Sunday, March 31, 2013

Rant Light - Emperor's New Clothes

I like Kickstarter. I have given money to three games and one thing where some Afghan guys are going to blow up land mines, but I check it out all the time (and let me say right now that unless your game has bad-ass miniatures and a fully realized prototype, I still don't want to review your Kickstarter idea). I love to see the new miniatures being developed as Kickstarter promotions, or the games that I know I never want to play, or the really weird stuff being developed by crazy people who should never have been allowed to own a credit card.

About a month ago, I found out about a Kickstarter promotion that I think fits best in that third category, except that the guys running it can probably be trusted with a driver's license. It's a game called The Emperor's New Clothes, and it's not a game at all. It's a box of white things.

I take it back, it is kind of a game. It's an elaborate game run by some guys with a very strange sense of humor, and while I probably should be ready to jump in and laugh along with them, I also don't know that I find it particularly amusing.

Here's the idea. These guys have the general impression that Kickstarter fans will back anything, even stupid things, so they said, 'here's something stupid, back this.' And they're kind of right, because a white box with a white board and a bunch of white cards and white cubes is a pretty stupid thing to buy for more than ten dollars. Yet more than 200 people have signed up to get a box of white things with no art and no game. As it stands now, the project is going to fund. They'll get the money and send people blank boxes full of blank pieces.

Now, I know this is a joke. Not only that, but I am routinely amazed at the worthless crap that gets funded on Kickstarter (and I know these games suck, because people keep sending them to me in the mail). So from the standpoint of saying, 'what is wrong with you people that will back any idiotic project that catches your eye?' I am completely sympathetic to the gag.

On the other hand, I think it's a dumb joke. In the early days, it was played up as a real game, and if you couldn't see the game it was because you were genetically deficient or something. They sent out review copies, and several reviewers actually described entertaining games that were not in the box because they were 'in on the joke.' I get that it was satire, and I get the satire. But I think it was a dumb joke.

A few days ago they spilled the beans and told everyone that the game's not real. However, they are still taking your money. You will still get a box of white things. I guess if you're going to create game prototypes, you're all set - but that's going to be kind of an expensive box of prototype stuff, especially since you're going to have to paint the wood bits and draw art on the cards and after that you're going to need a new prototype box.

I also question the decision from Game Salute to support this with their Springboard seal. That company takes heat all the time, and there are a lot of people who are just looking for an excuse to hate them. This was a risky move for a company that could use a little positive PR.

On the other hand, backing this thing took balls. It shows that the boys at Game Salute don't take themselves too seriously, and they're fine with you not liking them. I will say that Game Salute has been behind some very original games that would not have made it to my table without their help, and also Dan Yarrington is a prince, so I admire their stones. Not literally, of course.

It's been a month since I found out about The Emperor's New Clothes, and I still haven't decided how I feel about it. It ends tomorrow, and it looks very much like it will fund, showing (to me at least) that the joking point was well-made - people will seriously back anything. But then I gave it just a little more thought and realized that ultimately, there's no reason I need to feel anything about this at all. I am 100% confident that I will eventually get everything I ever bought off Kickstarter (except exploding land mines - I would rather those stay out of my living room). I don't back anything unless it's an amazing deal and I trust that I'll actually get whatever the thing is, so the joke doesn't apply to me. I don't need a box of white things, and I didn't give The Emperor's New Clothes any money, so I don't care if it's funny or not.

You've got until Monday night to check out The Emperor's New Clothes. You can see it here, and decide it you give a crap:

Friday, March 29, 2013

TV Show Review - House of Cards

I am not a fan of political drama. For me, The West Wing was about as interesting as a show about a bunch of attractive doctors who work in the same hospital and have sex all the time, which is to say, not interesting at all. The actual inner workings of my nation's capital bore me to tears. I just don't care. Yeah, pass a bill. Vote. Eat at the cafeteria and go to fundraisers. Whoop-de-friggin-doo.

But for almost every setting, there's a story that will make it interesting. Nurse Jackie is an interesting hospital show. Legit is an interesting sitcom. And House of Cards is an interesting political show.

But then, House of Cards is not a normal political show. It could have been placed in the Roman senate, or the French royal court, or an Italian city-state. It's Machiavellian, a study of corruption and power and greed, where we get to watch an amoral sociopath scheme his way to the top. Kevin Spacey plays Congressman Frank Underwood, but he could have been a Chinese magnate making a bid for the emperor's seat (though he would have needed some pretty serious makeup to be convincing at it). Or, I don't know, a Danish prince.

The premise starts off big - Frank Underwood has just helped a dude become president in exchange for a promise of being elected Secretary of State, but once the guy gets the big chair and the round office, he changes his mind and screws Frank out of his dream job.

Some people might get pissed. Some people might rant and scream and plot revenge. But not Frank Underwood, because he's too big a man for petty vengeance. Instead, he decides that he was thinking too small, and he'll take all the power for himself and screw the ungrateful bastards who hosed him along the way.

And then he kicks ass.

As you start to watch House of Cards, you'll be delighted at the completely detached way in which Frank Underwood and his wife Claire destroy all opposition. They rescue people just to use them as pawns. They destroy lives as casually as you might eat a bagel (unless you don't like bagels, in which case it's as casually as you eat something you eat very casually). They plot every step, improvise as needed, and shirk from no unsavory task if it furthers their goals. And ironically, as they carefully destroy anyone who gets in their way, they totally love each other.

Which does not keep them from getting a little nookie on the side. Both of the Underwoods have affairs, but in this demented couple, they come home and tell each other about it. They explain how they're using the people they're banging. They'll stop if the other person asks - but the other person never really has a problem with it, since both Claire and Frank know it's all about the power play.

I'm hoping that, so far, I've made House of Cards sound irresistibly entertaining. Because I loved it... until about the middle of the show.

I guess they just couldn't keep up the killer scripting through the whole show, and decided they needed to add something weird, just to compete with HBO. As you get toward the two-thirds mark of the show, the sex gets awkward and a little uncomfortable. I get that they're trying to be edgy, but I think completely destroying an innocent man because he had the misfortune to get between you and your goal is edgy enough. We didn't need the messed-up sexual trysts.

By the end of the show, House of Cards gets back on track. The weird sex stuff mostly comes to an end, a few things get sorted, and then you're left with kind of a bad taste in your mouth. But the show goes on, only it seems like they might have run out of steam. The endgame is painfully predictable. Frankly, the end does not live up to the promise of the beginning.

However, House of Cards is still very much worth watching. If the only reason you watch is to see Kevin Spacey break the fourth wall and have entire monologues directly into the camera, it's time well spent. Robin Wright is a long way from the Princess Bride, but she is fantastic as the evil ice queen. There's a girl photographer on the show who has all the acting range of that bland chick from the Twilight movies, but most of the other actors more than make up for her uninspired monotone.

All things considered, House of Cards is definitely worth watching, even if there was a lot of unexplored potential. The dialog is great, even if the plotting is spotty, and Kevin Spacey will light your TV on fire. Best of all, you can get the entire season on Netflix and watch it all at one time. Downside? It's ONLY on Netflix. But what the hell, get it for a month and then cancel. It's worth it.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Comic Book Review - Wasteland

NOTE: Towards the end of this review, I mention that Wasteland is set to run 50 issues. That is wrong. It's 60 issues. My bad.

There are not enough post-apocalyptic comic books. It's one of my favorite story-telling genres, which explains why I tolerate so many zombie games (though the zombie apocalypse is not the same apocalypse as the nuclear apocalypse). And most after-the-bomb books tend to get silly, like that old Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle game where everyone turned into animals. Because that's what would happen - nuclear holocaust causes an advanced case of Disney movie.

But even if post-apocalyptic comics were as common as superhero comics (and it's a damned shame that they are not), I would still heartily recommend Wasteland. It's mature and smart and exciting, and the author has created an immensely entertaining and believable world, and then spun a yarn that lets you feel like you're there. Only, you know, without the dying.

Wasteland spins a wide-spanning yarn by telling us about lots of different characters. One issue we're following Abi and Michael as they search for answers to their difficult questions, and then the next issue we learn what's happening in the city of Newbegin. There are some weird things, like super-healing powers or people who don't age, but mostly, the entire thing is incredibly believable. The supernatural stuff only serves to make the realistic stuff stand out brighter.

And just because a particular character can throw rocks with his mind does not make that dude the only character worth watching. There are plenty of normal characters, from the tough ranger who protects his village to the council member who plots to free his people from institutionalized bigotry. There are plenty of plotlines to follow, but they're not just free-floating and unconnected - everything matters, even if we can't see it at the time.

Wasteland also gives us tons of mystery. Every time some new tidbit is revealed, it only serves to raise more questions. We meet mysterious characters with involved pasts - in some case, pasts they themselves don't even remember. There are invading hordes of terrible monsters, cities populated by hideous mutants, and no small number of just plain rotten human beings.

Remember when I said that the author has developed his setting really well? You should, it was like three paragraphs ago. If you've already forgotten when I said that, don't bother reading comics. Concentrate on coloring books.

The author of Wasteland finishes every comic with a full written page by Ankya Ofsteen, a traveler whose mission is to discover the world and document it. In these stories, Ankya takes us from one end of the world to the other, meeting wildly varying people and relating experiences that we may never see in the comic itself. These tales serve to ground the entire world, to bring it bursting off the page in full color and cinematic 3D (which is funny, because the book itself is black-and-white).

You don't have to trust me on this one. If you're reading your comics on Comixology, you can download issue 0 for free. If you don't agree that Wasteland is worth your time, then you've saved yourself a bundle of money. If you do, then I have cost you about $84, which is how much it would cost you to get completely caught up. The author has stated more than once that he intends to finish the title with issue 50, and the latest book is issue 43, so there are seven left.

The only downside is that since Wasteland is kind of an indie book, it doesn't really update once a month. I think we'll be lucky if the last seven issues are done in 2013. I hope so, because I would love to find out how this incredible story ends, but I'm not holding my breath. However, even if it doesn't update regularly, hell, even if he never finishes the story at all, Wasteland is worth reading. It's the most intelligent post-apocalyptic comic I've ever read, and one of the best comics, period. Seriously, it's worth a free download to at least try it out.

Here's the Comixology link:

Oh, one more thing - get the individual issues. Yes, they cost more than the collected volumes, but that way you get the Ofsteen stories. They left those out of the trades.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Board Game Review - Dominare

I know this is starting to sound like a broken record, but I really love the idea behind the Tempest games, where you unravel a story that is told through a series of games. Each game is a completely different, stand-alone game, and each recreates one period of struggle in the history of the fictional city-state of Tempest. The last game in the series, and the best of the batch, is Dominare.

In Courtier, players compete to sway the king's ear. Then the queen is arrested for treason, and so in Mercante, the merchants rise up to grab some power. But the whole time they've been manipulated by the people behind the curtains, the people who will eventually control all of the city and run their own shadow governments, and then they will set up security stations where minimum-wage losers will grope your privates before you can get on a plane. You play the shadow government. Though you would probably have sense enough to disband the TSA.

Dominare has a similar feel to its two predecessors, being a very involved and Euro-style game with limited actions, some cube-placing, and gallons of fantastic art (I went to art school, so I can verify that art is typically measured in ounces, so gallons of fantastic art is lots of great art. Hyperbole, on the other hand, is usually measured in yards). Many of the elements that make Courtier and Mercante enjoyable are found in Dominare, including cutthroat interaction, careful planning, and special actions.

However, Dominare ratchets up the intensity to an incredible degree. Every time I've played, the game comes down to the last turn, the last few actions, and one person grasps their way to the top while the rest are trampled pitilessly. The competition is fiercer than in either of the other games, and every play is memorable. In fact, you'll be fighting tooth and nail for just one more spot, just one more plot, one more Lay's potato chip (nobody can eat just one).

You know how most games have multiple phases, but the game is really all about one part, and the rest is just maintenance? That's not Dominare. In Dominare, you first have to add an agent to your conspiracy, and this part is absolutely critical. Choose well, and you'll have an edge. Screw it up, and you're going to regret it.

Then you get paid and distribute your influence throughout the city. This part is ALSO absolutely critical. Grab a majority of one important district, or whittle away at an opponent's power base. Spread yourself out, to have plenty of options, or swoop in and establish yourself as the undisputed master of a particular neighborhood. Control the senate to make your districts more valuable, or control the church to send missionaries out and establish your domain throughout the city. Or run the canals, and control everything for as long as you can afford it.

Then you have actions, where you send your agents into the city to sway minds and hearts (and in one case, genitals - that's right, there's a hooker in this game). Disable opposing agents by tying them up in meetings. Or remove them altogether by sending your knife-wielding assassin out to hose down your foes. Steal money. Build your power base. These agents can do awesome things - but you can't use them all, and so like the other phases of the game, this part is also absolutely critical.

In fact, every decision you make in Dominare has ramifications, and sometimes you won't know what those consequences might have been until you're sitting two hours later, still talking about how much you loved the game, discussing the game-breaking maneuver that your friend pulled off at the last minute, the one that forced your hand and made you over-commit so that you didn't have the resources to snatch that one last block that would have won you the game.

And Dominare seems to know when it should end. Any shorter, and the stakes wouldn't be as high. Any longer, and it would get old. Every time I've played, it builds to a fever pitch with an explosive finale. You're just invested enough to love the battle for the top spot, but it's not like you spent eight hours on a game that you ended up losing.

OK, so here's the warning - Dominare is very dense and very European in flavor (even though I'm pretty sure it was made by Americans). You can see people get killed - we had a public execution in one game, and an assassination in another - but it doesn't happen a lot. If you're looking for blood, you won't find it here. But you will find intensely deep, exceptionally entertaining gameplay that will have you plotting and scheming and backstabbing.

Reading the cards for Dominare, I realized how much I would really love to read some novels about Tempest. You could have a bunch of them, written by different authors and covering different characters. The city feels alive, and the characters are brilliant. I want to know more about Tempest, and when that happens, it means the theme is coming alive while I play.

I liked Courtiers, Love Letter and Mercante. But I love Dominare. If you're only going to get one of these games - well, don't do that, get them all - but if you're dead set on picking just one, Dominare is utterly magnificent. If you don't like Euro games, it might not be for you, and if you have trouble grasping complex rules, you'll probably be frustrated. But if you want to play a game so deep that you'll need scuba gear, you want Dominare.


2-6 players

Plot and scheme and plan (all of which are essentially the same thing)
Great art
Deep theme that draws you into the game
You'll be talking about it days later

Complicated rules
Super Euro

Coolstuff Inc is not my new sponsor. I don't actually have one any more. But they do have this bad-ass game for just forty bucks, so I would totally go get it:

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Board Game Review - Mercante

I've always said that I'll play anything, if it's fun, but I have developed something of a reputation as a big fan of games where people get killed a lot. And that's fair, because I am a huge fan of games where people get killed a lot. I even designed a t-shirt that says, 'real men play games where people die' (that's kind of a plug, since you can buy that shirt). So it may seem odd, but I have really fallen for a series of games that could not be more European if they came with free healthcare.

Mercante is the second in the Tempest series of games, or the third if you count Love Letter, which apparently the publishers do not, because there's a big '2' on the side of the box. It furthers the story of the evolution of the city-state of Tempest. In the first game, Courtiers, players ponce about and plot to exert subtle influence over the city by gaining the king's ear - and then someone succeeds and the queen gets arrested for treason. In Mercante, the merchants rise up and decide it's about time someone listened to them. Money brings power, I guess, and so you're all trying to elevate your positions by getting rich and powerful.

It might seem like Mercante should be very similar to Courtiers, since they're part of a series, and there are certainly similarities. The art, for one thing, is obviously created by the same artists who made the first game. The setting is the same, except for the obvious difference of the imprisoned queen. But the differences are much larger - and more important - than the things that are the same.

For instance, instead of limited cube placement and cautious card play, you've got bidding wars and limited actions. The game feels very much like it belongs in the trilogy without being the same game with a new varnish. You'll bid on goods to store in your warehouse, try to sell goods to make money, and fill delivery contracts for certain items, like pigs and jewelry. Hopefully not at the same time, but there were some twisted people in Tempest. Some of them might have been into that. You're not here to judge.

You are here to get rich and powerful, though, and while there are several ways to get power, the more effective way is to just go out and buy it. At least, if you're merchants. If you're politicians in modern America, the best way to get power is to lie to a bunch of people and promise other people favors if they'll fund your reelection campaigns. But this isn't a game about American politics, it's a game about the rising merchant class, so in this case, money means power.

Mercante is as brilliant and involved a game as Courtier. The rules might take a couple read-throughs, just to make sure you got them all, and I'm pretty sure we still played wrong. But these meaty rules provide you with a game that is as strategic as it is tactical, smart and tricky, and full of great opportunities to screw your friends.

In fact, that friend-screwage is one of the highlights of the game. So much of Mercante is about bidding, and you can totally hose someone just by bidding them up and forcing them to pay more than their win is worth. You can hire thugs to rob their warehouses. You can close markets just as they go to sell their goods. Over and over, there are excellent chances to make other people miserable, which make Mercante good, clean fun best enjoyed by people who don't take it personally when you treat them very poorly.

I really hope these Tempest game kick off a trend. This idea of connecting games in a series, telling a story through the games, is so much fun I can barely stand it. It's like you get to be there to witness the city-state changing before your eyes. These are not expansions. They're more like sequels. They're similar, but not identical, and each game can stand on its own - but seriously, if you're going to get one, get them all. They are fantastic.

Like all the games in the Tempest series, Mercante is involved, very European, and low on dead bodies. But it's marvelously fun, if you're into this sort of game, and shows just how much innovation the board game industry can come up with. I highly recommend it. And in two days, I'll tell you about Dominare, the best of the bunch.


2-5 players

Involved and smart
Tons of interaction
Heavy without being dull
Tense and hellacious fun

Very Euro (not a con for me, more of a heads-up)

You can get Mercante from Coolstuff, Inc., and I am flabbergasted that you can get it for a price this amazing:

Monday, March 18, 2013

Card Game Review - Love Letter

A few weeks ago, I reviewed a game called Courtier, and mentioned how this was the first chapter in a series of games that, when put together, told a story about the evolving city-state of Tempest. In case you don't feel like jumping over to that review, I'll recap:

Courtier is fun.
The story idea is fantastic.
The game ends when the queen gets arrested.

There's actually more in that review (or I couldn't very accurately call it a review), but those are the salient parts for this review.

Depending on how you want to rate these things, Love Letter is either the second game out of four, or a sort of plug-in wedged between the first and second. It doesn't really seem to fit in the series - the other three all have Latin-sounding names (and not like Geraldo Rivera Latin, more like Semper Fidelis Latin), they all have the same size box, and they are all rather weight board games. Love Letter, by comparison, obviously does not have a Latin name (either racially or linguistically), comes in a cloth bag, and is a light card game. Which explains why Alderac didn't make it an 'official' part of the Tempest series.

However, Love Letter definitely takes place in Tempest. It even furthers the story. You're all suitors attempting to cheer up the princess after her mom gets thrown in the hoosegow (supposedly she committed treason, but I'm pretty sure she was set up). To make the princess smile, you're trying to get your love letter into her hands. Her guards - and the other players - all want to make sure you fail. In terms of the timeline, this takes place between Courtier (the first game) and Mercante (the second game). It's kind of like a special episode of Friends that takes place between when the gang meets up for coffee and witty banter and the next time the gang meets up for coffee and witty banter.

What ensues is a delightfully cutthroat card game that plays out in less than twenty minutes and leaves everyone laughing just a little. It's ridiculously straightforward - on your turn, you draw a card, then play a card. You only start with one card, so when you're playing, you're limited to a choice of two cards. This might seem like Love Letter has a lot of luck, and if it does, then kudos, you're very perceptive. Have a gold star.

That heaping helping of luck is why a game this deliberately cutthroat still keeps everyone smiling. Sure, you hosed your daughter out of the last point she needed to win, but she knows you didn't have any choice. It was that or discard the princess, and automatically lose the round. So you had to play the guard, guess the countess, and kick her out of the round. Those are the breaks.

Theoretically, the goal of Love Letter is to have the character closest to the princess holding your love letter at the end of the round, because that's the letter she gets. However, in practice, the goal of the game is to boot every other player by finding their love letters and making sure they wind up in the wood chipper (the letters, not the players - it is bad form to put your fellow games into wood chippers). There are so many ways to get knocked out of a round that sometimes you don't even need any help. Sometimes you're stuck holding a card that knocks you out if you play it, and a card that forces you to play your other card.

But like I said, those are the breaks, and Love Letter is a surprisingly fun game, even though it is almost too light to even be part of the the Tempest series. Where the other three games have more meat than a barbecue buffet, Love Letter is a handful of popcorn. But it's fun popcorn, like the kind that comes in the big bucket and has cheese or chocolate or butterscotch, and after two days the only thing left in there is the cheese popcorn because your co-workers are pigs. Greedy, greedy pigs.

One more point here - the Tempest series of games is so well-developed and deep, with an obvious history and an enormous cast of characters, that I would really love to read fiction taking place in this city. Fiction based on Love Letter would be less compelling than Fifty Shades of Twilight, but all the intrigue and backstabbing in the other games would make for fascinating reading, if it was written by someone competent (and by 'someone competent', I mean 'not that lady who wrote Hunger Games').

I think I'm going to make this Tempest Week. My other two reviews this week will cover Mercante and Dominare. By the end, I'll be repeating the same jokes so many times you'll all leave and go read those dry-as-a-mattress reviews at BGG just for variety. So come back Wednesday and I'll see if I can't make you yell at your monitor, 'You used that one already!'


2-4 players

Quick and light-hearted card game
Fast and fun, with some opportunity for smart card play
Beautiful art
Wonderfully cutthroat without making anyone mad at you

Heavy on luck, with virtually no strategy

It took some looking to find a copy of this anywhere, but you can get it at Funagain for just ten bucks. Perfect if you're trying to push up for a shipping discount, but worth it all by itself.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Contest - Free Movies

Reviewing movies turned out to be a pretty awesome idea. While I still haven't managed to get an invitation to a private screening of, well, anything at all, I am starting to get noticed. A couple weeks ago, this lady from Redbox emailed me and said I could have 25 codes for free Redbox rentals so that I could give them out to my readers. I have been renting movies like crazy!

Too bad the codes don't work for videogames. Wish I had figured that out before I kept Barbie Adventures for a week and a half.

So anyway, then another lady says she'll send me some codes and I was like 'yes! This racket is SWEET!' But instead of bogarting the whole pack for myself, I thought I would have a contest and let someone else rent some movies. I can only rent Avengers so many times before someone starts to question why I would bother, especially since I own it.

Here's how this will work. You send me an email. Tell me you want a code. Then next Friday (or somewhere in the vicinity of the 22nd of March), I'll pick 25 names at random and email them a code and a dirty joke. You can delete the dirty joke, if you want, but hang on to the code because you'll need it when you rent a movie.

Just to clarify, I have absolutely no idea how you use these codes. I haven't actually rented anything from Redbox in a long time, because I have HBO and On Demand and it's way too easy to watch a movie without even leaving my living room. Plus I can't find the remote for the BluRay player. But probably you plug in the code at the Redbox site and then they reserve the movie and you can watch it for free, as long as you get it back to the vending machine outside the Piggly Wiggly before nine the next night. Otherwise you probably have to pay for your movie and your laziness.

My email is below. I'll sit patiently waiting for your emails to come pouring in, showering me with requests for codes that will save you a whole dollar. And you know what? Even if you don't want a code, email me anyway and ask for one. Who knows, you may win a dirty joke in your email. If I don't get 25 people who want to save a dollar on an inconvenient way to rent a movie, I'm going to be very disappointed.

Here's my email:

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Board Game Review - Serenissima

You won't hear it when you read this review, but just know that having to repeatedly type 'Serenissima' is going to get so old that I will be using profanity several times. Not about the game - that's actually pretty cool. Just about having to type Serenissima a bunch. There went a cuss word right there.

Serenissima is a sort-of reprint from the mid-90s that has players taking on the roles of medieval traders in the Mediterranean (that also gets some adult-themed language, just for being so damned hard to spell right the first time). Hell, it might be an identical game to the original, but I wouldn't know because I just found out it was a reprint about half an hour ago.

So you'll take your boats (which are actual, tiny plastic boats) and fill them up with sailors (who are actual, tiny pieces of wood) and then sail around to pick up cargo (which are also tiny pieces of wood) and sell it places. Sometimes you will get money for delivering the cargo. Sometimes you will stimulate your local economy. And sometimes someone will come up and sink you and send all your cargo to the bottom of the sea. This last one actually happens a lot more than you might like. But since you can do it back to them, it's actually pretty sweet.

At face value, Serenissima doesn't have lots of complicated rules. Every boat can do one thing during a turn, and a boat with more people can sail farther and fight better because then you can let one crew take a nap while the other is working. And your one thing isn't all that impressive, either - you can pick up cargo, sell cargo, fight or invest.

And yet there are an incredible number of decisions to make as you play. Should you get that close to the rival ships? Should you build now and spend all your money, or save some so you can buy some stuff later? Build a fort or build a church? Istanbul or Constantinople (son of a bitch, that's hard to type fast)? Never mind, in this game, it's Constantinople. Apparently the Ottomans haven't stolen it yet.

A lovely feature of Serenissima is how much interaction you will have as you play. The more players you have, the faster you will run out of resources and have nothing left to do but steal stuff from the other players and blow them out of the water (not literally - they had to use bows and arrows and swords. They didn't have missiles). But fighting isn't the only way to mess with your friends. You can buy up all the boats so they can't get any. You can steal the last chunk of stone that they needed to build a fort. You can blockade them and keep them from dropping off their goods.

I was really surprised as I played Serenissima at how much fun I was having. This is not a dead-sexy game - the board is short on color, the boats are nifty in function but bland in form, and there are a whole damned bunch of wooden cubes.  And THAT surprised me because it's being distributed in the United States by Asmodee, and I don't know that I've ever seen them make an unattractive game before now.

But bland or not, Serenissima (you have no idea how many times I had to hit backspace to get that word all the way out) is very fun. When we played, there was hollering. Battles went south, deals were struck, allies were betrayed. It was pretty awesome. And this was all in a game about doing business! No wonder I like gangster movies so much - they're just doing business, but that often entails outright homicide. Like this game.

Whose title I am not going to type again.


2-4 players

Cool plastic boats that you fill up with sailors and cargo
An excellent balance of trade and warfare
Requires careful timing and long-term strategy

A little on the bland side, visually

You can get Serenissima (dammit!) for a ridiculously low price at Coolstuff:

Monday, March 11, 2013

Expansion Review - Rook City

The streets of Rook City were overrun by mutant vermin, spreading disease and infection, and the mighty Legacy was reeling from the poison coursing through his veins. Mister Fixer, the kung-fu handyman, was getting tired of having Legacy mistake him for a punching bag, and the Expatriette was about to stop firing at the vile Plague Rat and start in on Legacy. The Wraith, for her part, was just irritated that she couldn't find her utility belt, and had to spend half the fight hiding in the shadows while she tried to remember where she left it.

Plague Rat, of course, was delighted. He wasn't having much luck infecting the other heroes, but they were so distracted that they weren't beating on the rat-man, leaving him free to do all manner of crimes. That worked right up until Expatriette found a cure for Legacy and got him clean, because then Legacy galvanized the whole team into a coordinated attack that landed the disgusting supervillain into a maximum security prison for gross monsters.

That was the story of our first adventure in Rook City. It wasn't our last, and we'll revisit the crime-ridden town again, because man, that was fun. However, Rook City also illuminated a problem with Greater Than Games - they seem to have trouble getting it right the first time.

The initial release of Sentinels of the Multiverse was amazing. It was an amazing, cooperative superhero game that seemed to be thoroughly enjoyed by nearly anyone who played it, but it also had some serious problems. The box let all the cards slide all over the place. You had to have a calculator and notepad handy the whole time. It was incredibly hard to remember bonuses and penalties.

But the re-released, second version fixed all those problems, and even rolled in some new improvements. The game was tight and fast and so much better. It's easily my favorite superhero game, and the only one that really feels like I'm playing out a couple issues of an actual comic book.

A game this awesome needs expansions, and Rook City fits that bill. Two new heroes, four new villains and a couple new playgrounds in which to stage your beatdowns make Rook City a robust and welcome expansion to a really great game.

But it ain't perfect.

The new heroes really are quite excellent. They're not too complicated, but not overly simplified. Expatriette is a sort of Punisher clone, loaded up with heavy-duty firearms and a low tolerance for bad guys in general. Mister Fixer is almost more of a pulp hero, combining mystical kung-fu with a toolbox full of pipe wrenches and crowbars. I love the art on these two new ass-kickers, and have no complaints about the new heroes at all. In fact, I think Mister Fixer is my new favorite to play, and my wife loves Expatriette.

The villains are also pretty great, but here we do run into some problems. Plague Rat is basically a fun guy to beat down, and he's fairly straightforward, but he does require you to remember a lot more than you might be used to doing so far. His abilities key off the infections he's handing out to heroes like a pedophile with a bag of lollipops, and so you'll be constantly having to check around the table to see if there's something that should be affecting something else. All things considered, he's a fun villain to fight, and you can get around the downsides and still have a good time.

The Organization is a different matter entirely. There's the Chairman, the criminal kingpin you have to beat to win the game, and his assassin the Operative, who you have to defeat if you want to throw a beating on the Chairman. Their deck is chock-full of underbosses and minions who will pop out and harass you to no end - at one point, we had ten minions in play at the same time, plus two giant mutated rats and a vat full of toxic chemicals. This is supposed to be a tough villain to beat, so we're OK so far - until we started having questions.

Does an end-of-turn effect trigger if the card appears at the end of the turn?

What do you do when the villain runs out of cards?

How on earth do you beat a guy who summons a chain of six cards at the same time?

We had more. And all those questions are answered quite nicely in an FAQ I found at BGG… which is 32 pages long.

When your game needs an FAQ that is 32 pages long, you may have done something wrong. That, or you're Fantasy Flight Games. Sentinels of the Multiverse is a straightforward game. It should not cause so much confusion.

We did manage to beat the Chairman, but I'm pretty sure we only won because we played completely wrong. I was fine with getting my ass kicked, but it was unpleasant to be so completely bewildered by so many card effects. And I'll tell you right now, it's tough to track end-of-turn effects from ten different cards.

We haven't played with the other two villains yet. Before we do, I plan to memorize the FAQ. But that means the next thing to discuss is the new environments.

The two new arenas for staging your fights are the streets of Rook City and the chemical plant (which is in Rook City). Unfortunately, we used the streets for Plague Rat and the factory for the Chairman, and that was backwards. Unlike previous environments, which could feasibly work with just about any bad guy, these environments really make more sense when paired with the correct villain. The factory, for instance, spawns diseased rats - which goes pretty well with a giant rat villain. It did not make sense, on the other hand, for this factory to be overrun with crooked cops, informants and hired guns. Thematically, the environments are great - but you have to pair them up properly for best effect. You didn't have to do that with any of the original locations, and so I was a little disappointed in the new spots.

I want to make sure to emphasize that I still really enjoy playing Rook City, and I'll get back there to take on the last two villains. I have complaints, sure, but this is still an excellent expansion to an excellent game. I would even guess that if they reprint it after a little fixing, it will be even better. The chemical plant and the city streets make outstanding environments, even if they do tend to disrupt the theme if you mix and match them wrong. Sentinels of the Multiverse is still the best superhero game I've ever played, and if you like this box of bad-ass dynamite, it's worth picking up Rook City.

Just go read that FAQ before you play.


2-4 players

New heroes, villains and environments - and they're all cool
Adding new stuff gives you more reasons to play again

Some new elements will create rules confusion
Some other new elements can be tough to track

Rook City is worth your money. If you like Sentinels of the Multiverse, get over to Greater Than Games and get one:

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Board Game Review - City of Remnants

Plaid Hat Games ought to change their name to Bottled Lightning. They seem to be able to package up a hit every time they print something. For a great example of the Plaid Hat magic, check out City of Remnants.

The first thing to discuss is the story you're playing out. In City of Remnants, players each form a gang and try to rise to the top and squeeze out their criminal competition. But these aren't just Crips versus Bloods. These gangs exist because a nasty alien race called the Yugai has enslaved multiple worlds, and brought all the refugees to this one planet and dumped them there. So you've got four-armed aliens, huge monster aliens, bird aliens, and humans. And they're all fighting over the scraps of resources that their alien overlords see fit to drop on them.

At this point, this game could suck and I would still play it. When I can control a gang of alien thugs who can fight their oppressive conquerors, deal drugs, shoot other gangsters, and turf-war for the best properties, I'll play it, and it doesn't even have to be that good. Throw hookers into this game and you've got Grand Theft Spaceship: The Boardgame.

As an added bonus to this totally awesome starting point, the game is simply amazing. It accommodates a wide range of strategies, from bloodthirsty and F Tha Police to shrewd, calculating businessman. You might grab up buildings that provide great income, so you can buy your way to the top, or you might snatch territories that give you the chance to build huge gangs of gunmen. You could be even save your money for recruitment drives, then steal all the buildings you want from the other players. At gunpoint, of course. Otherwise, why even bother.

Turns happen incredibly fast, too. You'll be amazed as you near the end of the game that more time hasn't passed. Partially because you will have had so much fun that you won't realize how long it's been, but partially because you've had virtually no downtime. You're involved in this game all the time, and you're up to your elbows in contraband and illegal firearms.

One thing that makes City of Remnants so tense and interesting is the limited actions you get every turn. Limited actions aren't a new concept, of course, but so many games give you this feeling that you just wish you could have done more. It can be frustrating to play these games and feel like your turn was over before you really got started, but City of Remnants hits a beautiful balance between frustration and indulgence. You have to scheme and play smart, but you don't feel like you're playing while wearing handcuffs (unless you are wearing handcuffs, in which case maybe you should stop playing games and call your bondsman).

Likewise, in a game that sees players build from fledgling gangs to criminal empires, there's a huge propensity to wind up with a game that ends just as it was getting good. Not City of Remnants, though - this is another factor that has been carefully and impeccably designed. The game lasts just as long as it should. Any less, and you would be bemoaning the things you didn't get to do. Any more, and it would just feel sloppy.

Everything about City of Remnants is tightly designed and beautifully crafted, including the art. Some people may not care for the rough style used for the illustrations, but you would be insane to complain about the awesome sculpts on the gang member figures. Not only are they fully sculpted, but there are four different sculpts for each color - because, as I mentioned before, there are four different aliens in the city. If you're seriously anal-retentive, you could even match the figures to the kinds of thugs you recruit.

There's so much to love about City of Remnants that if I discuss every possible piece of genius, this review will turn into a novella. And it would be a boring novella with no real plotline and horrible character development. So instead of trying to cover every point, I'll just say that this is one finely tuned machine. Everything works perfectly. It's smooth and clean and easy to play, and also incredibly deep and immensely strategic. It looks great all laid out on the table, offers tons of reasons to stretch your brain muscles, and gives you plenty of really good excuses to kill the bejeezus out of some alien law enforcement officers. This marriage of a thrilling backstory and a fantastic game makes City of Remnants another bottle full of lightning from Plaid Hat.


2-4 players

Totally kick-ass theme
Exciting and engaging
Perfectly balanced and tested
Strategically deep and tactically brilliant

Can't think of any off the top of my head

To get your mitts on City of Remnants, or just to read more about it, you can run over to the Plaid Hat site, right here:

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Honorary Dallas Games Marathon

For those of you who knew Duff, and who live in the DFW area, and who felt like you miss him enough to go to a memorial service, it's... at a game store.

Yes, a game store.

Duff loved driving out to Plano to go to the Dallas Games Marathon. It was this thing where you went and played a ludicrous number of games. But it was an hour away, and there was a cover charge, so I never went myself. I'm not a huge fan of driving an hour to pay money to play games with people I don't know.

But Duff was, and he loved that place. So Sunday, March 10, they're having a special, commemorative meeting of the Dallas Games Marathon to celebrate Duff's life. The goofy sumbitch had an awful lot of friends, so I figure there will be lots of people there. I will be there.

Here's the details:

This shindig is a potluck. If you wanted to bring food, you can. One of Duff's friends is setting up a Facebook page to handle the whole thing, so that we don't wind up with 20 plates of hash brownies and no stroganoff. I'll have to update that part once I find out where you can find that particular Facebook page, but I'm working on it.

There will be drinks and chips, but I'm not sure if they're charging at the door. I kind of hope not, but I'm going either way. If I find out the details on that one, I'll update this post.

DGM is in Plano. The actual address is 930 West Parker Road, Suite 530, but that's probably not much help unless you can GPS and drive at the same time. So instead, here's a link with a map:

The thing kicks off at 3 in the afternoon on Sunday. If you can't make this one, don't sweat it. There's another one a week later at Truman Middle School in Grand Prairie. Like I said, Duff had lots of friends. I'll probably go to that one, too.

OK, so there are some facts, so you can plan your weekend. Once I get more info, I'll update this page. And allow me to be profusely apologetic to anyone reading this from a location outside North Texas, because I know you could not care less about a memorial thing I'm doing this weekend.

Oh, one last thing. If any of you decides to have a wake for me after I die - and I'm not saying you have to, I'm just saying if you do - have it at a bar. I like games, but I also like bars. You don't have to bring strippers, but they would make it more awesome. Your call.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Requiem - Greg Duff

My friend Duff died last night.

The first time I met Greg Duff, he left a hell of an impression. He was large as life and twice as dopey. He was six foot plus and full of muscle, wearing a Hawaiian shirt open to his belly so you could see his shoe-leather skin and curly white chest hair. Fifty-some-odd years old then, his hair was all gone gray, and he had the most ridiculous inch-long ducktail in the back of his hair. He looked like he thought he was an older version of Magnum PI. And he loved playing games.

Lots of gamers go through life a little smaller than other people. We participate, but we're not as willing to be noticed. We know we're the fringe, and for many of us, that makes us wary. But not Duff.

Duff was loud to the point of being obnoxious. He had the manners of an ox, and I don't know how many times I had to wipe up food that had flown out of his mouth when he started laughing after rolling particularly well - or particularly poorly. He never noticed, of course. He was busy laughing and being obnoxious.

I've never known anyone who got as much out of playing a game as my friend Duff. He was all in, all the time. I played games with Duff two days before he died, and even as the pulmonary fibrosis that finally kicked his ass was sucking all the oxygen out of his lungs, he was living and dying on every die roll. We kept having to take breaks so he could check his oxygen levels, because he was so excited about every naval battle that he kept hyperventilating. We're lucky he didn't die right there, come to think of it.

Another funny thing about Duff was the crazy shit he used to say. He never introduced himself as Greg. It was always Duff. He insisted on it. And that was good, because he also referred to himself in the third person a lot. If you came at him, he would stomp a mudhole in you, and tell you that you asked for it because you came to see The Duff. That saying - 'came to see The Duff' - is going to have to be retired now. It just doesn't work with anyone else.

Duff was tougher than a bag full of nails in a steel box, but he also had a heart that was too big for his own good. I don't remember how many times he would leave our game days early to go build a chicken coop for his ex-wife, or drive his grown daughters to the mall so they didn't have to use their own gas. He looked out for the people he loved, and since his compassion was married to a lack of common sense, he pretty much loved everybody.

You could see how big Duff's heart was when you considered what he did for a living. Duff worked at a high school, teaching mentally disabled kids. That's not a job I would do in a million years, because I don't have enough compassion for it. But Duff never quit giving whatever he had to help whoever needed it, and if there was a job that summed up Duff, it was looking after those often-ungrateful, routinely violent, troubled kids. He could take one down if he had to - he did it more than once - but they were never hurt in the process. Duff, on the other hand, was always getting bruised and beat up.

But he never let up. Duff was a bad-ass son of a bitch. Two days before he died, he was still talking about all the stuff he was going to do to keep fighting. He had me check out the sign he had made, the one that said he and God were going to put the kibosh on his disease. His room was decorated with posters of Patton and John Wayne and the Terminator, because if there was a ever a man who was over the top about being a man, it was my friend Duff.

Last night Duff just expired in his sleep. He went to bed and never woke up. If I had to pick how Duff went out, that's the second way I would have picked. The first way was never practical - he should have gone out swinging a giant axe, yelling battle cries at the top of his lungs, the blood of his enemies spattering his beard (he didn't have a beard, but he should have). He would have killed a mountain of lesser men before he went down, and if there was a hot woman to impress in the process, he would have killed another dozen, just to show off.

I'm going to miss the shit out of Duff. I loved that goofy bastard. He was inappropriate and ill-mannered, but I've never known anyone like him, and I doubt I ever will again. He had a tough life, but he never backed down and he never gave up. He was a giant of a man, body and soul, and now that I think back on it, I cherish every stupid minute I ever spent with that giant jackass.

Somewhere in Valhalla, Duff is arm-wrestling some Viking asshole out of his beer, running off with the women, and playfully daring some douchebag warrior to try and beat him at some ridiculous contest. And that warrior is going to get his ass kicked.

Because he came to see The Duff.

RIP, you big lug.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Movie Review - Battleship

If we ever needed evidence that the Oscars are a load of crap, we have it now. A movie about a fake movie runs off with the awards, and Battleship never even got nominated.

Of course, it might be that Battleship was not nominated because it was simply dreadful. Perhaps it could have been helped a little if it had been joined by that Hunger Games chick, but I doubt it. The best way Battleship could have been improved is if someone found the original hard drive on which the movie was stored, and lit it on fire.

The plot of Battleship is pretty straightforward - we are invaded by aliens, who try to send a message home to their planet to send more spaceships, and the US Navy fights them off. And in the end, they use a battleship. It actually would have been kind of lame if they had not used a battleship, but because the Navy doesn't use battleships any more, they had to drag the USS Missouri out of retirement. Otherwise the movie would have been called Aircraft Carrier, and that is a dumb name for a movie. Actually, come to think of it, Battleship is also a dumb name for a movie.

Along the way, we get to see filmmakers doing things so stupid that only a drooling ignoramus would find them palatable. Anyone who has any experience with, well, anything, would find huge pieces of idiocy that should have shamed the creators of this ridiculous movie into scrapping the entire script and just making soft porn.

For example, at the beginning of the film, the main character (who starts out a real loser) breaks into a convenience store through the ceiling, steals stuff, causes considerable property damage, and then breaks back out again. The police catch up to him easily, and hit him with the tazer.

And in the next scene he's at his brother's house.

I admit to a degree of ignorance with respect to legal statutes, but I'm pretty sure breaking & entering, burglary, vandalism, and evading arrest are heavy enough that there would be a felony in there somewhere. And you don't get to go home before your hangover wears off if you have committed a felony. But it gets even better, because in the scene after that, the same criminally stupid asshole is now a Naval officer. And not just any officer, he's a Lieutenant. In the Navy, that takes a while. Also, they don't let convicted felons just become officers because their brothers say that would be cool.

But let's assume that some grievous oversight has allowed a slack jackass with a propensity for criminal mischief to become the officer in charge of the weapons room on a huge Naval vessel. And then let's pretend a giant spaceship flies into the ocean and just floats there, so the Navy sends three people out on a boarding party mission. I still find it difficult to believe that instead of Marines (you know, the fighting guys they put on Naval vessels to do stuff like, say, boarding parties), they would send the officer in charge of the weapons room and the chick who fires the Tomahawk missiles using a computer. But I suppose it was necessary to use that crew, because one of them was the star of the movie, and the other was Rihanna (she was taking a break from letting Chris Brown beat the crap out of her).

I could continue - all the other officers aboard die, and a lieutenant junior grade is suddenly the highest-ranking officer on the ship. The USS Missouri, after having been entirely retired and turned into a museum, sails great and has working shells on board. The tsunami detection system can be used to turn the entire area into a grid, so they can fire attacks by calling out letter and number coordinate after their radar quits working. The number of stupid things was so enormous, it almost overshadowed the biggest problem - the fact that the aliens had to call home if they wanted to invade.

Seriously, the entire movie hinges on the fact that the aliens have to be able to call home if they want to invade the planet, and so our heroes have to stop them. As if this starfaring race was capable of traveling hundreds of light years in the matter of a few weeks, but they weren't allowed to start any fights until they called their mothers for permission.

I will concede that the people doing the effects for the alien ships were capable. The aliens themselves were just humans with spiky beards and lizard eyes, but the ships were bitchin.' Not their weapons - they relied primarily on firing giant soup cans and sparkly yo-yos - but the designs of the ships themselves were nifty. It was a little stupid that they could fly all the way across the galaxy, but once they landed, they turned into boats that could only maneuver by jumping around like frogs on a hot plate. But they looked cool.

It seems pretty obvious to me that Liam Neeson's career has taken a downturn in recent years. Twenty years ago, he was making Schindler's List. Now he's in this utterly irredeemable turd of a movie designed solely to help Hasbro sell a boring kids' game. Alexander Skaarsgard I get - his biggest role to date has been as a hunky vampire on HBO. And Rihanna - sure, she needed something else to do besides be a horrible role model for young girls everywhere. But Liam Neeson has done things! He was in Taken, and Batman, and A-Team! OK, that last one was a bad example.

If you're looking for a movie so bad that you wish you could reclaim the last 132 minutes, you should definitely check out Battleship. It will completely ruin two hours of your life, unless you really like to do that MST3K running commentary bit where you mock everything about a movie while you watch it. For anyone who actually wants to enjoy what they watch, you need to avoid Battleship at all costs. Seriously, even if it's free.