Monday, 22 May 2017

Off-Topic: Backgammon Live

On August 14th 2015 I made a post about an online Backgammon game called Backgammon Live. It's embedded in Facebook. It has over six million registered players, and typically 100,000 people play each day. After almost two years of playing on a regular basis I think it's time to write another post to reassess the game. Click here to read my original post.

Over the last two years I've played an average of 17 games a day. A typical game lasts about five minutes, so I've been playing up to 90 minutes a day. That's so much that it practically counts as an addiction. I'm proud that I've advanced to 6th place in the leader board. I was in 12th place for months, but over the last few weeks I've slowly crept up the board.

Backgammon Live (BGL) is very addictive. The combination of the attractive boards and the pleasant repetitive music have a mind-numbing effect, making the player oblivious to the passing of time.

The game is controversial. On the Backgammon Live fan page there is more negative criticism than praise. Players claim that they've been cheated by rigged dice. They say that they're good players who would win a lot more games if the dice were fair. Let me give my opinion about this as someone who has played more than 11,000 games:

I don't believe that the dice are rigged. The luck swings both ways. Sometimes I'm very lucky, sometimes my opponent is very lucky. When I lose a game through bad luck I just shrug my shoulders and play again. It's easy to do that if you're betting sensibly as described in my original post, i.e. never play a board unless you have at least 20 times the minimum bet. You can only lose all your coins if you bet all your coins. That's why it will never happen to me.

Apart from that, I have my doubts whether the people who call themselves good players really are good players. In my experience, the standard of play in Backgammon Live is generally low. It seems to me that very few of my opponents have read books about Backgammon strategy or are members of a Backgammon club. My opponents usually fall into one of two categories: they play too safely or too riskily. I enjoy Backgammon most when I play against a truly skilled player, someone better than me. I don't mind losing a dozen games in a row if I'm playing against someone I can learn from.

I don't consider myself to be the sixth best player, even if I'm in sixth place in the leader board. The opponents that I consider better than me are all lower in the board, i.e. they have less virtual coins than me. Maybe they play less often than me, or maybe they take too many risks by playing high stake boards. If I had to judge my skills I'd put myself in the top 1% of the regular players. That means in the top 1000 of the daily 100,000 players. I don't deserve to be in 6th place. If the leader board were about playing skill alone I'd be happy to see myself in 500th place. That would be fair.

Now I'll go into some criticism I have of the game. It's all constructive criticism, not accusations of cheating. I hope the game designers will read this post and take my thoughts seriously.

1. The dice rolls

One of the reasons that other players accuse the games of being rigged is the unnatural dice rolls. The random number generator used by the game seems to be poorly programmed. There are often repetitive sequences, either the same pair of numbers being rolled or several doubles in a row. A good random number generator would generate a number from 1 to 36 to pick a combination, because a number from 1 to 6 would be more prone to repetition. Even the best random number generators are prone to repetitions, if they're based on numerical calculations alone. Typically, a random number X is generated by a formula like

X = (aX' + b) mod c

where X' is the previous random number, a and b are positive integers chosen by the programmer, and c is a positive integer that defines the highest valid number. This formula delivers a number between 0 and c-1.

When I worked as a programmer I realised that even the best selected values of a and b led to repetitions in computer games. I solved this by adding an extra variable d to the equation,

X = (aX' + b + d) mod c

where d is the time that the user needed to reply to the last input, measured in fractions of a second.

2. The bots

In theory, BGL's system of different boards with different minimum bets is perfect for matching players of similar skills against one another. There are 20 boards with minimum bets between 100 and 15,000,000 coins. When a person begins to play BGL he starts off with only a few hundred coins, so he plays the cheapest board, Royal Palace (100 coins). If he's a good player he'll win more coins and be able to play in the next board, Athens (250 coins), then Texas (500 coins), etc. He keeps on rising from board to board, until he reaches a level where the other players are too good for him. When this happens he drops down a board and stays there.

This perfect system is broken by one of BGL's features: the computer players, commonly called bots. In themselves they're a good idea. When a person enters BGL he wants to play a game of Backgammon. The game's server assigns him an opponent. The problem is that sometimes no opponent is available, so he's offered a bot as opponent. This saves him being frustrated by having to wait a long time for an opponent, but think about the consequences. Most players play in the lower boards, because they don't have many coins. The higher the board, the less players there are. This means that the higher the stakes are, the more likely you are to play a bot.

The bots aren't omnipotent super-players. They play well, but not perfectly. For that I'm thankful to BGL. It would be terrible if there were super-players waiting to take all our hard-earned coins. However, it's still unsatisfying to serious Backgammon players like myself. I've played thousands of games against bots, and I can now predict their moves. I know their weaknesses, and I can beat them in more than 75% of the games. I would rather play against humans. For this reason, despite having more than 200 million coins I play most of my games in boards with a minimum bet of 10,000 or less, so that I have a good chance of playing a human. I only go into the higher boards occasionally to score a big win against a bot and boost my coins. I like to increase my coins by at least a million every day.

How can this problem be solved? There are four alternatives:

a) Remove the bots altogether. If no opponent is available, continue searching indefinitely.
b) Remove the bots altogether. If no opponent is available, recommend selecting a lower board.
c) Offer a tick box to say whether you want to accept a bot opponents in principle.
d) If no opponent is available, ask if you want to play a bot.

3. Max Bet

When I started playing Backgammon Live in 2015 the maximum bet for each table was typically 192 times the minimum bet. This allowed for a win by Backgammon when the doubling cube is raised to 64. This rarely happens in real play, but it should at least be permissible. Last year this was restricted. The maximum bet now varies between six and ten times the minimum bet. I frequently play games where the cube is raised to eight, so this warps the game for me.

A further problem is that the maximum bet is limited by the number of coins the players have. Players are allowed to play in a board if they have enough coins to match the minimum bet. For instance, a player with 11,000 coins is allowed to play in the London board (minimum bet 10,000 coins). In this case, if I use the doubling cube the bet isn't doubled, it's only raised 10%. This totally distorts game play and doubling strategy.

The bots are also a problem, because bots always have coins between twice and four times the minimum bet.

How can this problem be solved? All of the following must be implemented:

a) Increase the maximum bet to 192 times the minimum bet (or round it up to 200 times).
b) Only allow a player into a room if he has at least 10 times the minimum bet.
c) If bots are still permitted. give them more coins.

4. Autoplay

In my original post I praised BGL's autoplay feature. If only one move was available the program automatically made that move. This was a wonderful way of speeding up the game. Now the feature has been limited; autoplay is only enabled during bearing off. I understand the reasons for the change. On the fan page there were frequent complaints from beginners who said, "The program moved for me. I wanted to do something else". Often the moves were made fast, too fast for a beginner to read the board and see that only one move was possible. Alternatively, many beginners don't know all the rules of Backgammon, for instance that if only one of the dice's numbers can be rolled it has to be the larger number.

How can this problem be solved?

Offer a tick box to say whether you want autoplay always or only during bearing off.

5. Chat

BGL's chat was never perfect. As I said in my original post, it was hampered by the timer continuing to run while typing. However, there have been recent changes that have made the chat totally unusable. It's not a change in the features, it's a bug. When I type, some characters appear randomly in capitals, while others don't appear at all. If I start to type in the chat window, then make a move, then return to the chat window, I have to start typing again at the beginning of the text, not at the end. In addition, as soon as a game is finished the chat window is blocked and isn't reactivated until the next game starts. This makes it impossible to chat to an opponent between games, which is the only time when both players can talk without worrying about the timer.

Chatting is important for two reasons. First it's a matter of etiquette. I like to wish my opponent good luck or compliment him when he wins. This is now impossible.

There's an additional reason. Sometimes I encounter a very good player and would like to play with him again. Ideally I'd type something like, "Please add me as a friend. My full name is Mike Hood". This is impossible to type with the current buggy chat system.

How can this problem be solved? All of the following must be implemented:

a) First fix the bugs.
b) Allow chat between games.
c) Add a feature to pause a game, if both players agree.

6. Tip the dealer

After each game the winner is required to "tip the dealer" by giving him 10% of the winnings. This is amusing, because Backgammon has no dealer, but I understand it. This is the game fee, the charge for playing a game. Backgammon Live is advertised as a free game, but the game's creators only make money from players voluntarily buying coins. Good players don't need to buy coins, except as a voluntary donation to the BGL team, because they can carry on winning more coins every day. Buying coins is only necessary to those incapable of winning or those too impatient to work themselves up to a high coins balance. The game fee takes back the coins that have been sold to balance BGL's running costs.

What I didn't realise when I wrote my original post is that the game fee isn't a fixed 10%. The percentage steadily rises on the higher boards. I find this unfair. If one player wins 100 coins in Royal palace and another wins 15 million coins in Hong Kong, it's the same usage of BGL's game server. If any difference were made at all, a smaller percentage should be charged for the higher boards, since BGL makes a larger overall profit. Charging even more when BGL earns more is extortionate.

How can this problem be solved?

Change the game fee to a flat 10% of the winnings.

The game is addictive. That's not meant as a criticism. All good games are addictive, especially computer games. The BGL team is sometimes accused of exploiting human weakness, making players addicted. Whatever you may think, it's the way our world works. If you watch the television or read a magazine you'll be bombarded with advertisements for things you don't really need. The people who pay for coins do it in exchange for the pleasure of being able to play more games. They get something for their money. Unfortunately, those who buy coins are the ones most likely to lose them. The daily Top Earners list could be renamed the Biggest Losers list. It only lists the players who have won the most, without taking account of how much they have lost. If you click on an entry in the list you see the current balance. In most cases the balance is far less than the winnings, often zero. What's better? Winning 400 million coins and having nothing left at the end of the day, or winning 1000 coins and having a balance of 2000 at the end of the day? Often it's the same players in the Top Earners list every day, which means they regularly buy coins. BGL needs support like that  in order to remain solvent.

If you're a Backgammon Live player, please comment on my post. If you're a Backgammon player who doesn't yet know Backgammon Live, please sign up. If you don't yet play Backgammon I recommend that you find a player who lives locally so that you can play on the board first. However enjoyable Backgammon Live may be, real Backgammon is played face to face.

Sunday, 21 May 2017

Joke of the Week: Kim Jong-un's hair

Kim Jong-un is celebrating his latest missile test. He thinks his generals are laughing because they're happy about his success. What he doesn't realise is that they're laughing at his silly hair.

Saturday, 20 May 2017

TV Series: You are wanted

The last two days I've watched the whole of the TV series "You are wanted". It was so gripping, I couldn't stop. I would have watched it all in one day if I hadn't eventually fallen asleep.

"You are wanted" is an Amazon original series. It's made in Germany and stars the brilliant German actor Matthias Schweighöfer, who would have become world famous years ago if not for his unpronounceable name. If I were his manager I'd be begging him to adopt a stage name. What's wrong with Matt Swift? That would be an ideal choice for American audiences.

The main character is Lukas Franke, a hotel manager in Berlin. During a conference in his hotel there's a city-wide power cut. The next day a hacker group calling itself Antipode claims responsibility for the blackout. Shockingly, Lukas is accused of being the leader of this group. His computer and his mobile phone have evidence of contact with the group, even though he claims to know nothing about it. Lukas says he's been hacked, but nobody believes him, especially not the police.

Lukas finds himself at the centre of an international conspiracy. A major terror attack is being planned in Berlin, and those responsible are framing Lukas to direct attention away from themselves. He goes on the run, hiding from the police while trying to solve the mystery. On the way he meets a mysterious woman, played by Karoline Herfurth. She says that she's innocent and is being blackmailed to work for the hackers, but can he trust her?

As I've said before, I find Karoline Herfurth stunningly beautiful. It's not the typical Hollywood beauty look, tall, blonde hair and blue eyes. She has a dark, haunting beauty. It's the sort of face that you see once and never forget.

At this time the series is still exclusive to Amazon. It can't be bought on disc, but it can be watched by subscribers to Amazon's streaming video service. It was filmed in German, but it's available for English speaking customers either dubbed or with subtitles.

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Return to Montauk (4½ Stars)

"The two most important things in your life are the thing that you did and regret doing, and the thing that you didn't do and regret not doing".

That's a depressing quote, but it sets the tone for the film. It's a film about sadness and regret. There are occasional glimpses of hope, but regret is stronger than hope. Hope is the expectancy that something good might happen at some time in the future. Regret is the knowledge that something bad has already happened (alternatively that something good didn't happen), it's your own fault and nothing can be done to change it. Regret is about facts while hope is about dreams.

Max Zorn, a Skandinavian novelist who lives in Berlin, travels to New York to promote his latest novel. It's a story about a love affair he had when he lived in New York 17 years ago. He's accompanied by his wife Clara, but he feels compelled to look for Rebecca, the woman on whom the book is based. When he knew her she was a poor student, but now she's a wealthy defence lawyer. Max has been with five women over the last 17 years, but he realises now that Rebecca is the love of his life. Rebecca has had one other lover, but she still has feelings for Max. She suggests that they travel to Montauk, a place where they once spent time together.

Stellan Skarsgard and Nina Hoss are two of my favourite actors. In fact, after watching "Return to Montauk" today I have to say that Stellan is my favourite actor outright. His performance as a naive, childlike man who thinks that he can do whatever he wants is overwhelming. He knows about regrets, he repeats the quote twice, but he hopes things can be undone. Nina Hoss is pragmatic. She doesn't talk about regret, but she feels it, and she's not foolish enough to think things can be undone.

The film is based on the novel "Montauk" by Max Frisch, a book about one of his love affairs. It isn't a direct adaptation of the novel. The director Volker Schlöndorff adds to the story elements from his own life when he lived in New York in 2000, 17 years ago. Schlöndorff is telling his own story, using Max Frisch's novel as the background.

This is a deeply moving film. I couldn't help crying. Maybe not everyone will enjoy it. It's a talkie film in which very little happens. Within those parameters, it's a masterpiece.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (3 Stars)

I don't know what's happened to Guy Ritchie. The first films that he directed, "Lock, stock and two smoking barrels" (1998) and "Snatch" (2000), are two of the best films ever made. "Snatch" almost made it into my list of 30 films to watch before you die. From then on it just went downhill. One flop after another. I admit that I enjoyed his two Sherlock Holmes films, but I seem to be in the minority. Everything else he's made is unwatchable.

Now comes "King Arthur: Legend of the Sword", the first in a series of six films about the legendary British king. I had mixed feelings about going to see it in the cinema. The trailer looked strangely anachronistic, with people wearing clothes that would be acceptable today. I half expected to be disappointed, but I gave it a chance.

King Arthur is said to have ruled over part of southern Britain in the 5th or 6th Century, but it's not certain whether he ever really existed. It's possible that he's just a figure in a series of plays and poems that were written as late as the 11th Century. There are only vague historical references to a man of this name, but he may not have been a king, and even if he was a king the stories about him were certainly written at a later date. In particular, he's said to have ruled from a castle at Camelot, but this is a mythical city that wasn't invented until the 12th Century.

The 500-year period after the Romans left Britain in the 5th Century is often referred to as the Dark Ages. This time is dark from our current point of view. The Romans were diligent at keeping records. There are scrolls chronicling the population, tax income, court cases and every smallest detail of public life. We know practically everything about Britain from 77 to 400 A.D. Then the Romans left, leaving the country in the hands of squabbling warlords. As well as defending their lands against invading Vikings and Saxons, they fought against one another. Education was a low priority, and very few people outside of monasteries knew how to read and write. It was considered unnecessary to keep records. We know almost nothing about daily life, and we can't even be sure about the names of the rulers. It wasn't until the reign of King Alfred of Wessex (871 to 899) that it became common to keep records. It's a tragedy that the years from 400 to 871 have been wiped from history.

Guy Ritchie is fanciful in his telling of the story of King Arthur, inventing his own legends as he goes along. He presents Britain as a country co-inhabited by mages, beings who inherited magical powers. The mages were tolerated because they supported the kings, but after Modred attacked King Uther's castle in Camelot Uther decided to slaughter all the mages. In turn Uther's brother Vortigern, who was trained by mages and can perform smaller feats of magic, kills Uther and usurps the throne. Uther's infant son Arthur is sent away for his protection and is adopted by a prostitute in a London brothel. When he grows up he doesn't even know his own identity. The key is a magical sword called Excalibur. Only Arthur, the true king of Britain, will be able to pull this sword out of the stone where it's embedded.

This is a fantasy epic rather than a story grounded in reality. It belongs to the Swords and Sorcery genre. The film fails to excite. Charlie Hunnam lacks charisma as King Arthur. Jude Law is compelling as Vortigern, but all the other characters are forgettable.

This time I'm not in the minority in my opinion. The critics and the public agree with me that this is an unremarkable film, average at best. Based on the abysmal box office results the next five films won't be made. Let's give Guy Ritchie a chance to rediscover his magic somewhere else.

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Alien: Resurrection (4 Stars)

On the face of it this is a strongly feminist film. The two lead characters are powerful women, and it easily passes the Bechdel Test. The men in the story are stupid or insignificant. Whether or not it qualifies as a feminist film decides on which level you look at. As the film progresses we find out that neither of the women is really a woman. The actresses are women, of course, so it's up to you to decide whether you're judging it by the actresses or the characters.

Ever since the first film the Alien films have been a mixture of science fiction and horror. In this fourth film the horror aspect is in the foreground. It's probably because the new director, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, felt more comfortable with horror than science fiction. Whatever the reason, it isn't a bad film, but the atmosphere and the mood are far removed from the minimalist setting of "Alien".

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Saturday, 13 May 2017

Alien 3 (4 Stars)

There has always been something bugging me about the Alien films, something I couldn't quite put my finger on. Now I've finally figured out what it is. There's a lack of consistency in the atmosphere caused by the swapping and changing of the director from film to film. The first four films were directed by Ridley Scott, James Cameron, David Fincher and Jean-Pierre Jeunet in turn. Ridley Scott and James Cameron are excellent directors, as they've proved over and over again. David Fincher was an unusual choice to direct "Alien 3", because it was his first film. I don't know why the studios were willing to take such a risk giving a young man (only 29) the responsibility for such an important film. He claims that the film didn't turn out the way he wanted because the producers didn't have enough trust in him, but that's a typical trait of beginners: blame everyone else.

Picking Jean-Pierre Jeunet for the fourth film was an even more unusual choice. He had only handled small budget movies at the time. He was thrown in at the deep end, although I have to say that the film he made showed some quality, even if it veered off in a different direction, stylistically, from the first three films.

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