Archive for the ‘Blog’ Category.

True Stuff: The Art of Letter Writing

sit up straight

Every now and then you see someone talking about “the lost art of letter writing.” There was a TED talk, and a book last year, and there always seem to be articles and thinkpieces aplenty:

Thomas G. Knoles, the Marcus A. McCorison Librarian at the American Antiquarian Society, has an intimate knowledge of the more than 100,000 handwritten letters, as well as 1,500 manuscript collections, spanning from 1630 to present day, that are housed in the society’s archives.

“Life was so different in the 19th century. People didn’t have television, computers or radios, any of the distractions that they have now,” Knoles said. “Between the fact that it was the only way of communicating with people who were local and the fact there was actually disposable time to write the letters, letter writing was something that was a common practice.”

…While he feels the transition to the computer is a natural one, Knoles said there will be a whole texture of what everyday life was like that is going to be much harder to recapture because people don’t keep letters like they do emails and texts.

“We can grieve for anything that changes, but my own feeling is that you have to accept the fact that things are going to change,” Knoles said. “People grieved when the typewriter came. People grieved in the mid-19th century when the envelope was introduced and before that they used sealing wax.”

“Mass. Scholars Mourn Lost Art Of Letter Writing”, CBS Boston, March 22, 2014

To be clear, I am a fan of letter writing!

• As the quote above says, letter writing, its other charms aside, preserves history. On this site I’ve discussed correspondence by the Wright Brothers and shown off letters my mother received from Isaac Asimov. My mother, a prolific correspondent, has saved bushels of letters we’ve come across decades later, but in the future, we are likely to find few from the era since she began sending emails.

• A couple years ago, I sent letters — 521 of them — to every head of state in the world, every governor in the U.S., 200 of the world’s top CEOs, and the pope. I got 52 letters back!

• People send me letters! I love it when they do. Here’s one I got recently (click for bigger):

another currency by mail scheme

…Of late, however, we faced a quandary regarding your fine publication. Sharp-eyed old Grisby noticed there is a price cited on your mast-head. Imagine our shame at discovering we have been leeches, sucking the bounty of your blood for close to eleven years, without so much as lying about paying…

Enclosed please find the requisite payment of six pence… Notices of subscription renewals should not be sent and will go unanswered. We consider the matter closed.

none the richer, alas

• Hundreds of people sent us letters about Machine of Deathwe asked them to, in exchange for us sending them a death prediction card in the mail. We said “send us anything,” and the results were amazing.

So, I’m firmly on the side of writing letters. But it’s true that it’s somewhat of an affectation these days. I correspond with people all the time, but the last letter I wrote was an angry one to the IRS.

One of my favorite historical books, though, is all about writing letters…

55 Classic Improv Initiations With Alligators

I’m on an improv comedy team! One of the house teams at Westside Comedy Theater in Santa Monica, CA. We perform (free) shows on alternate Mondays — we perform tonight, actually!

I like improvising because it’s a very different discipline from writing, but it can, as a mental exercise, help inform the craft of writing. A while ago I wrote a post about how thinking like an improviser can be helpful in writing short stories:

Improvisers are taught that whatever the scene starts being about, is what it’s about. If one person says “I’m hungry,” then the second person could say “Well, of course! You haven’t eaten for days!” And the scene would be about that person being hungry.

Why are they hungry? What has prevented them from eating? A diet? A stomach trauma? Torture? Are they too poor to buy food? Are they on a hunger strike? Are they always hungry, no matter how much they eat? Do they have a tapeworm? How do the other characters feel about the hunger? How does it make them react? [...]

If you don’t know what to write, start with anything. If you dig into it, if you ask “why,” if you ask “what does this mean,” if you ask “who does this affect” — I promise you that any small thing at all will be enough.

As a rule, improvisers try not to pre-plan anything, and build a scene collaboratively with their fellow players, and create characters rather than trying to tell jokes.

But a lot of time, in doing so, we forget to talk about alligators, one of the most well-worn improv tools. So I’ve compiled this handy (and exhaustively-researched) reference to the 55 classic scene initiations featuring alligators.

Feel free to use any or all of them, in any situation you encounter, as needed.

55 Classic Improv Scene Initiations Featuring Alligators

  1. “Jeremy, there’s an alligator in the kitchen, and I think you know why.”
  2. “Thanks for coming on such short notice, I know you’ve been dealing with an alligator problem.”
  3. “Well, I managed to pick up most of what was left of your alligator.”
  4. “Madam Windocker, are all these paintings of alligators?”
  5. “To be honest, no, this was my first time eating alligator.”
  6. “Gentlemen, I think you all know the esteemed Dr. Alligator.”
  7. “Alligator, alligator, alligator, crocodile, alligator…Hold on just a second!”
  8. “The crone waved her wrinkled fingers and then an alligator tail just started to…grow.”
  9. “I go to work, and clock in, and clock out, and every day I wonder if I was supposed to be an alligator instead.”
  10. “You’ve clamped down on my heart, Riley, like an alligator without a sense of personal boundaries.”
  11. “I’m afraid the alligator will have to wait outside.”
  12. “If we try to swim for it, the alligators will gorge themselves on two of us, but the rest are likely to make it.”
  13. “That alligator-skin clutch — why, that was Mom’s!”
  14. “Relax, Dennis. Be an alligator, floating in the reeds.”
  15. “You know I won’t rest until the partners of this firm make me Senior Alligator.”
  16. “Rutherford and I were just admiring your very old alligator.”
  17. “I’ve never seen a sexy alligator costume before, but you really pull it off!”
  18. “You and I are both crusty alligators in the big old swamp of humanity.”
  19. “Before we start…my safe word will be ‘alligator.’”
  20. “You can’t hide behind that alligator forever, Julius!”
  21. “My friends, you misunderstand! The most dangerous game is, in fact, alligator.”
  22. “Four score and seven years ago, our alligators brought forth on this alligator a new alligator.”
  23. “Is that an alligator on your shirt or are you just happy to see me?”
  24. “Actually I can say that, because my grandfather was one-eighth alligator.”
  25. “Let’s go, Alligators! Eat the other team!”
  26. “I made you a birthday cake, and of course, I shaped it like an alligator.”
  27. “Alligator, honey, baby, sweetie, they’re just bullies. You’re still my precious muffin.”
  28. “Sometimes I feel like you only love me for my alligator impression.”
  29. “And for my third wish, I wish everyone else on Earth was an alligator!”
  30. “I can’t believe that alligators made it to Mars before humans. Maybe it’s time to just give up.”
  31. “The new car? It’s OK, but it’s clear that the last owner was an alligator.”
  32. “Mr. President, the alligator will see you now.”
  33. “Get inside! The plague of alligators will start any minute!”
  34. “Wow, you really did have all your teeth replaced with alligator teeth.”
  35. “If you wade through a swamp, what do you expect? The alligators just let you pass?”
  36. “How many alligators does one person need, Barbara?”
  37. “Oh, I’m terribly sorry, I didn’t realize you were still in here with your alligator.”
  38. “Captain, the sonar blip appears to be an alligator.”
  39. “Becky, your father and I are concerned that you don’t realize you’re dating an alligator.”
  40. “Santa brought me a magic whistle that forces any hidden alligators to reveal themselves.”
  41. “Kensington, why aren’t you dressed yet? Put on your alligator suit!”
  42. “This neighborhood was great until the alligators started moving in.”
  43. “Everything in this meal was made from various disgusting parts of a single alligator, and let me tell you, it was a chore!”
  44. “Gerard, this is the third time this week you’ve shown up handcuffed to an alligator.”
  45. “That was me! I was the voice of the cartoon alligator!”
  46. “I want some alone time with you. Without the alligator.”
  47. “Please forgive my granddad. My family has always had a superstition about alligators.”
  48. “Wowza! I’ve seen alligators with better skin.”
  49. “Oh, no, I hope that alligator outside wasn’t yours.”
  50. “No, honey, those pants don’t make you look like an alligator at all!”
  51. “I’m worried that those fools are going to make that — that alligator the next Pope.”
  52. “Everything I have to say in this arbitration will be delivered via my alligator.”
  53. “Here’s your problem. You’ve got most of an alligator crammed in there!”
  54. “We don’t use polygraphs in this precinct. Bring in the alligator.”
  55. “Alligator Kaszmierski, private eye. I’ve been watching you from a half-submerged position.”

As a bonus exercise, you can also apply these lines to any randomly selected New Yorker cartoon.

IndieCade this weekend in L.A.! PLUS: Game Reviews from TableFlip

i knew about it before it was cade

This weekend I’ll be demoing Machine of Death: The Game of Creative Assassination at IndieCade in Los Angeles!

play dat game

IndieCade is a festival and showcase for independent video and tabletop games. I’m very happy to have been invited to show off MOD, and I’ll be doing my demos specifically on Saturday from 2-4pm and Sunday from 12-2pm, in the tabletop area which I assume will be clearly marked. (The game will be available in their onsite store the whole weekend long.)

Lots of other cool games will be doing demos as well! A few of them, actually, I played for the first time last weekend at the TableFlip conference in San Francisco.

At TableFlip, not only were there interesting people to talk to and a big pile of games to grab and try, the event’s speakers also each spotlighted a particular type of game in their respective talks, and then we got to play that game to learn more!

I myself gave a talk about story and theme, and how that relates to game design and player experience, and I challenged everyone to come up with ways to lay a theme onto the card game War, and by doing so change the rules to align more closely with the theme. It was a bit of an experiment but people seemed to have fun!

But here are the other games I played over the course of the weekend!

(All photos below this point that are not just the game box were taken by shellEProductions.)

oh so distant

A Distant Plain by Volko Ruhnke & Brian Train. Volko and Brian are experts in wargaming with a specific focus on counterinsurgency, or COIN. They’ve explored this COIN mechanic in several games, and this one in particular focuses on the (most recent) war in Afghanistan. Players control either the Afghan government, the US-led coalition forces, the Taliban, or the unaffiliated warlords, each struggling for control and influence.

Wargaming of this elaborately rendered sort is a means by which to explore the ideas and struggles behind these conflicts, not just pit armies against each other for fun. Volko & Brian’s talk focused on the challenges of building rule-based systems that attempt to accurately model the power dynamics and decision-making challenges in their respective real-world situations (their other games have focused on conflicts in Colombia, Cuba, and Vietnam, using the same core COIN mechanic).

I don’t have a lot of experience with this kind of wargame, but after about an hour with A Distant Plain I started to understand both how to play, and how difficult it is to win. I’m grateful for this event, and Volko & Brian’s presentation, because I probably never would have come across this game in my daily life! The COIN games are worth checking out if you’re interested in this type of extremely elaborate wargame. But then, if you are, you probably already know all about these titles!


Forbidden Desert by Matt Leacock. This is a followup to the cooperative escape game Forbidden Island, also by Matt Leacock (who also created Pandemic). I hadn’t played any of those until now! And now, I have played this one.

It’s the only game listed here that I played twice! Our group lost the first round and immediately set out to play again — winning the second round only by the skin of our teeth. In the game, the players are a group of explorers who have become stranded in a desert near the ruins of an old city. The challenge of the game is to excavate the ruins and locate pieces of a flying machine, with which to escape the desert…before the ever-worsening storm buries you in sand, or you run out of water in the growing heat.

The board is made of a series of tiles, which are randomized at the start of the game so you never know how easy or hard it’s going to be to find the various things you’re looking for. Each player’s character has special skills, and working together is key! A very fun game for a group.


Slap .45 by Max Temkin, et al. Max gave a talk about folk games and the power of playing in large groups, and this, like his other game Cards Against Humanity, is designed for a big group.

Players each control an Old West gang, and must try and be the last person standing by shooting other players using a slap-the-deck mechanic. It’s fast paced and probably best not played slightly crouched over a not-quite-tall-enough table. In the picture above, Brad O’Farrell (center) adjudicates the final standoff between myself and Kevin Cheng. Kevin, as you can see by his hand position, won.

oooh, aaah

Hanabi by Antoine Bauza. Hanabi is a beautiful card-matching game in which the players cooperate to build a collaborative fireworks display. The catch is that the players’ hands of cards face away from themselves, and the object of the game is to use limited rules of communication to try and tell the other players which cards they have, and therefore, which to play. It’s a deceptively simple game that is really quite challenging!

arrr me hearties

Scoundrels by Randy O’Connor. This was a game that Randy (just out of the picture, at left) was playtesting at the conference. He made it out of pieces from another pirate game, and added his own game map and swashbuckling cards. It’s a steal-the-loot, shoot-your-enemies game that’s pretty fun, made better by the fact that Randy himself made a last-move wager that lost him the game catastrophically, in a very dramatic turn of events. His website has an email list for updates once the game moves out of testing.

Guerilla Checkers by Brian Train. Brian (of the COIN games mentioned above) put his counterinsurgency expertise to work in this asymmetrical variant of checkers, in which one player controls a few big powerful pieces and the other player controls a swath of many smaller pieces. A very interesting spin on regular ol’ checkers. MAKES YA THINK A LI’L

hail to the chief

Mr. President: The Game of Campaign Politics by Jack Carmichael. One of the attendance perks of TableFlip was a “swag-bag” giveaway of old 3M “bookshelf series” games, including this 1967 political campaign game. I gave it a play and was surprised to find it pretty fun! There is some strategy in trying to outmaneuver your opponent for votes, and counting up the ballots at the end is a neat kind of nerve-racking.

It’s clear that this game is pre-Nixon and pre-Southern Strategy, as the manual asks whether you can break the Democratic stranglehold on the South, or the Republican grasp on California. The presidential candidate avatars that you can choose from are pretty cheesy 1960′s WASP men, so playing this game with a certain Mad Men-level of detached postmodern irony is possible as well.

BONUS GAME: An Account of Peter Coddle’s Visit to New York


Max Temkin showed off this amazing turn-of-the-century party game that I’d never seen before. It’s basically Mad Libs married to the improv game Blind Line — in other words, it’s Mad Libs except that you don’t make up the blanks in the story, but instead insert a random slip of prewritten text.


It’s not really a game — you can’t win or lose — but I love it anyway. It was reissued multiple times over the first few decades of the 20th century (with revisions, one wonders?). It’s the sort of thing that you can try to ape nowadays, but you’ll never, in the modern day, think to include a slip reading “A three-legged stove” or “A hod of coal”.

Copies, of course, are on eBay.

Or, randomly generate your own Peter Coddle story, thanks to the fine people at this website I just found via Google!


It’s probably too easy to say that the modern version of this game/activity/amusement would be putting Cards Against Humanity cards into a Mad Lib. Yet I find myself wondering if there is a better modern-day adaptation of this that could retain what to us, nowadays, reads as period charm. This was a very simplistic product, but was clearly extraordinarily popular. Probably because there was no way to mess it up?

Here’s my updated version of Peter Coddle’s Visit to New York: Take any article from the New York Times and replace every noun with the one immediately following it in the dictionary.

CUT TO A RAINY DAY AT GRANDMA’S HOUSE: I pull out the NYT and the Oxford Unabridged and the kids immediately vanish like cats who know they’re about to go to the vet

LAST DAY! Back the Puzzle, Get First Crack at Holiday Cards

It’s the last day to pre-order the Wondermark Jigsaw Puzzles! Update: The campaign’s over, hooray! Thank you so much to everyone who’s pre-ordered a puzzle (or a book, or a poster, because those are also available in this campaign, at discounted rates from their normal prices).

hey feral cat do you like having your picture taken

As we near the holiday season, I’m planning to make an all-new set of holiday-themed Multi-Purpose Greeting Cards, as well as a little mini-puzzle of my favorite Vine celebrity, Feral Cat.

All backers at any level are already going to get a free download of Feral Cat phone alert tones (and we’re very close to the stretch goal where every puzzle comes with a free emergency extra piece)!

But Kickstarter backers as a group will also get first crack at, and best prices on, this season’s new holiday cards…as well as the Feral Cat mini-puzzle.

It’s just a little “thanks” to backers for being rad! And if you haven’t yet, you have until 1pm Pacific time to become a backer (at any level).

Thanks so much to all who’ve chipped in, I can’t wait to make these puzzles!!


one of many

Wondermark’s Jigsaw Puzzles of Fictional Victorian Charts.
Ends October 9.

Video: Watch Chris Yates Make Sculptural Puzzles out of Wood

My friend Chris Yates is a master puzzlemaker! That sounds like some sort of official title conferred by an august, puzzly governing body of some sort, so I’m just going to assume that it is.

Yates likes purple

Yates like Ash

Chris makes original jigsaw puzzles out of wood, using a scroll saw! He’s made over three thousand individual puzzles over the past 10+ years.

In this video, I got him to show off how he does it.

There’s now less than a week left in the Wondermark Puzzles Kickstarter! We’ve done very well, with (as I write) nearly 400 dashing backers so far, all clearly personages of exquisite taste. I’m really excited to GET THESE PUZZLES MADE.

Chris, of the video above, is also offering some special PREMIUM TIER PUZZLES that he will uniquely hand-make for YOU, featuring your favorite Wondermark or Malki-in-General image!

With just a few days remaining, there are several of these premium spots still open, over on the Kickstarter page. If you would like a plaything that’s also a sculpture that’s also an art piece that’s also a brain-challenge that’s also a collectible that’s also a Wondermark thing, perhaps the premium puzzles may be of interest to you.

Whether or not you back the premium tier, I definitely recommend a click-spin through Chris’ online puzzle portfolio (and online store).

** 6 DAYS REMAIN ** to pre-order a puzzle!