Monday, April 29, 2013

Announcement - Esoteric Order of Gamers

Many of you are probably aware of Universal Head. In case you're not, let me set the record straight - his screen name is NOT a reference to one-size-fits-all fellatio. He's Australian. I'm not even sure they call it that there.

Universal Head is my favorite Australian, a guy who tirelessly goes through crappy, poorly written rules and turns out hundreds of summaries that are both easier to understand and better laid out than the originals. He's a mad genius of making games easier to play. I couldn't tell you how many of his outstanding player aids I've printed out when I just couldn't understand the 46 pages of rules that were in whatever monstrosity of a game got delivered to my house.

The purpose of this post, however, is not to just tell you that Universal Head is a handy guy to have around, or to disabuse you as to the somewhat ribald nature of his screen name. The purpose of this post is to let you know that Universal Head has a new website, one that I heartily endorse because it is awesome and very useful.

For a long time, Universal Head has run Headless Hollow, a blog where he talks about... whatever crosses his mind, apparently. His most recent post is about the death of the lead singer of the Divinyls, a band I couldn't be bothered to appreciate in high school because I was too busy listening to whatever musicians offended my parents the most. He's a crazy good writer, but apparently he wanted something a little more focused, a little more useful, a better resource for people looking for the fantastic game aids he churns out like butter.

The new site is called the Esoteric Order of Gamers. There's this one page that's a bit of an introduction, and it tells you that you found the site because you were invited, and it's an exclusive club or something. And then he emailed me yesterday to ask me to tell you about it, so I guess you're all invited, even if the only games you play are Scrabble and Super Mario Brothers.

I checked it out at some length yesterday, and man, it's awesome. For starters, he's got all the game aids he's done, and they're all organized, and you can sort by genre or just see all 200 or so and find the one you need alphabetically. So that freaking awesome.

Plus he's got kind of a blog thing, only it's sort of below the fold so you might miss it. But Universal Head is a bad-ass writer with a serious gift for the written word, so make sure you scroll down so you can see it (and then tell him he ought to rearrange those parts so they're easier to find). The articles are really good, and he's got a sort of Kickstarter roundup - an idea I am pretty sure I'm going to steal.

Anyway, enough jibber jabber. Run over and check it out. Universal Head is wicked awesome, his site is full of cool stuff, and he probably writes better than I do, without having to resort to jokes about oral sex. He's right here:

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Movie Review - Django Unchained

If you read this blog often enough to know much about me at all, it should require almost no effort to figure out if I liked Django Unchained. If you know me at all, you probably would guess that when Quentin Tarantino makes a western about a black bounty hunter who kills, like, everybody, I would like that movie. And if you did guess that, you would be right.

However, it might come as a surprise that despite enjoying the ever-loving bear crap out of Django Unchained, I have many complaints. If there's a warp in the space-time continuum that makes Quentin Tarantino actually read this review, I hope he can take it with a grain of salt, because I'm about to say some things about the man that might make him not like me very much.

Django Unchained is exceptionally violent. And I love that. I mean, that's a reason to watch all by itself. A guy gets his head caved in with a hammer. A man is shot while carrying a bag of dynamite and explodes. There's so much fake blood that they had to have cases of it shipped in from Mexico (I made that up). And yet, despite all this graphic murder, we were laughing the entire time because the violence was so exceptionally absurd.

For instance, in one scene, a man is shot in the head with a rifle while he is lying on the ground. The blood from the wound flies five feet into the air as if thrown from a paint bucket. Apparently the man was storing gunpowder in his head.

Another time, a woman is shot with a revolver fired by a man standing on the floor above her. She flies away at an angle perpendicular to the shot, lifted off her feet as if shot in the groin with a cannon strategically located in the hallway opposite her. It was like watching a cartoon.

So the violence was just silly, and the movie was almost three hours long. This could have been a 90-minute movie. Two hours, max. But it's Tarantino, and the man just does not know how to edit himself. Seriously, man, cut something. The dialog is not that riveting.

Also, does Samuel L. Jackson have a clause in his contract that says that at some point in the movie, he must be allowed to use profanity that came into vogue in the 1960s? Actually, no, hold on - that part was pretty awesome. Jackson is like the Chik-Fil-A of the f-bomb - he didn't invent it, he just made it awesome.

Now, I want to emphasize that overall, Django Unchained was an absolute blast. It was incredibly fun to watch. I loved most of it. But this is not the Quentin Tarantino that made me a rabid fan with quick wit, tight plots and amazing dialog. This is sloppy and self-indulgent. It's what a great artist makes when there's nobody around to tell him which parts of his art suck.

Django Unchained had dialog to rival True Romance - it just had too much of it. It had some of the mad-cap violence that surprised you in Pulp Fiction - but too often, it was stupid and campy. It had the superb acting you saw in Reservoir Dogs - but like every other movie since Reservoir Dogs, it also had to have a part for Quentin Tarantino, and I'm sorry to let you in on this little secret, boss, but you are a VERY BAD ACTOR.

I referenced True Romance, Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs because those are Tarantino's best films. He has been completely unable to re-bottle that lightning (though he came close with Jackie Brown, only that was actually an Elmore Leonard book adapted for screen, so it was kind of a gimme). You see the same things in every one of the movies that he makes these days - too long, crap editing, poor timing, and silly bloodshed.

But this time, it works. Django Unchained still suffers from all the same patented Tarantino flaws, but in this particular instance, it's a hoot. The campy violence is hilarious fun. The dialog (even though it's a bit gassy) is outstanding. The acting (with some notable exceptions) is as good as it ever gets. The plot is fun. And when Django kills everyone and then makes his horse do a moonwalk, you know you've just seen what it looks like when Quentin Tarantino makes a western.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Board Game Review - Lord of the Rings

If you're a fan of Reiner Knizia's games, then one of two things is true. Either A) you have a well-developed sense of humor, or B) you don't read Drake's Flames. Reiner is my Numero-Uno, go-to guy when I need a game designer to mock, and I know that over the years, I have lost readers who really love the guy.

This review is going to cost me a few more.

Many of my readers may have heard of a trilogy of movies that came out in the first few years of the new millennium titled 'The Lord of the Rings.' Although this sounds like a story about either a circus owner or a fast-food fry chef, it was actually a D&D-inspired knock-off that went on to spawn a whole bunch of video games, card games, board games and people who start sentences with 'methinks.' But before these movies even came out, Reiner Knizia made a game with the same name, and it was a cooperative game where you were all trying to beat the bad guy (named 'Sauron,' because they apparently needed a name that was almost exactly the same name as 'Saruman,' both of which appeared in the same stories and were horribly confused by many people, none of whom were probably readers of this website). You could tell Reiner's game came out before the movies because before the movies, there was a ton of great illustrated art for the Tolkien books, and after the movies, nobody used anything except pictures of Viggo Mortensen.

So Reiner's game, being a Reiner game, used the basic theme of the Tolkien books, developed a couple ideas, then threw it out and made the game essentially a math exercise. Then he went back through and slapped thematic elements onto a game that was really just an exercise in managing your hand of cards, so that when he was done, the game looked very nice (because it did not have any pictures of Viggo Mortensen) and was not very much fun to play.

This is essentially how Reiner Knizia designs a game. He analyzes it from every angle, ponders it while he is sitting on the toilet, then designs a game that will show off his brilliance at mathematics while penalizing everyone who does not like math as much as he does. In some games (such as Atlanteon), this is reinforced by a preponderance of math and a complete void where the fun should be. In some games (like Maginor), the math is minimal and the game is actually entertaining. Lord of the Rings falls on a spectrum between these two examples, by being light on math and also not really that bad.

When I play a game and really like it, the phrase, 'not really that bad' will only be used if I am discussing the quality of fried catfish you can get in Vancouver. I am given to hyperbole. Therefore, I want to emphasize that when I describe Lord of the Rings as 'not really that bad,' I actually cannot imagine a reason you should play it, simply because there are so many games that are so much better. I can think of a half-dozen cooperative board games off the top of my head that are all much more fun than Reiner's game. But in all fairness, this was also designed almost 15 years ago, and lots of people have made awesome stuff since then.

You play Lord of the Rings by holding a hand of cards and making your way through various unpleasant encounters you would find in the books. The cards you hold can be played to help you move forward on various tracks, by playing matching symbols. Want to fight the goblins in Moria? Play a card with a picture of an axe on it, and you may be able to pick up a blue shield token. Want to hide from Shelob? Play a card with a picture of a tree on it, and you may be able to get a round token with a picture of a sun on it. Because trees and suns are pretty much what comes to mind when I think of giant man-eating spiders.

Most of the game is a breeze. You'll go through, almost laughing at how easy you have it and how lovely it is to beat the game. Then you get to the last part and Sauron actually pops out with his big-boy britches and lays down an ass-kicking, and then Pippin (who is currently carrying the ring, because the hobbits take turns) gets eaten by the red eye and the game comes to an abrupt end.

So, to be clear, I didn't much care for Reiner's take on Lord of the Rings, either with this game that blatantly ignores any elements of the story in order to make a game that is about as interesting as building a good spreadsheet, or with the other one that was designed for kids and was utterly retarded. However, I also know that many people really enjoyed this game, probably because they were Reiner fans who liked Lord of the Rings and math. If you are one of those people who likes Reiner, Lord of the Rings and math, and you have read this far, you almost certainly have a well-developed sense of humor. That, or you're just waiting to get to the comments section so you can insult my genetic heritage.


2-5 players (because someone can be Fatty)

Uses some of the amazing illustrations created before the movies
Not very hard to play at all

Uses mechanics that are essentially just matching symbols on cards
Not very fun to play at all

Noble Knight Games doesn't sponsor me any more, but they still have some awesome deals on out-of-print games. Like this one, which they have for what amounts to crazy cheap because it is used:

Monday, April 22, 2013

TV Show Review - Orphan Black

For the sake of establishing a baseline, here are some shows I do not like:

Doctor Who (any incarnation)
Being Human (British or American)

And here are some shows I DO like:

Sherlock (the one with Benedict Cumberpatch)

If you're a savvy TV nerd like myself, you might notice that all these shows have one thing in common - BBC America. Or, if you're in England, just BBC, because if you were in England watching BBC America, you would get all the commercials for diabetes testing kits and car warranties. Basically, I am aware of lots of what BBC America puts out, and tend to dismiss it unless it really catches my eye, because British people make some weird-ass television (only they call it 'tellie').

So when I first heard about Orphan Black, and someone told me it was about a girl who sees another girl commit suicide, only the two girls are identical (as in, played by the same actress), and then the one girl decides to impersonate the other girl, I was definitely ambivalent. I nodded and smiled and made a tiny mental Post-It note to check it out, but then the glue dried on the back of the note and it fell into the recycle bin where I keep the names of salad dressings I don't want to try. By the time I realized it might be worth checking out, three episodes had aired.

I sat this weekend and watched those three episodes, and then the fourth that updated while I was watching the other three, and this show is freaking AWESOME!

Before I get all into this, let me explain why I don't like Doctor Who or Torchwood. It comes down to internal consistency. I saw one episode of Doctor Who where this girl gets on a space jet-ski and flies between planets without a space suit. I've seen other episodes where people lose weight by making their fat cells turn into sentient creatures or they keep aliens as slaves, but the aliens can only talk through their little Pokeball and then they get mad and kill people. Torchwood is just as bad. These shows are silly and nonsensical. They do not make sense from one episode to the next. I want the damned things to allow me to suspend some disbelief without simply gathering my disbelief in a tattered sweatshirt and drowning it in the pool.

Oh, and I didn't like Being Human because it was wicked boring.

So far, Orphan Black makes sense, and is not the least bit boring. People get shot. One girl got stabbed with a sharp length of rebar. There's sex, too, and not making-out-in-bed-with-strategically-positioned-sheets sex, but bare-ass-naked-on-the-kitchen-counter sex. Only it's BBC America, so you only get to see butt crack. No nipples or promised land. But they do cuss a lot.

And the plot is twisted and excellent. See, the two girls look identical because they are clones. I'm not going to spill more than that, except to say that there is a huge cover-up and conspiracy and assassins and cops and villains and at least one exceptionally gay British man. Suffice to say that every week, a little of the mystery is revealed, and it leads to more mystery. And people don't just drop everything to pursue the mystery - they have boyfriends and siblings and kids and husbands, and life doesn't go on hiatus just because some wackadoo with a sniper rifle is offing people from the shrubbery.

While the mysteries in Orphan Black are far from revealed at this point, I can also say that so far, the show makes sense. We haven't seen any elements that demand that I lobotomize myself with a claw hammer if I want to suspend my disbelief (which is not true of Doctor Who). Everything seems to have an explanation, and one that makes sense beyond just a rubber mask and a time-traveling phone booth. I don't know what all the explanations are, but so far, I trust that I will know when the time is right.

Now, it may just be that my tastes run a little more toward American entertainment, but I have some serious issues with some of the acting. The main character, played by Tatiana Maslany, is thoroughly convincing, but if this were American TV, she would definitely be more conventionally pretty (although she does have a rockin' body, as evidenced by the multiple times she removes her clothing). The brother is super-duper-gay, and plays it farther over the top than any gay man I have ever known. The abusive ex-boyfriend is a stereotype of a human being. The partner, Art, seems to have two faces, one for being angry and the other for pretending people in general don't make him want to commit multiple homicides.

But I can overlook a few spots of rough acting, especially because the lead is amazing. She's played half-a-dozen different people at this point in the show, often with two or three in the same scene, and her accent is surprisingly good, considering she's American and then British and then German. One scene has her playing an American woman who is doing a bad job of impersonating a British girl, and it's shockingly good.

And the story is dynamite. It's engrossing and thrilling, with twists and turns and gut-wrenching revelations. Considering I'm only four episodes in, that's a lot of twisting and turning, so I can't wait to see what happens next, and maybe get some answers. Like, what is the fish brand? Who sent the angry angel? Could the boyfriend be any more obnoxious? Wait, I don't actually want the answer to the last one. I just want him to stop being obnoxious.

Orphan Black does have a few elements I could do without, like the boyfriend or the campy acting. But the story is so great, and the lead actress is doing such an amazing job, that I can easily overlook all the imperfections in this very entertaining show. If you like your science fiction with a side of conspiracy theory and a heaping dose of This Makes Sense, you should check out Orphan Black.

You can see more about the show here:

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Deckbuilding Game Review - Arctic Scavengers

Remember right after Dominion came out, and there were no other deckbuilding games in the whole wide world, and everybody was like, 'holy cow, can you believe how cool this game is?' That was before Thunderstone and Nightfall and Rune Age and Eminent Domain and Marvel and DC and all those other deckbuilding games that came out because deckbuilding is actually a pretty awesome game mechanic. And so when Arctic Scavengers came out, and was pretty much the second deckbuilding game in the whole wide world, the comparisons to Dominion were inevitable. If you were holding the license to Dominion (the way Rio Grande was), Arctic Scavengers was the upstart game that was going to break your chokehold on the gaming market.

So Rio Grande did what any sensible big business does when threatened by a small business - they bought the competition and then sat on it. For years you couldn't find Arctic Scavengers anywhere, because Rio Grande wouldn't let it see the light of day. And in the meantime, while Rio Grande said, 'no, you will not compete with Dominion!', Thunderstone and Nightfall and Rune Age and Eminent Domain and Marvel and DC and all those other deckbuilders came out, because deckbuilding is an awesome mechanic and Rio Grande couldn't afford to buy every single one of those games just to stick them in the corner.

Finally, after years of sitting on a game that wasn't making them any money, Rio Grande decided it might be time to just print the damned thing. The deckbuilding bubble was burst. Dominion's heyday is good and gone. So with all the wind blown out of the deckbuilding sails, Rio Grande quietly slipped Arctic Scavengers out the door and into the public.

And it's still awesome! Arctic Scavengers is far more fun than Dominion, and I really like Dominion. It's got interaction and violence, a variety of strategies to win the game, tough decisions and an actual theme. This is not some ludicrous slapped-on theme that doesn't make any sense. This theme works great. In fact, the theme in Arctic Scavengers works better than the theme for just about any other deckbuilding game you could play.

The story is that a global ice age acts as an apocalyptic event, and now humankind is competing for resources in a big way. You're each a tribe of survivors trying to build a bigger tribe of survivors, and so you hire people to join your tribe, you search for tools, and you fight the other tribes for the best resources. Just about any action you could take in the game can be described in real-world terms that make sense.

For example, let's say you want to hire some people from a nearby settlement, but you also want to send out a search team for meds, and you just heard that a neighboring tribe is gearing up to go grab something big. You don't know what that big something might be, but damned if you're going to stand around and let them have it without a fight. So you go out into your tribe to see who is available, but you can only round up a scavenger, a brawler and a couple tired-ass refugees. So you throw a shovel to one refugee and tell him to head out to the ruined city and see what he can dig up, you tell the scavenger to go hunt some grub he can use to entice another scavenger into your tribe, and you tell the brawler and the refugee to go lay in wait and see what those other people are so excited about.

That sounds like a normal thing that could happen, right? I mean, assuming the world was covered in snow and people were killing each other for food. I didn't have to use game terms to describe what happens - but the game plays exactly how I described it. You pull five cards and get a scavenger, a brawler, a shovel and two refugees. You send one refugee to dig in the junkyard. You use the scavenger to hunt, which nets you another scavenger. You assign the brawler and the last refugee to fight, even though the refugee has no fight score, because he can at least break ties.

This is what I mean when I say that every game thing could be explained with a real explanation. Sure, it's got abstractions, but Arctic Scavengers doesn't just start with an idea and then make it a card game. It starts with a theme and then makes a game that fits the theme perfectly. Some games force a theme to make the deckbuilding work - I love Nightfall, but the theme is just ludicrous. For Arctic Scavengers, though, the deckbuilding is the only mechanic that would have made the theme work this well.

But let's say you already know all this, because you bought Arctic Scavengers before, when it was just one guy putting out a game. You already know how well the theme works. You know that this is as perfect a marriage between theme and mechanic as you're likely to ever see in a deckbuilder. And you don't see why you should run out and buy the same game all over again. There is, however, a damned good reason you should.

When the designer of Arctic Scavengers first came up with his idea for the game, he had an expansion in mind. It would have leaders and buildings and more tribe members to recruit, and generally make the game better. But then Rio Grande bought the game, and they bought the expansion at the same time, and it sat forgotten in a dusty corner until Rio Grande finally decided to put it on the market.

Well, when they finally decided to pull off the dusty cover and publish this sucker, they went ahead and threw the expansion in the box. The leaders and buildings and extra tribe members are all in the same package with the regular game, and now that you have everything, there's no reason to play with just the basics. The expansion stuff is so damned good that it's worth owning two copies of the game just to have this good stuff.

The leaders are your avatar in the game. They don't actually do stuff, exactly - they don't hunt or fight or look for supplies. Instead they grant some cool ability that can modify how the game works for you. The ranger teaches otherwise useless refugees to hunt, so that they will be good for something. The cannibal makes those useless refugees into something useful, but rather than sending them to hunt, he just cooks them into burgers.

The buildings are a little limited - I would have loved more - but the ones you get can do a lot of cool things. Mostly they store stuff for later turns, and I have achieved some exceptional mileage out of the pharmacy, especially when my deck had too many medkits because I was trying to entice the pharmers gang to join my group.

Playing Arctic Scavengers the way it used to be, before this box came out, was very fun. Better than Dominion, if a little less replay-friendly. But with the expansion material you get with the new reprint, Arctic Scavengers is a really awesome game. I wouldn't consider playing it without the leaders and gangs and buildings. It's thematically perfect, easy to learn, and incredibly difficult to play exactly right every time. I can't encourage you enough to pick up a copy of the new version. It's better than Thunderstone and Nightfall and Rune Age and Eminent Domain and Marvel and DC and all those other deckbuilding games that came out because deckbuilding is actually a pretty awesome game mechanic.


2-5 players

Theme matches mechanics
Exceptionally well-tested and fine-tuned
A masterful mix of long-term strategy and short-term clever plays
My favorite deckbuilding game

I like the art better in the old one (except for the Field Crew)
Not as much replay value as you might see in other deckbuilders

I am amazed at how good the prices are at Coolstuff. At this price, there is no good reason not to own a copy of Arctic Scavengers.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Card Game Review - Guildhall

Some day I'm going to write an article about the psychology of board games. And one thing that I'm definitely going to discuss is whether size matters when we're talking about the box (I encourage all of you to quote that out of context). If you put your game into a bigger box, does it make it more valuable? For many gamers, that's a definite yes.

For instance, Guildhall is basically three or four decks of cards and a handful of cardboard tokens. This could have come in a fairly small box. Yet it comes in a bigger box than some other games I own that have a lot less in the box, and I have to wonder if that's so that the game looks like it should cost more than it does.

But then, it doesn't seem like this is a straight money grab, because you can get Guildhall from Coolstuff for like 20 bucks. And this is way more than 20 bucks worth of game - as soon as we finished, we checked the clock to see if we had time for one more. And then the wife and I concocted plans to shanghai our kids into playing. It's a damned fun game, and a hell of a deal at 20 bones.

But it doesn't look like it should be. Seriously, it's all cards, and not even a lot of cards. Dominion - now that is a lot of cards. Nightfall - lots of cards. Guildhall - not really that many cards. Yet a game of Guildhall will take longer and potentially be a lot more engrossing than either Dominion or Nightfall, and for less money. This is a deeper game than Dominion or Nightfall, with some great strategy, and there's no way that the size of the box tells you if it's any good.

So you're reading this far, and we're starting the fifth paragraph, and you're like, 'OK, Drake, so it's fun, but what the hell is it?' And you're right, I have taken far too long to get to the point. I should probably have opened with a description, so that we don't wind up going into the sixth paragraph without me actually telling you what Guildhall is all about, and then being forced to end a sentence clause in a preposition.

Guildhall is (in theory) a game about building a guild that employs all the different people in town into organized groups. Guildhall is (in practice) a game about making sets of different cards and exploiting the abilities on those cards for maximum gain. The theme is mostly superfluous, but the game is still a hell of a lot of fun.

For instance, say you've been able to put two dancers and two weavers into your guildhall. You're trying to make sets of five of each. So you play another dancer from your hand, and she lets you draw two cards and play again. And then you draw a weaver you can use, so you play that, and because you've already got two weavers, you can put two cards right into your guildhall and then pick up one card. So you play two assassins into the guildhall, holding a third for next turn, and pick up a dancer so that next turn you can do the whole thing again, and this time kill somebody.

That was kind of a convoluted example, but it's also pretty typical. You're trying to build your groups until you have five of a kind, which you can then trade in for victory points. There's no one strategy that's guaranteed to win you the game - in one game, I went straight-up Jack the Ripper to keep my opponents in check, another player was just sending his farmers to work, and yet another kept swapping cards between us so that she could complete her sets.

If you love games with a lot of theme, and you like to be able to hear the swords getting stuck in ribcages, you're going to hate Guildhall. Or, rather, if that's the only kind of game you like, you'll hate Guildhall, because I love games with swords to the ribs, and I think Guildhall is a hoot. If you like card games with matching elements, if you like strategies that have to be adaptable, if you like holding a bunch of cards and seeing the killer move come alive in front of you, you really ought to just dig up a 20 and buy Guildhall. If you need an added incentive, the box is very large.


2-4 players

Clever, accessible card game
Lots of different winning strategies
Smart play with difficult decisions

Theme is not all that useful
Not sure why the box is this big

When you click this link, you'll be saying, 'wow! It really is just 20 bucks' and then I'll be saying, 'see? Told you! Buy one!' and then you'll be saying, 'Hell yes I will buy one!'

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Board Game Review in Song Form - Zoneplex

Picture yourself in a pyramid temple
with triangle rooms you build on the fly.
Randomly place some rooms in the Zoneplex
and then move your monk to the eye.

Bright-colored monsters of pink, blue and green
manifest out of your head.
Team up with allies to take down the fears
and you'll win.

Warrior monks fight space fears in Zoneplex.
Warrior monks fight space fears in Zoneplex.
Warrior monks fight space fears in Zoneplex.

Floating in space, the pyramid temple
where luck rules the day and logic has died.
The pieces are nice but the story is trippy.
The designers were obviously high.

Talented artists created the game
and drew some exceptional art.
Too bad that Zoneplex makes no sense at all
and isn't fun.

Warrior monks fight space fears in Zoneplex.
Warrior monks fight space fears in Zoneplex.
Warrior monks fight space fears in Zoneplex.

Picture yourself playing some other game.
Zoneplex is strange and leaves too much to the die.
Production is solid but the game is just crazy.
It was made but I just don't know why.

Warrior monks fight space fears in Zoneplex.
Warrior monks fight space fears in Zoneplex.
Warrior monks fight space fears in Zoneplex.

(with sincere apologies to Lennon and McCartney)


Players: 3-5 people who have been ingesting hallucinogens

Nice pieces
Cool art

Luck is more important than playing well
Incoherent and bizarre

If you need an intellectually shallow way to play through your buzz while you mow down a bag of Doritos and listen to Pink Floyd, you can get Zoneplex through Game Salute:

Friday, April 12, 2013

Comic Book Review - Planetoid

I love a good sci-fi comic, especially if there are no over-sexed dames in skin-tight leotards who can shoot fire from their nipples. Science fiction is such a great genre for comic books, because it's difficult to describe some of the crazy stuff you see in standard written fiction. Planetoid sounded cool because it was a sci-fi book from Image, which makes it kind of a double-whammy of sweetness. Sure, Image published Youngblood, but they also do Walking Dead, so they still beat Marvel and DC.

Planetoid is a five-issue miniseries about a bad-ass SOB who crash-lands on a planet that has been strip-mined into a wastebasket. The surface of the planet is either toxic sludge or metal scrap, except for the big flat area where a few hundred people make their home. This planet is insanely hostile, because there's an alien group in the area that really hates the squatters. Never mind the fact that most of the survivors would kind of like to leave, the aliens want to harvest them, lobotomize them and turn them into slaves.

This is a dark book, and Silas, the hero of the book, is a dark hero with a dark past. The art itself is not that dark. Well, not literally. Like, you can see it just fine. But the evil aliens are twisted, the robots are efficiently brutal, the surface of the planet is barren and disgusting, and the food is just plain nasty. Oh, and there's this killer magnetic field that makes it so you can't leave orbit. It's just unkind.

Speaking of the art (which I did when I said it wasn't all that dark), it's perfect. The artist and the writer are the same guy, which means that the dude knew exactly what he wanted Silas to look like, and just how tall to make the snake robot, and how the froggy aliens would stand up. Plus it's marvelously detailed - where many comic artists would shortcut out backgrounds when they can get away with it, Planetoid spares no effort in showing us every scene in rich color and brilliant detail.

The story, by comparison, is a little stark. It feels rushed, like it could have been twenty issues and it got crammed into five. It's still a remarkable story, and I completely enjoyed it, and you can get the whole thing for nine bucks on Comixology and be happy you did. But it could have been developed into a much longer series, and I would have loved every issue. It's great fun to know how it ended (it just finished up a few days ago), but I wouldn't have minded getting to know all the people better. From the tough warrior chick to the blue alien, the old hermit to the loyal lizard sidekick, the cast in Planetoid is individual and entertaining - but they seem like you just get a taste of how cool they might be before the book is over.

Not that I'm complaining, really. Too many comics get cut before they can finish the whole run, and so I'm delighted that I was able to read the whole story of Planetoid and it never got the axe. It's fun to look at and fun to read, a cool tale of defiance and redemption and bravery and loyalty. It can be hard to find a good science fiction comic that will feel believable, since most seem to feel obligated to include stupid time travel or stupid spandex or stupid raccoon-headed aliens who smoke cigars. Planetoid is a blast, and even if it does leave me wanting more when I know it's over, I enjoyed it immensely.

You can find Planetoid at your local comics store, or if you're like me, Comixology:

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Tile Game Review - Battl Khaos

Sometimes I like to think that games are created when people are presented with interesting design challenges. Someone comes along and says, 'hey, make a game where you combine addition and mermaids, only make it boring,' and you get Atlanteon, one of my least favorite games of all time.

And if you got this design brief:

"Make it like Carcassonne, because that game is a pretty big deal, only make it about war, because war is awesome. Only we still want to sell it in Germany, so make it about war but don't actually let anyone die. So I guess make it like an old GI Joe cartoon."

You would get Battl Khaos. I'm pretty sure the title has an apostrophe in there, but I'm already so annoyed at having to type Khaos with a 'K' that I'm not about to go including ludicrous punctuation.

In Battl Khaos, one player is the knights and the other is the orcs, and they're fighting to grab towers. Only they fight by standing around and when enough people are in one place, they count who has more warriors, and that person gets to put down a flag. This way nobody gets hurt, but they can still get all berserk and blood-thirsty and stuff, play war drums and summon monstrous helpers, and everyone is still able to go home at night and sleep in a warm bed with their cuddle bunnies.

Basically, you're putting down square tiles. Each corner of the tile has pictures of warriors on it, either orcs or knights. When all four tiles are laid down to create an intersection, you see who has more fighters at the corner, and that guy claims that spot. Claim enough spots, you can grab a tower. Grab enough towers, you win the game.

That's basically the long and short of it, though there are also special characters that can do stuff like double up your guys or block opponents or swap out the tile for one that works better for you. Basically, it's a lot like Carcassonne, except that there's fighting, only nobody ever gets much more than a splinter or a stubbed toe, and when that stubbed toe does happen, the teacher comes out and makes everyone apologize and then skip their juice breaks.

The best way to approach Battl Khaos is to ignore the theme completely. It actually works better if you're not trying to arbitrarily assign meaning to your tile placement, and just remember that you have to manipulate the map so you have more of your color where it counts. Then it becomes a very cerebral game of play and counter-play, where you end your turn with 'ha!' and end your opponent's turn with 'dammit!' I guess it's that same cerebral game if you pretend that one of you is green-skinned marauders and the other is King Arthur's leftovers, but my point is that the theme is essentially pointless.

The game itself is actually pretty fun, if you like games that involve a hell of a lot of deep, strategic thinking. Cautious placement dictated by an overall plan is what wins the game, as well as seeing moves before your opponent and maybe distracting him so you can swap out key tiles when his back is turned. It's a very analytical game, almost mathematical. Any more math, and it would be a Reiner game. And probably be boring.

Battl Khaos kind of came and went without much fanfare, and I think I can see why. If it had been sold as a two-player abstract, people might have been delighted to try it. But it has these warring factions on the cover, and looks like it's all about bloodshed, and then you're really just laying down tiles and not actually fighting at all, and the theme falls apart. So people looking for two-player abstracts never got on board, because it looks like a game about war, and fans of games about war blew it off because it's actually a two-player abstract. A classic case of misrepresentative marketing, which turned off the people who might have enjoyed it and annoyed the people who thought they were getting a game where people died.

Battl Khaos will appeal to fans of abstracts who are looking for half-hour games they can play with just two players, and who don't really care if anybody dies. I probably won't play it again, because I like games with three or four players that take two hours and have lots of bodies.


2 players

Nice art
Lots of thinking
Good abstract game

Not sure why this needed a theme at all - would have been a great production from Blue Orange
Not really much in the way of killing

When it was a new game, Battl Khaos was sold through Z-Man. Now that it's faded rapidly into obscurity, you can find it at Game Salute:

Monday, April 8, 2013

Cartoon Review - Adventure Time

When I was in high school, I became thoroughly fascinated with Thundercats. It was exciting and creative and ridiculously cool. In fact, the first comic book I ever drew was a two-page short where that weird monkey guy attacked the blue puma dude and got his ass beat with nunchucks. I mean, I loved that show.

My parents thought I was insane. I was a 16-year-old kid who could not quit watching a child's cartoon. My dad, a veteran of Vietnam, an avid outdoorsman and a thoroughly bad-ass dude, probably wept to see his oldest son wasting so much time on poorly animated cartoons. My mother must have despaired of ever seeing an heir, as my odds of finding a mate diminished every time I spent my allowance on an action figure. Japanese animation and crappy voiceovers were about as enjoyable to them as a late-night infomercial.

I'm mentioning this now because it has come to my attention that my daughter is absolutely loopy for a painfully bizarre show called Adventure Time. In an attempt to understand what draws a 17-year-old kid to a show so unhinged from logic or internal consistency, I sat down and watched several episodes with her. And while I did not gain a greater understanding of what my baby girl sees in the program, I am completely able to empathize with my parents when they routinely walked into the living room to see their dating-age son watching Thundercats.

Adventure Time follows Finn and Jake, a human boy and his magical dog, as they travel a very odd world and do very strange things that make virtually no sense. The animation is trippy - all the people (and the dog) have legs like spaghetti noodles, and sometimes they will wave around at random, like if they dance or get scared. The stories are more random than an old episode of Doctor Who, if you watched it while you were dropping acid and listening to Led Zeppelin played backwards.

But my kid loves it, so I sat down with her and watched several episodes of this intensely strange program. What I found out while I was watching is that I do not understand teenagers at all. Adventure Time is completely, unabashedly weird, and I cannot fathom why it is as popular as it is.

Perhaps the show works for kids because it is about a dopey kid and his carefree sidekick who do normal stuff, but just a little more wacky. They hang out with their friends - except instead of being other teenagers, their friends are a rainbow unicorn and a princess who can raise the dead. They go to dances - but only because they have cure Jake before he turns lumpy for good. The characters are almost familiar and yet totally alien.

Maybe kids dig Adventure Time because the writers appear to be writing stories specifically targeted to kids. Lumpy Space Princess, for instance, does a remarkably good impression of a self-absorbed, shallow, insufferable teenage girl. Finn is an air-headed boob who acts a lot like your average fifteen-year-old boy. Princess Bubblegum is sweet, but dreadfully irresponsible. These characters are sometimes smart, but almost always lack common sense. If you have ever lived with a teenager, you know that 'smart but stupid' sums them up perfectly.

Or maybe my daughter just likes weird crap. There's this frost giant king guy who tells stories to his sentient furniture. There's a girl and her cat who are the female versions of Jake and Finn. There's a female vampire (read: goth chick) and her male alter-ego (the emo-douche). There are people made out of dessert pastries who have slumber parties. This show makes The Wizard of Oz look like it was written by Mitt Romney.

If you are looking for wacky cartoons that don't make any sense and have silly characters that do weird crap for no reason, you'll probably love Adventure Time. My daughter is apey for it. If you're a grown-up, just forget it. You're doomed to not getting it. I've come to accept that. With time, so can you.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Card Game Review - Shadowrift

I know deckbuilding games are a fad. I know people are getting tired of them. I know how many people love to say, 'oh, great, another deckbuilder, yawn.' They actually say that. Or type it, anyway. They type 'yawn' as its own sentence. So condescending. I hope those people break their pelvises in skiing accidents.

Because I don't care if deckbuilding is a fad, I think it's brilliant, and I love a good deckbuilding game. So when I read that Shadowrift was a cooperative deckbuilder with a fantasy theme where we team up to battle evil, I was quite excited. That sounds like a good time in a box.

It is not. It is not a good time at all. It is a bad game that disappointed me so severely that I most emphatically promise that I will never play it again, unless someone comes to my house and puts a gun to my head and promises to leave if I just play one more game of Shadowrift.

Possibly the reason I am so upset with Shadowrift is because the game had so much promise when I opened the box. There are a variety of hero powers you can buy, like magical attacks and healing and hitting things very hard. You should be able to create exactly the kind of hero you want, and specialize in different things to maximize your effectiveness every turn. But the abilities are kind of expensive, and we found that we could only afford one new ability per turn, on average, which meant only one of us got an upgrade while the rest of us got kicked in the teeth.

And then the monsters are ludicrous. Not because they're just absurd monsters - I mean, some of them are a little silly - but because they are crazy hard to beat. Here's some math:

You have ten cards in your starting deck.
Every time you hit a monster, you gain a wound card and do one damage.
The average monster has 4-6 life.

So what does that math mean? It means that you're gaining a wound card nearly every turn! Sometimes more! I drew a hand near the end of the game that contained nothing but wound cards. I had absolutely nothing positive to contribute because I had a deck that was about one-third wounds.

Now, you're probably saying, 'you just hated the game because it was too hard.' Well, bollocks to you, because we won. You win if you can seal all the shadowrifts or build all the walls, and it's not really very difficult to seal those rifts. You just have to wait until they come up in the monster deck and then seal them. The only hard part is staying alive long enough to do that.

I was very frustrated after our game of Shadowrift. I went back and read the rules again, to see if I had just screwed it all up. And I discovered that although the rules are not particularly well written, I had managed to do it mostly right. There was a good deal of confusion regarding how to calculate monster strength, but other than that, I managed to play the rules as they were written. So I can't chalk this one up to user error. I genuinely disliked Shadowrift, and it's not because I did it wrong, it's because the game blows goats.

Shadowrift isn't even all that original. If you had a cooperative-play version of Thunderstone, you would have Shadowrift. Except Thunderstone would have WAY better art, more thematic consistency, better rules, and enough testing to know that it would work. Hell, I almost want to go back and play Thunderstone now, just to get the taste of Shadowrift out of my mouth. And I don't even like Thunderstone (though I have not played the advanced version, which I understand is a huge improvement, and I would play it except I send all my Thunderstone expansions to my dad).

Here's the thing about deckbuilding games - they require a lot more testing than other games. You have to fine-tune them and tweak them and edit them and love them and hold them and call them George, unless you have a better name for your game than George. If you have not played 100 games of whatever deckbuilding game you're creating, you have not tested enough. And if you have not allowed complete strangers who will not lie to you to play your game many, many times, you still have not tested enough. Shadowrift could have been awesome, it could have been my new favorite deckbuilding game, but it's not finished.

If the world were fair - and it is not - the creators of Shadowrift would pull it off the market and test it several hundred more times. They would do something about the confusing parts of the rules. They would hire new artists who would do a very good job, and replace all the abominable art that graces the game now. Then they would reprint the whole thing and send it to me again so I could see how much potential awesome was in this box. Because right now, Shadowrift is an unfinished disaster, and that makes me sad because the idea is bad-ass.


No players at all, if you're smart

So much potential

Utterly fails to live up to its potential
Confusing rules
Too much happening at once
Cluttered mess
Hideous art
Just not finished

I'm not linking to Shadowrift. If you want to see a train wreck, just go look at a train wreck.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Card Game Review - Ghost Pirates

Everybody knows that the best kinds of pirates are ghost pirates. They still have peg-legs and eyepatches and parrots, and they still say 'arr' all the time, but they also have cool curses where they look gross in the moonlight or bullets can't kill them or whatever. In a contest between ghost pirates and anyone else, the outcome depends entirely on who they're fighting. I mean, what if they're fighting Cthulhu or something? He would just eat their ghostly souls and then take over the world. Unless they were 1920's gumshoe pirate ghosts. Then they would win, but they would all go insane.

This explains why the game Ghost Pirates is called that and not just Pirates. If you look at the game, it looks very much like actual pirates doing actual pirate stuff (namely fighting each other and swiping valuables). There's no reason they had to be ghosts, really, except that ghost pirates are inherently more cool than regular pirates.

I guess there are a few more indicators that something weird is going on with these pirates. You have your ship sitting directly across from another ship, and they are headed opposite directions, and you never actually sail past. You're both just kind of stuck where you are. That's because you're ghosts.

And your goal is to get the other guy's captain to fall overboard - off the front of the boat. You do this by repeatedly whacking him with something heavy and/or sharp. Every time you pop him a good one, he moves forward. If he was a normal, every-day pirate, he could just move around on his own, but since he is a ghost pirate, he only moves if someone sticks dynamite in his pants. And then he only moves forward, never backward.

Oh, and these are probably ghost pirate ships because you can add parts to them as you fight. You could add cannons right in the middle of the fight, or a cargo hold full of stuff that was not there a minute ago, or even another sail. And then the other guy could shoot those parts with a cannon and they would disappear and your ship would get smaller. Normal ships would just go underwater and then sharks would eat all the normal pirates, but these are special ghost pirate ships, which explains how they can have parts added and removed on the fly. Well, they're either ghost pirate ships or Lego pirate ships.

Luck, I think, was common to both normal pirates and their extra-planar cousins. So the fact that Ghost Pirates is about 63% luck does not help to differentiate that these are ghosts. Just as far as the luck goes, these could be normal old pirates. There's a lot of chaos and die-rolling and random card draws, and all those things would have been right at home on a thoroughly mundane pirate ship.

However, Ghost Pirates is done in about 20 minutes, so I think that indicates ghost pirates, for sure. See, real pirate battles could last hours, as two rival pirate captains would sail around in circles, standing in crow's nests and saying, 'off the port bow!' and 'raise the mizzenmast!' and 'strike my dinghy!' Ghost pirates, on the other hand, were in a hurry. They would have this whole thing planned out ahead of time and agree where they were going to meet up. It would go something like this:

Ghost Pirate Ralph: What are we doing Saturday?
Ghost Pirate Frank: Want to do that thing where you try to stick dynamite in my pants so I jump off the front of my boat?
Ralph: Sure, but I don't have all day. I promised the missus I would take her to the ghost mall.
Frank: No prob. I actually have yard work. Let's just meet up at 2 and knock this out real quick, then we can get back to our Honey Dos.
Ralph: Sweet. See you there. Arr.
Frank: Yeah, arr.

Ghost Pirates is a fun game, if you're just looking for a quick distraction with a lot of luck and some fun maneuvering. There are smart plays and ridiculous rolls, with copious bloodshed (except the ghosts don't really bleed, they just get ectoplasm everywhere). The art leaves a little to be desired, but the game is easy to teach and easy to play and a good way to blow a lunch break and still have time to finish your sandwich. I wouldn't recommend Ghost Pirates if you're trying to find something smart and complicated, but it's a fun distraction.


2 players

Plays quick
Decent mix of chaos and playing smart

Mediocre art
Not much depth

Ghost Pirates is distributed by Game Salute, which means that's the only place you can get it online: