Who is Northwest Smith?

Northwest Smith is an entirely fictional character, who often spends that leisure time not dedicated to his family playing a wide variety of games. Their reviews and related ephemera are displayed below.


From the Desk of N.W. Smith
Game Reviews and Views

07/07/05: Rails Across America is a fun game of building and managing railroad lines through much of North America (Canada, USA, and Mexico) from the early days of railroads in the 1840's to the near future (2040). It is well designed for solitaire play against up to 7 "robot" opponents, whose managerial styles can be set to mimic some of the "great" (i.e., ruthless rat-bastard) railroad men of the last two centuries; you can also set up multi-player games over the internet fairly easily. It comes with a variety of historic scenarios, plus several "what if" ones involving alternate outcomes of the Civil War, and the Mormons getting heavy into railroads before 1860's (My only real complaint is that the scenario builder doesn't let you do variants on these alternate-history games!)! You can also construct your own scenarios, playing with duration of the game, the amount of real-time that passes for each "year" of play, AI opponents, their starting cities and wealth, and other things that tweak the flavor of the game. But the best part of Rails is that you win by accumulated "prestige" with the public at large (calculated by balancing real accomplishments like building a trans-continental railroad against being caught acting like a ruthless rat-bastard), rather than just piling up money. It's also a "real-time" game: even if YOU aren't doing anything, your opponents ARE, and various crises, challenges, and oppurtunities are popping up (literally) as you try to keep things real with your own railroad: there are messages detailing publicly known and behind-the-boardrooms' events, mining and industrially interests springing up and looking for rail-service, labor disputes, price wars and price fixing, and advancing technology of rails, signals, and engines to deal with at all times.

Despite of all this complexity, though, I installed Rails on my computer, read the quick 6-page introduction section of the manual, and played an entire 30-year scenario in a little more than two hours, using much less than half of the various whistles and bells that come with the game to make it even more fun and interesting.

I am something of the fan of the early railroads, their "robber baron" bosses, the immigrants, roughnecks, idealists, and adventurers who surveyed and built them. There's a lot of debate about whether the savagely Darwinian struggle that created the rail-network during this "Guilded Age" was really necessary, and the game does allow you to be a ruthless rat-bastard--bribing, blackmailing, dry-gulching and playing fast and loose with your finances--or taking a much more ethical approach to the business, and anything in between. The scenarios I've played, I tried to stick to the latter as much as possible, and even against some truly cut-throat AI competition I managed to prosper beyond my wildest dreams of avarice, and sometimes actually win based on the Prestige Point system! I've also only recently begun using all the aforementioned whistles and bells that help give the game a great deal of tactical and strategic diversity. It also is a lot more historically accurate when you take advantage of this "chrome", particularly if you do a little research, base some of those Robber Barons in their original home-towns, and keep the bankruptcy rules "kinder and gentler" (seeing as bankruptcy never seemed to stop any of these guys back in the day). Fun and educational, particularly if you, like me, are a fan of the era! It seems to be out of print, but you can pick up copies in various degrees of cheapness and previous ownership on eBay.

06/23/05: If you ever wanted to form a band and try to become juke-box heroes, then Battle of the Bands should either help you vicariously live your dream . . . or realize you made the right choice becoming an accountant!

The rules for BOTB are simple enough to fit on two pages, but there's enough tactical finesse involved to provide many, many hours of play and laughter. In addition to band members with varying skills, you can glom on instruments, and play a variety of other cards that can help yourself, screw your neighbor, or both. Your short-term goal is to get a record deal, because then you can start releasing hit songs and building up your popularity. But the core throw-down for the game is to call a "Battle of the Bands", where fortunes can change at the drop of a card. Steal their instruments, sabotage their vans and speakers, inflict personal and psychological problems on their band-mates, or "spin" your own roster's hang-ups into fan-positive quirks (hey, let's face it: in rock, there's a fine line between being a "rebel" and being an "*ssh*le")!

The game is for two to four players, up to six or eight if you toss in the Backstage Pass expansion deck. It's definately a "more the merrier" game, though it can take up to an hour or more to play with a large group, and as little as twenty minutes with two or three players.

06/16/05: Pac-Man is twenty-five years old.

I clicked on the article at CNN, and when I saw the graphic to the right, I got hit with a big dose of nostalgia.

Back in 1980 when I was still in college, I was never much of a penny-arcade junkie. But I always enjoyed hanging out at the "game room" in the Student Center, either with friends or just to kill some time between classes or before doing a shift at the school's radio station. I remember the day they got their first Pac-Man machine in, it was the Friday of "road trip" weekend that semester, when most of the frat-boys on campus went on barbarian raids of the "Seven Sister" women's colleges in the area. Anandale was always quiet on those days, with non-Greeks usually going home or riding the Wolverine down to New York City, Newark, Philadelphia, or D.C. for the weekend. So I pretty much had the game-room to myself, something of a novelty on a late Friday afternoon, and was probably one of the first people to play the new Pac-Man machine.

In truth, I wasn't that impressed: I dutifully blew a dollar's worth of quarters, set the high score (the last time I'd do that on Pac-Man), got my name and score put up on the High-Score board by the room attendant, and walked over to play my favorite video-game at the time, Sea Wolf II. THAT I usually held the record on, but my arch-rival at the game had squeaked out a couple of hundred points more than I had a few days before, and it was time to re-assert my champion's status.

Sea Wolf II was pretty basic by today's standards: little video ships would cross along various horizontal lines towards the top of the screen, while you fired torpedoes at them more or less along the verticle, sighting through a periscope with a trigger-button in the handle. You had to "lead" the ships with your shots: if you sank them, you got points based on their size and speed. PT Boats, Aircraft Carriers, and Submarines got you the most points, though Subs varied depending on how submerged they were when you hit them: nail the conning tower, and it was 2000 points. The other trick was to string together as many hits as possible without a miss: nail at least four in a row, and you'd double the point total of the string you'd sunk. You only had about 60 seconds of play time for a quarter, but for every 10,000 points scored you'd get an extra 20 or 30 seconds of game-play.

I could get 30,000 points on Sea Wolf II easy, but the new record was just shy of 40,000. It took me a half a roll of quarters, but thanks to some dumb luck (I nailed two submarines conning towers in a string and a couple of frisky PT Boots while shooting at easier targets), I finally set the new high-score at well over 42,000. Flush with victory, I turned to beckon to the room attendant . . .

And there she was, playing pin-ball.

She was in the same graduating class as me. I knew her to look at her, not even a friend of a friend situation. She was majoring in theatre arts, a fine actress (she'd eventual do Shakespeare with Denzel Washington, be in the original off-Broadway run of Little Shop of Horrors and has been in various Law and Order episodes so much they should make her a recurring character) and dancer. She had the body for the latter: tall, slim but supple, and had a positively magnificent, stand-right-up-and-salute rump. She was standing there with her back to me, wearing a long-sleave t-shirt, four-inch high-heel sandals, and painted-on blue-jeans. And every-time she wanted to give a little "english" to that pin-ball machine, she swung her tightly-wrapped bottom to one side or another . . .

It was a religous experience. I'd still be staring in that direction today if the game-room attendant hadn't have yelled at me to come over and sign the High-Score book.