Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Graphic Novels: The Grendel Omnibus, Volume 1

Grendel started (for me, any way) as the short Devil by the Deed segments at the back of the Mage comic books. Their style has been described as more like a "stained glass window" and the prose, no-bubbles, unconventional panel style was striking, as was the story of the costumed man who was better and smarter than everyone else and so eventually ended his boredom in the only way he could, through crime. I think initially the idea of being different than everyone else (maybe with some level of contempt for them) appealed to me, but over time I've grown to appreciate Matt Wagner's signature title for a number of reasons.

And let's face it: Grendel is Matt Wagner's signature title. I thought in the 80's that it would be the potentially epic Mage, but Mage has really only become an occasional departure from his work on Grendel. Consequently, he Omnibus really ends up being a collection highlighting the length of Wagner's career (well, maybe not the entirety -- but I'll get to that in a bit). Collected in this volume are Devil by the Deed (in its black, red, and white incarnation), the anthologies Grendel: Black, White and Red and Grendel: Red, White and Black, and Wagner's most recent version of a Hunter Rose story, Behold the Devil. Let's treat each in turn.

The "Stained Glass Window"
style of Devil by the Deed
Devil by the Deed is an interesting telling of the Hunter Rose story, and the first exposure many had to this title. It is told in that unconventional, stained glass window style, solely through prose (that is, no bubbles). When I first encountered Devil by the Deed, it was a series of short  appendices to the individual issues of the Mage series. I love the story of Hunter Rose. He is a bored young man who turns to crime in order to find a challenge in his life. I think at least part of it was the whole idea of being bright and bored which appealed to a young Jason White for some reason. Hunter takes on the persona of Grendel, a costumed assassin, and eventually grows into a crime lord who takes over the entire eastern seaboard of the United States.

But two things make Grendel work. The first is his adversary, Argent. Argent is a wolfman, seemingly a nod to the Native American wendigo legend. He is allegedly hundreds of years old and a transformed shaman. He is the crimefighting mirror to Grendel, incredibly violent, but, through his choice of targets, on the side of "good." While both are incredibly violent, Argent is successful through his aggression while Grendel is successful through his calculating coldness. Argent is strong and savage, Grendel is lithe and civilized. Argent is an outcast who lives on the streets, Grendel is a socialite who is among the highest social circles. And, in the end, Argent kills Grendel but is crippled in the process.
Grendel and Argent

The other thing that makes Grendel work is the presence of Stacy Palumbo. She is orphaned three times, once through her parents, once when her guardian Uncle Barry tries to double cross Grendel and is poisoned, and, in the end, when Rose, her guardian after Uncle Barry's death, is killed. Here is the innocent counterpoint to both Grendel and Argent. Their love of Stacy and her love of each of them is what makes each character just a bit more sympathetic. Hunter Rose cares for her as a reincarnation of the deceased love of his life, and, in Stacy's presence, Argent goes from monster to teddy bear. It makes what could be a hackneyed storyline somewhat original and the fact that Stacy herself is the one to ultimately double-cross Grendel is a great and fitting twist. She ends up the central character in an incredibly dark denouement. Her decline is what moves Grendel from an interesting story to a brilliant one.

The three-color anthologies are interesting in their style. They were inspired by the less interesting Batman Black and White series. The Grendel series works better because of its one defining voice: Wagner's. Batman Black and White gathered the writing talents of the day along with the drawing talent. The result was an impressive looking set of short vignettes, but one with a number of different visions for Batman. Each issue read as disjointed, with no central story and a menagerie of "Batmen" running through its pages.

The Grendel series, though, was, first of all, more adult, both with the "Red" violence and with its occasional sexuality (with one annoying tendency of Wagner to depict sexual excess through one act again and again). And Wagner writes every story, drawing a couple, but having a number of the famous comic book artists of the day (Mike Allred and Tim Sale being a couple of them) draw the rest. The stories have a number of original story-telling styles (including a series of haikus), but Hunter Rose's story from Devil by the Deed (along with a couple of other canonical moments, again, to be mentioned later) remains the thread holding them all together. Some of the images and events mentioned in Devil by the Deed are expanded upon and given a new perspective. Not every story hits a home run, but a number hit doubles and triples. It is definitely interesting to get a new perspective and new details on some of the aspects of Hunter's life and career.

The Omnibus closes with what I think represents both the best and worst of Matt Wagner, the Grendel mini-series Behold the Devil. There are two main stories. The first involves the people in New York who are investigating the Grendel killings: an investigative reporter and the head of the NYPD's Grendel Task Force. The two are also having a secret (and decided R-rated) affair. While they love each other, they also have certain professional obligations that mean that they have to hide facts from each other. As the reporter begins to truly close in on Grendel, he closes himself off from his lover for her safety and because of her concerns for his safety. The climax to this story is poignant and dark and, really, a perfect Grendel story.

The other story involves Hunter himself. Rose kills a lieutenant in the world of organized crime then begins to attempt to manipulate the rise of the victims. He becomes convinced that he is being watched, which leads to carelessness resulting in violence Rose did not foresee. Okay, I'm still with you. He ends up wrong-footed in dealing with some rising crime figures, and even with Argent himself. But the supernatural resolution of this internal conflict is somehow unsatisfying. The artwork for the "watcher" is somewhat ridiculous, and the resolution is a weak attempt to allude to Wagner's follow-ups to the original Grendel story. It's almost an advertisement for future Omnibuses (Omnibi?). Wagner's story is at its best as it gathers complexity. But there is always a tipping point with complexity where it moves from fascinating to either confusing or ridiculous. The whole premise of Behold the Devil is that it's an account of the pages missing from Hunter's journal. The supernatural element almost makes me wish they had never been found. But the human element of the story, the reporter, the police officer, even Rose himself and his sudden unexpected vulnerability, make it quite a good read.
The "baser nature" from Behold the Devil

For me, that is where Wagner has always been at his best: in his depiction of the smaller characters who get caught up in events and people that are decidedly larger than themselves. They rarely come out of it alive (think of the characters in Mage). Hamlet says "Tis dangerous when the baser nature comes/Between the pass and fell incensed points/Of mighty opposites" and Wagner is at his best in capturing these moments. The smaller characters have histories, dreams, quirks. And they get caught up in the fights of "mighty opposites," one of them being Grendel himself. You sympathize with them, you root for them, you feel the fear as they slowly realize what they have become caught up in, then you lament whatever terrible price they pay for their involvement. 

Danger and Vulnerability
Wagner's other strength is the art itself. Wagner's style is one that does not try to recreate reality (like an Alex Ross or a Todd Macfarlane); instead, it tries to capture emotion and convey an effect. The characters many times move in dramatic ways or have exaggerated expressions (sometimes with cartoony stars and spirals in the eyes). And there is just a pinch of circa 1985 Japanese Manga. It works, combining these elements into a style that seems to have both danger and vulnerability.

I have forgotten to mention one story, Sympathy from the Devil. It is a testament for tolerance of homosexuality, which I fully support. But I'd rather keep Grendel (and maybe my comics in general) out of it, preachiness doesn't play as well as the interestingly gray area that comes with rooting for an assassin.

I also have to take a second to lament what was not included. First off comes the imperfect but fun Batman/Grendel crossover. The first crossover involves Hunter Rose and was, for me, a great moment in crossovers that I thought I'd never see. It, too, showcased secondary characters who were complex and interesting.

The other unfortunate omission is the exclusion of Wagner's original Grendel comics, compiled in Grendel Archives. While I understand that Wagner considers these a "draft" and that it may represent something of an embarrassment for Wagner, I think they would make an interesting inclusion because they make sense of certain elements of the Grendel storyline. The whole (prematurely ended) storyline in the Archives is told through the frame of Hunter and Argent talking after their climactic rooftop battle. Hunter tells of his past; Argent tells of his own (in detail unheard of until the never-to-be-reprinted Silverback miniseries). And  half of the issues end with cliffhangers.

This may be the most revealing element of these old comic books. I always thought that the abduction of Stacy by a child pornographer was awkward and tacked into an otherwise fine story. But in Grendel's original storyline, Grendel comes to retrieve Stacy after his fight with Argent only to find she's...gone! It works as the end of a comic much better than it works as a seeming distraction in the middle of a longer story.

Stacy's being the one who discovers her poisoned Uncle, while fittingly traumatic in her whole tragic story, is another cliffhanger ending. While this one works better in the eventual retelling of the stories, it still is interesting to see it in its original context.

The Archives also give many stories in the Black, White, and Red storylines a precedent. Grendel killed the King, the master assassin, in the original series, so the short in BWR is a retelling (admittedly a better one). At the end of Red, White, and Black, we see Hunter's last words to Argent, which are all the more interesting when we know that it comes at the end of a lengthy discussion of their mutual history on that rooftop.

So, I love the Omnibus for what it is: a nice collection of the Hunter Rose stories. I wish it was even more inclusive, but I accept that it is not. Batman/Grendel is almost certainly tied up in rights red tape and Wagner has never really been comfortable with the original Grendel comics seeing the light of day. I highly recommend the Omnibus as an intro to the Grendel story, the fascinating story of a young man's rise and fall due to his misplaced loves. I'm glad it's out (and available on my iPad!) and it portends more collections of some of my favorite graphic reading experiences. Go out, grab the first Omnibus and look forward to the next one, the almost-as-iconic Christine Sparr story.

Potential Future Blog Entries: Titan, Star Trek the Animated Series, Descent, God's Playground, Eclipse

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Weeknight Game Session: Twilight Imperium III

Well, it finally happened. I've played That Game.

I have heard about TI3 so many times. And dodged playing it so many times.

Why? Was it the memories of our sixteen hour Throneworld session scarred into my brain? Was it my growing fear that 4X games have...well...too many X's? Was it my concern that it was more Trash than Ameritrash?

And that box is just so friggin' big!

Well, whatever worries I had, they were unfounded. I had a great time playing what I believe is probably a great game. I look forward to playing it again.

Let's start off with the circumstances with which I played it. I am a man who feels regrets, especially about the possibility of games unplayed. As some of you may know, years ago I was stranded in a sixteen hour Throneworld session that has scarred me for life. You may further know that one time, against my better judgment, I played Knizia's Lord of the Rings co-op fest and ended up spending one whole day of Pseudocon playing in what we still refer to as "co-opacon." It's so easy in a con situation for one regrettable gaming choice to fishtail into another then another and for you to spend the next few weeks bemoaning lost opportunities where you could have been playing 4 or 5 games that you enjoyed rather than the 1 or 2 that you merely endured.
Weekly Gaming Knight -
A Hero for Our Times?

Enter the Weekly Gaming Night (it's so awesome, maybe it should be a superhero - Weekly Gaming Knight - protector of your gaming interests).  What it allows me to do is to play a game with no real fear of missing out on something else. It's a great, low risk place to experiment with a game. I've had many games in mind for this, and my friends TJ and Kevin have given me great opportunities to play things and take gaming risks that I may not have taken outside of a WGN.

So when Kevin's son AJ, on his last multi-player gaming session before he returned to college, broke out his newly-purchased TI3, I was in. Not just in, but WAY in.

AJ had played a couple of times in the tournament at WBC and was able to effectively get Kevin and I up to speed quickly. So, this will be brief as I will not make any major judgments until I've played it more than once. But...

First off, I found that I like the selection of "offices" more than I had expected to. I remember Joe Steadman complaining about the change from TI2 to TI3, especially as it related to what he called the "Puerto Rico" element of the new version of the game. Needless to say, I was concerned.

But the offices had minimal similarities to Puerto Rico. Sure, there is a reward for choosing an office that has not been chosen in a while (a very nice reward, it seemed). There are also advantages to the primary ability of an office along with each office allowing all players to do something. The offices drive the action.

But, for whatever reason, they reminded me more of the action cards in Runewars. They really allowed the player who had chosen the office to perform the primary action, then everyone was able to perform the secondary action. I actually like the Runewars implementation better, where whether or not the secondary effect of the card takes place is more depending on a player's choices, rather than the choices of the other players.

I also appreciated the known nature of the planets. I am of the opinion that the 3X and 4X games have, well, too many X's. TI3 has eliminated one of these "X's", eXploration. And it works. You need to establish your economic and production bases early, and the unpredictability of the random encounters of a Stellar Conquest or, worse, a Space Empires, can leave a player crippled. In TI3, you have an idea of what you can do and what you can't and you can adjust your strategy accordingly.

I found the unique characteristics of the races well done. Each race had its unique ability but it also
the various branches of the "Tech Tree" allowed for each race to start off with a technology or two, further enhancing their unique advantages. (By the way, which "X" is the whole "Tech Tree" aspect of these games, maybe "eXacting research"? eXcellent education system"? hmm...)

One other unique aspect to the races was the inclusion of the flagship. Each flagship represented a kind of "super-ship," capable of the key abilities of any one other ship, but only counting one toward the stacking limit. This ship also had unique abilities. Through manipulation of each ship's statistics in addition to a unique "power," each ship became most effective in certain situations - maybe combat, maybe ferrying troops, maybe exploring and conquering worlds.

The game played fairly quickly as a three player. I can definitely see, with larger numbers, the game bogging down as you watch player after player eXplore and eXterminate. I do think that the offices effectively divide up each player's turn so that, at any one time, you're not waiting for a player to complete every aspect of his move.

All in all, I'm glad to cross this one off my "bucket list" and I look forward to playing it again. Will I play it at a con? Hmm... Remains to be seen. I still think the game could drag on. The end game is there for the taking in each game, but I've seen enough of these games bog down as each player "turtles" and avoids taking those VPs that will end the game. So, the verdict's out on that one. I'd probably play with players I know are fast and who already know the game. But I'll probably still confine this one to Weekly Gaming Night play sessions.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Gaming with Owen: War of the Ring

My son Owen and I have continued our series of plays, but this is the first time I've blogged about it. However, I hope to make "Gaming with Owen" a regular segment in this blog.

Right after WBC, Owen indicated to me that he wanted to play War of the Ring again. It was something of a revival of a game that Owen had cut his gaming teeth on. I was interested in teaching him Titan (because of the free-form nature of the WBC tournament, which would mean he could jump in at whatever time he pleased), but for some reason (maybe the 2nd edition "upgrade kit" I bought, maybe seeing others play it in open gaming), he was more interested in WotR. We decided to try out the new upgrade (but that meant no expansion! -- well, not yet). 

We also had to work this into a schedule involving a return to soccer and a return of the 9pm-11pm open gym sessions at his high school. Oh, and I'm back at work, too (for those of you not in the know, I'm a high school English teacher). So, while we were interested in playing right after we got back from WBC, we didn't actually end up playing until this past weekend.

We played two games of War of the Ring, one on Friday night and one on Saturday. Both were Shadow player wins, probably due to the inability to get the Fellowship up and going. When I defeated Owen as the Shadow player, it was a military victory, with orcs trundling out of Mount Gundabad to add Bree, The Shire (Shire...Baggins...) and the Grey Havens to the already taken lands in Gondor. When Owen won, it was due to Frodo succumbing to the One Ring's corruption at the foot of Mount Doom. Oh well. 

On my BGG profile, I have War of the Ring listed as my number two game (ASL is number one). I don't see it moving down any time soon. Our two plays were great and really highlighted the game's key positives for me.

First off, the action dice. I find dice in general problematic (look out, sounds like a blogging topic). They seem to add randomness and "spice" to games that would be decidedly uninteresting otherwise. Not so with War of the Ring. In general, you can use all of your action dice for something. The Shadow player may get a number of "Eye" results, crippling his armies, but this usually will slow down a Free Peoples player significantly in their quest to destroy the One Ring. The Free Peoples player may get too many military results, but the most militaristic result gives him the option of moving armies OR mustering more forces, which he is always in need of doing. Add to this the ability to add more dice and more actions to the game by meeting certain conditions and the adding of minions for the Shadow player and the adding of the more significant characters (Aragorn the Heir and Gandalf the White) for the Free People. 

Another factor limiting the wild randomness found in many other dice games is War of the Ring's inclusion of the Elven Rings. For each Elven Ring,  you can change the result of one action die. Carefully and strategically used, the Elven Rings can change disastrously bad rolls into tactical opportunities.

I think my favorite part of War of the Ring, though, is the two sided gameplay. The Free People play entirely differently than the Shadow. As Free People, you need to advance the Fellowship. As the Free People, you need to be careful with your troops because, if they die, they ain't comin' back. As the Shadow player, you need to be an offensive juggernaut, while protecting Sauron from those nasty Ents that can pop up.

The hand size limit is also an simple but interesting factor in the game. There is a "use it or lose it" feel to the card play many times (although, late in the game, I may come close to running out of cards). The cards can be used in two ways (as an event or as a combat card), and it can be a somewhat agonizing decision as to how to use them. Many times, the most useful combat card is also the most needed event in your hand (for instance, one for the Free People that allows you to force the redraw of a Hunt Tile, but also can be quite powerful if used appropriately in combat).

So the game plays out with you trying to:

1. Get the Fellowship to Mount Doom (or prevent that!).
2. Take Victory Point spaces while protecting your own.
3. Moving your nations up on the Political Track so that you can eventually build troops.
4. Manage your hand of cards (and manage your decks at some level - I hate to have the trek up Mt. Doom start without all of my special Hunt Tiles in play!).

The rules are so simple, yet I love the feel and play of the game. I've recently had something of a love affair with Middle Earth Quest, but Owen's insistence on playing War of the Ring recently has really reminded me of how superior a game it is.

Can't wait for the new expansion (Lords of Middle Earth). I would put it on my BGG Secret Santa list, but, come on, can I really wait that long??

Upcoming Topics: Titan, Dice and/or Randomness in games.

Friday, August 10, 2012

AAR: Weeknight Game Session with Hearts and Minds and Summoner Wars

Last night, Tom Grant of the excellent I've Been Diced podcast came over and we played a couple of games.

The first game we played was Worthington Games's Hearts and Minds. What happened to the components here?  I look at Worthington as the "little company that could," and back when Cowboys came out, they had really upgraded their components. Linen finish on the board and counters and thicker counters were the component highlights of the -- in the end -- underwhelming cowboys. Similarly, Prussia's Defiant Stand, a worthy addition to the block game lineup had very nice components, and the minis in Napoleon's War were a nice addition. But Hearts and Minds' components are a real shame. The map is too small and the control counters are too big. The cards are of the quality of the Jim Palmer baseball card that I tore off my Hostess Cupcakes box back in 1973 (or the quality of the first edition of Talisman, whichever you prefer). Too bad. It is a high profile blemish on what I actually think is a very good game.

There are a number of things going on in Hearts and Minds that I like, but I'd like to focus on the card play specifically. There are two innovations here. A number of games have the "event or ops" choice, with some notable cards allowing both. ALL of Hearts and Minds's cards offer both options. In H&M, you pay some or all of a card's ops (or even, in some rare cases, more than a card's ops, more on how to do this later) in order to activate the event. This in a lot of ways makes the choice a bit harder because now you know you're going to do something with the ops and the question becomes how many do I really need and is this event worth the price paid?

In addition to this is the idea of stockpile ops (in game parlance RPs). You can squirrel away the unused ops of a card in order to use them later. Most of the time you can add only 2 of these ops to enhance the ops of your card. Sometimes, the event of a card (usually in campaign cards) will allow you to spend more of these stockpiled ops. And sometimes, like in the case of the Tet offensive, you need to cash in a number of these stockpiled ops in order to activate the event on the card.

The game also comes with a red deck and a blue deck, with events uniquely advantageous to each side. But, interestingly, H&M also adds a third deck of black cards which are divided equally and shuffled into each deck, making these decks consistently unique.

I also love the "spend ops for combat" rule, which means that you can keep a battle going in the same turn, the ability of enemy units to occupy the same area on the board, and the ability to move through enemy units, paying an extra movement point to do so if the units qualify as hindrances (if they are veteran units).

The game was Tom's first, and my first in a long time (I think over a year). Tom was a novice and asked me about which side to play and, for some reason, I thought the Blue (US and allies) side was the easier to play. Ummm...I was wrong. The Red player just has so many opportunities to cause havoc and responding as the blue player is a daunting task. Needless to say, the Tet Offensive was overwhelming and in our 1967-1969 playtest, I was able to AV in 1968. (Note: another interesting thing about this game is its ability to be adapted. You choose the start year and the finish year and setup and victory conditions scale accordingly. What a clever idea!).

Even with the lopsided results, our play of the game only reinforced my belief that this is one of the best games published recently. I love new ideas and mechanics (or at least new combinations or approaches to these) and I think Hearts and Minds fits the bill nicely. It is definitely in my Hot Ten again and may be moving into my Top Ten in the near future.

Then we played another one of my recent favorites, Summoner Wars. Summoner Wars is another fascinating game. It has the limited units and board spaces of Manoeuver, along with the cards-as-units aspect of Battleground: Fantasy Warfare. I love the unique aspects of each army. My army last night, the Sand Goblins, were able to get to the board fairly quickly and while they were not very powerful offensively, they had very nice hit point values, making it more difficult to kill the little bugbears. Tom's army was the darkness-themed Shadow Elves, which played entirely differently. I would also like to note my personal favorites, the armies of Ret-Talus, the undead army, which plays so differently due to its units consistently rising from the dead. Tom and I split, with me winning the first game in a war of attrition and him completely outmaneuvering then assassinating my summoner in the second game.

Future topic: War of the Ring with my son (being played tonight)

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

WBC 2012: AAR

Well, I'm back from my annual pilgrimage to Lancaster, PA. After having to prepare for meetings today and tomorrow, I have some time to blog a quick AAR. Of course, the many discussions at WBC make me want to blog more extensively about some topics (ethics in gaming, for instance), but we'll see what chaos the school year brings.

I used to leave whoa early in order to get to the Wilderness War tourney on Wednesday. But the last few years I've ponied up a bit more and paid to stay on Tuesday night. So I usually arrive around dinner time on Wednesday, eat something fast and crappy (I'm looking at you, Wendy's!), then check in and get to gaming.

A change in plans this year was that we decided to stay on site for the con. I do have some quibbling, but, overall, I really enjoyed staying at the host. First off, we had room 206, which is now my favorite room in the whole place. It was about 3 rooms away from the lobby, as opposed to the last time Scott and I stayed there where I think we had to literally walk a quarter mile to get to the room. And, of course, it was better than staying off site.

My quibbles are few, the major one being that the bar no longer serves food! I loved getting a burger at the bar at off times, as opposed to eating the convention offerings (not bad, just not as good in my opinion). But this year, I lost that option.

I arrived on Tuesday night after a record setting drive of 2 hours and 15 minutes. I don't think I was going particularly fast, but I think my departure time (closer to 2 than to 4) really made a difference as traffic was light the whole way. I must have missed that New Oxford rush hour this year.

After arrival, Owen and I were invited by a young man (about 14 by my estimation) to play Stone Age. I am not very experienced at this game, but I have played a few times. One very nice thing was getting a chance to play with a veteran and getting to play a practice turn before actually playing the game. Got it. Take a farm on your first placement if possible. Due to some mistakes and some luck on rolls, I ended up jumping ahead in farms and, when we had to quit a little early (I would estimate about 3 turns left), I had a lead and was counted victor! A win! A very palpable win!

My friend Kevin then joined Owen and me for a game of Middle Earth Quest. Our little group has gotten way too good at Sauron so the evil one, this time being played by Kevin, absolutely crushed the forces of good. I blame myself for my ineffectiveness. Oh well.

After this, Kevin taught us Cargo Noir, which, while being totally in the Euro category, was not a bad way to pass an hour. Kevin won again.

On Wednesday, my cycle of scheduled open games began with a Space Empires 4x game against TJ. I'm pretty sure I've chronicled my change from tournaments to open gaming and my further change from open gaming to scheduled open gaming. Any way, TJ and Space Empires was first up.

It was my first time playing the game. I was a big fan of Stellar Conquest when I was in college (a LONG time ago) and I found this game an able successor. There was a great deal of bookkeeping in the game, but I did enjoy the customized ships and the discovery aspect of the game. Random initial placement seemed to have caused some problems. In particular, TJ's colonies all seemed to cluster around his homeworld, allowing his income to escalate rapidly to the point that, when I discovered his ships finally, he had built more ships and they were more technologically advanced. This could be an impediment to competitive play, but the experience of exploring and building fleets and colonies were quite enjoyable. I do have some issues with the whole 4x phenomenon (Eclipse, Twilight Imperium, etc.), and concerns with the end game (capturing an opponent's capitol planet), but I think that Space Empires actually is a simple game on the whole which plays relatively quickly. I will be giving it another play.

After Space Empires, I played a game of Kingdom of Heaven with my friend Paul. We played the intro scenario. I am not thrilled with the graphics on the counters, where the stylized "medieval" font is practically illegible to aging eyes. I also find that the CRT, which many times is used to balance out the crazy randomness of a straight die roll, actually seems to do the opposite at the higher levels. I also am concerned at the possibilities of having "dead cards," unplayable in any practical way, in your hand. But for some reason I did like the event cards and the entire feel of the game. I like the diplomatic rules and the harrowing rules which allow a smaller army to cause the larger one to attrit more often, a seeming necessity for the Muslim player. I also really like the variety of scenarios, including one pitting the Mamluks against the Mongols, a fascinating moment in history that I really cannot wait to play out. We were both inexperienced so my Crusaders quickly ran the Muslim armies off the board. Wait. Is that two victories in two days? Wait for it, my friends, you may see a trend.

TJ taught Dominant Species the Card Game to my son and some others while I talked my nephew through the confusing googlemaps directions to the Lancaster Host. After his arrival, we ended up playing a couple of quick games before turning in for the night. The first game up was Cargo Noir, which Chad won. then Owen, Kevin and I lost a game of Battlestar Galactica to Brian and Chad's Cylons. The most notable part of Battlestar (other than another game where all the humans died) was my inability to keep my eyes open. Kevin at one point noted that "In space, no one can hear you yawn."

Thursday morning started with Rune Wars, fast becoming one of my favorite go-to games. I find it the best balance between adventure/dungeon-crawl games and wargames. I like the six rune autovictory and the five year time limit. I also find that while it is easy to make yourself irrelevant (which I have done on occasion), it is also possible to fight your way back. Hemmed in by massive armies? Have your heroes go out and succeed in quests. Out of heroes? Build a massive army and take someone else's dragon runes. I also love the variety of ways to gather resources, both through expanding your empire and through carefully occupying key cities. Any way, the forces of the Uquar the Undying ended up winning in the end through finding a hidden passage through the careful building of armies and playing of tactics cards to go from 3 rune wars to 6 in two seasons. And guess what? I won! Again!

We followed this up with a quick play of Richard Garfield's King of Tokyo. Man, that was a fun game. It was quick, entertaining, a little funny, and very light. If it weren't so expensive, I might just buy it. It's based on Yahtzee with a nice system of spending on power cards layered into the game. But it is a lot of price for such short game play. Did I mention that I won this too?

The next game I played was one that is fast becoming one of my favorites. TJ, Tom the Tinker, John and I played a game of Imperial 2030. While I think I enjoy the original more (especially since there's an app for that), I do enjoy the interesting interplay of investing in a country and actually running it. This also takes care of the "gang up on the leader" phenomenon, this time by having the thematically odd investments in different countries. You can get ganged up on, but it is more important that you take advantages of your opportunities to invest in what will become stronger countries. The 2030 variant seemed to have less of countries changing hands than its ancestor, but the key continued to be investing, not military might. I ended up winning in a slightly controversial way (is a lie really a lie when you meant what you said when you said it but circumstances seemed to dictate that when it came time to honor the deal it no longer made sense -- okay, rationalizing much?). Wait. Is that three wins in a row?

We ended the night with a session of Last Night on Earth, my second game and, by far, the most fun I have played. The game is pure silliness. Roll for move. Lots of crazy card plays. An almost impossible situation for the humans. But if you ham it up enough and take it for what it is, it can be a real blast. My zombies won against TJ, John, Brian and Owen's humans. Highlight? Hard to say. Was it Johnny the former quarterback getting a death hug from the zombie hero Jenny?

Friday began as Thursday ended. With a win for me. What kind of surreal week was this? I played Successors against Larry, Chad, and TJ. The part of the game I most enjoyed was definitely the fact that we all came to the table playing a game we didn't know, but to which we had read the rules. No one was teaching and we all clarified points for each other. Honestly, I'd rather have all my learning sessions go this way in the future. Any way, I like Successors, but it definitely has some Bergish elements. Richard Berg has really great ideas that either end up being overdone in the rules or are cancelled out by other parts of the game that, in the end, make it unplayable. The mess that became Medieval was, at its core, a really interesting game, but it really needed more components and more playtesting. Successors is a much better game. Consider it the proto-Sword of Rome. I like the unique setup of having randomly drawn generals. I also like the extension of the Hannibal rules into a multiplayer format. I further like the tactics rating being the lowest number you can roll on each die in a 2d6 combat roll. Really! A LOT is right about this game. But then there are the parts that are just overcooked (as opposed to the undercooked Medieval). You have Victory Points you're tracking. Okay, I'm with you. You also have Legitimacy Points, indicating the perception of your fit to be Alexander's successor. Still with you. Layered on top of LP is Prestige, a number that you add to your LP in order to find the temporary legitimacy of a particular general  (as opposed to LP, which applies to an entire faction) when things like who the Royal Macedonians will fight for are figured. What? That's just unwieldly. Add to this the problems that all random setups have, that you may end up with a highly unbalanced setup. And, lastly, you really need to understand how powerful certain generals and certain areas of the board are before you start playing. I won with Antipater at 23 VP on Turn 2, but it was probably more due to an inability to recognize how powerful this general and his advantageous position in relation to Greece was. Still, I'll take the victory!

Next up came Slapshot, which I had just bought at the vendors. Well, it was only 23 dollars. Not bad as a fast paced random game, but it's a little too random and a little too long for me. I hope to pull it out during next year's hockey season and get my Munchkin-playing son to join Owen and me for a game, but beyond that, I don't see it getting too much playtime. Well, at least I got to play it. Owen won.

Next up, we were waiting for people to finish other games and join us, so I showed Owen and Brian how to play Dominion. I like Dominion. It's a little boring now that I understand that it's (almost) "all about the money," but I still enjoy it as a quick filler. I won again, but Owen played very well for his second time.

Next up came what I am willing at this point to call my favorite Euro, Dungeon Lords. This worker placement game really clicks for me. I have always seen Euros as building a machine then watching it work. Maybe you're building a shipping or building machine in Puerto Rico. Maybe it's a Province generating machine in Dominion. But I like the idea of my machine being one to crunch up the adventurers. I'm not very good at it after two plays, but I can't wait to play it again. AJ wins against Owen, Brian and me. He runs away with it due to his ability to amass awards at game's end.

We followed this up with a seven player Seven Wonders, another game I enjoy (largely because of how quickly it plays) and which I thought I wasn't very good at. But I won! Kevin made a little illegal play and undid it at the very end to give me the victory, but I'll take it.

We ended a very long day with a tainted zombie win in Last Night on Earth as Kevin and I defeated Joe, TJ, Owen and Brian, at least partially due to a rules misunderstanding. Oh well. At least it was just Last Night.

I also want to insert here the power of the nap. I forced myself on Thursday and Friday to take naps in order to nip the problem of late night dozing off at the table and it worked like a charm. It's incredible how much a one hour snooze can help when you stay up 4 hours later than normal.


Well, the last day of the con. We started off playing the sequel to Martin Wallace's Struggle of Empires, called (in German) Age of Reason. This changes some things fairly significantly. Now, instead of building armies, your nations have their military forces represented by cards. Also, instead of the tile draw, you can only have special abilities for the current war, then they become available again. I see this as simulating the nature of technology. One nation goes ahead, everyone catches up, then a nation goes ahead in another technological area. All the other nations catch up, and on and on it goes. Any way, I liked the new game. I can't decide whether or not I like it better than Struggle. It's certainly a different game, one that takes different strategies. For instance, you had better know how your forces stack up against others. The British will NOT get traction in the land-locked German States. And the colonies are where you make bank. Like I said, needs another play. Rick wins the seven player game as Russia.

And one more game. Dominant Species the Card Game. I had heard that this was a quicker Dominant Species. Well, after playing it, all I can say is "Did you play an early prototype or something?" This game had nothing from Dominant Species in it, other than the theme and the images. I ended up feeling that the special event cards really unbalanced the game. I will play it again, but I may try it without those events first. Joe won going away and I felt totally screwed by my cards. Oh well. There's always next year.

So, another great time at a great con. I hope that next year I'm ready to delve into tournaments again, but I will still balance that with scheduled open gaming. DonCon, as it has been called, is still my favorite convention, but I have some others on my bucket list. We'll see how they measure up.

Definites for next year: scheduling open gaming, staying at the Host, napping.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Quick Post: The Dark Knight Rises

Well, I went to see the film of the summer today. Not at midnight or 3am, at 10:40am.

First, let me say that if you're going to see a movie on opening day, 10:40 is a pretty good time to see it. There was hardly anyone in the theater. As I entered the sixteen theater cinema, I was the only person in line for a ticket and the only person in line for a soda (I gave up getting popcorn years ago - I can only afford so much!). The first patrons I saw were in good old theater one and there were about ten of us. I really wanted to stand up at one point and ask them to pause the film so I could go to the bathroom.

I'll keep this short and spoiler-free. I was intrigued by Neil Gaiman's comments that "preferred the last movie [The Dark Knight], but this is a better Batman movie, and, I suspect, a better film." How could you like something more that was not as good a film? I'm not sure. I tried to rationalize it by saying that I prefer  Anchorman, but recognize that The Artist is a better film.

Any way, when it comes down to it, I only slightly disagree with Gaiman. I still think The Dark Knight is the better film. Christopher Nolan is brilliant and takes a decidedly uninteresting villain in Bane (who came across to me as a "cautions on the use of steroids" villain back when he first appeared) and made him somewhat compelling. And Anne Hathaway is great as Catwoman. But neither of them packs the punch of Heath Ledger's Joker. Both movies were epic in their own ways. The Dark Knight played with the entire cityscape and gave us a view of Gotham that was recognizeable, gritty and only minimally cartoonish (even with such a potentially cartoonish villain as the Joker - see Jack Nicholson's portrayal for an example how cartoonish he could be). The Dark Knight Rises does an incredible job of tying together the compelling moments of the first two films into an outstanding climax. In short, I loved it. But I still love The Dark Knight more.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

AAR: Pseudocon 23

We had a huge turnout for Pseudocon this year. Twenty three gamers on Friday and twenty two on Saturday crammed into my humble abode to play games and visit with each other, some of us for the first time in about a year.

Before I get started on my reports, I have to make a quick note. The hits of the con were the space 4x game Eclipse and the new sequel to Here I Stand, Virgin Queen. I probably should learn to play both of them, but I had read some negative things about Eclipse that made it a game that, while I'd like to play, I had enough reservations that I allowed the many players who seemed much more interested take priority. As for Virgin Queen, there were two problems. The first is my mixed history with Here I Stand. I want to like the game, but I feel like every time I play people have to tell me what to do. It's very similar to criticisms of co-op games where it feels like I'm an actor in a play produced by one of the other players. I really believe that, were I to play it regularly, I'd end up really liking the game, but I just always move it down on the list when I'm selecting games to play. The second reason was that Pseudocon is about playing as many games as I can with as many people as I can. So I was reluctant to play a longish game. Maybe I'm just getting soft in my old age.

Any way, here's a quick(ish) rundown of my plays for the weekend:

Friday was a day for evil to triumph.

The first stop, of course, for Pseudocon, is the Game Selection Game. Everybody stands around, waiting for something to play, and it usually takes a few stronger souls (in our group, one of these is usually Scott) to commit and get a game going. Last year, TJ came up with a great idea - using index cards. The idea is simple. If you wish to, propose a game by putting it on the central table (in my case, this is my dining room table). Everyone then has an index card on which they've written their name. They place the card on the game they would like to play. It leads to some funny moments with people moving three games together and placing the card on three games at once, but pretty quickly it becomes clear what has support and what doesn't. People then migrate their cards accordingly. Usually, one game fills up and moves off to get started, then another, then the poor two souls who have chosen Dominant Species either play a two player game or change their votes and play one of the other games being offered.

The first round of this led me to play Runewars with the Banners of War expansion. Kevin, AJ and I were the players (this led Kevin to say "why do we do this again?" because that is our usual summer gaming group). I like Runewars a lot. I think it does the medieval fantasy wargame very well. It solves the multi-player problem by making player elimination an outlier as far as options go and one that will inevitably lead to an immediate victory if you're able to conquer one player, which is much more difficult than the other options available. It also does a nice job of folding in the idea of "heroes" and "questing," making it a key component (the easiest way to get new dragon runes) while not having it take over the game. I think it definitely belongs on my "hot list" and may make it to my top ten one day. The expansion adds some excellent options, especially for the weak elves and I love the new "title" card in the game that profound affects your ability to manage your resources. Great game. Kevin won, unfortunately.

A five player game of Battlestar Galactica, Scott's latest favorite game, was the next one out of the chute. Owen and I turned out to be father-son Cylons (kind of an oxymoron - don't they come from resurrection ships?). The game was fun with Scott recognizing my Cylon nature immediately (this isn't saying much, I don't think he's ever had a game where he didn't accuse me of being one). But due to a great run of luck and a great "megacrisis" or whatever those things are called, Owen and I were able to take the population meter to "0" and win the game. Of course, that makes it a Pyrrhic victory because we without any population, who were we going to crush under the heels of our shiny chrome boots?

Next up was Middle Earth Quest. Scott has now decreed that the game is "a quality game," which is pretty high praise from him. We played a three player game, and I, as Sauron, recorded the win. I've documented my love for this game a number of times. It is my truly guilty pleasure. 

We ended up playing until about 2am and then turned in early (for Pseudocon!). 

Saturday brought a few more plays for me, along with one of those games no one really likes to play.

After everyone arrived (around 10am), we again played the Game Selection Game. I tend to lurk around on the edges of this until the very last minute, jumping into whatever game needs a player that I have at least a passing interest in. Willing to play? Passing interest? Sounds like 1812: The Invasion of Canada. We played a five player of this, ending in, of all things, a tie! I have come to really enjoy playing this game, but, for whatever reason, it is one that I am happy to play, just not excited to play. A lot more games are falling into this category these days.

After this came what can become the most painful "game" of the con or any con which you host, The Lunch Game. This is one of those games that's not really a game, like the Game Selection Game. But, if not done properly, it can really go downhill quickly. I thought it would be great to order subs online, get payment, and go and pick up the subs between games. But a major storm had run through the area the night before and knocked out power to the area (except for Fortress White). This meant that the sub shop was packed with people without power AND that their online order taking system was down. Not the order-CREATING site, just the order-CONFIRMATION. So, after placing the order and arranging payment, the sub shop NEVER received the order. Brutal. Two hours down the drain. Thankfully, Joe jumped in and put together a pizza order (phase two of the Lunch Game). Next year, it's back to paper menus and every man for himself (or at least every "sub group" for themselves). It's the problem to be worked out for next year.

After the lunch craziness, we ended up playing Seven Wonders. We played with a number of new players. I like Seven Wonders as a 30 minute filler. It's fast paced and I love the "pass your hand" mechanic. I can't say I play the game well at all, but I still enjoy it. But over an hour of it? Ugh. And that's what I got on Saturday. The main problem was a large number of players (I think we had 7) playing a game that was new to them. Seven Wonders, though, is fast paced! ... Unless you have extensive kibitzing and strategy talk, and that's what we had. I'll still play the game, I just won't play it under the same circumstances. 

Next up was a round of Battlestar with Scott being a Cylon and the incompetent humans never even reaching Cobol. It wasn't really our incompetence as much as it was some really bad luck from the Fate deck. Battlestar is another guilty pleasure. It's quick, too, which helps.

Next up Scott and I played a game of Hannibal. Hannibal (me) made it into Italy, but wasn't agressive enough. Then he was kicked out and pinned a consul up in Gallia. But that wasn't enough. As Scott pointed out, I needed to use Hannibal aggressively, rather than just using him as a threat with no follow-through. Scott slowly accumulated power and fended off my lesser generals and I forfeited right before the arrival of Scipio.

The last game of the con for me was a five player Age of Empires III. Another interesting game. I think, in a lot of ways, it is a better version of Dominant Species (it's tighter and shorter, which I like). And it's also one of those games that I don't own and, consequently, don't play very often. I thought I was making decisions but I didn't triangulate all of the variables very well. And I ended up coming in dead last. Oh well. 

So, the con on the whole was a huge success. We had the largest turnout ever. The T-shirts were something of a success (we'll see how often they get worn), and, when I was lucky enough to be evil, I won a couple of games (one as Sauron, one as a part of a Cylon team). Next con, WBC! I've already started my scheduling of games. Contact me if you're interested in setting something up in open gaming. 

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Jason White the --- Roleplayer?

All right. Confession time. I did some roleplaying recently. And I liked it.

Well, of course, the first question (after the obligatory "What the --?") becomes "How did this come about?" Even I didn't really see it coming. Most of my peer group are boardgamers at heart. I myself had given up on role-playing years ago (time slips away, but I think it was in the 90's that I gave up). Our group had hit a point where we didn't meet very often (we shot for once every three weeks and failed to meet even that requirement at times), and a point where we were so individualized in our role-playing that we spent a lot of time working out private details of the adventure with the GM in closed door meetings. And whoever was not in those meetings was out in the living room, waiting.

I came to realize that boardgaming scratched my particular gaming itch much more effectively than roleplaying. I felt that I was spending the first part of every roleplaying session catching up because we met so irregularly and the second half waiting while this person or that person went off by themselves. With a boardgame, you all sat at the table and played. No delay, minimal waiting (especially with the innovations going on in boardgaming at the time where players had very little "down time"), and no consistency problems. Every boardgaming session was unique and was (optimally) completed in one sitting. So I dropped roleplaying and honestly wondered if I would ever come back to it.

Fast forward to 2011. My friend TJ and I had been playing boardgames for a few years. He had come into our gaming circle through the podcast and his great personality and willingness to play anything meant that he had quickly become a regular gaming partner. As I said, TJ would play anything. He still has his CCG's. He has the most complete collection of Up Front cards that I have ever seen (do you have that desktop published set of cards that "corrects" the Italians? I didn't think so!). He plays Descent and Hive and EastFront and Hannibal. After we had played a number of board games together and had set a regular playing schedule for a few months, he broached the subject of roleplaying.

He had his own issues with roleplaying. I think they mostly stemmed from roleplaying's dependence on the people with whom you play. One of roleplaying's major weaknesses is that every group has its unique flavor. It is very easy to fall into a really bad roleplaying game. TJ had decided that if he were to try roleplaying again, Joe (formerly Friend of the Show Joe), Tom the Tinker (another player TJ was playing with regularly) and I would be the guys he thought would have the right attitude and demeanor for such an endeavor. I responded with as tepid a "maybe" as I could safely muster. I was careful not to say "yes" and honestly thought it sounded like one of the pipe dreams where, if you wait long enough, it would just go away.

But it didn't. TJ kept bringing it up. He brought it up with the others and they tentatively said "yes." We spoke about it at Prezcon and Joe and I rode home from the con together and discussed character ideas. This just might happen.

Of course, as you can see from the regularity of my schedule in posting, it was hard to arrange a time where we could all meet. We had a number of delays. Some were from dragging feet in character design. Others were from things like coaching soccer getting in the way of scheduling. Finally, after a number of emails and a couple of false starts, we locked our schedules in for mid-May to mid-June. Three sessions in two week intervals. And after much prompting from Joe, I half-heartedly designed my character, a part-thief, part shepherd named Oswald. He would be the party's scout and "thief" (don't worry, I won't tell you a "character story," but there was this one time...)

We played that first night. And...

I had a good time.

I exited the first session with much more excitement than I had entered it. I actually looked forward for the two weeks to pass and for us to rejoin our attempt to rescue our old "hedge-wizard" friend. The second session involved quite a climactic combat with a nasty that was more powerful than any one of us, but not more powerful than all of us (Joe actually said at one point that he was worried he had made the creature too powerful, but we defeated it -- sounds like a sweet spot for monster design). The third session picked up at the cliff-hanger on which the second session had ended, a "hair-trigger" situation where negotiations with the local goblins had started to go bad.

Another risky combat ensued and we emerged victorious. We returned home in relative triumph. And I realized that, among all the other gaming I was to do, I needed to fit in some roleplaying. Not a lot, not regularly, nothing that would interfere with a somewhat busy boardgaming schedule, but a few sessions every year or so.

This also made me reflect on what it is that I want out of a roleplaying game. We hear some gamer stereotypes thrown around: min/maxer, munchkin, goth vampires, one of those larpers who gets lost in a steam tunnel. I'm none of these. I think what I need out of a roleplaying game is that unpredictable tactical situation that a boardgame can only give you for a short amount of time.

I love boardgaming. It is by far my favorite hobby. But when playing a game, the time I love is that time where you've gone through the rules and everyone knows how to play and you're exploring the game's tactical nuances and possibilities. Some games have a consistent vision combined with a certain strange combination of knowing what is coming while still maintaining a level of surprise and excitement that extend this golden period for a good long time. Napoleonic Wars, here is your obligatory mention. Other games are fun at first, then quickly devolve, either because the randomness overwhelms the tactical possibilities (as in a game like Munchkin or, to a lesser extent, A Most Dangerous Time), or because the game becomes so scripted as to become about proper opening moves and correct reactions to predictable problems (which is one of my frustrations with simpler Euros).

Roleplaying games, when run well, always leave us in that process of becoming. That is, a roleplaying game should always be somewhat unpredictable with the character's knowledge of the rules and a bit of creativity being their main tools in responding to the tactical situations put forth by the GM.

Joe is particularly good about this. This time, the unique challenges were a creature with poison and a prehensile tale and goblins who had prepared an ambush as we exited a cave. Each situation presented its own challenges and we had to be somewhat creative in solving them. And not everything was combat related. In the combat with the goblins, at a certain point, we had to turn a small advantage into a larger one through intimidating dialogue. Boardgames rarely offer this kind of opportunity, usually giving a particular way out of a bad situation. If it's a wargame, fight your way out. If it's a diplomacy game, negotiate. If it's a trading!

So at this point, I don't know how often we'll meet and play a roleplaying game. There was discussion of meeting a few times a year, and I could see myself doing that. Joe's game scratched an itch that I had forgotten I had and it played to some my favorite aspects of gaming, the tactical situation and the creative solution to a problem. So, while I'm still a boardgamer, and of that particular species of boardgamer called the wargamer, there's a small part of me that is a roleplayer. Don't look for me in a steam tunnel and don't look to this blog to discuss my acquisition of a +5 Holy Avenger, but, periodically, especially if I get a chance to talk abstractly about what a roleplaying game brings to the table, you might see this blog discuss roleplaying.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Reading: The Story of Edgar Sawtelle

Okay...haven't posted in a while.

I still owe a boardgaming post.

I still owe part 2 of my zombie series of posts.

I also need to make something of a gaming announcement (not a biggie, just a surprising turn in my gaming of late).

But I'm making a literature post.

I really enjoyed reading The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski. I admittedly was worried when my mother announced that she hated the ending, hated the book, hated the author and would never read another book by him. But I knew it was on the "Advanced Placement English Literature and Composition" reading list. I had also just survived listening to Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. It was an okay book but felt like Pride and Prejudice without the wit. I needed something (a) more masculine and (b) more in my "idiom."

So I looked at Edgar Sawtelle. I saw it was based on Hamlet - a point in its favor. I saw it had a boy who couldn't speak - weirdness is always a point for me. I saw it had a ghost - another point! This thing was scoring hits left and right! If it only had dogs...

Dogs and part of the story told from these super-dogs' point of view. Game. Set. Match.

It turned out to be an excellent book, one of the best I've read in a while. It was dark yet touching. And the weird touches, such as an extended discussion of the possibilities of breeding your own breed of dog, were compelling. But what intrigued me most was its connection to Hamlet.

Edgar the younger is Hamlet. Edgar the elder is Hamlet the dead king. Trudi is Gertrude. And Claude is, well, Claudius. But Edgar Sawtelle gives me a handle on a number of characters with whom I have problems. I never fully understand why Gertrude marries Claudius. In the novel, though, it is a long courtship where Claude is not even allowed on the property for a long time (but, as Claude says, one must be willing to wait in order to get what one wants). I see it.

In the play, I always have trouble with Ophelia. She is shockingly weak. She comes onstage and her father and brother bully and berate her about how she's not worthy of Hamlet. She returns so that Hamlet can bully her and tell her to get to a "nunnery." And then her brother leaves, and her father is killed by her love interest and she goes stark, raving (yet there seems to be a method in it) mad and kills herself. Where did this loyalty come from? Why is she so dependent upon these men? She is sadly and unsatisfyingly (for me) weak.

How did Wroblewski handle this in the book? He made her a dog. Got it. I understand completely.

So, for me, most of the loopholes were filled. Wroblewski adds his own, of course, leaving a white patch of ground and a dead puppy unexplained (and how old IS Forte?). But these are minor and, in the world of symbols, acceptable. I can make some sense of them.

But there was one problem for me. In Hamlet, the massive death scene at the end occurs, but each character seems to deserve death, at least arguably. Gertrude pays a price for betraying her husband's memory and marrying his murderer within two months of the funeral. Claudius pays a price for his treacherous nature. Laertes pays a price for his seemingly uncharacteristic treachery, a "woodcock to [his] own springe."

And I also think Hamlet deserves (again, arguably) to die. He dies for his unwillingness to act, for his overthinking things, for commiting to killing Claudius then saying, again and again, "not yet." He also pays for playing a game that he has no business playing. One of the classic sequences in the play is when Claudius realizes what game Hamlet is playing. He looks down at Polonius's dead body and exclaims "It had been so with us, had we been there." Immediately, he shows Hamlet how it's done. Time to act? Okay, Claudius is in. He immediately arranges for Hamlet to be executed by the King of England. When that fails due to strange, pirate-laden circumstances, he arranges the strange duel between Laertes and Hamlet with two failsafes. Hamlet doesn't stand a chance. And he dies because of their respective talents. Hamlet is a thinker, a scholar, not a killer. Claudius on the other hand...

But I'm not sure Edgar and Trudi deserve to die. Trudi is stand-offish with Claude and my impression is that it has been a good deal longer than two months before Claude is allowed on the Sawtelle property. While Gertrude is constantly telling Hamlet to get over it, Trudi is understanding of Edgar's feelings. I sympathize with Trudi. I like Trudi.

I also like Edgar. He is only investigating his father's death. Not to commit himself to commit murder or avenge him as far as we know. We're not sure what he's going to do. He mostly wants to know the truth and to confront Claude about it. Hamlet is exiled. Edgar exiles himself. And Hamlet is a man of thirty. Edgar is still a kid.

I'm unsatisfied with the ending because I can't see it coming. I only see Edgar dying because I know the end of the play. I am something like Rosencrantz (or is it Guildenstern?) in the play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead, flipping the coin and knowing it must come up heads again and again. Not because of physics or magic but because that's the way the play (or, in this case, the novel) is written. Edgar Sawtelle pays for Hamlet's shortcomings. I'm not sure that's fair.

And Glenn Papideau (this version's Laertes) pays a severe price for being a buffoon

I love the very end, the end with the dogs (and with the Fortinbras equivalent), but the orgy of death and impairment that comes before is somewhat undeserved. If Edgar pays a price, it is because of his neglect of Almondine, or maybe because he flees at a time when he should have confronted his uncle. But even that case is hard to make. Edgar is a child. He is a character with whom I have spent hundreds of pages. And I'm just not sure he deserved the death he receives.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Zombies! Part One: The Walking Dead

In a series of three posts, I want to kind of "clean house" as far as my thoughts on various aspects of the current  zombie craze. Then, hopefully, I can bury the zombies once and for all.

Hold it. Before I start I should alert you that I am not going to post "spoiler alert" every time I write something. So read on at your own risk. I will spoil as needed about Mad Men, The Walking Dead TV series and the Walking Dead comic book series. Sorry if you learn something you didn't want to know..

I put out a post a few weeks ago entitled "Am I Done with AMC's The Walking Dead?" In short, the current answer to that question is "Well, not yet." After what I saw as a low point in season 2, the show put out some serviceable episodes at the end of the season. Also, the principals have finally left that farm. Looming next season are the shadowy figure of Micchonne, the specter of the prison and the rumored casting of the Governor. There is a LOT to work with there and we'll see whether or not the show can pull it off.

My hopes are not high, though. The second season was slow paced and the poor writing showed an unwillingness to really make the audience feel anything outside of what we were told to feel. A case in point on this was the death of Sophia. After the midseason finale bloodbath, our first episode back (which had HUGE ratings) spent time with characters saying things like "I miss her" and "but this was Sophia." It's a good thing that last line was there because, honestly, she was forgettable. She disappeared before we had any idea who she really was. I would have loved to have seen her fight to survive, being courageous and ultimately failing, but instead she disappeared so early that, without the swelling music and the reactions of the other characters, I'm not sure I would have recognized the zombie teen who came out of that barn as Sophia. It was a precursor of disappointments to come. Characters did stupid things like let Carl wander off or drive off by themselves in the middle of the night unaccompanied. The confrontation between Rick and Shane was on again, then off again, then on again, until its fatal conclusion right before the season finale. The show seemed to wander like we imagine Sophia wandering, unable to find its way, stumbling toward its inevitable death. The last two episodes of the season give me hope, but the show better take lessons from its intellectual lineage: AMC and the comic series by Robert Kirkman.

Let's start with AMC. I've been watching Mad Men on Netflix over the past couple of months. I just watched the season 3 finale, which saw a complete shift in the premises of the show. Don will no longer be married and he will be a partner. Pete, too, will be a partner. It looks like Sal's not coming back. It was earth-shattering and world changing. And it was done with subtlety throughout, a buildup three seasons in the making where, when Betty finally confronts Don, you don't see it coming yet you recognize it as both shocking and inevitable.

Walking Dead TV Lesson One: Show, don't tell! As an English teacher, I know you've all been told this before, but comparing Walking Dead and Mad Men makes this clear. Mad Men shows all the time. You'd better be paying attention when you're watching because that little tug by Betty on Don's secret drawer in his study is building to her stumbling upon the key to that drawer. And that money that Don tried to give his brother is now in that drawer looking suspicious. And those pictures. And that divorce. And the deed to that house. It had all been building for three years and 36 or so episodes. Incredible.

Compare that to The Walking Dead's handling of Shane and Rick. Shane slept with Rick's wife when they both think that Rick is dead. Rick returns. Lori thinks that she can just move on and ignore what happened (like Don Draper!). Shane wants to cling on to whatever they had. He thinks he loves Lori. But instead of letting this slowly build (like it does in Mad Men), The Walking Dead's writers see it as adding excitement to reveal these secrets. Lori tells Rick. Rick admits he suspected it all along, but that baby is his. Okay, time for  confrontation. There's nothing left to be said because you writers have let it all out. You've TOLD us what people are feeling and have let the secrets out. But no confrontation and no stewing. Shane tells Lori that the baby is his and that Rick can't take care of her. Another secret. Another chance to let things stew. Instead, at episode's end, Lori tells Rick what Shane had said and makes him out to be a threat, and Rick, who has shown a capacity for killing those who threaten the farm, stares menacingly into the distance. Time for confrontation. So they confront and beat each other up and Rick says "let's move on and put this behind us." WHAT? Whatever happens, there is nothing more here. One of the two will have to kill the other, but now there is no tension to build. The tension was released in the confrontation. Either have a new tension drive them apart or have them follow Rick's advice. But no. That's not what happens at all. Instead, Shane tries to engineer an assassination attempt. The confrontation finally happens, and it's pretty good (especially Shane's zombified return), but it could have been so much better than a series of false starts and stops.

I can't decide if Mad Men has a natural advantage because there are so many characters and a city of millions of potential characters surrounding them. Maybe that means everything is subtle because you are so concerned with your image. Maybe it's the telephone that allows semi-secret (and semi-public) conversations (like Roger's phone conversation with Joan while his drunken twentysomething wife lays on the bed beside him), and the Walking Dead characters are forced together in close quarters, which means their conversation is always, ironically, more public. But I think that's something of a cop-out. Don Draper really has no one. Neither does Rick. Don's perceived (by us, the audience) moral ambiguity is fed by his unwillingness to share things. He doesn't need the phone. He just needs to be silent and to never let others see him sweat. Rick should be the same way. Instead he constantly opens up thematic conversations that just don't work, like the awkward conversation with his son about how everyone dies or the many conversations where he tries to work things out with Shane. Moral ambiguity is at the center of both stories. We are meant to sympathize with characters who are doing things that we may not agree with (Rick kills people; Don sleeps with them). And the more that AMC's The Walking Dead can play with that ambiguity, the more it can make Rick's actions something we both agree and disagree with, the better the show will become.

And that brings us to The Walking Dead, the comic book. One of the striking things about the comic book series is that its characters are so morally ambiguous. A number of characters walk through the story, most die, some few remain. We are drawn to sympathize with Rick and to root for him to survive, but many of his actions are ones that we either cannot agree with or are ones that we can only agree with in the darkest recesses of our vengeful souls. The Rick of the comics is too bossy and too violent. And we are constantly forced to ask ourselves whether or not his actions are justified by the unique circumstances brought about by the zombie apocalypse.

AMC's The Walking Dead struggles with this concept. It tries to present moral ambiguity but instead presents moral inconsistency. It might not even be moral inconsistency that is the problem. It may be a confusion of moral ambiguity with an ambiguous state of sanity.

Rick ends season two by saying to the rest of the group, "you made me kill my best friend." Comics Rick would never have said that. He would have said "I killed Shane. I had to do it and I'm not sorry for it. Deal with it." Instead, television Rick comes off a little whiny and a little crazy (wait -- maybe he's taking on the characteristics of Dale!). We end up questioning whether Rick is sane, not whether what he did is right.
Rick's moral ambiguity is only interesting if characters are there to confront him and disagree with him. Without these viable consciences, the question does not become "was Rick right in killing the men in the bar?" or "was Rick right in killing Shane?" It instead becomes "is Rick going crazy?" It is not and should not be that simple a question.

In the comic book series, Rick has a number of personified consciences confront him. One is the character Tyreese who questions Rick's edict that "You kill; you die." He also confronts and fights with Rick over his decision to kill a decidedly dangerous prison inmate. Who is Rick's Tyreese in the television series? At first, I thought it was T-Dog because of their similar names and ethnic backgrounds. But Tyreese was an ex-NFL star, a man whose physical presence made him tower over Rick and whose physical abilities in a fight made him a powerful ally (at one point, in order to work out the grief over his daughter's death, Tyreese kills a gym full of zombies by himself using a hammer). This also gave him a presence that Rick had to listen to. But T-dog has almost nothing to say. He's not large. He's not that much of an asset in combat (as shown by his inept maiming of himself when confronting the herd at the beginning of season 2). And the writers have given him fewer and fewer lines, to the point where his silence is deafening.

Another conscience for Rick is Dale. In the comics, Dale is gruff and blunt, and Rick values that. There is no nonsense, only a "listen, son --" presence to which Rick responds. The Dale of the comic series ends up in a romantic and sexual relationship with Andrea. And it's believable! Dale is stable; Dale is strong; and Dale is there. But the Dale of the television series came across as whiny and a little crazed. When presenting his case for their need to maintain some moral conscience in the new society they were being forced to form, the television Dale launches a harangue that basically says over and over again "I can't believe no one is on my side." Then Dale dies.

TV Rick's one successful conscience was Shane, who unfortunately was a murderous psychopath. This not only allowed us to dismiss his thinking at some level, it also allowed us to see Rick's seeming crossing over into violence as mode of protection as a crossing over into madness. Rick of the television show is too hopeful, then makes a switch to violence that seems uncharacteristic and seems to mirror the decidedly murderous Shane. Rick of the comics combines the characteristics of both the Rick and Shane characters of the TV show. At times, comics Rick is murderous in his defense of his son and of the group. He is a bit paranoid. But he is also the only consistent vision of hope the series has to offer. He is the strength that allows the group to survive. But he is also the other dangerous, violent side of that strength. It was somewhat interesting to have Shane and Rick debate between hope and pragmatism. As I said to a friend after the mid-season finale, "Shane was right, but if I got separated from the group, I'd want Rick on my side." The Rick of the comic books is more interesting, though. He would fight hard to protect me, but would kill me himself if I endangered the group. And that's interesting. And what else is interesting is that I sympathize with him. I want him and his son to survive. And I want him to find some kind of peace.

My hope, in the end, is that the newly violent TV Rick will succeed in raising the interesting questions that the comic series has raised. Have Rick perform his actions and leave me to debate them. But the writers' constant need to have characters hash out these underlying arguments in an overt and overly simplistic way leaves me little hope. But, you know what, I'll consider that faint hope my own Sophia. And I probably won't abandon the show until it finally comes shuffling out of that barn and leaves me in despair.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Prezcon 2012 AAR

On the weekend of February 22-24, I was lucky enough to get the chance to go to Prezcon again this year. I have often thought of changing my "off-season con" to something else. I would like to support my buddy Ric and go to the Block Party in the Louisville area, but it's so far away for an extended weekend. I would like to go to Winter Offensive, but I'm so rusty at ASL. I would like to go to WAM, but there just doesn't seem to be anything there that's really compelling.

And this year, around November, the cry to go to Charlottesville began. Owen was old enough to go and was excited about it. The Sudys would be there. Tom the Tinker was going to be there. Joe was going to be there. Heck, even Scott might come. And, of course, TJ had moved his permanent home there last summer and was even suggesting that I stay at his place. So I commited!

Of course, as seems to be the case in my life these days, as soon as I commit, I pay a price. TJ was the first to drop. He had a business meeting and wouldn't be able to make it. Joe dropped. Even Owen dropped, and he's my son! But a reserved room and the chance to play with Tom the Tinker and the Sudys, not to mention whoever else migh tbere, enticed me to keep my commitment. And then, about a week and a half before departure, Paul, one of my newest gaming buddies, sent an email asking when we would all be there. Things started to fall into place.

I arrived on the night of the 23rd. I rushed out of school in order to make it with as much time as possible. I had time all right. Time to see that Kevin and AJ Sudy. Time to watch Paul and his opponent set up their game of Breakout Normandy. And time to watch Tom the Tinker play his warm-up game of Eastfront. Well, at least it gave me time to watch some back episodes of Mad Men on my iPad.

I was also able to begin scheduling some games. The Sudys and I agreed to meet on Friday morning and I finally got the chance to play. We played Theos, AJ's prototype. In this game, each player represents a world religion spreading its influence across the world. In our particular game, I was Hinduism, Kevin was Buddhism and AJ was Islam. The game involves some interesting mechanics. You have three main characteristics, "Lore" (I believe - basically the idea of the central tenets/text of the faith), "Faith" (your ability to spread within a territory that you already occupy), and "Missionary" (Okay, get your mind out of the gutter. It's the ability to spread your faith around the world). Each of these acts as a different currency, allowing you to perform certain actions and controllling the way you spread. At this point, the prototype also has a multi-option track where you gained cetain bunuses (more missionary points, a higher ship value, more VP).  You cold spend your points on this track or use them to spread on the map. It was surprisingly quick for a game that resembled History of the World. There may have been a brief balance issue with Islam, especially as Islam had to compete with Hinduisim and Buddhism. We talked out some options about changing gameplay then headed over the vendors.

The pickings were sparse at the vendors. I ended up only buying one game (!). I feel bad, like I let down my collector brethren, but what can you do? I noticed at the Z-Man games booth the game Junta:Viva la Revolucion! As I turned the game back and forth in my hand, admiring its design and pricetag, the clerk in the Z-Man booth said "Oh, that game -- it's basically a beer and pretzels versions of Junta." WHAT? I blinked twice. Junta WAS a beer and pretzels game.It was kind of like saying "It's a Will Ferrell movie, but this one is a comedy." I couldn't quite wrap my brain around it, but I was good buying it anyway.

So I did get to play the game a couple of times during the con. It was light. It was more beer and pretzels than the original. Really, they removed the wargaming element. And what did we play Junta for? It was for the betrayals, the fun of illegally stashing away your embezzlements from the banana republic and the fun of trying to catch each other off guard for an assassination. While stashing away the ill-gotten gains has been changed thematically from squirreling it away in a swiss bank account in the original to an investment system in the current game, those key elements remained. Honestly, the wargaming component of the original Junta was overblown. It actually could cause the game to crawl (I remember the last time I played the game we launched a coup every turn. It was brutal and it pretty much made the game dead to me). So, this is light. It's not a great game, but it's not that bad. We played it with three players, which caused some weirdness with assassinations, but I would like to play it again with more. It is filler material, not the main game of the night, but it will probably find my table again.

I also got to play the new Academy Games offering, 1812: Clash for a Continent. Walking away from my disappointing excursion to the vendors, we encountered a "bonus vendor" in the hotel atrium. I'm not sure who exactly the booth belonged to (sorry, vendor!), but it catered to Academy Games products and Defenders of the Realm and its expansions. The best part about this particular vendor was its stragegically placed location next to the open gaming areas.

I was probably going to buy 1812: Clash for a Continent any way. The game looked somewhat interesting. It was a hybrid (one of my weak spots these days). And, of course, I have an addiction to buying games. But I stayed in a state of denial about this purchase just long enough for one of the salespeople at the booth to offer to teach 1812 to me and my friends, Kevin and AJ.

Not a bad game! The game is a standard, Risk-style, move and shoot game. EXCEPT each army involved has its own special dice - the Brits are good at killing and not running away, the French are good at killing, but may run away, and the militia might kill, but are more likely to run away. Oh, and the game is card driven. EXCEPT you will play every card in your deck once and only once. And did I mention that the game could be played with 2, 3, 4, or 5 players? There has been some criticism about how effective a multiplayer game it is because you play in teams. But I have played it with 3 and 4 players, and it seemed to work fine, certainly no more awkwardly than Middle Earth Quest. Bottom line: the game played fast and had some interesting decisions to it. It's not an incredible game, but it is definitely one I will play again.

Speaking of Middle Earth Quest, Kevin and I were able to squeeze in two games at Prezcon. We introduced a newbie to the game (sorry again, forgot your name and should have recorded it somewhere). He went running off to the vendors to buy his own copy of the game, so I guess you could say it was a success. We seem to be seeing a rise in the powers of darkness lately, with Sauron becoming more and more difficult to defeat. I think it just means that we'll adjust the way we play the heroes in the game and the game will balance itself again. Of course, if it ends up being a game where Sauron wins most of the time and the heroes are scrambling to prevent the triumph of evil, that seems to work thematically so it's okay with me.

The last game I want to report on is my third play of FAB: Sicily. This was an extra cool session for two reasons. Reason One: I got to play with Rick Young. Rick is a good friend with whom I love to play and with whom I don't get enough chances to play. Rick convinced me that Point 2 Point is NOT dead and that people would still like to hear from me, even if it were twice a year (a post-WBC year in review and a Holiday Special). I might be able to do that. I'll at least try it for Rick's sake.

The second reason was I finally played it right! That's not to say my son and I were playing it completely randomly or anything. Far from it. The majority of the game we were playing correctly. But there still were minor things we had been doing wrong, and Rick was able to point those out during the course of play. Needless to say, Rick's Allied forces crushed my Axis ones, but it was not immediate and it was fun to play. Verdict on FAB: Sicily? It's a good one. It's its own game, like all Rick Young games. This one focuses more on choosing invasion sites and using your airborne troops effectively and less on getting your armor to where it can exploit (which is one of the main focal points of FAB:Bulge).

So that wraps up the first in what I hope will be a series of blog posts in the coming weeks. I needed to get the Prezcon AAR out of the way. I am sorry it took so long. Bottom line on Prezcon: it's small, but a good time. There is something of a personal touch to it, which I love, and the venue is one of the nicest I have ever been in for a con.

Stay tuned and subscribe at I have some more to write, including: a series of zombie posts (another on the AMC series, one on Romero's movie series, and one on boardgaming with zombies - which I'll crosspost to BGG), one on an 80's fantasy television series I've been re-watching, and more on gaming - not sure what this one will be, maybe on the disappointment of hex and counter gaming (say it ain't so!).

Monday, February 20, 2012

Am I Done with AMC's The Walking Dead?

First off, a distinction. I am making a distinction between AMC's The Walking Dead and the excellent comic The Walking Dead. I am NOT done with that. Far from it. I have really enjoyed the growth of Andrea's character and Rick's attempts to be moral while doing decidedly controversial things and making huge mistakes along the way. But, more on that another time.

Secondly, a warning. This may contain spoilers. If it does, thank me. I saved you from watching this episode.

Last night's episode, "Triggerfinger," showed me that the show had lost a great deal of its mojo. Now, they are simply tacking on drama to the show and at times doing it in a half-assed way. Need some drama? How about introducing some living antagonists that are boorish northerners. Instead of a herd encountered on a highway or a high school full of zombies, now we get a smattering of them here and there. They seem to have lost focus in a lot of ways. They seem to be missing the obvious drama right before them.

How could The Walking Dead build drama more effectively?

1. Bring back zombies! What happened to them? There is a lot of plot building and world building to do here. Seeing the bloated zombie in the well was interesting. Seeing the herd was interesting. There is a lot to learn about how the zombies operate and move about. Instead they seem to be the occasional bone they throw the watcher. This really struck me in the mid-season finale when Shane confronts Rick about the danger he put everyone in as they stayed behind and searched for Sophia. Shane was right in a sense, but, according to the action of the show he was dead wrong. In the world the show has created, they could stay on the farm indefinitely. The extended time not moving seemed to have cost them nothing. They lost Sophia on the highway, not the farm. The farm seems to only encounter a zombie or two every few episodes, and they lost NO ONE in the search for Sophia (other than Otis who was lost indirectly due to Sophia). The show tried to create a conflict, an idea of Rick's hope contrasting with Shane's cold pragmatism. But Rick's hope is much more pragmatic. The zombies aren't a threat here at all.

2. Find a new direction. Okay, so in last episode, we learned that Fort Benning is not a viable option. But this was from a decidedly unreliable source. And just because one direction is cut off, doesn't mean another is not open. The Nebraska idea is a good one. But, whatever they decide, they need to GET OFF THE FARM. I am sick of the barn (especially now that it's no longer a looming threat). I'm sick of Glen and Maggie (I get it, young love and all that). I'm sick of the pointing fingers and threats that never seem to come to fruition. If this is a show about people, great. I want that. But what separates this from Mad Men is its unique world. We should be learning about people as they try to exist in a post-apocalyptic world, not as they try to figure out when certain are allowed to eat at the table or use the kitchen. This space has been explored. Move on.

3. Teach us something about this new world. This probably goes along with number 2, but we need to learn something about the world around them. In the comic, they have gone to a gated community (bad idea), a prison (somewhat good idea), Woodbury (I wonder if this will ever happen in the show?), a military base, a newly formed, fortified community, and now they are realizing there are others out there. We've seen Atlanta, I-95, and Washington, DC (and its suburbs). I know it's had a longer run, but we need to see something out there other than this farm.

4. Kill, hurt, or maim someone we care about. I wish I had gotten to know Sophia. I was so unfamiliar with her that, without the dramatic music and the staring characters, I am not sure I would have recognized her. It was creepy to have to kill a zombie child. I know because the first sequence in the show's premiere showed Rick killing one. Then they went back to the well. And, while it was dramatic, it lacked the power it could have had. Last night, they had a chance. Lori was taking off her shirt. What if she had been bitten? Wow. What if she was maimed and Shane had to fight off zombie hordes while they came to rescue her? Instead, life moves on and the show does not. Now we have manufactured a showdown between Rick and Shane. Really? The tension was there. All that had to happen was Shane has to make a move. Instead, the increasingly disappointing show felt the need to have Lori spell out exactly what the conflict is and we have to judge from Rick's expression how homicidal he is. I hope it at least goes somewhere. Maybe it just means Rick will make Shane take a turn doing the laundry.

Maybe all of this is related to the show's budget cuts. Certainly, it costs money to film on location and to create zombies. If so, this is a budget cut that will kill The Walking Dead. It is leaving the show stranded in one location where it is only capable of spinning in circles and manufacturing drama. Lori flipping in the car was one of the most obvious gimicks I have seen in a show. She's flipped, she may be dying. Nope, she's fine. The flip was just to get us to tune back in a week. The problem is the classic "fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice..." dilemma. I have to ask myself: is the show going anywhere? Or is it another failed attempt at a genre show? The hay is most likely in the barn on this one and we'll see where things go from here. My hopes are dwindling, my DVR space is valuable, and my viewing time is limited. And this show may not be good enough to make the cut.