Sunday, September 30, 2012

Board Game Review - Puzzle Strike 3rd Edition

Oh my holy crap. I have been playing this game wrong since I got it two years ago. It worked so well that I just assumed that's what was intended, and now I feel kind of stupid because I finally read the rule correctly and thought it was a rule change. The rules haven't changed for counter-crashing, I just played wrong for two freaking years.

So now I feel bad. Sort of. See, the way we played it worked so well that we could knock out four games in two hours, and we loved it. When we played it correctly, we didn't like it any more, because it took too long and was kind of slow. What used to be a slam-fest is now kind of long in the tooth.

So I apologize. The rule change was not a rule change. This is the same game as before, but a little more free-for-all than it used to be. I'm keeping my first review up here, so that everyone can see what a maroon I am. I take it back, and when I review Shadows, the expansion to Puzzle Strike, I'll make sure to play it right. Then I'll revert to playing it wrong, because the way we used to do it, we liked it a lot better.

Here's the original (wrong) review:

It must be so awesome to be Dave Sirlin. Not because his games are successful - they are, but that's not why I'm jealous. I wish I was Dave Sirlin because there must be a parade playing in his head every day, where little imaginary people carry him on imaginary shoulders and whistle 'Hail to the Chief' everywhere he goes. To read the rules he writes, he is this generation's greatest  designer, a veritable virtuoso of cardboard, the Amadeus of gaming.

Though I have to wonder - if Sirlin is so magnificent, why does he need three tries to get it right? Puzzle Strike 3rd Edition is the same game as Puzzle Strike 2nd Edition and Puzzle Strike 1st Edition (the original, of course, was just called 'Puzzle Strike,' because it came out before Sirlin knew he was going to have to keep changing it). The difference between the two predecessors and this latest iteration is that a bunch of the chips changed and the rules of the game changed. Yeah, that's all.

The least obvious but most interesting changes that Sirlin has made to his magnum opus is that many of the character chips have changed. By way of refresher, you start each game with three character chips that are unique to you, and buy more as you play. These character chips are usually fairly powerful and can really alter how you play. The fire chick can take wounds to do some harsh attacks, then throw the wounds away to do other attacks. The fish dude has lots of defensive capabilities. The panda is pretty good at getting paid. The ninja girl is extraordinary at showing people her bikini underwear.

The changes in the character chips range from 'so what' to 'I can't believe he did that.' The panda, for instance, has changed almost completely. My original copy was lost in the fire, so I'm going off memory for some of these, but I do remember most of these being pretty much how they are now, with several being very different. The changes affect... well, almost nothing, really. They probably make the game more balanced, so that you can win with whoever you use, since that's kind of Sirlin's thing. He believes emphatically in balanced tournament play, and fun is a lot less important than balance.

For instance, he probably thought the 'combine' action was overpowered. That would explain why it costs you money to do it, which would make it a little more difficult to decide whether to combine your gems if it were not for the fact that you almost always want to combine your gems whenever you possibly can. This particular change has almost no effect on game play, at least from where I'm sitting, because I'm still going to combine every single time I can, and I don't care how much it costs.

The rules changes, on the other hand, definitely change how you play. For starters, it's not last-man-standing any more. The game ends when one player goes over 10 gems, and then the player with the smallest gem pile wins. I think this decision was made to balance out the other significant alteration, in which countering attacks actually removed gems from the game.

As opposed to nearly every other change, which I have to say are all improvements, this cancelling thing almost ruins Puzzle Strike, at least for me. The best thing about Puzzle Strike was always how fast it went, how it would be almost a frenzy of action for 20 minutes and then you would be watching the last two players battle it out. I liked that. Hell, I loved that. I liked the old Puzzle Strike more than nearly every other deckbuilder, exactly because it was this frenetic, mind-bending duel that would build towards an inevitable climax. It was tense and fast and fun.

Now, though, Puzzle Strike 3 is not fast or tense, and that has the basic result of making it less fun. It takes almost three times as long to finish a game, and it has removed the tension and sense of impending doom. It might balance better, and it might make for better two-player tournament play, but it has made these giant strides at the expense of making it not as much fun to play.

I know Dave Sirlin is a genius. I know this because it says so in the rules, where he says how fantastic the game is, and how it's hard to make a game this fantastic. But genius or not, I'm going to have to overrule him. When I play Puzzle Strike with my friends (as opposed to tournaments, because I would rather lick the shocky end of a 9-volt battery than play this game in a tournament), we will not use the amazing disappearing gem rule. We're overthrowing the establishment, breaking the rules, forging our own path and striking our own trail. We're true innovators. Mavericks, if you will. What's next? I don't know. Maybe we'll start ripping tags off mattresses or feeding our mogwais after midnight.

I'm poking a lot of fun at Dave Sirlin here, and it's not entirely fair because I have, by-and-large, enjoyed all his games. Yomi was a blast. Flash Duel is still a riot, and the new version is even better than the original. And Puzzle Strike is still awesome, but in this case, it's going to be awesome because I am throwing out some if his rules. They might work great for two-player tournament battles, but they suck when you're playing with your friends. And unlike Dave Sirlin, I don't give a flying rat's ass about game balance, as long as the game is fun.


2-4 players (but apparently, Sirlin thinks you should just play with 2)

Many of the changes are actually better, and make the game faster
Still a pretty damned fun game
All tweaked up for tournament play

At least one of the new rules makes it less fun than it was - not broken, just less fun
I don't play tournaments, so I could care less about balance issues

If you're thinking about playing Puzzle Strike in tournaments, you probably really need the 3rd edition. If not, just play what you already have. It's still fun. Either way, you can only get this online from Game Salute:

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Movie Review - The Avengers

I hate going to the movies, because no matter how crowded or empty the theater, there's always some inconsiderate douche nozzle who feels absolutely compelled to hold lengthy conversations while the rest of us are trying to watch the film. So as much as I wanted to see The Avengers in the theater, I didn't get around to it until last night.

Holy CRAP that movie is awesome. If it weren't for Christopher Nolan's recent Batman reinventions, The Avengers would easily be the best superhero movie of all time. It was fast and exciting and hilarious and just plain fun. It was the first time in years that I saw a movie and said, 'Damn! I need to own this movie!'

If you've seen the movies leading up to this huge special-effects monstrosity, you know the characters. Heck, if you read comic books, you know Captain America and Thor, Hulk and Iron Man, Hawkeye and Black Widow. You probably also know they're not the actual founding members of The Avengers, but if you see this movie, you'll be willing to let that ride. I'm not sure what Ant-Man could have added to this one, aside from being a really stupid hero that would only have been marketable in the late 60's.

When you go to a superhero movie, you expect a certain level of action. And that certain level would be 'a lot.' The Avengers knows this, which is why it has lots and lots of high-flying, hard-hitting, laser-blasting fights. Hell, the first throw-down happens in the first five minutes, and blows a crater into New Mexico the size of Poughkeepsie. And that's just the appetizer that comes before the salad that you get before the steak. The fights just get better and better, until the battlefield is all of Manhattan and explosions are causing more property damage than Godzilla with explosive diarrhea.

A recent development that I've seen in so-called action movies recently is the shaky-cam fight. This is where two heroes mix it up with brutal punches and lightning kicks, and the camera flies all over the place like it was taped to a gadfly with ADD and a caffeine buzz. The result is that you know you saw a fight, but you don't actually know what happened. This is as satisfying as having someone describe a cheeseburger. It might make you hungry, but it's not going to make you jump out of your chair and say, 'Oh, HELL YES!!!' Of course, if a cheeseburger is making you jump out of your chair and yell, you may want to let it cool off first.

The Avengers does not use the shaky cam. In fact, the fight scenes are exciting because you see every blow, every blast, every flying body and demolished tree. When Hulk pounds the stuffing out of Thor, you see the giant green fist hit that pretty-boy face and then you see the sanctimoniously arrogant tool go flying through a stack of metal crates. It's visceral and powerful and fun, and you can almost feel the blows landing. Happily, they're not landing on you, because these guys would seriously kill you if they hit you.

If you saw Captain America or Thor or Iron Man 2, you might have been skeptical about The Avengers. I actually kind of liked Iron Man 2, but Thor and Captain America left me wondering why anybody would want to watch these yahoos doing anything at all. Those two movies were dry and flat and uninspired, but it turns out that all you need to do to make Thor and Captain America interesting is to put them in the same room with Bruce Banner and Tony Stark. Mark Ruffalo and Robert Downey Jr were not just spectacular on their own, they provided the raw material that made it fun to watch two otherwise dull heroes really come into their own.

In fact, while the action sequences in The Avengers were enough to make me hoot and holler (especially the ones with Hulk), the reason the movie was so fantastic was the dialog. There were witty jokes delivered with spot-on precision. There were lightning-fast exchanges that left you a little dizzy and lightheaded, and grinning like an idiot when Tony Stark makes someone else look like a neanderthal moron. Even the one gut-wrenching scene was punctuated by lines so well-written and well-delivered that you wanted to laugh as you wanted to cry.

The recent Batman trilogy raised the bar for comic-book movies, but it raised to a dark, serious level with disturbing acts of violence and too many shades of gray (but not 50. Definitely not 50). The Avengers is like the slap-in-the-face answer to those moody epics, because while it has its serious moments, it's a fun romp and a thrilling tale that leaves you wondering if Joss Whedon is going to pull a Joss Whedon and kill one of the heroes. I won't spoil it and tell you whether they all live - it is, after all, Joss Whedon.

I am absolutely delighted to see comic-book movies pulling in the audiences they're seeing these days. It's like vindication for my misspent youth (which I misspent by being scared of girls and reading WAY too many comic books). I am also glad to see them being made by awesome writers and outstanding directors, full of big-name actors who bring power and poise to the screen. I remember when superhero movies were crap, and it's great to see them really kicking ass. And if you want to see the best that super-movies have to offer, you should see The Avengers.

Monday, September 24, 2012

iPad Game Review - Avernum: Escape From The Pit

I got an iPad for my birthday. Or, more accurately, I bought myself an iPad for my birthday, and got one for my dad so we could play games even though he lives halfway across the country from me. And while I have really enjoyed many of the games we've been playing, I'm not writing tonight to tell you about any of them. I want to tell you about Avernum: Escape from the Pit, which is simply spectacular, but decidedly single-player.

If you've been around a while, you may already be familiar with Spiderweb Software. They make arguably the best indie RPGs available on your computer, and have been doing it for almost 20 years. They don't try to blow your mind with sexy graphics and amazing cut scenes, they don't trim out their games with gallons of extra crap meant to get their price tags to sixty clams, and they don't have a huge budget for sound effects. What they have is some of the absolute finest computer role-playing games you'll ever play.

Many of you have probably played Baldur's Gate. I fondly remember the first time I played through that classic game. I remember the time I was at a party, celebrating with some people I barely knew, and left early because I wanted to go clear out the thieves' guild in Waterdeep and get a level for my main hero, a ranger names Xerxes (yes, I'm an unoriginal bastard, and a nerd, and an antisocial loser - I might just as well have gone back to my mom's basement, except that I was paying the mortgage and my mom lives in California). I still have Baldur's Gate on my computer, having had to install it over and over on the last four computers I owned, but I don't go back to it. Instead, I just check with Spiderweb Software and play their most recent Avernum game.

Only this time, I'm not playing Avernum on my computer. I'm playing it on my iPad, and I'm here to tell you it's just as good as it ever was on my PC. My party of exiles was thrown into the prison caves of Avernum, just like all the exiles before them, and they're happily brawling their way across the dungeons and caverns of this underground domain. I've met with dragons, banished undead, battled bandits and slain evil cat-people. And after all that, I'm not even a quarter of the way through the game.

Most of the games I have on my iPad are kind of weak. Apparently, developers are just starting to figure out that they're allowed to put serious games on a mobile device, and we're not all huge fans of Angry Birds or Fruit Ninja, possibly because some of us are no longer eight years old. I download them, play for a month or two, and put them down again. There are some really good ones, to be fair, but none of them can hold a candle to the pure tactical adventure I get out of Avernum. I have played more computer RPGs than I can count, and Avernum can hold its own against the best of them.

If you look at Avernum, or any of the other games from Spiderweb Software, you may be initially underwhelmed. And even if you're not actually underwhelmed, you may be simply whelmed. The graphics are whelming, if you're being generous. There are no 3D graphics. The dragons are visually unimpressive. The fighters are all basically static sprites, with a brief animation of a waving arm when you swing a sword. And when you try the demo, you'll find out that there's virtually no reason to bother turning on the volume, because the music and sound effects aren't even whelming. They're just underwhelming.

But if you judge this book by its cover, you're missing out on one of the greatest adventure games you can buy, not just for your iPad, but for any platform, period. It's bigger than Skyrim. It's more exciting than Fallout 3. It's more fun than GTA4, and it's more tactical than all of those games put together. Granted, I am a huge fan of turn-based tactical RPGs, but you don't have to be a tactical snob to enjoy Avernum. You just have to enjoy roaming an enormous, challenging underworld, meeting all manner of people and creatures, hurling spells, wielding magical swords, battling ancient evil and growing into the greatest warriors the underworld has even known.

Let's pretend you don't own an iPad, maybe because you're not a mindless follower of the cult of Apple like me (although in all fairness, the iPad is the only Apple gadget I own, and I just got it because the software selection is awesome). You can still enjoy the great stuff from Spiderweb Software on whatever you're using to read this review, unless you read Drake's Flames on your phone, or your work computer, because work might be pissed if you spend the whole day killing bandits instead of finishing the TPS report. The game is available on PC and Mac on top of being the best RPG on the iPad, so unless you're a homeless guy who reads my site at the Internet cafe where you spend your day so you can get some sleep without getting rolled by roving teenagers, Spiderweb Software has your hookup.

Still not convinced? That's fair. Not everyone will be. Not everyone loves an excellent turn-based RPG with incredible adventures and an exciting, consistent setting. Not everyone can get behind a finely tuned story and a plot that doesn't drag you around by the scrotum. So if you're skeptical, and I don't blame you if you are, go over to the Spiderweb Software website and download the rather gigantic demo of Avernum. Give it a whirl, because I think you're going to love it. If you don't, you don't have to pay for it, and you still won't have anything to complain about, unless you really are that homeless guy, and then I think not being able to play computer demos is the least of your worries.

Oh, I almost forgot - you may want to play this one with a stylus. Some of the little spots can be tough to nail with your finger.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Board Game Revisit - Risk Legacy

My new plan of playing the games I actually enjoy even though I have a huge stack of review copies sitting in the corner of the room and calling in silent, hissing voices, 'play us!' is working out pretty well. Today, instead of playing one of the dozen games I've got lurking in the corners of my office like monstrous toddlers with sharpened teeth, I played two games of Risk Legacy. I may not have reduced the pile any, but DAMN! did I have a good time.

The first time I reviewed Risk Legacy was about a year ago, before it came out. I played 13 games on that particular copy, which was obviously unlucky because my house caught fire before I could make it to 14, and destroyed that copy of the game. That level of luck is infectious, apparently, because when Risk Legacy's numerical curse destroyed the copy I had, it took every other game with it. It also cost me fifteen thousand dollars to fix the house. That was one unlucky board game.

So being a rationally superstitious man, when I got a replacement copy of Risk Legacy for my birthday a month ago, I resolved that I absolutely had to play it more than 13 times. Sure, I could have decided to stop playing after 12 games, but come on. It's Risk Legacy. It's one of my favorite games. I would much rather break the curse by going to 14. I'll risk it.

The thing that struck me as I played games two and three on my new copy was how incredibly awesome this game really is. I already know what's in all the envelopes, so it's not as though I'm looking forward to the surprises Hasbro has seen fit to bestow upon me. But what amazes me is how this new board is completely different, and the games I play on it will be new and fun and unlike anything we've played before. The surprises that matter are not the ones Hasbro dreamed up. The surprises are the ones you'll create yourself because you really need to protect North Africa, so you put in a bunker, or the world capital winding up in Canada and being named Sphincter.

Risk Legacy is the most unique game you'll ever play. Sure, it's a do-over of a 50-year-old classic, but there is no other game that mutates and changes so thoroughly as you play, until your Risk Legacy game will be unlike every other Risk Legacy game, and the more you play it, the more you make it your own. No other game has you writing in permanent marker on the board, tearing up the cards as you play, or putting stickers into the rulebook. Well, OK, other games have tried, but it was always a lame gimmick, and not anything that actually worked. Risk Legacy, on the other hand, works.

The furor over Risk Legacy has died down, thanks largely to the fact that gamers can only focus on any particular game for 45 minutes, or until Matlock is over. I still remember all the people who have revolted against the concept of permanently altering their game, people who have called Hasbro a money grab or tried to coat their board in dry-erase plastic so they could wipe out their changes. I remember all these people who totally missed the point and I want to get a little angry at their short-sighted idiocy, but when I do start to feel my blood pressure rising, I remember that I am having so much more fun than they are. It's like revenge for them being stupid - you feel free to act like retarded nerdlings, because in the end, I have something almost magical, and all you have is an obsessive-compulsive disorder and conspiracy theories that you can expound on the Internet to other like-minded anal-retentive assholes.

It's amazing to me that I have not grown the least bit tired of Risk Legacy. I love the game as much today as I did the first time I played it. This is the only time I'll play a game five times in a weekend and still say, 'anyone up for one more?' It's also the only game where, if I said that, everyone would agree.

Most people who play Risk Legacy will never need more than one copy. They may not even play through it 15 times. If they do, they can continue to enjoy their uniquely branded copy of this amazing game for as long as they like having fun. But for my part, having seen how much fun it is to build this world twice, I plan on owning several copies before I die. I'm going to have the one where Alaska's biggest city is Palinoia, and Brazil is a smoking ruin, and then I'll have the one where the world capitol is Testica, and then I'll have the one where the Enclave of the Bear guys can't spread out too fast because they get insecure if they get too far away from each other. I'll play one copy until the world gets a name, then play it some more, then I'll go get another one and start a new planet. Then when we decide to play Risk Legacy, we'll go grab them all and decide which one looks like the most fun.

If you haven't played Risk Legacy yet, what the hell is wrong with you? If you ask me, it's a flat-out travesty that it didn't sweep every award for 2011, and I simply cannot imagine why every gamer on the planet isn't playing it right now. Well, not right this minute. It's late. Your mom is wondering why you haven't walked the dog yet. So go let Spot mark an X, then get back inside and do something important - play Risk Legacy again.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Board Game Review - Merchants & Marauders

I started writing my review of Merchants & Marauders last night, and realized that I would have to be a much better writer than I actually am if I wanted to make this game sound like it was as fun as I found it to be. So I scrapped it and started over, though I'm not sure why I bothered, having already thrown in the towel and decided the task was beyond my level of expertise.

The problem is that when I start telling you about the game, you're going to think Merchants & Marauders is slightly less retarded than a brain-damaged lab rat chewing on the plastic pawns from Candyland. 'Ooh,' I'll say, 'you can buy stuff in one port and then go to another port and… wait for it… sell it!' And you'll think I'm an idiot.

Or I'll tell you how you can turn pirate and raid merchant ships, and the raid is summarized by drawing three cards and seeing if your victim escaped or if he just shot some holes in your dinghy. And if you win the fight with the merchant, you will get some money and some cargo and you can take that cargo to a port, where you can… wait for it… sell it! I know, I sound like an idiot.

It's fun, I swear. It sounds like a game about running a business, but instead of doing all this competitive bidding and screwing opponents out of great contracts, you just handle the accounting and order office supplies. But it's not that game at all, because you have pirates. And you can be pirates. And you can die.

Oh, yes! I did forget to mention that, didn't I? Yeah, your pirate can totally croak. You can have your ship shot out from under you and find yourself tits up in Davy Jones' locker (which is stinky, because he was in the Monkees and girls used to give him used undergarments and he kept them in his locker). You can get stabbed to death by enemy pirates, be hanged by Dutch naval officers, or be forced to walk the plank by the other players at the table. Yep, the other people playing the game can kill you. If you want interaction in your board games, it really doesn't get any better than killing the other players (not literally, of course, unless some nimrod spills a beer on the board, and then no jury would convict you).

In fact, the better you do, the higher the odds get that someone will want to kill you. A really successful pirate will be wanted by the nations he has offended, and those nations will pay a whole buttload of money to anyone that can bring down the scurvy raccoon who keeps stealing all their silk pajama pants. If you're a crazy good pirate, the other players are going to have very good reasons to try to hurt you and keep you from winning, especially because if you are a really good pirate, you've probably got some great stuff worth stealing.

You don't have to get all piratical to play Merchants & Marauders. You can be an honest merchant plying the Caribbean, trading sugar in Port Royal and cacao in Havana and slaves in… oh, no wait, that's still distasteful. We don't want to be that historically accurate. Let's just stick with exploitation of the locals and murder of innocents.

However, just because you don't have to be a pirate, that doesn't mean there's not a good reason to give it a shot anyway. It's easy to knock off some poor floating treasure barge and make off with all their tobacco. Plus, if you do, there's a really good chance that the French navy will send all its ships to come get you, and they'll blow big holes in your boat and you can shoot back at them and you can both swing over to the other ship on ropes hanging from the snarled rigging, and then you can each realize that the enemy is on the other ship and swing back, but then the other guys are swinging back, and the whole episode looks like one of those hilarious Scooby Doo sketches where the heroes run in different doors on either side of a long hallway and the bad guy never catches up to them.

It wouldn't seem like there are many different things to do in Merchants & Marauders, but pirating and trading aren't the whole deal. You can upgrade your ship with better sails and cannons, you can hang out in bars and listen for rumors, you can lead the English frigate to the pirate hideout, or you can battle dangerous pirates on the open seas. And you can swash all these buckles on a stunningly attractive board with fantastic plastic ships and beautifully illustrated cards. And even though I know this sounds like it wouldn't be very much fun, Merchants & Marauders is probably the best pirate game I've ever played.

And the reason I really liked Merchants & Marauders is that while it lacked crazy depth or difficult decisions, it felt like I was a freebooting privateer in the Golden Age of Piracy. I was Henry Morgan and Bartholomew Roberts, alternating between bloodthirsty raids and legitimate business ventures. I scraped my hull in the shallows, sheltered in port during a storm, and braved angry Spaniards who wanted to stretch my neck. I covered myself in glory and gold, and if I had been a real pirate, you would be reading about me today. Probably you would also read about how I got butt lice and died too fat to get out of my bed, but the pirate I played in Merchants & Marauders was practically a historical figure. And I say 'practically,' because it was just a game. Real pirates marched across Panama to raid cities on the Pacific, and I didn't get to do that.

When I say Merchants & Marauders is the best pirate game I've played, keep in mind that I'm qualifying it with the word 'pirate.' This is important because I can't think of any pirate games I actually liked enough to want to play very often. Pirate's Cove was fun… twice. That pirate game from WizKids was terrible. So there's not a lot of competition, which means that saying Merchants & Marauders is the best pirate game is not the same thing as saying it's awesome.

I'm offering that qualification because although I did enjoy Merchants & Marauders, I don't know that I'm going to play it another fifty times. I won't be getting rid of it soon, but it just didn't have the epic punch or brain-steaming strategy that I usually like when I play a game. It was fun, and at times exciting, but if I never got to play it again, I would kind of shrug and say, 'meh, I'll live.' Compare that to some of my actual favorites, where if you said I couldn't play them again, I would kick you in the dingus.

If you're looking for a great pirate game that captures the feel of the days of swashbuckling danger on the high seas, Merchants & Marauders can deliver. It doesn't have a ton of depth, but that's OK because it's more about playing out the story of being a disreputable businessman in a time when laws were more like rules of thumb and brazen men made their own fortunes at the end of a sword. Or they bought stuff in one port, when to another port, and then… wait for it… sold it.


2-4 players

Be a pirate! Or a merchant! Or a merchant-slash-pirate! It's an adventure however you do it.
Absolutely fantastic art and pieces
Enough strategy to be worth playing twice

A little shallow, but still enough meat to be satisfying

If you want a good pirate game, I think you would be hard-pressed to do much better than Merchants & Marauders. You can get it from Noble Knight Games:

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

TV Show Review - Copper

I mostly hate cop shows. It's not that there's not a ton of potential for a police show to be awesome, but more often than not, they turn into a lame procedural thing where the cops solve a different case every week. It turns into a formula where a body turns up (for some reason, there are no cop shows about cops who investigate shoplifting), then the police start hunting up leads, then there's some sterling detective work and the bad guy is apprehended. Basically, every episode turns into a villain-of-the-week, and no matter how you try to trick it up with surprise guests and crazy murderers, after a while, it's BORING.

This is not the only reason I dislike cop shows, though it is the main reason. Even some shows with tons of potential, like Longmire or Luther, fall prey to this cookie-cutter story format, and it's a damned shame that we can't get a show about the life of a cop. One of my best friends is a cop, and his life cannot be broken down into one-hour episodes. Different stuff happens every week - he has to deal with an irritating co-worker, or he has to go out of town to chase bad guys who run to small towns, or he gets to throw the cuffs on bodybuilders who could rip off his arms if they didn't know damned well someone would kill them for it. I want a cop show that tells a story, and one that doesn't wrap every episode with a neat little bow.

Enter Copper. This show, which is on BBC America right now (sorry if you don't have cable), features Kevin Corcoran, or Corky to his friends. He is a police detective in New York - but this ain't Seinfeld's town. This is Five Points in 1864. Corcoran has been fighting the Confederates for the last four years, and comes home to find his daughter murdered and his wife missing. In the meantime, he has a job to do - and policing Five Points was a nasty job at the best of times, and a downright impossibility most of the time.

Brief history lesson for those of you who missed Gangs of New York. In the early 1800s, there were a lot of immigrants to New York. Many of these were Irish people fleeing the devastation back home. Many were Jewish immigrants. And many were black people looking for freedom in the North, and discovering that being free often meant being hungry. They all got funneled into Five Points, a segment of New York reserved for immigrants that rapidly became grossly overpopulated and dirtier than a farm hog's ass crack.

So right off the bat, Copper is about police at the very beginning of the nation's organized police force, charged with fighting crime in a place where crime was most peoples' day job. There are multiple brothels, and nobody even tries to shut them down, because when bank robberies and murders were commonplace, policing morality was less than an afterthought.

I knew I was going to like Copper when, in the first five minutes, Corcoran and his fellow coppers are surrounding a band of bank robbers. Corcoran decides to spring the ambush and leaps out from behind a wall, shoots one bank robber dead, and then yells, 'Police!' Yeah, in that order. Due process was not exactly an overwhelming concern, and once all the robbers are dead, the police chief shows up and takes all the stolen money... back to his house. These were gritty men in a gritty time, and if they did things a little questionable, there weren't a lot of people who could object. After all, the coppers might keep you from getting murdered in your bed, so if they kept some 'evidence' for their efforts, you may have been willing to let it slide.

I love the tarnished brass of Copper, but that's not enough to make me come back every week. What keeps me anxious for the next episode is the story. Corcoran's search for his lost wife is a continuing thread, as is his affair with the madame at his favorite house of ill repute. We also get to follow Annie, a very young girl who is abducted, sold into prostitution, rescued from said prostitution, and then - well, I don't want to give it away, but suffice to say this story feels a lot more believable than the one with Daddy Warbucks. And there are more bodies.

In fact, not an episode of Copper passes without someone getting, at a minimum, beaten like a cheap rug, and most of the time, somebody gets snuffed. Stabbings and shootings and throat-slittings were practically routine in Five Points, and thanks to a story that refuses to shy away from the uglier truths of our glorious nation's past, we get to see a whole damned lot of them. I do like a show with a body count, and this one even has a boob every now and then. If you ask me, that makes it a keeper.

If you prefer your police shows to follow the old tried-and-true method of busting a new bad guy every week, you'll probably be fine with Law and Order: CSI. But if you want to see a story develop, if you like to see what life was like 150 years ago, or if you just like to see good guys get away with bad things, you might really dig Copper. It's fun and violent and dark and cool, and yet hopeful and noble at the same time. It's in full swing right now on BBC America, with five episodes aired. You might be able to catch up if you have On Demand, or you can go download the episodes from iTunes or the Zune marketplace. I highly recommend it, though I gotta tell you, it's not for everyone, and certainly not fit for the squeamish.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Lego Review - Monster Fighters

You could cut the anticipation in here with a knife. Everyone wants to know what this new direction of nerd reviews will look like. You're all waiting with baited breath. 

(Quick aside -  what the hell does 'baited breath' mean? Do you have really bad halitosis, and your exhalations smell like worms? And did I even spell 'baited' correctly? Should it be 'bated'?  I hope not, because that sounds uncomfortably like it could be the past-tense for a shortened phrase referring to self-pleasuring, and I most certainly hope that is not on your breath.)

And here's the big reveal - my review of Monster Fighter Lego sets will be pretty much like a review of a game, except I won't have to talk about how the rules work. I know, it's a little anticlimactic.

Now that I've wasted this much time discussing the fact that I'll be discussing something, allow me to address the fact that I am both a middle-aged man and a ridiculous child, all wrapped up in one rapidly failing body. I readily acknowledge that it's a little silly to love Legos as much as I do, but I just plain don't care. Legos kick ass. 

Other companies can make cheap knock-off imitations, and some of them might even be halfway decent, but you just can't beat the original. If you know Legos, you know what I mean. You know how disappointed you were as a kid when your Aunt Gerty would buy you a birthday present, and you said you wanted Legos, but Aunt Gerty was one cheap-ass old biddy, and she got you those crappy MegaBloks instead. And they wouldn't hold together, and you had to put cheap stickers all over the pieces, and the stickers would peel off and the bricks wouldn't fit together and the arms fell off all the ugly little firemen.

Those knock-offs have come a long way, but every time they try to compete, Lego is a step ahead. Witness the Monster Fighter line. They show once again that Lego is the innovator, and everyone else is just playing catch-up.

Let's start with the theme. Other bricksters fall back on licensed crap like video games and movies based on board games that get turned into toys, but Lego brings its A-game and comes up with its own awesome stuff (except Star Wars, but that immediately gets a pass because, come on, Star Wars). In Monster Fighters, every set comes with a bad guy or five and some intrepid opponents. The villains are classic movie monsters like vampires and werewolves and ghosts, and the heroes are Edwardian steampunk warriors flying ornithopters or driving jalopies mounted with missile launchers. I know that sounds awesome enough to make you run out and start throwing your money around, but it gets better.

The monsters have to be cool, obviously, or why would you bother? So the sets that come with these creatures of the night are just plain ridiculously awesome. For example, the crazy scientist and his monster (think Frankenstein, and the monster we all thought was Frankenstein when we were kids until we grew up and found out there was some actual guy named Frankenstein and the monster never really had a name, and we were all disappointed and part of our youthful innocence died forever) come with a prison and a diabolical machine designed to bring dead flesh to life. And the machine spins when you turn the dial on the back of the building, and the table slides into position when you turn the wheel, and then the light comes on - literally, there's a little LED that pulses when you spin the dial, and it's channeled into this clear plastic rod that flashes onto the monster's head and then crazy Frank turns the wheel again and the monster comes to life just as the heroes roar up to the lab in their modified monster-busting wagon and fire rockets and rip down the walls and... OK, yes, I'm a child. I am a grown-up child. My kids are just glad I don't play with Strawberry Shortcake (though I would, if she had a body count).

Then there's the mummy on his chariot, which is a drawn by a skeletal horse that glows in the dark, and he is pursued by a tough dame with a crossbow who attacks from the sky in her steampunk one-woman helicopter device. Or the monster from the lagoon who is attacked by the two-fisted pulp hero in a swamp boat. Or the train full of ghosts and the heroic warriors chasing it through the night.

Honestly, this is a little edgy for Lego. The vampire hearse comes with a zombie driver, and we all know that zombies are more violent than Sicilian mobsters. There's a werewolf in one set, and as Warren Zevon reminded us, those guys will mutilate little old ladies late at night. The head vampire is concocting a plan to shift the moon out of orbit, and if that happens, I think we can assume humanity is pretty much screwed. Lego has said over and over that they are opposed to violent toys, but I think it's safe to say that is a smokescreen. I mean, they make Star Wars sets. Can you think of something more violent than war? Oh, but that's OK, because it's space. Entire planets are destroyed by genocidal super-weapons, but at least there are no gangsters with tommy-guns.

I'm actually pretty glad that Lego is willing to relax a little on the 'violent toys' thing. The only toys more fun than ones where people die are toys where people die and then come back from the dead, cursed to walk the Earth and feast on the flesh of the living. Seriously, it doesn't get any better than that. And when those awesome violent toys are accompanied by building sets that put every competitor to absolute shame, they are an instant winner in my book.

I bought these Monster Fighter Legos for my birthday with the gift certificate my mom sent me. I haven't been this excited about Legos in a really long time, and I don't care if those Danish engineers want me to call them Lego Bricks because seriously, nobody says that. I'm having more fun building rocket-powered early-century hot rods than I ever have reading a rulebook, and while I definitely enjoyed playing Merchants & Marauders this afternoon, I didn't get to assemble a brilliant mind-control device then play out the battle between the brave heroine and the cruel, sword-wielding mummy until I started playing with toys rated for 14-year-old boys.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Mixing It Up

I've come to an important realization, and I wanted to share it:

I am bored with board games.

That's not entirely true, actually. I am bored with NEW games. I don't want to try every newfangled game that gets published by some fifteen-year-old with a Kickstarter account and a copy of Microsoft Word. I don't want to read convoluted 36-page rule books that would give migraines to normal men. I don't want to have to learn every game I've got every time I want to play. I just want to play the games I already have and enjoy them.

The problem, of course, is that as a game reviewer, new games are where it's at. I am not going to review Risk Legacy every time I play it, but I still want to play it another couple dozen times. But I need to play the games I'm going to write about, even though what I really want to be playing is another round of Mice & Mystics, only I have to play Crap City Bore Dome because I need to write about it to justify my free copy.

The problem gets worse, too. I have a bunch of games I just don't want to play. They might be good games, but it's hard to give them an unbiased opinion when I'm irritated to have to read the rules in the first place. I'm spending every Friday night boning up on rules so I can play the games the next day, and in at least one out of three cases, I try to forget the rules immediately after I'm done writing, because I liked the game so little.

And you know what else? I have too many games. I know there are some of you that would say such a thing is impossible, but I'm telling you, I have too many. I can't store them all - and keep in mind that my game library started over from scratch last Christmas, when I lost them all in a house fire. So nine months later, I have more games than I can fit into my office. If I never got another game, I could be perfectly happy playing the ones I have for the rest of my life.

Plus you don't need me any more. When I started out, there were maybe a dozen reviewers who were actually doing anything. At one time in the not-too-distant past, I was one of six people in the world with more than 100 reviews at BGG. Now there are 39. And that's not counting the people at other sites who don't even put their stuff at BGG. The market is glutted, and since I'm not going to start doing video reviews, I can't really keep up any more.

I got into this racket for free games. I wanted publishers to send me stuff so I could write about it, and get free games for my efforts. At this point, however, I don't want most of the free games that come to my house. And that is making me reconsider a lot of things. Like, why am I writing about games just to get free games when I don't want the free games? OK, maybe I'm only reconsidering that one thing.

Starting tomorrow night, I'm mixing it up a little. From now on, I'll be reviewing whatever the hell I want. If it's a board game, fine. If it's a movie, great. Maybe it'll be a TV show, or a concert, or a camping trip. Tomorrow night, in fact, I'll be reviewing a Lego set. Yeah, I'll review toys, if I want, or comic books, or word processing apps for the iPad (not really that last one, unless it's so insanely cool that I just can't shut up about it).

Of course, this means I'm going to have to redesign some of the site. I'm not doing that tonight, because tonight I'm going to go watch some reruns of Oz on HBO GO, which is awesome, in case you were wondering.

Maybe I'll review it some time.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Event Review - Swimming Pool

Buying a swimming pool is like getting a part-time job, except that you have to pay to be there.

My wife and daughter have been pestering me to buy an above-ground pool for our back yard since the beginning of summer. Admittedly, it was a hot summer (though last summer was WAY worse), but I resisted. I know having a pool is a lot of work. I know it's hard to keep it from getting murky. I know it drains money like having a hole in your pocket. So all summer, I avoided buying a pool.

And then, the weekend before Labor Day, we found a huge pool at an insane discount on closeout at Target. And even though I was opposed to owning a pool on general principle, I broke down and bought it, because I have absolutely no will of any kind.

The first awesome part of buying an above-ground pool is having to drive it around until you can unload it. Getting the damned thing out of the car is an incredible amount of work, when you get one that is as big as the one we got. It weighed more than most people, and was ludicrously bulky, so I did what any sane parent does and made my kid get it out of the car. But it was so damned heavy that I had to help, and so managed to drop it on my foot. This was about as much fun as dropping a washing machine on my foot, except that washing machines are not as heavy.

Then we had to put it together. The pool came with an instructional video in which two beautiful people with a beautiful lawn that is perfectly level assemble the pool in three minutes flat and have absolutely no problems of any kind. These people were either magical creatures from a novel written for young adults, or they were lying. It is incredibly hard to assemble an above-ground pool. I recommend you hire someone to do it for you, so that you can drink lemonade on the porch and give life-affirming tips.

I did not do that. Instead, I spent my entire Labor Day weekend digging the yard flat, laying out the tarp, catching the tarp when the wind blew it away, cleaning the dirt out of my underpants where the flying tarp threw it, then placing bricks on the tarp to hold it down. Oh, and I put together the pool. Then I put water in it.

The pool promptly sank into the ground. It turns out, 15,000 gallons of water is heavy enough to dig straight down into Texas soil, even with the drought we've been enjoying turning the ground into concrete. And since some parts sank more than others, the pool was so far out of balance that I couldn't swim in it. So I drained it and started over.

After placing bricks under the legs of the pool and filling it again, I was finally able to swim. I love swimming. I grew up in California, and used to spend my entire summer at the beach. I'm having so much fun that I almost don't mind all the money I spent buying my pool, filling my pool, draining my pool, then filling my pool again. Almost, but not quite. Because I had to swim alone.

See, the pool ladder is so rickety that my wife cannot get into the pool. She tore all the ligaments in her leg a few years ago, and can't turn her knee. And since the ladder is so flimsy and narrow, she can't do the acrobatics necessary to flip around at the apex. Sure, she could have just allowed herself to fall into the pool once she was at the top, but that solution would not have worked in the case of exiting the pool, and so once she was in there, I would have had to bring her meals out to her.

So I got to spend more money. This time on lumber, which I used to build a proper wooden staircase level with the top of the pool, complete with broad steps and hand rails. Now my wife and I are enjoying swimming together, and having a lovely time.

Except that now the water is getting a little cloudy. I think I need to add more chlorine, or balance the bromide, or possibly I need a stronger pump. I don't know for sure. If you'll excuse me, I need to go spend more money and time solving yet another problem with my pool.

I'm sure I'll get this right, sooner or later. Of course, by the time I do, it will be winter. Anyone know how you winterize an above-ground pool?

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Board Game Review - Mage Knight

I hate feeling unprepared to review a game. It doesn't happen very often, because usually if I am not ready to write a review, I just go back and play it again. But in the case of the Mage Knight board game, I've already put five hours into it, and I'm not really of a mind to sink another afternoon into making sure I understand what I'm writing about. So fair warning, some of this will almost certainly be wrong, but since I expect my experience will be pretty close to yours, I'm going to jump in and look like an asshole anyway.

I was incredibly excited to try Mage Knight. It has garnered incredible press, and it's always sold out. It's like the damned thing is made out of gold bullion and coupons for sex. Everybody talks about how it's this incredibly awesome game, and plus it's an adventure game where you wander around and kill stuff and get magic powers, so that's right up my alley.

However, I suspect that some of those reviewers fell into a common trap, one which I studiously attempt to avoid:

1. Read popular reviewer who says he loves the game.
2. Play the game and be confused as to why it's so great.
3. Go back and read the reviews, certain that you missed something.
4. Assume that someone must know something you don't.
5. Question own sanity.
6. Write a positive review because everybody seems to like the game so much.

My main method for avoiding this potential pitfall combines ignorance and arrogance. First, I try not to find out what other people are thinking, and second, I just decide that I am right and all those other people are wrong. It's what works for me. The end result is that my reviews tend to be crassly opinionated, but I warn you of that right at the top of the page, so mea culpa, bitches.

So my review of the Mage Knight board game is NOT going to be overwhelmingly positive, because I am not all that crazy about it, and don't see why everybody loves it. But I am also going to admit that I have only played it once, so I may have missed something.

For my first complaint, I will address the byzantine and monolithic rulebooks. Yes, rulebooks, plural, because there are two. The are written in the smallest font you could possibly use and still be legible to the human eye, and they are brimming with tiny rules that apply to very specific scenarios which may or may not occur during your game. There are two of them because you need an entire starting set of rules to learn how to play your first game, and then once you finish your first game and you are dizzy from absorbing all those rules, you can move on to the full game which incorporates as many rules as you just got through reading, and which left you near-sighted, dizzy, and feeling a little like you just perused the Necronomicon and now you might be insane.

Just to make this point clear, my first game only took three hours. As I mentioned earlier, I have spent five hours in total getting ready for this review. About half an hour was spent setting up our first game, which means it took me more than 90 minutes to get through enough rules that I could play the learning version of this incredibly complicated game. I can usually finish a 16-page rulebook in 20 minutes - less if there are lots of examples and illustrations - so when it takes me an hour and a half to plow through the instruction manual, I feel like I could have spent my time better had I decided to learn Esperanto instead.

My second complaint is closely linked to the first one, and has to do with the fact that the Mage Knight board game has far too many different pieces, and they don't tend to work with each other. And when I say 'too many pieces', I mean both literally and figuratively. There are nine or ten different decks of cards. There are four different monster stacks. There are chits and tokens and markers in a huge variety of shapes and sizes, and it can be dizzying attempting to remember what each of them is supposed to do.

And beyond the fact that the game has so many actual pieces, it also has too many elements at play. Defeating a monster, for example, requires you to place a specific amount of attack points - but there are five different kinds of attacks, each generating attack points at a different time and for a different effect. And the monster might do damage to you, requiring you to block, but it might also make a flame attack, which you defend differently, or it might be harder to block, or it might do more damage before it hits. It rivals D&D for sheer complexity, but without all those cleavage shots and half-naked succubi.

Those are just two examples of the copious numbers of things at work in Mage Knight. There are many more examples of exceptions and varying mechanics and random complexity. It feels like the designer had a great idea for a game, and then wanted to add a couple things, and then another thing, and so on and so forth, until the the rules are busier than the graffiti-strewn wall in a public bathroom stall.

Final complaint before I get to the parts I liked (and yes, I did have fun) - the whole thing was just too mechanical. Assuming you can master all the various things you have to remember to play even the basic game, the game is still missing that sense of wonder and adventure that I want to see when I send a wandering knight into the world to explore and conquer. Combat is painfully mathematical, and you will almost always know if you can win before you decide to fight. Even when you dive into battle against a minotaur in a monster spawning pit, Mage Knight makes you feel like you have to analyze an expense report instead of screaming a war cry and charging into the fray.

Other elements were also rather dry. From movement to turn order, recruitment and magical attacks, everything comes down to numbers on cards. The most exciting things, like conquering a city or evading monsters, are so mathematical as to be preordained. There's virtually no mystery or tension or excitement, and that drains all the awesome right out of it.

But it's not fair to simply dismiss the Mage Knight board game, because I have to admit that I did have a good time playing the game. It wasn't as thrilling as I wanted it to be, but if you can master the analysis you need to excel, the game has some very interesting decisions to make. In fact, the elements of a good game are in there - strategy, tactics, timing and decision-making are all huge factors. You have to decide when to grab the first turn and when to hold off for a better payoff. You'll need to evaluate whether you can grab that ally before your opponent, and if it's worth the sacrifice it will cost you to do it. There's a lot to consider in Mage Knight, and even if it's an adventure game without much in the way of adventure, it's engrossing.

And if you want value out of your games, this is one where you're getting what you paid for. The box contains hundreds of cards and chits, eight painted miniatures, and enough tiles to build a world map larger than your kitchen table (assuming you have a very small kitchen table). The box is heavy as hell, which means that if you decide you don't like the game, you can keep it by the front door and use it to whack burglars.

If you do like the game, you can play it over and over before you start seeing the same thing. You can try it solo, you can try it as a race, you can even build up and fight the other guys at the table. You can mix up the land tiles to get to the cool spots faster, or you might just spend the whole game wandering around and killing orcs like fish in a barrel of monkeys. If you do enjoy it, you've got dozens of hours of play time in the box without ever having to wonder if there's an expansion in the works.

So there are upsides to Mage Knight, and I admit that I kind of want to try it again. But I also know I'm not going to try it again, for a variety of reasons. I would have to teach the game to my family, because my regular group didn't really love it enough to try it twice. I could play it solo, but I don't really like solo board games. If you ask me, that's what video games are for. And frankly, I just don't want to read the second rule book. I already had to upgrade the prescription on my glasses, and if I read that second book, I'm going to need bifocals.

If you've got the time and patience to work through Mage Knight, and you're OK with an adventure game that plays like a Euro, you might actually enjoy it. I won't be playing it again, because I just don't have the mental stamina, and when I play an adventure game, I want it to be exciting. And no matter what everyone loves about the Mage Knight board game, it sure is not exciting.


1-4 players

Deeply strategic, extensively tactical, and full of tough decisions
Looks great, and there's a ton of stuff in the box
Countless hours of replay

Dry and analytical
Terrifyingly intimidating rulebook
Doesn't feel like an adventure

If you want to play the Mage Knight board game, good luck. It's sold out all over the place. Noble Knight has one, but it's a little pricey:

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Board Game Review - Mice & Mystics

You know that scene from The Jerk, where Steve Martin is all excited because the new phone book has arrived at the gas station, and he goes, 'The new phone book is here! The new phone book is here!' Remember how he's so far over the top that he is running around with his hands in the air? Well, that was me when Mice & Mystics finally showed up at my house. My copy is a demo that was used at GenCon, and let's just say that it has been lovingly enjoyed, but I didn't care because I was so damned excited to finally play with my family.

Now, first things first, I've already written about this game once. But when I wrote about it last time, I was just playing with the guy who made it. We tried it, had a good time, but I was just enjoying the experience, and not trying to run the damned thing. It's one thing to have Jerry standing there going, 'yeah, now you get this, and you did that so here's one of these, and have some chili because I just made it.' It's another thing entirely to be the guy who reads the rules and has to remember how many different treasures you can have, and when do the rats get a turn, and what does it mean when the roaches are greedy. I assumed it couldn't be too hard, considering the fact that the game is designed to be for families.

And I was right. It was pretty darn easy. And that meant that instead of having to be the dungeon-mastering head man, I was able to join in the game alongside everyone else and have swashbuckling miniature adventures against cranky house cats, villainous rats and monstrous spiders. We climbed out of sewer drains and up into the kitchen. We slew cockroaches like a can of Raid. We made friends with the castle cook, dodged the vicious crow, and finally escaped from the tunnels, only to find more adventure waiting for us.

All the administrative stuff, and the different rules that actually allow you a fairly wide set of options on any given turn, are made simple through the use of a very cool set of dice. The dice have swords and shields and arrows and numbers and explody marks, and best of all, cheese. When you move, you roll the dice and check the numbers. When you search, you roll the dice and look for explosions. When you fight, you roll the dice and look for swords or shields (and cheese - you'll want a lot of cheese). Special abilities will have you roll and look for cheese, or explosions, or shields, or whatever else, and it means that the game has tons of flexibility without getting complicated.

I've already commented at length at how much the game feels like living out a story, but the thing that impresses me now that I've had to actually be in charge of a game is how well the rules make those stories happen. Mice & Mystics contains an incredible number of customizable components, from double-sided boards and delightful treasures to swappable encounter cards and a flexible timer. With subtle manipulations that appear to be little more than a flick of the wrist, a journey through the castle pipes can be either a frenzied race from an implacable foe to a charge into the face of a powerful enemy.

The story book that you get in Mice & Mystics does an incredible job of showing how flexible this system can be. The various adventures you can play will have you escaping, rescuing, sneaking, sabotaging, and otherwise doing all manner of heroic things made that much more heroic because you're playing a mouse. The adventures string together, and if your mouse learns how to thundersqueak in one thrilling tale, he'll still know how for the next one. This would seemingly create a situation where you'll eventually become too powerful, but happily, the additional abilities are not super powers, they're just a wider array of options.

And those options are beautiful. Now that I've seen the card art, the delightfully sculpted plastic miniatures, the beautifully illustrated tiles and the board shaped like a broken grandfather clock, I can't believe this wasn't made by a much bigger publisher. The components are so high-quality that even though my copy had been played something like 20 times already, it was in surprisingly good shape. Everyone in the family had to stop playing every now and then to gawk at the pictures or examine the minis. Money went into this game, and a lot of talent, but the most obvious thing that went into Mice & Mystics was passion. This isn't just a product. It's a labor of love.

I've heard some concerns about the ability to play this game once you've finished the book. I suppose from one standpoint I can understand it, but at the same time, do you complain about a D&D module because you can't play it twice? Or do you take a look at all the tools at your disposal then do like junior-high kids have been doing since the 70's, and start making your own dungeons with hundreds of demonic seductresses and no bathrooms? Because having read through the rules, played the game and had a look at all the pieces at your disposal, I can promise that if we finish all these adventures before more come out, I'll be writing my own. And it won't even be that hard, because all the pieces are already there.

I think that's one of the things that I really noticed when I was able to hold a copy of the game in my hands - there is so much I can do with this one base set than I imagined. Once my heroes finish with the evil witch and her evil minions, I can use what I already have to build new scenarios that will be just as thrilling and imaginative as the ones I've already played. As more pieces are released for Mice & Mystics, I can add those to my repertoire, and I'll have so many fun things to do with this game that I will have even less time to play all my other games.

Honestly, I really hope Plaid Hat Games releases some mini-expansions that include stuff like new treasures and opponents, because I can see myself having a great time writing my own stories. And the great thing about Mice & Mystics is that unlike every other dungeon crawl I've ever played, the story is the most important part. It's not all about establishing line of sight or managing the combat order. It's not a game where you have to balance your inventory or count your gold. You might look for the weapon that grants the best attack bonus, but you'll do it because you have to save the realm from the clutches of the dark queen, not because you're trying to balance attack speed with defensive bonuses.

I have said for a very long time that my favorite game of all time is Warhammer Quest. I'm not entirely prepared to surrender that position, partly because I've got a few hundred plastic miniatures to paint and I paid 500 bucks to replace the copy I lost in a fire. But I can comfortably say that Mice & Mystics is easily in my top three, sharing the limelight with Risk Legacy. And if I get the tools I need to make Mice & Mystics the game I know it can be, I might have a copy of Warhammer Quest available, cheap.


2-4 players (maybe more, depending on the adventure)

The most story-driven board game I've ever played
Planning and strategy and tactics are important, too
Absolutely stunning components
Exceptionally good to play with your kids (unless you cuss as much as I do when you win)
One of my favorite games ever

Not enough out yet to make it my number one

Mice & Mystics still isn't out yet, which means you've still got time to get in on the awesome preorder. You can save $25 on a $75 game, and get two promos in the process. But time is running out, so hurry your ass up and order.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Board Game Review - Starship Merchants

When you see a game called Starship Merchants in today's market, you are most likely to believe that this is one of those games where you build ships and explore planets and conquer enemies and have political battles in the senate where Jar-Jar Binks is responsible for the fall of the Republic because, unbelievably, somebody took the goofiest dingbat in the entire Star Wars universe and said, 'man, you know what this comic-relief halfwit would do best? Politics!' Maybe they thought he looked like Lyndon LaRouche.

But it's not one of those games. It's an exercise in economics, supply and demand, and business planning. It has more in common with a Euro about a bunch of Spaniards trading across the Atlantic (you know, the ones where we conveniently ignore that slaves were a high-yield crop and pretend all anybody wanted was coffee beans and sugar). You'll hire ships, trick them out with killer upgrades, then mine minerals that look like french fries out of an asteroid belt. It's one of those games where making a bunch of money is the ultimate goal, and where you'll spend all your money every turn so that next turn you can make more money, which you will, in turn, spend all in one turn.

It's a very interesting game with loads of critical decision points. You can blow all your dough on buying a ship outright, or you can buy on credit and pay it back later, along with some rather painful interest. But if you spend everything, you might not have any money left for a pilot or a survey computer, and then the guy with the debt can scoop you for the best space ice cubes. You might buy a refinery, and hope it pays off long-term, and then find out that you can't afford the three extra bucks that would let you pick up a new ship and carry even more purple paintballs.

There's even a little luck, because when you do get out to the asteroid belt and want to see what's available, you're pulling cardboard squares out of a cloth bag. Get the really great squares, and you'll make a ton of money. Get the crappy ones, and you'll make... slightly less money. There is luck, but it's not much luck, and so this is still a game that hinges almost exclusively on making the right decision at the right time.

What it is not is very interactive. Whether you buy the best ship or not is irrelevant to the guy behind you, unless when you bought the best ship, he couldn't get one. He also doesn't care if you get the best space rocks unless he also wanted those exact space rocks. There is some opportunity to mess with the other players, like if you get the new model spaceship and make the old model obsolete, leaving your opponents with ships that aren't worth the paint on the hull. But for the most part, you could play this game solo, except that then you wouldn't know if you won.

I did really enjoy Starship Merchants. Toy Vault is starting to impress me with some pretty decent games - between Abaddon and this one, we've got some pretty darn cool games coming out of this company that used to just make fuzzy Cthulhu stuffed animals, which are perfect if you're a horribly maladjusted parent who tells his kids Lovecraft stories at bedtime. All these successes have me excited for Apparatus, the next game from Toy Vault, and I'm even considering picking up a pair of stuffed zombie-face slippers for my daughter.

If you're a fan of games where people die, Starship Merchants is going to leave you wondering if you couldn't have more fun playing Barbies with your friend's four-year-old niece. There will be the same amount of violence, unless your buddy's niece is a little unhinged. It's very much a game about running a business, making efficient decisions, and spending just the right money at just the right time. If you're bored by games that feel like you're managing a fast-food chain, you're not going to like this one.

But if you're the kind of person who enjoys the kinds of games that come out of Germany, where it is actually illegal to make games where people get killed (unless they die of old age, sleeping peacefully in their beds, and the game abstracts it by saying 'discard one family token from the hovel, because Grandpa was hungry and you couldn't bring yourself to kill the family cow for a couple of flank steaks'), you might really enjoy Starship Merchants. It has a few painful rules oversights, like not mentioning what happens when a player can't buy a new ship and loses his old one because the space fins fall off, but by finding workarounds and making up a few rules while we were playing, we got around these problems and had a very good time.


2-4 players

Very smart game with lots of good decisions and planning
Good management without feeling too much like work
Engaging and tricky, and even when you're far behind, there's still fun stuff to do

Not much in the way of interaction
Some rather glaring rules oversights

If Starship Merchants sounds like your kind of good time, get yourself over to Noble Knight Games and get a copy, and even save a little money on it: