Friday, September 16, 2022

Accurately Handling the Word of Truth (Part III)

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
Ephesians 6:10-17 (NIV) 
I keep a close watch on this heart of mine
I keep my eyes wide open all the time
I keep the ends out for the tie that binds
Because you're mine, I walk the line
"I Walk The Line" from the 1956 album Johnny Cash with His Hot and Blue Guitar! (Johnny Cash)
...the English now hailed the Bon Homme, to know whether they had struck. Jones himself answered, ‘that he had not yet begun to fight.'
from The Life and Character of John Paul Jones, a Captain in the United States Navy During the Revolutionary War (John Henry Sherburne)
Put on the full armor of God. Stand firm against the left’s schemes. You will face flaming arrows, but if you have the shield of faith, you will overcome them, and in Florida we walk the line here,” DeSantis told the audience at Hillsdale College in February. “And I can tell you this, I have only begun to fight.”
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, speaking at Hilldale College (Miami Herald)

Two years ago, I wrote a post admonishing former vice-president Mike Pence over his misuse of Scripture. In 2021, I did the same for President Biden when he did the same thing. It seems only right that I do the same now as I've become aware of this February 2022 speech.

I get it. I understand rhetorical flourish and echoing classic passages of literature to evoke emotion. (In this case, echoing Holy Scripture, popular music, and an iconic though likely incorrect quote of a U.S. naval hero.)

But we as followers of Christ are called to "be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth." (2 Timothy 2:15, NASB). What Governor DeSantis did is not accurately handling Scripture.

You can have a conservative political viewpoint (whether or not I or anyone else agrees with you)... but this is playing fast & loose with the Bible - conflating "the Left" with Satan, suggesting that political disagreements are the flaming arrows of the evil one metaphorically referred to in Ephesians, calling for a "shield of faith" to defend against those on the "wrong side" of the political spectrum.


I almost let this one go... but then on Wednesday, Gov. DeSantis joined in the "fun" that Gov. Abbott of Texas has been having by sending migrants (from San Antonio, no less) via planes to Martha's Vineyard. 

I cannot possibly express my outrage at this better than Jonathan V. Last in his Bulwark newsletter yesterday:

Let’s put aside the theology of immigration. Let’s pretend, just for a moment, that Jesus would have nothing to say about whether or not the state should seek to discourage undocumented migrants as a high-level matter of government policy.

Those planes were filled with actual human beings. People with dignity. People with hopes and dreams, problems and challenges. People with names and families.

And this Christian man used them as props. He didn’t clothe the naked or feed the hungry. He literally did the opposite: Evicted them—and not because he felt that he had to, because it was a requirement of the law. But because he saw that he could use them as a means to the ends of his personal ambition.

I’m trying—really trying—not to get too hot here. But Christians should look at this act and be revolted. They should be horrified.

Because using vulnerable human beings for your personal gratification is evil. Full stop.

If you want to construct a Christian ethic for immigration restrictionism, you can do it. It’ll be twisty and tortured. It probably won’t be terribly convincing, by the lights of Christianity. But it’s doable...

The Christian ethic of dignity and life isn’t easy. It can be uncomfortable. It often asks us to do exceptionally hard things. But whatever. You can see the outlines of a defensible position.

But even that position would hold that immigrants who do arrive here illegally must be cared for with love and charity.

And it would look with horror on a politician who sought not just to abdicate this affirmative duty, but to do the opposite: to take advantage of his neighbors.

If this politician were a conspicuous, self-avowed, follower of Christ it would be a thousand times worse. Because now he’s not just doing evil. He’s doing evil while claiming Jesus as his justification.

Read the whole thing.


I wanted to come up with something wise and convicting to close this post with... I wanted to turn on my "pastor mojo" and finish with marching orders to my fellow followers of Christ.

But I'm tired. So tired of watching Biblical truth being used as a prop... by both political parties.

So, I once again leave you with this.
Pray always. Pray in the Spirit. Pray about everything in every way you know how! And keeping all this in mind, pray on behalf of God’s people. Keep on praying feverishly, and be on the lookout until evil has been stayed.

Ephesians 6:18 (VOICE)

Friday, September 09, 2022

Wreckland Run: A Solo Gamer Preview

Wreckland Run is a tower defense game… if the tower was barreling down a dirt road at 60+ mph while being fired upon by the cast of all four Mad Max movies and a couple of scary refugees from a Michael Bay film. It’s a dice allocation game… but because Scott Almes (the designer) has a dark heart, you’re forced to allocate dice for the bad guys as well as your own.* And it’s a campaign game – complete with choices that make for a wonderful story-filled experience.

Renegade Game Studios is getting ready to publish the third game in their solo game series… and over the next few paragraphs, I’m going to suggest some reasons you need to check it out.

*Note: Scott doesn’t actually have a dark heart. He actually seems to be a pretty nice guy – but it hurts me every time I have to assign a red die to one of the chasing cars.

The Solo Game Series

Over at the Opinionated Gamers, we’ve been more than happy to review the two previous games in Renegade’s solo game series:

  • Our Fearless Leader, Dale Yu, delved into the fantasy world of Proving Grounds.
  • Your humble author (me!) wrote extensively about the sci-fi craziness of Scott Almes’ Warp’s Edge.
I own both games and enjoy them… but I think Wreckland Run, the newest entry in the series is yet another step forward in solo board game design.

The Story

Wreckland Run is set up as a campaign – the protagonist (you!) have a vehicle with a few attachment weapons with which to wander the wasteland and, well, steal stuff from bad guys. (I like to think of myself as a post-apocalyptic Robin Hood while I’m playing.) As you start the campaign, you choose from one of four vehicles and one of four different drivers. Each driver has their own special power that (hopefully) helps you in the Mad Max-like adventures that are about to occur.

Each game begins with a couple of pages of story – and more than the extended short story that accompanied Proving Grounds or the “choose your own adventure” story that walked players through their first game in Warp’s Edge, these stories move the campaign forward and set up the scenario for the chapter/gamer right in front of you.

There are seven chapters in Wreckland Run – and each chapter has an envelope with cards that add new enemies as well as attachments for your vehicle. They also add twists to the game – some you simply deal with, while others require you to make decisions.

The Game

Each chapter/game is broken into three rounds with two distinct sections: Wreckage & Run. During the Wreckage phase, you use the roll of the eight 6-sided dice (3 red, 5 white) plus any Scrap you have to purchase and place Parts (attachments/weaponry) to your car. You can also repair your vehicle – particularly sections that suffered Destruction during a previous round.

During the Run phase, cars from the Enemies deck are place around your vehicle in four zones (front, back, left, right) and the dice are rolled again. The bad guys take the first turn as you assign a red die to one of their vehicles and then suffer the consequences. You follow by using 1-3 white dice plus Scrap to activate your various attachments to attempt to escape this particular Run. The remaining dice are rolled and the bad guys are activated again, followed by you. There is a final roll of the dice, followed by the enemy activation and your response.

The Runs in rounds one & two end when you reduce them to two or less vehicles (who, thankfully, give up and drive away). If the end of a turn doesn’t result in the end of a Run, you start over again rolling all 8 dice and continuing the fight.

Runs in the final round go until you take out the boss – who is usually difficult to hit unless you can isolate them in a zone. And, in the tradition of video game bosses, they have a pile of hit points.

I’ve used the word “Scrap” a couple of times in the description above – it’s an important concept in Wreckland Run. If you can take an enemy car precisely (giving him the exact amount of damage to knock him out), you get to claim his vehicle card as Scrap – which means you can use the die number on his card to activate your Parts or to purchase Parts.

What you have to avoid is damage to your Core – the center of your vehicle where (presumably) you’re sitting during all this mayhem. Core damage cannot be repaired… and if you reach or exceed that damage level, you’ve lost the game.

Of course, there’s more to the design than that:
  • You can ram cars, both to damage them and to push them into a better position to fire on them.
  • Some weapons have focused fire; others spread damage around to all the targets in a zone.
  • Some Parts (and enemy cars) have Shields, which reduce the amount of damage they take.
  • You can place a die equal to or higher than the number on a Part… but if you put the exact number down, each Part has a bonus action that makes your mission a little bit easier.
  • You can use low number rolls to adjust other dice and/or reroll them.
  • You can set the difficulty of the game by the amount of Scrap you receive at the start of the game.
  • In the Wreckage portion of a round, you can use red dice to buy Parts… but you do so at the risk of damage on the Wreckage chart. (Each chapter has charts particular to that chapter.)
  • In the Run portion of a round, red dice which can’t be placed on a car trigger a roll on the Run chart… which is something you’d like to avoid.

The Verdict

I’m four games into my first campaign in just a week… and I’m hooked. I squeaked by the first chapter, took down the second chapter with some clever moves (and some serious luck), and have found myself manhandled by the third chapter (with two losses, both in the third round and with significant damage on the boss vehicle.) I fully plan to take Wreckland Run with me on the road next week as I’m traveling for work and it makes for an excellent “hotel desk” solo game.

Like I hinted at earlier, I believe this is the thinky-est game of the Renegade Solo Series… the numerous ways in which you can manipulate the dice and spend Scrap are both intriguing and frustrating – and I mean frustrating in the best possible sense. You can’t do everything – and you have to take chances in order to set yourself up for the best possible plays.

I can’t say enough nice things about the quality of the production of this game series – and the amazing way in which they dealt with issues with plastic token add-on for Warp’s Edge. (Finding out some folks were having issues with the print rubbing off/scratching, they simply had them reprinted and sent them to every backer who’d purchased that add-on. Classy.)

The game was Kickstarted back in the spring and production is complete - meaning the KS should fulfill on schedule in November with the game arriving in retail soon after. Keep your eyes open for it!

Notes: I received a prototype copy of the game to review... and this preview originally appeared on the Opinionated Gamers website.

Thursday, September 08, 2022

Reconstructing My Faith: Cheaters, Ice, and Déjà vu


As regular readers of my blog know, I play a lot of board games. (Ok, 800-900 plays per year… “a lot” may not quite cover it.) As far as I can remember, I’ve only cheated twice in my life while playing a game.

The earliest game cheating memory is against my sister during a game of Parker Brothers BILLIONAIRE. It’s a blind bidding game (that’s gamer-speak for “game where everyone makes their bid for something simultaneously”) that used the old school “magic slate” style notepads for writing those sealed bids. I figured out how to write down two bids and pull up the edge of the wax paper to eliminate one of them as we revealed our bids to win. (I have long since apologized to my sister for this underhanded behavior.)

My second cheating memory is a game that my good friend & roommate (Tim) played against our girlfriends (now wives) back in the late 80s. It was the AH classic RAIL BARON (more recently republished as BOXCARS by Rio Grande Games) and Kim & Shari were, not to put too fine a point on it, completely and utterly destroying Tim & I. The two of us decided that the only way we could survive is if we (a) flirted with our then-girlfriends, in order to (b) surreptitiously abscond with some of the piles of money the girls had collected. The plan worked – and after taking large amounts of their cash, we admitted our “plan” and apologized. And flirted some more. (Ah, young love.)

Anyway, I don’t like cheating – and I refuse to continue playing games with someone who ascribes to the “if you’re not cheating, you’re not winning” philosophy.

Moreover, the accusation (even made playfully) that I cheated pierces right to my heart. I can feel the anger rise and I have to fight to control my response to gently ask them not to keep heading down that particular teasing road. (I have some theories about where that particular wound comes from – but I’m going to save that discussion for another day & time.)

Ice in My Carbonated Beverage

I am not a fan of fountain drinks. I like my Coke Zero in a deeply chilled bottle or can. (And, while I prefer Coke Zero over Diet Coke, both are infinitely better than Diet Pepsi. Trust me on this one.)

The reason I don’t like fountain drinks is that you really need to put ice in the cup to cool down the cola to the appropriate temperature… and when you do that, you have to drink it at a decent clip to beat the inevitable watering down of the flavor and carbonation by the melting ice.

What you end up with is a slushy brew of 50% cold-ish tap water & 50% once-delicious cola.


Déjà vu All Over Again

I promise that my wandering stories will eventually pay off in something semi-profound… but you’ll have to keep reading a bit longer for that to happen. (Thank you for your patience.)

I grew up attending Southern Baptist churches on the West Coast… primarily in the suburbs of Los Angeles. (Yes, I lived in “The O.C.” – only we didn’t call it “the O.C.” and I recognized very little of my upbringing in the TV show.)

It was in an SBC church in Anaheim, CA, where I surrendered my life to Jesus… and it was the care and love of my youth leaders at an SBC church in Yorba Linda, CA, that encouraged and nurtured my call into vocational ministry. Both were decent-sized churches (running 250-350 folks each Sunday)

So when I went to Baylor University in Waco, TX, as a college freshman, I was taken aback at my first visit to a truly large SBC church. It really wasn’t the size, though… it was the fact that the bulletin, the structure of the worship service, even the language used from the front was almost identical to the churches I grew up in 2000+ miles away.

I came to realize that many of the folks who made up my home church in suburban Southern California were transplants from Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri (my parents), and the deep South… and so they did church much like the churches they’d grown up in half a country away.

Tying All of this Together

The obvious takeaway is that we’re likely to choose the worship practices that we grew up with – whether that’s a preference for a particular type of music, the use of only 100 or so hymns out of a hymnal with 500 of them, or a reliance on a “set in stone” order of worship.

No one likes to be told they’re simply mimicking their parents or grandparents – which makes it easy to develop “spiritual” reasons for worship structures, denominational polity, certain kinds of songs… the list is endless. Just like I react badly to being accused of cheating, folks inside a church/denomination can often struggle to hear good-natured prodding towards creativity and variety as an affirmation rather than an attack.

A less obvious takeaway was the realization that part of my (mostly) positive experience with the SBC comes from being raised in churches that were Baptist in theology but not falling all over themselves to reproduce the cultural prohibitions and hang-ups that were (and sometimes are) common to SBC churches in the South. We had a band of Jesus People leftovers visit on a regular basis in the late 70s/early 80s that played rock music in the Sunday morning service… and the fact that I played D&D didn’t cause anyone to try to cast demons out of me.

Putting a bunch of southern Southern Baptists into a cultural milieu where Sunday morning church attendance wasn't expected and the surrounding community didn't automatically defer to the churches in the area was, it turns out, a positive influence on focusing on the fundamental truths of Christianity. 

When I went to Baylor and got involved with other SBC churches who were attempting to reach college students in (relatively) innovative ways, I continued to see Baptist life in terms of potential rather than limitations. My spiritual mentor was an assistant director at the Baptist Student Union – and a single woman. (Her wisdom and godliness continue to inspire me.)

As I branched out and experienced other churches in the South, I started to see the problems more clearly – racism, winking at sinful behaviors if the individual was socially or financially connected, bitter infighting and gossip, church splits, etc. – all of which we’ll talk about in the context of this series of posts. But because my early experiences had been positive, it watered down the effect of those problems on me… or at least the way I reacted to them.

That’s not only true for my relationship with the SBC… it’s also true for my experience of large chunks of the evangelical subculture. When we get to my thoughts about the book “Jesus and John Wayne” (an upcoming post in this series), I’ll be struggling with how I managed to survive all the things I took in with my faith intact.

For today, I’ll leave you with a final thought: we can’t leave our past and our experience with church unexamined. It’s playing a role in how we follow Jesus right now. It affects how we worship, how we pray, how we treat each other, and how we do life together.

Socrates is credited with saying “The unexamined life is not worth living” at the trial leading to his death… which puts a very dark spin on his words. I think stating it in the positive – “The examined life is worth living” – isn’t quite as poetic but much more applicable. 

This is the third post in a series... if you'd like to read the first two, here they are:

Wednesday, September 07, 2022

“The battle of wits has begun.” – A Review of It’s A Wonderful Kingdom

MAN IN BLACK: All right: where is the poison? The battle of wits has begun. It ends when you decide and we both drink, and find out who is right and who is dead.
The shortest and easiest way to describe the newest game from publisher La Boite de Jeu and designer Frédéric Guérard is “It’s like their previous hit, It’s a Wonderful World, only with a ‘you cut / I choose’ mechanic in place of drafting.” That’s fair – as far as it goes – but it misses the full flavor and breadth of this two-player game design.

Yes, I know there is a solo mode as well – I promise I’ll get to that in a minute.

Previously On “It’s a Wonderful…”

OK, so a quick recap is in order of the basic mechanics at the heart of both It’s A Wonderful… games. Let’s start with the basic structure of both games:

  • Draft (IaWW)/Choice (IaWK) Phase: Players acquire a set of cards over multiple drafts/choices that are set aside. 
  • Planning Phase: Players choose to add cards to their construction area or discard/”recycle” them for resources to be placed on cards in their construction area.
  • Production Phase: One resource type at a time, players receive resource cubes which they use to complete cards and add them to their tableau.
And we can keep the recap going with some details that are the same for both World and Kingdom:
  • Extra unused resources are collected and 5 can be traded in for 1 Krystallium – the wild resource.
  • Cards provide points, points multipliers by card type, and/or resource production… they also may have bonuses that are received one time when they are built.
  • There is a Supremacy bonus for producing the most of a particular kind of resource.
  • Cards in your construction area can be recycled at any time – but the resource they provide is treated as an unused resource towards trading for Krystallium.
For a more detailed look at It’s A Wonderful World, you can check out Terry Noseworthy’s review of the base game and my review of the expansions – both on the Opinionated Gamers website!

I can clearly not choose the wine in front of me.

VIZZINI: But it’s so simple. All I have to do is divine from what I know of you. Are you the sort of man who would put the poison into his own goblet, or his enemy’s? Now, a clever man would put the poison into his own goblet, because he would know that only a great fool would reach for what he was given. I’m not a great fool, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of you. But you must have known I was not a great fool; you would have counted on it, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of me.

MAN IN BLACK: You’ve made your decision then?

VIZZINI: Not remotely. Because iocaine comes from Australia, as everyone knows. And Australia is entirely peopled with criminals. And criminals are used to having people not trust them, as you are not trusted by me. So I can clearly not choose the wine in front of you.

MAN IN BLACK: Truly, you have a dizzying intellect.
It’s A Wonderful Kingdom definitely twists the basic structure a bit:
  • Different number of resources: There are only four resource types (Materials, Population, Gold, and Exploration) instead of five.
  • Different deck composition: The deck for It’s A Wonderful Kingdom is smaller and only has four types of cards (rather than five). In addition, there are ten Treasure cards in the deck, which are simply recycled for extra resources during the next Planning Phase.
  • Different Supremacy bonus: Instead of Generals or Financiers, producing the most of a resource type either sends a Soldier to your training ground or moves him from your training ground onto your duchy card.
  • Different method of acquiring cards: Rather than a 7 Wonders-style draft (IaWW), It’s A Wonderful Kingdom utilizes a ‘I cut/you choose’ system. 
  • Different ways of varying up gameplay: It’s A Wonderful World has one large box expansion and two smaller campaign expansions; It’s A Wonderful Kingdom comes with three different modules in the base game (plus one more in the Legends version of the game). Each time you play, you must choose a module to add to the system.
As you can probably guess, the most important twist is the way cards are acquired. At the beginning of each of the rounds, the two players each draw a 7 card hand and then add a single Calamity card. Both Offering areas receive a single face-up card and the game begins in earnest.

The first player chooses two of the cards in their hand and places them face-up in the Offering areas – both can go in the same area or in different areas. The second player then chooses one of the two Offering areas and takes all the cards in that area. Now the second player chooses two of their cards to place, followed by the first player choosing and taking cards. The cycle happens four times, using up all the cards in each player’s hand.

Of course, it’s not quite that simple. Each player has two Trap tokens, which can be used each round to place a single offering card face-down. Since Calamity cards are worth -4 victory points (as well as being useless for building anything), avoiding them is important… but maybe the cards in that particular Offering are worth the pain. Or not. 

My younger son described It’s a Wonderful Kingdom as “similar to Wonderful World but much more brain burn” – and the decisions about which cards to offer and which cards to pick up are at the heart of that ‘brain burn’. 

You’re just stalling now.

VIZZINI: Wait till I get going! Where was I?

MAN IN BLACK: Australia.

VIZZINI: Yes — Australia, and you must have suspected I would have known the powder’s origin, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of me.

MAN IN BLACK: You’re just stalling now.
I know, I know… you want me to tell you exactly what I think after my eight plays of the game. I promise we’ll get there – but there’s some more details to fill in first.

As mentioned above, there are 4 different modules (3 with the base game) that are added to the game. Each game the players choose one of the modules to add.

The good folks at La Boite de Jeu have cleared up one of my first questions over on BGG… you can’t combine the modules because you don’t produce enough Soldier tokens over 4 rounds to power multiple modules. 

Let’s take a (slightly) closer look at each module:

Menaces: There are a number of different sets of cards which replace the Calamity cards of each player – so, for example, you could have Frost Giants and Thieves in the game. Each of these sets has its own special effects:
  • Frost Giants freeze buildings under construction
  • Giant Rats attract Vermin
  • Shadows suck away resources to your opponent’s Alchemy area
  • Thieves keep you from producing certain resources
  • Other Menaces were added in the Legends version of the game
Menaces can be defeated – but the cost of doing that slows down your ability to build. In short, think of this module as a slightly meaner version of the “base” game.

Advisors: Each player is dealt two Advisor cards and chooses one to keep and immediately place in their tableau. Ten Advisor cards replace the ten Treasure cards in the main deck before the game starts. For a certain number of Soldier tokens, an Advisor in your tableau can be activated to gain some sort of special power – and it is acceptable to do it multiple times during a game if you have enough Soldiers.

This is probably the most straightforward of the modules – and along with Quests (coming next) would be my suggestion for your first game.

Quests: An over-sized Quest card is chosen that has four tasks on it – these are special powers that each player can do one time each. (Markers are provided to note which tasks a player has completed.) The final task is required in order to win the game. 

Like I noted above, this is not a bad module for your first game… though you’ll need to pay close attention to acquiring and constructing cards that give you enough Soldiers to fulfill the final task.

The Legends version of the game provides additional Advisors and Quests.

Conquest: Using an additional map (there are six of them on three double-sided pieces), players recruit and move army figures in order to claim territories. Those territories provide resources and other in-game benefits… as well as points at the end of the game. Recruitment and movement is powered by Soldier tokens.

This module is only found in the Legends version of the game… I’d likely suggest this as the last module you try since it adds an additional complication to the game.

You’ve given everything away.

VIZZINI: You’d like to think that, wouldn’t you? You’ve beaten my giant, which means you’re exceptionally strong. So, you could have put the poison in your own goblet, trusting on your strength to save you. So I can clearly not choose the wine in front of you. But, you’ve also bested my Spaniard which means you must have studied. And in studying, you must have learned that man is mortal so you would have put the poison as far from yourself as possible, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of me.

MAN IN BLACK: [nervously] You’re trying to trick me into giving away something — it won’t work —

VIZZINI: [triumphant] It has worked — you’ve given everything away — I know where the poison is.
It’s A Wonderful Kingdom is designed specifically for head-to-head play… and for solo play. Each module has instructions for how to modify it for solo play in addition to the changes to the base game

Eight cards from the top of the deck are mixed with 4 Calamity cards… this Danger deck is set to the side. Then each Offering area is filled with two cards from the face-up Development deck. The solo player chooses one of the two sets of cards, then adds a face down card from the Danger deck to the Offering they did not choose and two new cards face-up from the Development deck to the empty area. 

Instead of Trap tokens, the solo player has two Spy tokens – one of which is active (face-up) to begin the game. By spending the Spy token (flipping it over), the solo player can examine a face-down card. At the end of the round, one of the spent Spy tokens is re-activated. 

I’ve tried each of the modules as a solo player – and each of them offers interesting challenges. As with It’s A Wonderful World, solo scores are rated on threshold scores for Bronze, Silver, and Gold… which does a nice job of telling you how accomplished you were. 

Then make your choice.

MAN IN BLACK: Then make your choice.

VIZZINI: I will. And I choose [stops suddenly and points at something behind the Man in Black] what in the world can that be?

MAN IN BLACK: [Turns, looks] What? Where? I don’t see anything.

VIZZINI quickly switches the goblets while the MAN IN BLACK has his head turned.

VIZZINI: Oh, well, I-I could have sworn I saw something. No matter.

The MAN IN BLACK turns to face him again. VIZZINI starts to laugh.

MAN IN BLACK: What’s so funny?

VIZZINI: I’ll tell you in a minute. First, let’s drink — me from my glass, and you from yours.
Let’s be honest – the first play of It’s A Wonderful Kingdom was pretty rough. Both my son and I were trying to figure out how best to use the Trap tokens, how to preserve the cards we wanted, and how to fulfill the quest. In the end, he did a much better job of scoring points than I did and also managed to squeak out enough Soldiers to fulfill the final task. Moreover, we were working through our expectations that it would be a lot like Wonderful World. (He and I have played 25+ games of the original game with 2 or 3 players.)

Subsequent plays have revealed something interesting – this is a game with its own rhythm and feel. While it shares the same basic mechanics with It’s A Wonderful World, the structure of how you acquire cards and the push/pull of the different modules make for a very different experience.

And one worth pursuing. 

I will note that there’s been some discussion over on the ‘Geek of how to restore more straight drafting to the game… which, on one hand, I understand, and yet I think that multiple plays are going to reveal fabulous bits of double-think and clever play that don’t need for the two games to work in the same way.

I can heartily recommend this for both solo and folks looking for a think-y two-player game that finishes in 30-45 minutes (depending on how long it takes you to decide which cards to offer). 

And because it seems unfair to start quoting one of the greatest scenes on film without finishing it, here’s every Risk player’s favorite passage.
MAN IN BLACK: You guessed wrong.

VIZZINI: [roaring with laughter] You only think I guessed wrong… [louder now] …that’s what’s so funny! I switched glasses when your back was turned. Ha-ha, you fool.

The MAN IN BLACK sits silently.

VIZZINI: You fell victim to one of the classic blunders. The most famous is “Never get involved in a land war in Asia.” But only slightly less well known is this: “Never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line!Ahahahaha, ahahahaha, ahahaha–

In case you’re wondering, the extensive quotes are from one of the best films ever made, THE PRINCESS BRIDE. If you haven’t seen it, you should go remedy that this evening (if not sooner).

This review originally appeared on the Opinionated Gamers website.

Tuesday, August 23, 2022

Reconstructing My Faith: Syndrome, Mars, and the "F" Word

“Everyone can be super! And when everyone's super... no one will be.”
Granted, I’m a huge Pixar movie fan – which means I’m likely to quote a line from one of those films in response to just about any topic – but this particular quote from the super-villain Syndrome in THE INCREDIBLES has been rolling around in my head a good bit lately.

And it’s really not about superpowers – instead, it’s about prioritizing doctrine and Christian practice.

“Every doctrinal point & theological argument & cultural practice can be super important! And when they are all super important… none of them will be.”
Terraforming Mars

One of the biggest hits of the last decade or so in board gaming has been a game called Terraforming Mars… in which players represent different companies working to increase the oxygen level, amount of surface water, and temperature of the planet to make it ready for colonization. The game comes with a huge stack of cards with a variety of projects, actions, events, and facilities that players can use their money and resources to build and/or make happen.

Making wise decisions about what strategy to pursue is an important game skill – as is deciding what things are attractive but unimportant. For example, pumping up your ability to produce energy may feel powerful (and there are sometimes good reasons for doing so), but you have to decide whether the money spent is actually furthering your game plan or simply buffing production.

I think the same thing is true in the process of evaluating what we believe – what ideas in our belief systems are attractive (for a variety of reasons: cultural, social, inertia, etc.) but are not central to our understanding of Jesus and the way we live in light of His death & resurrection? And, more importantly, what are the key pillars that we build our faith in?

The “F” Word

That brings us to the “F” word… and, no, it’s not the one that gets your movie an R rating if you say it more than once. 

It’s “fundamental” – which, in the context of religion and spiritual truth, often gets morphed into “fundamentalism” and then we’re off to the races with performative hand-wringing and wailing & gnashing of teeth.

Though I would recoil at being called a fundamentalist because of the negative connotations that are now Super-Glued to that word, I can easily subscribe to what used to be called the fundamentals of the Christian faith:
  • the deity of Christ
  • the trustworthiness of the Bible
  • the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ
  • the complete inadequacy of our works to make up for our sinful choices and behaviors
  • the role of followers of Christ to share Biblical truth with love and grace
And it is those fundamentals (yep, the “F” word again) that should help me define what’s “super important” and what is, well, less important.
Elton Trueblood (maybe)

Years ago, I heard someone attribute the following to Elton Trueblood*:
There are things in the Christian faith that we should draw a line in the sand, stand, fight, bleed, and even die for. The trick is not to draw the line in stupid places.
We are, sadly, experts at drawing lines near boundary markers that are cultural in nature – some of which I’ll touch on in the upcoming posts in this series. Frankly, it’s easier to defend boundary markers – what says “you’re part of our tribe” or “you’re not a part of our tribe” – than it is to defend the fundamentals of the Christian faith. 

What Does This Have to Do With Reconstructing Your Faith?

Great question. Simply put, everything from here on out depends on giving proper weight and consideration to the subjects being discussed. Not every doctrinal disagreement is on the level of the deity of Jesus Christ; not every ministry practice is as key as prayer & worship. Until we (I) get that straight, it’s tempting to see everything as “super important” – and thereby make some major errors in how we treat Scripture… and how we treat other people who disagree with us.

Two notes:
  1. I'm honestly not sure Elton Trueblood actually said that - or at least I can't find evidence of it anywhere. I still think it's 100% wisdom.
  2. This is the second in a series of posts entitled Reconstructing My Faith. The first post - Rocks, Dross, and Almonds - is also available for you to read and enjoy.

Tuesday, August 16, 2022

Return to “Return to Dark Tower”

“…the fact that my son & I played it five times in the first 2 1/2 days ought to tell you something…”

What follows is a re-examination of my original review of Restoration Games’ Return to Dark Tower… with 14 more plays under my belt with a whole lot more players. In it, I’ll let you know more about playing solo, going head-to-head (sort of) in competitive mode, invoking the Gritty setting, the current 2nd edition Kickstarter and upcoming Covenant expansion, and enjoying the game so much that we just played it 4 times in 72 hours over the weekend.

New paragraphs added to the review will be in this lovely shade of red, so those of you who only want my most recent observations can skip the parts you’ve seen before. I’ve added some new pictures as well – and there are also some subtle edits to clean up dates and so on… 

Just over two and a half years ago, I wrote a lengthy blog post about my history with (but mostly without) the original Dark Tower game… and how the siren call of the Restoration Games reimagining managed to pluck precious board game purchasing dollars from my wallet.

Well, it arrived one Friday in March around noon – and by late afternoon, my son & I were immersed in a battle to force Ashstrider out of the tower so we could defeat him. (And we did – in words of Monty Python, “There was much rejoicing.”) We took a dinner break… and then we took on Isa the Exile – successfully, I might add.

Saturday morning we added the Alliances expansion… and both the Lingering Rot (morning) and Gravemaw (afternoon) roundly defeated us. Sunday afternoon found us fighting Utuk-Ku the Ice Herald… and finally being successful while playing with the expansion.

To flesh out the header at the top of the page – when your 16 year old son who prefers shorter games (Unmatched, Exceed, Jump Drive, etc.) is willing to play a 90-120 minute game FIVE TIMES in just over 48 hours, you know it’s something special. It’s just as true when I’m personally willing to play the same 90-120 minute game five times in a weekend.

So… with that introduction, let’s get to the questions!

What’s the big deal? It’s just another cooperative fantasy game with a noisy light-up tower in the middle of the board, right?

Well… yes, it’s a cooperative fantasy game (with an option for competitive play that we haven’t tried yet) and the tower/app do make a lot of noise… but that’s like saying Premier League soccer is just a bunch of guys kicking a ball around in the not-so-lovely English weather. The statements are both true – but they misses so much of what makes the things great. (Come on you Spurs!)

The team at Restoration Games used the extensive development/playtesting time to hone the game design to a fine edge. No design choice seems out of place or overly wonky – and the app facilitates large chunks of play without ever overwhelming your focus on the board. The artwork is splendid and the graphic design/UI of the physical pieces/cards as well as the app make sense.

Additionally, the design of the various companions and adversaries does an excellent job of varying up the way a group of folks play. Example: if you think that amassing wads of advantages (the power to modify cards in battle & dungeon exploration) is powerful, just try taking on The Ice Herald, who slowly but surely chokes out your ability to use big numbers of advantages.

My son, eyeing the tower as it is about to spit out more skulls and make us regret our choices.

Could you play the game without the tower? Isn’t that hunk of plastic just a way for the company to soak you for more money?

No, the tower is essential for a variety of reasons:

  • First (and most obvious) – if you’re going to re-imagine a game based around a mechanical tower, it seems kind of imperative you include a – ya know – tower.
  • Second – watching the tower spit skulls out onto the board never gets old. Really. Even though it means that bad stuff is happening.
  • Third – the tower is a randomizer for various glyphs that increase the cost of various kinds of actions… thus making decisions trickier (which is a good thing!).
  • Fourth – the lights and noises add to the experience of the game… just like the original game, part of the draw is “the show”. (To illustrate: think about the difference of seeing a big fireworks that’s coordinated to a soundtrack without the music or the explosions… still pretty, but not the same thing.)
  • Finally – the tower and app are tied to each other to administer the game.
Yeah, about the app… you said nice things about it a minute ago. You really think it’s better than physical components to do the same thing?

Absolutely. While the card-crafting system developed by AEG (Mystic Vale, Custom Heroes, Dead Reckoning) could possibly duplicate some of what the app does in the physical world, it would do so at the price of increased downtime and clunkiness. The app not only sets up the game, it also administers the interaction between the various elements in play.

It also runs two systems – combat and dungeon exploration – that both rely on the app to offer interesting challenges and decisions to the players. Some adversaries and companions cause these systems to be modified to reflect the story – something that would be nearly impossible in a physical game design.

And for those who are concerned about the longevity of the app, designer Geoff Englestein is the escrow holder for the source codes/libraries/tools/etc. so that the app can be recreated if Restoration Games ever stops supporting it.

What about those of us who grew up playing Dark Tower? It doesn’t sound very much like the game I remember.

It is… and it isn’t. The switch to cooperative is obviously a change – as is the moving combat to the app rather than being resolved by the tower. There are substantially more foes to fight (12 different foes in three different initial levels of difficulty) as well 8 different adversaries. (In case you didn’t catch it earlier, the Adversary is the “big bad” you have to fight to win the game.) There are still quests – but the system for those quests makes much more sense both thematically and in game terms.

And there’s still a big honkin’ tower in the middle of the board – though this one only needs 3 AA batteries rather than the two alkaline D cell batteries of the original.

There is a competitive version in the rules – which I look forward to playing.

So, my sons and I finally tried the competitive mode… and I have some thoughts.

First, it works. I was a bit concerned that it wouldn’t function well based on how cleanly the cooperative “main” game is designed, but the competitive system works as a game with only some minor rule changes and – of course – necessary app changes.

Second, it’s not for those easily offended by “take that” behavior – players are seeking to complete 3 quests (each player is assigned different quests) which then unlocks a final dungeon that they have to complete. Each quest completion allows you to replace a seal on the tower (thus fixing your side of the looming edifice) OR remove a seal from the tower (thus allowing more skulls to pour out on your opponents’ kingdoms. Since you can win by finishing the dungeon OR by being the last hero standing, taking out your opponents is often the better play.

Third, it’s not for those easily offended by “take that” behavior. Yes, I know I’m repeating myself. Players can use potions and powers to move other players without their permission. Did I mention that you need to have a strong stomach for messing with and being messed with?

Finally, it’s actually semi-cooperative… as the game can win if an event takes out all remaining players at once.

My two sons and I agree that competitive mode works – but it’s really not our cup of tea.

Wait a minute… did you say that this game takes 90-120 minutes to play? That seems like a long time.

Yes, that does seem like a long time – but I assure you that it never feels that long. Turns move at a quick pace, thanks in part to all the actions being clearly outlined on the player board (which keeps the dithering to a minimum).

Also, the game only runs 90+ minutes when you’re winning. One of our losing games was over in less than an hour… Gravemaw is a wily, vicious and fast-moving hunk of evil. (We’ll get him next time.)

Our shortest game so far was 38 minutes and the longest was 2 hour 15 minutes… for an average of 1 hour 25 minutes over 19 plays.

You guys beat the game the first two times you played… doesn’t that mean it’s too easy?

Good question – but (with my limited experience) I don’t think it’s an issue. Both my son and I are experienced gamers with a combined 50+ years of playing board games… which means that the suggested starting setup was a likely win from the get go. The second game we randomly chose foes that shared characteristics (making them easier to get ready to fight).

Adding Alliances increased the difficulty… more choices to make, more quests to fulfill, more things that could go horribly wrong. We loved it.

In addition, the game (with or without the Alliances expansion) has a “gritty” setting on the app that we haven’t even touched yet. If the game ever stops challenging us to play hard, that’s the next step.

Over 19 plays of Return to Dark Tower, we’ve won 11 of them – 57%. Only one of those plays was on Gritty mode, which I’ll get to in a minute – spoiler: we lost. 5 of those plays used the aforementioned Alliances expansion, and we’re 2 for 5 with it in the mix.

We tried Gritty mode (yes, I know, I can’t get the Flyers mascot out of my head every time I say it either) for the first time a couple of weekends ago. While we were expecting a complete beatdown, it’s actually a much more clever design choice that changes up the opening set-up with slightly increased difficulty and then just has the various elements of the game (foes, events, etc.) coming at you a bit faster than the normal mode. Slowly but surely (well, not that slowly) there were too many things to balance/counteract/deal with and I went down in a blaze of Corruption glory.

The three of us are totally up for another shot at Gritty mode… when we feel like trying to scale the gaming equivalent of Everest without oxygen tanks. Not recommended for new players – but glad it’s there for those of us with a few games under our belts.

What does the Alliances expansion add to the game?

Besides two new heroes, the main thing Alliances adds is a new resource (Influence) that is tied to four guilds. The guilds affect your abilities to do things… and, as you build trust with them, give you companions who can make your mission to defeat the Adversary easier.

On the other hand, if you don’t pay attention to the guilds, they get irritated with you and eat away at your Spirit resource. If you don’t have any Spirit when they do that, your hero gains a Corruption. (And, yes, the cascading Corruption badness is what killed us in the game against Gravemaw.)

Those are cool minis in the pictures… did they come with the base game?

The hero miniatures and buildings are part of the base game and the expansion. The darker colored miniatures are from the Dark Hordes box… which is just two trays full of very nifty miniatures.

I know that I could paint them and make them even more awesome… but I’m also aware that any paint job I attempt looks like we let a four-year-old with anger issues loose with a brush and a gallon bucket from the Home Depot. So we’ll stick with the unpainted look.

OK, now you’ve sold me on it… but I don’t know how to get a copy.

When the Kickstarter backer distribution is finished, there will be copies of the game in retail.

More importantly, the most recent KS update for backers included this tidbit from Justin Jacobsen at Restoration Games:

Given the great feedback we’ve gotten on the game, the high demand we are seeing, and the limited additional stock we have, we will be looking to do another campaign in the future for folks who missed out on the game the first time.

And he also hinted about another(!) expansion. Darn you, Restoration Games… I might as well just give you my bank account number.

Well, the crowdfunding campaign I alluded to back in March is currently live (through TODAY! - August 16th) on BackerKit… and you can get all of the original stuff in addition to a new expansion (Covenant) that adds monuments, four new heroes, new treasures and corruptions, and something called Doom Skulls. Of course I backed it on day one.

At the top of this really long article, you mentioned that you could play Return to Dark Tower solo. How does that work?!

Like a charm… with one exception.

The app already has a single player setting and the challenges are scaled appropriately for a single hero. I played my solo game in about 45 minutes (not including set-up and tear-down of the game) and it was very enjoyable.

The exception? When the Tower spits out skulls to the kingdom opposite you, you’ve got to go chase them. (Here’s where the neoprene mat version of the board is nice… the original board works great but has some “bounce” so skulls can go skittering across the table and onto the floor.)

My verdict as someone who enjoys solo gaming? A solid two thumbs up – though not the most portable of solo experiences.

Final question: that pile of stuff you got wasn’t cheap. Was it worth it?

Oh, yeah. Totally.

Fourteen more plays in 5 months… I have games I’ve owned for a decade that don’t have that many plays.

Now excuse me while I set up Return to Dark Tower to play again!

Note on my tiny potential for conflict of interest: 

I have playtested games for Rob Daviau in his roles as a designer for Hasbro and for his own design studio… and have playtested Downforce and Unmatched for Restoration Games. In that capacity, I was given a copy of SeaFall (since my boys and I were early playtesters), a copy of Unmatched: Cobble & Fog, and a rather nice package of lava-related Heroscape stuff (since my game group in Fresno playtested Heroscape), including a Heroscape T-shirt that still hangs in my closet though it’s likely to disintegrate the next time I try to wear it. I did not receive a promotional copy of Return to Dark Tower for this blog post – I actually plunked down my own hard-earned cash to get the Askol’s Fortune package and even sprung for the complete overkill of the neoprene mat game board.

The same is true for the Covenant expansion (and Coffers pack #2) that I backed with no remuneration from the nice folks at Restoration Games.

This review originally appeared on the Opinionated Gamers website.

Monday, August 15, 2022

Reconstructing My Faith: Rocks, Dross, and Almonds

Climbing Rocks

I have a fear of heights – interestingly, it’s more focused on man-made heights than natural heights, though I’m not fond of cliff edges or narrow trails. But I reserve my greatest fear for scaffolding, sketchy ladders, and pretty any kind of floor surface that I can see the ground through… a possible trap just waiting for me to make a misstep and plummet to certain doom.

Which makes my enjoyment of rock climbing (the casual kind, not the insane free climbing or the slightly less crazy “on belay” kind) a weird little anomaly in my personality. (Some would suggest that my collection of nearly 1000 board/card games means I have more than one weird quirk, but I just refuse to give into that kind of thinking – haters gonna hate and all that.)

When I’m climbing up a rocky hillside or down across a collection of boulders at the seashore, I find myself checking for handholds and footholds – is there some place on this rock where I can get purchase to make my next move? As well, I’m evaluating each outcropping to assess how much I can depend on it – is it solidly placed or is it likely to shift? Is it covered something slippery or a fine layer of dust that will cause me to, well, plummet? (Yes, I’m just about as obsessed with the word “plummet” as Gonzo in The Great Muppet Caper.)

I’m doing the same kind of thing in my spiritual life right now… trying to survey the landscape of long-held principles and beliefs about certain theological issues and church practices to make sure that I’m climbing up a secure and solid route… that I’m not trusting in ideas or traditions that aren’t solidly anchored in the truth of Scripture and the love of God.

One of the key questions I keep asking right now is “What about my faith is familiar and/or culturally comfortable – but not Biblical?”

Scraping Away the Dross

Deconstruction has become a “thing” in evangelical circles… and the previous paragraphs I’ve written would lead some to accuse me of “deconstructing”. Since the term tends to morph in meaning depending on the particular viewpoint of the individual (from “best. spiritual. choice. ever.” to “voted most likely to renounce orthodox Christianity and indulge in a life of profligate sin”), I pretty well  shy away from using it myself.

I actually think that a Tweet from @kelliatlarge sums up my viewpoint better than anything I could write:

As Proverbs 25:4 (VOICE) so beautifully states: "Take away the impurities from the silver, and a good smith can create something of value." My prayer is that the true Good Smith will do just that in my heart and life.

Harvesting Almonds

When we lived in Fresno, I was fascinated by the way almond farmers harvested almonds. As you can probably guess, it’s a little labor-intensive to pick almonds by hand. So, farmers use a tractor-like vehicle that is built to shake the tree mechanically and make the almonds rain down. (It is perhaps an artifact of my young adulthood back in the 80s that has me mentally singing “Al-mond rain, al-mond rain…” to the tune of Prince’s “Purple Rain” right now.)

There is always one last set of tree-shaking done late in the season (sometimes as late as Thanksgiving) to knock the “mummies” off the tree – those nuts that survived the harvest shakes and are a breeding ground for bugs.

In my case, the tractor-like vehicle is my personal study of the Bible alongside the wisdom of other folks that have done theological and historical analysis of the evangelical world I grew up and ministered in… and the “mummies” are those parts of my faith that I find so hard to set aside despite their lack of Biblical support.

So, over the next few months, I’ll be publishing blog posts on various areas where I’m struggling to shake loose my personal preconceptions… or, in some cases, where I’ve come to a new (and more Biblical) understanding of various hot button issues. They won’t be in any particular order – I’m not trying to build a systematic theology or some kind of perfectly constructed treatise on my worldview.

What I can promise you is that each article will be Biblical, honest, filled with odd pop culture references and extended metaphors, and (hopefully) an encouragement for each of us to explore what Scriptural orthodoxy (right theology) and orthopraxy (right practice) look like in 2022.