Monday, December 15, 2014

Surprise! (A Christmas Classic)

This happened almost exactly 6 years ago... but it's still a story that warms my heart. I've made some changes to the original Grapevine post - hope you enjoy it. Merry Christmas!

Back in December of 2008, we were given the rare & wonderful gift of a day at the Disneyland Resort by friend who works for WDI (Walt Disney Imagineering)... his generosity enable us to experience both Disneyland & California Adventure for the day. We had a wonderful time riding the rides & watching our boys experience the parks.

But the story starts a bit farther back, as Shari & I decided to surprise the boys with this trip... especially the final destination. We'd been hinting that a special surprise was coming - but not that it was a trip. When we locked down the details with a few weeks to go, we began letting them know that a trip was coming, but not where we were going.

Braeden tried to figure it out, seeing if how far we were traveling (4 hours) or where we staying (Anaheim) would tell him anything... but that's one of the disadvantages of being 7 - he didn't realize that Disneyland was in Anaheim, just 4 hours away.

We did all sorts of things to keep things hidden - I took a different (slightly longer) route into Orange County to avoid all the Disneyland signs along I-5. (Plus, I hate driving through downtown L.A. on the 5... even at mid-day, it's stop-n-go traffic.) We brought the boys in through the side entrance of the hotel so they wouldn't see the big Mickey Mouse statue in the lobby. I even hid the Disney ads in the room so they wouldn't be reminded.

We had all kinds of slip-ups & near misses as well - a good friend wished us a great day at Disneyland with the boys in the room, but they didn't notice. Shari & I had to cover up a question about the Christmas parade at the parks with a long-winded discussion about the Visalia & Caruthers Christmas parades. I was very aware that I was talking about the theme parks a lot - so I tried to find ways to make the conversation seem "natural"... ha.

I'm not sure why, but Collin was pretty sure that he was going to Disneyland. Braeden patiently explained to him Tuesday afternoon why that couldn't be true (he thought we'd driven the wrong direction).

The close calls kept coming - our hotel was about a mile & a half from the parks, but it was right by one of the major intersections for Disney Way. Tuesday night, we could hear the fireworks in our room, but the boys were distracted by the TV and didn't seem to notice.

I had been telling Braeden & Collin multiple times that I had an appointment on Wednesday morning & then we'd have our surprise - of course, the appointment was with my friend from WDI. We drove down Katella & turned on Harbor Blvd, going right past the hotel we'd stayed at when we'd gone to the Disneyland Resort 
in December of 2007  - but still no recognition. It wasn't until we were in the turn lane for the parking area (note: I miss the old Disneyland sign...) that Shari asked Braeden if he knew where we were.

"Disneyland," he answered.

"So what's the surprise?" she asked.

With a catch in his voice, he questioned, "Disneyland?," and when Shari & I told him he was right, he started laughing & yelling, "Collin, we're going to Disneyland!" The surprise & excitement in his voice was worth all the effort.

If you want more details about the trip, I blogged about most of it...
On the way home (we drove back after Disneyland closed), I had lots of time to think & pray - Shari & the boys fell asleep and I had 4 hours of driving to do. So my mind wandered from surprise trips to Christmas celebrations at Disneyland to the real reason for the Christmas season.

Some random thoughts:
  • it was a surprise to the Jews, even though God had littered clues all the way through the Old Testament writings - starting with Genesis 3 and continuing through the promises to the patriarchs... and just in case they hadn't figured it out by then, He gave the prophets one hint after another
  • just like Braeden, even with the evidence staring them in the face, it seemed too good to be true that the Messiah had finally come...
  • as I pondered this stuff, I realized that my role in the story is similar to the Enemy's role in our story, as he attempts to  distract us from the story of Jesus Christ at the center of Christmas and instead tries to get us to focus on other things
  • finally, as cool as Disneyland is (and I'm a HUGE Disney parks fan), it doesn't compare to how amazing & wonderful it is that God sent Jesus to Earth
How much surprise is left in your Christmas celebration? No,  I'm not talking about the sticker shock you have when the Visa bill shows up in mid-January... I'm talking about Braeden-like wonder & awe at having been given such an incredible gift.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Essen 2014: A Weekend to Remember

I had a wonderful weekend (well, extended weekend) with good friends playing a large pile (45!!) of Essen 2014 games. The following list is my attempt to give you my quick reactions to the games that were new to me.

I plan to write longer reviews on some of these games in the upcoming months. Questions are welcome in the comments - I'll do my best to answer them.

The games are listed in alphabetical order under each category.

  • The Battle at Kemble's Cascade - creative mechanics do a great job of capturing the feel of old skool video games... specifically side-scrollers like Defender or Gradius
  • Castles of Mad King Ludwig - a cousin to Suburbia... but with some great spatial challenges and some tricky decisions about setting prices
  • Colt Express - an incredible 3D board (of a Western steam train) makes an excellent platform for a delightfully random gunfight (your mileage may vary drastically, depending on your tolerance for wackiness & fluff)
  • Deus - a blending of tableau-building and Catan-like building to the map works like a charm
  • Hook - a speed pattern recognition game with a pirate theme... that doesn't lock out slower players
  • Nations: The Dice Game - taking a different approach to dice + civ-building than long-time favorite Roll Through the Ages, this is more interactive (due to the limited tiles)
  • Pathfinder Adventure Card Game: Skull & Shackles - my younger son dubbed this a "role-playing deck-building game"... he's right. And we've had a lot of fun playing this cooperative game together. As of last night, we've played the first four scenarios.
  • Abraca...what? - a deduction game for people who don't like deduction games... and kid-friendly as well
  • Fresh Fish - the new edition of this classic game is MUCH easier to figure out while retaining the nastiness of the original
  • Gib Gas - blind bidding game with a theme (auto racing) and some interesting twists (note: my friend, Dale Yu, designed this, so I may be biased)
  • Orleans - I really liked the puzzle element of putting your turn/moves together - but not my normal type of game
  • Sheep & Thief - a card-drafting game with Carcassonne-like placement... and a simple but effective interaction mechanic (the thieves)
  • Spellcaster - very fast magical card battle game...
  • Spike - my friend, Stephen Glenn, pays homage to crayon rails & Ticket to Ride... the end comes quicker than you think it will... need to play this one again with some experience under my belt
  • The King of Frontier
  • Uruk II: Die Entwicklung Geht Weiter - much like Fresh Fish, the new edition (esp. the English rule set) makes Uruk MUCH easier to play
  • Villannex - mind-warping micro-game of bluff & double bluff - there's a lot going on for such a small game
  • Camel Cup - not sure that it's SdJ material... but it's nicely produced, works as promised - and I had fun playing it
  • Murano - Venice? Again? Sigh. Well, I did like the gondola mechanic.
  • Pandemic: The Cure - If I hadn't played the board game, this would be rated much higher. It's a well-done and enjoyable cooperative game - but I found myself missing the board.
  • Roll Through the Ages: The Iron Age - Again, if it wasn't for Roll Through the Age: The Bronze Age, I think this would have been a hit for me. As it is, fun but I don't need to own both of them. (Note: we did not play with the Mediterranean expansion board.)
  • 7 Steps - abstract multi-player stacking game... very, very tactical (in other words, almost NO look-ahead ability for players).
  • Ciub - While I love the ideas behind this, I found myself wishing I was playing To Court the King (also designed by Tom Lehmann) instead.
  • Der 7bte Zwerg - Very light press-your-luck / gambling game... not much here but was fun with the right crowd.
  • Grog Island - Pirate theme slathered across a pretty standard "new Euro" auction game... though I will admit to enjoying the tension created by the extra resource system.
  • Orongo - a decent family game that is definitely crippled by some mystifying component choices (tiles that blend into the board when you need to see them, conch shell pieces that roll away from where they are supposed to mark the board). We were all surprised by this behavior from Ravensburger.
  • Pandemic: Contagion - This is an area majority game disguised as a cousin to Pandemic. Your willingness to enjoy this game may depend on how well you liked games like Nuclear War. (Yes, I'm dating myself. Again.)
  • Rolling Japan - Take It Easy with dice & an abstracted map of Japan. I wish this was an iOS app rather than a board game.
  • Samurai Spirit - very well-designed cooperative game that is (a) tough to win, (b) filled with gorgeous artwork, and (c) still a little soulless. Found myself wishing we were playing Geister, Geister Schaumeister (which we did play during the weekend) or Pandemic.
  • Soqquadro - a real-time "play in your house" scavenger hunt party game that could be fun with the right crowd
  • Time Masters - a deck-builder with some interesting interactions and tableau-building elements. Not sure it will hold up to 10+ plays.
  • Who Am I? - deduction game with way too much packaging for what is essentially a set of paper dolls. Did produce one of the funnier moments of the weekend, though.
  • Witness - a sophisticated game of Telephone crossed with Sherlock Holmes, Consulting Detective
  • Viceroy - Russian game of tableau-building that works just fine but lacks the proper oompf
  • Yardmaster Express - simple drafting game that would be very family-friendly: quick, good-looking & an accessible theme. 
  • Crowns - standard dice game in the same vein as Wurfel Bingo... only not as interesting
  • Da Yu: The Flood Conqueror - a clever mechanic (card-flipping to change values) did not help me like this game as much as everyone else at the table
  • Johari - an irritating exercise in converting money to gems to points
  • Marchia Orientalis - some nice ideas sabotaged by an economic system that has very little tension after the early going as well as some difficult-to-read artwork
  • Nehemiah - pseudo-Biblical theme doesn't win it any points with me... neither does the trap of avoiding helping out others (but I did like the cascading actions for later plays)
  • Neptun - The base game mechanics are nice - but it is too long by half.
  • Artificium - the only game we aborted the entire weekend
  • Cubo - pointless and frustrating dice game
  • Moscow to Paris - card game with one of my least favorite gaming problems: avoid setting up the player on your left
  • Planes - do not let the similar artwork fool you... this game is NOT related to the very enjoyable deck-builder Trains. The core mechanic is Mancala if it was set upon by rabid gamers... with action/scoring cards added. We found ourselves trying to figure out how to end the game - never a good sign.

Thursday, December 04, 2014

More Than A Handful of Change in the Bell Ringer's Bucket (Classic)

People just seem to be more generous around the Christmas season... we can speculate why that is so:
  • they've been enculturated to give during this time of year
  • they're already spending a lot of money on friends & family so giving a little extra to a church or charity doesn't seem like a big deal
  • they're already spending a lot of money on friends & family so they feel guilty and give to assuage their guilt
  • they're more likely to receive a generous end-of-the-year bonus and therefore feel more comfortable with being generous themselves
I could go on.

But I want to suggest that there may be another reason for our willingness to give. The central stories of the season, both in the Jewish & Christian traditions, are about a generous God.

I'm probably not the best person to explain Hanukkah (heck, I even had to look up how to spell it correctly), but here goes nothing. Hanukkah is the "Festival of Lights", which celebrates God's gracious provision to the Jewish people of a lamp that burned in the newly rededicated temple (following the Maccaben revolt) - it was a symbol, along with the victory over Antiochus, of God caring for His people. (1 Macabees 4) (The dreidel wasn't a part of the early celebrations - no more likely than Mary & Joseph hanging stockings next to the fireplace in their home in Nazareth.)

Christmas marks a time in which God gave his only son in the form of a baby (John 3:16) ... who grew up to die on the cross as a ransom for our sins (Mark 10:45) . Essentially, he gave us Himself.

This generous God went one step further:

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:27)

If we are created in the image of God... and we assume that doesn't mean we have His nose & His white hair... then that means we bear His image in a deeper & more meaningful way. We are built to act like He does.

And that means we are... well, we can be, generous. During a season of the year in which generosity is honored not only in religious traditions but also in popular culture...
  • the conversion of Ebenezer Scrooge in "A Christmas Carol"
  • the compassionate hero, George Bailey, from "It's A Wonderful Life"
  • and, of course, the jolly old elf who gives children toys, Santa Claus
...should it be a surprise that the way we were made bubbles to the surface?

This Christmas season, I encourage you to find ways to express the generosity that echoes the heart of the One who created you. Give richly from your time, your talents & your treasure in order to touch hearts & lives.

Please note, however, what John Ortberg said at a conference I attended a few years back: we have a tendency in church circles to talk about generosity in general terms, leading to "superficial agreement and unchallenged apathy." Your mission, if you should choose to accept it, (why, yes, I did watch too many re-runs of Mission: Impossible as a kid), is to get specific:
  • how are you going to be generous this Christmas season?
  • when are you going to do it?
  • how much?
In the words of the old Nike shoe campaign, "Go for it."

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

#61: Vegas Showdown (Mark's 100 - 2014)

Vegas Showdown

Mark's Ranking
  • 2014: 61st
  • 2012: 45th
  • 2010: 35th
  • 2005: did not appear
  • rank: 185
  • rating: 7.27
Print Status
  • out of print
Why It's On The List
  • This is the best implementation of the climbing auction mechanic first seen in Evo, then in the (excruciating, IMHO) Amun-Re, and most recently in 20th Century. I also like the need to plan what rooms you'll add to your Vegas resort... and in what order to build them.
Tips & Tricks:
    • There are a variety of winning building configurations/mixes - your mission is to choose the one that best dodges what other players are doing... .
    • ...and then make it expensive for other players to get their "key" rooms.
    • While the graphics for this one are generally good, I do wish the player boards had been mounted. If someone reprints this (which would be a great idea, btw), they should take care of that AND of adding some tokens in to track "extra" victory points. (We use glass beads to track points that are not found on the player boards - that way, you can check & make sure you haven't missed any points during the game.).

    #62: Starship Catan (Mark's 100 - 2014)

    Starship Catan

    Mark's Ranking
    • 2014: 62nd
    • 2012: did not appear
    • 2010: did not appear
    • 2005: did not appear
    • rank: 525
    • rating: 6.86
    Print Status
    • out of print
    Why It's On The List
    • The love child of The Starfarers of Catan and the Settlers of Catan Card Game... it may well be stronger than either of the games that birthed it.
    Tips & Tricks:
      • This is an economic game - if you mess up your cash flow, you will not be able to win.
      • This is also a memory game - you cannot play well if you don't work at remembering where various planets are in the four space sector dates.
      • Finally, this is a two player game... though I think (from a bit of reading & researching) that Klaus Teuber's newest game, Norderwind, is a multi-player implementation of this system.
      • There are three print-and-play expansions for Starship Catan: The Space Amoeba, The Asteroid & The Diplomatic Station. I have very nice versions of the first two (thanks, Clint!) and enjoy them both. (I haven't played the third one yet.)
      • I have actually have a signed copy of the German version of this game from the first print run that I won - a prize possession that I can't actually play. 

      #63: The Downfall of Pompeii (Mark's 100 - 2014)

      Picture by EdRoz

      The Downfall of Pompeii

      Mark's Ranking
      • 2014: 63rd
      • 2012: 65th
      • 2010: 45th
      • 2005: did not appear
      • rank: 301
      • rating: 7.15
      Print Status
      • back in print!!!
      Why It's On The List
      • An odd and possibly disturbing theme (the volcanic destruction of the Roman city of Pompeii) turns to make a very nice tactical placement & movement game... along with a healthy helping of "throw your neighbor under the metaphorical bus".
      Tips & Tricks:
        • Do not neglect the power of family members - use your cards wisely to set yourself up to place extra "dudes" on the board.
        • Easy to miss rule: if an area is filled, you can use those numbered cards as wild cards BUT you can't place family members when you do that.
        • I was pleasantly surprised to find that this game not only worked as an "adult" version of Midnight Party - but also worked great with my then (gamer) 5 year old son as a 2 player game. (He's 13 now and still enjoys it.)

        Monday, December 01, 2014

        Merry Holidays! Happy Christmas! (Classic)

        And here's the Christmas classic from 2011... it's the fourth year I've posted it and it's still (sigh) necessary to do it again.

        We all get "those emails" - you know, the ones where you are instructed to either pass the message on or forward it to five friends or whatever. (I've sounded off on this before here on the blog - go back & read my postForward Christian Soldiers.)  

        And I got another one today.
        I will be making a conscious effort to wish everyone a Merry Christmas this year ... My way of saying that I am celebrating the birth Of Jesus Christ. So I am asking my email buddies, if you agree with me, to please do the same. And if you'll pass this on to your email buddies, and so on... maybe we can prevent one more American tradition from being lost in the sea of "Political Correctness".
        You may sit now, as I did, for a moment of stunned silence at this bit of ridiculousness. OK, silent time is over. Elton Trueblood once said:
        “There are those places in ministry and theology that you must draw the line and fight and die; just don’t draw the lines in stupid places!”
        Here are three reasons that the above email (and the philosophy behind it) are clearly one of those stupid places:
        1. Please, please, please... any time you are tempted to use the phrases "celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ" and "American tradition" in the same sentence, you should use some of that cutesy holiday-themed scotch tape to shut your mouth. The celebration of Christ's birth is NOT an American tradition - it's a Christian tradition... and being an American doesn't make you a Christian, any more than walking into McDonald's makes you a hamburger. (Credit to Keith Green for that analogy.)
        2. "Happy Holidays" is not a frontal attack on Christianity... it's an attempt by people (and businesses) to be inoffensive in a season in which there are two major religious holidays (one Christian & one Jewish), one cultural holiday (Kwanzaa), and New Years Day as well.
        3. A methodological problem: email forwards and Facebook status updates tend to go to people who already agree with you - meaning you've created feedback loop of people who become belligerent about the way they wish people "Merry Christmas" because they're sure that everyone who doesn't do the same is opposed to all that is good & right in the world.
        I'm not telling you to stop saying "Merry Christmas" - in the words of Reggie McNeal, "Don't hear what I'm not saying." Go right ahead & wish people "Merry Christmas"... you are celebrating the birth of Christ in this season. The sincere hope of those who are followers of Jesus is that more people would discover that for themselves.

        However, I do want to give you a few tips in how to fulfill the command of Scripture while you're spreading holiday cheer:
        1. Stop correcting salespeople who are obligated - in order to keep their job! - to say "Happy Holidays". It's not their fault. And arguing with them or chiding them is not going to bring anyone closer to embracing the true meaning of Christmas.
        2. When you say "Merry Christmas", make sure you sound like Bob Crachit rather than Ebenezer Scrooge. Seriously, there are some folks out there who spit the traditional greeting at people like it's a bullet aimed straight at their pitiful heathen hearts. If you can't wish someone "Merry Christmas" with a heart filled with Christlike love, then don't say anything at all.
        3. Remember that the (gosh, I hate this cliche) "reason for the season" is Jesus Christ... not the preservation of tradition or winning the "War on Christmas". The Incarnation is about God clearly & completely expressing His love for us - Immanuel means "God with us". When we are just working to accomplish a cultural agenda, we are communicating the exact opposite message... what we're saying is "if you don't accept my particular way of celebration & the theological beliefs that go along with it, I'll simply stuff it down your throat."
        And, since I was a pastor, a Scripture to prove my point:
        Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone. (Colossian 4:5-6, NIV)
        BTW, Merry Christmas!

        Wednesday, November 26, 2014

        Top 25 Card Games (that didn't make the Top 100)

        Here are the my top 25 card games that didn't make my top 100... this time around. They are all great games, worthy of your attention, table time & purchase. 

        If I've written about them here on the blog, I've included the link in the list.

        25. Smash Up
        24. Star Realms
        23. Duck Duck Bruce
        22. Famiglia
        21. For Sale
        20. Brawl
        19. Family Business
        18. Olympia 2000
        17. Mamma Mia
        16. Jungle Speed
        15. Balloon Cup
        14. Mow
        13. Trendy
        12. Light Speed
        11. Odin's Ravens
        10. Friday
        9. The Bucket King
        8. Sushi Go!
        7. Glory to Rome
        6. DC Deckbuilding
        5. Klunker
        4. Mystery Rummy: Jack the Ripper
        3. Innovation
        2. Vom Kap bis Kairo
        1. Bargain Hunter

        Monday, November 24, 2014

        #64: Mystery Rummy: Al Capone & the Chicago Underworld

        Mystery Rummy: Al Capone & the Chicago Underworld

        Mark's Ranking
        • 2014: 64th
        • 2012: 39th
        • 2010: 55th
        • 2005: 54th
        • appeared on all four lists
        • rank: 1226
        • rating: 6.88
        Print Status
        Why It's On The List
        • This is my favorite of the Mystery Rummy series... mostly because it feels a bit like Canasta (possibly my favorite standard deck card game) in how difficult it is to hide key cards from your opponent(s).
        Tips & Tricks:
          • In my opinion, this is the easiest of the Mystery Rummy games to teach to non-gamers.
          • While MR: Al Capone is a great 2-handed game and a wonderful partnership game, it drags on way too long with three players.
          • Wyatt Earp is a cousin to this series of games & is very enjoyable as well.
          • Thanks to the Kickstarter for Escape from Alcatraz (the newest Mystery Rummy), the original four games are being reprinted!
          • Here's what I wrote about the Mystery Rummy series for The One Hundred.

          #65: O Zoo le Mio (Mark's 100 - 2014)

          O Zoo le Mio

          Mark's Ranking
          • 2014: 65th
          • 2012: 95th
          • 2010: did not appear
          • 2005: 96th
          • rank: 867
          • rating: 6.65
          Print Status
          • I don't think it's still officially "in print" - but you can get a copy from
          Why It's On The List
          • lovely graphics & components combine with "in the fist" auctions & tile-laying to make a zoo-building game that's relatively quick (45 minutes) and always interesting to play...
          Tips & Tricks:
          • Yes, there are problems with the income system (you get $ based on the number of tiles in your zoo) and the escalating point values (scoring is similar to Acquire) in the later rounds - but in such a short game, part of your job is to plan to deal with both of those issues rather than whine about them when the game is over.
          • Circular pathways are an important scoring opportunity - and they can't be taken away once they're built.
          • The box says ages 9+... but my six-year-old enjoyed this game (when I helped him with tile placement).

          #66: Clash of the Gladiators (Mark's 100 - 2014)

          Clash of the Gladiators

          Mark's Ranking
          • 2014: 66th
          • 2012: 81st
          • 2010: 82nd
          • 2005: did not appear
          • rank: 3316
          • rating: 5.87
          Print Status
          • OOP but it's not real tough to find a copy
          Why It's On The List
          • Knizia at his dice-y best... it's an excuse to make gladiator movie jokes & beat on your friends for fun & profit.
          Tips & Tricks:
            • It's OK to make a crazed run at a dangerous animal on your turn - esp. if you're down to your last 1-2 gladiators in a group. If you win, you get the big "kill". If you lose, the points don't go to another player.
            • You don't need to have a bunch of spears or tridents, just more than the other player. Don't get obsessed with them.
            • Shields are good... there are only 8 in the game. You should draft shield-bearers first.
            • There are people who've run computer simulations to figure out the best possible teams for the game - ignore those people. They suck the fun out of everything.
            • Here's what I wrote about CotG for my 2010 Top 100 list.