Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Board Game Review - Talisman

Remember when you were like nine years old, and you had your FAVORITEST GAME EVER, and you played it until it was falling apart? And then twenty years later, you pulled that game out of the closet, sweet nostalgia rushing over you like a waterfall of good will and joy, only to discover that stuff that appeals to fourth-graders tends to fall a little flat with adults?

We call that ‘Talisman Syndrome.’

If I were a child, if I still thought girls were gross and could actually sit through an episode of Thundercats without laughing at the retarded voiceovers, I would think Talisman was the most amazing game on the planet. Because if I was nine years old, I would be stupid.

The crazy thing is, I hear a lot of good buzz for Talisman. I don’t understand this. Nobody tries to recapture the greatness of Candyland, and Talisman is only marginally more interesting than Candyland. The only possible explanation I can find is that these people are the same people who spend days on end making supplementary material for HeroQuest when that game is actually only fun the first three times you play it, because when they were in junior high they blew an entire weekend on it and they’re trying to recapture the innocence of wondering why they didn’t get asked to Sadie Hawkins.

For the sake of clarity here, I’m reviewing the third edition of this ridiculously stupid game. I have to be specific because – I am not making this up – people have made four different editions of Talisman. For some people, that would indicate that it is obviously a brilliant game. For others (like me), it would indicate that there are an awful lot of people who have absolutely no common sense. After all, Apples to Apples sold a million copies, so standards for someone are obviously very low.

So that you can understand the way you play Talisman, let’s say you want to play Candyland. Only you want to make it an adventure game, so you let the players move forward and backward, and every time they land on Gumdrop Grove they can add some fat-ass points. Throw in some Licorice Bandits and the Caramel Creeper, make the entire game a random dice-fest with virtually no purpose or direction, remove nearly every single opportunity for decision-making from the game, and you have Talisman.

Every player gets a character (at random, because starting by letting you make a decision would set a dangerous precedent), and then you all wander around circular trails, encountering monsters and rolling dice and having virtually no control at all over the outcome of the game. You might start out an evil rat-dude, turn into a good guy, get eaten by a ghost and get a new character, and then have that morally-ambiguous dwarf get transformed into a toad because frankly, the dice hate you.

But even if the dice love you, you would still probably hate this stupid, stupid game. We had one guy win because halfway through the game he drew the Finger of Death spell, which instantly eliminates the super-villlain bad guy once that player gets to the tower in the middle of the hideous board (the board, incidentally, looks like it was drawn by a tenth-grader who was obsessed with metal bands in the early 80s. There are more skulls in the art for this game than you'll find in a French catacomb). While I was routinely losing my spells to evil wizards and severe head trauma, this guy managed to keep this one spell long enough to waltz into the dragon king’s tower and smoke him without rolling a die.

Call me crazy, but when I play a game, I want to have some control over the outcome. I want to practice some luck management, a little long-term strategy, and maybe a dash of practical common sense. I don’t want to have the entire game decided by a handful of die rolls over which I have virtually no control. I also don’t want to spend a quarter of the game bouncing back and forth between the witch’s house and the chapel because I’m attempting to give up my toad status.

I’ve played some really dumb games. Since I promise to eventually review any game anyone ever sends me, I have subjected myself to some of the absolute dregs of gaming society. I can definitely say that I have played games that were less fun than Talisman – Monster Quest comes to mind, for instance – but I would be lying if I said I ever wanted to play another iteration of Talisman. I have the second edition as well, and I think I even have the dungeon expansion for that one (my mind still reels that anyone thought this game was good enough to have an expansion), and I will be trading all of these copies as quickly as I possibly can.

It’s almost ironic that I just reviewed Tales of the Arabian Nights and loved it. Neither game offers a great deal of control for the players, and both games tend to be wildly random. Both games have you bouncing around the map like a kindergartner on crystal meth, and yet I really enjoy Arabian Nights and thoroughly despise Talisman. The difference is the story – where Arabian Nights leads you through an exciting and unpredictable story, Talisman plods through random, pointless fights with virtually no motivation or reason to continue playing.

I’m actually glad that a lot of people like Talisman, even if that does mean that a lot of people lack the sense God gave a hairless mole rat. Since a lot of people like this game, it means I shouldn’t have too much trouble trading it to some poor schmuck who still watches Voltron because it reminds him of eating sugary cereal in his pajamas while his parents slept off hangovers.


Great trade fodder


If you just have to go out and recapture some part of your lost youth, don't do it with Talisman. Try this:

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Board Game Review - Tales of the Arabian Nights

My favorite kinds of games are the ones that tell a story. Like when I was 12, and got my first copy of D&D, and we were able to tell a story about a bunch of heroes who went into some goblins’ home and killed everyone and then stole their crap. As I grew up, our stories got more interesting, until we were carrying out home invasions on a wide variety of bizarre creatures, most of whom had skin problems and anger-management issues.

Another thing I loved as a kid was the Choose Your Own Adventure line of books. These had really stupid stories that starred you, and you made choices, and those choices would send you to a page in the book where you would find out if you made the right call or if you were dead from an overdose of retarded. Like if you chose to steal the witch’s vase, then broke it, then you had to spend the rest of your life cleaning it up. I confess that nostalgia makes a lot of those books a lot better, sort of like the grown gamers who just have to break out Dark Tower once a year to try to remember why it was cool when they were nine, only to discover that it’s actually a pretty repetitive game with virtually nothing to appeal to an adult.

And apparently, I wasn’t the only one who loved these things, because somebody thought it was so awesome that they made Tales of the Arabian Nights, in which you and up to five of your closest friends take on the roles of characters from those stories, travel a map of Europe, Asia and Africa and spend an evening flipping through the mother of all Choose Your Own Adventure books. The game sort of died out, until Z-Man Games found it and re-released it, so that we could return to the days of hiding in dead cows in order to steal diamonds and escape from snakes.

The adventures in Tales of the Arabian Nights are a little bit random, but then, the stories in the book were often equally nonsensical. Am I the only one who thought the Sinbad stories were the result of some serious nights on the hash pipe? I mean, how long does a whale have to sleep on the surface to have trees grow on his back?

Players will take turns wandering the world, far and wide, and trying to get into the mystical places where they can have amazing adventures. Along the way, they might be thrown overboard by greedy ship captains, be hunted by brigands, romance the sultan’s wife or zoom around on magic rugs. All these wild adventures are guided by the enormous tome full of numbered entries and a matrix that tells you where to turn if, for example, you discover an angry efreeti in the desert and decide to punch him in the face.

Your characters will learn skills as they progress, and they may also pick up a variety of unpleasant statuses, a little like the way lots of late-night partying can get you a decent array of social diseases. You might wind up hunted, imprisoned, insane and wounded – and if you’re really lucky, you can get a magical sex change and have to spend the last half of the game trying to get your bait and tackle back where it belongs. Different effects have different cures – you may have to let the bandits catch up to you, or you might have to trick a servant into giving you a key. You might have to complete a pilgrimage to Mecca, or bring back a treasure for the vizier. Unfortunately, you don’t have a whole lot of control over these events, and may wind up losing your loved ones to a plague of gout, for which you are cursed to be really depressed. The only cure for that is to eat a gallon of ice cream and sit on the coach in your pajamas for a week watching reruns of Matlock.

The nice thing about all this unhappiness is that nearly anything that happens gives you either story points or destiny points, and since the goal of the game is to have amazing stories and great adventures, even bad stuff can help you win. You might wind up transformed into a jackass, but man, does that make for a good story. Get back to Baghdad with a whole bunch of amazing tales, and you’ll be the winner, even if you did spend a couple years lost in Europe while a rhinoceros chased you and fire demons stole your pants.

As wildly random and unpredictable as Tales of the Arabian Nights might be, it’s also a stupid amount of fun. You’ll laugh as Aladdin gets turned into a woman, carried away by a giant bird, haunted by a sad ghost and fed to a giant fish. You’ll chortle with glee when Ali Baba becomes cursed, diseased, grief-stricken and crazy, and then still ends up marrying the vizier’s daughter and ultimately becoming sultan. The pieces are absolutely beautiful, the illustrations are amazing, and the story is just as convoluted and random as the original Arabian Nights.

The story book is an amazing piece of work. It’s staggering to imagine the amount of effort that went into making it so that you found monkeys in the jungle, beggars in the city and magical islands at sea. It’s fascinating to see how your choices, environments and plain-old Lady Luck can present every visitor to the same space with a different adventure. It’s not perfect, or anything – a couple times I wound up having ocean encounters while I was in the middle of a Saudi Arabian desert – but considering the enormity of the task that confronted the writers, it’s more than understandable.

I wouldn’t say that Tales of the Arabian Nights is a clever, well-designed tactical game with great strategy. If I did, I would be a liar. This is not Puerto Rico. I would say that it’s a marvelous way to spend an evening with your family. You don’t play Tales of the Arabian Nights because you want the mental challenge. You play because you want to experience the story, which makes it a little like D&D, but without the armed robbery.


Incredible art
Immersive, entertaining story
Tons of replay – you might never see the same tale twice
Great family fun

Random as a Terry Gilliam movie
A few errors in the guide book

Dogstar Games carries Tales of the Arabian Nights, so if you're in the mood for a game that's all about telling a story, you should hop right over there and pick it up. Shipping is free, and the game is discounted to boot, so you can save some scratch and have a great night with the family. You'll be a hero!

Friday, December 25, 2009

Board Game Review - Claustrophobia

Claustrophobia is a board game that takes place in the world of Helldorado, which is a miniatures game where humanity decides to invade Hell in a land grab that is epic in its shortsightedness. You know you're in trouble when you need land so bad, you decide to move to Hell. Sure, you can get property really cheap, but you know it's going to be in a horrible school district, and odds are, taxes are way steeper than they have any right to be. And if you think it's bad for your home value when someone builds a parking lot next door, how much worse would it be if you're located next to a portal to Satan's Pawn Shop?

In Claustrophobia, the demons (you know, the guys who actually live in Hell, and are probably a little bit ticked that someone has decided to put a lean-to on their manicured front lawn) inhabit tunnels and caves under the city of New Jerusalem, and they're making life a little rough for the humans above. That's only fair - New Jerusalem takes up space the demons used to use for a hellhound park. But the humans are dead set on hanging onto the land, despite the fact that even lake-front property is unpleasant (probably because the lake is on fire).

So the humans recruit a redeemer - a holy warrior with serious power against the forces of evil - and give him a handful of condemned prisoners to go with him into the uncomfortably balmy caverns underneath the city. To stop the redeemer and his gang of misfits, the demons are going to send hordes of troglodytes - Hell's answer to cheap labor - and maybe the odd uberdemon with exceptional skill at snacking on people. So basically, this is a dungeon crawl.

The map is composed of beautifully illustrated tiles depicting the twisting, narrow caverns that wind just beneath the surface of Satan's Playground. All the combatants are really cool pre-painted plastic miniatures, and they look fantastic. Sure, there are only five different sculpts, but there are 17 figures in the box, and they're all cool (though it is worth mentioning that the troglodytes look like that dog alien from Lilo and Stitch). To depict the various equipment and abilities of the various warriors, you've also got a few different decks of cards, all with stunning art. Basically, the production values for this game are completely off the scale. It's not quite as jaw-dropping a Space Hulk, but it also doesn't cost $100. There's a ton of value in this box.

There's also a superb game in this box. One really cool mechanic is how you assign abilities to every human at the beginning of the game - you roll some dice, which go into a little slot on the human character cards and match up to one of six slots each human has. Depending on the assigned dice, a human character might be defensive, offensive, or fast, and maybe have some cool ability he can use that turn. When humans take wounds, they plug one of those action slots, which has two effects. First, if you have to assign a die to a slot with a wound on it, that character is going to spend the turn gasping for air and feeling his wounds, and can't move or attack. And second, when all six slots are gone, the human in question is just dead (and depending on his life choices, his soul may not have very far to travel).

Combat is a simple die roll, and movement is as easy as moving a figure from one tile to the next. But there are still several important tactical maneuvers in every round, and there's a fantastic amount of depth for a game whose rules are as simple as these are. If you don't practice some intelligent strategy, planning for the long haul and making the right move when you need it, your characters will probably wind up becoming permanent residents, instead of just owning a timeshare.

Claustrophobia is a pretty clear example of a kind of game we see a lot recently. It's got all the classic markings of a quantity versus quality game, where the humans are skilled fighters and the demons come in droves. It has a heck of a lot in common with Space Hulk, except this is a fantasy dungeon crawl in Hell and Space Hulk is a sci-fi dungeon crawl on a space ship. If you enjoy this kind of game, Claustrophobia should be a no-brainer. And despite there being a lot of similarities, the two games are also very different, so there's no reason not to own them both (you know, unless you're not rich).

The only real problem I have with Claustrophobia is a question of theme. While the game play is fast and fun, and I definitely have a dungeon-crawling vibe from the game, it doesn't really deliver on the 'Hell Ain't a Bad Place To Be' storyline. I might have been in a cavern in Hell, or might have been fighting goblins in the mountain caverns. The troglodytes are not particularly demonic in appearance, and could just as easily have been kobolds lead by a particularly ferocious bugbear. The game is stunning, and tons of fun, and I'm more than willing to overlook the theme issue - but just because I'm giving it a pass doesn't mean it's not there.

If you're a fan of dungeon crawl games, and you like your eye candy as much as I do, Claustrophobia should probably be on your 'man, I should have asked for that for Christmas' list. I think it's a hoot, and I'm looking forward to playing it again, even if I do still wonder what the commute must be like if you live in a suburb in Hell.


Amazing production values
Fast game with easy rules
So much fun, you'll want to play it a whole lot

Odd theme that doesn't feel effectively communicated

Dogstar Games has Claustrophobia. If you like dungeon crawl games with amazing components and buckets of fun, you should run over and get it right here:

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas Rant

It may come as a massive shock to my regular readers, but I really don’t like Christmas. So on the eve of this most blessed day, commonly known to the retail industry as ‘that part of the year when we make a bunch of money off of people who are too stressed to breathe,’ I thought I would commemorate the holiday with a nice rant about Christmas. And when I say ‘nice,’ what I mean is ‘mean-spirited and crotchety.’

I would like to know who thought it was a good idea to have a two-month long holiday that causes people to drive like assholes, park like idiots, shop like lemmings and kill themselves. That last one, that’s literal – more people kill themselves at Christmas than any other part of the year. Some people think, ‘oh, it’s all those shut-ins who realize nobody loves them.’ But I think that’s horse apples. The people killing themselves are the ones who know their kids are going to take a dump in the living room when they find out Santa didn’t bring a Zhu-Zhu Pet.

Except really, I know who thought this whole thing was a good idea – people who sell things. We complain every year about how the holiday keeps getting earlier, and how much we hate the commercialism, but then we spend an inordinate amount of time shopping for gifts and food and decorations and music and scented candles and all kinds of crap, and that’s why Wal-Mart starts advertising Christmas specials before Halloween is over. If you ever got a headache trying to figure out how you were going to afford all the gifts you had to buy, you’re part of the problem.

What makes the whole thing even worse is how the retailers try to dress it up to get you ‘in the spirit.’ Ten months of the year, it’s fine to let your shoppers listen to Kenny G and Celine Dion, but for those last two months of every year, you can’t even use a public bathroom without having to hear the same irritating Christmas carols that you’ve heard every year since you were five (with the addition of George Michael singing about how you stole his heart last year). Some people would travel back in time to kill Hitler; me, I would kill Bing Crosby.

I should clarify that the day itself is nice. Wake up early, hang out with your family, eat a big meal, enjoy the people you love – there’s no downside here, unless you don’t get along with your family, and that’s why we spike the egg nog. I’m a lot more sociable after a few shots of Johnny Walker Black.

And as much as I despise Christmas, it’s still Christmas. People who get their shorts twisted when you tell them to have a nice Christmas should shut the hell up and celebrate their Ramadan in peace. I don’t care if you wish me a Happy Boxing Day. I don’t celebrate that, but it’s nice that you want me to have a good day. Is anyone delusional enough to think that all this crap came about because of Kwanzaa? You can’t rewrite the history books. We’ve been doing Christmas for the last several centuries, and we’re not going to suddenly decide it’s a non-demoninational holiday just because you’re a Moonie.

If you’re so offended because you’re a Jehovah’s Witness and never got a birthday cake, how come I don’t see you at the office (aside from the fact that I’m also not at the office, because I’m celebrating Christmas)? I don’t take off for Passover. I don’t pull my kids out of school for Tom Cruise Day (I think that’s a Christian Science holiday). If you’re going to throw a hissy when I mention that we’re celebrating the birth of Little Baby Jesus, why don’t you just pay full price during that season and report to the office?

I don’t guess there’s much for it, really. I’m kind of tilting at the windmill here. I have a tree in my living room, and my wife has done hours of Christmas baking, and my kids are anxiously awaiting tomorrow morning when they can open their gifts and make a huge mess in the living room. Christmas is as inevitable as hot Texas summers and income taxes. You can tell me you don’t celebrate the holiday, but unless you go to work on the 25th of December, I don’t really want to hear it. It’s the most wonderful time of the year, as long as you’re a big fan of stress headaches, credit card debt and obnoxious decorations, but you can’t escape it, so suck it up and get through it like the rest of us.

Maybe next year I’ll forget the whole thing and spend two months at a beach in Maui. For the amount of money I spend every year, I could probably afford it.

Anyway, have a Merry Christmas, and come back tomorrow night, when I'll review a game with so much Christmas spirit, it has flesh-eating demons.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Movie Review - Avatar

I think it's pretty clear that James Cameron is a Kevin Costner fan. I really liked Avatar, especially in 3D, and I liked it even more than the first time I saw it, when it was called Dances with Wolves. In fact, I wonder if the working title for Avatar was 'Dances with Cat People.'

I'm not going to deliberately throw out any spoilers here, but if you're one of those people who avoids hype like a social disease, you may want to wait to read this review until you've seen the movie. Me, I don't care about hype, but then, I'm jaded enough that I assume nearly every movie ever made is going to suck.

Avatar, for the record, does not suck. It's not particularly deep, and it's fairly predictable, but it sure is fun. In case you haven't seen one of the eighteen million ads for this movie, there's a dude who takes over an alien body so he can explore an alien world, and so he can chill with the indigenous cat people and swap body fluids with the blue-skinned hottie with the big eyes and the nipples that are exposed for half the movie. There's more computer-generated imagery than a Star Wars movie, and tons of really cool effects and monsters and stunts and all kinds of stuff that makes your average sci-fi movie fan get all soaked in his trousers.

(Ironically, my favorite effects were not the phosphorescent tree tubers or the leaping alien jungle cats. My favorite effects were the robots, because they were bad-ass. They have these huge guns and they're wicked powerful and meaner than hell, and the marines (who are the bad guys) are so believably cool that half the time, I wanted the humans to win, even though we're supposed to be rooting for the blue furries.)

I wouldn't generally be a fan of a movie that is as predictable as Avatar, but it was actually kind of comfortable, like watching Wrath of Kahn for the sixth time, waiting for Spock to say that 'good of the many' line. It doesn't really matter that the movie doesn't surprise you, because you don't want it to surprise you. You want it to take the course you know it will take. You want to see the romance, and the fights, and everything else you know is going to happen because you're over ten years old and you've seen more than three movies in your life.

In fact, the movie is so comfortably predictable that you don't even mind the heavy-handed 'humans are a virus' message that we've been enjoying for the last fifteen years. You know the message is coming, but the characters are so likable and the story so exciting that it doesn't really matter if you can spot the impending morality play. If you've seen just one trailer, you know the plot, and you probably know how it will end. What you don't know is how cool the huge elephant guys will look, or the flying dinosaur thingies, or the intensely cool robot jocks.

And really, the actors may have had top billing, but the real star of Avatar is the computer that made everything look awesome. I guess it compares on some level to the first Transformers, where you could overlook a stupid plotline, horrible script and even that douchebag lead actor because at one point, the jet turns into a robot and punches the other jet and then turns back into a jet. Only this is far superior to Transformers, because the story actually works, as opposed to Transformers that didn't make any sense whatsoever, but was basically an excuse to see robots punch each other in the metal junk.

In fact, more than just a story that works, Avatar delivers characters that are believable and sympathetic. Even the bad guys seem like they have some history to them, including the head bad guy who was actually just a really good marine. The characters don't surprise you, but their actions and dialog seem natural, which is more than I can say for a lot of action movies that include smooching.

(On the matter of smooching, can I just say how convenient it is that the aliens are so much like humans? It would have made the romance a lot more uncomfortable if the human skinwalker had been doing weird alien butt probes on the sexy chick in the loincloth.)

If you're looking for the next Citizen Kane, or you're the kind of movie snob who can't enjoy anything if it wasn't made in France, you're going to hate Avatar. It's not a particularly original tale, but it is a boatload of fun, and a complete visual feast. The characters are as likable (or not) as they're supposed to be, the fighting is fast and furious and fun, and the story manages to avoid any truck-sized plot holes. Avatar is enjoyable, entertaining and gorgeous. That makes it good enough for me.


Amazing visual effects
Story is comfortable, if a little predictable
Characters are believable and likable, except for the bad guys, who are believable and unlikable
Doesn't rely on 3D, just uses it to make a very cool movie

Really, really predictable
Club-to-the-head environmental message

Friday, December 18, 2009

Card Game Review - Dominion

I've played lots of card games in my day. Poker, canasta, bridge, plus stuff like Mille Bornes and Race for the Galaxy and other non-standard card games. Without getting up from my desk, I could list fifty card games I've played, and some of them were really awesome games. I say this so that when I tell you that Dominion is one of the best card games I've ever played, you know I'm not working with a limited frame of reference.

The theory behind Dominion is brilliant. Basically, you're building a deck of cards that you'll use to grab the victory points - and this isn't the preparation, that's the game. You're going to buy a militia to get more money to spend and a moat to protect you from enemy militia. You're going to buy a workshop to get small properties easily, and a market so you can afford the big stuff. Some cards let you draw more cards into your hand, some let you take more actions, and some just screw the hell out of everyone else at the table (those are some of my favorites).

On your turn, you'll have a hand of cards. You fill that hand with cards from your deck, which starts out really small at first and grows as the game progresses. When you run out, you shuffle and draw again from the same pile. You can use action cards to do stuff like get more cards in your hand and have a little more mad money, and you can chain these cards together to have this whole display of extra money and more actions and a hand of cards so big you could buy Paris. And you could just focus on buying those victory points, but that's not a great idea. For one thing, those victory points are completely worthless cards until the end of the game, and for another, the best victory cards are wicked expensive.

What ends up happening is that you'll spend the first two-thirds of the game competing to grab the cool cash-in cards, and then once your deck is a well-oiled machine built to churn money like butter, you'll spend the rest of the game rushing to grab up the victory points before they're all gone. This basic element of the game doesn't change much from game to game - you build up your hand, and then you use it to cash in.

There is, however, a significant part of the game that changes every time you play, and this is because there are like 30 little mini-decks in the box, and you only ever use 10 at a time. So you won't have the adventurer in every game, or the thief, or the throne room, and that means the strategy changes dramatically every game. You'll want to play a whole lot to understand the winning strategy for different combinations of abilities. For instance, if there's a garden and a fair, you can use the fair to get additional buys, which will let you fill your deck with cards, and then buy up the gardens which score more points based on your deck size. Since there are hundreds of possible card sets for any given game, the winner tends to be the guy who can see winning combinations popping up like lesbians at a California liberal arts college.

I absolutely love Dominion, to the point that I would not only never consider trading or selling it, but I'm actually considering blowing off a few reviews so that I have more time to play it. But it's not all wine and roses (or crack and hookers - I don't know what you're into). For one thing, there's supposed to be a theme here, but I was never really feeling it. It's got that European stodgy fantasy thing where throne room politics are more interesting than stabbing people, and there's a minimal amount of interaction (unless you're playing with the screw-yer-buddy cards). Compared to Arctic Scavengers, Dominion's theme feels almost like an afterthought. Why dropping a moat lets you draw more cards is beyond me, and doesn't really fit into any kind of story.

Plus, depending on what cards you're using when you play, Dominion could almost be a solo game where you have to wait for your turn. It's more fun than shooting ill-behaved children with a BB gun, but it can wind up leaving you curious why you need the other people at the table at all. Of course, if you're playing with the guy who always breaks out the attack cards, this is a different story - you'll spend the whole game trying to defend what you're building while you take shots at everyone else.

In a game this good, I don't much care about theme. It's so fun, the theme could be Mister Rogers, and I would recruit homeless people to help me put together the King Friday/red cardigan/McFeely combination. And if you don't like the solo-style game, just make sure you play with the cutthroat cards. Any criticism I might have of Dominion is completely overshadowed by the fact that this is a staggeringly awesome game.

I figure that by now, if you're reading this, you've probably played Dominion, and don't need my opinion to help you decide whether you like it. But if I don't review this one, I can't review Intrigue or Seaside, and since those are coming next week, I figured I better knock this one out. Plus I love this game more than Cinemax soft porn, and really wanted to make some noise about this awesome game.


Incredibly brilliant concept
Simple in design, but layered genius in execution
Requires quick decisions and a good long-term strategy
Really makes you think, and has no pity on the crappy player

Theme doesn't work very well
Decent potential to wind up being a four-player solo game

In case you're one of the last eight gamers to decide whether or not you like Dominion, and now you really want to buy a copy, you can run right out to Dogstar Games and pick up a copy. And you should, because they're wicked awesome. Not only do they support this site, but I've had occasion to talk with some customers recently, and Dogstar makes a point of taking care of the people who give 'em money. Here's the link:

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Board Game Review - Ogre Castle

I don't make any bones about the fact that I like small press games. I'm not going to lie and say I like a game just because it's from a micropublisher, but I'm willing to cut them a little slack if the art isn't a modern classic or the rules are a little confusing because they're laid out by the pizza delivery guy. And in the case of Ogre Castle, I'm applying a little of that small-press-blind-spot. I'm admitting that up front, just so there's no confusion.

I really don't have to use much of a blind spot, in all fairness. Ogre Castle is a well-designed game, with more charm than Cary Grant. The art might be simplistic, but it's damned cute, and the rules are really easy to follow. If I'm overlooking anything, it's that the art isn't all that professional, and the game uses some components that lean a little toward the cheap side.

However, I don't think I would like a version of Ogre Castle that had all the bells and whistles Fantasy Flight would slap on it. The art may be a little rough around the edges, but it's a hell of a lot of fun, and it all fits the game perfectly. The player pawns are printed cardboard stuck into one of those little plastic stands that you find in games that can't afford to make plastic figures, and the armor tokens are little plastic yellow poker chips. But the art on the pawns is all different, which is great, and the art on the cards does a perfect job of telling you what it's for.

The premise of the game is that three knights are invading the ogre's castle to grab treasure and run for the door. But just because they're all knights doesn't mean these guys are on the same team - a knight only wins when he grabs all four of his treasures and gets out of the castle, and he loses if another knight beats him to it, so there's enough cutthroat action here to make little girls break down and cry (which means, Dad, that you may want to consider throwing the game if you're playing with an third-grader).

The fourth player in this battle is the ogre himself. He's got to beat the piss out of the knights, steal back his treasures, and then retreat to his throne room to count his money and let the knights rampage around his castle.

The map of the castle is printed on a fantastic cloth mat. There are twisty paths to get everywhere, which can make it really hard for a knight to get away when the ogre comes to punch him in the eye and steal his lunch money. Happily, the knights can cheat.

The game comes with a deck of cards full of nasty tricks that you can play on your opponents. You can make them get weak right before a fight, or you can steal their treasures and make them run all the way across the map again, or you can send them running the wrong direction. Most of the thinking part of Ogre Castle involves using your cards properly, and maybe foregoing an opportunity to grab a treasure for the chance to get another card. These aren't game-breaker cards, but they're so useful that you'll probably never hold more than four or five - and sometimes you won't have any, especially if that rotten blue knight plays the card that lights them all on fire.

As the game goes on and treasures get cleared out, the abuse you heap on your fellow players escalates from a Cold War sabotage situation to full-out global thermonuclear war. Once the knights start filling up their pockets, the other players will start to single out that one leader, which gives the other players a chance to catch up. We had a clear winner for the last third of the game - and she didn't win, because the ogre gave her a swirly, stole her treasure, and teleported back home.

This is a seriously fun game. It's a little chaotic and a lot random, and planning won't always help you a whole lot, but there's still a fair amount of thinking to do and a few tough decisions. Part of the reason it's so fun is the brilliant visual design. The illustration may not be Picasso, but the graphic design is genius. It's clean and simple and easy to read, and means that any player old enough to read the cards should be able to play the game. It's kind of funny - the game is thoroughly accessible to a younger kid, but the label says it's for teenagers. I suspect that's because if they said eight-year-olds could enjoy it, some hillbilly dumb-ass who never taught his kid to keep stuff out of his mouth would end up filing a lawsuit when their stupid spawn inhaled a poker chip and managed to be removed from the shallow end of the genetic pool. So I'll say what they legally can't - assuming you're not raising a mental midget with no motor control or common sense, Ogre Castle is great for elementary-school-age kids.

There's a catch, though - it's a game for four players. It's sort of like that Monty Python bit with the holy hand grenade and the counting - 'you must not count to two, except that you continue on to three, and five is right out.' You can't play with more or less than four, and since I can't always put together four people for a game, that kind of sucks. It's light and action-packed, but if you can only get three of you in one place, you'll have to play something else. I don't guess the game would work with a different number, but it's still kind of a limiting factor when it comes to hitting the table. So you better hope you've got 2.4 kids, so that you can send that .4 kid off to bed and play with the other two and your wife.

If you can slap together a group of four gamers, though, Ogre Castle is a light-hearted brawl-fest that's fun for the whole family. It's wonderfully endearing and quick, easy fun, with a hearty helping of backstabbing. I could easily see Ogre Castle coming out of Ravensberger, but it wouldn't be anywhere near as charming, so I am just going to go ahead and be glad I have my cloth board and cartoony art.


Light-hearted, fast and furious
Fun for the whole family - as long as they remember it's just a game

Not incredibly professional, but more charming because of it

If you're looking for a small press game to enjoy with your kids, go here and get Ogre Castle:

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Tile Game Review - Chromino

I've never been a huge fan of dominoes. That may be linked to the fact that I've hardly played dominoes, but I've played more games of dominoes than I've played Race for the Galaxy, and I like Race for the Galaxy, and I don't like dominoes, so there goes that theory. Mostly, it's that I tend to think they're kind of boring. Maybe I'm missing the strategy in a games of dominoes, but every time I play, I just end up thinking, 'this is stupid. Can we play cards?'

So I confess to not being overly excited about Chromino, because frankly, it looks an awful lot like dominoes. Only instead of having pips, you have colors. And instead of having two sides, you have three blocks on each tile. To place a tile, you have to match at last two colors with tiles that are already on the table.

Now, that sounds like dominoes for retarded kids. 'It's OK if you can't count, junior - you can play this game instead! (unless you're color-blind AND retarded, and then you're just screwed)' How hard can it be to match colored tiles? That's even easier than dominoes, and dominoes is already too easy.

Aha! But it's not that easy! In fact, it's damned clever. It has a lot of the strategy of dominoes (holding onto some pieces because they'll be easier to play later, or blocking moves that force opponents to pick up extra tiles, for instance), but it also has a lot more flexibility. Dominoes tends to make a long twisty snake of tiles, but in Chromino, you end up filling the whole table with this expanding tableau of colored pieces. And because of the way the table fills, there are times when it's more like a game of Tetris than dominoes, because you're having to twist the pieces in your head to see if they'll fit in the narrow gap that will block your opponent from using the wild card tile and dumping his last piece to win the game.

There are also some neat variants in the box, and more stuff online - only to read the stuff online, you have to know a little French, because it's not in the English version. I don't read French, so I'm not sure what's online, and frankly, that pisses me right off. There's this awesome solo puzzle version of Chromino, but you only get one puzzle in the box, and the rest are online, and I can't find them because I'm an American, dammit, and we don't ever bother learning other peoples' languages!

I particularly like the expert rules (those are in the box, and they're in English). We tried a couple games with the basic 'Uno' rules, but when we played with the scoring rules, the game took on a whole new dimension. Rather than simply trying to dump everything in a hurry, now we were looking for big scores, setting up future moves, and maneuvering to force opponents to take losing spots. This is a WAY more interesting game.

The funny thing is that even though Chromino is just dominoes with colors, I really like it, and I really don't like dominoes. A good friend played with us, and he does play dominoes, and he also liked it, so it might be hard to say exactly who would dig this game. Obviously, it's an abstract, so you're not going to be happy if you're a theme whore, and it's very simple, so it's not going to appeal to your average chit-shoving grognard. But it's a great family game, and an excellent choice for holiday get-togethers, since it can be easily enjoyed by your 'normal' aunts and uncles who flew in from their Kentucky farm where they make soap from lye and goat turds, and still think you're weird because you own Arkham Horror.


Easy to learn, fast to play
Great mental challenge that will really get your brain working
Very attractive plastic tiles
Forethought and strategy can make up for a bad hand
Still enough luck of the draw to let Gramma Agnes win a hand even if she forgot her Alzheimer's medication

Simplistic and abstracted - may not appeal to 'hardcore' game nerds

Dogstar Games has Chromino, and if you get it, you should get it from them, because they keep me supplied with the games you want to read about. Their support allows me to answer your requests, and I would consider it a personal favor if you would buy your games from them.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Board Game Review - Robotory

In the future, everything will be smaller. Cell phones will be so small, you'll have to keep them on your key chains - which will be so small, you'll have to have them surgically implanted in your hand. And board games will be so small, you'll be able to fit an entire game in your pocket.

The future is now (please forgive this painfully cheesy and horribly overused cliche. It sounded a lot better than 'You can actually do that now').

Before someone points out the obvious, I do know that there have been games that fit in your pocket for just about as long as there have been pockets, so by the logic I presented in the first paragraph, the future took place a couple centuries ago, and we've been living in Star Wars since the birth of Christ. Having thoroughly mangled my opening, I think we'll just skip right to the review.

Robotory is a very small game (now that you read that boring sentence, do you see why I tried to gussy it up with that stupid 'future is now' gag? I hope so. But inevitably, some humorless tool at BoardGameGeek will tell me that he would rather my reviews were boring and dry, and take offense to me even attempting to be interesting. For that guy, may I suggest you start reading assembly manuals for power tools?).

So yeah, it's small. It comes in a box you could fit in your pocket, unless you wear very tight jeans, in which case I hope you are a girl, because otherwise you're either morbidly obese or a little bit gay. Let's just say it would fit in my pocket, huh? There's a board in this little box, and three robot counters, and a handful of little plastic discs in either black or white. Add in the miniaturized rulebook, and there's still room in the box, despite this being a very small box.

But size isn't everything (at least, that's what we men tell ourselves after we finish watching a porno featuring a man whose main talent is having a dingus he could wrap around his leg). There's a pretty cool little game in this cool little box. It's an abstract, but unlike a whole lot of abstracts (especially European ones - I'm looking at you, Reiner), it doesn't pretend to tell a story. It goes, 'there are these robots, see, and you move them by putting down energy markers', and then it quits trying to crap in a bowl and tell you it's ice cream. It just lets the game be the game.

The robots are three plastic markers that sit on a hex grid. One is white, one is black, and one is red. The black one moves by consuming black markers, the white one eats the white markers, and the red one swings both ways and eats anything it can get. One your turn, you can drop an energy pip, move a robot by following a path of the right energy markers (and then taking them off the board), or replenish your supply of markers. Since you can only do one thing, you have to time each thing, or you'll wind up with no good actions when you really need them. The game ends when you run out of energy markers, after which you check to see who has more robots on their side of the board, and that person wins.

Since Robotory is over in about five to ten minutes, I had the opportunity to test with a variety of players. One player thought it was kind of boring, which I can understand, because it's not like you're going to fit Squad Leader into a box you can put in your pocket (though if you did, I would buy it). Two other players enjoyed it so much that once I taught it to them, they immediately spent an hour playing against each other. It's got a fair amount of hidden strategy, a little bluffing, and a lot of planning. It's kind of like a high-energy version of checkers, so if you like a lot of theme, you're not going to dig the heck out of Robotory.

On the other hand, if you can appreciate a really fast game that allows for plenty of mental exercise and some careful timing, Robotory might be your thing. It's portable and quick, and will only set you back about ten bucks. Plus you can put it in your pocket next to your portable lawnmower and portable dirigible, once those are invented.


Takes about 30 seconds to explain the rules
Surprising depth for a game that finished in five minutes
Small enough to take with you to dinner and play while you're waiting for the appetizer
Doesn't pretend to have a theme

No theme
Short game
(Weird how pros can be cons, depending on who you're asking)

Here's a place where you can get Robotory for nine bucks:

Monday, December 7, 2009

Event Review - Paintball

I am in so much pain.

My son is a teenager, and like any other healthy, red-blooded American adolescent boy, he has an unhealthy fascination with firearms (and matches, but that's a different article completely). He grew up shooting tin cans with his grandfather, and graduated to AirSoft when he hit early puberty. Now that he's taller than most adults, he has decided to upgrade once again. So he wore me down, weekend after weekend, until I agreed to take him to play paintball.

For those of you who don't know about paintball, this is a game where you pretend you are the least bit athletic, and so you run halfway down a field covered with obstacles until a boy who has not yet developed hair on his testicles shoots you with a gun that leaves a huge purple welt on the fleshy part of your belly (and in my case, that leaves a fair amount of targetable area). Then you go to the sideline and watch for five minutes, then you do it again. After a few hours, you will be covered in bruises and welts, your legs will be so wobbly that you will be unable to stand, and you will smell like a wild coyote covered in rancid vegetable oil.

It might seem like I didn't enjoy myself, but I did have a very good time, and now I have to figure out how to do it again (it was expensive, and I don't own any equipment, and I really hate those damned pubescent acne-magnets who show up with their own guns and armored jackets that make it look like they've been sponsored like NASCAR drivers). My kid was crazy about it, which is no surprise, because as I may have mentioned, he likes guns. He got to shoot a lot of people. He is much faster than I am.

I think I would have had much more fun if the park had been organized a little better. For instance, the fields we played were kind of small. In one or two cases, you could actually shoot from one side to the other. For another thing, the only game we played was straight-up deathmatch, where you all go out there and shoot each other until one team is all gone. I wanted to play Capture the Flag, or King of the Hill, or some other game mode invented by kids in the 1950s and stolen by Halo.

Also, beware of parks that don't speed check their guns. The guns we had were so underpowered that you couldn't hit the same place twice, but some hot-shot kids showed up with ammo belts and guns that cost more than a used motorcycle, and their weapons were so over-pressurized that the little plastic bullets could almost send the paint right through a wood plank. Forget about the amount of pain you receive if one of those bullets actually hits you - you may be in a coma for a while. The park should have clocked their weapons to make sure they weren't causing lasting harm to fifth-graders, but since the park was staffed mostly with high-school dropouts and college stoners, they weren't exactly operating on a 'safety first' platform.

Ultimately, I think it would be best to go with a group. It would be fun to plan your attacks, set up screens and flanks and hand signals, and get to gloat furiously when you shoot your buddy in the neck. It's so much more fun to talk trash after a game if you're friends with the guy who scored that hit on your crotch that made you glad you wore a cup. Plus, this should really be approached in a manner similar to playing a board game. You should plan your moves, position your key players, and practice careful and flexible strategy. Paintball should be played as if it were live-action HeroScape, and you just can't do that when you don't even know the names of the burnouts who showed up with guns that are only slightly less painful than actual bullets.

But even if you go to a place like the one we visited, where you check out your gear from a shack that looks like it might have been stolen from the set of Texas Chainsaw Massacre and where there are huge piles of discarded gun barrels in drifts behind the buildings, you can still have a really good time. It's obviously fun to shoot people - that goes without saying. I shot a little kid at a distance great enough that I'm surprised the paint pellet broke, and I shot a really cute girl right in the eye of her facemask, so that she was half blind as she stumbled off the course. That was fun. But even more fun was circling around, dodging behind stuff, calling for help and organizing flanking maneuvers that allowed a couple of scrappy kids and one slightly tubby old man to take out a couple of those wannabe-pro punks. Those gun nerds might have talked crap up until then, but once two of them got sniped by a little dude shorter than an Ewok hiding behind a spare tire, they shut up for a while. It's no fun having to tell your elite paintball buddies wearing armored jumpsuits that you got completely outmatched by a winded, middle-aged man and his cohort in the SpongeBob sweatshirt.

I am seriously in pain. Not just sore - I have some welts and bruises that aren't going to heal in the next few days. Every muscle in my entire body is aching, and reminding me that the most strenuous activity for which I am actually fit is an afternoon nap, and spending three hours crouching, diving, climbing and sprinting is way outside my comfort zone. Yet I would love to put together a small local league, made up of friends who have as little experience and physical conditioning as I do, and play a good, fun game about one Saturday a month.

And next time, it will be someone else who is in so much pain. And, probably, me too.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Expansion Review - Chaos Isle Expansions

A while back, I reviewed a little card game Chaos Isle. It's a cheesy, campy brawl-fest where you kill zombis (no, I didn't spell it wrong) and try to complete missions. The nice folks who make the game were selling it in a big package at the time, to try to get you to buy everything at once. But they just picked up for distribution, and after the end of the year, you won't be able to get the bundle deal.

So this review is actually a dual-purpose device. First, I'm going to tell you about the expansions in a little more detail, so you know why you want to get the bundle and not just the base game to try it out. And hopefully, I'll also remind you to run right over and buy the bundle, because you won't be able to get it in a few more weeks, and then won't you feel stupid.

The first expansion I'll discuss is Fresh Meat. This expansion is mostly new characters for you to use as you run around the horribly named Chaos Isle and kill things. These characters are interesting, and you get a couple new missions and new equipment, to boot. But really, the reason you want Fresh Meat (beyond the fact that you're a completist) is for the new rules. Now you can play in teams, or for a really wacky variant game, you can just pit a team of zombis against everyone else's zombis and see who can kill the most in a hurry. The best new game style (and in my opinion, the best way to play the game) is Double Mission, where you have to complete two missions before you can win. This balances out some luck factor, and makes the game last a little longer - which is nice, because it's typically over in five minutes otherwise.

The second expansion, Reinforcements, is not what it sounds like it should be. Instead of being more characters, it's actually eight copies of one new zombi, and a couple missions where you have to get the food he's guarding before he destroys all the gasoline and gunpowder you've been stockpiling. I wouldn't say this is a critical expansion, but the new Exterminator zombi is a great new monster to fight. The new game modes are interesting, too - in one, you help Exterminator zombis kill all the other zombis, and in the other one, everyone fights to complete the same mission, instead of everyone having their own.

The final expansion is called The Lunatics, and this one I could have lived without. The characters are all escaped from the looney bin (thus the name), and so now you can play deranged little girls and body-snatching hospital interns. It's not like Chaos Isle is all about good taste, but this is even a little too messed up for me. The additional game modes, on the other hand, are great - cooperative mode is a fantastic way to enjoy the game, especially if you're playing with some fragile ego who cries if you beat her at chess (though why you're playing this horror show with your second-grader, I don't know).

All things considered, if you're going to get Chaos Isle, you should just pull the trigger and get the expansions at the same time. Right now you can save ten bucks and get some cool dice, to boot - but only if you hurry up. You've got until the end of the month, and then this offer expires, and you'll have to pay retail and hope your local game store decides to carry a copy.


More new options for a game that is already fun
New game modes add a ton of replay and flexibility

Still the same bad art on the characters (though like I said before, it grows on you)

Here's the link to get the bundle. Get it now, before it's too late:

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Board Game Review - Arkham Horror

The more I play cooperative games, the more I see how different they can be. Some cooperative games are like tricky puzzles that everyone tries to solve (like Pandemic), some are trudging exercises in frustration (like Shadows Over Camelot), and some are just exciting, mad-cap romps (like sex). Arkham Horror is another kind of cooperative game, one I'm going to call awesome chaos.

For starters, you can tell this is a Fantasy Flight Game. It's got cards in three sizes - and there are several decks in each size. It's got a big ol' board, and a whole lot of counters, for everything from terror and sanity to health and cash. There's so much stuff in this box that even after I played it once, I wasn't sure what it was all for.

And then there's the theme. A good American-style game should have the theme layered on thick - since this is a Lovecraft horror game, I want to see slimy tentacles and inbred cannibals. And boy howdy, does Arkham Horror deliver on theme. If you pay attention while you play, you can actually see the story developing around you. Even if you lose, you'll have fun, just because you'll feel like you just finished a scary movie. Gates to horrific realms will open in the woods, or the witch house, or in some crazy old man's barn where he keeps the tools he uses to skin people so he can use their buttcheek skin for curtains. And you'll send your Roaring 20's characters running all over Arkham as the town descends into bedlam, shooting monsters and stabbing undead horrors and trying not to go completely insane every time they run up against a monster that looks like a rubber chicken with a face sculpted from soap bubbles.

One complaint I sometimes have with cooperative games is the Lead Dick factor, where one guy tells everyone else what to do because he's got the whole thing planned out and can't see any way that anyone else would want to do anything he doesn't want them to do. Possibly because he's a dick. Arkham Horror does not let the Lead Dick take over, because for one thing, there's too much going on for one guy to track it all, and for another, winning the game doesn't require the kind of obsessive planning that so many other games require. As long as you're not playing like a chump, you've got a reasonably decent chance of closing the gates before Cthulhu steps through and eats you all like crackers with spray cheese.

A good American game needs to have some violence, too, and it needs to feel like an ass-whoopin'. None of this 'discard this item and then flip the card' violence - I want to roll some dice, chuck some lead, and when the bad guy drops, I want to stand over his cooling corpse screaming, 'Yeah! Eat it, Bitch!' And again, Arkham Horror delivers, with an open-ended dice pool mechanic supplemented by spells and weapons that lets players gather power until they're ready to deliver some hot lead justice. And if they lose? They might just go crazy. That is AWESOME.

A good cooperative game needs mounting tension if it's going to be fun, and once again, Arkham Horror hits the sweet spot. At the beginning of the game, the investigators will have a little freedom to run around and pick up guns and spells and magic books made out of human hair, but as the game progresses and the monsters are running amok all over the town, things will get desperate. All manner of rubbery beasties will be rolling through town like a homecoming parade, with the heroes fighting their way through Hellish underworlds, staving off the impending doom with just their guts and firepower.

I've just barely scratched the surface of the awesome factor of Arkham Horror. It's not terribly well organized, and there's no way that a Euro nerd would call it 'elegant', but it's an unreasonable amount of fun. In a market continually saturated with clones and reprints and unoriginal crap, Arkham Horror delivers an amazing story-telling experience and tense game, and delivers it well. There's a reason this game is as popular as it is, and that reason is because it's damned fun.


Great background
Tells a story while you play the game (without having to pretend to be other people)
Excellent action and a building sense of doom
A nearly perfect cooperative game

Messy - so many parts, you'll need a box of sandwich bags to put them away

If you like cooperative games (or even just games you can play solo), you should get Arkham Horror, because it's very, very fun. If you're going to buy it, you should get it from Dogstar Games. You can get it cheap, even with shipping, and plus they support Drake's Flames so that I can keep reviewing the stuff you want to read about. Go here and tell 'em I sent you.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Event Review - Model Train Show

If you want something done right, hire a nerd.

I know that's not the way the saying really goes, but let's face it, for most things, you couldn't do them yourself anyway. If you want your computer fixed properly, you should almost certainly not do it yourself. If you want someone to tell you exactly how much equity you have in your home based on current appraisal value and time value of money, you should probably not try to figure that out on the calculator that came with your cell phone.

And if you want to set up a toy train display that will bring in crowds and impress everyone, you should not leave that to the local craft club that meets at the rotary club on Tuesday nights after the crochet class leaves. Unfortunately, if you go see the trains at the mall, that's what you're likely to see.

Christmas, that most despised and odious time of year, brings out many horrible things, like rude shoppers, crappy parking, and repeated airings of 'Feliz Navidad.' But it does have a great benefit - people break out model train dioramas left and right. These run the gamut from 'holy crap, that crane is actually unloading the cars!' to 'why is that guy's head bigger than the front window of the store next to him?' And of course, Christmas brings out the uninspired, unoriginal, profiteering bastards who put less time into actually creating the spectacle than they put into marketing it for ten-year-olds and hiring moody teenagers to sell tickets.

The mall shows that get all the publicity are frequently publicized by local news stations, who are giddy to tell people about the pathetic train shows because the marketing people are giving a sliver of the money to some nationally known charity that buys hats for bald kids while they're on chemo. If you're trying to decide if the train show is worthwhile, avoid any affiliation with Marines at Ronald MacDonald's Toy Box Christmas Tree. If you see those big-name charities, it's a sure bet the trains will suck.

If you are interested in seeing some great train displays (and I am - I once saw a scale model of the French Quarter that filled a large display hall, and I spent two hours looking in the windows and checking out the inch-tall street walkers), then you need to find nerds. Look for local model train clubs. Especially around this time of the year, these enthusiasts shake off their mantle of secrecy and open their doors to allow the unwashed masses to walk slowly past their thousands of hours of hard work, allowing their preschool children to lean on the plastic retaining walls and pull parts off the scenery. This, of course, causes incredible consternation among the train modelers, but if you're naive enough to think that you can invite seven hundred people to look at your painstaking effort and carefully constructed dioramas and none of them would be rude enough to just break your crap, then you're high. Any place you put more than ten people, someone is a douche bag.

Still and all, if you want to see some examples of careful, cautious, devoted model-train nerdery, you simply cannot beat an enthusiast's club for dedication and attention to detail. Avoid the mall trains entirely - they seem to think that they've built a whole scene if they have a ceramic old man with his dog next to a model car that would bruise his kneecaps if it hit him in a high-speed chase, and put them both next to a caboose built completely from cheap Chinese plastic, decorated with the names of whichever loser family decided to give ten bucks to Angels of Christmas so that every loser stupid enough to get duped into a six-dollar ticket could see that they were an upright and holy family. The mall train sets have no sense of scale. They lack the obsession over detail that marks the true nerd, and thus are less than merely adequate.

On the other hand, if you can handle having very uptight hobbyists staring down their noses at you and slapping the hands of every street urchin who wants to drop his gum into the tiny model creek, you should treat yourself to a real train show. And now is the perfect time of year to do it - especially if you can go while everyone else is at the mall.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Board Game Review - Pandemic

Every now and then I like to share my dream for world peace, so that people know I'm really just an idealist. See, in my perfect world, my idyllic future, terrible disease wipes out humankind until there are only like eight of us left. Terrible disease could be replaced by a zombie apocalypse, but only if the zombies get tired after a couple weeks and go back to their graves, so that those last eight people can get out and use the bathroom.

Apparently, I'm not the only one who thinks about stuff like this. Somebody went and made a game about this peace-on-Earth scenario, only in this one, you're actually trying to stop everybody from going tits up. Go figure.

Pandemic is a cooperative game, which means I at least wanted to try it. I like cooperative games. It's awesome when you can play a game with people you like and get that social interaction and brain-churn as you try to choose the best move, and yet you don't have to make anyone cry. If you're playing with weaker gamers, you don't have to feel guilty about giving it your best shot, and if you're playing with people who takes games too seriously, you can kick them in the wiener and tell them to lighten up, because it's just a game (granted, you can do that with any game you're playing, and probably should).

So in Pandemic, four different diseases are breaking out all over the globe. They probably have terrifying scientific names, but in typical Big Media fashion, they just get colors - red flu, yellow stars, green moons... hold on, that might be a breakfast cereal. Whatever, there are four colored diseases and you have to cure them before the world is consumed by disease and you all die from purple smallpox.

Every player gets a different character, and each character has a different special ability. The key to winning Pandemic comes in using your ability to facilitate better moves for everyone else. One guy can run around the globe setting up research stations so that the other players can move faster, which will help the dispatcher who moves people on his turn instead of theirs, which in turn helps the guy who has to already be in Hong Kong at the start of his turn if he wants to be able to give his research to the scientist, who can then stop the black toe fungus from destroying the Pacific Rim.

You'll wander around the board, trying to get the cards you need to travel faster and cure white acne, working to beat the clock, because if you run out of cards or the diseases get too out of control, you lose. And in the meantime, every turn, you have to do something bad, which generally means a lot more people get sick. Hopefully, as the game progresses, you'll be curing some of those diseases so that they don't end up overtaking North Africa while you're all bouncing around between North American cities trying to figure out how to stop the pink shingles, but at the start, it can be awful hard to keep up with all the outbreaks.

I did mention that I like cooperative games, but they do often come with a considerable downside - the know-it-all, fun-killing jackass. This is where one guy, presumably the guy who believes he is the smartest person at the table, tells everyone else what they need to do on their turns. Pandemic is the absolute worst offender for this syndrome that I have ever played, unfortunately, because to win, you'll need to plan a seriously complicated series of moves five turns out, and then execute them flawlessly. Plus you have all the time you need to make your plans, so you could wind up with one guy saying, 'So if you move to Brazil and trade a yellow to her, and then she moves to Paris and waits, then I can send this other guy to Milan on my turn, which will allow him to treat the brown bunions in London before he picks up the cure to yellow dermititis.' After a full game of being bullied for an hour, everyone else at the table is likely to have their own response, which will sound like this:

'If you get up and go to the refrigerator, then I can kick you in the ass, and she can stab you with a tuning fork, and the other guy can send you screaming to the Hell you so rightly deserve.'

That's not the only downside, either. While I did find Pandemic to be tense and exciting and interesting, it also has an element where you're doing the same thing every time, and just trying to shave one or two cards off your previous attempt. I know a lot of people love this game, but I can't see playing a whole lot of times. After a point, you pretty much understand how the dynamics of the various characters work together, and it's just a matter of time before you're performing by rote memory. My son completely lost interest after two games; I could play a few more times, but I wouldn't be interested in making Pandemic the cornerstone of my game group.

However, if you're able to play with a group of like-minded gamers who understand the game, and you aren't terribly averse to fairly repetitive game play, Pandemic is a remarkably good game. The challenge of planning out multiple actions and complex turns combines with an escalating sense of urgency as the countdown to Armageddon ticks closer, until you're immensely proud of yourselves when you finally cure orange crush and win the game.

I suppose there is one more downside, if you're me - if you all do a great job, you actually prevent my ideal world peace scenario. Humanity makes a comeback, and the next thing you know, the world is afflicted with cell-phone ear and garbage yard, which can only be cured with high explosives and a flamethrower.


Intense, action-packed cooperative game
Every decision matters, and every turn counts
Very flavorful - the theme comes out in spades

Huge potential for the Mensa asshole to tell everyone else what to do
Good possibility that it gets repetitive

Pandemic is definitely a fun game, especially if you can get past the potential problems. If you like cooperative games - and can really cooperate, instead of all doing what one mouthy jerk tells you to do - you should go to Dogstar Games and order it. As an added bonus, if you buy it from Dogstar Games, then they'll be all grateful and keep sending me the games you want to see reviewed. You can get it right here:

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving

I know, you're coming here to read about games (that, or you're entertained by the hijinks of my teenagers). But today, I have something else to share, something that isn't games. It's about...

Yeah, Thanksgiving.

I'm not usually the kind of guy who bothers to follow the crowd with some big holiday cheer announcement. And given how much I despise the Christmas season (I love the actual day, but the season pisses me off - some people would go back in time and kill Hitler, but I would kill Bing Crosby), it may seem a little odd that I would make a special note about this particular holiday, especially since it is almost entirely an artificial holiday.

But I was thinking today, and we're some lucky sons of bitches (and daughters, too - I hate to alienate any female readers who either have no finer sensibilities or who clicked the wrong link and are even now wondering why they haven't closed their browsers and rushed to an eye-cleaning station). If you play games at all, if you hook up with friends or family to enjoy the odd hobby game, or even if you just buy them and put them in your closet, then you are one lucky bastard (unless, like I said, you're a girl. Then you're a lucky something else).

There are literally billions of people in the world (not that you needed me to tell you that), and an immense number of them are hungry today. A staggering number of people will die today, away from their families, left for dead or shot to death or maimed or just dying from dysentery brought on by dirty water and spoiled food. There are mothers missing their kids. There husbands mourning their wives. Today, all over the globe, people are miserable.

But not us. We're sitting here at our computers, surfing the net and checking our email, trying to decide on one more game to add to a stack of games so ponderous that we could sell them all and fund an entire Mexican town for a month. We are thinking about our turkeys, our lasagnas, our steaks. We have so much that we can't even decide how to spend it all. If there has ever been a point where you had to decide between the most recent expansion for Arkham Horror or a used copy of Railroad Tycoon, then you have it damned good.

If you're an American citizen enjoying this site from the comfort of home, then we have even more reasons to be thankful. Because right now, some 20,000 or so of your fellow Americans are on the other side of the globe, in some Godforsaken third-world country, holed up in a tent in the middle of the desert or a cave in a mountainside or some other miserable, rat-infested turdhole, looking forward to wearing body armor while they eat dry-ass turkey and canned cranberries provided by the USO (I was military - even when we got good food, we didn't get good food). And for a lot of those gutsy men and women out there putting their ass on the line so we don't have to, they're grateful for what they have. You should be, too.

And even within the borders of our nation, thousands are going hungry, or enjoying their Thanksgiving feast at a homeless shelter where they're trying to explain to their kids why they had to sell their Hannah Montana bed set along with the house when Daddy lost his job and they had to move into their station wagon. Today, somewhere, there are people hurting, real bad. They're getting kicked out of hospitals because they don't have insurance. They're getting foreclosed because they don't have a job. They're losing their cars, their life savings, and everything they've worked for years to protect. And yet lots of those people, sitting around a cafeteria table and eating Thanksgiving dinner off a plastic tray while surrounded by crazy people who wet themselves and talk to their food, lots of those people are intensely grateful, too. You should be, too.

My point here is not to make you feel bad. I sure as hell don't feel bad. I feel lucky, and humble, and awed by my good fortune - but I don't feel guilty. I've worked for what I have, and while I grant you that I had opportunities others did not, I didn't get here by accident. If you have the money to spend on games, chances are good that you didn't get there because of some random fluke. You may have had chances other people didn't get, and you may have been passed over by the Recession Fairy sprinkling layoff dust all over the country, but just because you got lucky doesn't mean you didn't bust your ass. You shouldn't feel bad for your success, unless you're a giant bag of crap, in which case, go ahead, feel bad.

No, what I want, for myself and for anyone reading this, is to think about what you've got and be grateful for it. If you're usually grumbling about your crappy job and your dirty apartment and your complaining family, give it a rest, just for a day. Today, thank whatever deity you worship for the job that lets you buy a meal, and the apartment that keeps the cold out, and the family who loves you even if they can't stand you. The next time you want to bitch about how lousy you have it, when you see your neighbor driving a better car and you're still driving your '97 Honda POS, be grateful. Change the way you see the world, acknowledge how good you've got it, and quit your bitching. You've got it good.

Now go eat some turkey, and have a good Thanksgiving.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Event Review - Speech Meet

I once competed in a speech meet, way back when I was in seventh grade. My only category was poetry - I recited 'Casey at the Bat' and won first place, which was, up to that point, my biggest accomplishment yet. I wish I had done something cooler, like Hamlet or maybe Letters to Penthouse, but whatever. Hindsight's 20-20, I guess.

So when my daughter told me she was in a speech meet, I was thrilled. She is an incredible student - far better than I ever was - and she's sharp as a tack, too. She was in two events, storytelling and debate. Neither of us could be bothered to care a lot about storytelling - her speech coach made her sign up, and she couldn't have cared less. But we were both kind of stoked about debate. She wants to be a wealthy lawyer, and I think she's got the chops. She sure as hell knows how to argue with me.

Sadly, speech meets for junior high kids don't seem to be a very big deal in my city. The meet was at a local high school, and was primarily run by the high school debate team. If these debaters are the upcoming politicians and attorneys for our great nation, then God help us all, because these were some stupid, stupid kids. For one thing, they were all wearing the debate team shirts, which were seriously retarded garments. They had a top five list on the back, for crying out loud. I have an idea that's way more original - you could make a shirt that says, 'Got Debate?' on the front, and on the back it could say, 'Debating: Priceless'. Freaking ignorant nerds. Someone ought to beat them with a rubber mallet just for wearing those stupid shirts.

For the first debate challenge, my daughter faced off against a girl who was not only half an hour late, but was also thoroughly unprepared. The entire thing took five minutes, because the other girl (who told the judge she memorized her case) forgot her case. Total deer-in-the-headlights blank. So my daughter, who spent three weeks writing cases, walks away with almost no points. Apparently, debate is unlike sports, where a win is a win - if you clobber the other team 95-0, you still get to put it in the win column. In debate, however, if the other person gives up and walks away, you get only a little bit of win. This came back to make me more angry later in the day.

The second challenge was between my daughter and one of her classmates. In this particular debate, the judge ended the entire session one round early, and then proceeded to tell both contestants that they left off their closing remarks. Well, no kidding, Whiz Kid, you cut them off before they were done. My daughter, however, kicked ass (metaphorically - it's debate, not kickboxing), closing remarks notwithstanding.

The third challenge was even more of a debacle. In this case, the other kid's main argument against my daughter's intensely persuasive contentions was to say, 'yeah, like what?' Sadly, it was at the end of this particular debate that my intestinal difficulty reared its ugly head, and I was forced to make haste to a public restroom at a public high school and was not able to watch my daughter complete the humiliation of the uninspired mama's boy. I was there long enough to note that the judge for this round cut it even shorter than the last one, just not long enough to see the dorky loser boy start crying.

As if to make a bad situation even worse, my daughter (who completely destroyed her opposition in three out of three matches) did not make the semifinals. Why? Because she did not get enough points against the first opponent. Both of her other opponents, on the other hand, did make the semifinals, because my daughter ran them so hard that they were given points for continuing to attempt to counter her brilliant, unrelenting logic (despite failing completely). So to sum up, my daughter prepared for three weeks, executed her debate skills with the brilliance of a military tactician, and two of the three people with whom she mopped classroom floors went on, and she did not.

I can only hope that the debate team process improves as my daughter gets older. As it stands now, I could not be any less impressed. I know that my daughter could rock your face off in a debate - as I said, she does it to me all the time. I'm not just saying this because she's my kid (though that is a completely sufficient reason). If she was a bonehead, I would tell you, because it would be funny. No, she's a damned brilliant kid, and it makes me sick that she wasted her efforts on such a complete circus sideshow.

In fact, that gives me an idea for the next speech meet. Instead of wearing those dumb-ass t-shirts, the high school debate team could wear round red noses and huge shoes, and when they arrive at the school, they could all pile out of a VW Bug. Instead of crappy nachos and dry pizza, the cafeteria could sell peanuts and cotton candy. Because while watching my daughter destroy her competition in a contest of genius was one of the proudest moments I've had in a long time, the debate team at that high school was a circus.

If you get the chance to attend a debate contest when your kid is in high school or college, I'm betting it would be very cool. But if your kid is in junior high, just drop her off and then go spend the day at the batting cages. They serve hot dogs there, too.


Massive pride in watching your kid kick ass
Bonding with your spawn

High school debate teams should be competing, not judging

Oh, yeah, one more note - my daughter took third in storytelling.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Party Game Review - Dixit

Before I get to this review, allow me to apologize for being two days late. I had every intention of doing this one on time, but was unexpectedly afflicted with some sort of debilitating illness that required me to be a maximum of thirty feet from a toilet at any given moment. I spent most of my weekend either in bed or in the bathroom, and hoping desperately that my body did not confuse the two. More details, I believe, are not required. Or probably desired. So I'll just jump to the review.

I’m pretty sure recreational drug use is legal in France. I have no actual proof, and have done absolutely no research whatsoever to corroborate my assertion, but I have considerable evidence that it’s true. Exhibit A: Dixit.

In my several years as a game reviewer, I have played some very odd games. There’s one where a retarded, myopic giant gives small children multiple contusions because he thinks they’re fish sticks. Or the one where you have to collect cookies and milk before your opponents can get peace and love, and the rules change every two minutes. And those are odd, and I happen to know for sure that at least one of those is made by people who smoke some serious wacky tobaccy. But for sheer proof-of-stoned weird, I think Dixit takes the cake. It’s also proof that games don’t have to make sense to be fun.

Dixit is basically a family-style party game, but only if you have a small party, because it maxes out at six. This is definitely a case where more means merrier, but you can play with as few as three, if you’re having trouble rounding up gamers with a healthy appreciation of the bizarre. You’ll each get a hand of cards with pictures on them, and each round, you’ll take turns establishing the theme.

If you’re the leader, you’ll pick one of the picture cards in your hand and, without showing it to the rest of the group, say a word or phrase that you associate with that picture. You can even sing or hum or make a sound, if you’re feeling particularly extroverted. Like if you have a picture of the rabbit knight looking at three mismatched doors, you might say, ‘lady and tiger,’ then set your card face down. The other players will each try to pick a card that matches what you said, and that they think will fool everyone else.

This is where it gets weird. All the cards have art - no words or anything, just a seriously psychedelic painting that may or may not be the product of a heroin bender. If they had the kind of art they used to put on pulp magazines, with guns and masked vigilantes and chicks about to fall out of their clothes, that would be one thing. If they had naked girls like you might find on a deck of playing cards you could pick up at a Tijuana gentleman’s club, then it would be awesome, but you couldn’t really play it with your family without giving Child Protective Services a good reason to open an investigation. But instead, they have stuff like horned snails playing football and a night sky full of random letters, and one card where a man made of leaves wanders around black sand dunes. I couldn't make this stuff up - at least, not without illegal narcotics, or at least some a couple bottles of NyQuil.

The scoring is great, though. This is where Dixit quits being Apples to Apples on peyote and turns into a really fun family game. After everyone has picked a card, the leader shuffles them and flips them up so everyone can try to guess which one was his. If you guess right, you get points. If someone guesses your card when you’re not the leader, you get points. The leader gets points for every player who guesses his card, unless everyone gets it, so he can’t make it too easy or he’ll just wind up watching everyone else scoring off his stupidity.

I swear I'm not exaggerating about the oddness of the art on these cards, but at the same time, it is strangely charming. Bright colors on whimsical illustrations give the whole game a sense of wonder that defies logic and linear thinking. The art is crazier than Lyndon LaRouche, but it's a lot of fun to let your mind wander and just come up with stream-of-consciousness ideas that make it all work.

Dixit is not a strategy game, or a tactical game, or a game where the smartest player always wins. It's fun and charming, and it's a great way to spend an evening with your family. Because the art has a childlike break from reality, it is entirely likely that an eight-year-old will beat you, which is kind of important in family games, anyway.


Fun and charming and whimsical
Creativity for everyone
Really cool art
Great family game

Clearly, hallucinogenics were involved (that may not be a con, depending on who you ask)

If you can live without all the strategy and maneuvering and tricky plays that make you play all those other games, Dixit is a great game to play with your family. Adults might dig it, too - though they may want to drink first. You can find it here:

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Activity Review - Croquet Golf

It's a scientific fact that teenagers are stupid. There are actual studies that confirm this, not that any person who has ever raised a teenager ever had any doubt. The studies say something about the underdeveloped pre-frontal cortex and hormone release rates, but those are just big scientific words that mean 'teenagers are stupid.'

I mention this because if teenagers were not stupid, I would not have had the opportunity to play croquet golf. And my life might have been just a little bit emptier without the memories of endless bickering and teen angst mood swings to carry me into my old age. Which, if my kids don't leave the house after high school, may happen sooner rather than later.

We initially had plans Saturday for an actual event (I won't spoil it for you because we're going next Saturday). But when that plan fell through, we began to scramble for alternative activities. Play a board game? Not exactly an alternative activity in my house. My son wanted to watch a movie and make popcorn, demonstrating that there is virtually no originality in him. I couldn't come up with one single cool thing we could do, and my wife was out of town. We were stumped.

Then my daughter brought out croquet golf. This is a fake croquet set with one cheap-ass plastic putter and four colored wiffle balls, plus some hoops and a couple 'holes' that sit on the grass. At first, I was not sold, but then I remembered that it was very late and I had an article to write and no other decent alternatives (if I had been thinking, I would have suggested we visit the Ripley's Believe It or Not museum, but that thought did not occur to me for several days).

If you've never had the chance to enjoy a late Saturday afternoon playing a ludicrously cheap lawn game with two teenagers who couldn't agree on the time if they were staring at the same clock, then you should celebrate your existence and keep using birth control. Batting very light plastic balls around an unkempt front yard with a cheap plastic golf club is bad enough, but when the rules change from turn to turn (which I allowed because nobody sane wants to argue with a teenager for very long), it turned downright unbearable.

Finally my son managed to bounce his oversized ping-pong ball off a stray leaf and into the hole, ending the game. And at this point, I demonstrated that I am not much smarter than my children - I suggested that we play again. But there was no way I was going to listen to 'you didn't say that' for another half hour, so this time we clearly defined the rules, which offended my son because he didn't think we were playing right. I guess they play croquet with their grandparents during the summer, who obviously have a great deal more patience than I do.

The second game went much better, and not just because I won. Then we took turns jumping over the shrubs, which resulted in more than a couple minor scrapes as we found out that the shrubs were not only taller than we thought, they were also more than a little prickly.

That night, after the sun went down, we found ourselves in the same revolving situation that seems to plague teenagers who think that their parents double as cruise organizers - nothing to do. Once again, we mentioned the old stand-bys, but we really didn't want to do movies or games. Instead, my daughter suggested we play indoor croquet golf.

See? Kids are stupid. We have hardwoods, for crying out loud, and recent unrelenting North Texas rainstorms have caused something of a foundation problem, which means that the entire house slopes gently from the living room to the kitchen. Indoor croquet golf had to be one of the most inane suggestions ever.

Needless to say, we had a very good time, though we did get stuck in the kitchen a lot.


Physical activity, maybe even outside
Mildly entertaining - almost as much fun as jumping over bushes
Spend time with people who usually annoy you without wanting to club them like baby seals

Almost impossibly stupid