Jun 05

New sketchwork

There’s two pieces of music that I have on the brain right now to complete by the beginning of 2018, and I thought i’d write down some initial brainstorm thoughts that I’ve had with them.

First, one of my marching band students has asked me to write a piece for his senior trumpet recital. After a brief discussion about ideas, I decided to write it as an interactive piece using Max, which has gotten me down the path of re-learning and doing a lot of Max programming (because apparently I can’t make things easy for myself even if i tried). I’m not as familiar with MSP as I should be, but hopefully this will graduate me from beginner to competent amateur.

Right now I’m conceiving of the piece as being done in four movements, all of which play with a different concept of time. The first movement will be about the trumpet playing some passages that will then get echoed back and potentially manipulated, representing the trumpet playing from the “past” being used with current material. The second movement will be about the trumpet playing passages that has chordal movement in live unison, representing the trumpet playing from the “present” being used with the current material. The third movement will be about the trumpet playing passages that it hears from Max first, representing the idea that those passages are grabbing trumpet playing from “future” passages. The fourth movement will pull from all of those concepts into a single movement that is loosely based on the concept of spacetime.

The beginning stages of this is mostly programming Max patches that can deal with these various mechanics. I’m trying to figure out the best way to get the trumpet signal into Max, easily identify its pitch, account for tuning errors, different input/output gains and levels, and the like. Once I create that groundwork, I’ll deal with tools for the actual music. The patch for Movement 2 is going to be a modified version of an external patch already built by ICST, so that’ll also probably be what I compose first.

Second, I need to write a piece for nienteForte this year, and if all goes according to plan, that will be for the TALEA ensemble. A lot will depend on exactly what members of TALEA will be a part of the festival, but if all goes according to plan, the piece will also include some basic Max programming (but much more simple as it will be MIDI only and I can do that in my sleep). The piece is going to be based on a Dali painting that i love, with the idea that the ensemble is going to be split into two distinct tonal groups – one that uses equal-temperament and another that uses a “parallel” microtonal equal-temperament that phases in and out as controlled by Max and a MIDI piano. The idea I have right now is to put the responsibility of the parallel tuning on string instruments with the idea that it’s easier for them to constantly microtune than it is for wind instruments.

We’ll see how all of this shakes down; the current goal is to get the Max programming structure of the trumpet piece done in the next few weeks so that I can start writing the actual music in July. My progress on that will be somewhat contingent on Life getting in the way, which is going wonderfully ballistic right now with house hunting with the girlfriend, staying on top of TUMB stuff, etc.

Apr 10

Habits of Man – fifteen years later

Recently I pulled out my old solo digital audio work Habits of Man for a recital here on campus. It’s the first time that I’ve listened to it critically in several years (even though I posted it on YouTube four years ago):

There are a couple of small nagging sloppy parts to the piece that frustrate me and I think the middle section before the final climax is something that I would do slightly differently, but there’s more about it that I’m still happy with than unhappy, and that feels pretty good.  The more important thing is that fifteen years later it still feels like me – given the same source material that I had back then (which was probably over two hours worth of material), my approach to the composition might be more polished, but the general structure and idea behind the work would still be the same.

It serves as a good reminder that contemporary electronic art music is something that still holds importance to me in some way, and that, along with some other stuff that i’m almost done creating a different blog entry about, is giving me the drive to kickstart some abandoned projects in that realm to complete for the next couple of years.  There’s two electronic projects in particular that I’m planning on doing – one is a revision and a revamp of an old piece I did during my undergraduate years that then carried through to my masters called Surrounded By Mirrors for clarinet, MIDI keyboard, and interactive electronics.  The other, In a Fast Paced World, is a piece that I was originally conceiving of as an interactive octaphonic piece of music using a LEAP Motion Controller.  I’m not 100% convinced that the LEAP is the right controller for the job anymore, but it’s still worth fiddling with since the software side of the tech has improved greatly since i last experimented with it, and they may have even figured out at this point how to get two LEAPs to connect to a single computer.  We’ll see what happens, or if something else comes along that is a better sort of input for that project.

Feb 15

Mare Nostrum: Empires (2016)

On the one hand, the game is pretty fun to play because it’s immersive and most of the game mechanics involved in how you gather resources, how you trade resources, and the various pathways in which you can ensure victory are nuanced in a way that’s simultaneously easy to grasp but full of strategy depth.  On the other hand, there are a couple of huge imbalances in the game that bias the result in favor of a particular kind of gameplay, and since each player has a different starting special ability, the players that specialize in that gameplay are more likely to win the game enough that it makes playing the game at all feel not worthwhile.

I feel like the best way to explain my main gripe with the game is to deal with it from a “top-down perspective” if you will – explain the fundamental exploit and then go into details as to why that’s an exploit in the first place.  This assumes that you understand the basic gameplay; if you don’t know it or need a refresher, here’s a video that explains all of the rules:


The Primary Exploit: Pyramids Win Condition

One of the four ways that a player can win the game is to “build the pyramids” which is a fancy term for “Have 12 different goods or have 12 coins”. Goods and coins are gained by having caravans in territories that you control.  Those goods are then traded amongst all of the players in the the “trading phase” of the game, spent to purchase either more game pieces on the board (that are tokens that contribute to good production or tokens that contribute to military offense or defense) or special abilities, and are purged at the end of the turn with the one exception that you can keep two coins from a previous round.

But one player (yellow) starts with the special ability of holding on to two goods from a previous round.  In both the short game and long game that’s huge because purchasing more game pieces or special abilities is based purely on diversity of goods – you purchase basic things with any 3 different goods and more powerful things with any 6 different goods.  This makes the ability to hoard two goods between rounds a significant advantage – Yellow can expand their production engine more quickly than others and thus get more diverse goods and military on the board more easily.

The three ways to stunt that advantage are to a) prevent Yellow from expanding thus limiting good production, b) tailor the Trading Phase to specifically be about preventing Yellow from getting diverse goods, and c) take over Yellow’s territory via combat.  While preventing expansion can be done without initiating combat, only two of the other players are close to Yellow’s territory and strategically focusing solely on Yellow is not a great path to success (more on that later).  Similarly, focusing too heavily on preventing Yellow from getting the resources that they need during Trade means potentially not choosing something that is optimal for your own purchase needs.

Most importantly, however is combat.  Because while combat is of the primary game mechanics, it’s almost always never worth it to actually attack someone.

The Problem with Combat

The main problem with combat has to do with one particular kind of military structure.

The rules for “attacking” versus “defending” are identical – both players roll dice according to how much military is represented in the battle and damage is dealt to both sides based on the dice roll in isolation.  For example, if Black is attacking with 3 legions and Yellow is defending with 3 legions, both players roll 3 die.  If Black rolls for a total of 12 damage points, then two of Yellow’s legions die (one legion is killed for every 5 damage points), and if Yellow rolls for 11 damage points, then two of Jennifer’s legions die.  That leaves both sides with one legion left.  Fair enough.

But there’s one type of military structure that gives defenders a strong advantage over any attack: a fortress.  Fortresses can’t be moved once they’re placed, but during a battle, a fortress automatically subtracts 5 from the attacker’s roll (so it can absorb one kill’s worth of damage) AND it automatically adds 5 to its own attack roll (so instantly kills one enemy legion).  This is such a huge odds differential that a strategy of turtling and building fortifications is almost always better than invasion, even with the Red player who has an attack advantage of +2 to every roll.  There are special abilities that can be added to potentially counter that imbalance, but by the time they can come into play it’s usually too late because Yellow has such a strong lead in production from the get-go.

I’ve only played the game three times, but in all three cases even once as Red, any time I ended up attacking it decimated my forces enough that I could not recover for the remainder of the game compared to those that opted not to attack, and I’m also pretty positive that Yellow won the game all three times either by building the pyramids or by completing their “God” set which similarly is fast-trackable based on Yellow’s special ability.  It’s possible that more gameplays with Mare Nostrum regulars could balance this out if we’re all aware of this imbalance at the beginning, but given that the game is a 4+ hour investment and its complexities, it would take a particular group of people and a particular kind of group mindset to address it quickly.

Counteracting the Exploit

The best way to counteract Yellow’s advantage is to aggressively expand in uncontested areas close to Yellow before Yellow does and then build fortresses there so that Yellow is boxed in to a limited set of resources.  The problem with that is any individual that chooses to do so isn’t fortifying in other areas and that creates exploitable weaknesses that other players can pounce on, so the choice to stunt Yellow almost has to be done under a flag of truce of all other players so it’s many against one, and that feels like a broken game mechanic.

There’s also some expansion stuff that can help balance this out by immediately obliterating fortresses, but those powers are hard to come by and require too much luck to be able to count on strategically.

Rule Changes That Could Correct the Imbalance

It’s been suggested by the group that i’ve played with that eliminating the Pyramids victory condition could help balance the game, but upon further reflection that feels like a band-aid to the issue that would mask it and make the imbalance less obvious rather than truly fix it.

Apparently in the original version of the game before the “Empires” rules update, fortresses did not have the ability to absorb damage, they were merely immobile attack units that would automatically add +5 to the damage roll.  I think i would prefer to see the opposite, where fortresses absorb damage but do not attack.

The other potential solution is to have another distinct type of military unit that is a fortress specialist, a special legion that adds +5 to their damage roll or absorbs +5 of damage when a fortress is present.

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