Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Board Game Review - Capital Offensive

I used to start every day by reading through my daily dose of web comics. Most of them were just for the sake of the joke, but my favorite was a story-based daily called Schlock Mercenary. The art was weak, but the stories were great, the characters were interesting, and the dialog was outstanding. It was about a roving band of space mercs, focusing in particular on a green goo alien named Schlock who shot things with a plasma cannon and ate a lot of fried cheese.

Being a big fan of the comic, I was delighted to get a review copy of Capital Offensive, a skirmish game based on Schlock Mercenary. You get to play Tagon and Legs and Kevyn and, of course, Schlock as they fight serpentine lawyers and violent foes, and you get to kill a whole lot of people. So that's pretty awesome.

The game starts out with a training mission, which sets three enormously overpowered mercs against a horde of snaky attorneys. The rules are basic, and you'll pick them up pretty quickly, which is nice because the training mission is so lopsided it's actually kind of boring. The snakes are freaking doomed.

Playing the full rules, on the other hand, will let you pick up equipment, dodge and aim, go on overwatch, and otherwise play a considerably more tactical game. More options means more decisions, and more decisions means more fun. You'll run around the inside of spaceships, blasting your enemies and jumping through teraports and grabbing up goober guns. It's a lot of action - but unfortunately, still not really a great game.

I hate to say it, but my first strike against Capital Offensive is that it is not very pretty. I know, I already said Schlock Mercenary is a visually unimpressive comic, but the game is somehow even more bland than the comic. Sure, the art is taken straight out of the comic, but it's just not very exciting. Frankly, it needs plastic. I don't need thirty different characters. I can get by with a dozen, if they're miniatures and not cardboard circles.

And the floor art is so flat and colorless that it makes the game less fun. This is a serious shame. Look at the art for Space Hulk - the tiles are simply amazing and the game is more fun because of it. It's simply not fair to compare Space Hulk to Schlock Mercenary, but the tiles did not have to be this drab. There were things that could have been done. There were opportunities missed.

I could get past the sleep-inducing art if the game were amazing. Sadly, it's not. I'm not saying it's bad - it's really not. But it's also not great. We did have fun blasting each other with sniper rifles and laser cannons, but it just didn't feel like a lot of maneuvering and razor-wire decision-making. Dungeon Command is an exceptional skirmish game with only twelve miniatures per side and an incredible amount of depth and tension. Capital Offensive is the same kind of game, but without the tension or depth. It's not bad. It's just average.

Unfortunately, in a market where more than 800 new games appear every year, there's no room for average. Your games need to be better than average. They need to be exceptional if they want to compete with the hundreds of other games I could play. The only people I can see getting very excited by Capital Offensive are those who are already Schlock Mercenary fans. Everyone else will just go play HeroScape.

If you are a fan of Schlock Mercenary, you'll see that the creators of the game went to some serious lengths to make Capital Offensive a good Schlock game. The characters are in there, including a bunch I don't recognize any more because I have a day job now and can't read web comics at work. The weapons are in there. The art is in there, and I even have a custom-drawn character card done by Howard Tayler. I probably won't play it again, because I have several other good skirmish games, but if you're a fan, it's worth at least a glance.


2-4 players

Built on a really fun comic
Lots of bloodshed and violent outburst

Gameplay is basically average
Seriously needs a facelift

Get more glances at Capital Offensive at the Living World site:

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Card Game Review - Down In Flames: Guns Blazing

We need to start a campaign to stop ugly games. We'll have an online petition and send letters to our state representatives. The petition will be something like, 'We hereby do swear to talk like lawyers as we ask for a law that will make people stop producing ugly games.' This is necessary because there are just too many ugly games out there, and some of them might be fun, except for they are so darn ugly.

Case in point - Down In Flames. It's a card game about WWII airplane fights. It should be basically pretty awesome, because it has a few cool ideas and some neat stuff that could work, except that unfortunately it's just butt ugly. I mean, I've had the game for months and haven't written anything because the game was so unattractive that I didn't have any desire to play it.

The cards could have been cool. They have art on them depicting airplanes shooting at each other, but they look like someone made cheap 3D models and shoved them on top of a Photoshop cloud background. If they had actual awesome art, from awesome artists, you would want to play just because they would look cool. But when even the design elements scream, 'this is a boring game,' it's hard to get motivated to crack the cigarette wrappers and shuffle up a game.

Conceptually, there are cool ideas in this box. There are two things you can rely on Dan Verssen Games to deliver - one, they will be ugly, and two, they will be meticulously researched and developed. The dogfights are short and brutal, with maneuvering and card management and lots of luck when you're drawing cards. Dive or climb? Shake your tail and get clear or jink sideways to get a better position? Fire full out, or spread the attack over a few different trigger pulls? Lots of neat ideas create excellent decision-making conundrums (should that be conundra? Probably).

Unfortunately, if you play this game in its most basic mode - two opposing airplanes in a sky duel - it's not particularly interesting. Sure, there's card play and stuff, but it mostly comes down to being luckier than the other guy. There's a little maneuvering, and a few smart card plays can tilt the balance, but mostly you just hope you get the right cards to keep your ass in your plane and your finger on the trigger. If you only bought this game for the mano-a-mano dogfights, you would be disappointed. Because not only did you get a game that looks like the south end of a north-bound pack mule, but the game itself is kind of on the dull side.

Which is why there are like a hundred planes in the box. Not literally, of course - the printers would be furious, trying to fit all those airplanes into one box. No, they're all on cards. There are fighters and bombers and - well, there are fighters and bombers. That's about what we had in WWII. But there are enough different planes, plus lots of different scenarios, that you can run a complicated bombing run over Germany or a kamikaze attack on an aircraft carrier. You can fly through flak attacks or send whole fighter squadrons after other fighter squadrons. You can even team up, and have British and American planes battling two squadrons of German Luftwaffe.

It's actually a really good thing this advanced play is in the box, because in my book, they were on two strikes with no balls up to this point. The more complicated scenarios are no grand slam, but they're a solid base hit, maybe a double to left field. With this more interesting format, what starts as a dry, ugly dogfight game becomes an involved, strategic, ugly dogfight game.

This is where the game really comes to life. You can build big airborne battles, count victory points, jockey for position, and otherwise play out a really interesting fight in the sky. There are several scenarios to pick from, with their own special rules, and there's no reason you can't play the ones you like more than once. This is really the redeeming feature of Down In Flames, because these big battles introduce a much greater degree of intelligent card play.

If you're looking for a clean, smart, attractive game about airplane battles, this is not the game you've been hunting. It's busy and ugly (though it is smart). DVG makes involved games for people who want to spend some time using their heads, and if that's the kind of dogfight game you want to play, Down In Flames should be just your cup of tea. If they hired a couple really good artists, it would be my cup of tea, too, but as long as the cards make my inner artist want to choke on its own inner vomit, I am not looking forward to the expansion.


2-4 players

Some cool dogfighting card play ideas
Exciting theme
A great expanded mode makes for much more interesting aerial battles

Super ugly
Played as a straight-up two-plane dogfight, it's a little weak

If you want to learn more about Down In Flames, maybe because you prefer ugly things, you can check the DVG site right here:

Friday, November 23, 2012

Holiday Report - Thanksgiving

I hope everyone had a good Thanksgiving. Hopefully you got stuck at a relative's house after a really long, exhausting drive, then got to eat tons of overcooked, dry turkey and listen to your cousins fights over whether Obama is actually from Kenya. My Thanksgiving was WAY better than that, mostly because we had it at home and nobody came over.

That's not entirely accurate, actually. My daughter did have a friend over, so I shared my dry-ass Thanksgiving turkey with two giggling, insipid sixteen-year-old twits. Then, after dinner, this little girl used my bathroom and clogged the crapper. The damned kid must live on a diet of roofing tar and two-part epoxy, because it took thirty minutes to plunge that Godzilla-movie monster out of the plumbing so I could enjoy my after-dinner constitutional.

That's not all we did, of course. I did the shopping for the meal, so I had canned vegetables, a pre-smoked turkey and stuffing from a box. My wife, who is something of a gourmet chef, was not about to let a meal this big get away from her, especially because it was my son's last Thanksgiving as a dependent. So she made some creamed corn and cranberry compote that were both better than anything else we had to eat.

Then we played Borderlands 2. We did that a lot, because once the girls went to hide in the bedroom, listen to crappy teeny tripe on the radio and talk about boys, we didn't have much better to do. Sure, we had stuff we could have done, but nothing better than Borderlands 2. We won the game and everything. Turns out when we both have the day off and the turkey takes twenty minutes to get warm, we have plenty of time. More than usual, at least.

The best part about Thanksgiving, though, is the timing. Everybody gets Thursday off, unless they work at Denny's or some crap-sniffing retailer who opens at 8:00 for Black Friday deals on whatever-color Thursday. So you don't just get the day, you get a whole four-day weekend. As I write this, I'm not even half-way through my holiday weekend. I finished painting all my Mice & Mystics minis Wednesday night, and I've already got a date to play it this evening. We're going to cram some Zombicide in there before the weekend is over, and my best friend is supposed to come over tomorrow and bring some kick-ass new minis that I can spend three weeks painting before we play a forty-minute skirmish.

Thanksgiving is easily my favorite holiday. No religious baggage, no commercial promotions, just family and food and four days off. I hope everyone enjoyed their holiday as much as I did, because I've got bad news - Christmas season starts to today, and that is, as the man says in the song, the most miserable time of the year.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Movie Review - Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

Ask the average American what the Civil War was about, and they might tell you slavery. Some (especially throwback rednecks who think the South should rise again, as if that would be anything other than completely disastrous) might tell you it was just about Northern Aggression. Ask a tweed-jockey academic, he might just tell you all about how it was about the rise of industrialism and the decline of agrarianism. But they're all wrong - it was about vampires.

If you want the true story behind the Civil War (and when I say 'true,' I mean 'silly'), you need to watch Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Then you can learn all about how Honest Abe killed the nightwalking dead with a special axe coated in silver, because a vampire killed his mom when he was a kid. Then he tried to outlaw slavery, since vampires were eating slaves, and the South got kind of pissed and started a war.

Interestingly, the war is not the biggest part of this campy action flick. The bulk of the tale is about young Abe Lincoln as he learns about the evil beasties of the night and learns how to chop down trees for no reason. There's a love story, as he falls for Mary Todd, and lots of actual historical factoids are woven into the tale in an attempt to make it even semi-believable.

Of course, the story is not believable. I mean, even if you accept that vampires exist, and that they can turn invisible, and that they can live forever if they eat your face, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is still a little tough to swallow. Young Abe develops super powers when he… trains real hard. He's not bitten by a radioactive vampire or granted an emerald vampire-killing ring. He just discovers the hidden powers of the mind and uses them to deliver vengeance to the inhuman predators that are turning South Carolina into an all-you-can-drink blood buffet. Why is he suddenly able to run across the backs of stampeding horses to chase his evil prey? Because it looks cool.

But if you're watching a movie called Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, you're not here for an intellectual treatise. If you want that, read Gore Vidal's book. Instead you get to see one of the greatest presidents of our nation do backflips and choreographed ass-kicking with a sweet wood-chopper and a stove-pipe hat (though when he's fighting on the top of a train, he doesn't wear the hat). The action sequences in this movie are larger than life and twice as silly, but they're really fun. Acrobatic synchronized slaughter, complete with slo-mo blood spatters and grim expressions of rage, are the real stars of this movie. The actual character could be almost anyone, but the fact that it's such an absurd combination makes it that much more entertaining.

Also entertaining is that the acting is not half as bad as it ought to be, given that the biggest name in the movie is Alan Tudyk (who plays Steven Douglas, and is on-screen for maybe two minutes total). These are a bunch of actors you probably don't know, and yet they do an admirable job of making you really want to believe that any part of this campy blood-bath is even remotely possible. A few stretches were required in casting - Mary Todd is extraordinarily pretty, and considering she actually had a face that could curdle milk, the choice of actresses was a bit of a stretch. But they did get an actor who looks quite a bit like Lincoln, then shaved off that dorky Amish beard so he could be a kid instead of a president.

The real beauty of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is it delivers almost exactly what you think it should. There are vampires, obviously. There's vampire hunting. There's blood and fighting. There are explosions and bullet holes and gruesome scars. And as young Abraham Lincoln takes on the mantle of leadership to save the nation from the undead menace, there's blatant silliness. This is a movie that knows what it is. It's campy and violent and cool. It's about as deep as a New York pizza, but it's exactly what you expect it to be. If all filmmakers believed in this much truth in advertising, I never would have seen Magic Mike.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Board Game Review - Archipelago

Asmodee understands that theme is important for gamers. That's why, when they make a game, they use the same exact theme for every fourth game. Settling the New World from Europe may have been done about seven hundred times, but people keep buying it, so it must still be popular.

Archipelago is a game about settling a bunch of islands in the middle of the Caribbean. It covers a wide span of time - each turn is supposed to be about fifteen years, which is enough time to have babies and add them to the work force, as long as you're cool with child labor. Given that the game takes place during the 1500s, I think it's safe to assume child labor is just fine.

(Quick aside - Archipelago is not an easy word to pronounce. That's probably why they chose it. They could have just called the game Settling Islands, and we would never have worried about how it sounds, except that nobody would have bought it. So they went with a title that I've been pronouncing incorrectly for decades, and found out when I played a half-dozen times that I was saying it all wrong. I was putting the emphasis on the 'lah' sound, which is wrong. And the French dude I hung out with at BGG Con kept saying it 'arsh', not 'ark,' which is probably right if we're in France. Which we were not. So it's actually 'ark-uh-PEL-uh-go.' In case you were wondering. You probably were not.)

Archipelago is a cooperative game with a winner. Or, more accurately, it's a highly competitive game that everyone can lose. In fact, it's only cooperative because it's so damned easy to have the natives of your little island paradise rise up and throw every last imperialist dog out on his ass. There's a population track that tells you how many people you have working for you, and there's an angry dude marker that tells you how close you are to open rebellion. If you piss off your people until they rebel, everyone at the table loses.

(Another quick aside. The population marker is a white meeple. The discontent marker is a black meeple. I was not responsible for these color choices. When I tell you that if the angry black dude catches the white guy the game is over for everybody, I need you to understand that this sentence was not my idea.

I mentioned this odd color decision at BGG Con, slightly worried about sounding like a racist asshole, but then realized that I had almost nothing to worry about. It was a board game convention. There was only one black guy.)

Anyway, in Archipelago, you're all European imperialists raping the islands under your control to wring every last drop of wealth out of them, and at the same time, you're wealthy benefactors making sure that everyone stays happy. Doing both things is almost impossible - if you keep all the pineapple to sell to the French court, thereby making a ton of money on exotic fruit, the locals will get scurvy and start burning effigies on your front lawn. If you put all your resources into keeping the people employed and fed, you won't have anything left to build those great statues back home that let everyone in London know how awesome you are.

Attempting to describe the rules to Archipelago would make for a long, boring review (which will not stop a lot of people from doing it anyway). But there is one interesting element in Archipelago that I haven't seen in games before, and it bears some discussion.

You know how in most really diversified games, the end game is based on one thing? Like if you're harvesting wheat and mining iron and building troops and establishing brothels, the only thing that matters in the end is how much money you have. That's not how it works in Archipelago. In this crazy complicated game, you don't know what will make you the winner. You have to prosper - build towns and ports, harvest stone and iron, build a happy population and a fat wallet. You don't know what specific things will be the deciding factor, so you just have to do your best to do your best.

This exceptionally cool development in gaming is made possible through hidden objective cards. You have one card that tells you one thing that will be worth a bunch at the end of the game, but everyone else has one, too. So in a five player game, that makes five different things that could be scored, and you have to score on every one of them. Weakening your fleet might save money, but in the end, you might be scoring ships for victory points. The end result is that instead of focusing on one single aspect, you all do make the most prosperous, well-rounded civilization you can create.

Speaking of civilizations, Archipelago has a lot in common with those heavy, all-nighter games you used to play in college, back before you had a family, when you still had free time. If you like Through the Ages, there's a real chance you'll dig this one. Play time on the back of the box says it could go 240 minutes - four hours - and that's not an exaggeration. We never finished inside three hours, except the one time where we all lost because we ran out of cows and the islanders decided to eat us instead.

It's not just long for no reason. There are immense decisions to make, and unlike most games where you have pretty good information on what's coming up next, Archipelago keeps you guessing and preparing all the time. You'll need to increase the population - but should you hire workers or breed your own? Can you afford the additional mouths to feed? And once you have those workers, should you send them out to explore the world, or should you have them gather papayas? Maybe they would be better off running a port or a town, so that you can sell your resources to Mother England and line your pockets.

There's so much to do in Archipelago that it can be quite daunting the first time you play. If you think you've got the mental cajones to work through the rules, and then you've got the Saturday afternoon to spend playing the game, you might find that this is exactly your kind of game. But if you prefer six-page rule books and games you can finish on a lunch break, you really ought to save your money for something easier. Archipelago is fun and deep and intense, but it's not a light game. It's heavy. And I don't mean just because it's complicated. It's more like if you eat at TGI Friday's and get an appetizer and a huge meal and a slice of ice-cream cake, and then you have to unbutton your pants before you throw up. I mean it's heavy.

Happily, the guys at Asmodee know that if you're going to spend an entire night playing one game, it should be easy on the eyes. The island tiles are gorgeous. The colors are bright and pleasant. The illustrations on the cards are the same quality you can always expect from Asmodee, which is to say they are outstanding. The game looks amazing, all laid out on the table, and it's a pleasure to play even if you're just there to look at the pretty pieces.

So what if the theme has been trotted out more times than a street walking trollop. The theme fits, and plays out beautifully as you play the game, and what's more, you can really feel the passage of time (and not just because you're there for three hours). If you like to really get into a game, if you like difficult decisions and rewarding intellectual investments, Archipelago is a powerful fun game.


2-5 players

The theme comes to life
A new kind of winning condition that I suspect we're going to see a lot more as time passes
Engaging and deep
Seriously pretty

Massive play time (not a con for me, but I know not everyone has a lot of time)
Seriously? Settling the New World AGAIN?!

Check with your brain to see if it's up to play Archipelago, and if it is, get a copy from Noble Knight Games and save more than 20 bucks:


Friday, November 16, 2012

Comic Book Review - Chew

I'm at BGG Con all week. Yeah, I know, but I'm working for Asmodee. The con is twenty minutes from my house and I'm getting a paycheck, so what the hell, I'll show up. Happily, my boss has made me a badge that tells the world my name is 'Asmo Dude,' so I can go undercover. It's very sneaky. Once again, I find myself grateful that I don't do video reviews - in this case, because none of the people I have called unrepentant tools know what I look like.

Anyway, you would think with that many games all over the place, and my job being to just basically play games all day, I would have an actual game review up here. But the thing is, I've really played three games the whole time, and while I am getting pretty good at them, none of them are my games. If I can talk my boss out of review copies of Kemet and Archipelago, I will tell you all about them, but I know he doesn't have a spare copy of Seasons, which is one of the best games I've played this year.

So instead, you get a comic book review. And you're getting this review because I can't stop reading this silly comic book, and I think you should know about it. It's called Chew, and it is funny and dark and twisted and goofy. The title character, Tony Chu (get it? Chew?) is a cibopath, which I'm pretty sure is a made-up word. What it means is, Detective Chu can eat stuff and know things about the food. Like he can eat a banana and know where it grew - or he can eat a finger and know if the late owner was behind on his child support.

This leads to a thoroughly disturbing investigatory style, in which Detective Chu takes bites out of corpses to find out who killed them, or he licks blood spatters off his fists after he beats people to find out what they know about chicken-smuggling rings.

Yep, chicken-smuggling rings. In the bizarre alternate world of Chew, the FDA is the strongest government organization in the United States, and they have issued a ban on eating birds. They claim it's because the avian flu killed a lot of people, but the insiders know it's a dark conspiracy. The conspiracy appears to be linked to aliens, possibly a vampire, maybe female Russian assassins in bikinis. In response to the ban on birds, a huge international black market has sprung up, in which armed thugs and shady back-room negotiators sell unregulated chicken.

If you're thinking, 'this sounds completely absurd,' then you're right, it is. And yet even though it's ridiculous and silly, unbelievably goofy and completely twisted, it's still less absurd than a crimefighter wearing brightly colored spandex to a firefight. And better yet, the writers have already announced their intention to finish the whole story in 60 issues, which means forty years from now the main character's children will not grow up and be only slightly younger than he is.

The writing in Chew is damned entertaining. The story seems to be so crazy that it should be unacceptably stupid, but it's all very tongue-in-cheek. The writers know they're on shaky ground, and rather than trying to back off the strange, they crank it up to eleven and holler, 'damn the torpedoes!' What results is a concept and book that is unpredictable, dark and impossible to put down.

I will issue this warning - the art in Chew is not what you're used to seeing. It's not like anything else I've seen. The characters look like they could have stepped out of a Nickelodeon cartoon, complete with strange angles and oddly shaped eyeballs. It's beyond cartoony, though. It's extremely stylized, and while I absolutely love it, this really might not be your cup of tea. Somewhere, Jim Lee is gnashing his teeth.

Chew is also thoroughly grown up. It's got cuss words and boobs, which is pretty much par for the course if you're reading Image Comics. And even if they cleaned it up for television, there's still the FDA investigator taking bites out of rotting corpses to look for clues. It's disturbing - but the gross factor makes it freaking hilarious.

If, like me, you prefer your comics with developing stories and a distinct lack of superheroes, you really ought to check out Chew. It's funny and gross and stylish and massively entertaining. It's also only about halfway through the run, and the first bunch of issues have been collected into trades, so you can get caught up quick. Check it out on Comixology, or see if you can run down the back issues. It's worth it, if you like books with meat. Especially rotting cannibal meat.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Rant - Screw Your FLGS

'Friendly Local Game Store.' Like your local game store is Spider-Man. Man, I get sick of hearing that. And abbreviating it 'FLGS', like that will make it all cute, is even worse.

I've been in some game stores that I really loved. There was one in Orlando called Enterprise 1701, and they had old D&D books out the wazoo. This was back when I played D&D with my wife on a near-daily basis, after we had our first kid but before he got old enough to be a pain in the ass. I freaking loved that store. They've moved, and now they're called Sci-Fi City. If I'm ever in Orlando again, I will definitely be dropping some coin in that treasure trove.

But I don't live in Orlando any more, and my local game store is not all that friendly. Sure, the staff is polite, well-groomed and affable, but most of them don't know anything about board games. And the ones that do know something loom over me while I shop like I was about to shove a coffin-sized box down the front of my khakis and try to walk out of the store. I know, they're probably just trying to help - but they don't know enough to be more than irritating, and I know enough myself not to need a pimpled college kid for an escort.

Why do we feel a need to support local game stores, anyway? I've been in dozens of game stores nationwide, and at least half were dank, miserable pits of despair. Why would anyone support a store that smells like a bum's armpit? When the guy who is going to take your money sneers at you for buying inferior miniatures, because he's a Warhammer snob and you're buying pre-painted plastic, that chump doesn't deserve my business. For that matter, he doesn't deserve anyone's business. Just let him drag his ugly neck-beard back under his bridge, and I'll pick up what I need at a discount when I get it from Coolstuff.

And let's say your local game store is clean, and let's further say it's not staffed by social misfits and walking genital warts. Do they deserve my business just because they happen to be there? I will answer my own question with a resounding, 'Hell no.' You want my green dollars, you frikkin' earn 'em. Have a selection that rivals Thoughthammer, and prices that make me reconsider paying shipping, and you can have my money.

This 'support your local game store' reminds me of the bull-pap propaganda of the music industry, when they tried to keep everyone from getting their music digitally. They were so out of touch with the modern economy that they thought pushing some laws would stop the digital revolution. But those laws didn't stop music piracy. What stopped music piracy (or at least made it slow way down) was when they made it easier to buy your music online than it was to steal it.

The world has evolved. It's not 1985. I don't need my local store to order a game for me, because I can order the damned thing myself, have it in my hands faster, and save a bundle on it, to boot. Retailers who can't give me a reason to shop in their stores will simply not earn my money. I'm not going to shop out of a misguided sense of loyalty. I'll shop with the people who earn my business - and Noble Knight Games earns my business with decent discounts and amazing customer service.

Which is not to say that there's no place for your local game store. If they really are friendly, and they offer something I can't get online, I'll happily spend my money there. Give me good game nights. Give me some place to buy snacks that haven't been sitting in a vending machine for six months. Give me a loyal buyer discount program. Give me some reason to come into your store, and by God, I will. I will be in your store so often you'll have to throw me out, but you won't because of how much money I will be spending in your store.

It would be asinine to say I never spend money in the local store. Less than a month ago, I spent over $150 on paint, because I could spend forty-five minutes looking over the racks and picking exactly the colors I wanted. I've spent money on last-minute gifts, emergency card sleeves, and the odd box of dice. I don't buy games there because I'm not impatient enough to drop an extra 30 bucks just to have it that day, but I do spend some money there.

You know, when they earn it.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Board Game Review - Thunderbolt Apache Leader

 This here is another review by my dad, who I call Dad, and you may call Mister Drake.

A bit of autobiographical background.  I walked out of a college class in 1967 to join the army.  I hated the boring classes so I decided to go for some excitement in life (I’d grown up in the country chasing cows and horses and shoveling, well, you know) and so enlisted airborne.  (Ah, the impetuosity of youth!)  But at the end of basic training I was sent to take a battery of tests and, lo and behold, I’d passed the exam to be a helicopter pilot.  I pondered this event, and finally went to my X.O. and said I’d like to go to flight school.  He was pure infantry (no real excuse for him, just an idiot) and he said (shouted would be more precise) “NOOO! You’re infantry!  Ya’ gotta be infantry!”  (Remember this was 45 years ago so I can’t give a direct quote, but that’s the gist of what he was saying.)  Well, he never sent my papers in, and so I was infantry.  I tell you that because Thunderbolt Apache Leader allows anyone who dreamed of being a helicopter pilot (or Thunderbolt pilot) to try their hand at it without undergoing the misery of training and threat to one’s life.

DVG makes a slick product.  When you first open the box to Thunderbolt Apache Leader you can’t help but be struck by beautiful quality of the components.  And not only attractive, but the components are very functional and contribute to smooth game play.  The tiles used for terrain are thick and have a laminated surface on both sides.  The counters (and there are a lot of them) are of the same quality and pleasing to the eye.

The rulebook is clearly written and easy to follow.  It lays out the details in such an order than you can be set up to play before you’re a third of the way through the book.   This can be very satisfying when you consider all the rulebooks you’ve had to read from cover to cover before you even lay the gameboard out on the table.  Once you see TAL set up and ready to play, it draws you in and leads along so that you’re actually playing the game before you feel any lapse of time.  This is obviously a case where “practice makes perfect,” since Dan Verssen has had valuable experience in his game designs to be perfecting his product.

There are a lot of cards in this game, and they’re designed in such a way as to provide a maximum of suspense during play, and an unimaginable number of play options.  For example, there are twenty-eight different pilots/ aircraft to choose from, and each pilot has six different levels.  When you consider the different wars you can tackle, and the eight different situations in each war, and multiply that times the pilots/aircraft, well, you can see that unless you’re marooned on a dessert isle for a long time you’ll never get to play all the combinations.  Then there are the random events provided via cards.  These add more flavor to the game than MSG.  This game is no cake-walk, and you’ll find those cards throwing some nerve-wracking curve balls, while at other times providing just the trick you needed at the right moment.

There are a lot of other reviews out there that go into the close-up play-by-play detail of the game, so I won’t belabor that again here, but suffice it to say, the game flows very quickly and smoothly AND provides a fun sense of flying chopper missions to take out nefarious foes.  What most stands out to me is the plethora of decisions you get to/have to make in this one game.  You have to choose your aircraft, then your pilot, then your weapons, are you going to fly high, or come in over the trees (or dunes), are you going to go for that enemy unit, or call it a day after sustaining damage.  On and on and on.  All-in-all a prescription for a great game.

I’ve only played the introduction scenario – Iraq Surge – just to be familiar with the game, so I can’t say anything about how well the game will keep you interested in playing over the long term, but if you love solitaire games and you find you love this system, you have a LOT of game before you.

So far all I’ve said about the game is on the positive side.  On the other side of the ledger, first thing to point out is that it is a solitaire game.  No surprise to anyone considering the game, so that shouldn’t be a factor, except that I’ve never cared for solitaire games.  I have to have a living, breathing opponent or the game just doesn’t excite me.  The only reason I played it at all is because it was handed to me to review, so review it I have.  But quite honestly I don’t think I’ll pull it out again.  Don’t get me wrong – it’s a beautiful game and I did get drawn in as I set it up, but it’s still a solitaire game and didn’t earn a place in my heart as, say, Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage.  If you enjoy solitaire games, you’ll have to put this one on your “must own” list.  HOWEVER, if you only enjoy boardgames when there’s a flesh-and-blood opponent sitting across from you, you’ll probably not care for this game.  Second, this is the kind of game that really works better as a video game.  I’ve praised the quality of the game’s components, and rightly so, but when you consider the time investment to read the rules and set up the game you can’t avoid the creeping thought, “Man!  I wish I could just turn on the x-box and start blowing up crap.”

And in the way of closing, I have to let you know that until I passed that exam for flight school I’d never dreamed of being a chopper pilot and I’ve never really regretted I didn’t make it.  I think I had a LOT more fun jumping out of choppers into hot LZs that I’d have had flying them.


High quality components.
Well written and organized rulebook.
Excellent fit to the theme.

Would be more fun (IMO) as a video game.
It’s a solitaire game.

You can get Thunderbolt Apache Leader direct from DSV, right here:

Friday, November 9, 2012

Book Review - World War Z

Just a few days ago, I was talking about how zombies are on the upswing, and I mentioned a book called World War Z. It sprang to mind then because I had just finished reading it. It's very good. It's worth its own review. So here it is. The review.

World War Z is a unique piece of zombie fiction. Rather than following the tried-and-true storytelling gimmick of following a small band of hardened survivors, World War Z relates the entire history of the zombie war, from the first infection site to the viral spread, the panic that follows and the hard-fought victory. I'm not giving anything away, either - the mock introduction tells us right from the outset that we beat the living dead. What it doesn't tell us is how, or all that happens in between, or what we lose in the bargain.

The story is told through a series of oral interviews that the author of the book conducts all over the world. He talks to a rural doctor in China, a Russian solder in Kazakhstan, a housewife in the U.S., and a mercenary holed up on a Caribbean island. Taken one at a time, these stories are tense and fascinating and gritty and believable. And while this technique of relating interviews could have backfired, resulting in a sloppy mess of chaotic storytelling, author Max Brooks artistically weaves them all into a continuous, seamless look at the world's response to an apocalyptic event.

The format does more than just spin a yarn, too. By covering individual stories taken from different points in the zombie apocalypse, Brooks manages to tell us how China responds to the emerging threat, how panic seizes the United States, how Japan evacuates and South Africa comes up with a plan. At the same time - literally - we're reading individual stories of harrowing danger and gutsy survival. A history book would tell the story of the war one event at a time, and we get that world view. A series of short stories and novels would relate thrilling tales of luck, balls and heroism, and we get to enjoy these entertaining tales, too. Brooks takes on a huge task, one most writers would be hesitant to attempt, and he pulls it off with flair.

By their very nature, zombie tales require an immediate suspension of disbelief. There are no zombies in real life, and actually believing that zombies could potentially wipe out the human race is beyond absurd. Yet World War Z manages to come across as believable, not just because the characters are so dimensional and subtly credible, but because the governments of the world don't crumble to ash. My greatest complaint with the bulk of zombie fiction is the ridiculous belief that a viral infection would cause the collapse of government. A carefully planned and masterfully orchestrated terrorist attack might destabilize the governments of the world, but a horde of shambling halfwits is hardly going to be the end of governments worldwide - at least, not right off the bat.

Though World War Z does establish considerable credibility by showing us the survival of the ruling class, it also shows us just how close the world could have come. We see tales of short-sighted, knee-jerk responses and poorly considered plans. We see a global panic more dangerous than the undead. Through the stories of starvation, deprivation and horror, we can feel just how terrifying the world became, and how narrowly we avoid extinction.

One of my favorite things about zombie fiction, whether in film or novels or comic books, is how the premise is often used for a greater purpose, to make a larger point. Unfortunately, more often than not, the larger point is an effort to tell us that in a world overrun by the living dead, the real monsters are the human beings. It was thought-provoking the first four times. By now, the whole idea is overused and trite. I really enjoy The Walking Dead, both the comic and the TV show, but this 'humanity is evil' thing gets done to death, and it is refreshing to see a viewpoint that isn't thoroughly depressing.

Which is why I was so glad to read a piece of zombie fiction in which the real monsters are not the people. The real monsters are the frigging monsters. World War Z doesn't try to tell us that if the dead started to do the hungry cha-cha on our front lawns, we would all turn into homicidal super-villains. Instead, it tells us that we never know how heroic we can be until the chips are down. When everything is on the line and the body parts are flying, that's when we see real heroes. Faced with bloody demise, we man up and kick ass.

Granted, not every story in World War Z is a tale of the indomitable human spirit. There are cowards and thieves. There are murders and heartless exploitation. But taken as a whole, World War Z tells us that even in the face of overwhelming horror, humanity has the stones to save ourselves. The book shows a human psyche that is scared and brave, weak at times and invincible at others. By showing us an entire world, World War Z does what zombie fiction does best, when it's doing it well - holds up a mirror and says, 'hey, this is you.' It is thought-provoking and smart and credible, and goes beyond the story to give us a good look at ourselves.

I looked around and found a ten-dollar copy at Amazon. That's pretty good. I would buy that.


Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Observation - Rise of the Dead

Remakes of classic old movies are not a big deal any more, except when they resonate with us on a personal level. The remade Star Trek was cool, but it was better for those of us who watched William Shatner before he was a tubby, tiny, gray-haired old man. Remade Superman, remade Dredd, remade Evil Dead - and those are just recent past and near future. So Red Dawn shouldn't be especially impressive, because it's just another remake.

The interesting thing, though, is that the original Red Dawn was created when we were all half-certain that we were going to have to start learning the cyrillic alphabet before we finished high school. The Cold War was at its hottest, and a communist invasion was actually credible. Hell, every third movie that came out was about how dangerous those damned Pinko Commie Soviets were, and how we all operated under the constant threat of nuclear obliteration. I can name a half-dozen Cold War movies off the top of my head that dealt with the terrifying global instability that had us either quaking in fear or planning for the invasion.

But that threat is gone. Nobody believes we're going to be invaded any more. What, is Al Qaeda going to raise an army that could deal with a hundred million armed civilians? Is Canada going to invade, so the next movie can be called White Dawn? Military invasion has become a negligible threat, a far-fetched idea so absurd that it's relegated to silly teen-flick remakes and only made remotely plausible with secret weapons and giant suspensions of disbelief.

Ironically, though, we seem to need something to worry about. We need something to keep us occupied, some threat to overcome, some cultural boogeyman to make us fear and plan. For most of the second half of the last century, we had the USSR, and before that, it was the combined threat of Japan and Germany. Hell, America couldn't even exist until we threw off an outside enemy. We've always had the threat of invasion to keep us sharp, keep us mean and ready to rumble, and some part of us wants that threat. Some part of us wants to be scared. Some part of us wants a reason to keep a rifle in the closet and a revolver under the pillow. But what do we do when there's no sweeping monster to unite us, to scare us into remembering that we actually could get along, if we had a good enough reason?

Enter the walking dead. By God, if we can't find a plausible enemy, we'll make one ourselves. Remove the looming sword of Damocles presented by opposing governments, and we'll substitute our own implacable foe. We need an apocalypse, and if we can't find one that makes sense, we'll just fall back and make our own.

It's not like zombies are a new phenomenon. Night of the Living Dead came out in 1968, and we've had zombie movies ever since. Zombies made appearances in video games, printed fiction, even the odd quirky TV show. But they were a closet thing, practically a nerd fetish. Normal people had actual things to worry about. We didn't need the undead in our popular fiction, because we had Russians.

The zombies are out of the closet now, though. The Walking Dead on AMC isn't just successful, it's popular with people who never read a comic book in their lives. Zombieland featured a cast of actual movie stars, instead of the usual D-listers who get scrounged up for cheesy horror. World War Z was a New York Times best-seller, and now they're making it into a movie - and it stars Brad Pitt. At Halloween, the local library actually sponsored a zombie walk. You can't swing an undead cat without hitting zombies any more, whether it's Last Night on Earth or Left 4 Dead 2.

So with zombies becoming the new Communist threat, take a second and honestly ask yourself if you've ever made plans for the zombie apocalypse. Have you ever considered buying a gun, just in case your neighbors came over to eat your brains? Have you spent time thinking about where you would go if the dead started walking? Have you concocted your escape plan, which roads you would take to avoid the chaos of mass evacuations? I have, and it is absolutely absurd.

Look, dead people are not going to get up and start walking around. They're dead. They don't want to eat your brains. They want to rot in peace. And yet the idea is so strong, and the need to create an enemy is so powerful, that we have concocted an entire mythology out of thin air. You even know the rules - head shots, don't get bit, and if you're a little neurotic, beware of bathrooms. We've built these enemies with complete disregard for the fact that they are beyond fictional. They are impossible.

We have built zombies into our cultural mindset because Americans need a looming threat. We have built a national spirit out of overcoming our enemies, be they British or Spanish, French or German, Japanese or Russian. We have routinely united our disparate people against a common foe. We build victory gardens, write slogans, support the troops. And when the danger becomes so distant and benign that our supporting response is reduced to bad country music and ribbon magnets, we cast around until we land on an enemy we can all agree would be bad - hungry, dead Aunt Edna.

Of course, our need for a common enemy isn't the only reason for the growing popularity of the walking dead as the faceless antagonist. When we were young, we knew who the enemy was, because he had a thick accent and regularly asked, 'vere is moose and sqvuirrel?' He was over there, and we were over here, and sooner or later he was going to come get us. But now, with the emergence of our ludicrously titled 'War on Terror,' we're worried that the next-door neighbor might be a bad guy, or the guy at the sandwich shop, or the gas station attendant. In zombie movies, they have to shoot that nice old cookie lady because she's turned dead; in real life, we might just have to shoot her because she's going to poison the water supply or blow up the post office. We don't need Cubans to invade. We've got capital-T Terrorists to worry about - and they're as scary and implacable as a dead guy who wants to eat your shoulder blades.

It is fascinating to me to watch the silliness of zombie invasions become a part of popular culture. It amuses me that normal, average sports fans actually consider zombies part of their lexicons. And while I realize that I have made some sweeping generalizations, that's what societal norms are. Not everyone cares about zombies. But more people do than ever have before, or Hollywood wouldn't crank out zombie movies and video game publishers would go back to shooting digital Arabs.

So what does that say about our mindset, when we are more interested in seeing zombies than actual, human enemies? Are we overconfident and soft, just looking for any reason to stay lean and mean? Are we so sure of our military might that we imagine it would take a biological impossibility to present a credible threat? Are we just trying to identify with the potential destabilizing effect of an terrorist attack? Or are we just so used to being scared of something that we will latch onto anything to maintain our psychological status quo?

Honestly, I don't know. I can't even say with any certainty that our sudden interest in zombies is tied to our improved national safety. I do know this one thing, though: I love it. I was a zombie fan when we were all worried about Red Bears, and I was a zombie fan after Glasnost told Reagan he could take down that wall. I've seen all the Romero movies and most of the remakes. And now that I'm not the outsider geek, now that everybody else is talking about last night's episode of The Walking Dead, I feel a sense of vindication. I've got more zombie entertainment than I can consume, but I sure do try. For an old-school zombie nut like me, this recent swell in popularity is more than welcome. Long live the dead!

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Abstract Game Review - Serpent Stone

I know, you're all amazed. You're saying, 'holy crap, it's a game review! At this game review website! What will they think of next? Cheese on a cheese sandwich? Is there no end to the insanity?'

Saturday afternoon, after I got out of my web design class (which, by machinations of devils and bureaucrats, consumes Saturday mornings for three months running), I got to play a game I have not reviewed yet. It's called Serpent Stone, and it was with a considerable amount of delight that I am able to say I enjoyed it. Delight because now that I don't have time to plow through giant mountains of games every week, it really sucks to play crappy games.

Serpent Stone is not a huge game. It doesn't come with plastic miniatures, cardboard money tokens or anything else super fancy. You've got a deck of cards and a vinyl play mat that won't lay flat. The goal is to take your opponent's power stone, which is a cool gamer word for 'the goal spot.'

You play Serpent Stone by building a trail of warriors from your home to your opponent's goal spot, or as I previously established, 'power stone.' It's an abstract recreation of an Aztec game that may or may not have existed, though if I were placing bets, I would not put money on the actual game being historically accurate. For one thing, I doubt the Aztecs had playing cards. Though I can't say for sure - it is possible that the Spanish learned of the technology of playing cards when they paid visits to Central America, and brought the game to Europe, where drunken Englishmen turned it into Cribbage.

You'll build this train of warriors across the table, and your opponents will build his own, and ultimately you run into each other. When that happens, you have to attack the other guy (which will take his dudes out of the game completely) or capture them, brainwash them, and turn them over to your own side. This is an important part of the game, and when you get the right hand of attack and capture cards, it's a good idea to hold onto them until you're ready to make the most of them.

The coolest element of the game, however, is the sacrifice. This is where you don't take a turn at all, and just store up for a bad-ass double turn next time. If you're feeling seriously frosty, you can even do it twice, and that third turn is going to be a doozy. Since you can lose the game by running out of cards in your hand, and this sacrifice maneuver will totally do that to you, it's a risky move - but do it right, and you'll rock the pants off your opponent. Do it wrong and you totally lose. Like I said, it's risky.

It doesn't seem like there's a lot to this little two-player abstract, but when you look at the result and see a fun, exciting, challenging game, you might think Reiner Knizia made it and they took his name off because there wasn't enough math and nobody would believe he did it. He didn't make this one - it was another guy completely - and that's probably just as well. This game is actually fun. And has no math.

Serpent Stone is smart, easy to learn, and fun to play. You can finish in 15 minutes, which is enough time to play it again. Maybe a couple more times. I played a prototype (though I'm not sure why, since it's actually a published game), so I don't know if you will also get a crappy vinyl play mat that won't lay flat, but the lousy mat is the only bad thing I have to say about the game. The art is fun and the design is excellent. If you're looking for a good two-player abstract, you really ought to give this one a shot.

If you want to know more about Serpent Stone, like when it might be available for preorder or something, you can check out the game's blog at:


Unfortunately, it doesn't look like you can buy this game right now. The Kickstarter is over, and Game Salute doesn't seem to be carrying it yet.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Nothing Review - Not Doing Anything

The toughest thing about trying to update three times a week is that sometimes I run out of stuff to write about. Want to hear about what I had for lunch? Should I review the egg & cheese on flatbread you can get at Subway? How about my wife's recipe for bolognese?

No? It's just as well. I don't actually have that recipe.

OK, how about I review working in a cubicle farm. I could tell you all about gray fabric and painfully fluorescent lights. That would be fun, right? I could complain about my boss, maybe share something that nobody else is experiencing - at least, nobody else under the age of seven, because the odds are spectacular that you've got a day job. You know about ugly offices and corporate drones.

Oh! I know! I could review night class!

Wait, crap, I just did that.

Hmm. Maybe I could review the games I've been playing... except dammit, I haven't played anything new in a long time. I did try that Schlock Mercenary game I was talking about, but just the training mission, so I still haven't really sunk my teeth into it. It seems fun, but 'seems fun' is not a review, unless you review for BGG. They can apparently get away with that.

Family woes? Everybody has those. TV shows I've been watching? Not watching anything good. Making stuff in the garage? Nope, not since the fire burned up all the tools, except for the ones in the shed, which were stolen while we were staying in the hotel.

So tonight's review is a review of nothing. It's a review of exactly how thoroughly mundane life can be, when nothing in particular is happening even though the entire country is doing something interesting. Storms destroying the East Coast, a couple of pandering empty suits trying to get you to tell them they should run the country, embassy attacks and animal cruelty cases, and the best I can do is tell you how I get home from work at six.

Come to think of it, just go read the news somewhere. If that's not interesting enough to hold you a couple days, you can come back here and bitch about it.