Thursday, August 06, 2020

Remembering James Miller

I found out yesterday evening that my friend, James Miller, had passed away due to an aggressive infection that turned septic. He was 50 years old. 

What follows is a series of memories, thoughts, and images about James and his impact on me.


I met James for the first time at - in a plot twist that will surprise no one that knew him - a board gaming convention in 2000. Why I was in the car that went to pick him up at the Chattanooga airport is a piece of the story that is lost to the mists of 20 years... but I distinctly remember liking James immediately. He was the kind of person who made the room (or the car) a little brighter, a little warmer, and a whole lot more welcoming.


I'm going to tell you a joke... it's not a particularly funny joke, but it's one that James loved and that I made up and therefore you're going to have to hear it. 

At my first Gathering of Friends (an invitational board game convention) in 2002, I passed by a table late one evening where James and some other folks were playing Pueblo. In the game, you place Tetris-like blocks into a central structure and assess points based on what can be seen from each side of the edifice... and also from above. As James explained the rules to me, I remarked that this overhead view was a "Hopi-copter"... and that's all it took to reduce James to near-tears of laughter. 

Over the years, he would mention that line and grin ear to ear or chuckle... and I felt both proud of my wordplay (something James was brilliant at) and enveloped in his humor and friendship.


James is not the only friend who made it possible for me to attend Gulf Games and The Gathering of Friends during my time as small church pastor in California - the generosity of those folks were a balm to my weary soul, particularly near the end of my ministry. But James was even more than that - for two years (2012 and 2013), he was my roommate and confidante at The Gathering. 

Each time, we spent over a week living with each other, taking care of each other (James made sure I ate, I made sure he rested). We played lots of games, since we both operated on the same "early morning" schedule... and our "let's see what older games deserve a second chance" meetings with Mario were a highlight of my Gathering experience.

James worried that his snoring would keep me awake. I felt the same for him. Somehow, we cancelled each other out.

In 2012, he listened and encouraged me as I talked about the struggles I'd had with leading the church and my hopes that we were reaching a better place. In 2013, when I attended the Gathering after I had resigned my role as pastor, he listened and gave me a safe place to hurt and to laugh. 

I will never forget the gift of being his roomie.


When James found out that the Jackson family didn't have an iPad, he mailed us one of his. 

I know that doesn't sound like a big deal, but we were not in a position where we could have bought an iPad - and that one gave us years of good service and enjoyment. To James, it was just another way to help out and care for us. 

It did.


For years, I told Shari and the boys that I wished they could meet James... and in the spring of 2019, the boys finally had the opportunity at the last Gulf Games to be held in Chattanooga. (I just realized - the last place I saw James is the first place I saw James.)

He took the three of us to lunch and we told stories, laughed, ate too much food, and generally enjoyed each others company. Both Collin & Braeden walked away saying how much they liked James... that he was as neat as I'd said he was. 

In February 2020, Collin & I had to bow out of attending Gulf Games due to Shari's health... one of the things that bummed both of us out was missing the opportunity to see James.


Seeing so many people post their memories of James and his warmth, his friendship, his incredible kindness, his humor, and his enjoyment of others yesterday and this morning has been both heartwarming and emotionally difficult. I'm thankful for the difference he made in so many lives; I'm crushed that I won't be sitting across the table from him again and hear him welcome me to the wonderful world of [fill in the blank] as he explains the rules. 

I also realized I don't have any pictures of James... or James & me. I'm blaming the fact that I was busy having fun with him and never bothered to pick up the camera/phone.


I am thankful for James and for his friendship... and I'm heartbroken at his death. 

Our 2020 GenCan't Experience

For someone with over 1000 games in the house (if you count expansions), I'm not really a big gaming convention guy. The last open convention I attended was TN Game Days a couple of years back (700 or so folks) and the last BIG convention I went to was KublaCon around 2006. 

So, the yearly pilgrimage to Indianapolis to GenCon hasn't ever been on my schedule. Dealing with 60,000+ gamers all in one place just doesn't appeal to me - no matter how much I'd enjoy seeing many of the folks who attend. Instead, for the last few years, the boys & I have participated in GenCan't - an online convention for those who can't (or don't) attend GenCon.

This year, of course, GenCon went online due to the virus, but GenCan't went on as usual, with a great Discord channel for chat, a bunch of events & contests, and the fun of sharing our board gaming hobby with each other. (We even have badges!)

In that spirit, I present to you the story of our GenCan't (with a bit of sneaking in the virtual back door at GenCon to peek at some of the new stuff.)

DAY ONE: Thursday

Some great conversation on the Discord channel... and sadly, work got in the way of me play MegaKaruba with folks online. But after work, the gaming began in earnest.

A classic 2 player game from Kosmos that desperately needs a reprint... Collin (my younger son) took me on and gave me a run for my money. I have a long history of winning this game against most folks - but I edged Collin out with some selective weed placement. (This game also gets an award for Best Vaguely Off-Putting Box Cover with a willowy female flower/person and a short/rotund male flower/person.)

Downforce (Aloha Sands track):
This track from the newest Downforce expansion has quickly become our favorite... the jumps (a) just look cool, and (b) offer some very interesting decisions about when to make a break for the finish line. (Downforce is the cleanest and easiest to teach version of Wolfgang Kramer's excellent racing system... over time, I've owned Tempo, Top Race, Detroit/Cleveland Grand Prix, and Daytona 500. The only ones still left in the collection are Downforce and Daytona.) I won rather handily, thanks to spending very little on my cars and Collin betting heavily on my lead car.

Unmatched: Battle of Legends:
The first of three Unmatched battles took place later in the evening... and Braeden and I played while we watched the CGE preview of Lost Ruins of Arnak. (Which looks cool, by the way.) This was a battle to the wire, as Braeden's last Raptor took down my Medusa with only a few hit points to spare. I hate to admit it, but he outplayed me.

DAY TWO: Friday

Work once again interferes with boardgaming... sigh. But I did get a chance to watch/listen to the Restoration Games "Blueprints" panel/feed from GenCon - excited about all the love for Unmatched and the content of the upcoming expansions. Also jazzed that Return to Dark Tower is staying relatively close to the original schedule... and I appreciate the straight talk about Heroquest (getting the trademark is simply one element in making sure they could do publish it IF a lot of other things happen - but there is nothing definite.)

We also managed to win a copy of ThinkFun's Chicken War in a random Twitter drawing... hey, a new game to try - bonus!

Roll for the Galaxy (Orb)
: I love this slightly longer variant on Roll for the Galaxy (you play to 15 technology & planet tiles)... and this game was no exception. I posted my best score ever at the game... but, to quote James Ingram, "I guess my best wasn't good enough" as Braeden beat me by 16 points. (Related note: I'm a beta tester on the Roll for the Galaxy app - it's really well-done!)

NEOM (solo)
: The past two Essens have been very good to someone who loves drafting games - NEOM and 7 Wonders: Armada in 2018, It's a Wonderful World in 2019. NEOM has a great packet drafting system for solo games that works really well (as does It's a Wonderful World), so it's kind of my go-to solitaire game right now. I seem to be getting worse and worse at it, though, as I try some "lean into one direction" strategies that don't seem to work as well as I want them to...

DAY THREE: Saturday

The gaming begins in earnest... no live streams, no panel discussions, not even much chatting on the Discord channel. Just playing game after game after game...

Zauberschwert & Drachenei:
Playing with all the expansions thrown in (even including Poison, which inevitably got played on me)... this has been a long-time favorite of the boys. It's a weird little Adlung Spiele card game. Players are wizards attempting to defeat larger and larger enemies to amass fame - but the central mechanic is actually an auction to either fight an enemy or build up your tableau to gain power and artifacts. (The name, btw, literally translates Magic Sword and Dragon Egg.) Braeden slaughtered us... even my giant pile of black dragon eggs didn't make up for his awesome store of power.

Vom Kap bis Kairo:
Since we were on an Adlung kick, I taught the boys my other favorite Adlung game - an auction/race game about building railroads across Africa. I won... but in fairness, I've played before and the game is quirky enough that an experienced player is likely to win. (Note: other Adlung games I love - Meuterer & Adlungland.) I like the odd mish-mash of auction, press-your-luck, and racing... all packed into 30 minutes or so.

Shards of Infinity (Shadow of Salvation):
Shards reminds me of Star Realms... but there are more twists and turns in the design of the cards. The Shadow expansion adds a cooperative mode - so Braeden & I taught Collin to play and dumped him into the cooperative campaign on his first try. As usual, the first boss is interesting but not overwhelming, the second boss was a nail-biter, and the final boss was tough but beatable. I don't think it's the perfect cooperative system for the game, since it truncates building up your shard power, but it's enjoyable every once in a while. (I do think Shards is an excellent 1v1 or 2v2 game... and it's substantially better 2v2 than Star Realms.)

Unmatched: Battle of Legends:
Our second battle of the weekend...this time, my Dracula & King Arthur team managed to defeat Bruce Lee (Collin) and Muldoon (Braeden). I think the Baskerville Manor board from the Cobble & Fog box is really clever - the secret passages require you to pay close attention to how quickly you can get boxed in. (Pro player tip: proper use of Merlin - his "sidekick" - is vital to making the King Arthur deck work.)

The only game I own designed by Tupperware. Yes, Tupperware. It's a cute (and easy) dexterity game that we talked my wife into playing - Braeden mopped the floor with the two of us. Sadly, it's very, very OOP... but you can find Hop Hop Hurray pretty easily, which is similar. (The Hop Hop blog post I link to actually good descriptions of this and of Rein damit!, a HABA game with a similar bouncing ball mechanic.)

Race for the Galaxy (Xeno Invasion):
Braeden and I play a good bit of Race for the Galaxy - so to keep things fresh, we change expansion decks every once in a while. Last weekend, we switched over to the Xeno deck, which I like. We didn't use the extra Xeno mode (which adds an alien invasion that complicates the game) - we've found it doesn't add much to our 2 player games. (I'd love to try it with 3+ players, though!) I managed to slide by him for a 2 point win.

Jump Drive
: Collin's favorite game in Tom Lehmann's Race for the Galaxy universe is Jump Drive, so he and I finished off the day with a head-to-head match. I managed to create an Uplift planet behemoth that took me to my highest 2-player score ever (85) and the win. (You can see my final two turns in the picture...yes, that's 40 points on the final turn. This overwhelming win makes up for the horrible defeat I suffered at his hands a couple of weeks ago.)


The last day (sigh) of GenCan't... which still had a number of games and the conclusion of my Dice Puzzle game (during which one of the entrants managed to identify all 9 dice correctly!).

Unmatched: Battle of Legends:
The final game of Unmatched pitted Sherlock Holmes and Sindbad (me) against Alice (Braeden) and the Raptors (Collin). Sindbad managed to do five Voyages, followed by rotating the Voyages back into his hand and putting all seven down - that's hard to beat. Of course, winning against my boys is always satisfying. (BTW, I highly recommend the Cobble & Fog box to Unmatched players... the card play on the majority of the decks is tricky enough that I might avoid it for total newbies, but anyone with experience can have a lot of fun with these very creative decks and interesting maps. For new players, the base box and/or Bigfoot vs Robin Hood is the best starting point.)

Sentinels of the Multiverse:
Braeden & I hadn't played this in a while, so out it came. While Marvel Champions has cut into our playing time on this one, they are NOT the same game, nor the same universe. (Credit to Greater Than Games for developing such a rich backstory to their superhero world.) We fought against Plague Rat at the Temple of Zhu Long... Braeden had Void Guard Doctor Medico and Chrono-Ranger (Plague Rat's nemesis) while I ran Freedom Six Bunker and Mister Fixer. We smoked Plague Rat, even while dealing with the denizens of the Temple. Gosh, I love this game.

Baseball Highlights: 2045:
I'm not a big baseball fan... oh, yeah, I like going to see a game live, but I don't watch baseball on TV and I'm certainly not obsessed with the sport like I am with college football or Premier League soccer. But Mike Fitzgerald's Baseball Highlights is a spectacular design (even with the oddly disjointed rulebook) and a joy to play - every time. The combination of deck-building/drafting with smooth play is a winner. Braeden & I had a great game, with his L.A. team fighting back from a 3-0 World Series deficit to lose 4-2. 

Cartographers: A Roll Player Tale (solo):
I bought Cartographers last fall because it looked like a good roll'n'write to carry with me in my suitcase when I was traveling for business. I was not wrong - it manages to scratch the old map-drawing itch from when I played D&D back in the day and carried around a pad of graph paper in my high school backpack to design dungeons with. At the same time, it's a clever roll'n'flip system that offers interesting choices with a varying set of scoring objectives each game. I've added the Skills expansion and a set of colored pencils... but that doesn't seem to help - my scores are actually getting worse. (But I'm still having fun.)

New Frontiers:
This was, bar none, the weirdest game of New Frontiers we've played. We were out of sync, meaning we were taking actions that the opposing player couldn't use. Braeden was building like crazy while I was just accumulating settlers/colonists due to my lack of military power. And then the game turned on a dime and I quickly settled planets and we ran out of colonists. We tied at 19 points each (a VERY low score) and I had more cash left over. 

Parting Thoughts

  1. I love the GenCan't vibe. (Thank you, Suzanne!)
  2. I didn't realize until I started writing this up that we played ALL of the Race for the Galaxy games this weekend.
  3. I'm working on a pretty massive review for the Opinionated Gamers of Unmatched. Watch for it!
  4. All the pictures here are taken by me... or one of my boys. Cool filters courtesy of Hipstamatic. 
  5. All of the links here are to stuff I've written about these games on my blog... or to reviews from the awesome team at the Opinionated Gamers (which, as you might infer from #2, I write for on a semi-regular basis.)

Monday, August 03, 2020

GenCan't 2020: The Dice Puzzle Answers

This was pretty simple... identify the games that use the custom dice above. 
One participant got all nine correct - congratulations to Chris S.!

Upper left corner: Dice Settlers
  • Which, by the way, is an excellent solo game... especially when you add in the Western Sea expansion modules.
  • 29% got this one right.
Upper middle: Impact: Battle of Elements
  • This is the U.S. reprint of Strike, which is being reprinted yet again with a Harry Potter theme. It’s a fantastic dice-chucking game that has been a hit with pretty much everyone who has played it.
  • 12% got this one right... one of the toughest dice to identify.
Upper right corner: Animal Upon Animal
  • Best. Family. Stacking. Game. Ever. 
  • In a dead heat with Rhino Hero Super Battle (also a HABA game) for best family dexterity game.
  • 41% got this one right... even with the gator "smudged" by the camera.
Middle row left: Ghost Fightin’ Treasure Hunters
  • Great components and easy-to-learn rules make this an excellent family cooperative game… and it’s pretty brutal. We don’t win very often, so when we do it’s time to celebrate!
  • 53% got this one right.
Middle row center: Duelosaur Island
  • The two-player version of Dinosaur Island…
  • I did accept Dinosaur Island as a correct answer as well. I’m not a monster.
  • 76% got this one right... but only 12% had Duelosaur Island.
Middle row right: Sushizock im Gockelwock
  • I thought that this would probably be the toughest die to figure out, as the game did not get a big U.S. release.
  • This is a cousin to Knizia’s Pickomino (I still like Heckmeck im Brautweck better as a name)… in this one, you are trying to eat sushi while only just enough fish bones.
  • 24% got this one right... I was wrong.
Bottom row left: Hit Z Road
  • Criminally underappreciated zombie auction game, with some of the most incredible production/graphic design – it’s a game “designed” by a kid who has to take a cross-country trip to dodge the zombie apocalypse and makes a game out of whatever pieces are lying around. The Easter eggs in the design are a lot of fun…
  • …but the game underneath all that coolness is really good as well.
  • 12% got this one right... and it had the best made-up answer: "Shooty lightning ghosts".
Bottom row center: Powerships
  • Again, due to my non-monster status, I accepted Powerboats as a correct answer, since they both use the same die.
  • I like Powerships better… a great push-your-luck racing game with nifty twists and actual strategy.
  • 35% got this one right... but no one guessed Powerships.
Bottom row right: Roll Player (Fiends & Familiars)
  • The most recent custom die in my collection… 
  • I think you need one or both expansions to take Roll Player from good to great.
  • 18% got this one right.

Sunday, August 02, 2020

GenCan't 2020: A Puzzle for Your Enjoyment

This is pretty simple... identify the games that use the custom dice above. 

I'll post the answers tomorrow (August 3rd, 2020).

I ran a contest using this for GenCan't 2020... yes, someone actually got all nine of them correct. This post is just for fun for folks that read my blog.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Essential Latin Phrases for Our Broken World

First, a short personal story.

I took two years of high school German (mostly because I didn't want to take Spanish) and barely passed. Our high school German teacher was not particularly adept at (a) teaching, and/or (b) dealing with high school students.

Fast forward to college, where I took another semester of German... and even with those two years in high school, barely eked out a "C". Knowing that it wasn't going to get better the farther I went, I made a semi-momentous decision.

I took Latin.

And I was pretty good at it - not A+ material, but I liked that (a) we got to read interesting passages, and (b) that there's no such thing as conversational Latin. It's also pretty cool that you sound so dang intelligent when you drop Latin phrases into conversation.

Now, on to the point of this blog post.

In the wild & crazy times in which we live, there are some important bits of Latin that can assist you in making wise decisions about who and what to believe. I provide these for you to (a) sound like a Harvard professor on sabbatical, and (b) help you think carefully about what you re-post, forward, or promote.

Pluralitas non est ponenda sine necessitate.

The direct translation is "plurality should not be posited without necessity." You may know it better as Occam's Razor.

No, not that razor.

It's more commonly phrased as "the simplest explanation is most likely the right one". It's an excellent tool for evaluating claims people and organizations make, particularly about controversial subjects.

For example, if a theory about something relies on the cooperation of multiple news organizations, social media platforms, portions of the federal government, health care professionals and researchers from around the world to suppress information of possible public benefit, that theory runs up against Occam's Razor.

A related & helpful aphorism (not in Latin) is Hanlon's Razor: "Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity". Or, if you want to get literary and slightly less acerbic, "Misunderstandings and lethargy perhaps produce more wrong in the world than deceit and malice do. At least the latter two are certainly rarer." (Goethe)

Cui bono?
No, not that Bono.

Better known in English as "Who benefits?"... or, more accurately, "to whom is it a benefit?"
Along with the parallel questions, cui prodest? ("whom does it profit?") and ad cuius bonum? ("for whose good?"), it suggests that understanding the motive for a particular post/meme/news article is an important part of sussing out its veracity.

Note: there's a reason I led with Occam's Razor... because taken in isolation, "follow the money" (colloquial English rendering of cui bono?) is often used by conspiracy theorists to justify full-on craziness.

Fere libenter homines id quod volunt credunt.

Attributed to Julius Caesar in his De Bello Gallico (The Gallic Wars)..., not that Caesar.

Anyway, it's translated variously as "Men generally believe what they want to" or "Men willingly believe what they wish." I particularly like the paraphrase "People's beliefs are shaped largely by their desires."

You probably have heard of this referred to as "confirmation bias" - Wikipedia defines that as "the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information that confirms or supports one's prior beliefs or values." The fact that Julius mentioned it in a history book back in the day means it's not a new problem.

An important safety check when reading news articles and social media posts is to ask yourself, "How badly do I want this to be true?" Particularly in difficult times, we long for stories that assuage our fears or topple those with whom we already disagree. That can lead us to believe something or someone we might otherwise dismiss. 

Related thought from author Anne Lamott: "You can safely assume you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do." 

So What?

Which, translates into Latin as "ita quod". But that misses the point.

I want to encourage you to think carefully and thoughtfully about your engagement on social media. Ask yourself the tough questions:
  • is the theory being espoused overly complicated and/or reliant on extensive conspiracies?
  • who actually benefits from me believing and/or sharing this particular narrative?
  • does this theory/narrative fit so neatly into my preconceived notions of how the world works and/or who I distrust that I am predisposed to believe it? 
Allow me a final bit of Latin for my evangelical friends: consilium et suscipe disciplinam ut sis sapiens in novissimis tuis... 
"Take good counsel and accept correction— that’s the way to live wisely and well." (Proverbs 19:20 MSG)

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Some Biblical Thoughts About the President's Twitter Feed

Whoever is slow to anger has great understanding, but he who has a hasty temper exalts folly.
Proverbs 14:29 (ESV)

My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.
James 1:19-20 (NIV)

Fools give full vent to their rage, but the wise bring calm in the end.
Proverbs 29:11 (NIV)

Do not let unwholesome [foul, profane, worthless, vulgar] words ever come out of your mouth, but only such speech as is good for building up others, according to the need and the occasion, so that it will be a blessing to those who hear [you speak].
Ephesians 4:29 (AMP)

Better to be patient than powerful; better to have self-control than to conquer a city.
Proverbs 16:32 (NLT)

Here are the things you must do: Speak truth to each other. Pursue justice in your courts. Render decisions that reflect truth and bring peace to the community.
Zechariah 8:16 (VOICE)

Let me tell you something: Every one of these careless words is going to come back to haunt you. There will be a time of Reckoning. Words are powerful; take them seriously. Words can be your salvation. Words can also be your damnation.
Matthew 12:36-37 (MSG)

Friday, May 22, 2020

My More Prayers

Let's start with some basics:

  • I'm a follower of Christ.
  • I attend a Southern Baptist church.
  • I love my church.
  • I was a lead pastor and youth pastor of SBC churches for nearly 28 years.
  • What I'm writing comes out of my experience and personal faith as an evangelical follower of Jesus.
OK, with that out of the way...

I agree with the President on the following points
  • Churches do provide many essential services to their communities.
  • Faith leaders love their congregations.
  • Faith leaders will (with a few exceptions) work very hard to make sure their congregations are safe.
  • Faith leaders don't want bad things to happen to people, whether they are are part of their congregation or not.
  • We need prayer.
  • The work of the church did not shut down because churches were unable to meet corporately. 
  • The power of God did not disappear because buildings were empty on Sunday morning.
  • Churches have been involved in their communities throughout this time of quarantine providing essential services.
  • Church buildings themselves are not essential. They help make the work and life of a church easier, but the life of a church is not dependent on the building, it is dependent on the people who make up that church.
  • Not all followers of Christ are demanding to go to church (if by "church" he means in-person corporate worship).
  • You can embrace worship as an essential part of life without corporate worship. (Please see a post I wrote on this some years back - 11 am Sunday Morning (Prime Time).)
    • Note: I am not saying "stop going to corporate worship" - while I love the online services my church is doing, I miss being together. Scripture reminds us to gather together (Hebrews 10:25)... but checking off perfect attendance on your offering envelope is a man-made rule, not a Biblical mandate.
  • More prayer is not dependent on people gathering on Sunday mornings... it is (once again) dependent on the people who claim faith in Jesus Christ.
  • Forbidding larger gatherings was not an injustice - it was a manifestation of concern to life and health of the communities our churches reside in.
My prayer is for churches that continue to love Jesus and love people, regardless of the status of their Sunday morning worship gatherings.

My prayer is that our focus as Christ followers will be on speaking and posting with the fruit of the Spirit in mind rather than to grind a particular political ax.

My prayer is that we will allow God to remove our hearts of stone - hearts heavy with the claiming of rights and absorption on self - and give us hearts of flesh that filled with grace for those who disagree and concern for others despite the frustrations of this season.


The picture above is from the church my family & I attend here in Nashville... it was taken late last fall.

The transcript below is from the President's remarks earlier today. They are from uncorrected Closed Captioning from CSPAN. The transcript was all caps at the original source.


Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Pixar Shorts: For Your Consideration

Last week, I posted my ranked list of Pixar films - and, no, I haven't watched Onward yet.

This week, I'm giving you my list of Pixar shorts... divided by loosely-defined categories/eras and without (in many cases) a lot of detail. I will note that many of these are available through Disney+, so I've noted the ones that are not available through that streaming service - and apologize, as the original version of this post listed a number of shorts as "not available" that actually are!

The Classics
  • The Adventures of Andre & Wally B.
  • Luxo Jr. 
  • Red’s Dream
  • Tin Toy
  • Knick Knack
These are the originals… the first CGI shorts that acted as proof of concept (computer animation can work) and proof that the folks at Pixar knew how to tell a story. Luxo Jr. would provide the Pixar logo (the bouncing desk lamp) and Tin Toy (even with the creepy/primitive baby animation) would be the jumping off point for the first full-length film we all know and love, Toy Story. (Tin Toy, by the way, was the first Oscar win for Pixar as Best Animated Short Film.)

My favorite of this group, though, is Knick Knack. The humor is sometimes sly, sometimes pure slapstick… and it works like a charm.

The Oscar Run
  • Geri’s Game 
  • For the Birds
  • Boundin’
  • One Man Band 
  • Lifted
  • Presto
  • Partly Cloudy
  • Day & Night
  • La Luna
With the exception of Partly Cloudy, all of these “independent” shorts were nominated for Oscars… and both Geri’s Game and For the Birds won. (The lead character in Geri’s Game became the Cleaner of Toy Story 2.)

My two favorites from this period are One Man Band and Presto… if you want to see comic timing in a cartoon at classic Warner Brothers perfection, Presto is amazing. (I would mention that both For the Birds and Day & Night are delightful and well worth your time.)

  • The Blue Umbrella
  • Lava
Lava is, frankly, one of my least favorite Pixar shorts… and I’m including some of the Mater Tall Tales and Forky Asks a Question in my calculations. The Blue Umbrella is sweet… but the “nature & the city conspire for love” theme was much better done in Disney’s Paperman.

The Second Oscar Run
  • Sanjay’s Super Team
  • Piper
  • Lou
  • Bao
This was the “second wind” of the Pixar team… with the wild creativity of Sanjay’s Super Team, the stunning visuals of Piper, the physical comedy of Lou, and the weird but compelling metaphor of Bao. I think my favorite is Piper… but Lou appeals to the elementary school kid in me that was picked on. (All four of these shorts were nominated for Oscars – and Piper & Bao both won.)

And Now, The Rest of the Story…
  • Mike’s New Car (Monsters, Inc.)
  • Jack-Jack Attack (The Incredibles)
  • Your Friend the Rat (Ratatouille) 
  • Dug’s Special Mission (Up)
  • George and A.J. (Up)
  • The Legend of Mor’du (Brave)
  • Party Central (Monsters University)
  • Riley’s First Date? (Inside Out)
  • Marine Life Interviews (Finding Dory) (not currently available on Disney+)
  • Auntie Edna (Incredibles 2)
This is a mixed bag of “extra” stories from beloved (and, in some cases, not so beloved) Pixar films. Jack-Jack Attack is my favorite of the group, with Your Friend the Rat a close second. None of them are essential viewing (with the possible exception of Jack-Jack)… and a couple (Riley’s First Date? and Auntie Edna) actually work against what is enjoyable about the movies they came from.

Too Much of a Good Thing
  • Mater and the Ghostlight
  • Mater’s Tall Tales
    • Rescue Squad Mater 
    • Mater the Greater
    • El Materdor 
    • Tokyo Mater
    • Unidentified Flying Mater 
    • Monster Truck Mater
    • Heavy Metal Mater
    • Moon Mater 
    • Mater Private Eye
    • Air Mater 
    • Time Travel Mater 
  • Tales from Radiator Springs
    • Hiccups
    • Bugged 
    • Spinning 
    • The Radiator Spring 500 ½
  • Miss Fritter’s Racing Skoool (not currently available on Disney+)
As noted in my previous Pixar films post, I really love Cars… seriously, I teared up riding Radiator Springs Racers when the music swells and you come around the corner towards the waterfall. 

However, I cannot recommend the majority of the Cars shorts – at least for adults. The boys loved Mater’s Tall Tales when they were younger… but they are, much like Cars 2, too much Mater and not enough of anything else. 

Back to the Beginning
  • Hawaiian Vacation
  • Small Fry
  • Partysaurus Rex 
  • Toy Story of Terror! (not currently available on Disney+)
  • Toy Story That Time Forgot (not currently available on Disney+)
  • Lamp Life 
  • Forky Asks a Question
Toy Story was an amazing start for Pixar – and some of the best “derivative” shorts have come from the wonderful secret world of toys. Ignoring Forky Asks a Question (which I don’t enjoy), I think all of the listed Toy Story shorts are worth your time… with my favorite being Toy Story That Time Forgot.

Tuesday, April 07, 2020

Pixar: For Your Consideration

One of my (many) good friends from the world of board gaming, Eric Burgess, took it upon himself to rank all of the Pixar films. We agree in a number of places... but disagree in others... and so I found myself wanting to create my own rankings.

You'll notice a theme... I cry A LOT watching Pixar movies. Generally, it's not the old school Disney cry (the ending of Old Yeller or Bambi's mother, for example) - these are because the folks at Pixar know how to tap into real emotion. (In typing up these mini-reviews, I found myself tearing up just remembering the scenes from the films... good grief.)

  1. The Incredibles - Riffing on superhero tropes, James Bond films, comic books, and action movie conventions, the folks at Pixar managed to invest the characters at the center of the story with both superpowers and depth. Funny, moving, full of surprises and pitch-perfect voice acting. 
  2. Toy Story 2 - This gets to go ahead of the amazing Toy Story on the way it built on what came before without cheapening any of it... and being the first (of many) Pixar films to leave me in a puddle of tears during Jessie's flashback montage.
  3. Toy Story - I distinctly remember being in the theater watching Toy Story... and the fact that is was ground-breaking computer animation completely dropping away 10-15 minutes into the film as I fell completely in love with the story and the humor.
  4. Up - Another gaming friend (Jeff Myers) used to say that he couldn't love a movie that made him cry in the first 10 minutes... this is the movie he was talking about. However, without those brilliant and deeply bittersweet first ten minutes, Mr. Fredricksen is just a cranky old man. (And the movie ends with more tears from me when Russell gets the grape soda pin.)
  5. Inside Out - This wonderful film made me laugh out loud... and weep quietly. I don't know how those of you who are parents of pre-teen girls survived this in one piece. (I know that the trauma of our leaving ministry and uprooting the boys definitely played into my reaction to the film.)
  6. Ratatouille - That a movie about rats and gourmet food works at all is a miracle... let alone one that comments so eloquently on the nature of friendship, the role of a critic, and the process of creativity. Plus, it's funny in the right places and amounts.
  7. Wall-E - Both Wall-E and Cars run a little long and a little slow... but both of them use that time to develop a rhythm and build up the characters so that you care about what's happening. Wall-E gets extra points for the overwhelming opening section and the delightful use of numbers from my one of my favorite movie musicals, "Hello, Dolly".
  8. Toy Story 3 - The plot here is tremendous - The Great Escape as re-imagined by Pixar. And then the last 20 minutes tear me up every time - the incinerator followed by Andy & Bonnie. 
  9. Cars - I like this a lot better than some folks... I think a childhood filled with trips along Route 66 (or what's left of it) makes this film a nostalgic road trip for me. Plus, I think they nailed the ending. (Yes, it's a little too long - see my comments about Wall-E above.)
  10. Toy Story 4 - They went to the well one more time... and made it work - mostly. (There's one character transition/decision that bothers me.) Revitalized Bo Peep is wonderful... and who can't love Duke Kaboom and/or the Combat Carl team?
  11. Monsters, Inc. - The animation innovations were pretty impressive... but the characters and their relationships were even more so. Another excellent bit of voice casting with Billy Crystal and John Goodman.
  12. Coco - An almost perfect blend of the fantastical and the heartfelt... and the music works perfectly. I can find some things to nitpick, but they don't detract from how much I enjoyed this film... or cried near the end. 
  13. Finding Nemo - The boys were a little young for this one when it first came out... the opening scared them silly. It's a great film... but I don't connect with it as strongly as some of the other Pixar films. (Dory's parenting advice is golden, though.)
  14. Cars 3 - After the mess that was Cars 2, I had real questions about yet another sequel. But Cars 3 isn't a typical sequel - nor is the message at the heart of it a typical "cartoon" moral. This is a movie about aging, wisdom, mentoring, and lasting friendship. And demolition derby.
  15. A Bug’s Life - Pixar's riff on The Seven Samuari/The Magnificent Seven... so much better than Antz (which came out in the same year). Hopper is a particularly effective villain.
  16. Brave - this has some weak moments, but I love that Pixar attempted something this big and bold.
    Note: You have reached the "you no longer need to watch these movies" line. Everything above this point is worth your time. Movies below this point are, for the most part, better than the majority of major studio animated films released but are not up to the quality level of the films above the line.
  17. Finding Dory - Dory was one of the highlights of the original film... but she works better as seasoning rather than the main dish. The otters were funny, though.
  18. The Incredibles 2 - I love parts of this movie... the raccoon sequence is brilliant, as are a couple of the action sequences with Elasti-Girl - but the film overall doesn't quite hold together. I don't hate it - but I haven't gone out of my way to watch it again (except the raccoon).
  19. Monsters University - Some really nice action sequences late in the film aren't enough to carry the weight of what feels like a "direct to DVD" sequel. 
  20. Cars 2 - Sadly, the fantastic visuals are paired with a so-so story that requires the characters to act out of character and/or like idiots. This is not the first Hollywood film to do this... but it's sad to see Pixar go there. OTOH, it does have one of my favorite Cars visual jokes - the Pope car in a Popemobile. 

I have not (yet) seen Onward... I'm planning to do that this week since it is now available on Disney+.

I refuse, based on the overwhelming feedback of friends, reviewers, and my children, to watch The Good Dinosaur. I'm just going to pretend it doesn't exist.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Solo Gaming - Spring 2020

top left: NEOM top right: Friday
bottom left: Nemo's War bottom right: Desolate
I started doing a lot of solo gaming when my oldest son (and chief gamer buddy) left for college in August. Even with him home (his university closed their dorms in mid-March), I've still been playing solo games.

I know, I know - there are plenty of board game apps on iOS and Steam... and I own many of them. But there's something really satisfying about physically playing a game: shuffling cards, moving pieces, seeing it all spread out in front of you. 

So, what follows are my thoughts on a variety of solo games I've played this spring.

An incredibly pleasant flip'n'write game that works like a charm as a solo game... and will also work well as a "over Facetime/Zoom" game if you use the solo rules for monster attacks. I'm glad it's in my collection.

A print'n'play space survival game... the files are now free from PNP Arcade. It's a lot of inkjet ink for a pretty straightforward solo game. I like it best with the two expansions thrown in - I think there's more decision-making involved and it's easier to set the difficulty level using the characters.

Dice Settlers
I bought this from a friend (hi, Janna!) primarily for solo play - and while I'm still having to fiddle a bit with the scoring numbers to make the AI competitive, it actually flows really well as a "big" solo game. I was pleasantly surprised that it works well as a 2-3 player game too. I managed to find a copy of the Western Sea expansion - which really ups the variety and makes the solo game more compelling.

Friedemann's wacky deck-builder about keeping Robinson Crusoe alive is still one of the best 1 player games out there. I can't recommend it highly enough. (It was on my Top 50 games list earlier this year.)

Marvel Champions: The Card Game
While Fantasy Flight has struggled to get the hero and villain packs out in ways that people can find them (and the current situation isn't going to make that any easier), I love the really straightforward design of the game and the way it captures the theme. I tend to play 2 heroes when playing solo - though the game is designed to play with a single hero.

For those who've played other LCGs (Living Card Games), this is less complicated than any of the others... some would say "dumbed down". (Sigh.) I find it the easiest to play and teach, due to clear card wording, distinctive superhero graphics, and card design that is relatively easy to read across the table.

Nemo's War
The other solo game that was in my Top 50 games list)... it manages to blend Euro mechanics and old-school wargame elements along with a compelling theme. On top of that, the various objectives change the game and how you play by just changing the scoring to reflect Nemo's vision of a "better" world.

I love this multi-player game that mixes city-building and 7 Wonders-ish drafting... and the solo game manages to capture most of that feeling through the clever use of "packets" of tiles. I played two games of this solo last weekend back to back.

Oh My Goods!
Solo play requires the Longsdale in Revolt expansion... but there are some clever things going on in this tricky little card game. I'm also looking forward to finding the second expansion (more scenarios for solo play) and Expedition to Newdale (the board game version of this same world which I really enjoyed playing last fall). Oh My Goods ranks up with Friday and Palm Island for the best games for solo play in small places (like hotel room desks).

Palm Island
This is a weird little deck-builder[?] that I'm not sure entirely works... you hold your entire deck in your hand (17 cards) and flip and turn cards based on resources on the cards. It's kind of fiddly and I'm not sure I know how to get a better score... yet I keep playing it.

Roll for Adventure
A recent co-op game from Kosmos with built-in expansions to increase the difficulty/change the puzzle. It's a dice-driven push-your-luck game with a fantasy theme draped over it. I typically play solo with two random characters. (BTW, solo or multi-player, I like this game much better with 2-3 players/characters than with 4... it feels like the game plays you with four players.)

Roll Player
One of two "RPG character creation" board games from last year... but with the expansion added in, Roll Player is the best choice for solo play. (In fact, I think this is one of the "required" expansions for multi-player play as well... it offers more variety and more options for players on their turn. Most importantly, it gives the game an ending via fighting the big boss that is much more satisfying than "hey, look - I built a character".)

This is THE original co-op game... it actually won a special Spiel des Jahres recognition as a cooperative game back in 1988. The problem is that I never feel like I have much control of the game.

Star Wars: Outer Rim
My oldest son and I both love playing this dive into the Star Wars universe - it's a pick up & deliver game with copious thematic elements. The game comes with a solo AI card deck that works... but it isn't a particularly compelling way to play. I'm not likely to solo this one again - but it will hit the table as a multi-player.

Super-Skill Pinball
I blogged about this last week at the Opinionated Gamers site... this is a really great roll'n'write design that was very enjoyable solo and multi-player. See my blog post for information on how to get the preview pinball table right now!

The Pursuit of Happiness
I continue to adore this gamer-friendly version of The Game of Life... and the newest expansion arriving required me to pull it out and play both multi-player and solo. The solo mode is well-thought-out.. players must beat a particular long-term happiness score as well as complete 3 life goals - which can be challenging. (The new expansion and the various Kickstarter extras just continue to add content and variety to this robust system... the delight of creating a life story is a lot of fun.) You can read my original review here.

Not related in any way to the excellent WWII biography... this fantasy survival game has nice production (for a solo game) and is in the same vein game-wise as the aforementioned Desolate: make decisions on what to face, press your luck, and try not to run out of supplies. It works... but I wonder if I'll be played out on it after 5+ plays.


Thinking about buying and/or trading for some new games based on my post (and how long you're likely to be practicing physical distancing)?

If you're new to solo gaming, I'd suggest Cartographers and Friday. For those with a more gaming under their belts, I'd go with Nemo's War, Expedition to Newdale (board game version of Oh My Goods), and NEOM.

And all of us will have to wait for fall 2020 for the full version of Super-Skill Pinball. (sad face)

On My List To Play Solo Soon
  • Dungeon Alliance with the second Adventure Pack
  • Legacy: The Testament of Duke de Crecy
  • Agricola with Farmers of the Moor
  • Hotshots
  • Space Cadets: Away Missions
  • The Colonists