Wednesday, March 03, 2021

Unmatched: Buffy, Beowulf, & Little Red

Not quite six months ago, I published a pretty massive review of the Unmatched game system… including a substantial bit of writing about how it compares to Star Wars: Epic Duels, the out-of-print mass market game on which it is based. (Important fact that may summarize that portion of the review: I still am more than willing to sell my lovingly used copy of Epic Duels to finance further Unmatched purchases.)

This time around, I’m going to forgo all the preliminaries and get down to the nitty gritty: just how good are the two new boxes in the Unmatched line? I might also comment a bit near the end about our experiences playtesting the announced Unmatched: Marvel boxes… 

I Mock You with My Monkey Pants

“The monkey’s the only cookie animal that gets to wear clothes, you know that? (You have the sweetest smile I’ve ever seen.) So, I’m wondering, do the other cookie animals feel sorta ripped? Like, is the hippo going, ‘Hey, man, where are my pants? I have my hippo dignity!’ And you know the monkey’s just, [with a French accent] ‘I mock you with my monkey pants!’ And there’s a big coup in the zoo.”
Willow: “The monkey is French?”
Oz: “All monkeys are French.”
I was a late convert to the Buffyverse… but thanks to a good friend who loaned me the DVD sets and a third shift job as a customer service phone rep for a major department store, I spent a number of nights when I didn’t work staying up late watching Buffy & Angel. (Note: while staying up on your ‘off’ nights does help with keeping a regular schedule, it is no fun.) 

Short detour for Buffy fans:
  • Seasons 2-3 of Buffy and seasons 2 & 5 of Angel are the best. 
  • Seasons 6-7 of Buffy are let downs… and season 4 of Angel is an unholy mess. 
  • Best Buffy episode: Hush
  • Best Angel episode: depending on my mood, Smile Time or You’re Welcome
Sadly, there are no monkey pants and no Oz (werewolf form or guitar player form) in the Unmatched: Buffy box. Also, no Cordelia. 

But with those exceptions, Restoration Games did a great job of capturing the characters not only in the graphic elements but also in the design of each deck. The set comes with a double-sided map: Sunnyvale High School on one side, The Bronze on the other. Player can take one of four main characters:
  • Buffy (with either Giles or Xander as her sidekick)
  • Willow (with Tara)
  • Angel (with Faith)
  • Spike (with Drusilla)
Angel/Faith is the most straightforward of the decks to play – and probably the best choice for a player new to the Unmatched system. Buffy is also easier to play, thanks to her special power which keeps her from being blocked by enemy figures. On the other hand, both Spike and Willow are slightly trickier decks – but powerful once you begin to suss out their potential. 

My experience with the Buffy characters (I’ve played 11 games with the Buffy set… and my sons have played even more than I have) leads me to the following conclusion: I like them as 1v1 characters, but the set absolutely comes to life when played 2v2. 

Fate Will Unwind As It Must

“And if death does take me, send the hammered mail of my armor to Higlac, return the inheritance I had from Hrethel, and he from Wayland. Fate will unwind as it must!”
My copy of Little Red vs Beowulf arrived just a couple of days before Christmas, so it hasn’t seen as much table time here at the Jackson household. (Again, the boys have played it more than I have.) 

With that, our consensus is that this may be our favorite pair of characters so far.

Little Red has a way to chain special effects on her cards that takes getting used to… but when I figured out how to make it work, it was a delight to play. Beowulf, on the other hand, is a multi-dimensional fighter with a strong sidekick (Higlac) who acts as a shield to wear down the other player. 

In addition to two great characters, the box comes with a new map and a new map feature – doors! This two-player map is double-sided – however, the other side is the same map using the more Tannhauser-like colored rings around spaces that lets more of the artwork shine through. (Personally, I like the solid spaces better… but to each his own.)

This is the Worst Day of My Life

Kamala: “You’re WOLVERINE! My Wolverine-and-Storm-in-space fanfic was the third-most upvoted story on Freaking Awesome last month!”
Logan: “Oh my God.”
Kamala: “I had you guys fighting this giant alien blob that farts wormholes!”
Logan: “Sounds great, kid.”
Logan: “Wait–so what was the MOST upvoted story?”
Kamala: “Umm…Cyclops and Emma Frost’s romantic vacation in Paris?”
Logan: “This is the worst day of my life.”
Getting the invitation to participate in the “double secret probation” playtests for upcoming Unmatched: Marvel boxes was a highlight of 2020 for my sons and I – not the worst day of our lives at all!

It’s really interesting to watch the various iterations of the decks as the team at Restoration tunes them and works to balance not only the numbers but also create those moments of joy when you play certain combos that make Unmatched so much fun. Examples: I managed to re-enact the hallway fight from the Daredevil show on Netflix in one game… and another game allowed me to go full on Embiggen as Kamala Khan (aka Ms. Marvel). And, without spoiling anything, I love me some Squirrel Girl. 

There are new maps, new twists, new deck configurations… and the same incredible attention to detail and playability that has made this game system so successful. I obviously haven’t seen the sculpts for the figures yet (we used Marvel Heroclix as proxies for playtesting) – but Restoration has been great on all the figures up to this point, so I’m ready to welcome the superheroes on my gaming table.

And with that, I’ve got to remember that “Loose Lips Sink Ships” and all that… look for the new boxes this summer.

For Those Who Are Curious…

Here’s how many times we’ve played each set since September 2019…
  • Unmatched: Battle of Legends, Volume One
    • Plays: 81
  • Unmatched: Robin Hood vs Bigfoot
    • Plays: 25
  • Unmatched: Cobble & Fog  
    • Plays: 21
  • Unmatched: Jurassic Park – InGen vs Raptors
    • Plays: 17
  • Unmatched: Bruce Lee
    • Plays: 12
  • Unmatched: Buffy
    • Plays: 11
  • Unmatched: Little Red vs Beowulf
    • Plays: 2
  • Playtesting
    • Plays: 25
Note: I received a review copy of Unmatched: Buffy… the rest of my Unmatched collection was purchased with my hard-earned cash. Which reminds me – anyone want to buy my copy of Epic Duels?

Also: this post originally appeared on the Opinionated Gamers website.

Friday, February 26, 2021

Dumb, Bankrupt, Wrong... and Sinful

"Recently in some places in the nation, there's been a disturbing reoccurrence of bigotry and violence... To those individuals who persist in such hateful behavior … you are the ones who are out of step with our society, you are the ones who willfully violate the meaning of the dream that is America, and this country … will not stand for your conduct."

Ronald Reagan, 1981

"If there is anyone who has mistakenly attached themselves to our party in the belief that we're not open to citizens of every race and religion, then let me remind you, tonight this hall belongs to the party of Lincoln and the exits, which are clearly marked, are for you to walk out of as I stand this ground without compromise.”

Bob Dole, 1986

"For our nation, there is no denying the truth that slavery is a blight on our history, and that racism, despite all the progress, still exists today... For my party, there is no escaping that the reality that the party of Lincoln has not always carried the mantle of Lincoln."

George W. Bush, 2000

"We... unwaveringly denounce racism, in all its forms, as deplorable sin; and... we affirm the Bibles teaching that every human life is sacred, and is of equal and immeasurable worth, made in Gods image, regardless of race or ethnicity (Genesis 1:27), and that, with respect to salvation through Christ, there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for (we) are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28); and... we lament and repudiate historic acts of evil such as slavery from which we continue to reap a bitter harvest, and we recognize that the racism which yet plagues our culture today is inextricably tied to the past; and... we apologize to all African-Americans for condoning and/or perpetuating individual and systemic racism in our lifetime; and we genuinely repent of racism of which we have been guilty, whether consciously (Psalm 19:13) or unconsciously (Leviticus 4:27); and... we ask forgiveness from our African-American brothers and sisters, acknowledging that our own healing is at stake; and... we hereby commit ourselves to eradicate racism in all its forms from Southern Baptist life and ministry..."

Southern Baptist Convention resolution, 1996

We "decry every form of racism, including alt-right white supremacy, as antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus Christ; and... we denounce and repudiate white supremacy and every form of racial and ethnic hatred as a scheme of the devil intended to bring suffering and division to our society; and... we acknowledge that we still must make progress in rooting out any remaining forms of intentional or unintentional racism in our midst..."

Southern Baptist Convention resolution, 2017

I have two simple takeaways in light of these clear historical declarations of truth by Republican presidential candidates and Southern Baptist Convention meetings.

The Republican Party under the continued leadership of twice-impeached Donald Trump are attacking their own members for making similar statements.
"It’s very important, especially for us as Republicans, to make clear that we aren’t the party of white supremacy... You saw the symbols of Holocaust denial, for example, at the Capitol that day; you saw the Confederate flag being carried through the rotunda, and I think we as Republicans in particular, have a duty and an obligation to stand against that, to stand against insurrection."

Liz Cheney, 2021
A group of SBC leaders is doing the exact same thing in the name of "protecting the Gospel."
"We should mourn when closet racists and neo-Confederates feel more at home in our churches than do many of our people of color... The reality is that if we in the SBC had shown as much sorrow for the painful legacy that racism and discrimination has left in our country as we have passion to decry CRT, we probably wouldn’t be in this mess."

J.D. Greear, 2021
Those attacks... heck, those "principled stands" - are dumb politically, ethically bankrupt, wrong on a number of levels...

...and absolutely sinful. 
"There is [now no distinction in regard to salvation] neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you [who believe] are all one in Christ Jesus [no one can claim a spiritual superiority]."

Galatians 3:28 AMP


Monday, February 22, 2021

Under Falling Skies: A Solo Gaming Review

Our story starts back in March of 2020… which, let’s be clear, feels like a decade ago. (In the words of Ned Ryerson, “Am I right or am I right?”) As my family and I chose to self-quarantine, I began searching for print’n’play solo games on BoardGameGeek. One of the highly recommended solo games I stumbled on was Under Falling Skies – the winner of the 2019 9-Card Nanogame Print and Play contest on BGG. 

About the time I found it, Czech Games Editions announced that they were going to publish an upgraded version of the game for Essen 2020… so, after one play (which I enjoyed), I put away my nine-card deck and played other solo games instead. (If you want to know more about my solo game play, check out my Solo Gaming in the Time of Covid post which I just updated to cover all of 2020.)

I wondered if CGE could take Tomáš Uhlíř’s incredibly compact design and expand it without making it too complicated and/or too riddled with unnecessary components and rules… so I was more than pleasantly surprised by the incredible success they packed into the 9 x 7 x 2.75 inch box.

Tale As Old As Time

The setting is familiar to anyone who plunked quarters into a Space Invaders video game or watched the movie Independence Day. (The first one… not, for the love of all that is holy, the sequel.) Giant motherships have appeared over cities around the world and alien fighter craft are diving towards the planet surface. You, our intrepid leader, must work to defend the city, limiting the damage, all while improving our technology and conducting research to figure out how to repel the alien invasion. 

One of the unique features of Under Falling Skies is the way that the board (made out of various small boards) lays out to make a tall yet skinny “map” of the alien invasion. It was tricky to fit on a hotel room desk (I managed, thanks to swapping out parts of the board as needed) but worked just on a coffee table. The design of the board actually enhances the theme – the alien ships (and the mother ship) are moving inexorably towards you and the city you are protecting. 

How It Works

The clever mechanic at the heart of the game is both blindingly simple and perfectly frustrating. The player rolls five six-sided dice… and then chooses to place them in their “underground bunker” to activate various functions. (Yes, it’s a worker placement game… which really didn’t occur to me until I typed out that last sentence.) The strength of each action is determined by the number on the die. There are five columns – and only one die can be placed in each column. 

Also in each column is an alien fighter… which dives toward your city as many spaces as the amount on the face of the die you just placed. So, strong actions encourage faster alien attacks while weak actions slow them down. Certain spaces allow the fighters to slide over into the next column… or trigger the movement of the mothership towards the city. Other spaces make the fighters vulnerable to attack by your jet fighters.

When you begin the game, you don’t have access to all the possible actions you’ll need to finish off the invaders – you’ll have to spend dice to move the excavator piece to grant you the ability to place dice on the lower levels of the bunker. No surprise – the really powerful action squares tend to be at the bottom of the bunker.

Possible actions (in the base game) include:
  • fire AA guns at the attacking alien fighters to slow them down
  • send out jet fighters to engage & destroy alien fighters
  • research how to defeat the aliens
  • build robots to power rooms over multiple turns
  • generate energy to power other rooms
The campaign (we’ll get to that in a minute) adds new wrinkles on top of those basic actions.

Two of the dice are white – when you place one of those dice, you re-roll all of your remaining dice. Making the decision about the order of dice placement involves balancing this re-roll, the diving fighters, and the need to accomplish a variety of tasks to save your city.

When a fighter reaches the city, you take a damage. Run to the end of your damage track and the city is destroyed – and you lose. Well, humanity loses, which is you.

Impending Doom

At the end of each turn, the mothership moves one step lower in the atmosphere, triggering a variety of effects:
  • forcing the excavator backwards (collapsing part of your underground bunker)
  • stealing some of your research
  • spawning extra alien fighters
Movement by the mothership during dice placement doesn’t trigger those effects – so there are times when it is actually wiser to let them advance to keep something worse from happening.

After the mothership moves, it respawns fighters which you destroyed (plus any extra fighters gained by the mothership)… and the battle continues. If the mothership reaches the atmosphere, say hello to your new alien overlords. And you lose.

The only way to win is to reach the end of the research track prior to the city being destroyed or the mothership landing.

Variety is the Spice of Life

Part of the genius of the CGE production of Under Falling Skies is how much customization they packed into the box:
  • You can vary the threat level (difficulty) of the game by flipping one or more of the sky tiles to their more threatening alien-goo splattered side.
  • There are a number of possible cities to defend – and each one has both a special power and a specific layout of the underground bunker created by combining bunker tiles in specific combinations.
  • If you lose a game, you can consider your city damaged and flip the city tile for a second game… with a more effective version of their special power
And all of that is before you get to the campaign, which strings together a series of approximately 10 games in four chapters, requiring you to defend your cities from an alien onslaught.  Scenarios create new problems for you to tackle… while characters add once per game special powers to deal with particularly thorny problems created by this invasion.

There is enough material in the box to have two completely different campaign experiences… and still you’ve just scratched the surface. (I’ve played – and won – a full campaign, as well as multiple one-off battles… and there’s content I haven’t seen yet.)

With all the content revealed, you can manage the difficulty level of individual games with a simple system to measure just how “epic” your battles are.

Speaking of epic – this is the epic pile of stuff that CGE managed to tuck into this box. (There will be no complaining about wasted shelf space for this game)

It’s Easy to Miss Things

While all of the rules are right there in the rulebook, it’s easy to make assumptions about how to play the game based on other games you’ve played. (If there was a place to look up “I played this wrong ‘cuz I didn’t pay attention to the rules” in an encyclopedia, my picture would be right there.) A couple of key issues I missed in my first couple of games:
  • Fighters move as soon as you place a die in their column… which means that fighters that shift columns can be moved a second time and make defending your city even more difficult.
  • Remembering to move the mothership down at the end of each turn.

Final Thoughts

2020 was a great year for aliens attacking solo games – with both Warp’s Edge (which I reviewed late last year) and Under Falling Skies using very different systems to create games with solid mechanics, tactical and strategic decisions, and nail-biting “will I be able to pull this off?” moments. 

Under Falling Skies is the meatier of the two games – the decisions are trickier to make than Warp’s Edge. It also has a slightly longer playing time – most of my games run about 35-40 minutes (compared to Warp’s Edge at 20-30 minutes). But I’m glad to have both games – and recommend them both to you if you’re looking for excellent solo gaming experiences.

Note: I received a review copy of Under Falling Skies.

Friday, February 19, 2021

Best New (to me!) Games of 2020

For the last decade or so, I’ve intermittently published my Best New (to me!) Games list each year… and, when I missed a year or two, added the missing lists to the most recent post.
However, before we get properly started with my list for 2020, we need to cover a few games that were excluded from the list for various reasons but still warrant attention being paid to them.

The Grey Area

I wasn’t exactly sure what to do with the following games – these are all games that I played exactly one time prior to 2020.

Expedition to Newdale

This board game version of Pfister’s Oh My Goods was so enjoyable from my first play at a post-Essen weekend in 2019 that I used some of my Christmas money to pick up Oh My Goods and the Longdale expansion. (And I finally managed to get the Canyon Brook expansion post-Christmas!)

Lots of solo plays of Oh My Goods led to me picking up – no surprise – Expedition to Newdale. I’ve been working my way through the solo campaign and enjoying the blend of careful planning and luck of the draw the characterizes this series.

It’s a Wonderful World

The same post-Essen weekend also involved my first play of It’s A Wonderful World… and this one proved to be a hit with my sons as well as a very good solo game. I like the combination of 7 Wonders-ish drafting and resource management… and I’m really looking forward to the expansions coming out early in 2021. (There’s also a It’s a Wonderful Kingdom on the way… which I know almost nothing about.)

Terraforming Mars

I first played Terraforming Mars nearly three years ago – and while I really liked it, I didn’t think that my sons would enjoy it enough to get it to the table. But I decided to take the plunge in 2020 due to (a) very positive reviews from the solo gaming community, and (b) my boys being older. Success! The game works very well solo and the boys liked it better than I would have imagined. Over the last six months, I’ve picked up the expansions (I think Prelude should have come in the base box), the Broken Token insert set (include player boards with recessed spaces), and, thanks to a gamer friend (hi, Will… remember to feed your people!), a KS pledge for the 3D terrain.

Expansions of Note

Sometimes, I’ve put expansions under #10 on a list as a group… this year, I decided to break them out. Expansions specific to a game on the list (see:) will be dealt with under their entry.

Downforce: Wild Ride

I actually think this second set of maps is better than the first expansion… and that’s not just because we helped playtest the “zoo” map. There is something delightfully chaotic about the island map with the jumps that has delighted almost everyone who has played it.

Marvel Champions: A Whole Bunch of Stuff

I’m not even going to try and list all of the Marvel Champions packs that were released this year… the expanded list of heroes and the greater variety of villains made the game even more playable. I’ve been using some of the deck builds from the online community of Marvel Champions fans… since my enjoyment of the game is not in the tweaking of decks but in the play of the game. 

Roll Player: Fiends & Familiars

This expansion takes the Monsters & Minions expansion one step farther… and in the process, makes a good game even better. It both adds variety to the game but also gives you more options – something the base game was a little weak on. I wasn’t willing to spring for the fancy box in the KS, but the game itself is really enjoyable with 1-3 players.

Unmatched: Cobble & Fog, Buffy, and Little Red & Beowulf

Part of the charm of the Unmatched system is the expandable nature… and there were THREE new boxes this year! All of them can are stand-alone versions of the game as well as playable with the other sets in the series.

Cobble & Fog adds two different British-themed maps and a set of characters that feels like it’s right out of Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. This is probably the most “advanced” of the boxes, with 3 of the 4 characters trickier to play than some of the earlier boxes. (I love it – but it wouldn’t be the place I’d suggest players to start.)

Buffy the Vampire Slayer does a splendid job of conveying the fighting styles and character quirks of the Buffyverse… while I’m sad that Oz and Cordelia didn’t make it into the box, the new maps and the well-thought-out decks are a lot of fun.

Right before Christmas, Little Red & Beowulf appeared. This two player box has only one map… but it adds doors and two GREAT decks to the system.

Note: my sons and I were playtesters in 2020 for the announced Unmatched: Marvel boxes that are coming this summer. We’re still mostly sworn to secrecy… but I love me some Squirrel Girl. Just sayin’…

Honorable Mentions

A few games that deserves a mention – but that didn’t quite make the top ten cut. They are in alphabetical order.

Little Town

Highly recommended by folks who admire the Euros of the late 90s… and they were spot on. It’s a pretty straightforward “place workers to get resources or build buildings” – but the interaction with other players is really interesting and even the same set of building tiles can generate very different games depending on who’s playing.


I don’t need to own this one… but it’s a splendid cooperative design with scads of replayability. The push-your-luck mechanic of choosing based on the backs of the cards gives just enough look-ahead while keeping the players on their toes.

Pan Am

An economic worker placement game that, like Little Town, feels like a modern take on the Euro games of the last 90s. It uses the Evo/Amun Re/Vegas Showdown auctions and combines them with route building and a nice variety of situational events that keep the game fresh.

Red Alert: Space Fleet Combat

Memoir ‘44… in space! My older son got the whole KS set for Christmas and we had a blast playing it. It takes a big table (barely fits on our 6 person gaming table) but it has amazing table presence, even unpainted. (Note: I might have had something to do with him receiving such a gift.)

Stuffed Fables

We have just scratched the surface of this delightful cooperative game of stuffed toys defending their little girl from the evil that lurks under the bed. The storybook format for board and rules works MUCH better here than in The Princess Bride game released this year.

Best New (to me!) Games of 2020

#10: Under Falling Skies

Czech Games Editions did an excellent job of taking a simple 9-card solitaire game and turning it into a very involving solitaire game in a box, complete with a well-thought-out campaign mode. My full review is on the Opinionated Gamers website.

#9: Sanctum

Another CGE game… like their previous hit, Adrenaline, it’s a board game take on a video game genre. In this case, it’s Diablo: The Board Game. Kill monsters to get equipment and experience in order to go after the big bad at the end of the game. There is very little direct interaction (except for which monsters you draft to fight)… but the game is still fascinating. We like it best with 2 players. (This is the first of six games in my top ten that weren’t released in 2020.)

#8: Super-Skill Pinball: 4-Cade

Note: I assisted in editing the final rules for this game… so I might be a big prejudiced. Still, it’s a unique roll-n-write that actually feels like pinball. I like the Dragon table best of all, with the Cyberhack table a close second. (WizKids recently announced a new stand-alone second game in the series for 2021.)

#7: Champions of Midgard

Yes, it’s similar to Lords of Waterdeep… but it’s easier to read the board and cards, there seem to be more pathways to victory, and I just had more fun playing it. It’s possible that the plethora of expansions available may have swayed my opinion… that and winning my first game of Midgard. I’m looking to this hitting the table again with a full complement of players (#2 of the games not released in 2020.)

#6: Civilization: A New Dawn

The previous EGG and FFG takes on the Civ video game as a board game left me cold… but this newest attempt by Fantasy Flight gives me the same vibe as their third edition of Runebound. In both cases, they figured out a simple mechanic that enabled the game to be cleaner to teach and play. In A New Dawn, it’s the sliding row of cards that get more powerful the longer you don’t use them… or when you use your technology points to upgrade them to better versions. (#3 of the games not released in 2020.)

#5: Warp’s Edge

My other favorite solitaire space alien fighting game – which I reviewed back in October. This bag builder is smooth as silk – even if you’re getting clobbered by the aliens. (I still haven’t beat a Level 4 mothership.) Note: I sprung for the Kickstarter set of nice chips and a playmat – both of which make it even m
ore enjoyable to play. (And there’s also an expansion which makes a tricky game even harder, if that’s your thing.)

#4: The 7th Continent

We got the “classic” set from Serious Poulp in the middle of quarantine… and promptly spent hours exploring, backtracking, and dying horrible deaths. It’s a clever system that can be overwhelming… but it has a great “save” mechanic that lets you pick up where you left off (sort of) in your adventure. Note: box is bigger than it looks in this picture. (#4 of the games not released in 2020.)

#3: The Taverns of Tiefenthal

My boys both describe this as “gamer Quacks”… and I don’t think they’re entirely wrong. There are trickier decisions here, especially as you add the included expansion modules into the game. The thing that keeps me coming back is the opportunity to chain together clever plays by the order in which you resolve actions. (#5 of the game not released in 2020.)

#2: Silver & Gold

A flip-n-write with cards you write on doesn’t sound like much, but it’s been a hit both with my gamer boys and my non-gamer wife. Can’t ask for much more than that in a game that is truly portable and would make a great “waiting for your food” game (once we can hang out in restaurants again). (The final game not released in 2020.)

#1: Lost Ruins of Arnak

Dripping with theme and gorgeous artwork… filled with Euro-y decisions… no direct conflict but plenty of chances to beat someone to a good location… plays quickly and cleanly… multiple ways to pursue victory… what’s not to love? (Oh, did I mention there’s a second more difficult board on the back of the main board… and a great solo mode?!)

Looking Ahead

I will not be surprised if Return to Dark Tower ends up on this list next year… as well as Dice Realms (which I was hoping would be released last year but am hoping against hope will make it in 2021).

  • I received review copies of Lost Ruins of Arnak, Super-Skill Pinball, Under Falling Skies, and Unmatched: Buffy.
  • This post originally appeared on the Opinionated Gamers website.

Friday, February 12, 2021

Graceland (Classic)

I wrote this 12 years ago... and I'm still kind of amazed about how much it resonates with my heart & life.

There's a great scene in the long-since-defunct dramedy TV series "Sports Night". (Actually, there are a lot of great scenes, but that didn't prevent it from getting cancelled. Sigh.) Dan & Casey, the anchors of the show, are waiting for the show to start, when Dan blurts out:

Dan: Eli's Coming.

Casey: Eli?

Dan: From the Three Dog Night song.

Casey: Yes?

Dan: Eli is something bad, a darkness.

Casey: "Eli's coming. Hide your heart, girl." Eli is a inveterate womanizer. I think you're getting the song wrong.

Dan: I know I'm getting the song wrong. But, when I first heard it, that's what I thought it meant. Things stick with you that way.

OK, I'm the first to admit that the only Three Dog Night songs I knew before seeing this episode were "One (is the Loneliest Number)", "Black & White" and "Joy to the World." (We sang the last a bunch of times in elementary school music class, only without the verse about drinking the bullfrog's mighty fine wine.) Still, I understand what Dan's talking about - how you hear something the first time can lock in meaning & emotion for years to come. 

Sometimes, it's because we get the lyrics wrong. My father-in-law & I spent untold time & energy convincing my bride-to-be (Shari!) that Ariel was NOT singing "pregnant women, sick of swimming" in THE LITTLE MERMAID - I lost count of how many times we rewound the videotape. For the record, the correct lyrics to "Part of Your World" are:

Betcha on land they understand

Bet they don't reprimand their daughters

Bright young women, sick of swimmin'

Ready to stand

Other times, it's because the the song grabs you by the throat because of a particular thematic idea or image. A good friend from college (who shall remain nameless) could hear the first few chords of Chicago's "Hard Habit To Break" and instantly be plunged back into the morass of his break-up with his first long-time girlfriend - so much so that he chose to avoid the album & the song. (He's happily married now... but I have no idea if the Chicago avoidance plan is still in effect.)

And in my case, it's making an assumption about a song based on the lyrical images intertwining with my personal background & theology. Ladies & gentlemen, I give you the title cut from Paul Simon's groundbreaking album, "Graceland":

The Mississippi delta was shining

Like a national guitar

I am following the river

Down the highway

Through the cradle of the Civil War

I'm going to Graceland


In Memphis Tennessee

I'm going to Graceland

Poorboys and pilgrims with families

And we are going to Graceland

My traveling companion is nine years old

He is the child of my first marriage

But I've reason to believe

We both will be received

In Graceland

She comes back to tell me she's gone

As if I didn't know that

As if I didn't know my own bed

As if I'd never noticed

The way she brushed her hair from her forehead

And she said losing love

Is like a window in your heart

Everybody sees you're blown apart

Everybody sees the wind blow

And my traveling companions

Are ghosts and empty sockets

I'm looking at ghosts and empties

But I've reason to believe

We all will be received

In Graceland

There is a girl in New York City

Who calls herself the human trampoline

And sometimes when I'm falling, flying

Or tumbling in turmoil I say

Oh, so this is what she means

She means we're bouncing into Graceland

And I see losing love

Is like a window in your heart

Everybody sees you're blown apart

Everybody sees the wind blow

In Graceland, in Graceland

I'm going to Graceland

For reasons I cannot explain

There's some part of me wants to see


And I may be obliged to defend

Every love, every ending

Or maybe there's no obligations now

Maybe I've a reason to believe

We all will be received

In Graceland

I know now that Paul was writing about the demise of his marriage and a road trip he took with his son to see Graceland. And, while I'm not a big fan of Elvis, I realize that he's talking about the palatial mansion with the music note gates on the south side of Memphis. Still, I hear lines like "I've reason to believe we all will be received in Graceland" and I hear echoes of biblical truth:

But you must not forget this one thing, dear friends: A day is like a thousand years to the Lord, and a thousand years is like a day. The Lord isn't really being slow about his promise, as some people think. No, he is being patient for your sake. He does not want anyone to be destroyed, but wants everyone to repent.

(2 Peter 3:8-9, NLT)

And when I think about my the reality of my own life - the struggles with pornography & selfishness & bitterness - the line about "the girl who calls herself the human trampoline" feels like Paul Simon has been watching me with hidden cameras. "Losing love is like a window in your heart... everybody sees you're blown apart" - yep, someone get Garfunkel's buddy out of the spy van and tell him to take the bug out of my telephone.

But all of us are "bouncing into Graceland": those of us who've been human trampolines & those who've jumped on us, the poorboys and pilgrims, the old & young, those who are smarter than a whip or dumber than a post, well-behaved and/or ill-mannered, whoever. Regardless if you've put more miles than years on your life (tip o' the proverbial hat to Indiana Jones) or if you rival the Pharisees for your devotion & self-righteousness, you can be received in the gracious arms of Jesus.

Jesus does not divide the world into moral "good guys" and the immoral "bad guys." He shows us that everyone is dedicated to a project of self-salvation, to using God and others in order to get power and control for themselves. We are just going about it in different ways...

...The gospel (good news) of Jesus is not religion or irreligion, morality or immorality, moralism or relativism, conservatism or liberalism. Nor is it something halfway along a spectrum between two poles -- it is something else altogether.

The gospel is distinct from the other two approaches: In its view, everyone is wrong, everyone is loved, and everyone is called to recognize this and change.

(Tim Keller, The Prodigal God)

I've said it before, I'll say it again: no matter who you are, where you came from or what you have or have not done, Jesus loves you. Graceland is more than just the mansion of a dead pop star.

Bounce His way...

Return to the Core Worlds: Empires and Nemesis

Once you’ve conquered the core worlds… what happens next?
“Winning is easy; governing is harder.”

 No, No, Not Yet

Butch: [Walks back, and Harvey tenses to begin the fight] No, no, not yet. Not until me and Harvey get the rules straightened out.

Harvey: Rules? In a knife fight? No rules.

[Butch kicks him in the groin and Harvey falls to his knees]

Butch: Well, if there ain’t going to be any rules, let’s get the fight started. Someone count. 1,2,3 go.

Sundance: [quickly] 1,2,3, go.

[Butch knocks Harvey out]

Flat Nose: I was rooting for you all along, Butch

Butch: Well, thank you, Flat Nose. That’s what sustained me in my time of trouble.

In the spirit of Butch & Sundance, let’s get the rules straightened out as I start this playtest report/preview/review:

  1. This is not a paid review. I received a playtest copy of the prototypes and will be first in line to back both Empires and the Nemesis deck when they hits Kickstarter next week.
  2. I’ve been playing a playtest copy – and while the art is solid, it’s not the same thing as a finished game. Any pictures taken by me are of the prototype copy.
  3. Due to COVID, all but one of my plays of Empires utilized the solo system. (I’ll talk more about that later.)

The Story Continues…

At the close of every game of Andrew Parks’ Core Worlds (released in 2011), the various players had inexorably advanced through the outer planets and finally subdued the core worlds in their quest for power. The question Core Worlds: Empires answers is…

…what happens now?

Each player starts with an empire of six worlds (their core world plus one planet in each of the rings) as well as a fabled leader. The task now is to turn resources and your fledgling empire into the dominant force in the galaxy – accumulating Empire points through efficiently and wisely directing your ambassadors to build armies, curry favor with the Galactic Orders, and even attempt to conquer other planets.

A Whole Lot Different, A Whole Lot the Same

The original Core Worlds used deck building drip-fed from a series of five decks… then coupled it with tableau building to amass the military forces needed to conquer various planets and finally the core worlds. I’m a huge fan of the game when you include the expansions (which I reviewed on the OG back in the day.)

Core Worlds: Empires offers a new set of game mechanics set in the same world – this time around, it’s a blend of worker placement (as you send your ambassadors off to interact with planets and advancements) and resource management. A very clever event card system not only advances the story but also gives players ways to anticipate and even manipulate end game scoring.

Many elements are familiar to those of us who played the original game:
  • the use of fleet and ground strength to win battles
  • the appearance of heroes and a wealth of unit types and planetary advancements
  • the powerful Galactic Orders – who can influence events and enable empires to better interact with various planets
Other elements are new:
  • the use and conversion of resources (similar in some ways to Terraforming Mars… though I hesitate to say that in fear of someone dismissing this as “just like TM” – it’s not.)
  • the aforementioned event deck system
  • cards and military units are assigned to particular ambassadors – meaning you need to plan ahead for combat
  • more player interaction – both from fighting over planets as well as paying each other to follow an action or use a planet in their empire

Variety’s the very spice of life, that gives it all it’s flavour

One of the things I really enjoy about Andrew’s designs is the wealth of variety that he values – whether it’s a deck building dungeon crawl like his Dungeon Alliance or an epic worker placement game like Core Worlds: Empires.

In Empires, there are decks for heroes, units, advancements, and tactics… as well as the event deck and the five sector decks (planets). In any one game, you are likely to see only a small portion of each deck… and approximately half of the event deck. Add the differences between the different starting core worlds, the leaders of each empire, and the ability to customize the special power of your core world… and that adds up to a lot of game to move around in.

Yes, this makes the game more tactical as you don’t have the assurance that a particular tactic or event will even enter the game. On the other hand, it helps craft a larger world… heck, let me quote Andrew from an interview he did earlier this year about designing games. He says it a great deal better than I do.
You don’t force players to play your story.
You let players create their own story within your world.
You don’t force their decisions; you don’t try to make certain things happen… you say “Here’s a world that I created. Go mess it up. Have fun.”
The sheer amount of content combined with the clear iconography and straightforward worker placement decisions leads to an a new adventure and a new challenge each time you play.

The Nemesis Strikes Back

Yes, I realize that doesn’t make much sense… yet. But in the chronological history of the Core Worlds, the Nemesis has struck before. (We’ll get to that below… just keep reading and all will become clear.)

One of Andrew’s strengths as a designer is the creation of strong card-driven AIs for solo play as evidenced by his cooperative game Nemo Rising as well as the tremendous solo system for Dungeon Alliance. That solid work continues with the solo deck for Core Worlds: Empires.

The AI empire takes an equal number of turns as you… and they are competitive as well as talented at frustrating your plans. I’ve played four times against the Nemesis AI – and I’ve only managed to beat it once.

The Nemesis Appears

The other game – well, expansion – that will be a part of the Core Worlds Kickstarter is a Nemesis deck for the original game, allowing an official way for fans of Core Worlds to play the game even if no one else wants to join in the fun.

The Nemesis deck is customizable both to use (or not use) the two previous expansions… and to set a difficulty level that’s challenging for players regardless of their level of experience with the game system. (My only play – so far – on the lowest difficulty level was a nail-biter, with the Nemesis besting me by only a couple of points.)

Final Thoughts

I have a lot of thoughts. And not just about the new Core Worlds games. Why did Ben & Jerry’s cancel Holy Cannoli ice cream? Who decided that a serial killer Muppet named Gritty should be a hockey mascot? Why in the world did J.T. give Evil Russell an immunity idol?

But that’s not why you’re reading this… so let’s get to the good stuff.

Kickstarter Related Thoughts
  • This game is not in “we’ll get it ready after we get their money” shape – it’s actually a 99% finished game design that playtesting is simply ironing out the bugs.
Multi-Player Thoughts
  • My single two-player game was a lot of fun… my choice to work the event deck was countered by my son becoming aggressive with his fleet of ships.
  • For me, I think the sweet spot in multi-player play will be three players – enough to increase the variety of planets available, but not so many players that the game time extends.
Length of Play Thoughts
  • Our two player game took about 2 hours & 15 minutes… noting that this was our first game.
  • My solo games average 90 minutes to 2 hours, depending on how often I glance at the TV to see if Tottenham (COYS!) is winning or losing.
Final Final Thoughts
  • I really love the way the game combines crunchy Euro decision-making with the grand sweep of the theme and the art.
  • I really love the solo mode and even though there’s some set-up time, it’s been worth the extra work each time.
  • I’m looking forward to teaching new folks this game once face-to-face game groups are a thing again.
As for the Nemesis deck for Core Worlds, it works like a charm and lets me play one of my well-loved games in my collection. What’s not to like?

The Kickstarter for the Core Worlds games has 12 days to go – I highly recommend you check it out!


Quotes found in this review in order of appearance:
  • “Cabinet Battle #1” – Hamilton (musical)
  • Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid (film)
  • “Whole Lot Different – Charlie Peacock (from the album “Lie Down in the Grass”)
  • “The Task” – William Cowper (poem)
  • Andrew Parks – interview on NerdLab

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

The Wrong Glass Revisited

Back in November 2008, just after President Obama was elected, I wrote a blog post about how Christians may be focusing on the wrong things when it comes to political leadership. With substantial revision, I present those thoughts again today as President Biden is inaugurated.

We all know the old saying, right?!

"Optimists see the glass as half full; pessimists see the glass as half empty."

Some of you have spent the last four years celebrating evangelical access to the seat of power and the various policy decisions and judicial appointments that came from the Trump administration. Others of us mourned the damage to our Christian witness as both policies and presidential behavior reflected a will to power rather than compassion and self-control... evidenced particularly by the attack on the U.S. Capitol a couple of weeks ago.

But what if we're looking at the wrong glass? What if we're all staring at politics & economic policies & the future of our nation, trying to predict and/or guess whether this is good or bad... and we're focused on the wrong thing? Perhaps, just maybe, we need to be thinking "outside the glass":
If individuals live only seventy years, then a state, or a nation, or a civilisation, which may last for a thousand years, is more important than an individual. But if Christianity is true, then the individual is not only more important but incomparably more important, for he is everlasting and the life of a state or a civilisation, compared with his, is only a moment. (C.S.Lewis, Mere Christianity)
So, those of you who are devastated by this election, take hope. A Democratic president is not the end of the world - in fact, if we really take the Bible seriously, it's just another government in a long line of governments that have had to contend with the power of God.
Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? (Psalm 2:1, ESV)
And those of you who believe this election will usher in a new era of peace & prosperity, remember that kings & presidents are subject to Christ, whether they acknowledge him (as does President-elect Biden) or not.
The LORD foils the plans of the nations; he thwarts the purposes of the peoples. But the plans of the LORD stand firm forever, the purposes of his heart through all generations. (Psalm 33:10-11, NIV)
It might be a good idea if each of us to check which glass we/re looking at...

Which brings me back to, well, me... I find myself (to quote 
Rondell Treviño) "a Christian who’s theologically conservative & socially compassionate, too conservative for progressives & too progressive for conservatives, pro-life from womb to tomb, politically homeless, & who’s ultimate citizenship is in Heaven not America." (I appreciate Rondell's wisdom - you can follow him on Twitter at @Rondell_Trevino.)

It occurs to me now, some 12+ years later, that the way to end this blog post for followers of Jesus wasn't to ask how they see the world, but to ask Who they are trusting to fill their glass.

Monday, January 04, 2021

Bible Thoughts on... well, The Bible

All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching the faith and correcting error, for re-setting the direction of a man’s life and training him in good living. The scriptures are the comprehensive equipment of the man of God and fit him fully for all branches of his work.
2 Timothy 3:16-17 PHILLIPS

God means what he says. What he says goes. His powerful Word is sharp as a surgeon’s scalpel, cutting through everything, whether doubt or defense, laying us open to listen and obey. Nothing and no one is impervious to God’s Word. We can’t get away from it—no matter what.
Hebrews 4:12-13 MSG

Does not My word burn like fire? Does it not shatter rock like a strong hammer?
Jeremiah 23:29 VOICE

That is why we must hold on all the more firmly to the truths we have heard, so that we will not be carried away.
Hebrews 2:1 GNT

I’ve banked your promises in the vault of my heart so I won’t sin myself bankrupt.
Psalm 119:11 MSG

Thank you to the folks at Restoration Church who faithfully remind us - and me in particular - that I am shaped by Scripture. In particular, yesterday's commentary on Romans 12:1 that "being a living sacrifice means... living." (Well said, Steve C.)