Thom and I have been all over the West on our annual fall trips, but we haven’t yet been to the Sawtooth Range in central Idaho. It coincided neatly with a conference he was attending in Idaho, and it was a half-day drive for me, so we agreed to meet up at a pizza place in the bustling town of Stanley. And by “bustling” I mean the population is around 100, and there’s little more than a gas station, post office, and a smattering of small restaurants. We enjoyed some pizza before heading out on the trail.

Because we weren’t hiking until evening, we had to cover some distance quickly. The sun was already setting, casting a golden light over the mountains ahead.

As darkness fell and we realized we were still a few miles from our planned campsite, we decided to take a shorter route to a nearby lake and camp there for the night. Topographic maps are often deceiving because those little elevation lines don’t really give a good picture of how steep the terrain can be. Our headlamps illuminated the trail as we hiked endlessly uphill, but eventually the trail faded out and we found ourselves bushwhacking through the rugged forest. We referred to Thom’s topo map, comparing it with my GPS phone map, and felt like we were really close to our destination. But the rocks were steep, the creek was swift and wide, and the trees seemed unrelenting. We agreed to turn back and hope to find the trail again, and suddenly he exclaimed “Here it is!” Sure enough, we’d been right beside the trail without even knowing it.

We made our way up to the Saddleback Lakes and set up camp. The night was cold but clear, and we enjoyed some time sitting on the shore of the lake. The moon was nearly full, casting a fierce white light on everything.

I set up my little tripod and took a few night shots. Although the photo below looks like it might be dusk, it was quite dark. Cassiopeia hangs above the cliffs in the center:

The next day dawned cloudy and cold. The forecast called for nights in the 20s, and they were right. Of course there’s something magical about a cozy sleeping bag in a tent, even on the coldest nights. It’s getting up that’s hard. We surveyed the smaller lake in the morning light.

After a bit of breakfast, we cleaned up, hoisted our packs, and headed back down the steep mountain toward our next site. In daylight, the trail was really easy to follow! We laughed a bit about how tricky it had been the night before.

In the distance we could see the peaks of the Sawtooth Range. Our destination, Alpine Lake, was somewhere off to the right past the ridgeline.

After a few hours and a lot of switchbacks up the mountain, we arrived at Alpine Lake. The clouds cleared for a while, and the sun shone brightly over the frigid water.

Thom wanted to continue hiking to Lake Kathryn, which was beyond the col in the upper left of the photo above. We left our tent and most of our supplies at the lake, taking lightly-loaded packs. There isn’t a trail to the lake, which meant a steep and steady climb through the forest and, eventually, up the talus. Climbing up mountains is trivial for Thom but exhausting for me, so I told him to go on while I stayed on a large rock outcropping. He pushed on. I enjoyed the warm sun and a magnificent view above the lake.

I was there for perhaps an hour, and it was a great opportunity to reflect on the majesty of the wilderness around me. I love the feel of being outdoors, far from the worries of civilization, hearing the birds and the squirrels, smelling the pine, watching the clouds scurry across the sky. Thom crested the ridge and looked down on Lake Kathryn but decided not to continue, as darker storm clouds were rolling in. Indeed, it began to rain: lightly at first, but then in earnest. I made my way back down to our tent, and he showed up shortly thereafter. We listened to the rain pelt the tent.

Eventually the clouds gave way a bit, and the setting sun sprinkled some pink across them with its last light.

That night was even colder; our water froze and we woke up to frost. Again, our trusty sleeping bags were wonderful. I’d commented earlier in the trip that I’d love to see a crystal blue sky and a perfectly still lake, and my wish was granted that morning.

The water was like a mirror. In fact, here’s a shot looking down into the lake:

Everything was calm and quiet. A nearby meadow had frost across the grass, and a partially frozen pond.

As the sun climbed in the sky, we decided to circumnavigate Alpine Lake and spend some time just enjoying the gorgeous fall day. We found a large rock overlooking the lake and watched the wind create patterns on the smooth water.

Although it was still cool– perhaps 50 degrees– the sun felt great.

It was wonderful to sit there, chatting about anything and nothing, with this incredible scenery around us.

As the day wore on, we finished our circuit of the lake and packed up camp. We headed out from Alpine Lake with one last fond look back.

Continuing along the trail, we were treated to some magnificent views of the valley. Since this area was carved by glaciers long ago, all of the valleys are gently curved.

We both stopped often to snap photos. I’m sure Thom’s will look better, but I’m pretty happy with some of my shots.

It’s still September, so the fall colors haven’t really peaked, but at times we were treated to a splash of yellow or red. Here’s a lonely aspen in the midst of its coniferous neighbors:

And here’s a fiery orange tree:

We headed for a campsite at Lily Lake, but about a quarter-mile shy of the lake we found a great spot to pitch our tent. It overlooked Redfish Lake, and we were treated to a slow sunset as we made dinner and settled in for the evening.

The next morning was cold again, and Thom spent some time watching the light and nursing his cup of coffee.

Although it wasn’t as clear or still as the other morning, there’s still an incredibly peaceful feel as the sun rises and everything wakes up for the day. Redfish Lake didn’t disappoint.

Hefting our packs for the last time, we made our way back to Stanley where we parted ways: him to Washington and me to Montana. As always, it was a great time and a chance to enjoy the beauty of the outdoors and the company of my favorite brother.

Thanks for another amazing fall trip, Thom!

Drawing board to game table

One of the rewarding parts of designing board games is seeing the progress from an initial prototype to a finished product. Those prototypes are usually handwritten index cards, card stock run through my trusty laser printer, and a handful of mismatched components from my game development kit. There’s a flurry of testing– first by playing against myself to work out the obvious problems, and then with patient friends who are willing to play over and over and give honest feedback each time. The prototypes get a little better, the rules get a little clearer, and the games get a little more engaging.

And at some point, it’s time to print the game. That means design, gathering graphic assets, experimenting with layouts, and sending it off to the print company. After that, it’s a couple of weeks waiting for the finished product. And when it arrives…

This is Onward, my latest game. On the right is the final prototype, printed on card stock and colored with Crayola markers; on the left are the printed player mats and decks of cards. It looks like a “real” game now!

Already I’m hard at work on my next creation, although it hasn’t yet hit the table with other people. That’s coming soon. And maybe, in a month or two, I’ll have another finished product to bring to game night…

Just bend it back

A few days ago, Pepper backed out of the garage with the car door open and totally bent the window frame on the door.

It wasn’t as bad as the time Zaque backed into the garage door, but it was a mess. Today she took it to a body shop in Polson, who put together an estimate to repair the door. It turns out that in addition to a new window frame, the (fairly minimal) damage to the door itself would require some parts and then some paint. The paint is kind of a horror show, because they have to match what’s on the front door as well as the rear quarterpanel.

In the end, the tally came out to roughly three thousand dollars. Pepper must’ve looked pretty forlorn when the shop guy explained all of it to her. “You know, another thing you could do is just bend it back,” he remarked.

She’d tried to bend it back at home, but it’s all metal and wouldn’t budge.

She walked out to the car to take another look at it, and it was already fixed. One of the other guys in the shop had literally grabbed the two ends of the window frame and bent it back… with his bare hands. She said he wasn’t really all that “pumped”, but apparently had enough arm strength to just do it in ten seconds.

So yeah, our door is a bit dinged, and if you look closely enough you’ll see the window frame isn’t completely straight, but a ten-second strongman trick sure beats a three-thousand-dollar repair job…

A few days in Colorado

There were some things I needed to take care of at Zing, and after some thought I decided it would be best to do it in person. I planned a trip to Colorado, and contacted some friends to see if I could drop in to visit. It’s a long drive– made even longer by stops for charging and meals– but I feel like long road trips aren’t a big deal when I can set the car to steer itself. I left early on Wednesday and drove 17 hours, enjoying the scenery as I rolled down the interstate.

The fun started on Thursday when I dropped in on old friends, and enjoyed some fond memories of my home for seventeen years. I had lunch with part of the Zing crew, which was great. I talked them into Cheba Hut, my favorite sandwich shop on earth, where I savored my Midwest Best:

Then Nick and I headed over to Zing’s office, which we had to clean out prior to ending our lease. It’s been a great office for over a decade, but the team is working from home, so there’s no sense continuing to pay rent. Although the guys took all the equipment they wanted, there was still a lot left in the office. A lot. We nearly filled a dumpster with keyboards, mice, network switches, cables, power strips, old furniture, worn-out chairs, and the like.

It was sad because a lot of this was useful and working, but these days you can’t even donate electronics to schools or libraries. We simply didn’t know what to do with it. Both of us took a lot of things with us, saving them from the dumpster. I ended up with a dozen monitors and bags full of cables and adapters and keyboards that I thought I might be able to put to use or give to people who need them. My car was full of stuff.

As I finished cleaning that evening and turned out the lights for the last time, it was a bittersweet moment. I spent a lot of time in that office, and it’s a really nice space.

But it’s time to move on. The Zing logo remains on the door (although probably not for long).

I’d planned to play ultimate in the Longmont league that evening, revisiting the field and friends after four years. I even had a team who said I could join them! But alas, it rained most of the day and the games were cancelled.

Friday dawned, and I headed down to Boulder for an indoor ultimate game. Along the drive, I was treated to a view of the Flatirons. Boulder is such a pretty city, and even things like driving down the roads there brought back fond memories.

I haven’t played indoor ultimate in four years– in fact, I’ve only played one game of ultimate at all in those four years. To be honest, I wasn’t really in shape for it. Hiking and biking and spending time on the lake is a very different form of exercise than sprinting for 90 minutes! Luckily indoor games involve a lot of on-the-fly substitutions, and I was able to take frequent breaks after a few minutes of hard play. People had heard I was going to be in town, and several of them came out for the game just to school me on the field. We had a good crowd, and a lot of my old friends.

Then it was time to head down to Denver. Although I miss a lot of things about Colorado, traffic on I-25 isn’t one of them.

I spent several hours talking with a couple of friends about starting a company to develop a video game. It’s a cool idea, and something I wouldn’t have considered. We did a lot of planning and brainstorming, and now I’ll need to sit down and figure out how I can contribute.

On the way back to Longmont, I was treated to a nice sunset over Longs Peak.

The next two days were filled with visits and get-togethers. I attended church in my old congregation (which has changed a lot, although many of the families are still around). I played board games with my little group of gamers. I enjoyed a sandwich at Snarf’s, my second-favorite sandwich shop on earth. I made some surprise visits. I looked at all the things in the town that have changed– a lot of new apartments, some new stores (including Costco!), and the loss of Nicolo’s, my favorite pizza place. Despite all the changes, though, the heart of the city is the same and it was fun to see it again.

Monday dawned, and I left before the sun was quite above the horizon. It was another long drive, but I took the opportunity to stop in Billings on my way through to visit another old (as in, 92 years old) friend. It was great. There were many hours of interstate, but the views were grand.

I finally arrived back home after midnight, tired after a long drive but full of happy memories.

To all the people I saw, and even to those I didn’t get a chance to catch up with, thanks for your friendship over the years. Farewell for now…

Yet another game, or actually two

I’m still in the process of refining another game I’ve invented. The original title, Forward Humanity, failed in consumer testing (meaning my friends thought it was kind of a lame title). So now it’s been renamed Onward, and after several play-testing sessions, I feel pretty good about it. My friends– and my boys– have given it high marks and made some great suggestions for improvements.

Right now it’s sitting at the printing company, waiting to be put onto “real” cards and player boards. I was getting kind of weary of printing two dozen sheets of cardstock and then cutting out all the cards! I’m excited to see the result and tweak it a bit more.

While I’m waiting a few weeks for the printing process, I had an idea for another game. For a few years I’ve been fascinated by the idea of a game in which you build the playing board while you’re playing the game. There are a few examples of this out in the world, but I wanted to make one myself. I came up with Hexteria: New World and played it with a few people in years past. In it, the first half of the game is spent building a map of the land (prairies, mountains, desert, lakes) and scoring points; the second half is spent building towns and cities on the map and scoring different points. I enjoy it and find it to be an interesting “puzzle” sort of game, but it doesn’t really have much dazzle. Reception by friends has been pretty lukewarm.

So, I came up with a new concept this week. It’s a space map-building game where you’re exploring the galaxy and colonizing star systems. Your spaceships move out, and you draw random hexagonal tiles from a deck to create the galactic map. At some point in the game, someone will turn over a tile that begins the end of the game. In physics terms, it’s called “bubble nucleation” and involves a collapse of spacetime into a “true vacuum” state. This bubble of collapsed spacetime spreads outward at the speed of light, absolutely destroying everything in its path… right down to the subatomic level. In fact, the very laws of nature that hold atoms together break down in this event. The point of the game, after exploring the galaxy, is to escape this universe-ending disaster by slipping into a parallel universe via exotic-matter tunnels through black holes.

That sounds like a lot of science mumbo-jumbo, but in truth it’s all based in real physics. I tentatively named the game False Vacuum, in honor of the notion that we’re all living in a false vacuum right now, and could (theoretically) be wiped out in the blink of an eye when our universe simply ceases to exist. How’s that for a really bad day?

Anyway, science aside, as I tested the game by playing it against myself, I found that it lacked dazzle. There wasn’t anything interesting to do, until the universe collapsed and it became a mad dash for the exits. Even then, it felt stiff and mechanical. After a couple of attempts, I decided it wasn’t going anywhere. Not only did I not enjoy the game, I didn’t see a path to make it better. I tossed it.

But I was still contemplating a map-building game, and I struck upon the idea of giving it an ocean-and-island theme. Exploring the ocean, discovering and settling islands, collecting things… there could be some dazzle there! With some further thought, I decided to base it on Polynesian history. I’ve always been fascinated by the amazing navigational skills of ancient sailors, and the ways they traveled thousands of miles between far-flung islands in the Pacific. I spent a few days studying Polynesian history and culture, thinking about how I could incorporate some of it into my game. To be clear, it’s not my intent to make anything that’s historically accurate– I’m just looking for an interesting theme for the mechanics of the game.

Now, a few days later, I have the beginnings of yet another map-builder. I’m calling it Utu for now, which is the Polynesian word for “balance” (actually it has a far deeper meaning, but that’s it in a nutshell). Everyone starts out on a little island, and heads out in boats to explore the wide blue Pacific. Along the way, players will discover islands and reefs and ocean currents. They’ll gather resources to build more boats, construct villages and temples, and maybe even go to war (I’m not sure about that last one; I typically eschew combat in games). And through all of it, everyone will attempt to keep their mana in balance and harmony.

Here’s the result of my first play-through.

The map turned out to be pretty interesting, and surprisingly “realistic”… if a bunch of white hexagonal cardboard pieces with sticky notes on them can be related to the Pacific islands somehow. And it was fun to play, as I scooted little wooden boats and meeples around the board. But I found that there wasn’t really a goal. What are you supposed to do? How does the game end? How do you win?

Nonetheless, it’s not bad for a first run-through, and I’ll be able to dial it in more over the next few weeks.

I think sometimes this hobby of mine could be considered a waste of time. Yet it provides me with a creative outlet– a way for me to “stretch” myself a bit, since I don’t feel like I’m a very creative person– and despite the failures and scrapped ideas, it’s a lot of fun. I figure there are worse things I could be doing with my time.

So I’ll continue on, hoping to find that utu, balance, in this latest creation.

Zoom zoom

Today might be the last 80-degree day until next summer, so we felt like we should take advantage of the warm, sunny weather and head out on the water. As it happened, we needed to test Pepper’s jet ski, Trixie, to make sure she was working okay after swallowing a rock last weekend. We loaded up Trixie and Pepe and went to our usual haunt, Yellow Bay.

We toured the lake for almost two hours, hitting a few islands we hadn’t visited before. We even found a shipwreck!

We also decided to take some cool photos of ourselves zooming across the water. Here’s Pepper shooting past me:

I returned the favor, although she complained because I came much closer to her and managed to drench her with spray as I zipped past.

It was a lot of fun, and as the weather cools we’ll probably do more kayaking and paddleboarding, rather than jet skis. Yay for lake weather!