Departures: Winter Games 2001

It was way too early on the morning of Friday, December 28, 2001.

Dragon Warrior III

I was barely awake. I was barely playing Dragon Warrior III on my Gameboy. Dragon Warrior III did not require wakefulness. Dragon Warrior III did not require reflexes. Dragon Warrior III did not require brains. It only required the willingness to press buttons. It was too early, but I could press buttons.

I was at the house of Dick and Evelyn Clair, parents of Bryan Clair. Bryan and his wife, Elissa, were in town for the holidays. They were about to head up to Lake Tahoe. I was going along.

In the world of Dragon Warrior III, the hero Deke walked across continents. He sailed to strange lands. With the help of his doughty companions, he battled evil beasts.

I was not so active. It was too early. This was part of the plan. The plan was: We were to start early. The plan was: I would sleep in Michelle's old room in the house. The plan was: Bryan wouldn't have to drive across town to pick me up early in the morning. Michelle, Bryan's sister, had moved out of her room years before.

In the intervening years, something had gone wrong.

I was glad that I'd met Michelle. I was glad that I'd spent enjoyable hours in her company, mostly without sneezing. Otherwise, I might have thought there was something wrong with her. I might have thought this because her old room made me sneeze. A lot.

Michelle was going to Tahoe with us. We were all going in the same vehicle. If I'd never met her, if I thought that she was an allergen, I might have done something foolish. I might have left the vehicle's windows rolled down. This might have been uncomfortable in the cold mountains.

In the world of Dragon Warrior III, Deke didn't worry about allergies. He encountered four-armed sword-wielding zombies who breathed paralyzing gas at him. Deke endured this without complaint. Deke never sneezed. Deke never complained of sleepiness.

I'd given up on sleep early. I was sitting next to the kitchen, a four-eyed GameBoy-wielding zombie. I looked up. Elissa was there. She was saying something about people being up. Somebody had called her brother, Drew. Drew was coming, too. Elissa was saying something about getting ready. I tried to follow what she was saying. She hoped that I was ready. Was I ready? I looked at my luggage. It seemed to be dry. I was almost ready.

I said: "I'll be ready soon, just let me get to a place where I can save my game."

The Slots

I was dry. I was in the Sands, a Hotel/Casino whose name sounded dry. Dry feet were wonderful. I was full of pancakes. Normally, pancake-fulness is one of my chief pleasures; normally, I take dryness for granted. But not now. Though I was full of pancakes, I was amazed at the dry.

Bryan had a dollar bill., He fed it to a slot machine. Bryan owed Drew a dollar. Drew didn't especially want the dollar back. So Bryan gave the dollar to a slot machine, and Drew would get the proceeds. Maybe Drew would get something worthwhile.

I had been there when Bryan assumed the debt. I had not been dry then.

We had huddled at the Wilderness Lodge at Royal Gorge. Royal Gorge was a cross-country ski place in the Tahoe area. Bryan, Elissa, Michelle, and Drew had been cross-country skiing. Elissa and Drew hadn't done this before; they had gone slow. I had cross-country skied before, and knew I didn't care for it. I'd rented snowshoes instead.

A snow-shoer can keep up with a beginning cross-country skier, at first. I'd kept up. But this had become my longest snow-shoe trek ever. My feet had been soaked. I hadn't bothered to get waterproof boots. I'd never needed them before, right?

My pants had been wet. I'd been distracted by a squirrel, had fallen in the snow. Snow had clung to my jeans. As the beginning skiers had picked up skills, they had picked up speed. I'd been jogging to keep up. I'd fallen a few more times.

So I had been glad to sit in the Wilderness Lodge, drinking hot artificial cider. The lodge had offered hot drinks, hot chili. Drew's dollar had gone towards the common warm-comestable fund; it had been a dollar well spent.

The dollar in the slot machine did not have such an impact. Wheels spun. Wheels stopped spinning. Nothing happened. We walked away.

Settlers of Catan

My forest was not producing lumber. I needed lumber to build roads. I needed roads to found new settlements. I needed new settlements to gain prestige. I needed prestige to become Lord of Catan. Where was my lumber?

I was dry. Dryer than dry, I was sitting next to the heater in a hotel room at the Sands. The five of us were gathered around a table, looking over a map of the land of Catan, planning.

I was keeping an eye on Elissa. I remembered what happened the last time I'd played Settlers of Catan with Bryan and Elissa. But I needn't have bothered. Elissa and I were getting our butts kicked. Michelle had never played the game before, and she was doing far better than I was. I had played the game before. I had played a lot of Catan. In fact, I thought I could play in my sleep. Which was a good thing. I was pretty tired. When had I last slept?

It was strange to be dryer than dry. I'd been wet the night before. Before sleeping over at Dick and Evelyn Clair's I'd attended a dinner party there. Family friends were there, who I'd never met: Norm and Lucinda, their children David and She-Ra. (I don't think it was really spelled "She-Ra.") It was a pretty sophisticated crowd, up on art, architecture, affairs of the day, and social sciences.

I had not been so sophisticated. I'd taken the bus over, lugging my luggage. When I set out, it had been raining lightly. By the time I walked to the bus stop at the base of Haight Street, it was raining pretty hard.

I had edged my way under the bus shelter to the dismay of the two people already there. One had seemed worried that I was going to bump into him. He might have thought I would bump him while skittering away from the other person. The other person certainly had been one to prompt skittering. He had been twitching. He had twitched. His elbow had knocked the receiver off of the pay-phone; when the receiver had clunked against the shelter wall, he had jumped.

He had paced around a bit. He had looked up at me, had said, "If I'm acting a bit strange, it's nothing bad. It's just that I picked these mushrooms that I found growing in the park. I ate them." His eyes had narrowed; he had clarified: "I ate them all." Had he thought I was going to ask him for some? He had continued: "I don't know if they'll do anything, but I might be high."

With a straight line like that, I had tried to make a joke, but this guy had talked in a rush, wouldn't bow to comic timing, decorum, conversational rhythm, or anything in front of his dilated pupils.

He had told me a few more times that he had eaten some mushrooms, that he wasn't sure as to his mental state, but that no-one should worry about him, that he was okay. Normally, I might be bored by such a repetitive monologue, but this had only taken about 30 seconds.

He had continued: "Jeez, isn't that bus here yet? I'm going on to the next stop." He had abruptly left. He'd been waiting for the bus for perhaps a minute. I had hung up the pay phone.

That's not when I had got so wet.

I knew that the bus would drop me off at 18th Street. I knew that I wanted to get to 23rd Street. I had forgotten that San Francisco's numbered Streets are further apart that her numbered Avenues. I was accustomed to the Avenues; the Clairs lived amongst the Streets. I hadn't counted on the rain turning to a downpour.

I'd been rained on a lot.

So I'd looked something like a drowned rat when I showed up at the Clairs.

Dry was good. But how did I end up next to the heater? It was making me grumpy. Or maybe that forest was making me grumpy. It rankled: Settlers of Catan is a game that rewards skill. Michelle hadn't played the game before, and Michelle was kicking my butt.

Michelle hadn't started out next to that blighted forest. Neither had Bryan. And soon Bryan fielded his third band of soldiers. That was good for some prestige. Bryan got a monopoly on brick, and turned that into some more prestige.

Boom. Bryan won. All hail Bryan, Lord of Catan.

Settlers of Catan, in my sleep

My sleep was troubled.

Had Bryan deployed his third army and declared his monopoly on the same turn? That was against the rules.

On the other hand, he would probably have won anyhow. It just would have taken longer. It would have been longer before everyone had a chance to go to bed.

Bryan had done exactly the right thing. Sleep was deep, and free of sneezes.

Pinball (various)

I won! I won! I beat a majority of the Sands' pinball games!

It had been a good morning. I'd woken up early and ravenous. I'd got out of the casino for a walk and a breakfast. I'd walked out of the Sands; through a few blocks of squat stonish buildings hunkering in the cold; past no people; to the banks of what turned out to be the Truckee River.

There had been a river-walk area and a human being. He, like me, hadn't had any particular reason for being there. He had begged my pardon; had asked if I knew the meaning of the word, "indoctrinate." I had thought it meant something like "teach".

He had wondered if "indoctrinate" was related to the word, "induct." I had nodded thoughtfully. I had not had a chance to say that "induct" came from the Latin in ducere, "to lead in." (Now that I look in my Latin dictionary, I see that there was a Latin word inducere. So it's a good thing I didn't say anything; I would only have revealed my ignorance.) I'm not sure what good it would have done to say this; I hadn't known the origin of the word "doctrine," so I hadn't had a comparison. ("Doctrine" is from Latin, too, but I didn't know that at the time.)

I hadn't had a chance to speak up about "induct," because this human being had taken the conversation in a new direction, saying that the word "indoctrinate" made him very angry. I had missed the next couple of things that he said, because the phrase "very angry" had made me very nervous. I had nervously looked around the area, making a quick tactical appraisal. This section of the Truckee was not ideal for the disposal of corpses. If this fellow had planned on removing my liver for use as a talisman against the dread word "indoctrinate," he had chosen a poor place. Thus, I had figured that he was probably harmless.

As I snapped back to reality, he had continued: "...why they want to indoctrinate you anyhow? What if you don't want to be indoctrinated?" I had muttered something sympathetic. He had looked at me strangely, had said that he was sorry for creating an awkward situation with his talk. He hadn't been a far-gone street crazy, after all. I had said, "No worries," as he ambled off.

I had walked down some steps; had sat next to the water; had eaten some luggage-squished sandwiches; had watched the water, bobbing beverage containers, and incurious geese. I had finished; headed back.

I had approached the Sands, noticing that it had floor markings painted on its exterior. Floors above 10 were marked J, Q, K, like playing cards. Drew and I were staying in the easy-to-remember room 1234. I had realized that I was sharing a room with another man on the Queen floor. I had worried about my reputation should news of this get out (whoops). I had entered the Sands through a door I hadn't used before, and had noticed the pinball machines.

Who would have thought that a casino would have any fun games? Maybe gamblers needed places to stash their kids.

I had headed back up to the rooms, made sure that I had some free time before my companions were done with their morning ablutions; had accepted the mission of procuring some breakfast muffins; had decided to play some pinball on the way to the casino's muffin-and-pizza stand.

I conquered my first choice of pinball machines quickly: I noted that it was not powered up. It's not powered up, I thought, therefore I win. I wasn't so sure about the logic behind that, but it felt right.

Victory over the second machine was again by forfeit, but more difficult. I inserted money and pressed the start button, and noticed that the money ended up in the coin-return spot. I pressed the start button and inserted money. The money came back. Despite its flashing lights, I have confirmed that it is broken, I thought, therefore I win.

The third machine was the most satisfying. This machine actually forced me to play some pinball. However, with some simple flipper-work I wedged the ball between two pieces of metal. With a sense of triumph, I watched the pinball machine come to terms with its defeat. At first, it just sat there, waiting for the ball to come into contact with a bumper or flipper or spinner or something. When it finally realized the seriousness of the situation, the machine tried to dislodge the ball: it worked its flippers, activated its bumpers; extruded various targets, weakly flashed its lights. I watched it as a cruel child might watch a flipped insect struggle to get back on its feet.

As I moved away towards the muffin-and-pizza stand, I felt as though my head bore a laurel wreath. Laurens Hosken, that was me.

Cities and Knights of Catan

My grazing land was producing wool and cloth. I had edged ahead in cloth production. I'd built up a metropolis based on cloth. I'd wringed all the prestige out of cloth that I could. To become Lord of Catan, I needed to develop other resources.

Drew, Elissa, and I were hogging a table in the cafeteria at Donner Ski Ranch's lodge. We were learning "Cities and Knights of Cataan," an expansion set for Settlers of Catan. Bryan and Michelle were doing some downhill skiing.

We were hogging the table. That table could have held six people, but we three needed all that space for the game board. On the other hand, we were giving the cafeteria plenty of patronage. Cities and Knights of Catan was requiring more energy than I'd expected.

When we'd first arrived, I just drank coffee. We'd set up the game, and then I'd started reading the rules out loud. A half-hour later, I had still been reading; my head had started spinning. Only orange juice had prevented me from fainting.

Elissa, Drew, and I vied for advantage. We endured barbarian raids. We built up our cities. We consulted the rules books, eked out an understanding of proper knight deployment.

So there I was with a metropolis, wondering if I'd over-specialized. I wondered where my next batch of prestige was coming from.

And then Bryan and Michelle were done skiing. There would be no Lord of Catan. There would, however, be a chance for us all to be back in the San Francisco Bay area in time for our various Saturday night plans.

Hail Saturday night, Lord of Meta-Catan.


It was Saturday night, if Saturday night means anything to a time-traveler.

I was a time-traveler, with the ability to tweak certain events in Earth's past. I was one of several time-travelers, each of us from different versions of Earth's past. Each was struggling to tweak the time stream to match our "home" version of Earth's history. We were also trying to steal various goodies from the past and future. It seemed pretty random. I couldn't figure out what the heck I was doing.

I was at the always-cozy home of Chris and Susan Ross in Sonoma. It was game night.

The ski-group had dropped me off at the apartment of Paul Du Bois in Berkeley. Paul and I had grabbed dinner and then headed up to Sonoma for game night, a gathering of people who like to play board and card games.

I was playing Chrononauts. I played a "patch" card on the Chrononauts time-line. I was still pretty hazy on the rules, so I asked a pertinent question: "Uhm, did I just win?"

I'd missed the last few game nights. Game night came along once a month; it's easy to plan around. But I'd missed it anyhow. I'd done almost nothing outside of work from August through November. It had been a busy time. So I hadn't played much Chrononauts. Some other people at the table had.

Those people told me that I had, in fact, won. It seemed that Chrononauts didn't reward skillful players. This thought was some consolation to me when we played it again and someone else won.

Simpsons: Loser Takes All

Simpsons: Loser Takes All was not fun to play. Players could compete for points; players could work towards ending the game. It was difficult, perhaps impossible, to do both at once. Soon, most players had given up on winning: instead we concentrated on ending the game.

Chris Ross won. From his facial expression, he felt the same sense of accomplishment I'd felt for winning at Chrononauts. Maybe it was too random to satisfy him.

About four weeks before, I'd either been laid off or else I'd quit my job. My project had been winding down. My employer, Infinite Machine, had run low on money; had hoped to interest publishers in a few possible Next Projects. None of the Next Projects had appealed to me.

Once our First Project went in for final approval, I don't know if there were any planned layoffs. It would have made sense; the company needed to tighten its belt to survive long enough to land a Next Project. It would have made sense to lay me off; I was the most junior programmer there.

As it was, I'd let my bosses know that I didn't want to stick around. There were people who wanted to work on those Next Projects. The idea that one of them might be laid off in my place was icky.

I'd been looking forward to game night partly as a chance to get news from Paul Du Bois, who was still at Infinite Machine. And there was news: MicroSoft didn't want to publish the multiplayer-monkey Next Project; they'd been hoping for something more massively-multiplayer-monkey. The team-based multiplayer shooter franchise never called back. The pie-in-the-sky media Next Project would not be landed.

THQ, publisher of the almost-done First Project, had decided not to pay Infinite Machine for the most recent bit of work on that project. The project was just two bugs away from being done, and there were fixes for those bugs. Paul pointed out that THQ could pay Infinite Machine for those fixes; or THQ could wait a couple of months for Infinite Machine to fall apart, and then pay one ex-Machinist a pittance to re-construct the bug fixes.

I'd felt so in-control when I'd let my bosses know I wasn't interested in sticking around. But in the end, I hadn't made a difference.

In hindsight, maybe I'd played things right. I'd gotten out soon after fixing my last bug. I'd spent the last few weeks gallivanting around instead of trying to land a Next Project that wasn't coming through. But it was too random to satisfy me.


Shipwrecked was a complicated bidding game. I had never played it, but neither had most of the people I was playing with. I bid randomly, but kept my eyes open to figure out winning strategies. Shipwrecked was harsher on random players than Chrononauts had been. I fell behind rapidly. After a while, I stopped using the random strategy and started to use my brains. However, my fellow players had brains to spare. I did not fare well.

Chris Ross and I ended up in the same gaming group quite a few times that evening. Game Night itself is a meta-game. As people show up, they are randomly shunted to different gaming tables. Between games, people are randomly re-distributed between tables. So it was a pleasant surprise to get so much of his company.

Like me, Chris was taking some time off work after working too hard readying a game for the XBox. Unlike me, Chris was working for a solvent employer; his time off was leave instead of layoff. Obi-Wan had been a death march project. People had left the project in droves. Somehow, Chris had held on, had helped pull together a team, had stuck it out, had helped get the game done. He had earned his time off.

Chris asked me if this had been my first entertainment title. Yeah, it had. Chris asked me a strange question. I forget exactly what the question was, but it seemed to imply that working on a game--that it was the hardest that I'd ever worked. I don't think I ever answered his question; I told him that I'd worked harder when I'd been working at a start-up.

It reminded me of a conversation with Lucinda during the sophisticated dinner party on Thursday night. Lucinda said something which implied that she thought I'd been In Charge at Infinite Machine: owned it or managed it or something. Lucinda had a pretty intense stare. Under other circumstances, I think I might have just gulped nervously and let the In-Charge-implication slide. But I had just come away from a minute spent in a bus shelter with a guy who had eaten all the mushrooms, so I could muster the mental wherewithal to point out that I hadn't been In Charge at Infinite Machine, but only a mere programmer. Why had Lucinda thought I was In Charge? Was it because I'd just been telling her that I'd done nothing but work since August, " save the company, you know."

Lucinda, until her recent retirement, had been In Charge. She'd been headmistress at some school in Chicago. She had probably worked hard. She seemed like that type.

Chris, who worked on computer games, maybe thought that computer-games-people worked harder than most. Lucinda, who had been In-Charge, maybe had thought that In-Charge-people worked harder than most.

So I was sitting there talking with Chris, and Chris was talking about how important it was to take time off and to relax.

And I was thinking that I had worked hard in a few contexts, had friends in various fields, had many data points about who worked hardest. A plan coalesced: I would seek employment in many fields, to find out once and for all who worked hardest.

No, that was a stupid plan. I should find out who worked least, and stay there.

No, that was a stupid plan, too. I should find out who worked on interesting projects, and stay there.

But hadn't that been my plan all along?


It was a little after midnight on Sunday, December 20, 2001, and Game Night was still going strong.

The semi-randomly chosen game was Wiz-War. I'd played Wiz-War before, so I wouldn't be as lost as I had during Chrononauts and Simpsons: Loser Takes All. Or would I? It had been a few years since I last played Wiz-War. I hadn't been a stellar player then. Chris (I was once again in Chris' group) was good at games in general. Andy and Jeff had laughed with glee when they found out they were about to play Wiz-War.

I was out of my league. Wiz-War is a game that rewards skill. Wiz-war is a combination board and card game. Each player is a wizard, and their hand of cards represents the magical spells at their disposal. But many of these cards aren't straightforward spells: they are spell modifiers. An "Ice Web" spell might freeze an opponent in place for a turn; but with the proper modifier cards, you might create an Ice Web that goes around corners and injures its victim. (I don't think there's really an "Ice Web" spell, but you get the idea.) With skills, a player can figure out the way in which to use his modifier cards to the best effect.

Andy and Jeff were talking about recent Wiz-War games. I listened nervously: they had skills. Chris was smiling, watching Andy and Jeff talk. He had skills. Well, maybe I'd learn something.

The game started. Chris' wizard moved like a whirlwind. Somehow, I'd been slugged by his troll (where had that come from?), pinned down in an alcove by a flame-throwing imp (who invited the imp?), ensorceled such that I could not cast hostile spells upon Chris. As I puzzled over my cards, Chris absconded with a treasure of mine and transported it back to his base (shot-putting it part of the way), securing victory.

Wow, that had happened really fast. By watching Chris, Jeff, and Andy, I'd learned some good things about how best to use magical thornbushes in defending one's treasures.

I was still out of my league, though.

Chris had one so quickly that other tables were still in the middle of their games. We had time for another round of Wiz-War.

Chris moved quickly, hoping to once again pull off a lightning win. He soon secured one of the two treasures that he needed, but by then Andy and Jeff had moved in. They soon had him befuddled, put a curse on him such that he'd be injured each time he moved--so he'd have an impossible time carrying his second treasure back to his base. Chris was no longer a threat.

While this was going on, I'd secured one of the treasures that I needed. I just needed one more. But soon, Andy and Jeff would notice this. I had seen what they did to Chris. I didn't have any way to cope with anything like that. I was out of my league.

I did have a magical spell that allowed me to teleport an opponent to any place in the maze. Chris' wizard was nearby. I hatched a desperate plan. My wizard crept up next to Chris' wizard, then teleported him.

Chris pointed out a place to teleport him that would keep him out of trouble. One of the experts (Andy or Jeff) had encased one of his (Andy's or Jeff's) treasures within a door-less room of stone. He'd walled off an alcove. Now there was no simple way out of the room (just teleportation, door creation, wall-warp wands, and a few others... but what were the chances of drawing one of those spell cards?).

But I didn't teleport Chris' wizard there. Instead, I teleported him next to Andy's wizard, and not too far from Jeff's. Then my wizard started running for his econd goal treasure.

Andy had been chuckling over the cards in his hand. He had looked at them, and figured out some amazing combination. And Chris' wizard was a handy target. So Andy cast his amazing spell on Chris. It was the most powerful attack spell I'd ever seen. The spell drew energy from the very body of Andy's wizard. It required a lot of energy, more than Andy might normally wish to draw from his body.. But Andy used another modifier card, which allowed his wizard to vampirically drain energy from Chris' wizard.

Boom. Chris' wizard was killed instantly; Chris was out of the game. I'd never seen anything like it. I was out of my league.

But Andy had used up his turn destroying Chris, and Jeff was just starting to figure out what to do next, and then it was my turn and I grabbed my second goal treasure and secured it back at my base. I'd won!

I was out of my league, Wiz-War-wise. But I had studied history. I knew that if one is being pursued by wolves, it may be too late to become as strong as a wolf; but it is never too late to toss someone else to the wolves.


A few people were still awake and present. Our numbers were reduced; we all fit at one table. And we were playing Condottiere. Paul had told me about this game. It was full of bluff and treachery. I didn't have my wits about me. What would become of me?

We were up late. It usually takes me a day to recover from Game Night. It occurred to me that I might not be up for much on New Year's Eve. Not that I had anything planned.

It was still 2001.

In 1999, I'd spent some time out of work. I'd gone to New Mexico, to New England, and sailing in the San Juans. I'd written travelogs, jokingly referred to them as my "Unemployed Travel Trilogy."

In 2000, I'd spent some time out of work. I'd gone to Sausalito, St Louis, and Seattle. I'd jokingly referred to my travelogs as my "2000 Unemployed Travel Trilogy." I'd jokingly pointed out that I didn't want opportunity for a "2001 Unemployed Travel Trilogy."

When I'd found myself out of work in 2001, I had been determined to go to three places before the year was over. But it was December, and I hadn't set anything up. I'd gone to Portland, to Sacramento, to Los Angeles. Those were quick to set up, quick to execute. All I had to do now was write about them.

The problem was: Nothing had happened in Sacramento. When I'd set out, I'd planned it as an over-nighter. But I'd been so bored that I didn't bother to stay overnight, I'd just hopped a train back home after a few hours. What did I have to write about? I'd out-raced an Amtrak bus by riding BART; I'd eaten at the Cuckoo's Nest for the first time in years; I'd seen some restored historical plaster-work at the state capitol; I'd seen the Delta King at rest, unfortunately in the middle of Sacramento's "Old Town;" I'd learned that Sacramento's Old Town is something like Disney's Frontierland, but without the rides.

Instead of writing about Sacramento, I could write about how I'd spent the last few days, playing in snow and board games.

It wouldn't be wildly exciting, but it would be better than Sacramento, right?

I snapped back to reality, or back to Condottiere, whichever was handiest. Jeff had done something sneaky and clever. He had played it close to his chest, had played a special card at just the right time. Jeff had won the Condottiere game.

Hail Jeff, Condottiere of Italy.


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