Whither game reviews?

How shall I write about games on my blog?

Hockey at Sunset by monkeyshine
A photo of a game I will never play (cc-licensed by monkeyshine)

As you’ve surely noticed, I’m playing a lot of board games lately and would like to write something about them on my blog.  I hesitate to do reviews because there are lots of good game reviewers who give games several plays before they review them, and depending on the game it would take me months before I had enough play under my belt to review a game.  So here are some other ideas:

  • continue what I’ve been doing – irregular random compositions about games as they emerge
  • reviews – I don’t care, Brendan, that you haven’t enough time to play games thoroughly before you review them.  Review away!
  • Why I play ____ – semi-regular feature, maybe twice a month, with just stuff about why we play a game.  Not really a review because I won’t be assessing quality so much as what we like.
  • Game Design notes – semi-regular feature in which I highlight one aspect of a game I really like from a design perspective.
  • Other?

I am open to suggestions.  Post them in the comments.

Sous Chef

Sous Chef: 24 hours on the lineSous Chef: 24 Hours on the Line
by Michael Gibney, narrated by Fred Berman

Sous Chef is part detailed explanation, part memoir, part battle narrative.  It recalls a day in the life of the assistant chef at a mid-level “star rated” restaurant in New York.  Gibney does a great job explaining both what the day is like and why it’s like that.  The book mixes some philosophy of cooking in with science and restauranteurship.  Very enjoyable.  A few extra thoughts:

  • I used to think a “sous chef” was in charge of sauces.  Turns out it means “assistant chef,” a second in command, but more like a chief of staff than a vice president, to use a political analogy.  Calls the head chef “Chef,” and is called “Chef” by those under him.
  • I like the smattering of Spanish throughout the book, given without translation.  I didn’t understand it, but it fits the sense of the world better.
  • The level of intensity required of chefs in restaurants is crazy.  I suspect this is why so many shows focus on kitchens — they’re intense places to work.  My favorite part of the book is when the second seating on the Friday night takes place, and the narrator (who speaks in second person, making you the sous chef) gets into a flow state.  Check out the clip below.
  • Like the other restaurant book I enjoyed, Waiter Rant, Gibney slips into poetic language occasionally, creating city tableaux.  It works okay, but some of his prose gets a little purple.
  • I love the early discussion of the way teamwork and cohesion function as part of a good kitchen.  I’d think this book is required reading for any aspiring chefs, both as warning and as guidebook.

Fred Berman does a good job with the book, bringing a gravelly bark to the tale and handling the variety of languages skillfully.  Worth a look, or listen. (Caviat – I haven’t read any other chef memoirs before, so I can’t compare it with those.)


February 25, IN HISTORY

This year, for the “Wednesday photos” feature, I will be including photos that reference the date of the post in their description or when they were taken.

1964, Championship fight between Cassius Clay and Sonny Liston: Miami Beach, Florida (cc-licensed)
1964, Championship fight between Cassius Clay and Sonny Liston: Miami Beach, Florida (cc-licensed)
1911, Confetti Throwing at the Departure of the Geo. Washington
1911, Confetti Throwing at the Departure of the Geo. Washington (cc-licensed)
1916, Display of pig carcasses outside J. Morgan's butcher shop on Broad Street, Waterford
1916, Display of pig carcasses outside J. Morgan’s butcher shop on Broad Street, Waterford (cc-licensed)

Also (from Wikipedia):

  • 1836 – Samuel Colt is granted a United States patent for the Colt revolver.
  • 1901 – J. P. Morgan incorporates the United States Steel Corporation.
  • 1907 – Mary Chase born, American playwright, author of Harvey (d. 1981)
  • 1986 – People Power Revolution: President of the Philippines Ferdinand Marcos flees the nation after 20 years of rule; Corazon Aquino becomes the Philippines’ first woman president.


Maze Runner

The Maze RunnerMaze Runner
by James Dashner

Thomas wakes in a wide clearing, surrounded by boys who tell him that he’s now trapped in the center of a massive maze that changes every night and is patrolled by robotic-organic death beasts with blades and needles.  The boys know they’re being watched by the “Creators” and they get many of the supplies they need to survive, but ultimately they need to do something in order to escape.  And all their hopes rest on the shoulders of the boys who spend the day exploring the maze.

A diverting Y.A. adventure book that captures the genre’s rules well, if a bit derivatively.  A few thoughts:

  • I know the new kid needs to prove himself, but I find the “new kid is the best at it all” trope that’s a central part of the Y.A. genre getting a bit tired.  Thomas shows up and he’s far more brave, more clever, more maze-runnery than any of the kids who have been surviving here for two years.  I’d love to see a Y.A. book that takes a more balanced approach.  But that’s no fun.
  • The best part of the book was the grievers, the robots with organic outsides and rubber and gears and wheels and claws and knives and needles and and and.  Dashner was smart to make them shimmery and hard to see–it makes them almost Lovecraftian in design, equipped to drive their victims mad before they chop them up.
  • I am disappointed that it had to be all boys.  Again.  And not differentiated by skin color, either.  I guess they could have been of varying hues, but by making race invisible in the story, the book ignores race completely.  This may have been part of the idea (post-apocalyptic worlds are race-blind?) but since our world isn’t race blind, I feel like the book spurs an erasure of difference in its lack of description.  (NOTE: It’s possible that the book included more descriptions or signs of race than I’m remembering, in which case I guess I’m showing some blind spot of my own.  To my mind, the only signifier of race in the book was the use of the name Minho, which gave him an Asian look in my mind.)
  • Everything is a remix, of course, but here are a few of the dominant flavors in The Maze Runner:
    • Lord of the Flies – Golding’s book about a bunch of boys trapped somewhere, trying to survive.  The central conflict here arises in the dispute about leadership among the boys.  The Glade seems to have had its own struggles with this, as they have a banishment ritual and a long pole and everything.
    • Cube – The film about a bunch of people trapped in a deadly maze with no memory of how they got there is more immediate, as the victims have no food or water, so they’re limited to a couple days at the most. (Wikipedia indicates this film was inspired by a Twilight Zone Episode)
    • Ender’s Game (or other kids-in-experiment stories) – the youth social circles and the lone genius who can solve their problems brings this Orson Scott Card classic to mind.
  • I am interested to see how they adapt the novel into a film.  It’s eminently filmable as a story, with the right kind of plot structure and even the right length of story.
Still from the Maze Runner movie
Kill the pig! Cut his throat! Kill the pig! Bash him in!

One spoilery thought:

  • The overall mystery of the book works well, as we only get tiny pieces of the outside world in drips and drabs.  Thus, the reader spends most of their time trying to guess what all this is about.  And I guess I am stuck like the rest in that since I don’t know what it’s all about, I can’t comment on, say, the value of making a maze as a test.  Or any of the other plot points.

Tweets from 2015-02-15 to 2015-02-21

Random tidbits

A few bits of stuff that have floated across my transom.

  • I’ve watched “Shia Le Bouf Live” many times, but only recently realized Rob Cantor was part of Tally Hall.  It explains so much.
  • Castle Dice is one of the more fun / infuriating games I have in my collection.  You make a plan that involves getting, say, two or three of a resource, and then you roll all Barbarians on that resource and you get nothing.  The More Castles expansion gives a great zest of variety to the game, and the new trackers and other tidbits that game with the game are great.
  • I am going to see the Spongebob movie this afternoon.  Pray for me.

On Trigger Warnings and Empathy

Neil Gaiman’s recent short story collection is called Trigger Warnings.  Scott Kenemore (author of Zombie, Indiana among many others) wrote about how horror is supposed to cause feelings of discomfort:

in recent years a threat has emerged—a sinister shadow falling over our community, you might say—leaving us even darker than usual.  And I believe that a uniform opposition to it has finally become that elusive unifying quality I could never otherwise find.

This shadow is the movement—in academe and, increasingly, elsewhere—to protect readers from ideas that might trigger feelings of discomfort or trauma.  This trend is disconcerting to horror writers because creating discomfort and trauma is—more or less—what we aim to do.

Making people feel uncomfortable is not a byproduct of our project.  It is our project.  We write novels and stories (and sometimes even poems) precisely so that readers should jump at an unexpected noise, or pull the covers closer in bed that night.  Our goal is to horrify.  To traumatize whenever possible.  To trigger the deepest, darkest fears that we can.

We don’t do this out of allegiance to any form of historical oppression.  Certainly, we do not do it for the money—at least not chiefly.  (Since the “horror boom” of the 1990s, advances in our genre have decreased drastically.  Any opportunists in our ranks have long since decamped for the greener pastures of YA.) Instead, we do this because we think something important is going on when people are scared.  We think it’s possible to be sublimely and transcendently frightened.  We believe fear and discomfort are sensations which, rightly conjured, can put one in touch with some of the most interesting and profound aspects of human existence.  And, yes, also with vampires and zombies and tentacle monsters. (Read the rest here: We ARE the triggers)

I posted this in reply:

You make a good argument about unabashed horror, and the value of texts that cause discomfort. I agree wholeheartedly with your idea about what horror should be.

But I think you’ve misrepresented what trigger warnings should be for, to my mind. Trigger Warnings are about context. They’re meant to signpost upcoming moments for readers who might not be ready for them. Thus, I usually see trigger warnings on non-fiction pieces about controversial topics. I’d think a horror story written as a horror story ought to be its own trigger warning.

But even in the case of fiction (such as last week’s Scandal, a pretty violent show that this week included an extra “violent content” warning), trigger warnings shouldn’t be a way to coddle readers or help them avoid uncomfortable situations: they’re a recognition that for some readers, some topics invoke real life trauma. This isn’t to say those readers should avoid the texts, necessarily, but rather to give them the choice about how to handle them (even just being mentally prepared can make a difference).

By way of example, imagine a story including scenes of rape. Without a trigger warning, a rape survivor may be blind-sided by emotions from their own past because of the story. On one hand, blind-siding a reader with emotions is a great skill for the author. On the other hand, this is unearned reaction — you didn’t make that result as a writer, you happened upon a particular reader’s weakness. If your story’s good (and if you’ve written it, Scott, it would be), you don’t need the cheat of the reader’s previous trauma. Nor will your story’s effect be reduced for the reader whom the trigger doesn’t effect.

To me, a trigger warning isn’t about telling audiences to avoid texts, but rather about empathy, and about recognizing that different experiences urge different kinds of responses.

Pigs Have Wings

Pigs Have WingsPigs Have Wings by P.G. Wodehouse

Two gentlemen with big manors face off in a legendary fat pig growing contest, and right in the middle is the brother of one of the men, Gally Threepwood.  Of course, there’s some confusion with mis-matched lovers, a farce involving an uptight butler and stolen pigs, and an awful lot of bally great language.  A few thoughts:

  • I don’t like these quite as much as the Jeeves and Wooster novels.  Gally Threepwood isn’t quite as goofy or dopey as Bertie Wooster, and Beach is no Wooster.  Of course, I should probably read more before I pronounce judgment, but there it is.
  • Vocab: pre-phylloxera – wine from before the great French wine blight.  “Beach helped himself to a third glass of port.  It was pre-phylloxera, and should have had him dancing about the room, strewing roses from his hat, but it not so much as bring a glow to his eye.” (194)  Apparently wine made after the plague was less heady or something.
  • Favorite phrase from the book: “Penny seemed listless… It may have been merely maiden meditation but it looked to Gally more like the pip.”  I love the phrase “the pip,” which means “to be angry, or depressed.”

There are perhaps some class issues to write about with regard to these books, but really, Wodehouse books are just darn fun.

February 18, IN HISTORY

This year, for the “Wednesday photos” feature, I will be including photos that reference the date of the post in their description or when they were taken.

Sir Richard John Musgrave, 5th Baronet of Tourin
Sir Richard John Musgrave, 5th Baronet of Tourin, with his Jack Russell Terrier
(cc-licensed from Ntnl Library of Ireland)


Fonds Trutat - Photographie ancienne (Automobile) cc-licensed by Bibliothèque de Toulouse
Fonds Trutat – Photographie ancienne (Automobile)
(cc-licensed by Bibliothèque de Toulouse)

To be completely honest, this second photo was posted on February 18, but there weren’t any other good ones with the date in their actual information.

Events from February 18:

  • 1922 – Helen Gurley Brown born, American author and publisher (d. 2012)
  • 1930 – While studying photographs taken in January, Clyde Tombaugh discovers Pluto.
  • 1970 – The Chicago Seven are found not guilty of conspiring to incite riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

Dispatches from the Age of Electracy: Empire State’s Worldbuilder

Empire State Building by Tom Simpson cc-licensed
“Empire State Building” by Tom Simpson

When my students and I talk about the digital age, one of the changes we trace is the relationship between author and audience.  In oral cultures, the relationship is direct — the one telling you the story is standing within earshot, so you can ask questions and work out details together.  Literacy changes that, separating the reader from the author by the distance of a letter or generations.  This breaks the text away from the author (as the New Critics noticed) and changes the nature of the relationship of author to reader.  Electracy changes the relationship again.  The immediacy of digital communication means that a two-way communication channel has now opened up.  But because of the open publishing nature of the web, the audience is also filled with authors, and the two can reflect one another back and forth.  I finished reading Adam Christopher’s Empire State recently, and the end of the audiobook featured two addenda that I thought were particularly interesting illustrations of the shifting relationship between author and reader.

First, it had the soundtrack for the writing of the book.  Christopher explains each song choice for both its musical quality and the use he made of it while writing.  He also offers a link to the soundtrack so you can listen yourself.  This meta-narrative information is interesting, both as a tidbit about the writer and his taste in music, but also about the mood the novel should cast.  I haven’t seen this yet, but it’s probably just a matter of time until an ebook comes with a soundtrack that you listen to while you read.  It probably couldn’t be songs with words, but it could be a modular thematic instrumental soundtrack, broken up perhaps by chapter or even page.  Somebody go build that!

Second, the end of the book includes an invitation to produce fan fiction in the world of Empire State.  Christopher invites fan authors to create their own stories for the novel, and hosts a place where they can share them.  At the same time, he reserves the scenes in the novel from fan adaptation (because it could create conflicting storylines) and he asks people not to write in the future of the Empire State (after the end of the novel), as he may want to write a sequel and he doesn’t want to be influenced by something one of them wrote.  The website also features a pre-built set of terms in which fan artists whose work the Empire State folk choose to publish will get 25% of something–it’s not clear to me what or how much the royalty goes to.

Fan art will appear.  The savvy writer encourages it and helps guide it to fit his own goals for the source work.  This is storytelling in the digital age.

Empire State

Empire State by Adam ChristopherEmpire State
by Adam Christopher; narrated by Phil Gigante

The dark and shadowy world of Empire State is kind of like New York in the late 20s, but not quite.  This tale of adventure, mystery, weird technology, and haunting atmosphere will have you running in circles, marveling at the buildings, and peering into the fog.  A few thoughts:

  • The first half of the novel is fantastic.  I mean that both literally — as in: it includes fantastical science-fiction elements and a complicated plot set in an alternate New York called The Empire State — and figuratively, in that it’s quite enjoyable.  The second half, for me, was not quite as good.  The novel explains more than I wanted it to, and the mysteriousness of the first half overwhelmed the result of the second half.
  • In mood, Empire State resonates with dystopian city sci-fi scapes like Brazil, The Manual of Detection, and Kafka.  It also injects noir tropes and pulp science heroes into the mix.  The result is a world that draws on many of the same tropes in vogue throughout speculative fiction right now, but does so with verve and gusto.
  • Most impressive about the first half of the novel are Christopher’s casual world-building moments.  He excels in writing sentences that open new doors on the world, shifting the whole nature of what you see as you read.  I enjoyed these moments so much that I’ve excised a lot of references from this review so that these syntactical gems can remain inviolate.  To explain what I mean, though, consider the classic example from Heinlein: “The door dilated.”  With the simple use of a word in a new context, Heinlein downloads a whole new set of expectations and ideas about the world.  Christopher does this several times (at least three that I can think of), and it’s a delight.
  • At the same time, some of these reveals are cheats of narrative convenience.  For instance, at least one “big reveal” from fairly late in the novel depends on visual information that, had we been watching this as a film, we would have understood from the beginning.  Thus, the value of carefully excluding details.
  • I like that Christopher includes a playlist and an invitation to fan contributions at the end of the book.  I’ll write more about that tomorrow.

All in all, very enjoyable.  Phil Gigante does a good job handling different voices in the story, particularly given the complex relationships between some of the characters.

Tweets from 2015-02-08 to 2015-02-14

Comics Roundup: The Spirit, Deadpool, Luthor

The Spirit: Femmes Fatales Dead Pool: Soul Hunter Luthor: Man of Steel

The Spirit: Femmes Fatales by Will Eisner
I have, of course, heard about Will Eisner’s The Spirit plenty, so when I saw this collection at my library, I thought I’d give it a try.  Not a best first collection for the new reader of the Spirit.  While some of the adventures are entertaining, the book is chock full of straight-faced sexism that makes women out to be flighty, villainous, slutty, or all three.  A lot of it’s played to humorous effect, but the gender dynamics really overpower the text.  And to top it off, many adventures also feature the Spirit’s African-American sidekick, drawn in painful racist caricature.  Best left to the dedicated Spirit reader, and even they probably won’t like this.

Deadpool vol 2: Soul Hunter by Brian Posehn, Gerry Duggan, et al.
Posehn has a strong grasp on what makes Deadpool particularly entertaining.  The snarky attitude and flexible morality make the tales he’s telling all the funnier, and like Garth Ennis’ Punisher comics, the other heroes in Marvel’s New York become foils for Deadpool’s antics.  In this volume, Deadpool has to hunt down and kill some superpowered people who’d made deals with demons.  Particularly amusing are the running jokes about people mistaking him for Spider-Man.

Luthor: Man of Steel by Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo
In his afterward, Azzarello says his approach was to try to imagine a sympathetic Luthor, someone who strives to take Superman down not for his own ends, but for the altruistic motive of saving the city from a nearly-omnipotent alien who could turn on us at any time.  Bermejo does a great job making Superman seem like a villain.  When we see him through Luthor’s eyes, Supes is shaded in noir shadows, with burning red eyes that look positively demonic.  Yikes.

February 11th, IN HISTORY

This year, for the “Wednesday photos” feature, I will be including photos that reference the date of the post in their description or when they were taken.

Billy Graham in Tallahassee, 1961
Billy Graham in Tallahassee, 1961 (cc-licensed)
Carr Woodall Tires shop, 1954
Carr Woodall Tires shop, 1954 (cc-licensed)

Also (from Wikipedia):


  • 1531 – Henry VIII of England is recognized as supreme head of the Church of England.
  • 1938 – BBC Television produces the world’s first ever science fiction television program, an adaptation of a section of the Karel Čapek play R.U.R., that coined the term “robot”.
  • 1978 – Censorship: China lifts a ban on works by Aristotle, William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens.


Dispatches from the Age of Electracy: Tales from Kickstarter, part 2

This week’s Dispatch follows up on last week’s discussion of Kickstarter and board games.

Settlers of Catan Menaced (Tony J Case, cc-licensed)
Settlers of Catan Menaced (Tony J Case, cc-licensed)

In response to the three problems I pointed out last week, we’re starting to see a number of changes in KS habits for board game producers.

Stretch Goal Fever
The companies that do well fighting this problem have learned a couple things.  First, that free or cheap to produce stretch goals are key.  Adding a sheet of stickers?  Great!  Adding another miniature? Bad.  I like the companies that do small runs of KS extras that will be tossed in with the box — both Heroes Wanted and Epic Resort did this, adding little packets of extra stuff that regular buyers of the game wouldn’t be able to get.  On the other hand, sometimes we get extra trinkets that just feel like a waste of money (I’m looking at you, sheet of stickers).

Another response is to avoid stretch goals altogether, or only offer a couple at huge milestones.

Crushed by Success
Limiting specialized stretch goals is a key part of this process — individualized rewards mean tons of extra work in fulfillment, and thus lots of work outside of making the game.  Boo.  Ludicreations is the paramount of restraint here.  Not only do they do NO stretch goals at all, they actually limit the number of games they will issue as rewards so they can be sure to fulfill the game on time.  Here’s what they say:


What You See Is What You Get – this is our doctrine, and we like to run simple, straightforward campaigns. We are aware that offering add-ons and/or introducing stretch goals would increase the funding total. However, we have already thrown everything into this game – a lot of time, effort, and money. We intend to print with the highest quality materials anyway and we will not cut any corners.

We also want to offer the game at the cheapest cost possible – and that is incompatible with stretch goals. We’d have to add “hidden” profit in the pledge levels, that we can then “spend” to give you stretch goals to get excited about. Therefore, raising money beyond our goal does not give us extra money on hand to create stretch goals.

Furthermore, because the games are made in Europe, and because we do small print runs, we do not benefit by economies of scale by producing more copies of the game.

If we do offer additional content, we will lock past pledge levels. That’s it – you do not need to pay more, or like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter or be a fan on BGG – although all of those things are nice of you if you do them, we want you to do them if you want to, not because of a carrot we dangle in front of you.

We do not do add-ons (not even our other games), because we want to keep our operations simple, and deliver efficiently. We are in this for the long run, so it does not help us to squeeze a few more dollars from a few backers, if we disappoint *all* backers.

Will it be any good?
Ludicreations has also done a great job soliciting reviews of their games to combat the problem of games that look cool but aren’t fun to play.  As Steven Johnson predicted in Interface Culture, reviewers have become the filter for us, a way to find games that work.  By tapping into this fan culture, KS companies bypass the judgment of game production companies in favor of the wisdom of crowds.

The personal touch
My favorite company producing games through Kickstarter right now is Funto11 games (current KS: Epic PVP: Fantasy).  These folks have a long track record of producing great games and delivering on time.  They also do a great job of offering substantial and interesting stretch goals without going overboard.  I also love the personal touch at the heart of all their projects.  For instance, when they were doing the KS for Castle Dice, one of the stretch goals was bigger dice, but in the last week before the KS ended, Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast, and the team saw backers withdrawing at about an even rate as new ones were signing up.  They wrote this:

Just when a campaign should be taking off toward the end, we’ve been noticing a very large number of cancellations which is offsetting any new backer momentum. This is totally unlike our previous 2 campaigns and the campaigns that our friends have run in the past. It’s pretty clear to us that this is due to folks hunkering down from the storm on the East Coast.

We love making games and we think even expensive games like Castle Dice are an affordable way for folks to have fun (especially when you compare it to things like going to the movies or having a nice meal out). That said, We don’t want anyone feeling any sort of pressure to open their wallet more than they feel comfortable with to help us reach a stretch goal at a time like this.

As such, we’re taking down the stretch goal and marking it “achieved.” We’ll cover any uncovered costs associated with the upgrade (we have some extra money from MSfG and Flame War – none of us have taken a dime from Fun to 11 to date). And while we’re happy with any support we get in these last 3 days, we’re not announcing any new stretch goals for this product. Instead we will be donating 10% of every dollar raised between now and the end of the campaign to hurricane relief. It just feels like the right thing to do now. We’ve always said that Fun to 11 isn’t in this for the money, so it’s time we put those words into practice.

Thanks for all of your support folks and to all of you on the wrecked coast, hang tough,

Luke, Jay, Kai, Dave, and Rob

How cool is that?

All of this, of course, points to both the pleasures and the dangers of electracy.  On the plus side, we get to know game developers in ways we couldn’t before.  On the down side, we don’t have the smarts of the marketplace protecting us from flashy amateurs who don’t actually have the experience to get the game to market.  And having to use our own judgment to filter those folks means that sometimes we’ll get screwed.