Terraclips: Almost Awesome

Just like everyone else interested in the Wyrd Miniatures/Worldworks Terraclips terrain building sets probably has, I read and heard lots of good reviews about the kits… and then I bought them: one each of the Streets, Sewers, and Buildings kits, and three boxes of clips.  This is definitely a high quality, well designed product.  However, instead of repeating all the glowing praise I read before I bought them, I’ll list all my picky problems.  Hopefully this will help someone to decide whether this is the right toy for them.

My overall summary is: I think these would work great for D&D 4E dungeon crawls, but I don’t think they’ll be very good forMalifaux.

Here’s a 3 foot square of Malifaux terrain built using parts of all three kits.  The build took Frank and I 2 hours to complete.  We started with a half-assembled build, and spent some time disassembling it but saved some time reusing a few of the buildings and roofs I built earlier.

And here’s the first problem: Terraclips are slow to assemble.  I rarely spend this much time setting up terrain, and that’s when I am planning a historical scenario.  I’d rather spend my time crafting individual terrain pieces that can be reused quickly, or playing a game.

Because of the long setup time, you need either a lot of free time, or a place where the completed terrain can sit until you use it.  Unlike large purpose-built terrain boards and smaller area/element terrain pieces, Terraclips can’t easily be stored assembled.

Many reviews I’ve seen gawk at the huge amount of stuff you get in each box.  It’s true: you get a lot of stuff.  However, having a lot of stuff doesn’t necessarily mean building a large area of terrain. The kits come with the parts needed to do anything, but not to do everything at the same time.  For example, there are enough roof pieces to handle any L-shaped or T-shaped building, but you can build more square one-story buildings than you can add roofs to.  If you build taller buildings, they take up less area on the map, so you require more streets and sewers to take up the slack.

We found that we had a huge number of balcony and railing parts left unused (unpunched, even), but we ran out of roofs and walls without doors.  Another challenge is using the right ratio of 6″ and 3″ pieces, to ensure that you don’t run out of one before the other.

These parts are also quite fiddly to assemble.  Experience would definitely help building things faster and more cleanly, but I don’t expect I’d ever be fast enough to roll up a Malifaux scenario and then build terrain for it as the rules recommend. 

The clips all have a bump on one side but not the other (look in the clip’s slot, which tends to put a slight angle in the connection, especially when using I clips.  The T and L clips don’t join up the cards in the same orientation at the corner, depending on which direction the clip is used, which can leave you with some less than square buildings if you don’t align all the clips the same way. All these little errors add up over the course of a large build.  The few instructions available implore you to make sure everything is lined up properly and fully assembled, but it’s still fiddly.

The remaining issues I have with Terraclips are related to how they will work with Malifaux.

Malifaux didn’t have any comprehensive rules for working with buildings, the last I checked.  All terrain pieces were “area” or “element/item” and had an overall effect; they didn’t contain discrete walls, doors, windows, and so on.  In previous games using our scratch built buildings and Mordheim buildings, we adopted the Mordheim rules: any obstruction gives you cover, and line of site is WYSIWYG.

WYSIWYG line of site works great… as long as you are able to use terrain to disrupt and limit that line of site without being able to completely hide.  In this regard, the terraclips don’t perform well.  None of the wall sections have open windows, they only have doorways and arches.  These highly enclosed buildings have the effect of breaking the board into small, isolated, easily protected sections. We have yet to see how this plays out in practice.

We also found it difficult to add enough buildings to a flat city street grid, to block the line of site across the board adequately. We were limited by roofs.  We might have been able to build a few more buildings taller, but we couldn’t really add more of them.  Actually, this is great for my Perdita crew, so I’ll just stop complaining now.

For what they are, the Terraclips do a very good job.  These will be great for doing D&D dungeon crawls and encounters inside buildings, and I could even see building a dungeon crawl on the fly if it’s straightforward enough.  They even have 1″ squares subtly printed on all surfaces.  But I don’t have high hopes for building a wide variety of different terrain boards for a series of Malifaux games.

In the future I’ll be sticking to building more individual terrain elements to place on my Terrainguy mat, but I’ll save these kits to build dungeon crawls, assuming I can ever fit them back in their boxes.

Rant: apparently Shimano 105 hub bearings suck

This year has been horrible for flat tires.  While repairing my latest rear flat today, an explosive pinch flat on a massive pothole (“spring” in Pittsburgh is measured by the potholes and not the weather), I noticed my rear hub bearings were loose, so I investigated.

I examined the drive side cone and it had a pit in the surface. Maybe that’s why it was so noisy.  I found a spare cone and started replacing it… but then I looked at the other cone and it was way worse: it had pitting all the way around.  The hub was still packed with grease (no dirt), and had only 7-10k miles on it.  (I didn’t pull out the balls and examine them.)

Maybe the damage was caused by the fact that the hub bearings were loose, but I’d expect them to be loose after so much pitting and wear on the bearing surfaces. In any case, I’ve never heard of bearings loosening while installed on the bike.

This isn’t my first problem with this wheel set (it even matches!), either.  Within a year after buying these wheels, I had a horrible noise in the front wheel, and investigation revealed that the balls themselves were severely pitted.  That wheel hasn’t had any problems since I repacked it with new balls.

These are Shimano 105 road hubs bought new only 3 or so years ago.  I thought these were supposed to be better than off-brand hubs.  Maybe 7-10k miles is “better,” in these days when department store bikes are ridden an average of 20 miles total, and “real” bikes have their components upgraded every year to keep up with changing fashion.

Game Review: Dominion: Alchemy

Everyone I’ve played Dominion with has really enjoyed it, including Marla and even Martine.  With the proper card selection Martine (at age 6) has no problem finishing games with the full rules, and has even been known to beat grownup opponents.

The first two expansions, Intrigue and Seaside, both add a good selection of cards to the game without changing the flavor very much.  I had high hopes for the third expansion, Dominion: Alchemy, when Andy brought it over to try it out.  Unfortunately, I don’t like it very much yet.  My opinion of the cards might improve if I play it more, but this expansion is different than the previous ones and I’m not sure I like that difference.

As anyone who has read my previous review knows, the basic game play in Dominion is to use the resources in your deck of cards to buy more cards for that deck.  As you cycle through your gradually improving deck, you hope to collect enough victory cards to be ahead when the game ends.  Cards can be actions, which do things; treasure, which is used to buy more cards; or victory cards, which do nothing (but are required to win).

There are many different effective strategies, and they vary a lot based on the cards available and how you use them.  Despite these wide differences, it’s still possible to categorize the basic action strategies into two broad categories.  I’ll call them “Action Combo” and “Utility Action” strategies.

With an Action Combo strategy, you buy many action cards, and depend on playing a big tree of actions each turn in order to cull the treasure out of your deck.  Since you have so many action cards, adding a few more victory cards isn’t a big deal, so it’s not always important to concentrate on the highest point value victory cards.  Action Combo decks often take long turns and end up with a large portion of the deck in play each turn, even late in the game.

A Utility Action strategy uses a low proportion of action cards in the end-game deck, and doesn’t rely on the use of a lot of actions each turn in order to win.  Instead, the deck concentrates on acquiring many high value treasure cards, and uses a few action cards to improve the chances of drawing big hands of cash to buy high value victory cards.  In this strategy it is important to concentrate on the highest value victory cards, so you don’t dilute your deck.

It’s possible to win with both of these strategies.  It can be a lot more fun to play with an Action Combo strategy, because you get to do a lot more on each of your turns even when you’re losing.  However, I usually end up playing with a Utility strategy.  I sometimes win the game with only 4 or 5 action cards total, but with many Gold and Silver treasure cards and a stack of Provinces.

(One strategy I enjoy a lot with the basic set is to buy a Smithy and a Silver in the first run through the deck. I often end up buying Gold on the second through the deck and Provinces on the 3rd and 4th runs through.  It’s very fast, but it can stall unless you build up enough treasure and actions to get you through the clumps of Victory cards.)

In the basic set, Intrigue, and Seaside, almost all of the card effects have varying degrees of synergy with each other, but there is only one card I can think of (Seaside’s Treasure Map) which requires another specific card in order to be useful.  Even Treasure Map only requires another copy of the same card in order for you to play it. Other action cards allow you to build interesting combos, but they combine with a many other cards and almost all of the actions are useful by themselves.

The Alchemy card set is different, because of the existence of the Potion card.  Potion is a new kind of treasure. Most of the other Alchemy cards require a potion to purchase them, and many of the actions are more beneficial if you have a Potion in play (that is: if you just used it to buy something). 

Since most of the cards in the Alchemy set require a card combo in order to use them at all, it tends to push you towards using certain strategies.  In order to get any Alchemy cards you need a Potion, but once you have a Potion you need to use it enough to justify its cost (both in treasure and the space it takes in your deck) since it won’t buy you many victory points.  Overall, this expansion guides you into using an Action Combo strategy. 

Yes, there are cards available that let you trade in one card for something else, which would let you turn a Potion into something useful after you’re done with it.  But I don’t find these Remodel cards to be very useful.  Why would I buy a card I don’t want, buy another card that can turn it into something else, hope I draw them both, and then spend an action to change one into another, when I could just buy the card I wanted in the first place?  Again, the result is an Action Combo strategy.

The main problem I have with Alchemy is that it doesn’t provide very many cards that support a Utility Action strategy (with some notable exceptions).  In practice, this isn’t very limiting for me, because typically you use cards from otehr sets along with the Alchemy choices, and I can almost always find a useful Utility strategy using only those.  But then I’m not using the Alchemy cards, which makes them a bit of a waste for me.

Overall, I’d definitely play Dominion with Alchemy cards, but it probably wouldn’t be my first choice.  I do want to play more games to get used to the cards and figure out how I can use them more effectively.  I also think it’s worth it for me to play with a set that forces a combo strategy occasionally, just for a change of pace. But I’m pretty sure I won’t be buying Alchemy at least for a while, especially since Andy already has it.

Aborted Experiment: Facebook

I’ve read  some opinions recently about how tools such as Facebook might be the “new paradigm” of post-email communication on the Internet that some of us have been waiting for.  Email is just like writing letters, but faster.  But Facebook is a new, fundamentally different way of communicating with people.  Even my mom is on facebook now!  And I’m supposed to be technically savvy?

So, I decided to start an experiment, since I’d only have one chance: I signed up to Facebook with the intent to see how long it took for someone, anyone (except Marla) took to find me and send a friend request, without me actively looking for anyone.

The closest answer I have is “a week or two.”  Even though I was not an early adopter of Facebook, I’m an early adopter of the latest new trend: cancelling your Facebook account

Like many folks, I recently read Top Ten Reasons You Should Quit Facebook as well as a few related posts. I had heard of the spate of privacy violations and snafus that have happened lately regarding Facebook data, so when I read about why I should cancel, the only reason I needed was very straighforward once I thought about it: As a Facebook user, you are not Facebook’s customer; you’re Facebook’s product.  The way they make money is by selling your personal information.

Now that I’ve cancelled, don’t send me a friend request; I need to go 14 days without logging in so my account will be purged.

I still think tools like Facebook represent a new and useful means of communication.  I only want to wait for the time when an open tool is available that provides similar functionality.  I’m confident this will happen.  One side effect of opening up Facebook data to more and more consumers is that it makes it easier for customers to move away and take their data with them since it’s already visible to the world.

Today, news arrived of the latest Facebook privacy problem: when you’re logged into Facebook and visit some web sites, they install a Facebook app for you whether you like it or not, without asking, and without telling you they did it.  If anyone else tried this it would be called malware or a virus, why is Facebook allowed to get away with it?  The fact that these apps are installed is visible to all your friends, which also happens to tell everyone about some of the web sites you visit.  Maybe that’s the point, since it spreads word about the sites that are paying Facebook to do this; but maybe you don’t want the world to know what sites you visit?

You don’t need to stop using Facebook.  Just know that when you use it, every piece of information you post to Facebook is owned by Facebook, and will probably be used to sell you to companies so they can sell things to you.

What drives you crazy?

NPR recently requested listeners to submit a short story (250 words or less) story about “What drives you crazy?” when driving, riding, or walking on our roads. I don’t go crazy in writing very well, but here’s what I told them drives me crazy while I’m riding my bike:

As a vehicular cyclist, I am required to follow the rules that govern all vehicular road traffic. My gripe is about drivers who treat me as a pedestrian instead of a vehicle. In Pittsburgh, drivers often relinquish their right-of-way and encourage cyclists to cross traffic when it would otherwise be unlawful or unsafe to do so. This unpredictable driving makes intersections less safe for everyone involved, and perpetuates a downward spiral of poor behavior by cyclists who fail to follow the rules of the road and drivers who encourage them to do so. Be mindful of cyclists who may ride where they shouldn’t, but for the safety of everyone involved, please don’t enourage this behavior.

Alan Ferrency
Pittsburgh, PA

Realism in wargames

The short version of my discussion about realism in wargames is: “There isn’t any.” That may not be entirely true, but it’s a pretty good approximation. This doesn’t stop people from trying to make wargames realistic, though.

When I use the word “realism” I include “verisimilitude,” by which I mean the degree of similarity to fictitious works (even though I now see that may not be exactly what verisimilitude means). Wargames attempting to recreate the War of the Ring or the Battle of the Five Armies can get it just as right or wrong as recreations of the Battle of Thermopylae or the Battle of the Bulge. On the other hand, by “wargame” I’m only referring to board games and miniature games, not video games.

The idea of making a game realistic treats the game as a simulation. But a simulation of what? Different game designers emphasize correctness and realism in different areas, while accepting a greater degree of abstraction in other areas. This can result in very different gameplay for different games.

The most visible kind of realism is in the way the game pieces look. Eurogames and board game wargames typically use very abstract pieces: wooden cubes or square cardboard counters. Ameritrash games emphasize the look of the game and usually include molded plastic figures to represent troops. Using pieces which look realistic is the main reason to play a miniatures game instead of a board game.

The way game pieces look doesn’t need to affect the way the game plays, even though sometimes it does. The visual differences define broad categories of games because they’re the first thing you see. To me, the more interesting difference is the way gameplay changes depending on how a game attempts to achieve realism.

Some wargames are described as “reductionist.” An army is reduced to a specific number of individual men and the machines and equipment they are using. Statistics are collected about the real life performance of these men and their equipment. The game defines strict time scales per turn and well-defined distances on the playing area. The hope is that if you introduce enough detail into the rules, accurate results of the battles they model will emerge (nevermind that whole die-rolling thing…).

I read a good statement of my main criticism of the reductionist school of game design: it confuses “detail” with “realism.” Fine details seem to provide justification for the results the game produces, but they also obscure areas where abstractions have been made, and hide the ways in which the game is unrealistic.

Some common flaws with reductionist games are:

  • they require fiddly rules with special cases for all details the game attempts to model
  • games are slow or take too long
  • rule complexity and slow gameplay cause the game to lose the “feel” of the activity it’s attempting to simulate
  • too much bookkeeping
  • complex rules can shifr game play emphasis from using period-appropriate tactics to taking advantage of “flaws” in the rules in order to win

As an example of reductionism and its limitations: it is possible to calculate all aspects of the velocity, orientation, and position of an airplane in flight, and to track changes in these over a series of steps in time (game turns) in reactions to the actions of players. However, doing this typically does not feel like flying an airplane: it feels like completing a physics problem set. That’s not my idea of fun.

I know I said I wasn’t talking about video games, but reductionism is something computers can do a lot better than humans. Bookkeeping is not a problem for computers, calculations can be done much more quickly, and no player needs to remember the rules.

Details are not bad by themselves. The important aspect is matching the level of detail with the scale of the game. In a World War II skirmish with 10 guys on each side, it’s important exactly how many men there are, what kind of guns they’re using, and how many bullets they have left. If you’re wargaming the entire European Theater of Operations, these minutae are not only less important to the general commanding the entire army, they aren’t available to him whether he’s interested or not. Learn to delegate.

Other games push detail into a secondary role, and instead emphasize making the game “feel” right for the player, in the context of the role they are playing in the game. In a WWII air combat game, the emphasis might be on making it feel like fast-paced combat where you must react quickly to avoid being shot down. An infantry skirmish might put you in the role of a platoon leader, where you have a few dozen scared kids with guns who would rather hide behind a tree than advance on the enemy machine gun net. Playing General Montgomery attempting to push a long line of troops and tanks down the road in Operation Market Garden is going to be a lot more about logistics and attrition than individual firefights.

Some benefits and optimizations that can be more easily achieved when you emphasize a realistic “feel” while omitting detail are:

  • Fewer rules
  • Less bookkeeping to do during the game
  • Faster gameplay; this is often necessary for a game to feel right
  • It’s easier to encourage use of appropriate tactics instead of “gaming” the rules

It has been observed that in the last decade or so wargames have been trending towards cleaner, simpler rulesets instead of the lumbering behemoths of yesteryear. The old guard laments the lack of attention span of “those kids today” and might blame video games for what they perceive as reduced quality in rulesets.

I also invoke video games as a possible reason for this change, but I credit them instead of blaming them. Computers are much more able to reach the logical extreme of reductionist rulesets than humans are. Anyone interested in pursuing extreme detail is generally better off teaching a computer how to follow the rules than a human, and so those game designers with this propensity are creating video games instead of board games. I have no problem with that.

As for how these theoretical preferences affect the games I play in reality…

I enjoy playing video games, becuase they often combine an extreme degree of detail with the “feel” I’m looking for in a game. But of course, I still enjoy a good face-to-face board game or miniature game. I have limited time, so I tend to choose relatively short games, but I don’t often let rule complexity be a limiting factor. I’ve enjoyed playing all kinds of wargames: some more reductionist, and others which emphasize the gameplay instead of the detail. So maybe I’m just in another phase where I don’t like the idea of reductionism?

I also like reading game rules, sometimes without ever playing the game or even owning enough parts to play it. I like to see how designers translate real-world situations into playable game mechanics. These rulesets are solutions to problems of modelling, and it is interesting to me to see the different ways they create abstractions of reality. (In contrast, pure abstract strategy games aren’t interesting to me. One reason for this is becuase the rules exist in a vacuum: they are abstract, but they aren’t an abstract representation of anything.)

Regarding the realism of the way a game looks on the table: I run the gamut in this area as well. I play euro style wargames, ameritrash, and hex and counter games, but right now I’m on a miniatures gaming kick. For me, miniatures games are as much about the modelling as the playing: the prospect of playing a game is an excuse to paint the figures.

Another unintended side effect of the visual detail in a miniatures game is that I am encouraged to learn about the period I’m gaming. Some of this is required to accurately paint figures or plan and set up for a specific battle in history; but some of it is accidental, when I get sucked into books I’m reading on related subjects.

So, don’t fool yourself into thinking any of these games are realistic, but do have fun trying!

I Prefer Steel

These days it seems hip to say “Steel is Real,” but I’m not a big fan of this phrase. Carbon fiber, Aluminum, and Titanium are also real, of course, but the intended meaning is that the “feel” of riding a bike with a steel frame is better than the feel of riding frames made of other materials.

Most of the people who say “steel is real” are either riding 25 year old crappy ten speeds with gaspipe tubing, or modern steel frames made with thin walled but larger diameter tubes. Neither of these classes of bikes have the “steel is real” feel. Personally, I ride a 25 year old mid-range ten speed with high end gaspipe tubing, which is to say, not a bike with a “steel is real” feel. In fact I’m not sure I’ve ever ridden one of those bikes. Maybe it would be great, but would it be worth the money to find out?

That said, I do still prefer steel frames. I had a lot of fun browsing Busted Carbon, a blog dedicated to images of broken carbon fiber bike frames and parts. Reading that site provides one reason why I prefer steel.

It’s not because carbon fiber fails and steel doesn’t. Steel doesn’t handle running into walls any better than carbon fiber does (though apparently it lasts longer if you tip your bike over in the living room.) The difference is how steel fails. You won’t find any pictures of bent carbon fiber parts on that blog, because carbon fiber doesn’t bend. If you’re lucky, you’ll find a hairline crack before it’s too late. More likely, a part will suddenly and catastrophically fail and cause a crash.

Aluminum and titanium also break more quickly than steel once they become fatigued. I’m not against riding an aluminum bike in theory. My main problem with aluminum frames is that they’re ugly. Actually, so are carbon fiber frames, but that’s not my primary motive with those.

Just about what I expected…

Several years ago, they repaved Monongahela St. right at the end of our block. Shortly after that, there was a water main break or something, and they had to dig up the road to fix it. Of course, this left an annoying patch, which quickly turned into potholes.

The next year, they completely repaved Monongahela St. in the same block again. Once again, there was some kind of problem which required digging up the street a few months later, and once again, they patched the spot and it quickly turned into potholes.

I think they must’ve finally removed the trolley tracks there or something, because it’s been a few years since they repaved there. But all around town, it seems like they’re digging up the street for utilities only a few months after they do a complete repave of the street.

So, in early August when they decided to repave our block of McClure, I was cynical. It’s a quiet block on a one way street, so they haven’t repaved it in the 11 years we’ve been here so far. But it was full of patches and potholes, and I’m glad they kicked us off for a few days to repave.

I thought, “I should write a blog post about how they’ll probably dig up the street next week.” But that’s not very interesting unless they actually dig up the street the next week, so I didn’t write anything.

Well, less than 2 weeks after they repaved, our next door neighbor had some problem with their gas line, which required digging a big hole right in front of their house and patching it (quite poorly, of course). Gah!

It’s annoying, but it’s also just about what I expected. Sometimes it’s no fun to have your expectations met.

Essential Skills

BoingBoing recently posted a link to 18 Essential Maker Skills and referred to a Heinlein quote:

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

As a dedicated Jack, the last line resonated with me: Specialization is for insects. I’m reminded of a quote which Google just helped me attribute to Nicholas Butler:

An expert is one who knows more and more about less and less until he knows absolutely everything about nothing.

There is certainly value in becoming a Master. But the important part of this journey is to never consider yourself a master. As soon as you do, you essentially claim you have nothing else to learn.

I don’t consider myself a master, but I’m well trained as a know-it-all. If you aren’t skeptical enough, you might think I know what I’m talking about. But if you aren’t skeptical enough, you get what you deserve. I’m the sort of person who finds it humorous to say things which are obviously false for ironic effect.

As for the specific 18 Essential Maker Skills presented in the link above, well… “they’re wrong and I’m right,” of course (see “know-it-all,” above). Those skills are all very useful. But if I had to choose only 18 “maker” skills out of everything anyone has ever done or made, I’m not sure those are all the best choices. Many of them are too domain-specific, not universal enough, and too dedicated to the use of special purpose tools.

I’d probably start with the basic necessities in life, and move on from there. Let me be clear: I don’t claim to have all these skills. I only claim that I think they’re important.

  1. Learn how to learn. The most important skill, and the basis for all others, is knowing how to learn new skills. Different people learn in different ways, you need to know what works for you.
  2. Make a meal, from earth to plate. Whether it’s vegetable or an animal, know where your food comes from, and how to get some if you can no longer go to a store. At the very least, learn to make your own meals well enough that you’re willing to eat them.
  3. Make clothing. Again, get as close to the earth as you can.
  4. Make shelter. If I were getting more specific, I’d say “use an axe,” as this is another very basic and important skill, but that may only be because I grew up in the forest instead of the desert.
  5. Set a broken bone. Good idea, Mr. Heinlein. As you can tell: I believe staying alive is important.
  6. Make something from nothing. Become comfortable with thinking and with constructing models and ideas in your mind. Even if your ideas never take physical form, being able to think ensures you will always have something to do. Writing is a good approximation of creating something from nothing. So is computer programming, which is just writing in a different language anyway.
  7. Use tools. The only people likely to read this blog may find the concept very silly, but many people don’t know how to use even basic tools such as a screwdriver, wrench, or hammer. I remember someone who learned how to change a car tire: “That’s it?” Yes, that’s it. Just because someone else says something is difficult, that doesn’t make it difficult. You may just not be skeptical enough: try it and find out.
  8. Fix something. Anything, it doesn’t matter what: make something work, that previously did not.
  9. Make yourself happy.
  10. Ask a question. Learn to figure out what you don’t know, and how to express this in the form of an answerable question.
  11. Tell the difference between success and failure. It’s a lot easier to do well if you can tell the difference between doing well and doing poorly. When starting in a new hobby or learning a new skill, find a master and try to figure out how what makes their work masterwork. As long as you think you’re just as good as they are, you aren’t making progress.
  12. Find the value of things. Value is a very personal concept: the value of something is how much you are willing to sacrifice to attain it. If someone else values something more than you do, they may place a price on it which you don’t want to pay. Become confident enough in your ability to assign value to things that you won’t sacrifice more than you want to, when attaining them.
  13. Take something apart and put it back together again. Make sure it still works, or at least that you know exactly why it doesn’t work anymore.
  14. Formulate a plan. Can you tell someone else how to put together the thing you just took apart?
  15. Follow instructions. When you come back a year from now, can you follow the plan you just formulated for putting that thing back together?

In many ways these skills are restatements and combinations of a few concepts. Learn how to think in the abstract, solve problems, and to map between abstract concepts and real-life objects.

Build a Wheel

Building a bicycle wheel is one of those endeavors which seems complicated to the uninitiated. It looks difficult, and seems like it would be dangerous if you screw up. It’s actually pretty easy to build a wheel, if you can follow step-by-step instructions. There are hundreds of machines in Taiwan doing that very thing, as you read this.

Building a good wheel may be slightly more difficult. I’m a Jack, not a Master, so it may be the case that I’ve never actually built a good wheel. But it’s easy to tell when you have an unridable wheel, and any wheel which is ridable probably passes quality control for a machine-built wheel. So if you’re satisfied riding on machine built wheels, then no worries: build a wheel! It’s fun!

Sheldon Brown has very good instructions on how to build a wheel, so I won’t try to bore you with the step-by-step. Instead, I’ll provide the background thought-track I used while I was building a wheel tonight.

The reason I’m building this wheel is because I bought a Sturmey-Archer 3-speed hub: just like the ones on the bikes of our parents’ generation (or: your generation, mom and dad) when they were young, a decade or so before the big bike boom of the early 1970’s. In fact, this hub was built in 1966: not the best year, but it should have a lot of life left.

The hub came with spokes and nipples, so I only had to supply the rim. I chose a Sun CR-18, which is a nice, strong, inexpensive rim which supports wide tires and looks nice on “retrogrouch” bikes. I also have Sun CR-18’s on a few of my other bikes, so I can swap wheels without mismatching anything. (I’m sure it’s not worth pointing out that I didn’t describe the rim as “light” or “aerodynamic.” At least it isn’t chromed steel.)

Lacing the wheel comes first. This seems like it should be the hard part, but it’s not!

Oops. I’m sure it’s impossible to tell, but all of the spokes in this picture are off by 2 spoke holes on the rim. If you put them in the wrong place, the valve stem will be obstructed by spokes and it’ll be hard to pump up your tire. The fewer spokes you have in your wheel, the more wrong places you have left to put them. Just like when weaving baskets, the key is to find your mistakes and fix them as soon as possible, to avoid taking apart anything you don’t absolutely need to.

I vaguely remember the first time I built a wheel. When I was a kid, I built a set of wheels for my BMX bike, with Dad’s help. I’m guessing I was around 13 years old? I’d guess we bought all the parts at Bike Nashbar, back in the days when it was an interesting enough store to sell things like frame building lugs, instead of just being a discount/clearance outlet. If I remember correctly I bought some kind of plastic rims? What the heck was I thinking?

I don’t know why I remember this, but I’m pretty sure we laced the wheel incorrectly. I think I interlaced the spokes over each other too many times. It was pretty tight, working on a small 20″ wheel. In any case: it didn’t matter. I wasn’t the hardest BMX/freestyle rider around, but I did certainly beat up those wheels; but I never had any broken spokes (though it may have gone out of true, I really don’t remember).

Eventually, I traded the wheels with a friend who had some solid-spoke “mag” wheels (they were plastic, not magnesium, but that’s what we called them all) which I put on my freestyle bike. (No more BMX for me!) It was a 1984 Haro Freestyler frame and fork, which I got cheap because it was a year or so out of date.

I rode that bike basically everywhere, at least until I got a driver’s license. When I was on an internship in Richland Washington after college, I had my parents mail it out there so I could ride with the other 13 year olds, because there was literally nothing better for a 23 year old to do in that gods-forsaken desert (so say we all). I left the bike there when I left; hopefully the neighborhood kids appreciated it, or at least made some money on ebay. (The family I stayed with lived in a type A converted to single-family use.)

When the wheel looks done, the fun has just begun!

Putting the spokes in properly is necessary, but not sufficient, to build a proper wheel. The next phase, which can be a lot trickier, is making sure the wheel is “true” and that the spokes have enough tension. The rim can’t wobble back and forth, and must be round without any any “bumps” in it. It also must be centered left-to-right with respect to the hub.

At this point, you’re basically debugging: identify the place where the wheel is the most out of spec, and correct it (preferrably without affecting any other adjustment in the process). Repeat
until you’re finished. (How close to perfect is “finished,” anyway? Sheldon doesn’t say.)

Wheel building machines are really good at making wheels perfectly straight and true when they come off the machine. The problem is, the wheels are often undertensioned: without enough tension in the spokes, wheels go out of true, and spokes fail prematurely.

Bicycle wheels work in a counterintuitive way. To most people, it seems that when riding a bike, the hub must “hang” from the spokes between the hub and the upper part of the rim. If that were the case, then when weight was added to the bicycle, those spokes would increase in tension. In fact, that’s not what happens at all for properly built wheels. Instead, the spokes between the hub and the ground decrease in tension: a bicycle wheel works as if it had thick spokes under compression, and the weight is borne by the lower spokes. This is why high tension is so important in bicycle spokes- weight on the bike reduces the tension in the spokes, it doesn’t increase the tension.

Improperly built wheels with tension that is too low do work as if the hub was hanging from the rim. In those wheels, the spokes fatigue and break much more quickly than in a properly tensioned wheel.

Machine built wheels also generally don’t stay true for very long, because machines can’t tell the difference between twisting a spoke, and turning the nipple on the end of the spoke. If a spoke is twisted without the nipple turning, eventually that stress will relieve itself, and the wheel will go out of true. You can reduce that effect by lowering spoke tension, but then you’ll have an undertensioned wheel: choose your poison.

I haven’t built many wheels from scratch, but I have rebuilt, repaired, and retrued many more machine built wheels. Machine built wheels are really inexepensive: cheaper than buying the parts reqiured to build the identical wheel, and far less expensive than a hand-built wheel. So, why not just buy a machine-built wheel, and finish it by hand? In fact, this is what a good bike shop should do for every new bike they send out the front door. Not many shops actually do this, unfortunately.

I think it’s a great deal to buy a machine-built wheel, then retension it myself. I’ve had much better luck with wheels I’ve finished this way, than with wheels I’ve ridden straight out of the box.

“Department store bikes” are ridden, on average, less than 20 miles over their entire lifetime. Yes, I ride more in 2 days than the average Wal-mart bike is ridden ever! The bikes are built with this in mind: most of them can’t ever be adjusted properly, or won’t stay in adjustment. Mike had a Wal-mart road bike. I built him a replacement, a 25 year old Schwinn with a handful of parts I had lying around the basement, and it worked better and he enjoyed it more than his brand new Wal-mart bike.

(Mike, are you still riding that World Sport? Do you still like it? Daniel has another World Sport from the same year, and he seems to be enjoying it as well. I think they must have been on sale that year.)

This is my truing stand and dish stick. I don’t have a multi-hundred-dollar Park Tools professional truing stand. I have a fork stuck into a hole in an ugly coffee table. It works just fine, and it was free. The truing stand is used to identify high and low spots on the rim, and locations where it is untrue from side to side. I used a few scraps of masonite and a nut and bolt attached to the fork’s cantilever post, as a feeler gauge. Although this is a completely adequate substitute for a proper truing stand, it requires understanding how a truing stand should be used, before you can build and use it effectively.

I also built my own “dish stick” out of plywood and masonite instead of paying for the real thing. A dish stick, or “wheel alignment gauge,” is used to make sure that the lock nuts on the hub axle and the sides of the rim are centered in relation to each other. If they aren’t centered, you’ll need to misalign your brakes to compensate for the crooked wheel.

At this point, my new wheel is “almost done” and only requires a bit of fine tuning before I put it on a bike and try it out. It took me about an hour and a half to get to that point on the wheel, and slightly longer to write about it (or, to write about what I was thinking while I was building it).