Saturday, April 5, 2014

An Awesome Budget Standing Desk


It's been six months since I built my standing desk, and I have to say: I'll never go back.  My latest setup is shown in the photo above.  The two photos that follow show the desk in various angles and stages.

I started with this design:


I modified it mostly for safety.  With all of my tweaks, I probably spent around $100 (not including the base Galant desk itself).  In the original design, I have no idea how they keep it from tipping over.  So, I built what's in that doc, but:
  • Used only bolts, no screws (other than for the keyboard tray).  The Lack table is hollow, so screws are not very secure.  Home Depot had bolts of a perfect length.  I recommend using washers to avoid crushing the Lack's hollow wood legs.
  • I bolted L brackets to the back legs to act as mount points.  
  • I used mini-vices to mount the brackets to the table. These are cheap at Home Depot. I think they look neat and they also act as additional cable management!
  • I padded all feet and brackets so as not to damage the table underneath (so it's a low commitment if you don't like it).  
  • I also used non-slip material between the padding and the desk, such that the combined effect is a stable, non-slip, quiet structure.
  • Later I added the second Lack table for another monitor. I didn't need to secure it, as it doesn't physically interact with anything else. 
  • Finally, I also added extra legs (not shown) to my Galant desk. The default Galant uses T-legs (seen below), which can rock when significant leverage is applied. You'd be surprised how much leverage you can generate while simply typing.  So I bought a couple of additional adjustable legs from Ikea (this links to chrome, I found them in a color that matched the Galant legs in the store).  I added them to the front of the desk. I didn't need to screw them in, as when tightened appropriately with some non-slip material between, the pressure holds them in place and keeps the desk from rocking and made everything more stable.  

I found that even the best commercial standing desks can suffer from "wobble". With this design, the key is to get monitors with really good stands -- preferably ones that adjust! The dual high-end BenQs shown in the top picture are excellent.  I suppose my reasoning is that if I'd rather spend $1000 on monitors than on a desk.

While standing, I wear Crocs (but never outside of my house).  I also have a balance board and a foam balance pad. I can easily swap between standing surfaces by kicking them out of the way.  Changing surfaces and footwear throughout the day is key to remaining comfortable. I also have a drafting chair, although I never really use it.  One of the most surprising things about switching to a standing desk is that I rarely have the desire to sit.

Pros: 
  • Cheap, cheap, cheap.
  • Totally customized for individual preferences.
  • Properly offset monitor and keyboard tray. Many retail standing desks center the keyboard tray relative to the center of the both monitors, which makes no sense. You want one monitor directly in front of you and the other off to the side (right or left). Google images for "standing desk dual monitors" to see some bad examples.  Here's an example of what you do NOT want:
  • Added bonus is that the 2nd level that the Lack desk creates above the keyboard tray is incredibly useful. I use it to hold my drawing tablet, as well as tea cups, pens, notepads etc.
  • Multi-level design. While the lack of adjustability is a con, it creates the opportunity to organize lots of stuff vertically. I have my laptop and a laser printer under the monitors, as well as a USB hub and all my cables etc.
Cons:
  • Not easily adjustable. I have two of those red shelves, so I can adjust 1cm up or down fairly easily. And my monitors have adjustable stands.  Otherwise I vary height by standing on different things (which is beneficial anyway).  However, if you share this desk or computer with someone else (who isn't a clone of you), then this becomes a major consideration. 
  • If you're taller than 5' 10", I don't recommend this design. I'm exactly 5' 10", and I think some of the design limitations of the parts used here would make it less ideal for taller people.
  • Finding a drafting chair that's tall enough. You need a surprisingly high chair to match the height of the desk. This is where adjustment would be beneficial. Although, shorter people will have a much easier time with this.   
  • Tweaking. I tweaked mine for a couple weeks after I built it. For example, I added the non-slip material to stop the legs from moving around etc. Minor, but worth noting.
  • For the first week or maybe two, you'll be sore and unconvinced that standing is a good thing. For me it was my trapezius and shoulders that needed to adjust to "not slouching" or "persistently shrugging" (check your shoulders right now, are they up around your ears?) :-)
Standing... but not still. Keep Active.

The key is to listen to your body, but don't give up on standing.  Find different footwear and standing surfaces that you can easily swap throughout the day.  And don't stand too still! Be active. The balance boards, pads and some music go a long way to keeping you moving throughout the day. Just like with sitting, be sure to take breaks, stretch out, watch your posture etc.

Another Con for Gamers:

This may be a minor point for some people, but if you use your computer for both work and gaming, you may find that standing has less appeal while playing many games. When you just want to chill out and play some Bioshock Infinite or Skyrim, you may find that you're less interested.  A primary contributing factor is that you could potentially end up standing for 18 hours... too much of a good thing. So if you have the space to have your gaming machine at a separate desk, I would recommend it. Luckily for League of Legends fans, I don't think you'll have a problem, because LoL is more like work than it is like gaming, so I've had no reduction in LoL time. This gaming factor may make a stronger case for a more expensive commercial power-adjustable desk.
Summary

Overall I'd say standing desks are worth it, regardless of which solution you choose. This is a cheap way to try it out before spending thousands on a big heavy piece of furniture. Currently I have no plans to "upgrade", but I'd say any such desk is worth the money. Just watch out for those commercial models with the keyboard tray centered between two monitors. That's a deal breaker IMHO.




Saturday, December 14, 2013

Fast-Play House Rules for Talisman

Talisman is one of my favorite board games. However, it is heavily criticized for being too heavily based on random chance (dice rolls) and it can be a bit of a grind.  These are not good qualities for any game, but somehow Talisman remains a popular title. It must be doing something right!

The great thing about Talisman is that it's fairly easy to adapt with house rules to make it both more strategic and faster to play. This works especially well with my younger boys (5, 7, 9), who all love the game. As much fun as we've had playing it, we rarely play through all the way to the crown of command.  Instead, we often end up deciding on some other goal, and now we've come up with a system that we think we'll use as our standard house rules for a relatively short game, that is still a lot of fun. It will quench your Talisman thirst while avoiding the grind.

Requirements
  • Talisman 4th Edition, Revised
  • Reaper Expansion -- this is a must for any Talisman owner.  The Reaper is cool, but the extra adventure cards and the Warlock quest cards are essential.
Reducing Randomness, Increase Strategy - but just a little!
  • As usual, a player may choose to spend a fate token to re-roll a move roll.  However, we've augmented this to allow the player to optionally choose to move one space instead of re-rolling (still at the cost of a fate token).  This helps to avoid having to bounce back and forth while you try to land on that one key spot. As long as you land within one space of your destination, you can be certain that at the very least, you'll get there on your next turn. This also makes fate tokens somewhat more valuable, and thus changes how quickly you might choose to spend them.
Winning the Game: Talismans, not Crowns

The game is called Talisman, but all a Talisman really does is gain you entry to the true goal: the Crown of Command. By far the most grinding part of the game is the Inner Region.  It's kind of a boring, serial trek through either tests of craft or tests of strength.  It's also possible for someone to really make you mad by stealing your Talisman at the last minute!

So we've decided to ignore the inner region altogether for fast-play games.  Instead we make the goal all about winning the most Talismans.  
  • Each player starts the game with one Warlock quest card.  To fulfill his quest, he must still report to the Warlock (middle region), at which point he gains a Talisman and another quest card.
    • There are four talisman cards available to be earned this way.  However, there are other ways these Talismans can be acquired, thus exhausting the pool faster.
    • A player who doesn't like his quest, or finds it too difficult, can head to the city to discard it to the bottom of the quest pile and draw a new random quest (like a town job board).
  • There are also 3 Talisman cards in the adventure deck (total of 7 Talisman cards), which makes it that much more interesting.
  • The game ends when the four specific Talisman cards are exhausted, regardless of whether or not any or all of the adventure deck talisman cards have been found.
  • The player with the most Talisman cards wins. In the event of a tie, you can either just call it a  draw, or continue to sudden death until someone either steals or wins a Talisman from another person, or draws a Talisman from the adventure deck.
The pace of the game seems really nice.  The strategy is interesting, as some characters will focus on completing quests, while others focus on either stealing or bullying Talismans away from other players. While you might think a class like the Thief could be over-powered, knowing this means that the Thief will likely be running for his life in the early game, as smart opponents will want him gone quickly!  This also means that a particular spell that steals an object (including a Talisman) from a player is not nearly as depressing as losing it while you're half-way to the Crown of Command.

Another interesting self-balancing aspect is that Talismans count as carried objects -- you can only have four.  If you've found yourself without a mule or any other means of augmenting your maximum carrying capacity, you might find that you have to make a critical decision to keep that fancy magic sword that makes you strong, or the Talisman that wins you the game!  So the greater success a player finds, the harder it may become to maintain that success.

We also found that the outer and middle regions are used much more, as we often found ourselves travelling back and forth between them, even at lower levels.  This doesn't happen as much in a regular Talisman game, as you typically don't seek the middle region until you intend to head for the Portal of Power.

Side Note: Those Cone Counters


The most annoying thing about the Revised 4th Edition of Talisman is the "cone counters".  These are the counters used to keep track of your Strength, Craft and Life points.  I find them hard to manage and deal with at a glance.  At a distance, one can easily mistake a 5-point cone with a 1-point cone.  Worse, the 1-point cones fit inside the 5-point cones, opening up the potential for accidentally hiding or granting an extra point if you're not careful.  

To remedy this, I bought 3 sets of 12 six-sided dice (with pips, not numbers).  There's one set for each of the colors green, red and blue, matching Life, Strength and Craft respectively.  These dice are far easier to manage than the tokens, they take up less space, and they're easily distinguishable from the gold dice that are used for regular rolling.  Check out the example image to see how much more clear the d6 approach is (see previous image for actual usage in the character card layout).

Overall these adjustments have given new life to Talisman in our house.  It's a much more fun and exciting game that eliminates the grind and gets to interesting action right away.

Cheers!
Clinton

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Pathfinder for Kids

When I tell people that I have 4 boys, the typical response is: “One more and you’ll have a hockey line-up.”  To which I will now respond: “Why bother with hockey, when I have an adequate adventure party: Fighter, Cleric, Rogue, Wizard.”  Besides, there are no rules for lockouts in any role-playing game that I know of!

20121128_161804Pathfinder is a tabletop role-playing game, much like Dungeons & Dragons, and in fact has its roots in the same rule set. If you’ve played any edition of Dungeons & Dragons, many concepts will be familiar to you, but specifically Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 are very similar.

It has been 20 years since I picked up a 20 sided die. As a kid I played various RPGs, and while I’m not an avid collector of “things”, the two collections my wife hasn’t been able to wrench from my grasp are my comic books and my RPG books (Palladium collection not shown here).

As you can see from the collection at left, there are some missing editions… I had never played D&D 3.0, 3.5 and having now researched 4E, I won’t play that either.  And yes, I have two copies of the Rules Cyclopedia, but only because I’m still kicking myself that I have no idea what I did with my original boxed sets (which no doubt would have been mint). :-(

The second I found Pathfinder, I was immediately grabbed by how clean and organized it was.  This was highly attractive to an OCD type-A personality like me! I started with the Beginner Box, both as a means of re-introducing myself to tabletop role-playing games, but also because it was an excellent value.

Games are no fun by yourself.

The primary reason I hadn’t picked up an RPG in so many years was that my circle of friends had all grown up, moved away (or I did) and finding the players and time to get organized is difficult in adult life, at least for me. So what better way to solve the problem than to make your own gaming party.  Humans have that feat. :-)

Rounding up, my boys are approximately 8, 6, 4 and 9 months. By my count, that’s 3 effective players. The back of the Beginner box says it’s for ages 13+, but I figure if my kids can beat Mario on the Wii without my help, they can handle this. And boy did they ever.  As a bonus, they live with me (at least for a few more years), and so the whole time and organization thing isn’t a problem.

imageLike many kids these days, mine have been a bit spoiled by electronics… Nintendo DS, iPads, Wii, Netflix etc.  It’s only by my fortune that I married a highly active and athletic wife who stays home with them and ensures that they get their daily dose of swimming, skating, basketball, cycling and various other physical activities. 

However, I was very happy to see that in recent months they’ve really taken a liking to board games.  At first a few kid board games were popular, but quite honestly they tired of them quickly (even kids Catan seems too balanced/normalized for them to have any true competitive fun).  Full blown, adult version Monopoly is currently the house favourite for all.

When I showed them Pathfinder, they were immediately drawn to it. And boy am I happy about that!

Introductions

If your kids are like mine, they don’t react well to pushing.  So had I come upstairs with a pile of stuff in my hands and said: “Come on kids, we’re going to play this new, highly complex game!!!”  I would have been met with a choir of “Nooooooooo.”  Instead, my kids need to be led… almost trolled into doing things that I know are good for them (although my example of eating vegetables still isn’t getting more veggies in their system).

Given the amount of preparation that Pathfinder takes, it was easy to create an environment of question.  Which leads us to the very first opportunity…

Drawing the map

imagePathfinder comes with a very nice premade map that is compatible with dry-erase markers.  But for me, that left little opportunity to pique the kids interest.  Plus… half the fun for the Game Master is the creation of the map.  At left is a recreation of the map that comes with the adventure included with the Beginner Box.

Drawing a map like this only takes an hour or two, and can easily be done while doing something else, like watching TV or enjoying music etc.  I prototype them on regular graph paper and archive them in a Moleskine squared notebook.  For the final product I use Crayola twistable, erasable, pencil crayons, a large squared easel pad, and a laminated/foam presentation board that it all folds up neatly in.

map drawingWhen the kids saw me drawing this map, they began to ask questions.  They became very interested in the idea of “making a game”.  And so for a week or so, that was the big thing.  They would draw out their maps on letter sized paper, and use Lego characters to run through them. I armed them with a six-sided die (d6) each to roll for movement. 

I was really blown away by their creativity and their interest. Of course what they had drawn wasn’t directly usable, but I told them I would take concepts from each of their maps and incorporate it into one big map.  During play they could recognize certain elements that they created, which was important to them in the end.

idea sheetThis raises the first key point: What you get out of Pathfinder (or any RPG) with young kids is more than the game itself.  Look for opportunities to involve them in the whole process and lifecycle of the game, not just the rolling.

Just in case it isn’t clear, this step spanned a couple of weeks.  We didn’t attempt to introduce the game, create maps, and play all in one day… far from it. This is a bit of a time investment, but well worth it.

You end up with awesome little artifacts that you’ll keep forever.

 

Pace

In a fast paced world of video games and Netflix, kids of this generation are not used to waiting for anything.  So drawing the map as you go is not an option.  That said, having the whole map revealed from the start is not an option either.  To deal with this I borrowed a concept from computer games like Baldur’s Gate and Warcraft called “fog of war”.

imageTo implement my fog of war I used black construction paper, which divides pretty evenly over the easel pad map.  As the kids adventure through, open doors, peek around corners, I can quickly reveal the new areas.

I’m sure it goes without saying that as far as the rest of the game goes, pace is prioritized above all else.  Skip rules, ignore rules, break rules, roll dice, hit stuff, find stuff, make decisions… whatever the case, keep the game moving.  Don’t pause to look something up.  Just make it up.  Look it up later and improve for the next time.

I sometimes used super-rolls to get outcomes quickly.  This is where if 4 monsters were attacking the party, I’d grab 4 d20s of various colors and roll for all 4 monsters at once.  Anything to keep the game rocking.

I would imagine that the best GMs of even adult centric games must prioritize pace pretty high (nobody likes “The Rules Guy” at the table anyway).

Physical Materials

Kids like “stuff”.  While kids have very active imaginations, little kids don’t often share their imagination well with others.  So you need real stuff to move around the map.  This is why the Beginner Box is such a great value.  It comes with about 100 tokens to move around the map, with great artwork.  The kids absolutely love it.  Even the youngest at age 4 (actually 3.9) easily handles movement mechanics of the game and likes exploring to see what’s around the next corner. 

While the Beginner Box alone will give you a lot of mileage at a very fair price, if you buy just one other thing, I recommend the Bestiary Box.  This brilliant product comes with about 300 more tokens in 3 creature appropriate sizes. This adds a ton of visual appeal to the game for the kids, and saves you from using Lego and dinosaur toys as monsters.

The kids like the dice too. I’ve read other posts about simplifying the game to the point where you only use d6, which to my mind is blasphemy!  The kids easily understand the dice and like the different kinds and in fact I think it helps them associate different dice for different things. The d20 is most commonly used for deciding outcomes, and the rest are largely for deciding effects, results and damage.

I think it works best to have separate dice for each kid.  Luckily I kept my dice over the years, and I have red, blue, white and black dice… enough for each.  I think they’re fairly cheap, so make the investment to avoid the dice grabbing.

Characters

imageFor our games, we currently use the pre-generated characters that come with the Beginner Box.  There are exactly four, which is convenient for me!

Kids easily relate to their token on the board, the picture, the fact that a fighter has a sword and the wizard has a staff.  They understand that some cast magic and some swing melee weapons.  They get that.  They understand position, movement, environment, danger and the “bad guys”.  So all of that can be left to them for the most part.  If you’re familiar with the Beginner Box, I was pleasantly surprised by some of their solutions for the “ruby fire trap” part of the map.  Kids really are a lot more capable than we give them credit for.

But of course, the character sheets are far beyond their capabilities. This means that the Game Master has a little more work to do.  It’s not terribly hard, it just takes a bit of energy and again: pace over all else.  I had to manage all of the character sheets (totalling 4) for the game.  It’s not super hard if you’re well prepared.  I spread I reserved half of the dining room table for the GM-zone, and the other half for the map (we’re blessed with a fairly large dining room table).  Updating hit points, crossing off spells and adding found treasure was fairly easy.  I didn’t even try to track XP and I pretty much left feats and special abilities out of the game. 

Character creation is largely out of the question from a stats perspective.  But like maps, the concept generation of the character is easily within the grasp of any young child.  Ask them what kind of character they want to be, and their imaginations run wild with hybrids of all of their favourite characters from Ninjago to Kung-Fu Panda to He-Man (if you have done your duty and ensured that your kids have watched all the retro cartoons from the 80s).  You can take these concepts, roll up a character and have it ready for the next game. 

I’ve toyed with the idea of making a ridiculously simple character sheet so that the kids can at least keep track of their hit points and perhaps a few other things.

Gameplay

imageBe sure to set everything up before calling the kids to the table to play.  Although, once they get into it, it will be hard to stop them from gathering immediately. It will take me some practice to set up quickly enough for their satisfaction. 

To complete a map like the one above, it took us about 2 hours, maybe 2.5.  If you keep the pace up, it goes by very quickly.  The kids mostly focus on movement, discovery, combat and gathering stuff. It’s absolutely hilarious how brothers will fight over who gets the totally imaginary gold – they really get into it!

Without a doubt, the younger ones will have a tougher time.  But having more than one kid helps a great deal.  Jack, our 3.9 year old, probably couldn’t follow as well as I thought he did.  But seeing his brothers at the table, rolling, playing and having fun, was really the draw for him.  Luckily his big brothers were usually helpful in that they’d cheer him on: “c’mon Jack, heal Myles before that Orc gets him!” And yes of course we made the youngest one be the party’s healing biatch! Truthfully, Pathfinder Clerics are quite awesome. No, really.

Be sure to take breaks when necessary.  We keep a supply of drinks and snacks nearby (not on the table to avoid a disastrous flood and many dead cardboard characters). Kids do best when they don’t get too worn out.

And if it’s time to stop… then stop. Modern technology makes it very easy to snap a photo of your game map and positions, roll it all up and put it away for another day. I’ve been lucky that my kids seem to be able to hold out for the full 2 – 2.5 hours, and that includes Myles who has mild ADD.

Find your pace and your capacity for your own kids and yourself.  The only rule is: have fun.

Enlist help

Having one other adult makes a huge difference.  I recently had the opportunity to play with all the kids, as well as my sister.  Having her manage the character sheets for the party was a major upgrade to the game, primarily for the Game Master. I was able to focus on the story, the map, the NPCs etc. 

I was also able to make the story and challenge a bit more deep and complex, because one adult can really lead the group of kids through decisions and discussion.

It was also simply fantastic to play with my sister! She and I used to play board games and Magic the Gathering, but we shared few other hobbies together (she’s 11 years younger than me).  This was probably the first time in a decade that we actually shared a hobby in common (especially since I gave her all my MtG cards and she won’t give them back). It was nostalgic and absolutely amazing.  It’s too bad we found it so late and that she lives in Victoria.  But no matter, we’ll be sure to find the time every time she visits!

Summary

There’s no way to summarize this in any way that would do it justice.  Like anything, you get out of it what you put in.  What I discovered was a great new way to pass the cold winter months with my family (although this is also the year I’m supposed to teach them to ski).  It surpassed all of my expectations from their interest level to the quality of the family time.

Dungeons & Dragons has long been the domain of the nerds and geeks.  Well, guess what? We’ve grown up, and we’ve spawned. And now that Pathfinder is here, it’s time to pass the torch on to the next generation, so that they too can navigate the dungeon of life!

Hmm… that didn’t sound like the positive ending I wanted.  How about so that they might defeat the dragon of life!

Meh.  How about a shopping list for those who want to try it out? :-)

Shopping List

Necessities:

  • Beginner Box – this really is all you need.  You can buy it on Amazon or Indigo for about $35.

If you want to draw your own maps to play on:

  • Squared Easel Pad (Staples)
  • Crayola twistable, erasable, pencil crayons (hard to find, but Wal-Mart has them, when all else fails, Amazon)
  • (Optional) Large foam/laminate presentation board – easel pads are hard to store unless you actually have an easel.  I accidentally discovered that these large foam padded laminated sort of presentation boards just happen to be exactly the right size to allow an easel pad to store inside of it when it’s all folded up.  Test it out at Staples to ensure proper fit (it’s tight, but it stretches/loosens to fit)
  • 8.5x11 graph paper pad for mocking up your maps. (Staples or anywhere)
  • About 12 sheets of black construction paper for a fog of war
  • A bunch of clicky pencils (0.5mm works best on character sheets, but 0.7mm works best for map drawing/mocking)

Really, really nice-to-have:

  • A separate set of dice for each player (different colors work best)
  • Bestiary Box
  • Bestiary Reference (Book) – the key here is that it has larger pictures of the monsters.  Kids are really visual.  While the little cardboard tokens do have fabulous art, it’s nice to have a larger picture. And for the GM, it’s great to have the background and stats for the monsters too.  But see the next point regarding books as references …
  • Android tablet with the Masterworks Tools Pathfinder Open Reference app.  During the game, there will be no time for flipping through pages of the any reference manuals.  Have the Bestiary for the pictures for sure (use post-its to bookmark the pages).  But this this android app gives you the quickest, instant, searchable access to all rules, creatures, equipment, spells….etc.  About 6 books worth.  Incredible. It’s probably available on iOS too.
  • NPC Codex box… when it comes out (March 2013?).  Like the Bestiary Box, but has “people” and characters that you can make a part of your party, or that the group can encounter in their adventure.

As you advance:

  • The Core Rulebook – You really won’t need this for a while.  It’s a massive tome, and I hope they split it into two (or eight) at some point.  I think everyone should buy it as a token of appreciation to Paizo for making such an awesome game.
  • Adventure Paths / Campaign settings etc…. These will become critical someday, but for kids, there probably aren’t any appropriate for the style, pace and depth of play for kids.
  • Many, many other rule and reference books.  As you advance and the kids get older, you can make the game as complex as you want.  Or not… I’m having tons of fun with the most basic form of play.

Happy gaming!