of other players when up to 5 instances of each tile existed. Of course the games went for considerably longer periods of time, not only because more tiles were in play, but contemplation of the board and strategy took exponentially longer as the field of play grew. And grow it did. Soon it became apparent that the kitchen table would not bound the fractal arms of the expanding board, and one evening of play could not complete a single game. Barricades had to be erected to prevent pets from wandering into the field and disturbing play.

Cut to the present day. The old man’s circle has contracted to number only 3 or 4 misfits at best, and instead of playing games they’re more likely to be watching Fox News fed through the satellite dish to his cinder block house in the Texas hill country. Browsing through games in the iTunes Store I am thrilled to see that Tri-Ominos is now available as an app. I plonk down my $AUD1.19 and have in my pocket an officially licensed copy of this game that took on such mythic proportions in my youth. But the innovations that were made through a simple mod involving adding more instances of tiles are simply not replicable on my iPhone. If I was able to work through many layers of copy protection and code, perhaps I could rewrite the game to customise the number of sets in the game. Maybe with a few years of study I would have the skills to give the computer opponent better artificial intelligence so it didn’t make such obvious strategic errors, or simpler still, open the game up to multiplayer networking. But I won’t. I’m a media theorist and community media practioner, not a software engineer.

The benefits of the iPhone TriOmino set are not insignificant. It is in my pocket as I type this. I can play it wherever I wish. It cost me $1.19, whereas a single set of tiles costs $30. Modding a multi-set would cost the multiple. But I have played the iPhone app version about 10 times and I may never play it again. Its limitations are beyond repair, at least for me, at least within the constricts of its end user license agreement. The game, as with many aspects of information culture, has been appliancised. It is easier, more convenient, cheaper, ubiquitous. It can be yours to play, but it cannot be ours to play with.

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