Monty and Morgion 066: Mechmania Strikes Back

25Oct03 (Monthenor): The second part of my UIUC travelogue isn't quite done yet. I had better things to do last night. So now the comic is done, and it's much better than last year's. Since last year's is hanging on the UIUC ACM's wall...does this one get a frame?

Our major contact with the coders this time around was through Gutsman. Sisyphus and Badgegiver were still there, but since the code was actually done (!) this year, we didn't have to bug them at all. All of this was foretold in Gutsman's missive:

By somewhat random chance, I came across your rant about last year's MechMania, and it rang so hilariously true that it brought tears to my eyes. I was on the team "Happy Campers," which you described as leaving "with sour looks." Our sour looks had to do with the poor, poor performance of MechMania in general that year, combined with the fact that it had sucked last year, too. After the contest, I thought, "Gee, MechMania isn't actually that hard, it just needs a lot of debug time." Well, one thing led to another, and so this year I'm part of the team working on MechMania. Our motto is, "_THIS_ year, it WILL NOT SUCK!" So you should come back and compete. Because you rule. I'll back my guarantee with this: If you come and it does suck, you can punch me in the stomach. [Emphasis mine]

P.S. If by some terrible circumstance you are out in the "real world" now, then you'll need two buds who are still in college to form a valid team. If that's not possible, then disregard everything I said. Except that you still rule.

-- Gutsman

I call that motivation. And I believe I know the "random chance" he was referring to.

-- 18Oct2003 : Under the Sea Dance --

0030: Bed. [We found out later that the other NDSU team stayed up plotting until 0330. What the hell for?]

0830: Wake up [I'll miss you, sleep.]

0938: MORTAL KOMBAT!!! [Now I can shut up. I've been waiting all weekend for the song, THE song, to be played. Now I'm all psyched up. is time to code.]

Lexicon broke my only pencil, but I find a nice panda one in the lab. [During our little PuzzleHack session, Lexicon somehow dismantled and lost pieces of my only mechanical pencil. Fortunately our computer area coughed up another pencil with cute little pandas all over it. Yay, panda!]

Programming forever. It usually worked (server worked, viz didn't). Several iterations of strat (Stompro, snipes, medium assault) versus several strong teams (Trogdor's Troopers, Outsourced Foreigners [accidental sentience]), intentional crippling, multiple strat breaks, plasma screen, three uninited booleans, soooo tired...[This encapsulates the entire contest. The ACM apparently finished the server code back in December, so this year had rock-solid stability through the whole weekend. We therefore had time to go through several versions of our general strategy ("to win"). The focus of the game was to find your way through the hex grid with your mechs and control stationary mines for income. This income was then used to build other mechs and eventually beat down your opponent. Stompro was a single mech designed to kill a base as fast as possible through huge melee attacks. Didn't have quite enough armor, so we scrapped it. Most teams ended up with some sort of long-range snipers.]

[Even better, ACM got a hold of a huge plasma screen TV and some nice speakers, and set up a demonstration area out in the public atrium of the tech building. Teams could hand in their current code and watch them fight randomly against demo clients and other teams. It was a damn good idea, and suitable entertainment during our frequent strategy sessions. The format for the contest was changed a bit from previous years. Since everything worked off the bat, there was no need to keep the lab open all night. However, it's tradition to get no sleep. So ACM set the rules that out of the 24 hours the lab would be open, you could only be there for 19. If your team wanted a break, you all had to leave and sign out at the door. You didn't have to go home, but you couldn't stay there. We used this time to find a quiet corner, ideally in view of the plasma screen, and plan our next couple hours of coding.]

[The "intentional crippling" remark refers to our tactic for throwing off the opposition. When handing in our AI, we'd flip the "old and busted" switch that made our AI totally blow. We hoped this would keep our AI a super secret. It turns out that the best teams didn't even bother with the early hand-in, and we were thus completely unprepared for their domination.]

[Trogdor's Troopers were one of the toughest teams around. They had a multi-tactic AI that would alternately build a ladder of death towards our base, overwhelm us with fast mechs, or send out assault teams in several different directions. The Outsourcers had the second most frightening mechs...very early on, their mechs would meet up in teams of guards and miners and absolutely OWN every mine on the board. Once they got moving, it was a roiling beehive of their mechs, decimating anything unlucky enough to come near. Even more disturbing, one guy on their team said that such behavior was completely accidental, "emergent", and was the result of balancing factors that they had since broken.]

[And those three uninitialized booleans? Those are three separate instances of this very comic. Weird seg faults would show up in random areas of our pathfinding code, and after way too much time we'd track it down to an uninited boolean.]

-- 19Oct2003 : Pathfinding to Mediocrity --

0920: Done. Turned in and stable and a contender. Free pinball. Check out of hotel, then Jimmy John's Gourmet Sammiches. Wander campus (ladybugs and squirrels). Evertyhing's funny now. [Nine AM, our time is up and we have to leave the lab. That's okay, 'cause I'm damned hungry. Jimmy John provided some decent subs. We then did a little wandering about campus, looking at stuff. The ladybugs were of the vicious, flesh-eating variety. I've never seen ladybugs that were so aggressive or attracted to humans, and they were very persistent.]

[The squirrel was another matter. At NDSU we have squirrels and rabbits that have learned to get along with the students. At UIUC they have Squirrels. There was one in particular that we like to tell stories about. We were just walking along, and saw a squirrel's bushy tail sticking up out of a garbage can. As we got closer, it pulled up and braced itself on the edge of the can, staring straight at us. DAP tried to scare it off, stalking towards it as he chases rabbits. The Squirrel stared him down, and DAP backed off. Lexicon then went to touch it, and the Squirrel actually started leaning towards his hand. This was a creature without fear.]

1300: Contest? I need a shower, and a day of sleep. [Going a day without a shower makes me very cranky.]

1307: Not yet...

1330: Finally, D, D, D, and D start the tourney. [All the ACMers seem to have names that start with D.]

Amazing and surprising close win over Trogdor's! We begin our reign of terror over the Burninator Himself! [When we pulled off a win in our very first match, against the only team we thought we'd lose to, we got pretty excited.]

Trogdor's 6 leftover bots have gone rogue and are fighting off Ragnarok's overwhelming force of almost 50 sleeping mechs! It took them nearly 1800 turns, but they pull out the win with 4 bucks and 6 mechs to their name!!! Ragnarok had 7264 bucks in reserve with no base to speak of. This was the coolest Mechmania fight I've ever seen. [This was so cool. Ragnarok employed some sort of horrific cloning technology to build legions of fast mechs, but once the enemy base was destroyed the AI just sorta...stopped. It was their only weakness. Trogdor, with their splitting-up AI, managed to keep 6 assault mechs out of range of Ragnarok's forces. By sniping at maximum range for almost five minutes, they eventually killed all the enemy mechs and bases.]

Outsourcers dispatch COBOL in a quick ~500 turn match.

Happy Campers vs. Team 9: HC has great pathfinding, but gets the crap blown out of them early on. Then Team 9 falls apart to the HC's relentless mining.

TheMustachioedBakulas vs. 9 CIA Ham Men: We got clusterfucked in 250 turns. Nothing can defeat the quad lasers. [We did we ever lose. The 9CHM put four assault mechs into a cluster and steamrolled our entire half of the map.]

ScriptKiddies vs. Better MrSimple: ScriptKiddies don't even move their built mechs, so they're getting stomped by MrRandom here.

TMB vs. Mark: Stompage. Mark didn't do squat. [A hollow win for us, Mark appeared to be broken.]

TMB vs. Ragnarok: We both expend a lot of resources on assault mechs, but once we're out of money their relentless harvester train overwhelms the base, and then they build the Bunker Buster. The Death Star. The Marlon Brando of mech archetypes. It's slow rolling gait gives us ample time to contemplate our own demise. And a quick demise it is: One shot takes over half of our health, and a quick series of follow-ups take us down within five turns. I must possess its secret! [Our final match, and a very disturbing one. Ragnarok definitely has style...when they see our base helpless in the corner, they built the Bunker Buster. It uses only one dollar in movement, which means it takes 300 turns to step a single hex, but it uses all the rest of its cash in laser power. On top of that, it's only built when the enemy base is undefended and undefendable. That assures maximum terror as it oh-so-slowly moves into range. So we placed 5th or 6th, after all our work.]


9CIAHamMen vs Outsourcers: Outsourcers has a slightly better ability to find the mines when some are blocked, and 9CHM is just overjoyed that they don't segfault. The 9CHM strategy of zealous overdriving is eventually enough to whittle down the Outsourcer fleet and claim victory. Barely. It was an exciting match, to be sure. [A clash of titans, both teams are severely hampered by the inaccessable mines in one corner. If their clustering was coupled with our team's perfect pathfinding...]

1615: Back on the road, and a stop for gas before leaving town. Now begins the long and frequently dangerous journey back to Fargo. All the weather forecasts predict smooth and sunny travel, but they obviously forgot that it was time for the NDSU delegation to return from UIUC. Blizzards and fog, gonads and strife. Gonads in the lightning! [In the lightning!]

Actually I'm going to spend the entire trip fretting over the Bunker Buster strategy. That awesome display of final power, and the ominous way in which it slowly consumes all in its path, is the ultimate expression of domination in Mechmania. It is such a gratuitous mech that the 9CHM don't even use it unless they are backed into a to speak. [It bugged me for a long time.]

It is apparent to me that by ignoring mining, and attaching our Assault brain to a Bunker Buster chassis, we could have easily destroyed all competition. An obsessive running of numbers follows. My math initially sucks, and I can't figure out how 9CHM did it. [I mean, with a movement cost of 1, and maximum range of 10, they only have enough money to pump the damage up to 10. This does give them a maximum overdrive of 25 range OR 26 damage, but it doesn't seem to jibe with the unholy speed with which it cracks open bases.]

"Air Force": aim high. "Army": aim for center of mass.

-- 20Oct2003: Who's Dirty? --

I am so dirty. I need to sleep and be clean.

Huh. No storm? [I guess the 74 Parking Lot was enough for one year. The UIUC travel gods spared us our blizzard.]

0430: Home at last, perchance to dream. [My gear made a neat arc from my bedroom door to my bed: snack bag, laptop, backpack, coat, shoes, clothes, bed.]

-- 21Oct2003: Time Dilation --

0600: Ah, 26 hours of sleep really hit the spot. Now my advancing age (22) becomes apparent, as 43 hours of wakeitude followed by 26 hours of unconsciousness has left me literally weak with hunger. I nearly fainted and/or vomited, and I have been a blissfully vomit-free zone for over five years. In fact, as certain friends could no doubt attest, I am preternaturally resistant to vomit. [It was weird. I can't remember ever being faint like that before, and I've slept through a day a couple times. Once I took my first bite of toast everything stabilized. I'm still not clear on exactly what day it is.]

Most requested song: Tenacious D - Tribute (I'm looking at you, Mule)

Song that made everybody go "huh?": The Moldy Peaches - Steak for Chicken. It's two two TWO songs in one!

Most unfulfilled request: Wesley Willis. No, I still don't have him, but I have been assured he could totally headbutt any of the other bands I have.

Best new sushi: Those Dragon Rolls were great. Mmm, eggs.

Should you go next year?: HELL YES. Why weren't you there this year?