Friday, September 30, 2011

“The best diplomat that I know is a fully-loaded phaser bank.” – a review of Star Trek: Fleet Captains

  • Designers: Mike Elliott. Bryan Kinsella & Ethan Pasternack
  • Publisher: WizKids
  • Ages: 14 and up
  • Players: 2 or 4
  • Time: 60-90 minutes
Review by Mark Jackson (review copy provided by WizKids)

Do they just let anybody review Star Trek games? What are your Trekkie credentials?

  • I’ve seen all of the original series as well as the all of the animated series. (Thank you, Saturday afternoon reruns… but why did I have to see the episode about the creepy teenage girl on the all-kid planet so many times?)
  • I’ve seen most of the films, though I’d erase the first Star Trek movie (yawn) and ST V: The Final Frontier (blech) from my memory banks if I could.
  • I gave up on Next Generation after the first crushingly boring season (there’s a Wesley pun hidden in there somewhere), though I did come back & catch the Borg arc (which was excellent). Yes, I know, real Trekkies, I left just when it was getting good.
  • Sadly, I have never watched DS9 or Voyager.
  • I still think the “Get A Life” SNL sketch with William Shatner (“You, you must be almost 30… have you ever kissed a girl?… I didn’t think so!”) is one of his greatest moments.
  • The quote in the title is from Mr. Scott, btw.

Could you summarize the rules… briefly?

Shortest version: read the rules posted on the WizKids website.

Shorter version: score victory points by destroying enemy ships, completing missions, surviving encounters & building starbases.

Long(er) version: players take turns moving their ships, adjusting the power settings (stats) for those ships & taking three actions: attacking, scanning, exerting influence, transporting away parties, building installations, etc.

In summary: the base system is pretty simple, with some fiddly rules for cloaking & use of cards. I think it’s possible for the Federation player to “learn as they go” – the Klingon players will have a little tougher time.

May I have a pithy & quotable comparative description of the game that people can argue about, please?

No problem… in fact, I’ll give you two:

  • it’s Dungeonquest in Space
  • it’s Tales of the Star Trekkian Nights

You need to know that I love both of the games I referenced – so I don’t consider either description to be pejorative.

But I think it’s important that everyone realize going in that Star Trek: Fleet Captains is an “experience” game rather than a strategy game. Yes, there are lots of interesting tactical decisions to be made and your Missions will help you figure out some long-term strategic goals… but you can be smacked around by bad Encounter card draws or abysmal dice rolls. By the same token, you can benefit from streaky card draws. (I managed to score 5 victory points in one turn: 2 due to destroying a Klingon ship that also completed a mission and 3 due to fulfilling the conditions on the next two Mission cards I revealed.)

There’s nothing wrong with building a game that works this way – but you need to know that you’re going to be playing a theme-heavy game with a variety of random elements (which Command cards you draw, the Missions you get & the order you get them in, the Encounters you run into & the layout of the board… and let’s not forget our pesky friend, the d6) rather than a Euro where player decisions comprise the majority of the chaos.

An aside: Frank Branham pointed out to me that there actually is a “Tales of the Star Trekkian Nights” game – Star Trek: The Adventure Game – and cast aspersions on my character for not having played this paragraph-based experience game. The next time we’re together, Frank, bring it along… it can’t be worse than S.P.I.V.’s.

Spock: “Random chance seems to have operated in our favor.”

McCoy: “In plain, non-Vulcan English, we’ve been lucky”

Spock: “I believe I said that, Doctor”

(Original series: The Doomsday Machine)

Can you name some things you really like about the game?

There’s a lot to like here:

  • Although my initial reaction to the random set-up was negative (“I want to pick the ships for my fleet!”), in practice I’ve found that the variable fleet structure and the way it’s tied to the Missions you’re assigned and how you chose your Command deck to make for very different gaming experiences each time Star Trek: Fleet Captains has hit the table.
  • I was also worried about the sheer number of options for a player each turn – moving all your ships, making power adjustments, taking actions, cycling cards, etc. – but now that I’ve got a few games under my belt, turns seem to move along at a nice clip and I really like how many different things your fleet can do.
  • I love the Command decks – having each deck of 100 cards divided into 10 sets of ten cards (connected by theme) and requiring players to pick 4 sets based on their mix of Missions allows for chances to customize your play experience without devolving into the tedium of deck building. (The design of the cards is also nice – very readable.)
  • I know I sound like a broken record – but the theme comes through so strongly from every element of the game. This is especially true for the power adjustment mechanic, which allows you to vary your stats to send power to Sensors, Shields, Weapons or Engines… which makes me feel like I’m sitting in the captain’s chair myself.

How long does it take to play?

I was pleasantly surprised to find that all three teaching games that I played took about 90 minutes (using the recommended 10 victory points for a win and 5×5 board). With experienced players, I can see this coming in at 60-75 minutes.

There is provision in the rules for making the board bigger and/or upping the victory point total needed for a win (which would up the size of your fleet as well)… but I’m concerned that doing so would increase the game length noticeably. (I have the same concerns about the 4 player rules, but I have not played the game that way yet.)

You can also make the game shorter by shrinking the board and/or dropping the victory point total.

Age 14+? Really?

My 10-year-old did just fine with Star Trek: Fleet Captains… of course, he’s a gamer kid who loves Summoner Wars & Heroscape, so your mileage may vary. I would note that his total lack of familiarity with the Star Trek universe didn’t diminish his enjoyment of the game.

Note: one of my fellow OG writers pointed out that the “age 14+”on the box may have something to do with the new child safety rules for toys. I’ll say this – I’m actually more afraid of some adults I’ve played with putting pieces in their mouths than my 6-year-old son doing the same

Is my favorite ship from Star Trek in the box?

How the heck do I know? While I loved the old school series, I didn’t keep up with the later iterations of the show and so I found myself wondering “who is that guy?” and “I know this is a reference to the mythology but I have no idea what it means” when playing the game. And that’s just playing the Federation – on the Klingon side, I’m almost totally clueless.

That said, there’s a wide variety of ships in the game (12 on each side)… they may have missed a ship or two, but I think all the key “wessels” are available.

I’m mad that the miniatures are unpainted. Aren’t you?

Oh for crying out loud, talk about a tempest in a very small & geeky teapot. (Ladies & gentlemen, I give you the lovely lunacy of the BGG forums.)

Pick something reasonable to whine about already. If not having the minis painted keeps you from enjoying the game, either paint ‘em yourself or find another game to play.

Sigh.

Is this better or worse than Star Trek: Expeditions?

Much, much better… while I found Expeditions to be math-y and lacking in the necessary tension to make a cooperative game work, I think that Fleet Captains does what it sets out to do and does it well – the game gives you a great big Star Trek sandbox to play in and fills it with a truckload of thematically appropriate “toys”: ships, encounter, crew, etc.

A note: I don’t hate cooperative games… and I certainly don’t hate Knizia designing them (Lord of the Rings is still a personal favorite) – but Expeditions is not his best work.

Is it bigger than a breadbox?

Well, the MSRP certainly is… $99.99.

But you do get a lot of stuff in the very big box for your hard-earned gaming dollars – the ships alone (24 ships with a good level of detail on Clix bases) would be $60+ if you could get them at retail. And then there’s nearly 300 cards as well as tokens & the 50 hex cards that make up the board…

Want to complain about anything?

Sure. While I understand that WizKids is invested in the Clix base system, it’s not easy for those of us with aging eyesight to figure out the various numbers settings on the bases… and you might as well forget about playing this in a low light situation for the same reason.

I’m also a little iffy about the card quality – it’s the same weird finish on thin cardstock as the cards in Star Trek: Expeditions. I don’t think they’ll tear easily but they do feel like it wouldn’t take much to fold one of them.

And, since I’m being picky, I would have really liked it if the ship cards were larger.

How about a summary of your thoughts on the game?

With three plays under my belt, I can safely say that:

  • I’ve really enjoyed all three plays of the game
  • The one opponent who didn’t like Star Trek: Fleet Captains is not a fan of “experience” games
  • I look forward to playing it more in the near future
  • I am a bit concerned that none of my three games were close – I do wonder if there is a small “runaway leader” problem. (Note: I taught all three of my opponents the game & beat them, so this may well disappear with experience.)
This post originally appeared on the Opinionated Gamers blog.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Sticky Teams: Review & Highlights

I've blogged a good bit about Larry Osborne's excellent book Sticky Teams... but now, thanks to the Shameless Commerce/Conference Promotion/Win Mark & NewLife Something Free Division of this blog, I'm going to pull those threads together so you can see 'em all in one place.

First, my Goodreads review of Sticky Teams:
Fantastic book on recruiting, training & leading church leadership teams - both boards & staff. The author assumes you've already done your Biblical homework & instead focuses on practical wisdom on dealing with team leadership.

I especially liked the "sitting around, talking with a mentor/friend" tone - the honesty, the humor & the insight make for a readable, helpful & indepth look into the subject.
Then, some highlights from a series of posts I did late last year on selected quotes from Sticky Teams:

Chapter One:
  • me: I bought my copy of the book at the conference & promptly devoured it - it's chockful of amazing insight into church leadership, staff dynamics & following God as a pastor. Usually I'm the guy who reads a book once & then puts it on the shelf for reference... but I'm in the process less than 2 months later of reading through it again, which ought to tell you something about the impact it's having on me.
  • larry: Most church fights aren't over theology or even ministry goals; they're over priorities & methodology.
Chapter Two:
  • larry: Our rotating board did more harm than good. Imagine a corporation that changed one-third of its leaders every ten to fifteen meetings... When, by definition, thirty-three percent of the board lacked a corporate memory, it was hard to build on past decisions.
Chapter Three:
  • larry: The most common breakdown I see in terms of relational fit happens when we allow superior Bible knowledge or spiritual zeal to trump an obvious & serious lack of social skills or a bristly personality.
Chapter Four:
  • mark: I can not recommend Larry's explication of team dynamics/growth using the sports team metaphor highly enough... nor can I condense it down to a few pithy quotes. I won't even try.
  • larry: I knew that despite all the "sin words" that both sides had thrown around ("arrogant," "self-willed," "unaccountable," "not a team player," "boundary queen," and "inflexible," to name a few), the real issue was not sin so much as deep hurt & discomfort that came with our changing organizational dynamics.
Chapter Five:
  • mark: Nothing say "rewritten leadership talk" like the title "Six Things Every Leadership Team Needs To Know"... but when the quality level is this high, who cares?
  1. Ignore your weaknesses.
  2. Surveys are a waste of time.
  3. Seek permission, not buy-in.
  4. Let squeaky wheels squeak.
  5. Let dying programs die.
  6. Plan in pencil.
  • larry: Most squeaky wheels keep right on squeaking, for one simple reason: they don't squeak for a lack of oil; they squeak because it's their nature to squeak.
  • larry: Church harmony is inversely related to the amount of time spent oiling squeaky wheels.
Chapter Six:
  • larry: If I hadn't previously submitted to their decisions that I didn't agree with, there's no way they would have listened to me when I played the "God told me" card. It would have been seen as just another creative ploy to get my own way.
Chapter Seven:
  • larry: I've found that "You don't listen" often means "You didn't do what I suggested."
Chapter Eight:
  • larry: Like most leaders, I love the idea of servant leadership & putting others first, as long as no one actually cuts in front of me or starts treating me like I'm a servant.
Which reminds me... I need to finish blogging my way through the book. (He says, grinning sheepishly.)

The motivation behind this (as I mentioned earlier) is an opportunity to blog & win a free ticket to the Sticky Teams conference... which I attended & thoroughly enjoyed last year. (I was impressed with the practicality of the advice, the willingness to show their rough edges & the excellence with which they pulled off the conference. NewLife is using the Church Unique vision process that I was first taught at Sticky Teams in a great pre-conference session w/Will Mancini.)

So, a to-do list for my ministry-type readers:
  1. read the book - seriously, I don't know of a better book on church leadership structures.
  2. consider attending the conference... it's well worth your time (and it's near San Diego, for crying out loud)
  3. keep reading my blog - I might say something interesting

Monday, September 26, 2011

A Tale of Two Hats: Board Gaming & Ministry

I am not a hat guy.

Really – on some guys, hats make them look cool & sophisticated. (See, for example, Neil Caffrey on the TV show “White Collar” or Indiana Jones.) Hats make me look like Elmer Fudd on a bender.

With all that said, I’m a guy who wears many figurative hats:

  • I’m a husband (proudly married for 21 years)
  • I’m a father (I have two boys – ages 10 & 6)
  • I’m a gamer (with over 1000 games in my collection, I may well have crept into “obsessed gaming nerd” rather than the generic term “gamer”)
  • I’m a follower of Jesus Christ
  • and I’m a pastor (of a small Southern Baptist church in the Central Valley of California)

The question Dale (the Grand Poobah & Chief Bottle Washer for the Opinionated Gamers) asked me was essentially this:

“What’s the intersection of your hobby – board gaming – and your calling – being a pastor – look like?”

How I Use Gaming As A Pastor

I use boardgaming as a way to meet people and build relationships… both inside and outside the church. I’ve been running game groups for nearly 15 years – the last 6 years my regular Tuesday night group has actually met in the social hall of my church.

Gaming also enters into my sermon illustrations – for example:

  • I’ve used game translating as a metaphor for getting to know the Bible. In short: I can read a whole lot more German now than I could 15 years ago, even though I’d had 3 years of German classes in high school & college. Actually having to work with the German language for something I wanted – translating rules to games - changed the way I approached the language, instead of just learning it for a grade.)
  • In the same vein, I’ve talked about the language of the gaming subculture (newbie, TGOO, SdJ, DSK, etc.) and compared it to the language of evangelical subculture (born again, walk the aisle, “fellowship”, etc.). Both sets of words have valid usage, but they don’t adequately speak to the world outside those subcultures. We (speaking both to gamers & Christians) need to use language that communicates truth, rather than using it to build walls that close others out.
  • John Ortberg has a wonderful book entitled It All Goes Back in the Box in which the metaphorical anchor for the book is a story about his grandmother teaching him how to play Monopoly. This excellent illustration on giving became the heart of one sermon & the inspiration for entire series of messages themed around board games:
  • Game On! – Monopoly: Rule #1 (Luke 12:16-21)
  • Game On! – Gin Rummy: How Do You Keep Score? (Philippians 2:5-11)
  • Game On! – Liar’s Dice: Play By The Rules (Matthew 5:1-30)
  • Game On! – Scrabble: Fill Each Square (Matthew 6:33, Romans 12:1-2)
  • Game On! – Risk: Roll the Dice (Hebrews 11)
  • Game On! – Pit: More Will Never Be Enough (Ecclesiastes (selected), Philippians 4:12)
  • Game On! – Chess: The King Has One More Move (1 Corinthians 15:55, John 11:25-26)

How Being a Pastor Affects My Gaming

No surprise – there’s a difference in how my profession affects my gaming hobby and how my personal commitment of my life to Jesus Christ affects my gaming hobby. I try very hard (not always successfully) to NOT choose my activities & actions solely based on my job as a “professional Christian.” Still, I’ve made the choice in the past not to play some games more out of a concern for church member’s opinions rather than my own personal convictions and tastes. Hopefully, I’m done with that, except where my gaming choices could cause a fellow believer to stumble in their faith. (I’m not getting to the exact details of this Romans 14 based practice in this article. Anyone interested can contact me personally.)

OTOH, my strongly held beliefs in Jesus Christ and the authority of the Bible obviously play a role in my hobby. (If strongly held beliefs don’t play a role in your whole life, then they’re not strongly held beliefs.) There are certain games I choose not to play (Hellrail, Lunch Money, etc.) and other games I’m glad they re-themed (Twilight -> Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde) based on what I believe.

I’m a little bothered about how “I”-centered the last couple of paragraphs sound. They don’t fully indicate my conviction that moral choices are not subjective… but again, that’s a conversation for another day.

Gaming Groups & Churches

There’s a lot of ways to use games in a church ministry:

  • create opportunities for families to connect (Family Game Night)
  • open the doors of the church to people outside the church (regular game group)
  • use games as ways to break down walls & encourage communication in non-gaming events (small groups, Sunday School classes, youth groups)
  • and much, much more…

Some advice from a guy who’s “been there, done that, got the T-shirt & the free expansion”:

  1. The first thing is to remember your audience… while (as I mentioned above) I’m not bothered by certain games & themes, I realize that some folks in my congregation would have a hard time with them. So I choose not to bring those for our family game nights. (My guess is that some of your readers will want examples: I don’t bring Bang! or Family Business due to the violence… and I usually keep the heavily themed fantasy games to a minimum.)
  2. The second thing is to remember your audience. No, I’m not repeating myself. The vast majority of non-gamers are not ready to appreciate longer games, even those we would consider “light”. Here in Fresno, Tsuro, Smarty Party, Carabande, Abandon Ship, and Say Anything have all been very successful at our family game nights. So, choose games that fit the gaming “experience” of your crowd.
  3. The third thing is to remember what you want to accomplish. If the point of the evening (be it a club or a game night or whatever) is social interaction, choose games that will help that happen. If you’re appealing to a particular demographic, then pick games that fit their interests. (When I had the 4th-6th boys over for an afternoon of gaming, we played Battle Ball, Lord of the Rings, and Star Wars: Epic Duels.)
  4. The fourth thing is to train others to lead & teach games… that way you don’t have to carry the whole load. We played a lot of games after our small group on Wednesday nights, and those folks were a great help at our game nights in teaching games. (Yes, I had to help make some rulings and correct a missed rule or two, but that’s par for the course.)
  5. Finally, don’t count on what you start in a church context to satisfy your gaming/gamer itch. At our last game night, I spent about 50% of my time teaching games & making sure folks got involved. But that’s OK – my purpose was not to play games non-stop, but to give people an enjoyable evening together. String a lot of those kind of evenings together, and it makes it much easier to create a loving church community.
This article originally appeared on the Opinionated Gamers website.

Monday, September 19, 2011

I Have A Feeling We're Not In Kansas Anymore

I know I'm a complete James Emery White fanboy - constantly recommending his blog posts & books - but there's a reason: he's really, really good. And when I say "good", I mean insightful, relevant & unafraid.

In last week's post on his Church & Culture blog, he strongly suggested that "we have moved from an Acts 2 cultural context to an Acts 17 cultural context." Which is, of course, right on. (For those not so familiar with the book of Acts, Acts 2 is Peter preaching to the Jewish audience in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost. Acts 17 is Paul discussing theology & philosophy with the Greeks on Mars Hill in Athens.)

But the genius of the post is that he doesn't stop there:
[Barna] reports that four out of five self-identified Christian adults (81%) say they have made a personal commitment to Christ that is important in their life.

So far, so good.

Yet less than one out of those very same five (18%) claim to be invested in spiritual development. About the same number (22%) say they are actually dependent upon God.

Let’s state the obvious:

America is becoming increasingly secular and losing whatever Christian moorings it once had.

We are standing on Mars Hill, not Jerusalem, and need to wake up to our true cultural context.

But let’s not forget the rest of the story.

If those who claim to follow Christ do not actually follow Him, then we will have nothing to offer the world it does not already have.
Read the
whole thing.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Marryin' & Buryin': How Much Should I Pay the Pastor?

I decided that the best time to write this post was when I didn't anticipate anyone in the church I pastor needing it. Yeah, I know, that sounds silly - but I wanted to make sure that no one felt as if I was critiquing and/or counting on a particular dollar amount from them.

With that said, I'll try to answer some questions you might have about the odd strange world of "honorariums" and "love offerings".

Honorarium is a weird word - it sounds like "aquarium"?! - so what does it mean?

Merriam-Webster defines honorarium as "a payment for a service (as making a speech) on which custom or propriety forbids a price to be set."

And it has nothing to do with tropical fish.

OK, that makes sense - but what in the world is a "love offering"?

Generally, a love offering is a collection of money above & beyond the church's normal giving to help out a particular ministry or individual. Jon Acuff's Stuff Christians Like blog does a lovely (if sarcastic) job of explaining how it works:
For those who don’t know, a love offering is kind of a “volunteer offering” the church takes up during special occasions like when a puppet group from Guam (named Strings of Mercy) is performing at your church. It’s really not that voluntary though because if you don’t contribute anything you’re essentially telling everyone you’re sitting near that your heart is not full of love. By not putting a couple of bucks in the offering plate you’re actually putting in a big fistful of hate. I wish when the ushers collected a love offering they would say out loud when someone didn’t give, “Oh, you don’t have any love for the magical world of puppetry? I guess love your neighbor doesn’t mean anything to you. Fine.”
In the particular situations we're talking about (paying a pastor for a wedding or a funeral), the phrase "love offering" is used as the spiritualized equivalent of "honorarium".

Isn't the pastor already paid by their church?

I hate to say "it depends" - but, well, it depends. While many pastors (including myself) are full-time (meaning that leading my church is my only job), many others are bivocational - meaning they work part-time for the church while working part- or full-time at some other job as well.

In addition, you have to remember that weddings & funerals are interruptions in a "normal" ministry schedule.

Interruptions?! Seriously? Do you know how offensive that sounds - as if you can't be bothered with this celebration or crisis in my family!?

Yes, I do realize how offensive it sounds... so let me explain.

The day-to-day leadership of a church - preparing to speak once (or more) per week, contacting visitors & those who are in need, counseling, meeting with key leaders & staff, etc. - is a full-time job. (For example, my preparation time for each weekly sermon/message - which is spread out over several weeks - usually runs between 8-15 hours... and that's before I get up to speak.)

While the honor of being asked to officiate at a wedding or a funeral is one of the great privileges of ministry, the time it takes to prepare & perform those duties has to either shortchange my regular ministry work and/or my time with my family.

How much time?

It differs from situation to situation, but I can give you some rough estimates.

For a wedding:
  • 4-6 hours of premarital counseling with the couple
  • 3-4 hours of preparation of the wedding sermon
  • 2-3 hours to officiate at the wedding rehearsal & attend the dinner afterward
  • 2-6 hours to officiate at the wedding & attend the festivities following
That's a minimum of 10 or so hours... with 12-15 hours being the most likely for in-town wedding.

For a funeral:

  • 1-2 hours meeting with the family prior to the funeral
  • 3-6 hours of preparation for the funeral message(s) & service(s)
  • 1-6 hours to officiate at the funeral and be with the funeral (timing dependent on the number of services & wake/meal following)
That's a minimum of 5 or so hours... with 10-12 hours being the most likely for in-town funerals.

So, like I pointed out earlier, your average pastor loses either a work day or a day off in order to do a proper & respectful job of officiating at these events. And if the wedding or funeral is out of town, that just adds to the time he gives to the family.

It takes you that long to prepare a funeral or wedding message? Don't you just trot out the same thing each time?

Well, yes, it does take me that long, and no, I don't reuse the same messages over & over. While I often return to the same passages of Scripture (1 Corinthians 13 is a favorite of mine at weddings), I try to personalize each message to fit the couple "gettin' hitched" or the life of the person being buried.

For example, I did a wedding last year where I knew the bride & groom because of boardgaming - so I made references to marriage being the ultimate cooperative game (along with other connections & references).

So, back to the original question... based on what you've told me, how much should I pay the pastor?

As a starting point, you should think about paying him for his time - in California (the state where I live) the minimum wage is $8.00/hour. So, a bottom-end low-ball number for 10 hours of work would be $80.

Of course, that's the same amount that someone would get for running the fryer at the local McDonald's... and you definitely don't want a high school kid performing your wedding. So, you should also consider his experience & training. Unless you have a younger minister, chances are pretty good that they've officiated at a number of weddings and funerals & can offer a level of wisdom & background that has some kind of dollar value.

I actually don't have a definite number in mind - I personally have been paid as little as, well, nothing (zero, zilch, nada) and as much as $500. And while those numbers sometimes have related to the size of the ceremony and/or the wealth of those participating, some of the most generous honorariums (and some of the least generous) have been a complete surprise to me.

The church we're using has a fee for the pastor. Won't that be enough?

It could be - but that depends on the amount of the fee. I've seen some churches charge as little as $50... my own church has a "suggested amount" of $100.

You might want to consider giving the pastor something above & beyond that set number.

I've invited the pastor & his wife to the rehearsal dinner - isn't that part of his payment?

Not to put too fine a point on it... but no. There are two issues with rehearsal dinners:
  1. Unless the pastor is someone who would have already come to the rehearsal dinner (a family member or close friend), you have created for them another ministry opportunity. It's not a nice meal out (and sometimes, depending on the caterer, it's not a nice meal period) with his spouse - it's another 90 minutes or so of work.
  2. In some cases, pastors officiate at services where they know only the bride & the groom and/or a family member or two. Again, this is not a night on the town - it's hard work to strike up conversations & make connections.
By all means, invite your pastor to your rehearsal dinner - particularly if you have a strong connection with him. But don't be offended if he has to decline or slip out early... and don't count that meal as part of his payment.

In a related subject, please pay your pastor's travel expenses (for an out-of-town ceremony) without counting that as a part of the honorarium. (Note: I've had a number of very pleasant experiences with this - staying in hotels much nicer than I would have chosen for myself or being flown to alternate destinations to help me out - I'm not speaking from personal bad experience here.)

I'm a member of his church - shouldn't I get these services for free?

Before I try & answer that, I want to ask you a question - are you giving to the church? In other words, when you say you're a "member", do you mean that you attend that church & throw a couple of bucks in the plate each week... or are you someone who gives generously of their time, talent & treasure?

Now, I start there because I've found in my nearly 30 years of ministry that folks who support their churches financially almost never ask this question. The people who want the church and/or the pastoral staff to "provide services" are usually the least likely to give on a regular basis.

With that said, it's really up to the individual minister. I don't require anyone to pay me - if asked, I explain that they are welcome to give me an honorarium, but the amount is up to them.

Any final thoughts?

This is going to sound really "church-y", so I'll just note that, apologize (sorry) and go on. I think you should prayerfully consider how you can bless the pastor that officiates the wedding or funeral for you.

I welcome your thoughts, questions & comments on the subject.

Game Review: Ascending Empires

If you’re a fan of “games… in… space… “ (yep, gratuitous Muppet Show reference), 2011 is a very good year. July gave us the newest opus from the creators of Heroscape & Summoner Wars, Battleship: Galaxies. (I’ll be reviewing that pretty soon, btw.) Of course, we’ll talking more about Ascending Empires in just a moment…

And coming in the next few months are:

  • Space Empires 4x (a sprawling space/civ game from GMT)
  • Race for the Galaxy: Alien Artifact (a new expansion for the beloved card game that strips it down to the base deck & heads off in a new direction)
  • Battle Beyond Space (Frank Branham’s long-awaited masterpiece – a massive battle of spaceships that manages to play in about an hour… note: I’m a long-time playtester on this game)
  • The Ares Project (a card-driven battle game with four asymmetrical factions that works to bring the feel of real-time computer gaming to the board game table)
  • Eclipse (a resource management space/civ game due to be released at Essen 2011)
  • Core Worlds (a deck-building space game from Stronghold Games)
  • Star Trek: Fleet Captains (using Clix models to do space combat w/the rebooted Star Trek universe)
  • and a reprint of the classic space game Outpost

That’s some mighty fine space gaming ahead for all of us who cut our teeth on Heinlein’s Starship Troopers (yes, both the book & the original Avalon Hill wargame) and Buck Rogers: Battle for the 25th Century (yes, both the TV show & the TSR board game)… and it doesn’t hurt that the first one out of the gate, Ascending Empires, is a keeper.

That’s right – after 6 plays (3 with four players, 2 with two players & 1 with three players), I’m prepared to call this one of the top games of 2011. (I’m not the first to do this, of course – designer Bruno Faidutti named it his 2011 Game of the Year.)

That said, I need to get something really important out of the way – Ascending Empires has been described by many people (including myself) as a weird & wonderful cross between a dexterity game like Carabande or Catacombs and a space civilization game like Twilight Imperium or Starcraft: the Board Game. There’s two problems with that description:

  1. It’s really a space empire-building game with flicking rather than a flicking game with a space theme. (Flicking is used simply for movement – and unless you’ve managed to ramp up your tech, you don’t actually want to run into other people’s ships.)
  2. Though it is a space empire-building game, it has a playing time of about 75 minutes… which is roughly 1/4 of a game of Twilight Imperium & 1/3 of a game of Starcraft: the Board Game.

Players begin with a home planet (which, thanks to some kind of unexplained technological marvel and/or diplomatic agreements, can not be attacked by other players), a small army of soldiers/settlers and a couple of starships. In turn, player begin to explore the board, settle planets, build stuff (colonies, cities & research stations), advance their tech levels… and, as time goes on, attack other space empires. Various actions give you victory points (destroying starships, capturing planets, improving your tech & mining valuable resources) during the game, while building up your infrastructure & expanding your empire is worth points at the close of the game. The player with the most points wins.

OK, a gamer-y aside: I just typed the sentence: “The player with the most points wins” after describing how to get victory points & it has occurred to me that is the one of those moments that belongs in the Department of Redundancy Department. Who else is going to win? The guy who has the least points? Sheesh. Alrighty then, moving on…

Many space empire games have long player turns where you do all of the things listed above – but Ascending Empires limits players to one action per turn, which has a couple of neat effects on game play. First, the game moves along at a blistering clip (once you’ve got a game or two under your belt) – there is very little downtime. Second, players have the opportunity to react to the actions of other players (or the perceived plans of other players) quickly… while it’s not a real-time game, the quick turns & ability to react makes it feel that way.

As well, players are limited on their resources: to launch a ship, you have to return a soldier to your supply. To land on a planet, you have to do the same with a ship. To build a colony, city, research station or mine, once again your soldiers go marching off to your supply … and since you have only 2 starships & 6 soldiers to start with, the management of those finite resources is a key part of how your space empire develops. (Building cities & increasing your tech levels give you access to more soldiers & ships in supply… thus allowing you to expand a greater rate.)

As mentioned before, movement & combat are dependent on flicking – but with an occasional exception, most of those flicks are short hops rather than attempts to cross the board in a single jump. While there are times when you want to ram the starship of another player (this is a cost-effective way to get rid of an enemy battleship, normally worth 2 starships in combat), losing your own ship is costly and so finesse is important. As well, certain tech modifications can give your opponent points for being rammed – another reason to avoid spectacular collisions in space.

Here’s some things I’ve really enjoyed about the game:

  • As mentioned by Bruno Faidutti in his review of the game, each playing has had a wonderful story arc – the beginning is (mostly) peaceful as the empires begin to build, then the empires begin investing time into research stations & tech advancement, which sets them off on different development paths. Finally, war can no longer be avoided and the various empires do battle for scarce resources.
  • Both the mix of the planets (which makes it easy to play 2 or 3 player games on a 4 player board) and the amount of victory points in the pool (by which you can vary game length) are adjustable.
  • The designer, Ian Cooper, has published two great scenarios (a 2 player “Lost Empire” scenario that introduces a neutral empire and “Wormholes” variant board that takes planets off the map to introduce black holes) on the Geek… and has promised more.
  • The game just looks cool mid-play with all the pieces out & the planets flipped up.

If you’ve heard of Ascending Empires before, you’ve also heard of the one possible problem with the game: the puzzle-cut board.In a game with flicking, the optimal way to have published this game would have been to sold each game with a one-piece Plexiglass board – but then NONE of us would have been able to afford it. After much testing, the puzzle-cut board was found to be the best solution that balanced cost & usability.

Personally, I have had very few problems with the puzzle edges interfering with movement – and board warping just isn’t an issue in the dry hot climate of the Central Valley. (For those of you in less arid climes, Z-Man has thoughtfully provided a bag to seal the pieces in between games.) There are a number of “fixes” proposed by users on BGG – here are a few that I like:

  • be CAREFUL when putting the board together – there is an optimal way for the pieces to go down (this is true & works like a charm)
  • allow players to hold down sections when flicking across them (we actually help each other out with this)
  • accept the imperfections as “space turbulence”
  • replace starships with glass beads (from a craft store) placed upside down
  • make your own board out of wood or plexiglass (this seems extreme… but very, very cool)

Please, don’t let allow the moaning & groaning about the board keep you from buying Ascending Empires… or any “I don’t do flicking” prejudice keep you from trying it. This is a well-balanced & fast-playing space empire-building game that isn’t quite like anything else you’ve ever played… and is worthy of time on your gaming table & a place on your game room shelf.

This review originally appeared on the Opinionated Gamers website.