Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Board Game Review - Kemet

Ancient Egyptians had the coolest stuff. I mean, I love my iPad and my cable TV, but they had houses that could teleport them and they could adopt giant snakes and ride on their backs. I would definitely trade my iPad for an enormous scarab beetle I could ride to work, especially if I could train him not to poop in the house.

Of course, it wasn't all sunshine and roses. In exchange for all their awesome magical crap, they also kind of died a lot. And by 'kind of died,' I mean 'really, really died.' If they weren't being slaughtered in battle, they were being sacrificed at temples or murdered by their gods to be converted to currency. I guess those elephant-ride commutes were even more expensive than my car payment.

And now, so that you can understand how awesome it is to have a giant flaming bird for a pet as you travel through the desert via obelisk-powered magical subway, you can play Kemet. It's a game recreating all the exciting and historically accurate battles of old-school Egypt.

No stone has been left unturned in an attempt to make Kemet true to its source material. You'll start out in cities, each with three pyramids built inside the walls, and each city is just as far from each other city, because that's how the Egyptians did it. You'll summon moderate-sized armies, but not too big, because the Egyptians couldn't put too many people in one place. And you'll travel by magical portals, because ancient Egyptians did that, too.

Another thing ancient Egyptians did was fight all the time, and so you'll do that, too. In fact, where some games might allow you to win even if you never get in the big battles, in Kemet, the main way you earn points is to win fights. The whole game only goes to eight points, but since so many of your points are only temporary and can be stolen just by booting you out of the temple you thought was yours, it's hard to hold on long enough to sweep in for a quick win. Better to play it safe and just kill people.

Now, most games would let dice tell you who wins fights, but Kemet throws out the dice, making the game even more interesting. You'll choose your battle cards from your hand, and they'll tell you how hard you hit, how many people get killed, and how well you can protect your hard-working grunts from painful stab wounds to the buttocks (usually, you can't, and they will die). Because you don't get your cards back until you've played them all, there's a great mind-game that plays out with lots of bluffing and psyching out your enemy to make him over-commit.

Kemet is a hilariously fun game of killing people and grabbing land, but it's not like your average big-map rumble. For one thing, you have those limited actions that make sure you know it came out of Europe. For another, you've got prayer points as currency, and you'll use your prayers for all kinds of stuff, like building pyramids and buying special powers and yes, teleporting. Because Egyptians did that.

The special powers are more than an add-on to the game. In Kemet, the powers will give you those giant critters to add to your armies, or make you meaner on the attack, or let you field larger armies (or a bunch of other stuff). You have to power up your pyramids to get the best powers, but if you spend the whole game focusing on getting the best tricks, you'll lose to the guy who jumps out and starts kicking his friends in the teeth. Those powers are great, but you can't lose sight of the overall goal, which is to kill an awful lot of people, really fast.

Now, one thing we know the Egyptians did really well was that they made stuff look amazing. Kemet follows this tradition, with huge marbled dice to be your pyramids, chunky plastic monsters you can put in your armies, and beautiful art for - well, everything. To illustrate how much care went into making Kemet a drop-dead sexy game, consider the fact that the sculpts for your soldiers are different for every color. They didn't have to be. They just are, because that makes it cooler.

I've played Kemet with anywhere from three to five players. I've never tried it with two, so I can't tell you if it's awesome that way, but I can confirm that it's just plain outstanding with three, four or five. It's exciting and chaotic, fast and brutal, smart and strategic. You'll have to create enormous open graves to dispose of all the guys who get killed as you play, and you might catch yourself drooling over the amazing pieces included in the game. It's like the designers made it with me in mind. Kemet is one hell of a fun game.

And as an added bonus, it's totally accurate.


2-5 players

Over-the-top production value
Excellent strategy and tactics
Battles add a great mind-game element
So much body count!

This space intentionally left empty

Coolstuff has this one in stock and woah, is that a good price.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Movie Review - Skyfall

My dad introduced me to James Bond movies when I was pretty young. We watched Goldfinger when it came on television - and keep in mind, this was before you could record a show, because it was before everybody had a VCR, so we had to watch all the commercials. While I was a little young to really understand why my dad chuckled a little at the name Pussy Galore, or what Sean Connery was doing with her in the barn, I was still old enough to think it was awesome when that stocky Samoan dude got his hat stuck in the bars and Bond lit him up like Christmas. From that point on, I was hooked, and had to go back and watch all the ones I had missed (although I still haven't ever seen the one with George Lazenby).

So I was a tad skeptical when Daniel Craig took over from Pierce Brosnan and took James Bond in a completely new direction. He was still a bad-ass, still a gun-toting super-spy who could knock your face clean off, still able to score at will with any hot woman within a ten-mile radius, but he was so much more serious. He tended to get tortured and beat up. His girlfriends died. He was moody and angry and not anywhere near as cocky as he had been. It was a new direction for James Bond, and despite the fact that the Pierce Brosnan movies were almost uniformly horrible (and Halle Berry is the second worst Bond girl in history, with Denise Richards taking the top spot), I was still reserving judgment.

But Daniel Craig pulled it off, and he did it in spades. The new Casino Royale was one of my personal favorite Bond movies. Bond was tortured. He fell in love. He lost at cards. He was poisoned, and required a girl to rescue him. Casino Royale was still action-packed and exciting, but it was also dark and gritty. Daniel Craig made James Bond believably bad-ass. He wasn't a superhero any more. He was an extraordinary man, but he was still a man. I loved every minute.

But if you're a Bond fan, you don't need me to tell you that Daniel Craig is the best James Bond since Sean Connery, or that the Bond movies have been elevated beyond their campy roots to be gritty pieces of entertainment. I'm here to tell you about Skyfall, the latest James Bond movie, and why it's possibly the best Bond movie ever made.

One interesting thing about Skyfall is that where earlier iterations of Bond have the world's greatest spy saving the world, the stakes are nowhere near that high this time. In Skyfall, Bond isn't saving the world at all. He's saving Judi Dench, or as we like to call her now, M. That's it. A pissed-off ex-spy (played disturbingly well by Javier Bardem, that creepy bastard with the bad hair and the pneumatic bullet machine) has a massive vendetta against M, and he's got the tools to tear her to shreds. Which he does.

This is a modern Bond movie for a modern audience. There are no moon rockets or tricked-up household appliances that double as jet-powered roller skates. The villain wreaks maddening havoc with a roomful of servers and some broadband internet access. He reveals the identity of undercover spies by uploading YouTube videos.

And James Bond is even less physically magnificent than he has been before. His hands shake when he holds a pistol. He almost falls to his death because a shoulder wound makes his grip weak. He takes an ass-kicking on a regular basis. And as if that wasn't enough, he's a psychological mess and a borderline alcoholic. In other words, he's human.

In fact, in Skyfall, we find out more about James Bond than we have ever seen. We find out about the childhood trauma that made him take a job most normal men would never consider. We find out the names of his parents. We see the house where he grew up. The lengths Skyfall takes to allow us to identify with James Bond are exceptional, especially for a James Bond movie.

But even while Skyfall continues to rewrite James Bond as a believable human being, it also hearkens back to its roots. You'll see that legendary Aston Martin, the one with the ejector seat and machine-gun headlights. We'll meet Miss Moneypenny, who has been missing far too long. And unless I miss my guess, the next Bond movie is going to have some of those awesome Bond gadgets we've come to love - though I still don't think they'll be as stupid as the goofy crap Roger Moore used to have handy.

With any luck, the Bond franchise will also continue with the breathtaking visuals supplied by Skyfall. Bond has seen some exotic locales, but Skyfall really takes the cake. From a floating casino in Macau to an abandoned island city, skyscrapers in Shanghai and the desolate moors of Scotland, the places visited in Skyfall are almost as full of character as the actors themselves (though considering how much depth is given to the main characters in this movie, there was a lot of competition). And beyond just the geography, the film-making is extraordinary. The use of light and camera angle and reflection is breathtaking.

The story is the most important part of a Bond movie, though, and this is where Skyfall really shines. Where the Pierce Brosnan films were meandering and confusing, Skyfall is tightly scripted and tense the entire way through. The pacing is exceptional. The twists are believable. And most of all, when you finish the movie, you won't be inclined to wonder what the hell happened (as opposed to Die Another Day - when I left the theater after that one, all I knew was that for some inexplicable reason, Pierce Brosnan had been boning Halle Berry).

With any luck, Skyfall heralds the return of some of the more classic elements of James Bond - especially the cool gadgets - without descending into the campy feel so many of the other Bond movies delivered. I certainly hope this wasn't Daniel Craig's last Bond movie, because he's easily a contender for my favorite Bond ever, but even if they all suck after this one, at least we can always looks back at this shining star of the James Bond franchise.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Board Game Review - Gentlemen Thieves

The last game I reviewed from Asmodee was River Dragons, and I didn't entirely care for it. So tonight, to flip it around, I want to review a game that is a real wing-dinger (wing-dinger, incidentally, is from the latin 'Wingus Dingus', which literally translated means 'impressive phallus,' and is thus inappropriate for use around small children). This impressive game is called Gentlemen Thieves, and features characters who are apparently a big deal in France but are virtually unknown among the uncultured plebes who read (and write) this website.

Gentlemen Thieves recreates the adventures of Arsene Lupin, whose name I have probably spelled incorrectly because I lack the capacity to create umlauts and accent marks on my computer (that, or I lack the capacity to give enough of a crap to figure out how to do it… yeah, it's that one). I had to look him up, and when I did, I discovered that he's like the French Sherlock Holmes. Only instead of being a crime-fighting genius, he's a cat burglar. And instead of being addicted to iocane powder or whatever, he's, I don't know, French.

So anyway, in the game, you each take on a secret identity, one of the people in the Arsene Lupin novels, and then you do crimes. You'll be split into teams, but you won't know who is on your team, and the team that successfully completes a heist will split the loot and get paid. The other team gets to grumble in French.

The interesting part here is that the teams are split according to color, but you're the only one who knows what your color is. So nobody actually knows, when they place equipment at a crime scene to try to help the robbery happen there, if they're helping you or stealing from you. This is important to the game - you have to bluff and lie and throw your opponents off your scent if you want to win, because otherwise you'll get stuck on one team with everyone else on the other and they'll all beat you out of the best crime scenes.

This bluffing element is the central feature of Gentlemen Thieves, but lots of different pieces are moving around to make this part trickier. You've got special tiles you can activate, different colors of equipment, and an anonymous score tracker. The person choosing teams changes every time anybody successfully robs something, so everyone gets a chance to screw it all up for everyone else. Sometimes it's even worth it to throw the heist to the other team, just to make everyone think you might not be the winning color, after all.

Gentlemen Thieves isn't a particularly involved game. It's not overly complicated or long. You can explain the rules in five minutes and finish the game in another thirty. But it's an intense thirty minutes, because every time you play you're trying to both further your own goals and confuse everyone else, and those goals are often directly opposite each other.

Of course, it's also a dead-sexy game, because it's from Asmodee. The box folds open and the lid becomes the game board, and the art on every part of the game is brilliant. The different elements are incredibly clever, and everything works together like a well-oiled machine. Because there are always five thieves, the game plays just as well with two players as with five. You don't have to know anything about fictional French burglars to enjoy this game. I can prove it, too, because I don't know anything about fictional French burglars, and I enjoyed Gentlemen Thieves.


2-5 players

Damned good-looking
Fast and smart
Great components used brilliantly
Tons of careful bluffing

Wildly obscure theme (unless you're French)

You know what? I don't even know when this is coming out. I really need to review Kemet, because that one, at least, is one shelves somewhere.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Board Game Review - Courtier

Alderac Entertainment is doing something I think is crazy cool. They're telling a story through games. OK, that's not new - people do that all the time - but in this case, the story starts in one game, goes to a second game, then through a third game, and to a fourth game, and if you don't get the idea by now, you probably can't read English very well anyway.

The set of games is called Tempest. It's about a city-state. Can you guess what the name of the city-state might be? If you guessed 'Constantinople,' you are mistaken. Neither is it Instabul. It's Tempest. I mean, that should have been pretty obvious. I think I was kind of telegraphing it.

The first game, and thus the first chapter of the story, is called Courtier. It's about influencing important people until they bring you money or alcoholic beverages or maybe sign bills and stuff. It should be very political, and I guess it is in the sense that you're simulating politics, but it's really more about putting your little cubes onto the right spot so you can say you control the king and the poet at the same time. Maybe you can catch the merchant in bed with the admiral and threaten to start a nasty smear campaign if they don't both start working for you. The actual specifics of how you control any particular courtier are unimportant. What is important is that the merchant and the admiral are both married men, and their wives are going to be totally up for a little revenge nookie (though the merchant's wife has a gnarly mole on her lower lip that has hair growing out of it).

Anyway, in the first story, you're trying to manipulate all the people in the city to do the stuff you want done. What exactly you want done is not all that important - you might be trying to build a new sewer system, or organize a medieval sports team, or just get zoning permission to start up a kick-ass titty bar. What matters is that you get together the right people to get your job done. And you do that by controlling certain members of the court (or courtiers - thus the name). And you do THAT by playing cards that let you put colored cubes onto spots on the board underneath pictures of important people (though it could be argued that the jeweler is not quite as important as he thinks he is).

If you just played cards to place cubes, Courtier would be kind of a lame game, story-telling masterpiece or not. But you have two kinds of cards, and where one kind of card generally lets you put out one cube at a time, the other kind of card does awesome stuff, like switch cubes with someone else or place special neutral cubes or stand in for someone else on the steering committee for the new public-school lunchroom down at the monk's academy.

As if that wasn't enough, every group of people on the board has a special ability that it grants to whoever controls it. The church will let you play twice. The guild will let you place influence wherever you want it. The artists will let you smoke imported cigarettes and drink absinthe while you pontificate about the duality of man. Controlling the right groups at the right times can make a world of difference, and sometimes you'll be trying to sway the cardinal just so that guy who is controlling the church doesn't get to keep going twice every turn.

So how is all this telling a story? Because the game ends when the queen is arrested for treason. The story continues in the next game, and you'll play out what happens to the city of Tempest after that monumental event. I don't want to completely spoil how this all goes, though in all fairness, it's not like this is Breaking Bad and you're going to be all, 'Holy Crap! What happens next! Damn you, mid-season hiatus!' You're playing out the story in a connected series of games, but the story is less important than the game.

Even standing alone, Courtier is a very original, very fun game. It is a little on the complicated side, with a few elements that might make your first game a little rocky, but once you get it down, this is a hoot. The fact that it links perfectly to the next game, which hooks up with the one after that, is just gravy. Super awesome gravy, sure, but Courtier would be a very cool game even without the continuing saga. Fair warning, though, in case I didn't describe it well enough - it's very European in flavor. The closest it comes to violence is when the queen resists arrest and the royal police have to hit her with the tazer. And even then, they're very polite about it.


2-4 players

Interesting cube-placement game with some nice twists and constant competition
Lots of interaction (just no blood)
Really cool ongoing story continues in the next game in the series

A few tricky rules might throw you on your first game
No blood (but lots of interaction)

 Noble Knight Games has a very reasonable price on Courtier. I recommend it:


Sunday, February 17, 2013

Video Game Review - X-Com Enemy Unknown

You probably have some fond, nostalgic memories of playing through the first X-Com game. Then the second, where they were underwater. Then the one in the big city, though that one sort of sucked so maybe the memories aren't as good. Then the first-person shooter that was an utter abomination and effectively killed the franchise because of how much it blew goats.

Well, in the world of video games, nothing awesome stays dead forever, so X-Com is back. They've rolled the whole series back to the first game, the one where the entire world was defined by a square grid and aliens only ever crash-landed in fields owned by corn farmers, and they retained that sense of wonder and amazement you got the first time a sectoid fired a plasma pistol at your barely-armored X-Com troopers. They also included the feeling of filling your pants the first time a giant walking tank took a rocket blast to its alien face and laughed it off right before shooting a fusion ray through your midsection.

Of course, the graphics are all updated. No more pixelated body armor, no more graph paper floors, no more clunky sprites. Now you get a line around the area where your trooper could move and still get an overwatch action, and a second line where he can go if he wants to hang his ass out over the side and ask aliens to blast him an extra bunghole. Those sprite-animated movements have been replaced with troopers who will jump over a stack of crates, run in a crouch across ground littered with burning debris and dead bodies, then flatten against the brick wall that they hope will provide some protection from the Muton's heavy plasma cannon.

The gameplay is all updated, too. If you did manage to play all the way through any of the X-Com games, you remember how tedious it got when you had to respond to yet another terror attack in Mombasa (a city that looked remarkably similar to Paris and Moscow) and it took forever to find that last alien, moving half a step at a time to make sure everyone in your squad could get an overwatch shot if the son of a bitch popped out behind you. That tedium has been almost completely eliminated in Enemy Unknown, and every single squad mission is fun now.

In fact, where the original games recycled locations for the squad missions like an inner-city high-school using textbooks from the 1950's, Enemy Unknown actually shows you different terrain for different parts of the world. When I investigated a crash site in Japan, the burned-up forest looked completely different from the battleship I shot down in Arizona. This isn't entirely consistent, and sometimes I blew up the same gas station in Mumbai that I destroyed in Vancouver, but I didn't tend to see the same damned thing over and over. There was plenty of variety in the maps, enough that I never said, 'yeah, I know exactly where the bad guys are on this map.'

However, even with all the great updates that have been applied to Enemy Unknown, they still kept so much of what you loved about the original. Cyberdiscs and chyrsallids, sectoid commanders and ethereals, even the Firestorm with a plasma cannon. You'll still get totally attached to your troops and have a sick feeling when your entire squad of veteran ass-kickers gets devoured by hideous alien insects. And when your soldiers board an enemy ship, and their boots make that metallic ring against the floor that is exactly the same sound you recognize from the original, you'll be forced to smile. Unless some mutant cybernetic killing machine blows their faces off. That will ruin your smile.

If you've never played any of the X-Com games, maybe because you're only 15, you're in for a treat. Fast action in a turn-based tactical game, carefully planned research, and strategic satellite reconnaissance - this is what's waiting for you in X-Com Enemy Unknown. If you did play the originals, you're also in for a treat. Everything that was great about the original games is still here, including the brutal difficulty levels, the excitement of unlocking new enemy weapons, and the thrill of bringing back the bad guys in one piece so your slightly sociopathic science team can interrogate them before turning them into spare parts. This game is every bit as excellent as the original, and even better.


Excellent turn-based tactics and long-term strategy
Exciting graphics upgrades make it fun to watch your troopers kill bad guys
Squad missions never get as tedious as they used to be
A great story with a surprising twist at the end
All the same nostalgic elements you loved about the original in a vastly improved package

Slightly prone to crashing (mine froze up twice)

Thursday, February 14, 2013

TV Show Review - The Americans

I apologize in advance. I'm about to get all 'in my day' old-manny, and this is going to make some of you roll your eyes and think I'm a crotchety old fart stuck in the 80's. But then, I probably am a crotchety old fart stuck in the 80's, so I accept that.

You kids today don't know how bad you have it. Why, in my day, we had real spies, and real threats, and we were damned sure we were all going to die. And we kind of loved it, because it spawned the coolest genre of movies - the cloak-and-dagger. But ever since the Cold War spun down and Clinton decided we didn't need the CIA, the entire spy movie genre is stuck chasing people of Middle Eastern descent. Back in the 80's, spies were saving the world. Now they just save middle-income suburbanites and corporate interests. We had Red October and Scarecrow & Mrs. King; you have Covert Affairs and Burn Notice. I miss those cloak-and-dagger backroom deals and knowing that one wrong move means the end of civilization as we know it.

Which is why I was so excited to watch The Americans. It's old-school cloak-and-dagger, but updated and spun on its head. It's about a couple of spies during the height of the Reagan-era Cold War, and they're husband and wife, but the real trick here, the thing that never could have happened in 1985, is that the protagonists of the show are the Commies. They're deep-cover secret agents working to undermine the American government. They've been here for decades, they have kids, they speak flawless English - and they steal military secrets and assassinate enemies of the Party. This show never would have worked in the 80's, which is one reason I am so glad to see it now.

See, in the 80's, when we absolutely HATED the Soviet Union and people were actually patriotic (as opposed to this slipshod jingoism that makes people sing 'Proud to Be An American' and put ribbon magnets on their cars), nobody but nobody rooted for the Rooskies. James Bond put bullets in Soviets - except the hot female agents, because he put something else in them. They were the biggest villains we had ever known. Bigger than Hitler, because at least Hitler wasn't in a position to nuke the whole planet to glass.

Today, though, we just don't see the world as black-and-white as we did then. Today we have to live with the fact that our own government is taxing the piss out of us to pay off rich assholes who ripped us off. We may not be too fond of Al Qaeda, but we're also supposed to understand that most Muslims are actually decent people, even though we're blowing holes in their home countries. Our heroes are flawed, often outright villainous. So now, we can watch a TV show where sworn enemies of our homeland evade capture, commit murder, and steal our secrets - and we can hope they succeed.

Of course, it's also easy to watch a show like this when we know that the USSR didn't win the Cold War, we were never invaded or nuked, and in the end it was all mostly smoke and mirrors. When we know how the story ends, it can be fascinating to see how the other side played it. In the 80's, when The Americans takes place, we were too uncertain to root for the other side. Now we can just look at them as people doing an interesting job.

One of the best things about The Americans, outside the fact that it never could have been made twenty years ago, is the statement it makes. There were spies doing spy stuff all over the place, the threats were considerably more terrifying, and yet we would have staged a revolution if Reagan had told us he was tapping our phones. Take off our shoes at the airport? Only at gunpoint. And yet now that the world is safer than it was, when we have the audacity to believe that it's the president's job to keep us safe, we're fine with surrendering basic freedoms that would have inspired a bloody coup in the 80's. And the most ironic thing is that had the Soviets decided to really screw with us, they wouldn't have sent a half-dozen religious nutsacks with rudimentary flight training. They would have sent FREAKING MISSILES. We had a real threat then, one that scared all of us all the time. I'm less scared of Al Qaeda than I am of an angry chihuahua.

But you're not here wondering how I feel about the political undertone in The Americans. You want to know if the show is worth watching. And I am happy to report that I like it a hell of a lot. It hits a perfect balance where it's serious without being too dark, fun without being campy, dramatic without being a total queen about it. Keri Russell plays the wife, and even though she always seems like she's either angry or about to cry, she is pretty darn easy on the eyes. The real star, though, is the husband, a dude I've never seen before but who should be a household name in a few years. He steals the crap out of every scene he's in, and he's a fascinating mix of morality and ruthless determination.

Plus there's all that awesome spy crap. There's the umbrella with the hidden poison knife in the end, the clock with the hidden transmitter, secret codes that don't appear until you soak them in vinegar. There are stakeouts and tails, disguises and seduction, knife fights and gun play. I love a good spy show, and I really love 'em when the stakes are high. When a misplaced word or a botched dead-drop means the world expires in a fiery meltdown, and when the bad guys are just as well-funded and professional as the good guys, then you've got the kind of tension that makes The Americans a pretty darn kick-ass show.

I wouldn't normally review a TV show after only three episodes, because I generally like to wait and see if it can maintain. But this one is pretty damned cool, and if you have any kind of On Demand service for your television, you should be able to get caught up. If I tell you about The Americans a year from now, it could be hard to find the reruns. It's on FX, so if you have cable and like spy shows, get up to speed and see how secret agents did it back in the good ol' days.


Great old-school espionage
Great acting, especially the husband
A thought-provoking statement that is absolutely not preachy

Keri Russell always looks constipated
Some really bad wigs

Monday, February 11, 2013

Board Game Review - River Dragons

I love a game with a good gimmick (as opposed to games with bad gimmicks or cheap gimmicks, which don't usually work and then just irritate the piss out of me by making me suffer through this crap that some designer thought was a good idea but it turns out the game might be great if he had just got rid of this one stupid thing that doesn't work, but he refused to let it go because that was the part that made him think he was super-clever for inventing it while he was sleeping off a whiskey bender in his mom's garage).

River Dragons has a gimmick, but it's one that is actually pretty well implemented. You've got this board with a big pond in the middle, and you're trying to get your little rice-paddy worker to the other side by tossing rocks in the water and stretching boards between them to make the world's least secure bridge. In fact, River Dragons adds a second interesting element to the game by having you plan your turn, selecting five cards that represent your actions for that turn that you will take in the order you selected them.

This second part is kind of like Robo Rally, one of the many games I have played that have caused me to wonder if everybody who loved it had extensive brain damage. I freaking hate Robo Rally, but I know lots of people are big fans. That thing where you hem and haw over a pile of cards, trying to plan your turn to the last detail, and then watch it all go directly to hell because someone else is messing with you - that drives me nuts. Not only do you get to see the absolute worst of the guy who can never make up his mind, so that you're done planning your turn and then the other guy is just sitting there looking at his cards, picking up his cards, putting down a couple, swapping them out, then grabbing them all and starting over. But on top of having to sit there while one guy takes forever (and it seems the identity of this culprit changes every turn - one turn you've got it all figured out, and the next turn you're the one delaying the whole table), then you play out your turn and all your plans fall apart and you wind up falling into the water, or into a pit full of sharp saw-blades, or into a two-day marathon of The Real Housewives.

To make things more interesting (or more painful, depending on your point of view), everybody has dragon cards that will negate a card chosen by another player. So you decide to lay down stones, then lay down planks, then hop onto your new bridge - but someone plays a dragon on you that kills the card where you built a path, and since your rice farmer is an idiot, he skips the part where he makes a bridge and just runs headlong into the water. That kind of random silliness makes for great fun - if you like games where you spend five minutes making plans just to watch them go up in smoke because your rice farmer is a drooling buffoon.

So I am not a fan of River Dragons just because I don't like those mechanical planning exercises, but there's an even bigger reason I didn't like River Dragon - the gimmick is fundamentally flawed. When you play the card that puts a stone in the water, you actually pick up a little gray disc and place it on the board. Then when you place a plank between two rocks, you pick up a flat tongue depressor and put it down. For both of these actions, you use your fingers. You remember your fingers? The ones shaped like breakfast sausages that fumble anything smaller than a shovel handle? Yeah, those fingers.

It sounds like I am a clumsy idiot, but I'll tell you, my hands are plenty steady. I painted all my Warhammer Quest minis (before it went up in the fire) and I'm almost done with my Super Dungeon Explore miniatures. I can paint the eyeball on a kobold and then add a pupil and a white dot that makes it look glossy. I have some control over my hands, but River Dragons made me feel like I was a half-drunk autistic man with cerebral palsy.

Let's assume that you have enough of a gentle touch to balance the plank where you need it. Then when you move, you pick up your little cone-headed pawn and place him on your makeshift bridge. But because your bridge is made out of slick, nearly frictionless wood, it instantly slides out from under your guy and sends half the board into complete disarray. Planks and stones and rice farmers are scattered everywhere, and the best you can hope for is that you can rebuild the board before you forget where everything went.

This gimmick would have worked if the pieces didn't slide around so much. I know this because, frustrated with my inability to finish the game before it fell apart on me, I went and bought a pack of that sticky goo you can peel off in chunks and use to hang posters in dorm rooms (as opposed to if you own your house, in which case you actually use a hammer and nails, because that's how grownups do it). I applied thin layers of this sticky crap to the bottoms of the planks, and then played again - and it worked great, and I actually enjoyed the gimmick. I didn't enjoy the game, but that was just a personal preference thing because I hate programmed move games.

Now, if you can get past the slickery pieces that turn River Dragons into a game of pick-up sticks, the components in this game are actually very, very nice. I mean, this is even nice for an Asmodee game, and that's saying something because Asmodee makes some truly gorgeous games. The individual pawns are all painted with different little rice farmers (you can tell they are rice farmers because they have cone-shaped hats). The different-length boards have numbers so you know if you've got the long one, and they're made out of real wood. The illustration on the board is beautiful, and the art on the cards could be framed and used to decorate your house. I mean, this is one good-looking game.

So, to sum up - if you like programmed move games, and if you don't mind sticking Blu-Tac to the back of every plank in the game, you might really enjoy River Dragons. If, like me, you dislike games that feel like math exercises with an unhealthy dose of chaos, or if you think your games should be ready to play when you get them, I would skip this one and try something else.


3-6 players

Clever planning mechanic
Beautiful production, with great art and excellent wooden playing pieces

I hate clever planning mechanics
Wooden planks slide all over the damned place and make it virtually impossible to play this game

I seem to have procured another game that isn't out yet. Keep your eyes peeled, it will come out sooner or later, I'm sure.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Expansion Review - 7 Wonders Cities

There are some games that simply beg for expansions. You play them a couple times and then go, 'man, this would be so cool if there were just more of it!' Those kinds of games may be good enough on their own, but really only shine when you can add more to them.

7 Wonders is not one of those games. It's a good game, one you can play in a short amount of time and engage your brain just enough to keep conversation flowing without getting bored. But it's also completely playable right out of the box, and when you play, you won't be complaining about needing something else to make it interesting unless you just don't like the game.

However, just because something is not needed does not mean nobody will make it. The publishers of 7 Wonders have actually done this twice now, first with the Leaders and now with Cities, and while both expansions certainly add new stuff to the base game, it's debatable whether Cities actually adds any play to the game.

On the surface, it would seem like new mechanics might zap a little energy into the old game. For example, you can go into debt now and end the game with negative money. You can also get all diplomatic and skip the battle phase, allowing you to ignore the military escalation part of the game completely. This is great if you've always felt like the warfare was too powerful, but not as big a deal if nobody else at the table gives a rip about building giant armies.

The real point of adding the Cities expansion is to add the city cards, which show up here and there and add virtually nothing to the game in terms of playability. You won't have to rethink how you play this game. You won't change your strategy to accommodate the shifting face of the future. You'll just play the cards when they come past you, the same way you did before. So in terms of making a good game better, Cities doesn't really provide much in the way of a persuasive reason to drop the coin for it.

However, if you like to play 7 Wonders in great big groups, then Cities might be a very important expansion, because now you can play with eight people. Not only that, but you can play in teams. If there's one good reason to buy Cities, this is it - the ability to play 7 Wonders with more people than I am ever able to put together in one room.

I've been dancing around my actual opinion of Cities for the entire review, and it's time to stop dancing. For one thing, my feet are tired, and I'm all sweaty. I need a drink, and I came to this bar to pick up chicks anyway, not to hop around like a frog on a hotplate. So here's my opinion - I cannot come up with a single reason to buy Cities unless you have a really huge family. I don't want to play in teams. The city cards hardly add anything interesting. The game is just as good without the expansion, and while it's great to see a couple new ideas, they didn't need a whole expansion to do that. The diplomacy could have been in Leaders (an expansion that actually did make 7 Wonders better) and the debt hardly ever comes up. The city cards are just normal cards that do a little more.

If you're just looking for a way to part with some money, Cities might be a good solution, because you can expand your game without having to actually change the way you play. If you want an expansion that actually makes the original game more inviting, Cities is just going to piss you off. It's not bad. It's just not any better than the original.


Pros:Adds a couple new ideas
Some new cards
Now you can play with eight people

The new ideas don't add anything
The new cards don't add anything
I don't even know eight people

So you may be wasting money if you buy Cities, but the good news is that you'll only be wasting 20 bucks if you get it here:

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Movie Review - Hit and Run

I have a total man-crush on Dax Shepard. I also have a regular crush on Kristen Bell. I would really love to be friends with both of them so I could hang out at their house and tell stupid jokes to Dax Shepard, who in my imaginary world would laugh at them and then grab me a beer, and while he was out of the room I would pretend not to be terrified that I would say something moronic to Kristen Bell just to fill the dead air.

So even though Hit and Run looked kind of like a romantic comedy, I wanted to see it because it has Dax Shepard and Kristen Bell. I'm pretty sure those two could do an actual romantic comedy with no action scenes and just crappy date-movie antics, and I would still watch it. I wouldn't admit it, though.

Turns out, Hit and Run wasn't just funny with an element of romance. It also has car chases, gun fights and brawling, and one particularly awesome scene where the very likable bad guy steals an abusive asshole's dog after making the muscle-headed jackass eat kibble.

The story behind Hit and Run is interesting enough to be the kind of movie that Vin Diesel could ruin. An ex-bank robber in witness protection leaves his comfortable backwater of a town to take his girlfriend to a job interview in Los Angeles, where the guys who he put in jail (and who got out) are waiting to cause him considerable consternation. You could put The Rock in this movie, and it would just be a bunch of gunplay and vehicular manslaughter, with occasional mugging for the camera and showing everyone how enormous his neck is. Instead, Dax Shepard makes it light and funny even as people are shooting and punching and causing freeway mayhem.

There are loads of little things that make Hit and Run more fun than it would have been if someone else had made it. There's the gay highway patrol officer who develops a crush on the bumbling US Marshal, the obsessive tool of an ex-boyfriend who chases his girl to the big city, the lecherous college administrator who knows she's never going to amount to anything more, and a supporting cast of goofballs and hardcases that is sure to entertain.

Unfortunately, that romantic angle still plays in, but since the romance is between Dax Shepard and Kristen Bell, it's actually thoroughly palatable. I'm not above some mush in a movie - don't tell anybody, but I liked Love Actually - but I'm not usually this interested in the obvious chick-appeal part of a movie like Hit and Run. But when these two do it, it's fun, even when it's a little sugary. They never take themselves too seriously, even when they're dead serious, so while I personally could have done without the extended cuddling and protestations of adoration, I thoroughly enjoyed the movie even though, technically, it's a romantic comedy.

There were plenty of ways that a weaker cast or less capable director could have totally ruined this movie, but the creators of Hit and Run did an outstanding job of putting together a fun action/romance/comedy that entertains without trying. It's not some powerhouse emotional roller-coaster or high-suspense thriller, and it's not going to wind up in anyone's pile of favorites-of-all-time. But if you're looking for something that will appeal to just about anyone, with some laughs, some kick-ass car chases, and some excellent casting, rent Hit and Run and enjoy an amusing romp.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Massive Game Review - Twilight Imperium

You know how sometimes you want a whole lot of game? Like, you want to spend most of your Saturday around the table, having to stop every two hours for food or bathroom visits or to remind your wife that you haven't died yet? When that happens, it may just be that you want to play Twilight Imperium. But pack some Snickers, because you're not going anywhere for a while.

I've heard a lot of people compare Twilight Imperium to Eclipse, and the comparison is valid, but that does not mean that Eclipse can replace this massive classic. Eclipse is a very good game, and it is quite a bit faster than Twilight Imperium, but Twilight Imperium does lots of things that Eclipse doesn't do.

For one thing, our favorite thing about Twilight Imperium is something you won't find in Eclipse - politics. And I don't mean the kind of politics where you go, 'OK, I have three votes, you have two votes, so I win this one thing that means I get a point.' There are in-game politics in Twilight Imperium, but more importantly, there is a ton of actual political maneuvering happening as you play. You might send your massive battlefleet to attack one enemy as a favor to another because that other guy let you pick up the extra planet you needed to boost your production and recruit a couple extra soldiers. And then when your ally of convenience gets too close to winning, probably because his fleet was not blasted to ribbons by yours, you'll kiss and make up with your mortal enemy so that both of you can sabotage the rising star's hopes and dreams.

This political part is pretty awesome. You can find this sort of deal-making in nearly any game that includes conflict, but in Twilight Imperium, it's not just possible, it's practically required. Considering that there are times during the game when you will have to vote on particular galactic laws - laws that could ruin one player and save another - the half-meant handshakes and flimsy alliances are critical to surviving in the cat-eat-dog universe of Twilight Imperium.

Since the win conditions depend largely on cards that pop up every turn, and you'll never be entirely certain what might help someone else win on their next turn, the most important thing to do in Twilight Imperium is just to do well. Explore planets. Build fleets. Invent new tech. And secure those senate votes, because you can be a total bad-ass in the deep black of space, but you're nobody if you can't get a bill passed.

And sure, Twilight Imperium takes longer than Eclipse. But when you play Twilight Imperium, it's not just a game. It's an experience. It's three or four hours of negotiation and battles, outmaneuvering and betrayal, Mountain Dew and swamp-ass. You may be a little exhausted when you're finished, but at the same time, you'll know that whether you won or lost, you just enjoyed a whole hell of a lot of memorable quality time. Heck, I haven't won Twilight Imperium, but I am delighted that I got to play.

All the other stuff you want out of a space civilization game is in Twilight Imperium, probably because Twilight Imperium was kind of the founding member of the space civ club. You can research technology, discover planets, build spaceships, and wage war. Mysterious alien races with supernatural abilities create giant starships that will bring entire galaxies to heel. The galaxy is different every time you play, and there are enough different races to try that you'll have to play half a dozen games before you see them all.

Twilight Imperium might sound pretty sweet, but you may still be avoiding it based on the amount of time you're going to spend playing it. Well, good news - the third edition of Twilight Imperium has been considerably streamlined, which means that while a huge game will still take several hours, it won't be the twelve-hour marathon of the first version. We finished a three-player game in under four hours. If I ever manage to recruit five friends who bring lots of Red Bull and some amazing mental stamina, I think we could probably wrap it up in under six hours. So not only is this a spectacular game with lots going for it, it's faster than it used to be (or so I hear - I never played the old one).

I can't recommend Twilight Imperium to just anyone. You have to be a certain kind of person to want to bite off this much game. You have to enjoy games where stuff explodes. You have to have the mindset that says, 'I'm in this for the long haul, and win or lose, I'm going to give it my best shot.' You have to be willing to make deals and break them, to trust your enemies and betray your friends, to sit around a table for so long that your butt molds to the shape of your chair. This is a whole lot of game, and you have to be up for it, but if you are, man, are you going to love Twilight Imperium.


3-6 players

Shore is purty
Board changes every time
The politics - both in the game and around it - are amazing
Tons of stuff to do
Strategic options abound, and tough decisions everywhere you turn

Still pretty darn lengthy
Not for people who are scared off by big rulebooks

Twilight Imperium is a damned expensive game, but I got a discounted copy from Noble Knight Games and saved a pretty decent chunk of change:

Friday, February 1, 2013

Board Game Review - Richard III

I didn't like Wizard Kings. I actually even felt kind of bad about not liking it, which is weird for me, because I don't usually mind not liking games. I kind of take a perverse pleasure in cursing bad games like a gypsy hag, but Wizards Kings is pretty much sound, except for the fact that we never could figure out how to kill people. So it was with some trepidation that I agreed to try another one.

Despite getting a negative review for the first block game I played, Columbia Games wanted me to give them a second shot. So they gave me Richard III, which is another block wargame where your guys spin to tell you how many times they've been stabbed in the spleen. I was skeptical, but the guy was so nice I said I would give it a shot.

I am so glad I did. Richard III is GREAT. It's got tons going for it, from limited actions and long-term planning to copious piles of body parts and political maneuvering. It's still basically a block game, where you use these blocks to hide your army's strength from your opponent until it's too late for him to run away. But where much of the maneuvering in Wizard Kings felt sort of arbitrary, the maneuvering in Richard III is painfully critical. One block in the wrong spot can be the mistake that costs you the game, so you'll agonize over every decision.

However, unlike many games that really punish the guy who makes mistakes, Richard III feels more like it rewards the guy who plays better. Sure, there's still luck, but if you go into a battle with an overwhelming force (and your lead nobleman doesn't decide to change sides before the bloodshed starts, which can totally happen), you're going to mop the floor with the other guy.

And you can't just charge into battle, either. You have limited actions provided by cards you play every turn, and if you want to put together a really huge force, you have to position your troops for a few turns in a row. But if you set up correctly, and your opponent doesn't figure out some way to stop you before it's too late, you can have some gigantic Shakespearean throw-down with body counts that will have carrion birds coming from miles around.

The game takes place over three campaigns, each representing a decade of this really long period of unrest. You'll bring in mercenaries from Calais, shuttle troops by sea up to some English port city where they make stinky fish sandwiches and all the bars have really low doorways, and try to convince the guys attacking you to change sides and completely throw the other guy's plans into disarray. At the end of every campaign, you find out who has more support in the noble houses, and then the loser has to go to France. I don't know why this is so bad - I've been to France, and it was very nice. Maybe they have to go to France and tell the people to go to work, which I understand is not popular in France.

As you probably know if you're any kind of history nut (I am not, so I did not know this), Richard III ascended to the throne of England right around the time of the Wars of the Roses (before or after, I wasn't really clear on this part). The game recreates the War of the Roses, and not the divorce movie from the 80s, but the actual wars where thousands of people got killed. You can win if you can manage to keep the nobility in your pocket - but you also win if you kill all the heirs of the other house, because then those shifty noble assholes don't have any choice but to vote for you.

Being something of not-a-history-buff, I am unmoved by the historical accuracy presented in Richard III. For instance, there's this one guy who can play kingmaker and raise all these other guys to fight for him, Warbucks or something, but I just thought it was weird that he follows this completely different set of rules from the other nobles. But even though the history lesson is completely wasted on me, the fact that I was playing out stuff that actually happened made it more interesting. If I actually cared about those wars, I'll bet I would have been totally stoked.

While I did really enjoy playing Richard III, I do find myself with some gripes. First of all, the map is a pain in the ass. It's just printed on cardboard, and folds up, so it won't lay flat. If I hadn't put a leftover window on top of it, we couldn't have played the game without constantly asking, 'hey, where was this red block whose back I cannot see because it is facing you, but that I know is Earl Blakinford of Chesterbester because he just fell over as he was sliding off the board?'

And while I dig the block idea, it is not very much fun to put those damned stickers on all those damned blocks. There are a lot of them, and even if you're a huge fan of putting adhesive paper onto little wooden squares, it will still get old after twenty or so. Happily, this is a job you only have to do once, and when you do (and then get a spare window to put on top of the board), you will be ready to play a very tense, very fun game.

After having played Richard III, now I kind of want to try other block games, only this time, maybe some about eras of history I actually care about. I'll have to see if Columbia Games has any block games about pirates or cowboys. I know a ton about pirates and cowboys, and now that I know those block games can be pretty wicked, I'm kind of itching to try another one.


2 players

Tense and engaging
Limited actions and stacking restrictions put the emphasis on smart plays
Two ways to win means you can try different strategies every time you play
Historically accurate (which is lost on me)

Cheap cardstock board makes it tough to play
So many stickers!

I broke my baby teeth on my old man's wargames (not literally - he would never let me near them when I was teething), so I have a soft spot for them. If you have a similar soft spot, check out Richard III at the Columbia Games website: