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Friday
Aug262016

Beowulf The Movie Board Game impressions

This is a big surprise to me, but I may have discovered a new favorite beer-and-pretzels game at my game night this week—Riener Knizia’s Beowulf the Movie board game. 

Wait, come back—I’m serious here.

Beowulf (as I will call it from here forward) is a re-theming and reimagining of Knizia’s classic Auf Heller und Pfennig and the more recent Kingdoms.  The original game is a simple tile-laying game where players attempt to place their castles in rows and columns that have the most points.  Castles act as multipliers (whether the row is positive or negative) in the end-of-round scoring.  There are also tiles that have special effects like dividing up rows into sections or manipulating the values of tiles in the rows and columns.  Some of the tiles have effects like doubling values or scaring off positive values, and on your turn, because of the limited tile selection,  you often have to choose between options like helping one opponent while helping yourself or hurting two opponents while hurting yourself slightly less and the like.  It is confrontational and “mathy” and is absolutely not for everyone.  I, however, love it, and it has been a staple filler for my groups on-and-off for the last twenty years or so.

Beowulf takes the game and adds miniatures for warriors and ships and such in place of the castles, some more tile powers, and, most importantly, adds two different boards to play on.  The original game played out on one board for three rounds with the only difference being what castles were available to the player because all but the level one castles were discarded after use.  The three boards and new player powers add enough variety that the game no longer feels “samey” as it moves forward.  It is definitely a little more chaotic as some tiles can move or remove other tiles (or even move the other players’ pieces), so a player is rarely safe when placing his figures on the board.  I mentioned beer-and-pretzels, right?  This game is perfect for hanging out with buddies and talking some trash or just talking about whatever.  The end of round is still a math exercise, but as a math guy with other math guys in the play group, it never feels like a chore or takes as long as some critics complain. 

 

The game can be purchased cheaply online, and I think it is definitely worth the price—and it was definitely worth the five dollars I paid for it during the Fantasy Flight holiday sale a few years back.  I just wish I hadn’t listened to all the critics and had gotten it to the table sooner.

Saturday
Feb132016

Hedersleben - Producing the Music of the Spheres - and the Chronos

Hedersleben's third release - The Fall of Chronopolis - is based on the novel of the same name by Barrington Baley.  Here's the description of Baley's work from Amazon:  

The mighty ships of the Third Time Fleet relentlessly patrolled the Chronotic Empire's thousand-year frontier, blotting out an error of history here or there before swooping back to challenge other time-travelling civilisations far into the future. 

Captain Mond Aton had been proud to serve in such a fleet. But now, falsely convicted of cowardice and dereliction of duty, he had been given the cruellest of sentences: to be sent unprotected into time as a lone messenger between the cruising timeships. After such an inconceivable experience in the endless voids there was only one option left to him. 

To be allowed to die.

Do I get any of that from listening to the music?  Not really.  Is that a bad thing?  Not at all. 

I'd never heard of this band before stumbling across them at Amazon.  It was one of the recommendations they offered while I was browsing around.  The title intrigued me.  The samples sold me.  I hadn't read the book either, so I've got that to look forward to as well.  

How to describe this piece?  Well, it's spacey, it's rhythmic, it's repetitive - it's great.  It has all the elements I love best about about Hawkwind (with the exception of Dave Brock).  In fact, dare I blaspheme, I enjoy The Fall of Chronopolis better than anything the Hawks have released in the last decade or so.  If you like spacerock, you should love this one.  

The band - whose names I must learn.I still don't know the band well enough to know their names, but they are a tight unit.  And the lady on vocals is exquisite - at a couple of points she put me in mind of Annie Haslam.  Check them out here:  An Empire on youtube.  Musically, it all works around the Chronopolis idea - it has passages that are grand and etheral and clockwork-like.  I've got to dive deeper into the lyrics next and read the book - which is available in ebook form.

So there you go.  If you like your rock spacey, if you like it sci-fi-y, or if you simply want to try something new, give Hedersleben a look and a listen.  I don't think you'll be disappointed.  I will definitely be checking out their previous releases and eagerly awaiting the next.

Going to give it five out of five stars.

Friday
Jan222016

Too Many Cinderellas, a Haiku, and musings about microgames

After the clock struck

Too many Cinderellas

How will the prince choose?

The recent explosion (revolution, fad, renaissance?) of micro games is fascinating to me in the same way flash fiction, Haiku and other minimalist, rule-driven forms of art are.  The idea of a designer limiting his or herself to 20 or so cards and a few bits while attempting to create a compelling game experience is such an interesting one that I’ve basically been playing every micro game that I could get my hands on since I first experienced the trend with Sejei Kanai’s Love Letter (16 cards and some scoring tokens) in 2013.

While I’ve really enjoyed my early experiences with a few micro-games, I exhausted each of the games pretty quickly, and I’ve started to wonder in recent months if there was any lasting value to that style of game.  Game design, like most creative acts, is challenging enough without adding extra hoops to jump through, and is it possible that the concessions necessary for the design of micro-games make them more of a novelty than anything likely to have a lasting legacy. I see a strong comparison of micro-games to flash fiction.  Flash fiction is a term used to describe stories with which authors have limited themselves to a restrictive number of words.  It is a poorly defined genre with stories as small as one-sentence or as long as 2500 words.  There are some great works of literature that fall within the upper limit of the flash fiction definition, and it is a critically accepted format that some of our great writers have worked in. 

However, one specific type of flash fiction often called “One-sentence fiction” —an attempt to write a story in a single sentence--has been popping up in various magazines and journals (and Tumblr, and Reddit, and Facebook) in the past few years, but unlike it’s larger brethren, one-sentence stories really feel like a shallow thought-experiment more than a form of art.   Take the most famous example, weakly attributed to Hemingway:

                For sale: baby shoes, never worn

There is pathos here, but after the initial processing of the situation (a gut-punch, admittedly) are we left with anything to hold onto?  I say not. No matter how attractive the first reading of a piece of micro-fiction is, the experience is ultimately an empty one.

So, are micro-games the empty, shallow experiences of one-sentence fiction or are they a valuable, lasting work of art?   It is likely too soon to answer that question, but it has been on my mind.

Enter Too Many Cinderellas, a design by Nobutake Dogen and Nao Shimamura being released in English by Grail Games.  It is the day after the Royal Ball and, apparently, the prince was really, really drunk the night before because he has no clue who the lady he fell in love with the night before really is.  Heck, he isn’t even sure the person he danced with was a lady:


 

…or even a human:

 

 

The prince may have a drinking problem, but that isn’t the focus of this game.  The focus is on being the advisor that gets their client accepted as the real Cinderella.  Players do this by playing cards from their hands that have clues about the real Cinderella on them—she isn’t blonde, she doesn’t like cake, she is a guy—and then voting on whether the rules will take effect.  Each player has two voting tokens—a “yes” and a “no.”  If the player thinks the rules should take effect, they vote “yes” and hold onto the token.  If they don’t want the rule card to take effect, they vote “no” and leave the token on the card (and no longer have a way to disallow future rule cards). 


The fun of the game is in the voting.  Since it only takes one “no” to disallow a rule card, players often must risk not playing their “no” vote in hopes that another player will play it.  After a few games (or a thorough studying of the cards before the game), it will become clear that some rule cards eliminate more potential candidates than others do.  So, if a rule card says that Cinderella is not a man and your best candidate is a man—you likely need to play a “no,” but if it says Cinderella is not young, you can push your luck and hope that another player will play their “no” token and you can save yours until a rarer rule that will affect you comes up.  A player can use the knowledge gathered from who was voting against what rule to get an idea which Cinderella cards each player has in hand and choose rules accordingly, so the game has some of the social deduction or other popular micro games mixed in with the simple voting mechanism.


When each player has added two rules to the tableau, the player with the lowest value (or highest if that rule made it through voting) Cinderella that doesn’t violate the rules, presents that card as the true Cinderella and wins the round. Players play until one player has won a certain number of rounds and that player is the winner.

Before I get back to the value of micro games discussion, let me say that I recommend Too Many Cinderellas without reservation.  It is a cute, fast-playing game that has pretty much replaced Love Letter as our micro game of choice at our college game nights.  The cutesy art is really appealing to new visitors to the game night and it has been a game that other members are picking out of the stack to teach to newcomers, and I’m always looking for games that I (as host and owner of many of the games) don’t have to teach every time myself.  It’s fun.  It’s cheap.  If the theme doesn’t turn you off, you should consider buying it.

That said, I do wonder if strict adherence to the component limit has hurt the game.  I’m not sure, but I think it possibly has. The game has a victory condition that I really dislike.  If the round ends and nobody has a Cinderella that does not violate a rule, then players add their two remaining cards together and the lowest one wins.  This is completely unsatisfying and anti-thematic.  A larger deck of cards with more balanced rules—producing a card set where a few cards would sneak through any combination of rules—would fix the problem, but it also might make the game more predictable and the “gambling” with “no” tokens less interesting.  It is hard to say if the game would have been better with a full set of cards—say the 56 card deck--created by adherence to factory standard of the traditional card games— that we see in many hobby card games, but I can’t help but think that the problem arises from the format here.  In the end, I think that is where we are almost always going to end up with micro games.  There are going to be flaws that could be fixed by throwing more components in the box or expanding the game play that are not going to be fixed because the company is wanting a micro game that they can produce cheaply both because it opens up a different market than the 60 dollar games and because there is a trend that can be jumped on.  I’m going to be very interested in seeing if twenty years from now any of these hot micro games have stood the test of time or whether their very nature means there isn’t enough game space to explore to keep them on the table.  

Wednesday
Oct212015

Attack on Titan Part II: End of the World - First Thoughts

Actually, my first thought about the second Attack on Titan movie was a six hour drive to watch a movie that lasts an hour and a half?  (It's that having an eleven-year thing I mentioned in part I.)  The first movie was about the same length.  Why, I wondered for the umpteenth time, didn't they just edit the film together to about two and a half hours or so.  That's about the average length anymore, seems to me.  Then I watched it.  Second first thoughts: oh, that's why.

The first film went out of its way to emphasize the sheer terror and horror of having a bunch of freaky looking giants trample your town and devour your friends and family.  I felt it more or less succeeded on that point.  Part II, however, feels like a completely different film.  The first part is essentially a political/conspiracy story.  The last half giant monster movie.  Honestly, it reminded me of a bunch of the kaiju-type movies I watched as a kid on Chiller Theater - down to the men in rubber suits.  Granted, these suits were much better than the old ones, but that's what it was nonetheless.  As a political thriller – meh.  It was something to hang the movie on.  As a giant monster movie – not bad.  You know who’s going to win, but  . . . it’s giant monsters fighting!

My eleven-year-old Attack on Titan expert assures me the second movie was the best.  She also told me she didn’t like it because of all the massive changes from the manga and anime.  I’m versed enough in the anime Satomi Ishihara as Hange Zoeto know the changes were massive, sort of along the lines of what happened to The Hobbit in parts two and three. Did it ruin it for me?  No.  It was a different take.  (Truth be told, it didn’t ruin it for her because if I’d recorded her two hour analysis on the drive back, you hear more positives than negatives.)  I think the really big thing the director did was include the origin of the titans – something the original story has yet to do.  Spoilers?  I really don’t know.

The cast dwindled if anything.  It was still a violent film.  According y expert and the audience we sat with, Satomi Ishihara as Hange Zoe stole the show.  She was hilarious and dead with the Hange we see in the anime.  All the story was resolved by the end.  There are still titans beyond the wall, but the city inside was saved.  Boy wins girl, and they are able to look out upon the world for the first time (again, different for the source material).  There definitely could be a sequel, and I’d probably end up watching it, not simply because my AoT expert.  I’ve seen a whole lot better.  I’ve seen a whole lot worse.  The Attack on Titan movies entertained me for a few hours.  Sometimes, that’s all I need.

Thursday
Oct012015

Attack on Titan Part I - First Thoughts

Okay.  Had to drive three hours to watch this movie at a theater in the state of Kentucky, not because I wanted to necessarily.  I had to.  It's called having an eleven-year-old child who loves to watch anime and read manga.  You can no doubt guess her favorite - watch the trailer here.

I will say that I could have said no, but having watched the anime myself, I was curious.  My initial reaction about twenty minutes in - "Man, this movie's brutal."  Forty minutes in - "Geesh, this thing's brutal."  At the end - "Wow, that was brutal."  On average, I thought the movie was brutal.

Is that good?  Well, it was very true to the anime (I can't speak for the manga) in that there were lots of people devoured, ripped apart, and squashed like bugs.  At times, blood poured down on hapless citizens by the buckets full.  Over the top?  Perhaps, but I have no way of determining the reality of the situation.  I will say that the blood-rain created a quite appropriate mood of sheer terror and hopeless caused by the munching Titans.  I felt it more effective than the anime.  The titans themselves were more bizarre looking - quite unnerving at times.

Another strong suit for the movie was the setting itself.  Unlike the anime, the movie never lets us see outside the walls (in part I at least), so what you see is the only world these poor characters have known.  And it is much more squalid and lived in as opposed to the neat Renaissance-ish look of the anime.  The wall too is ugly and looks hastily built.  The coolest part to me, though, was the glimpses of relics from the past.  There is a helicopter on a platform near the top of the wall, and there's an old bomb casing.  They even mention nuking the titans in the great war before humanity fell.  

The other bit I like was the characters of Hange Zoe and Sasha.  They were straight out of the anime and a delight to see.  The other characters were there for the most part, some were dropped, some composited due to time restraints.  Armin was pulled off well enough, I thought, though my little anime-lover thought he looked too old.  And he wasn't blonde.  Mikasa and Eren were nice, too, though even I wasn't thrilled with how their backstories were changed.  Fan favorite Levi, you might have heard, has been replaced.  I wasn't thrilled by his replacement.  Instead of an air of detachment and confidence, this guy was a jerk.

My biggest beek agains the film is the CGI.  It was like Syfy channel effects for most of the movie.  At times, it did interfere with my susupension of disbelief (as much as you can have, anyway, with a bunch of giant things running around eating people).

Overall, I liked it.  I was entertained.  I've seen lots better and lots worse.  I think if you're familiar with the story at all, you'll want to check it out.  I've already bought tickets for Part II because I am curious to see how they finish out the story.

Have you seen it?  Let us hear what you thought.