Saga on Board Games

Saga: Vol 3 features a weird otherworldly board game.  Here are the relevent panels.

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Five Christmas Songs you probably don’t have in your collection, but should

The wonderful Poprocket podcast did a holiday episode recently that got me wanting to recommend some of my favorite Christmas tunes.  So here’s a list of five songs that need to be in your collection (if you listen to Christmas music, that is.)

1.”Nuttin’ for Christmas” by Sugarland. This countrified version of the classic novelty song is wonderful, and captures the impish spirit of the original without being so annoying.

2. “Carolina Christmas” by Squirrel Nut Zippers. A jazzy swing song about Christmas in the South. I love the swoopy voice of the lead singer, and the stand-up bass makes this song amazing.  Plus this line: “It’s Christmas in Carolina / It’s Christmas all over the place.”

3. “Christmas Christmas” by Mojo Nixon. This is one of Finn’s favorites, and the Louie Louie riff makes for a real party song with a groovy, trashy vibe.  Slightly adult themes.

4. “Carol of the Bells” by Straight No Chaser. Perhaps my only serious and touching song on this list — the a capella group’s arrangement of this song is great.

5. Last, my favorite part of the Muppets, the chaotic and wide-grinned Dr. Teeth sings “‘Zat You, Santa Claus?” Like the Sugarland track I mentioned at the beginning, it’s a wondrous capture of the sense and spirit the holiday gives me.

Two honorable mentions: I absolutely love the Voicedude mash-up “Here Comes Santa Claus in Black” and the They Might Be Giants song “Santa’s Beard,” but this wouldn’t be a list of five songs if I included seven.  The last is “Here Comes Santa Claus In Black” by voicedude. I don’t know where you can get this last one, alas.

 

What got played – November edition

Wow! I can’t believe we’re already at November 23rd. What a busy month it’s been!  I just wanted to take a couple minutes today to fill you in on what I’ve been playing since the last post (on Oct 28th).

What I Played

It seems to be harvest season for Kickstarter projects — Loop, Inc. , Best Treehouse Ever, and Epic PVP are all Kickstarter projects that I backed last year and just showed up.  We also had some fun games of Escape: The Curse of the Temple and Between Two Cities.

I’ve been working on a system to pick which games to play when the kids and I have some time to game. The problem is that often, for whatever reason, the kids will get at loggerheads about what game they want to play.  One will pick one game, and the other will absolutely refuse to play that game, and set their sights on another. You can see where this is going.  So we’ve gone to a classic system that’s worked like gangbusters — papers in a jar.

I’ve now got two jars, though, because sometimes we have two hours and can play something long like Agricola or Galaxy Trucker, and other times we have an hour or less, and we have to play something like Machi Koro or Between Two Cities.  So now there are two jars.

Here’s how it works:

  1. The two kids and I each secretly write a game fitting the category on a slip of paper. Into the jar it goes.
  2. We draw one of the games out and play it.
  3.  The next time we have that particular block of time, we draw another slip of paper from the jar, until all slips of paper are gone.

Why this works better than other systems: I don’t know! What I do know is that when we tried putting someone’s name on the paper, there would be wheedling and suggestions such that the person making the choice didn’t get to make a choice outside of the strange dynamics of sibling rivalry. But when we write games on the paper slip, we avoid that.  So far, so good!  We may need to make a third jar for filler games, but otherwise, we’re golden.

Feedback: How do you pick which games to play with your family?

Sidekicks

It’s weird being a parent as your child grows and begins exploring the world without you.  More and more, my children watch shows and read books I haven’t read.  Our worlds are diverging.  So one does what one can — we watch cheesy television with them, and we read what they’re reading.

In the case of the latter, I guess I’m raising a kid with good taste…

Sidekicks by Dan SantatSidekicks by Dan Santat

Sidekicks is a graphic novel about an aging superhero, Captain Amazing, who’s feeling the endless creep of years sneaking up on him.  He decides it’s time to get a sidekick, and that’s when we learn that his pets, the real protagonists of the story, have been yearning to team up with him forever.  There’s an indestructible dog, a static-energy cat, and a hamster with no appreciable superpowers.  And an iguana. A few thoughts:

  • This comic has a really positive message — it encourages us to think about all our gifts, and the way that understanding them as part of our whole selves gives us an advantage far exceeding that of the person who excels at one thing alone.
  • The hamster/iguana team-up is fantastic. They’re both brave and eminently vulnerable, fighting in a world fraught with danger.
  • Captain Amazing’s tale of aging and teamwork cuts strikingly close to the bone for me, a father watching his children grow up and acquire their own interests that diverge from mine, and at the same time, want to do all the things I do.

It’s a cute and fulfilling comic.  Well worth the twenty five minutes it will take you to read.  According to the school librarian’s notes in the inside cover, you will also earn “4 points” for reading it.  So there’s that.

The Osiris Ritual

The Osiris RitualThe Osiris Ritual (A Newbury and Hobbes Investigation)
by George Mann

Sir Maurice Newbury and Valerie Hobbes are back in another rollicking steampunk adventure in George Mann’s The Osiris Ritual.  Like the previous book, The Affinity Bridge, there’s plenty of great action and adventure and nobility and constrained behavior and running around London.  The characters of the two protagonists develop a bit more thoroughly in this one, though they end up spending much of the novel investigating two separate cases and worrying about the other.  A few more thoughts:

  • Mann really excels at gruesome description.  In the first book, it was automata — in this one it’s a rotting cyborg.  Gross and awesome.
  • The fight scenes in the novel are where it’s at.  Great action!
  • Alas, the relationship tension feels a bit tacked on to me.  But I don’t generally enjoy that part of these kinds of stories anyway.  Thoughts about feelings? GROSS.

A nice romp.  If you liked the first one, you’ll like this one.  If you didn’t read The Affinity Bridge, I think you could enjoy this just fine as well.

 

Recent gaming: A mini-review of Elder Sign

#WhatDidYouPlayMondays #GameLog for 12 October to 28 October 2015

Stealing an idea from Rolfe for a bit of blogging content, here’s my next play log.

Card or Party Games: Quiddler, Two Rooms and a Boom (2 plays)

Board Games: Epic Resort, Galaxy Trucker, Elder Sign (Gates of Arkham), Battleship, Tash-Kalar,  Between Two Cities (2 plays), Last Will

Unrecorded plays: We’re in the midst of our Kickstarter for Cromlech, a card and dice game of magical battle.  I’ve decided I won’t be recording plays of that game until I have a production copy in my hand.  Until then, prototype plays don’t count.  That said, I’ve played a bunch of games of Cromlech, of course.

Mini-review of a game

Gates of Arkham

Elder Sign: Gates of Arkham

Fantasy Flight’s dice game of Cthulhu investigation, Elder Sign is a favorite of mine.  It has the excitement and surprise of dice-rolling, the collaborative element that keeps my son satisified, and is hard enough that you don’t win every time.  So I’ve picked up both expansions for the game.  The first–unseen forces–added a bit to the game and made it a little harder, but overall was just “more of the same.”  But the second one is a different monster altogether.

Here’s a quick primer in Elder Sign. The players are supernatural investigators, working to stop the creeping horror of an Ancient One from rising up and destroying the world.  Players do this by visiting adventure location cards and rolling dice, matching required symbol combinations through a selective dice mechanism familiar to players of Yahztee or King of Tokyo.  The game is chock-a-block with cards and tokens that help players do better in their rolls.  Succeeding becomes a process of balancing the end goal (of getting “Elder Signs”) with the need to keep characters in health and equipment.  There is an end stage where the Ancient One awakens. It is possible to win the game after this point, but rare.

Gates of Arkham reconfigures the original game, providing all new location cards, heroes, monsters, and mechanisms that map, essentially, a second game onto the architecture of the original Elder Sign.  This change is a welcome one, providing a variety of new challenges and differences that provide replayability for the whole system and also provide new challenges for players who have figured out how to game their way through the original game.

Positives

  • The game adds challenges by making players go to locations blind — traveling there and only THEN finding out what they have to face. Thematically, this works very well to raise the tension.
  • The new gate mechanisms are a great way to force players to deal with the other world cards which could, much of the time, be ignored in the old setup.
  • Gates is much harder than the original Elder Sign.  I subscribe to the idea that you should lose cooperative games at least as often as you win them, and this ramps up the difficulty again.

Negatives

  • There’s a lot going on in The Gates of Arkham.  There are new event cards, two secret societies, gates, a different way to buy bonuses, and a bunch of new icons on the cards.  Experienced Elder Sign players should be able to pick it up relatively quickly, but a new player would likely find a few games of the original more rewarding than trying to jump right into the deep end.
  • We’ve discovered through a couple disastrous mix-in sessions that the new characters and Ancient Ones are well-balanced with one another, but far over-power the characters from the original game and first expansion.  Thus, one is really handicapped if one tries to use a character from the original game in the Gates of Arkham. Likewise, an Ancient One from the Gates expansion brought into the original game would be unbeatable.
  • Like the original, Gates suffers from the momentum problem. Namely, if you’re doing well, your character can stay flush in equipment and re-rolls, and finish lots of adventures. If you’re not, it becomes ever-harder to solve adventures and get caught up.  I suppose this is thematic, but it can be despiriting, especially if you have two players doing drastically differently.  (Our house rule to solve this is that players can, before another player’s turn, give any of their items to other players.)

Overall, Elder Sign remains a favorite for me.  It’s got a healthy dose of luck, along with some tactical strategy, and the theme is involving and entertaining.  It’s fun to play with the kids, or even by myself.

In which I lecture about zombies at the Indian Trails Library

I have a lecture today at 1.30pm in Wheeling, IL, at the Indian Trails Public Library District. Come join us!

Zombies 101

Zombies 101

Grade 6 and up. Zombie Research Society Expert and Columbia College Chicago Professor, Brendan Riley explains everything you need to know about zombies. He explores the history of zombies and the philosophy behind the desire for human brains! Limit 100. Tickets distributed 30 minutes prior to program

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania

Dead Wake by Erik LarsenDead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania
by Erik Larsen; narrated by Scott Brick

When the Lusitania steamed into the waters off Britain in 1915, everyone on board knew the Germans had threatened the ship. But the convergence of politics, military action, timing, and fate made the attack on the ship a startling and gripping event, one that would draw the United States into war–albeit a full two years later.  A few thoughts:

  • Erik Larsen weaves his usual trick here, building the narrative from three primary tracks — the people aboard the ship, the people aboard the U-Boat, and the British government,  The resulting network of elements and ideas works very well, creating an intense, moving story.
  • Larson rather nonchalantly shares the fact that the Lusitania was carrying thousands of rounds of rifle ammunition and some other key munitions components.  Apparently, this wasn’t a violation of neutrality.  He doesn’t even touch on the common ideas of “conspiracy” that the Lusitania was carrying huge stockpiles of weapons.
  • The sinking scenes in the book are among the most harrowing sea tales I’ve read.  All those Titanic films I’ve seen gave me lots of visual imagery to accompany the tale Larsen tells.  Of course, his accounts of what happened are all based on accounts from survivors of the wreck.  Amazing.
  • There’s plenty of blame for the sinking to go around — particularly for the British government, which knew about the u-boat and let the Lusitania sail blithely on anyway. Larsen doesn’t come out and say it, but he strongly implies that certain forces in the Admiralty saw the sinking of the Lusitania as a way to draw the U.S. in to help the British cause.  And it turned out to be.

Overall, an excellent book.  On par with In the the Garden of the Beast.  The audio book was narrated by my favorite golden-voiced reader, the incomparable Scott Brick.  He’s the best.

Well worth a read.

The Martian

The Martian by Andy Weir
The Martian by Andy Weir

The Martian
by Andy Weir

We read this book for my SF group this month in anticipation of the film being released soon.  Amazing!

Through a cascading set of mishaps, Mark Whatney is left for dead on Mars by his fellow astronauts. This novel tells the exciting and harrowing tale of attempt to survive.  A few thoughts:

  • While I didn’t find this particularly difficult to read, many of my SF group expressed befuddlement at much of the science in the novel. It is a very “hard” SF book, meaning that it spends a lot of time on technical details.
  • The storytelling is terse and straightforward, which lends a lot to the drama of the moment — things unfold very quickly, but always told in the past tense (as they’re being written by Whatney in his mission log / journal).
  • I love the interplay of Whatney on the planet, the astronauts in the ship flying back from Mars, and the ground control folks.  Excellent.
  • My only complaint about the book is that there are a few too many near misses – it feels a bit contrived in that regard.  But like JAWS getting blown up by an air tank, it works because the story has you from go.
  • Books and stories to consider alongside this one: Robinson Crusoe, Apollo 13, Survivor.

Overall, an excellent, very good book.  If you can get over the technospeak, this is a book for you.

 

The Manhattan Projects

The Manhattan Projects, Vol 1-5
written by Jonathan Hickman, illustrated by Nick Pitarra

The Manhattan Projects
The Manhattan Projects

In the 1940s, the United States wrangled many of its best scientific minds together into the Manhattan Project, a military research group with the aim of creating the Atom bomb.  Hickman and Pitarra’s comic asks the simple question: what if the members of the Manhattan Project were power-mad psychopaths dedicated to megalomaniacal development of unethical and monstrous super-technologies?

The comic series takes a series of historical figures from the middle of the 20th century and reimagines them in a world reminiscent of Garth Ennis’ The Boys, where the good guys are only marginally better than the bad guys, and all of them do reprehensible things.  Only this time, it’s Albert Einstein and Robert Oppenheimer.  A few thoughts:

  • Einstein is the most satisfying character, still somewhat admirable but much more practical and terrible than the sainted version of him we remember from Meg Ryan movies.
  • The heart of the government, particularly its Presidents, festers with corruption and incompetence, in this comic. It reminds me a bit of writing from Ellis, Ennis, or Chaykin. Not a comic for people who dislike iconoclasts.
  • My favorite part of the comic is the idea that the U.S. and Russian scientists bond together to use their joint powers to try and run the world secretly.  Also, Laika is a talking dog, in love with Uri Gregarin.

The series has a delightful chaos to it, suited perfectly to Pitarra’s scratchy (almost filthy) art style. It’s science as science adventure.  Worth a read, but gruesome and dark and funny.

In Which I tell Real Simple Magazine about zombies

Real Simple magazine ran a piece on Zombies in this year’s October magazine, and guess who’s quoted in the article?  Thanks to Kate Booth for sending me the pictures.

Real Simple Oct 2015
Real Simple Oct 2015

Real Simple history of zombies
Real Simple history of zombies (click for full size)
Real Simple story closeup
Real Simple story close up

Station Eleven

Station Eleven

Station Eleven
by Emily St. John Mandel

Station Eleven is a literary, level-headed look at life after the apocalypse.  It’s not a comet, nor a zombie plague, but a simple especially-lethal influenza.  Imagine 1918, but far, far worse.  St. John Mandel tells the story of several people, all united by their common acquaintance with one man who dies at the beginning of the novel.  It’s a solid character study with a compelling through-line and expertly-crafted people.  Reminds me of Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake or Colson Whitehead’s Year One.  It’s literary apocalypse, and very compelling.

A few thoughts:

  • The novel imagines the apocalypse in much less horrific terms than many of the books that I read, but it’s all the more chilling for that.  The common struggle for survival puts us way back into the dark ages, at least for a time, and people find both the good and the bad in themselves.
  • The mix of present-day and future storylines also works well, giving depth to the future with excursions into the past.  St. John Mandel even works out an effective way to tie the younger characters (born after the flu) into the older storylines.
  • My only complaint is that the novel gets a bit too cleanly tied up in the end.  It’s fair to say that the story is being told in a way designed to wrap up when the narrative demands it, but it feels like there’s an awful lot of coincidence at work in the final shakedown.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing (Dickens did it, after all), but it feels a little too on-the-nose.

Also, I’d like to read the (fictional) comic book from which the novel’s title is taken.

Film review: As Above, So So

As Above So Below PosterAs Above So Below

This film follows a group of renegade explorers as they dive into the Paris catacombs looking for buried Alchemist treasure.  It’s a creepy movie that plays on the extraordinary claustrophobia of underground spaces, and makes excellent use of the first-person camera genre (though it never proposes the means by which the audience came to see this footage).  A few thoughts:

  • I wish screenwriters would look up the name of another Alchemist.  Nicholas Flammel is probably sitting somewhere right now scowling at the way he gets brought up over and over again.
  • The first hour of this ninety-minute movie was great.  It had a growing sense of dread and creepiness that really works well.  The last thirty minutes, not as much.
  • The film’s best points are its great use of the first person cameras.  The limited view we get is excellent, and makes for a frightening experience as we try to understand what the people are seeing behind the person whose camera we’re using.
  • The spiritual component of the film is interesting too — the idea that the movie makes the alchemist’s philosophy a key component of the story is great.  There are some moments that are downright weird, but you come to understand why they happened the way they did.  That said, the film isn’t as precise about the nature of the metaphysical haunting stuff as I’d like it to be.  When they propose a ‘system’ for how things work, it feels to me like they should really work that way.
  • This film reminded me a lot of The Descent, another excellent ‘trapped underground’ movie with an even weirder ending.  (In 2007, here’s what I wrote about The Descent: “A surprisingly enjoyable horror movie that became startlingly LESS scary when the monsters showed up.  Disasterous spelunking and solid character development don’t need hungry Gollums to spice things up.  I haven’t felt such claustrophobia while watching a film since DAS BOOT.”)  Both films figured out how to make being in an enclosed space scary, but didn’t figure out that they could leave out the creepy supernatural stuff.  Being underground is scary enough.

Ultimately, As Above So Below is a fine B movie with a creepy premise and solid execution.  It doesn’t really stick the landing, but you’ll enjoy the fall.

Here’s a trailer you can watch if you want to spoil literally every key plot point.

I inadvertently took June off from blogging

It’s been a busy month around here, working on writing projects and creative projects and, well, work.  In all that time, I’ve just fallen off the blogging train.  Sorry about that!

Quick updates:

Not much reading this month.  I read Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood.  It was good.

Plenty of gaming.  It was my birthday this month, which became a gameapalooza, and should keep me sated for a while.  Here are the games I got, along with my impressions of them:

  • Gates of Arkham expansion for Elder Sign.  Wicked hard, but fun so far.
  • Titanic the board game.  Haven’t played it yet.  Looks like it will likely be fun as a novelty more than as a game to play a lot.
  • Ladies and Gentlemen.  Funny game that will be great in a big group.
  • A Netrunner expansion.  Haven’t had a chance to dig into that yet.
  • Galaxy Trucker.  Really fun so far — looking forward to more plays of this.
  • Agricola.  I can’t wait to try this one.
  • Cthulhu’s Vault, a kickstarter that showed up right around my birthday.  A storytelling game that looks cool.

Wow.  Lots of great gaming ahead.  I’ll try to get back to blogging more regularly.

On Game Design: Go Play Outside

I wrote a little bit over at Rattlebox Games about playing games outside:

This might be a bit of a conundrum.  The old stereotype of nerds huddling inside on nice sunny days isn’t entirely without merit, in part because of all the valuable cardboard bits our games have — we don’t want chlorine from the pool on them!  But just because you’re in fresh air doesn’t mean you need to leave the hobby at home.

Read the rest…

Head on over there to see what I wrote.