Sunday, November 25, 2007

The Hypnotic Power of a Bug Zapper & The Happiest Place On Earth

Mosquito #1: Larry, no! Don't look at the light!
Mosquito #2: [entranced] I-can't-help-it. It's-so-beautiful.
A Bug's Life
I know I've got Disneyland on the brain right now (we're leaving for Anaheim in 14 days!), but this post has been fermenting in the dark corners of my brain for nearly six months now. Blame
Erwin McManus... it was an off-handed comment he made during the Ethos part of The Origins Experience.

He suggested that different cultures have different icons that give us clues to the underlying values that permeate those cultures:
  • the English have Big Ben - a giant clock. Is it any wonder that order & consistency are highly valued in that society?
  • for Germany, Erwin suggested the iconic value of the automobile (Volkswagon, Mercedes Benz, Porsche)... and that leads easily into a culture that finds precision & attention to detail.
  • Brazil's icon is not an object but a celebration: Mardi Gras (Carnivale) - which fits a country where living life to the fullest & enjoying the party are deeply valued.

Then Erwin asked the question he'd been leading up to: "What are the metaphors of the culture that you are in?" And since the majority of us in the audience were from the U.S., he answered the question for us: "Mickey Mouse. Disneyland."

Of course, I was prepared at that point to hear your standard anti-Disney diatribe: [snob]"Just like Disney, Americans are shallow, interested in being lulled to political & moral sleep by a Pied Piper with promises of a fantasy world & happy endings."[/snob] But that wasn't where Erwin headed...

"Disneyland stands for the promise of imagination - that we can create something bigger & better & more amazing. It suggests that every one of us can live a heroic life." (This quote, btw, is paraphrased - this is what I can construct from my personal notes & my failing memory.)

With that nugget burrowing into my head, I began reading Erwin's most recent book, Soul Cravings (you can read a chapter that particularly moved me, 'cuz I blogged about it earlier this year: Pathos [Entry 24]) His premise is that each person has three needs:

  • meaning - we want to know what we can know (truth) and what we can control (security)
  • intimacy - we want to experience community (acceptance) and love
  • destiny - we want to make a difference (success, signifigance)

Mix into a pile of books I received for my birthday on Disney & Disneyland...

...along with my already well-documented obsession with the Disney parks and you've got yourself the makings of a world-class philosophical/theological rant.

I'll try to spare you most of my musings, which are probably only interesting to me & a couple of other Disneyphiles... still, I've started down this road, so join me as I address the key question here.

Why is that so many of us are drawn to Disneyland like a moth to a flame? (Or, to borrow from A Bug's Life, a mosquito to a bug zapper?)

I've come to believe that it's because Disneyland, knowingly or unknowingly, taps into all three of these core desires (or cravings):
  • meaning - In the world of Disney (and by extension, Disneyland), there are heroes & villains. Rather than a world that seems to be sometimes painted in shades of grey, the park offers a place where visitors can see good triumph over evil.
  • intimacy - From encounters with characters to the special attention to guest relations that each Cast Member is trained in, the folks at Disneyland want you not only to enjoy the attractions but also to connect on a personal level. It's telling that none of their publicity materials (that I know of) advertise this as a great vacation for individuals - instead, they emphasize how experiencing the park together brings families & friends closer with the bond of shared memories.
  • destiny - The park is designed to involve you in adventure after adventure - whether it's flying through outer space (Star Tours, Space Mountain) or dealing with pirates (Pirates of the Carribean) or facing ghosts (the Haunted Mansion) or exploring the wilds of Africa & Asia (the Jungle Cruise). Challenging your fears, diving headlong into adventure... these kind of experiences touch base with your need to do something meaningful with our lives - to escape the monotony of our everyday slog.
I'm not suggesting that Walt Disney (or anyone else who's making the "big decisions" for the park) was/is a follower of Christ... or even that they sought to satisfy these cravings in a purposeful way. I'm simply suggesting that the appeal of Disneyland is not as simple as "it's clean & has wormed it's way into a definition of the American experience." (One clue to that being false: there are now 3 "Disneyland" parks outside of the U.S. - in Tokyo, Hong Kong & Paris.)


For those of you in the reading audience who need to hear me quote some Scripture right now so you won't brand Erwin (or me, by extension) as a Mickey-ears wearing heretic, how about John 14:6?:

  • destiny ("I am the way")
  • meaning ("the truth")
  • intimacy ("and the life")

Or how about 1 Corinthians 13:13, Colossians 1:5, 1 Thessalonians 1:3 & 5:8?

  • meaning ("faith" - what is really true?)
  • destiny ("hope" - where are really we headed?)
  • intimacy ("love" - will we really know & be known?)


A final thought about movies & amusement parks & well, church (maybe?):

"Don't write stuff & produce stuff about answers - don't do that," Winter said. "Write stuff & produce stuff that will stir up cravings inside of us, because that's the DNA that God's put inside of us. You stir that stuff up, and that's where [people] want to go to church. That's when they want to talk about the good news." Ralph Winter, producer of the X-Men series, quoted in The Hollywood Project by Alex Field

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

I'm Still A Gamer, Really...

...I just haven't got to play many games lately. Between a homeschool field trip to Monterey Bay Aquarium and the Exponential 07 conference at Saddleback Community Church (I need to blog a bit about that), I missed two Monday game nights with the Fresno Gamers & was away from my primary gaming partner, my six year old son.

Like many of you, I've watched the Essen reports, trying to figure out which games will really hit my sweet spot. I'm on the fence about ordering Agricola - I'm a big Uwe Rosenberg (the designer) fan and the advance word on the game sounds wonderful - but the price tag is pretty hefty. I'm also interested in Giganten der Lufte (which will be called Airships in the international version, I think), but I figure I can wait on that. I can't decide whether I will love or hate Race for the Galaxy, which means someone else in my group needs to buy a copy so I can try it.

I have no questions WHATSOEVER about whether I'll own a copy of the Memoir '44 Air Pack... they just released a pdf of the rules today & I couldn't be happier about what this expansion will do to the game system. Now the question is whether I'll get it as a gift for Christmas or if I'll buy it for myself on December 26th.

I ordered the limited edition reprint of Mordred six months ago... and just received it yesterday. It looks wonderful, but I won't get to play until Friday (one of my gamer buddies - hi, Steve!) is hosting a Black Friday Game Day. (And, if I can't do that, it'll have to wait for Monday night. Sigh.) Best line from the rules: "This game should take about 1/2 hour to play... if you find yourself playing for two hours, you've done something horribly wrong."

We did get to play Ark on Monday night with the expansion cards - they lengthen the game a bit, but they also offer more ways to manipulate the loading process, which is fun. (I think they also help balance the game out a bit - all the players have a better chance of finding & playing specials when there are more specials in the deck.) For more on Monday gaming, you can check out this geeklist... or this one about our "Spooky Games Night" right before Halloween.

Braeden & I haven't got back to our Soulborg vs. Elves & Undead Heroscape battle, but that's the plan for this weekend. So far, it's about equal carnage on both sides... and the Undead are proving to be less effective than I'd like. OTOH, the Elves are pretty much keeping a posse of robots at bay, so I'm liking my chances right now.

I've already sent my BGG Secret Santa gift... since it is going overseas, I couldn't be quite as creative - but I did manage to stick in a couple of games that are tough to find outside of the U.S. Now... I wonder what my Secret Santa is doing for me?!

A bit of exciting news from designer Tom Lehmann (which came to my attention thanks to Brian Bankler's Tao of Gaming): there will be an expansion to To Court The King. How cool is that?!

And, yes, Virginia, there will be yet another edition of the Five & Dime reports in 2008... more on that as we reach the final days of 2007.

Pieces of Ate

Had a neat experience last night - I got to take my family to a special pastor's sneak preview of the new VeggieTales film, The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything.

Any long-time Veggie fan (and if you aren't one of those, what rock have you been hiding under?!) knows that the Pirates have a lovely theme song, a pivotal role in the Jonah movie (thanks to winning the Mr. Twisty contest), and even managed to host the Ultimate Silly Song Countdown.

Well, evidently everything we knew about the Pirates is wrong - they're actually cabin boys at the Pieces of Ate Dinner Theater who manage to have a wonderful time-traveling adventure filled with pop references for the parents (Days of Our Lives, the B-52's, etc.) and crazy set pieces involving cheese curls (of course!), pirates & some other stuff I just don't want to give away as spoilers.

We all really enjoyed the movie... Collin was so jazzed about it that he immediately asked if there was another movie after this one. It's so nice to take my kids to a film and not worry that they're going to get a bunch of adult/off-color jokes thrown at them... and, on top of that, to really resonate with the "moral" of the story. (No, the film is not explicitly Christian - I'd liken it to Narnia in the way it tells a story with Christian undertones... but then again, I don't remember any of the Narnia stories featuring remote control "labor-saving devices" or cucumbers who make rollercoaster jokes.)

The release date is January 11th... mark in on your calendars & go see it!

Friday, November 16, 2007

My Niece, The Equestrian

I have two nieces & two nephews... the one you're about to see is the eldest. She was about a year old when Shari & I started dating - and was the flower girl at our wedding.

Rebecca is many things: funny, wise, deeply in love with Jesus, and persistent at trying to take her uncle down at Flower Power (unsuccessfully, for the most part). What she is not, as you'll see, is an accomplished rider of horses. (For those who don't know Rebecca on sight, she's the second rider.)

I love you, Bebe...

T-Minus 23 Days & Counting...

Our expedition to "see the Mouse" is getter closer & closer... the kids are incredibly excited, but I don't think they get close to my personal level of euphoria. (I am a complete nut when it comes to Disneyland.)

After a lot of research & reading, we've decided on a 6 night stay at the Candy Cane Inn. We'll drive down (about a 4 hour trip for us) on Sunday afternoon then hit the parks first thing on Monday morning. We'll have five days to explore Disneyland & California Adventure - which means we can start early in the morning (the boys got up at 6:45 am this morning!) then come back to the hotel to rest in the afternoon. Of course, once rested we can return to the parks to see them lit up each evening!

We're really looking forward to riding the Finding Nemo Submarines... even Collin, who is convinced he's going to see a shark. (He's correct, of course.) Braeden has decided he's tough enough to ride all four Disney mountains (the Matterhorn, Space Mountain, Big Thunder Mountain & Splash Mountain) - and I've promised him something special (probably a pin or a T-shirt) if he does it.

I can't say enough nice things about two guidebooks (Passporter & the Unofficial Guide) in helping us get ready for the trip. I also need to mention the wonderful folks on the Passporter discussion boards who have been incredibly helpful with all my questions & worries. There's lots of nifty "hidden" stuff involved in a Disney trip - and the above resources have helped us to ferret them out. (I'll let you know more when I write my trip report in late December.)

BTW, the beautiful picture of the castle all decked out for Christmas is from MousePlanet, another very cool site with Disney parks info.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

The Unofficial Guide To Catan, Part 2

As promised, here's the second installment of my "Unofficial Guide to Catan." (You can read the first installment here.) This time around, we'll deal with all the spin-off games.

Settlers of Catan: The Card Game

I bought this game & El Grande 10 years ago at Gamescape in San Francisco... both of them chock full of German text. Now, in the enlightened days when so many European games are re-published in English, it may seem hard to believe, but we played a lot of this game (10-20 plays) using the German cards & cheat sheets to look up the translations.

The Settlers Card Game takes the same basic "build settlements to harvest resources" mechanic from the original game and builds on it, adding knights, buildings w/special powers, fleets, action cards & event cards. Take it from me - there's a lot of game in here & a number of ways to pursue victory. This game is for two players, however, so there is very little trading. (Well, trading is allowed in the rules, but it is very seldom used.)

I'm a huge fan of the game, but I need to sound three warnings for those who are interested:
  1. It's a pretty vicious game... between the Arsonist, the Spy & the Black Knight, you can do some serious damage to your opponent.
  2. It's a memory game... to play well, you need to keep track of which of five decks certain key cards are hiding. If you don't like memory games, this is NOT for you.
  3. It runs just a tad long until you've played it a number of times... your first game will run 2 - 2.5 hours with subsequent plays finally reaching the 90 min. mark.
There are a number of expansions for the game as well... which Mayfair thoughtfully boxed together in the appropriately titled Settlers of Catan Card Game Expansions. This includes the first six expansions published in German - each deck offers a variety of new cards to spice up the game. The seventh expansion (Artists & Benefactors) has not been published in English & there is no timetable (yet!) for that to happen.

I really like having the expansions but I haven't used them much. All of them add extra ways to mess with your opponent, so that may help you decide if you need them or not.

To Infinity & Beyond...

Sci-fi games are unusual in Germany - which makes the fact that the Settlers franchise has two sci-fi games even more unusual.

The first to appear was The Starfarers of Catan - again, using the resource system from Catan but adding a different way of colonizing planets, action cards much like the card game, and an event deck. Even more notable was the large (8-9 inches tall) plastic "mother ships", which look like refugees from an old Flash Gordon serial.

Initial reactions to this game were mixed - while lots of folks liked the bits & the thematic gameplay, it tended to run long (2.5-3 hours wasn't uncommon) and sometimes fell into very predictable patterns.

IMHO, most of the problems with the base game were fixed by the appearance of the 5-6 player expansion... as long as you didn't play it with 5-6 players. Another alien race & 3 extra planetary systems made the game work much better (and faster!) with 3-4 players. (It actually works nicely w/2 players as well.)

And, just in case Herr Teuber & Kosmos hadn't taken enough of your hard-earned cash, they released a special set of painted resin alien figures for the game - which serve no purpose but to replace some cardboard tokens from the original game. Still, they look awfully cool & I'm glad the set I traded for included them!

The other sci-fi game combined the art & backstory as Starfarers of Catan with some of the mechanics from the Settlers Card Game to create a hybrid that may well be stronger than either of the games that birthed. Starship Catan is an economic game where you fly your trading ship around the galaxy, completing missions for the Galactic Alliance as you try to maximize your profits by establishing trade outposts & colonies. There's space pirates to fend off & aliens to trade with - all activated by a unique deck exploration mechanic that requires you to once again kick the memory part of your brain into gear.

This is a wonderful 2-player game... and it doesn't hurt that Klaus Teuber has released 3 print-and-play expansions for the game: The Space Amoeba, The Asteroid & The Diplomatic Station.

Adventures By Catan

Just a few years back, Herr Teuber took the Catan franchise in a new direction by creating a series of games called Catan Adventures (based, I think, on the Catan novel, which hasn't been released in English.) So far there are two games in the series.

The first, Candamir: The First Settlers, has each player in the role of an adventurer, helping to carve the first settlement out of the wilderness of Catan. It's an odd combination of exploration & resource management game, with some definite character-building elements. It's probably the least successful of Teuber's Settlers spin-offs, but I haven't traded my copy away yet.

The second, Elasund: The First City, is a city-building game with incredible potential for player interaction (and the requisite cruelty!) It's not a game that comes out a lot, but I really enjoy playing it with the right crowd.

Greasy Kid Stuff

In an attempt to hook kids into the franchise as early as possible (what? no Catan toddler toys - yet?!), there are two children's game using Catan as a theme.

The first one published is The Kids of Catan. It is a very pretty game of city-building with a simplified set of resources & wonderfully chunky wooden bits. It also has a price tag the size of a small midwestern town, so I can't recommend it unless you have money to burn. It work very well with kids age 4-7.

The second was just released in Germany earlier this year - Catan Junior. I have not even seen a copy yet... but it's on my "wish list" of stuff to play/acquire.

Roll Dem Bones

The other recent release (and the final game in the guide) is Die Siedler von Catan: Das Wurfelspiel... translated, that's the Settler of Catan Dice Game. It plays a bit like Yahtzee (roll the dice three times, attempting to make a score) but there's some interesting choices on the map-like scorepad. (Herr Teuber has also posted a variant scorepad that plays more like "straight" Settlers, but I haven't tried that yet.) I like this one - although there are better dice games, I like the Catan feel and the simple play. However, I don't recommend playing with more than 3 people per set of dice. (BTW, this has been very hard to find in the U.S. - the easiest way to order it is from German Amazon. [])

More To Come

Back in the day (OK, just a few years ago), I ran a website called Game Central Station that had an extensive Catan section. Due to the evil Yahoo empire blowing up my site (hadn't updated it) and then some serious problems with FTPing things to the new site, I've never been able to restore that portion of the site. (This is NOT the fault of GameSurplus, who still kindly sponsor the site - and are a GREAT place to order games.)

So, I'm seriously thinking about putting some of that content up here. Look for it over the next few weeks.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Will The Vampire People Please Leave the Lobby?

This really isn't a book review... let's call it a "book reaction". Of course, that doesn't keep me from saying reviewer-ish kinds of things about Will The Vampire People Please Leave The Lobby?: True Adventures in Cult Fandom, but that won't be my focus here.

I personally have a weird relationship with Buffy: The Vampire Slayer - I didn't watch the show while it was being broadcast. I only found it in late 2002, thanks to my buddy (Chris Herndon) loaning me the DVD sets during my 4 month stint as a 3rd shift customer service rep at JC Penney's Nashville call center. (There's another portion of my life that's blog-worthy... if not exactly G-rated. Remind me and someday I'll tell the tales of Panty Man, Lingerie Girl, and the inability of middle management to make up their ever-lovin' minds about darn near anything.)

So, on the nights that I wasn't working 10 pm - 5 am, I stayed up anyway (to keep my internal clock regulated) and watched movies & old TV shows. Thanks to Chris and the Internet, I watched the shows in order - actually watching Buffy/Angel in tandem on the seasons where they overlapped.

I liked the shows - a lot. Yes, I was bothered by the copious amounts of sex & blood, but (as in many other "questionable" shows that I've enjoyed & been moved by) none of their behaviors as characters were consequence-free. Episodic TV is has a huge advantage over film in this - you can take the time to show the fallout of bad and/or sinful decisions in 24 episodes/year.

One last bit of Buffy commentary before I return to the actual topic of the post... sigh. The first three seasons are really, really great (esp. 2 & 3) - and the first part of season 4 has some wonderful moments (including the episode, "Hush", which could be the best episode of the entire series), but when it turns into Frankenstein Meets The X-Files, it really falls apart. There are nice moments & characters for the rest of the run (I actually liked Dawn, if not the story that brought her into play), but seasons 5-7 are, for the most part, watching something wonderful grow less & less enchanting. Angel's first 3 seasons are also very good (again, esp. 2 & 3), but season 4 was a mess. Season 5 came back & reimagined the series in some very funny & interesting ways, but the impending cancellation & the loss of Buffy (the series) made for some pretty dark viewing. Consider yourself warned.

OK, two Joss Whedon notes (wonder if I'm EVER going to get back to the book?!):
  1. Yes, I'm aware of Buffy Season 8 (a comic book series authored by the creator of Buffy) - I just haven't read any of it yet.
  2. Yes, I've seen Firefly - both the series & the film - and it's one of those sad stories of something that was probably too good for television. (Join the club: I'm a fan of Boomtown, Sports Night & Kidnapped as well.)

Alrighty then, back to the point of this now way-too-long post. (Yes, campers, ALL of what proceeded that was geeky introduction. Sheesh.) Allyson Beatrice has written a snarky but enjoyable book about, well, it starts off about Buffy/Angel fandom & actually ends up being an autobiographical trip through Allyson's life.

What really struck a chord with me was not the details of the Buffy online fandom community (I've never even been particularly interested in discussing Buffy online) but the resonance that her experience in that online community had with my experiences in the world of board gaming.

She talks about how she "watched as people got their doctorates, passed the bar exam, got divorced, grappled with the death of a parent, left their homes & countries to start a new life." And then she says something pretty profound:

"Watched" is the wrong verb. I watched Buffy, and I engaged the fandom.

It's that engagement, the stories of how an online message board for the discussion of symbolism in a TV show about vampires & teenagers could turn into a living, breathing community that fascinated me. She talks about conventions & meet-ups, of how virtual connections turned into face-2-face connections...

...and I'm instantly transported back to my days on (anyone else out there remember Usenet?!) and how I hooked up with a gamer across town by the name of Rob Wood. I decided for safety's sake to meet him at the church I worked at, along with my friends Chris & Buster. That was in the spring of 1997... and by the fall of that year, he'd introduced me to Ted Cheatham, another online buddy who came through town on business & was always up for playing games.

Ted was my connection to what was to become Gulf Games, a wonderful twice-a-year invitation only family gaming event - which he started with Greg Schloesser (When they first met after chatting over the Internet, BOTH of their wives were sure they were about to go meet an axe murderer) & Ty Douds.

Over the years, I've conversed with literally hundreds of gamers online - both inside & outside the U.S. Friendships have been formed from the constant communication - as Allyson so beautifully puts it in her book:

It's been three years since the series finale of Buffy aired, and I still have a hard time telling people just how it is that I have a bed in which to sleep in thirty-two states and five countries.

Someday, it'll be socially acceptable to say, "Oh, we can stop in Des Moines for dinner. I know a couple of Vampire People there."

The next chapter is about her relationship with one of the writers of the show - and the odd blend of friendship & hero worship that can happen online. I've seen the same thing play out with some of the game designers in the board gaming world... again, a familiar resonant chord.

And at that point, the book pretty much takes a dive. (Told you I'd get all reviewer-like.) One really nice chapter about bringing an online friend to visit the U.S. (a cooperative effort by the online community) goes on too long, including pages of e-mails that really only have meaning to those who originally wrote them. (Did the editor fall asleep at the switch here?) There's some interesting bits about "Munchausens By Internet" and trying to save Firefly, but the strongest parts of the book are all up front.

Best part of reading the book: being reminded that I need to thank God for the gift of my internet family. Thank you, Jesus, for using something as mundane as an iMac to draw people into my life to love & be loved by...