Exceptional Letterpress Strategy

There are numerous strategies (or “tactics” or “rules,” whatever) that can help you win Letterpress games. I wrote an article, previously posted here, detailing several such guidelines.

Once you begin to master these guidelines, the next step is to realize that there are situations where the winning approach is to ignore the conventional wisdom and make an exception to the rule.

In this article, I explore three such exceptions.

Get off the “see-saw”

In games between closely-matched opponents, the mid-game often boils down to a swinging back and forth, where the overall position remains largely unchanged. Typically, there is a “neutral zone” line of squares dividing two areas of the board, each area largely controlled by one of the opponents.

Both players naturally go after the neutral zone squares. However, as these letters are adjacent to the opposite player’s protected squares[*] and/or to unclaimed squares, there is no way either player can protect them. This means each player will, if possible, retake the lost squares on his next turn. That’s what makes it a neutral zone. Nothing much changes over a series of turns. Metaphorically, it’s like being on a see-saw.

Game 1

A good example of a see-saw situation can be seen in the game depicted in Figure 1. To replay the entire game, click here.

Figure 1: By playing JUMPSUITS, I got off the see-saw.

After coming up with SURVIVALISTS for my third move, I thought I had the game just about won. However, one obstacle remained. The JPF squares in the lower-right corner remained a “third-rail.” Neither of us could safely touch them. This was because: (1) there was no single word that contained all three letters and (2) playing a word that contained just one or two of the letters would allow the other player to take the remaining unclaimed square(s) and almost certainly win the game.

So, instead, we went into see-saw mode. We eventually focused on a neutral zone consisting of a vertical line of squares containing RSPTU, plus the I and the S in the last two columns. You can clearly see the see-saw effect in the sequence from UPSTIRS to PLURALISTS shown in the first three panels of Figure 1.

There are two ways to successfully get off these see-saws.

The first and more common way is to outlast your opponent. This means that you are able to come up with one more “neutral zone” word than your opponent. Once your opponent fails to match you (and thus leaves one or more neutral zone squares untouched), you take advantage by expanding your territory in the newly accessible area. Eventually, you hope to gain enough territory that you can comfortably take “third rail” letters and close out the game with an easy win. Even one misstep may be sufficient to lead to a loss; two missteps are almost certainly fatal.

This is the “conventional wisdom” strategy because it is a “safe” one in the short term: you maintain the status quo while waiting for a sure advantage. However, it contains a long-term risk: you may be the one who runs out of words first, ceding the advantage to your opponent. Since you usually can’t tell in advance which way things will go in the end, it is functionally akin to a toin-coss. Heads you win, tails your opponent wins.

I prefer better odds. That’s why, in these situations, I am always scanning for the second way to successfully get off the see-saw: Rather than wait to see who runs out of words first, be pre-emptive. Play a word that contains one or more of the “third-rail” letters and yet guarantees a quick win. The key here is knowing when this is likely to succeed.

In this game, my pre-emptive word was JUMPSUITS. This word claimed the “third-rail” J, as seen in the final panel of Figure 1. After a conventional response from my opponent, I could play a word such as SPIRITFUL on my next turn and win the game. My only concern was whether or not I would get a “next turn.” The risk here is that my opponent might come up with a word that included P and F, plus sufficient other squares, to give him an instant win. Either way, the game was going to end on the next round of play. The see-saw ride was over.

For those of you familiar with the game of Hearts, I consider this pre-emptive strategy to be somewhat similar to “shooting the moon.” If it works, you win spectacularly. If not, you lose spectacularly. That’s why you want to be confident the move will succeed before embarking down this path. However, your confidence need not reach 100% certainty to justify taking the risk — which means you may lose on occasion.

In Letterpress, before I make a pre-emptive move, I test out all the possibly dangerous return words I can think of that my opponent might play…and count out the resulting score. If any word gets him to 13-12 or better win, I abandon the move. Such an analysis can take a good deal of time, and there’s no guarantee that you will find every relevant word. You just do the best you can.

In this game, after my opponent played PLURALISTS, I looked at playing JUMPSUITS and searched for any words that my opponent could reply and get a win. I could not find any. So I went for it. It paid off. My opponent played SPIRITFUL. Close, but no cigar. He ended the game — but I still won with a score of 13-12!

Game 2

Another good example of this technique can be seen in the game depicted in Figure 2. To replay the entire game, click here.

Figure 2: By playing GRUMPILY, I got off the see-saw.

After playing MATERIALIZING on my second turn, the game had already advanced to the point that the only remaining unclaimed letters were the middle PZW squares. However, these were now “third-rail” squares. For the next several turns, neither of us would risk claiming any of them. Instead, we focused on a neutral zone that consisted of the ring of squares that surrounded these three letters. [As an aside, I did not mean to play RHYTHMIZES when I did, but that’s a story for another day.]

After I played THERMALIZING, my opponent responded with FRAGMENTARILY. Despite being a 13-letter word, it actually hurt his position overall — by leaving the H as blue. The safe move here would have been for me to respond with a word like LADYFINGERS, reclaiming all the neutral zone squares (except for the M in this case) plus extending my position by turning the now exposed G in the top row to blue. However, this would not tilt the game decisively in my favor. A prolonged battle remained likely.

So, after careful consideration, I instead chose to “shoot the moon.” I played GRUMPILY, claiming the third-rail P (as seen in the third panel of Figure 2). This also turned both the G and the U in the upper right corner to blue, as well as newly protecting the R and the H squares, leaving me with nine (9) protected squares.

I knew I could win on the next turn with any of several words that contained Z and W. Would I get that chance? Not exactly. But again it didn’t matter. Similar to Game 1, my opponent, realizing his hopeless position, fell on his sword by playing TWIZZLING. This ended the game but still left me with a 13-12 win.

Game 3

As I said, even after a thorough analysis of the position, you can still lose by going for the pre-emptive move. This happened to me in the game depicted in Figure 3. To replay the entire game, click here.

Figure 3: By playing DISHEVELED, I got off the see-saw — and was sorry I did.

After my opponent played BLEACHINGS, I believed I would have won the game by playing BEKNIGHTED. However, I didn’t see this word until after I played BLIGHTED. This led to a see-sawing over the next several turns, involving the vertical column of GDWIS, with some looseness for control of the D and W.

When my opponent played HEADWINDS, it was the first time in this sequence that he allowed the G at the top of the second column to remain blue after his turn. This gave me what looked like a potential opening for a quick pre-emptive win.

I did consider the “conventional” safe moves of either SANDWICHED or BANDWIDTHS. As things turned out, I wish I had played one of those words. Even though this would have maintained the see-saw, I stood a good chance to win in the end.

But I did not know how things would turn out. So I instead played DISHEVELED, finally claiming the V, one of the 4 “third-rail” letters. I had spent a good deal of time checking out the consequences of words my opponent might play. None of them led to a victory for him. However, my opponent surprised me with BACKFLIPPED, a word I had not considered. It gave him a 13-12 win. It might be the only word in the dictionary that allowed him to win. But that’s the way it goes. I still think it was worth the risk.

Despite the occasional loss, I consider the pre-emptive strategy to be one of the most important weapons in my arsenal. You won’t always have an opportunity to use it. You certainly don’t want to take such moves recklessly. But I’ve found that good opportunities come up quite often in these see-saw situations. And when you do take the risk, and it works out like you hoped, it’s a great way to win. It will certainly surprise your opponents.

Win with one corner

Conventional wisdom, as covered in my previous article, says that protecting a corner is a good thing. I obviously agree. If protecting one corner is good, it should follow that gaining possession of more than one corner is even better. Generally, this too is true.

However, the quality of a protected corner position also matters. A strong corner position is one in which you have several, say as many as 7 or 8, connected squares extending out from the corner, at least three of which are protected. A weak corner position is where you only have 1 or 2 protected squares, usually one being the corner square itself, with little or no extension.

This leads to the exception to the “rule” about corners: Possessing one strong corner can often be superior to having control of two or even three weak corners. On the surface, this might seem fairly obvious. However, you may be surprised by the extent to which this logic can apply. Sometimes, even a single fairly weak corner can be sufficient to win a game.

As an example, look again at the game depicted in Figure 3. For most of the game, I had possession of two corners, a strong one in the lower right and a weak one in the upper left. The corner in the upper left may have been weak but it was critical. If I let it go, my opponent would likely quickly gain control of the entire left side of the board and march to an easy victory. In contrast, my opponent possessed only one corner, the lower left.

By playing DISHEVELED, I gained a foothold in the upper right, giving me a degree of control in a third corner. Meanwhile, my opponent seemed to be struggling to maintain his lone corner. And yet…with his next move, my opponent went on to win the game!

Pass up a corner

Your opponent goes first and protects a corner. Now it’s your move. As I covered in my prior article, ideally you want to both weaken your opponent’s corner and establish at least one corner of your own. However, this is not always possible. Sometimes, you have to choose between these two goals. When this happens, the question becomes: which goal to pursue first?

The conventional wisdom is to prefer to set up your own corner first. I agree. The rationale is that, if all you do is weaken your opponent’s position, he can often undo your damage as well as expand his advantage on his next turn. You wind up worse off than before your move. At least, if you protect a corner, it cannot be entirely undone by your opponent in one turn.

Once again, however, there are exceptions. If it looks like, left unchecked, your opponent can quickly gain an insurmountable advantage, you need to go after his corner. Occasionally, the rationale may be more subtle. For example, take a look at the game depicted in Figure 4. To replay the entire game, click here.

Figure 4: For my first move, I decided to attack my opponent’s position rather than establish a corner of my own.

After my opponent opened with JAUNTY, I could have responded by taking the lower left corner with WANTONLY. However, this fails to touch his upper right corner. Alternatively, I could play JUNKET and dismantle his corner, but fail to establish a corner of my own. I couldn’t find a word that accomplished both goals. Which to do? In this case, I went against the conventional wisdom and opted for JUNKET.

Why? Because I knew that by playing a word with a J, my opponent would similarly have to follow with a J-word — if he wanted to continue to protect his corner. As far as I could tell, there weren’t any J-words that would allow him to improve his position significantly. So I felt safe in not establishing my own corner immediately. After he played GLUTTONY, abandoning taking a J-word, I finally took the corner with WANTONLY.

Bottom line

The “conventional wisdom” move is the one you should usually take — almost by definition. However, the common thread in all of the above games is that the best moves were ones that did not follow the conventional wisdom. The specifics of a given board position will determine when the time is ripe to make an exception. Your goal is to always be on the look-out for these “exceptional” positions. If you can reliably spot them, and take the appropriate action, you are certain to increase your winning percentage.

—————

* The term “protecting” means surrounding a square with other squares of the same color so that the square turns the darker shade. This means its blue/red color cannot change on the next turn. “Protecting a corner” or “establishing a corner” means protecting a corner square. A typical strategy is to expand this corner base, on subsequent turns, by protecting adjacent squares.

[Update: Several minor changes, for clarity, have been made since the article was first posted earlier today.]

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PCWorld print is gone; Macworld print survives — for how long?

Earlier this month, PCWorld announced that is would be ceasing publication of its print edition. Going forward, it will be digital only.

This marks the end of an era. As of August, there will be no major general-interest print magazines covering PC/Windows machines. The reason behind this is obvious. As detailed in an excellent analysis by Harry McCracken, web-based media have decimated the demand for print media in almost every category — but especially in areas where readers are most likely to be web-savvy, such as computing.

[Addendum: MaximumPC remains as a print PC publication. Although not nearly as big a presence as PCWorld, it is still sold in stores and via subscription.]

What is a bit surprising — not to mention ironic — is that PCWorld’s sister publication, Macworld, continues to survive in both print and web formats. In fact, there are two surviving mainstream Mac print publications: Macworld and MacLife. Especially when you consider that there are many more PC users out there than Mac users, how does one explain this?

As I am not privy to the financial details of these publications, I can’t provide answers from an accountant’s point of view. However, I can make some reasonable assessments based on a consumer’s view of the market.

One answer is that more narrowly-focused “hobbyist” and “professional” magazines remain on the shelves, while general interest ones fade away. That’s why, for example, there are still print versions of magazines devoted to Photoshop, even though there are certainly less Photoshop users than PC or Mac users overall. These magazines survive because, despite their smaller base, users remain sufficiently enthusiastic and motivated to keep the print versions alive.

Mac users remain a part of this “enthusiastic” category, helping to keep Mac print magazines afloat. The “Mac” magazines get a further boost from the fact that they also heavily cover iPhones and iPads, products that generate more interest than Macs these days.

In contrast, PCs have become commodities, almost like kitchen appliances. You don’t see RefrigeratorWorld on the newsstands. And with good reason. You buy a refrigerator and expect it to work. That’s it. There’s no reason to seek out a monthly magazine detailing surprising things you can do with your refrigerator. And you certainly don’t see magazines devoted to a specific brand of appliance. There is no KitchenAidWorld. PCs have become like this. This is especially so in the corporate world, where PCs continue to dominate. Many employees do not use a PC by choice, but simply because that’s what their employers gave them. They use it to get their job done and don’t give it further thought. I suspect many of them go home and grab an iPad.

Making matters worse, Microsoft’s foray into hardware, the Surface, has been a major bust. And Windows 8 has received an overall unfavorable response from the PC community, with many users staying with an OS as old as Windows XP rather than updating.

In contrast, Apple is still capable of generating excitement with hardware products like the MacBook Air and the forthcoming Mac Pro. Even updates to software, such as OS X Mavericks, attract considerable attention and generate high upgrade rates. This all translates into a sustained interest in magazines, even print versions, about Apple products.

The irony here is that, while the success of Windows almost terminated Apple back in the 1990’s, it is Apple that appears in the stronger position today.

Does this mean that the print editions of Macworld and MacLife have a rosy future? I seriously doubt it.

Despite Macworld’s print survival, its overall page count and number of advertisements are way down from what they were in the heyday of the publication. I’m guessing that the base of users who still prefer a print copy trend towards the less tech-savvy end of the spectrum — as the rest of Macworld’s audience has moved exclusively to the web version. I can only see this print audience diminishing over time. The push to the web gets a further boost from the fact that the web version is free. You still have to pay for a print subscription.

Personally, I still like the print copy for catching up on occasional articles I missed online. But I refer to the print copy less and less each month; I know the day is coming when I will give up on it altogether.

As for MacLife, I confess to being surprised that this magazine is still afloat. When it transitioned from MacAddict several years ago, I expected that its days were numbered. Yet it somehow continues to chug along.

Regardless, the logistics against print publications remain too strong a tide for these magazines, or almost any magazine really, to resist indefinitely. I’m glad that print copies of Mac magazines still remain on the shelves. I will be sad, but certainly not shocked, when they are no longer there.

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Apple’s pointless WWDC NDA

What happens at WWDC, stays at WWDC. At least that’s what Apple warns its attendees.

Prominently displayed at several locations in Moscone Center during WWDC week were signs stating in no uncertain terms that all sessions, labs and everything else at WWDC — with the exception of the keynote — were confidential. Attendees were bound by an non-disclosure agreement (NDA) to say nothing publicly about any of it. Not to a reporter. Not in a blog. Not on a cloud. Not in a fog.

At first blush, this seems quite reasonable. Apple’s WWDC sessions and labs go into unpublished and publicly unannounced details about the workings of its future products. This year, this meant primarily iOS 7 and OS X 10.9 Mavericks. Apple provides this information to developers so that they can update their apps in time for the release of the forthcoming OS versions. For everyone else, Apple wants the information to remain confidential — until the release date of the software.

That would all be fine except for one thing. The supposed confidential information isn’t confidential. Apple makes it freely available to everyone. And I mean everyone.

Yes, you too can access all the videos from the WWDC sessions as well as all other pre-release developer documentation. All you need to do is register as an Apple developer. There are no prerequisites, no qualifications and no cost for obtaining this status.

If you are willing to spend $99 to join a developer program, you additionally get access to beta versions of upcoming software. Again, anyone with $99 can do this. Journalists, bloggers, even engineers from competing companies. There are no restrictions.

So what’s the point of holding developers to an NDA for this material? If everyone on Earth can obtain the information, with Apple’s permission, in what sense does it make sense to call it “confidential”? As far as I can tell, the answer is “in no sense.”

Okay, I can see one potential basis for a legitimate case here. While anyone can legally acquire Apple’s confidential information by becoming a developer, they remain restricted from writing or talking about it. This, in theory, limits the public distribution of the information. As most people will never bother to register as a developer, most people would never find out about the NDA-restricted material.

The problem with this case is that it doesn’t work in reality. Once non-developers get access to the information, often by registering to be a developer, at least some of them wind up writing about it or telling others who then write about it — NDA or not. And the rest of the media wind up linking to those articles. In the end, everyone winds up with access to the supposed confidential everyone.

Perhaps if Apple threatened or carried out legal actions against such violations, people under the NDA would be reluctant to make these disclosures. This hasn’t happened, at least not in many years. Without even a half-hearted pretense of such a threat, the NDA has no teeth. While many developers may honor it, the information leaks out anyway. So, again I ask, what’s the point?

Perhaps you’re thinking: Apple may be protecting confidential information that can get exchanged between Apple employees and developers during WWDC. Doubtful. Apple employees are well trained to know what they can and cannot say. It would be rare for an Apple employee to spill the beans on anything Apple really wanted kept secret.

Making things more difficult, there is often a blurry line between what is okay to talk about, because it was covered in the keynote or on Apple webpages that preview forthcoming products, and what is not okay.

Even the OS beta software is hardly kept under wraps. Apple actually provides the beta software to selected media. For example, you may have noticed that Macworld is running a series of “Hands on with Mavericks” articles by Jason Snell. Snell is using a beta copy of Mavericks that Apple provided without any NDA or other restrictions attached. This permission was presumably granted because Apple recognizes that it gets more benefit from the free publicity than it risks harm from the information being exposed.

Once Macworld (and similarly Apple-favored sites) can write about working with these beta versions, the cat is certainly out of the bag. I see no point in Apple maintaining NDA restrictions for “the rest of us.”

Bottom line

I’m not saying that all Apple confidentiality restrictions should be eliminated. There are times when they are appropriate. For example, in the months prior to WWDC, Apple seeded a few Mac Pros to developers for testing. These people were under an NDA not to reveal anything about these machines. Totally understandable. And the NDA worked, primarily because very few people had such access — and  because I’m sure Apple made it clear that there would be serious sanctions for violations.

Apple’s general restrictions surrounding material released at WWDC, however, have become almost meaningless. Really, the same can be said about any information that can be accessed simply by registering for free developer status — as well as for beta OS software. Maybe there was a time, years ago, when these restrictions made sense. That time has passed.

Apple is already unofficially behaving as if the NDA hardly matters here. The end result is about the same as if Apple abandoned these restrictions. About the same that is for everyone except the people caught in the middle — the developers and journalists who want to do the “right” thing even when it seems as if everyone else, including Apple, does not care.

I am not optimistic that Apple will change its official policies any time soon. Secrecy is so much a part of Apple’s DNA that I imagine it’s very hard for them to pivot on this matter. Still, this year’s WWDC announcements remind us that Apple retains the capacity to surprise us with big changes. So I maintain a glimmer of hope that Apple may eventually drop, or at least significantly curtail, these unenforced and largely unnecessary NDA restrictions.

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Apple’s not-so-secret iOS game controller strategy

One of the more intriguing revelations from Apple’s recent WWDC was that iOS 7 will ship with support for physical game controllers, much like the ones that now come with game consoles from the likes of Nintendo, Microsoft and Sony. While this nugget was barely mentioned during the keynote, its ripple effects may be huge — as I’ll get to shortly.

But before getting there, I want to explore what initially struck me as two likely obstacles in the way of success for iOS game controllers.

Touch vs. controller

First, iOS is all about a touch interface. Touching the screen is the main way, almost the only way, you interact with an iPhone or iPad. With a game controller in your hands, you won’t be touching the screen at all — at least not during game play. As such, the game controller is in conflict with a core property of iOS devices.

The same can be said, I suppose, about physical keyboards for iOS. Yet they have proven to be a popular peripheral. However, with keyboards, there is a direct translation of the actions taken: you can almost seamlessly switch back and forth between the two types of keyboard inputs without needing any significant relearning of how things work.

With most iOS games, especially ones that depend heavily on touch actions for game play, shifting to a game controller will likely require a significant amount of work, both for the game developer to modify the code and for the user to learn a different way to play.

In many cases, I expect such efforts will get “lost in translation.” One example of this is the mega-popular Angry Birds. There is a Mac version of the iOS game; you play it mainly using a trackpad or mouse as an input device. While not identical, this is similar to shifting to a game controller. No matter how many times I’ve tried, the Mac version never comes close to matching the simple intuitive experience of playing the game on an iOS device. To put it bluntly, Angry Birds on a Mac is a dud. As such, I do not look forward to a game controller version of Angry Birds.

On the other hand, the best candidates for conversion to a game controller are games that already work via a virtual version of such a controller, such as car racing games and many shooter games. Here, at least, I can see physical controllers having success. They may actually improve the game experience, as your fingers will not get in the way of seeing what’s on the screen.

Small vs. large

Even without the touch obstacle, there remains a second notable problem: size.

A typical game controller is at least the same size as an iPhone or iPod touch, usually larger. It strikes me as awkward to have a game display be significantly smaller than the controller you’re holding. There’s also the matter of convenience. Will iPod touch owners want to carry a game controller in their pocket, ready to pull out whenever they wish to play a game? I don’t think so. Doing so significantly lessens the appeal of the iPod touch as an on-the-go gaming device.

The iPad is a better match for a game controller here, but is not completely immune to these size problems.

Wait! There’s another iOS device…

Given these obstacles, it seemed to me that the potential market for iOS game controllers was a limited one at best. I’m confident that Apple is aware of all these considerations. Yet, they appear unconcerned. Why? With a bit more thought, the likely answer hit me…

There is another iOS device, beyond the iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch. It’s the Apple TV (ATV). Despite running on a variation of iOS, ATV doesn’t use a touch interface and it typically connects to large displays. In other words, ATV circumvents the very problems I’ve described here, making it a perfect candidate for working with a game controller.

Recall that earlier this year, Apple enabled Bluetooth keyboards to work with ATV. This dovetails nicely with forthcoming Bluetooth game controllers that would similarly work with ATV.

The final piece needed to make all of this fit together would be a separate Apple TV App Store, accessible from the ATV itself. From here, you could purchase games specifically designed to work with ATV and its non-touch interface. My Macworld colleague, Dan Frakes, came to a similar conclusion, as we tweeted a couple of weeks ago.

An Apple TV App Store might additionally include apps beyond games, such as TV network apps. This would allow users to add channels such as HBO GO without having to depend on Apple updating the ATV iOS to do so.

An Apple TV, combined with a game controller and an App Store, would quickly emerge as a serious contender for the top of the heap of game consoles. A recent article expanded on this theme, exactly predicting that “Apple TV will…dominate the console gaming market.” (Thanks to The Loop for pointing me to this article.)

I do see at least one obstacle for ATV to overcome: storage. Unlike iPhones, iPod touches, and iPads, there is no user-accessible internal storage in an Apple TV. So where will users save all the apps that they purchase and presumably download? Will Apple release a new ATV model, one that includes user-accessible space on an SSD? Will an ATV App Store only work with these latest devices? Or will Apple find some way, possibly via iCloud streaming, to make the system work with existing ATV’s?

I don’t know the answer. But I strongly suspect that Apple already has one. When iOS 7 gets released this fall, I predict that Apple will simultaneously announce a modified (either via hardware or software, or both) Apple TV as a primary target for game controller support.

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