Monday, September 30, 2013

Glennz: Swiss Ninja

I've been on record before about how much I enjoy Glennz Tees - the shirts are good quality, the printing has held up well to 3-4 years of washing... and they make me laugh. A lot.

So, here's the three designs that I've got on my Christmas list:
  • Swiss Ninja - because a true ninja is prepared for every eventuality... even a hangnail
  • Notifications - one of the better iPhone jokes I've seen (it's on sale right now, btw)
  • Water Bomb Squad - it's like "The Hurt Locker" for former youth pastors

Friday, September 27, 2013

The Kitchen Sink: Initials & My Initial Response

My weekly place to share enjoyable randomness...

"with great power comes a ton of weird crap you are not prepared to deal with..."
Joss Whedon is back on TV with Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. - and in addition to continuing his (commendable) policy of employing actors from previous shows (hi, Shepherd Book! howdy, Charles Gunn!), the pilot shows a lot of promise.

not #1
CBS may be #1 in producing shows with initials in the title (CSI, NCIS, etc.), but they are certainly not #1 when it comes to producing useful viewing apps for the iPad. Heck, even the CW manages to get full episodes up for me to watch (hey, I like Arrow... and my summer reality TV guilty pleasure is Capture) - but CBS can't be bothered to do that for their shows that I watch. Boo, hiss...

in the queue
I'm working on a review of Geoff & Sydney Englestein's Space Cadets: Dice Duel. After one play, I'm prepared to say the following three things:
  1. I like it!
  2. Not everybody will like it.
  3. The game could fit in a smaller box.
follow you, follow me
If you want to follow me on Twitter, just click here.

One of the people I follow on Twitter - cuz he's laugh out loud funny - is Matthew Baldwin. Some examples:
Twitter is like one of those brainstorm sessions where they say there are "no dumb ideas" and are immediately proved wrong. 
Two of my coworkers are chronic interrupters. Hearing them converse is like scanning the radio dial.  
If you see a parent who appears well rested, call 911 because she's kidnapping those children.
Follow Matthew by clicking here.
Extra points this week for identifying the source of the title of this section of the Sink.

quote of the week
"History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again." (Maya Angelou)

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Luminary, Not Luminara

Last fall, I was interviewed by the guys from the Theology of Games blog (and now podcast!) - hi, Scott! hi, Jeremiah! - and they chose to entitle it An Interview With Board Game Luminary Mark Jackson! 

Words like "luminary" conjure up two images for me:
  1. those cool Christmas candle bag thingees ("luminara")
  2. a quote from Lina Lamont in SINGIN' IN THE RAIN - "'People'? I ain't 'people.' I am a - 'a shimmering, glowing star in the cinema firmament.' [picks up newspaper] It says so - right here."
Since I neither shimmer nor glow, maybe we just call me "a guy who loves board games." But whatever you call me, here's the text from that November 2012 interview.


First tell us a little about yourself, and then tell us how you got involved in the board game hobby.

I am guy who wears a lot of hats: I’m the pastor of a small Southern Baptist church, the husband of Shari Jo (22 years!), and the father of two boys – ages 7 & 11 – who both (thankfully) love board games. I also blog on a semi-regular basis and have been a guest on a number of gaming podcasts, including The Dice Steeple.

(UPDATE NOTE: As some of you already know, I no longer pastor that "small Southern Baptist church"... but I am still incredibly proud to be the husband of Shari & the father of Braeden & Collin.)

I’ve played games all my life… my grandmother was a big part of that. Even as she got older, she’d get down in the floor with us to play Monopoly or whatever else I brought out of my room. And it was her daughter—my Aunt Nancy—who bought me my first Avalon Hill game (Outdoor Survival) and started me on the path to gaming geekdom.

• How has being a pastor enhanced—or run up against—your love of board games?

I’ve used board games in a number of different ways in ministry: as sermon illustrations, as ice-breakers in small groups, as social events (family game night) to connect people together. My church here has been gracious to allow me to host a regular gaming group in our social hall for a number of years, which helps me build relationships with people outside the “holy huddle.”

• Have there been any games that you refused to play because you found the theme/gameplay objectionable?

There are certain games I choose not to play (Hellrail, Lunch Money, Funny Friends, Chaos in the Old World, etc.) and other games I’m glad they re-themed (Twilight -> Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde) based on what I believe. I wrote some years ago that “my strongly held beliefs in Jesus Christ and the authority of the Bible obviously play a role in my hobby. (If strongly held beliefs don’t play a role in your whole life, then they’re not strongly held beliefs.)” That’s still true.

• You’re stranded on an island, but you somehow have the foresight to bring one game with you to play until such time as you’re rescued—or die due to exposure, starvation, or the awful disease those weird-looking lizards carry. What’s that game? (We’ll assume you’re stranded with the number of people that game plays best with…)

Oooo… so difficult. If I can carry expansions with me (I’ll assume i can!), it would either be The Settlers of Catan or Memoir ’44. (Just one? Seriously?)

• You have a wonderful blog. Which post has caused the most controversy?

Thanks for the kind words… it’s a lot of fun.

I don’t seem to generate wild levels of controversy, though I got some interesting private comments about my post The M Wordwhich was part of a series of posts about sex, pornography & passion.

On the gaming front, I got a bit of grief over my bad attitude about FFG and warned: I’m in full-on irritated fan mode in these posts,

I’ve also had a lot of comment about my posts about why I quit playing D&D: The Day I Quit Playing D&D, and DW, Bill Cosby & Evercrack.

• I can barely keep up with all of your updates on Goodreads. Who are some of your favorite authors?

On the theological front, I’m drawn to C.S. Lewis & Tim Keller. As a pastor, I’ve been mentored via books by Larry Osborne, Erwin McManus & Andy Stanley.

As far as fiction goes, I think Kurt Busiek’s graphic novel series ASTRO CITY is tremendous… and Stephen Lawhead continues to write brilliant genre fiction.

My non-fiction recommendations are all over the map – though I’m particularly fond of Marc Reisner (Cadillac Desert) and Robert Andrews (The Storm of War).

• You’ve been able to play many prototypes and advance copies of games. Are there any (that you can talk about without getting a hit put out on you) that we should be on the lookout for?

Race for the Galaxy: Alien Artifacts is a great addition to the franchise – and makes it easier for players who were overwhelmed by the previous trilogy of expansions to jump back into the game.

The Dungeon Lords expansion (Festival Season) is more of what you love IF you loved Dungeon Lords: more monsters, more heroes (minstrels!), more traps, and so on.

Matt Leacock has a fantastic prototype using his Roll Through the Ages system that I’m not sure I can say much more about – but it’s a delightful twist that I’ve loved every time I’ve played it. (Yes, it’s still an “ancients” theme; no, it’s not a civ-building game.)

• Is your wife a gamer?

No. She’ll play games – she likes cooperative games like Pandemic & Lord of the Rings – but she is definitely not a gamer.

• You have two kids with different ages. What are your favorite games to play with each of them right now?

My 7 year old has fallen in love with all things Catan – enough so that he told me the other day that he wanted to play “a game with hexagons where you get resources from rolling dice” – yes, that’s kind of specific. He & I have been having a great time playing The Rivals for Catan and are looking forward to getting our review copy of the Age of Enlightenment expansion.

My 11 year old has a wider variety of gamer interests – right now, we’re particularly enjoying The Ares Project. He would gladly play Risk: Legacy every day if only we could convince his younger brother to join in.

Here’s the One-Word Answer section.

• Favorite theologian who goes by his first two initials?

C.S. Lewis (with G.K. Chesterton a close 2nd)

• Favorite LEGO line/theme of all time?

Time Cruisers (I still have the blimp set!)

• Favorite Disney ride/attraction?

Radiator Springs Racers (CA Adventure), though Dinosaur (Animal Kingdom) is a close 2nd

• Favorite minor character in the Star Wars universe?

Admiral Ackbar

• Favorite comedian?

Bill Cosby (love me some of his OLD stuff)

• Favorite Batman villain?

Riddler (the comic book one, NOT the movie)

• Favorite Bible verse?

Habakkuk 3:17-19

Thanks, Mark, for taking the time to answer our questions! And thanks to you for reading!

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

"It's not the years, honey, it's the mileage."

I told you that the pragmatic prayer at the foot of "Jacob's ladder" wasn't the end of the story. (And if you don't remember me telling you that, you can look back at Mr. Jacob, If You're Nasty for a refresher course.)

Fast forward twenty years... during which Jacob manages to work himself into two marriages & a seemingly never-ending competition between his two wives (who are, in a twist worthy of redneck reality TV shows, sisters) to see who can have the most babies. These ladies are desperate enough to enlist the help of their maidservants in the Bambino Derby. (And don't get me started on the names they saddle these kids with... sheesh.)

Jacob also has to cheat/manipulate/pull the wool over the eyes of his 2x father-in-law (who is, in a twist worthy once again of reality TV, his uncle) in order to keep from being cheated/manipulated/lied to himself. Jacob & his extended family would make tremendous guests for the Jerry Springer show.

At the end of twenty years, though, Jacob & his wives decide to head home. (For sake of time & clarity, I'm omitting the intriguing if odd story of Rachel stealing her dad's idols, sitting on them to hide them & claiming that it's "her time of the month" so no one will search beneath her.)

As he gets ready to face his older brother, Esau, who threatened to kill him for stealing his birthright two decades earlier, Jacob once again finds himself praying in the wilderness. Only this time, it's a little less pragmatic... with a lot more perspective.
And then Jacob prayed, “God of my father Abraham, God of my father Isaac, God who told me, ‘Go back to your parents’ homeland and I’ll treat you well.’ I don’t deserve all the love and loyalty you’ve shown me. When I left here and crossed the Jordan I only had the clothes on my back, and now look at me—two camps! Save me, please, from the violence of my brother, my angry brother! I’m afraid he’ll come and attack us all, me, the mothers and the children. You yourself said, ‘I will treat you well; I’ll make your descendants like the sands of the sea, far too many to count.’” 
Genesis 32:9-12, The Message

Now Jacob sees his real position before God - not as a wily negotiator of goods & services but as a humble servant. It's no longer about making a deal but about acknowledging reality.

I don't think you get that kind of view of your relationship with God with age - heck, I wish it worked that way. I'm 49 years old chronologically & 42 years old as a follower of Jesus... if age was the slow factor in seasoning someone spiritually, I'd be a very wise man.

I believe it's not the years, but the miles - that the experiences Jesus leads us through and the way we handle & react to them that makes the difference. Some people never grow out of playing "Let's Make A Deal" with God - others, blown away by His presence & power & grace, do so at a much younger age.

My prayer today: for experiences in my life that cause me to see clearly His love & loyalty to me, even when I don't deserve that kind of treatment.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

SeaFall: Legacy Rides Again

One of my favorite games from the last few years was Risk: Legacy... here's what I wrote about it when it was my #1 new game from 2011:
I’m not sure how to extol the virtues of this wonderous Risk reboot without spoiling some of its well-hidden charms, but I’ll give it a shot.

Risk: Legacy is…
  • …a product of nearly a decade of experimenting with this classic game system. (It incorporates ideas from Risk 2210 & Risk: Black Ops to make the game shorter & yet packed with thematic touches.)
  • …an innovative board game concept – something we don’t see nearly as often as we’d like to think. (The whole “open this pack of cards when this happens” way of changing the game is brilliant.)
  • …a reminder of what was really great about my old RPG days – we’re working together to tell a story about this new world we’re fighting over. (In our case, the founding of Great Humongustan, the DEW line populated with installations left over from the Battle of the Northern Wastes… and most recently, the Cataclysm in Southern Europe.)
  • …gamer catnip. (Let me explain – each time you get to open a new packet, it feels very similar to the “rush” you get when opening a new game or game expansion. And it not only gives you the “new car smell” effect, the added stuff takes the story of the game in a new direction.)
  • …fun even for people who don’t particularly like Risk. (One of the guys in our group – the founder of Great Humongustan – is not a fan of “dudes on a map w/dice” games & esp. not a fan of Risk. Yet he’s having a grand time playing Risk: Legacy with us… and even commented the other night when he arrived after a game had started that “it was just fun watching you guys play.”)
Kudos to Rob Davaiu (the designer)… it is hitting the table EVERY week at our gaming group with people clamoring to play.

And one last thought: even after we finish the 15 game “story arc” (and someone gets to name the world), I can see this board/set being my Risk variant of choice – both to enjoy the memories/history of battles past and because the various tweaks & modifications in this game are really, really nifty. (BTW, this comes from someone who has four other versions of Risk in his collection… yes, it’s that good.)
All of which makes the public announcement yesterday of a cooperative venture between Rob Davaiu's Ironwall Games and Colby Dauch's Plaid Hat Games to publish the next Legacy game incredibly exciting! The next bit is from the official post on Plaid Hat's website:

SeaFall is a 4X game (explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate) set in an age of sail world that is reminiscent of our world.  In SeaFall the world is just starting to claw its way out of a dark age and has just begun to rediscover seafaring technology.  Players take on the role of a main land empire who each consult with a consortium of advisors to discover new islands, explore those islands, develop trade, send out raiding parties, take part in ship to ship combat, and more.  In fact that 'and more' may be the biggest understatement I've ever made.  Just as in Risk Legacy, SeaFall will evolve as player play it.  Players will become personally invested and the game will remember their grudges.  The narrative will swing as players open up the world.  Unlike Risk Legacy it does all of this without being tied to the Risk license and gameplay engine.  SeaFall will be a medium-heavy weight gamer's hobby game with original game play systems.  Expect the epic.  The game is slated for release in 2014.
It's in the first round of blind playtesting right now... so there won't be a great deal of detail coming out for a few months. Keep calm & carry on... and save your pennies for next year!

Monday, September 23, 2013

Generation Gap

I walk this hall at least once a week for work - it's the tunnel from the Charlotte St. side of Legislative Plaza under the Capitol building. 

Each time I traverse the the hallway, I can mentally hear the "Get Smart" theme playing in my head, complete with slamming doors.

My boys (age 12 & 8) saw this picture and immediately said "It looks like The Avengers."

Friday, September 20, 2013

The Kitchen Sink: It Begins

And thus begins a new (and hopefully weekly) feature here on the blog: "The Kitchen Sink", where I share various bits of stuff that really aren't big enough to deserve their own posts. You may now proceed to ignore and/or enjoy this as needed.

play, play, play, yeah, yeah
In a fit of 80's nostalgia, I created a Pandora station this week that I named "Guitar-Shaped Spaceships." (And I'm proud of it.) Extra points for those of you who can guess what bands are prominently featured before you go take a listen.

Well, I reached 1000 plays of the now-defunct Dominion iPhone app this week. (There's an official one now through Goko, but I haven't bothered with it.) I don't even own a copy of Dominion (it's low on my list of "deck-building games I like" - sorry, Dale)... but this app manages to run a 2 player game in about 5 minutes, making it perfect for standing in line/waiting around time-killing. I will say that the AI is incredibly weak. Out of 1000 games, I've won 688 - and any AI that I can smack around like that is the proverbial 98 pound guy who gets sand kicked on him.

If you're looking for better (read: games I like) deck-builders, I'd strongly suggest checking out Eminent Domain or Core Worlds (with the Galactic Orders expansion).

quote of the week
"The reason we struggle with insecurity is because we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else's highlight reel." (pastor Steven Furtick)

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Nice Work If You Can Get It...

According to News of the Weird (who is actually sourcing a real article from the NY Post):
Self-indulgent New York City parents have been hiring "play-date" coaches for their preschool youngsters, apparently out of fear that the kids' skill set for just having fun might not impress admissions officers at the city's elite private schools. The CEO of one consulting outfit told the New York Post in July that $400 an hour gets expert monitoring of a 4-year-old in small groups, evaluating, for example, how the child colors in a book, shares the crayons, holds a pencil and follows the rules of Simon Says.
Heck, I'll play Haba games with them for $50 an hour...

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Game Review: Septikon - Uranium Mining

Designer: Konstantin Seleznev
Publisher: Hobby Games USA
Players: 2
Ages: 10+
Playing Time: 45 minutes

Review by Mark Jackson (5 plays w/a review copy provided by Hobby World USA)

“Thank you for calling Klondike Industries, the internationally recognized experts in asteroid mining stations. You have reached our 24/7 Help Desk… this is Viktor. How may I be of assistance to you?”
[transmission garbled]
“We here at Klondike Industries are pleased that you chose to purchase a Septikon class space station for uranium mining & processing… and we will work diligently to find a solution to any problems that you are having.”
[transmission garbled]
“Sir, I’m having trouble hearing you over the background noise of explosions & warehouse depressurization. Could you possibly move to a quieter part of your station so I can expedite a response to your call?”
[transmission garbled]
“No, sir, I do not recommend engaging the hostile BioDrones directly unless you have armed your Clones with Drills and/or Vibracannons. You might, of course, choose to use the Sensor Cabin to eliminate hostile BioDrones.”
[transmission garbled]
“Sir, there is no need for harsh language. We here at Klondike Industries share your frustration with the belligerent nature of the mining station on the nearby asteroid and hope that the various weapons & defensive systems we’ve installed will help you to repel his attack.”
[transmission garbled]
“Sir, yelling at me is not going to magically make the inbound Nuclear Warhead-tipped Rockets disappear. You had the option of launching Satellites or placing Energy Shields. You could have also moved your Gunner Clones into place and used Laser fire in order stop the attack.”
[transmission garbled]
“No, sir, I am not reading from a script. [sound of pages ruffling] Since you insist on continuing in rude behavior, I will be ending our conversation now. Klondike Industries would like to wish you success & good luck and hopes you have many victories on the hard & noble path of a uranium miner.”

“War is a series of catastrophes that end in victory.”

Septikon – Uranium Wars is a two-player war game. (Yes, I realize that “war game” can be a dirty word for some of you – hang with me just a minute.) This isn’t your standard “buckets’o'dice” war game… or the newest variation of “dudes on a map.” In fact, one of the reasons this review is going to be incredibly positive is that I have a hard time slotting this game into a particular game mechanic “box”.
I will, however, disagree with the good folks at Hobby World USA (the publishers of Septikon – Uranium Wars) who have advertised the game as belonging to the tower defense genre. While I can see why they’d make the comparison, I don’t think that covers the variety of mechanics & tactics that appear in the game. (I also really disliked Dragon Valley, a game that tried to use tower defense as a primary game mechanic & would hate for Septikon to tarred with the same brush.)
All right, some of you are barely hanging on now – your “but I don’t like wargames!” reflex alarm is blaring. Maybe it would help you to think of Septikon – Uranium Wars as a resource & opportunity management game… albeit with a whole lot of damage & destruction. Or maybe you could think of it as a worker placement game – if your workers were loyal & mindlessly obedient clones whose entire mission was to pummel the opposing space station into submission.
OK, it’s a war game.

"Mining is like a search-and-destroy mission."

The basics of game play are pretty simple. You roll a single die (termed the Random Number Generator), then move one of your Clones exactly that number of spaces. Clones can be sent to the surface to act as Gunners… or more commonly used to activate various production & battle modules. There are also several Locks which can be used to thaw out additional Clones… as well as a way to access more of the station.
There are seven types of resources stored in the warehouse levels:
  • Oxygen
  • Biomass
  • Rockets
  • BioDrones
  • Metal
  • Uranium
  • Energy
You use those various resources to make more resources, repair damage, fire weapons or build defensive capabilities. For example, you can use the Chemical Reactor to consume Biomass in order to produce Oxygen… or, for those of you who want to grow up & be Dr. Strangelove, you can spend an Energy, an Uranium & an Oxygen at the Nuclear Armory to put a nuke in your rocket supply.
Firing weapons or building defense requires Gunners on the surface… and the requisite resources. If you have multiple Gunners (aka Clones w/spacesuits) topside, each Gunner may use the effect of the battle module… if they have the appropriate items in the warehouse. Another example: with two Gunners, it will cost you two energy (one each) for you to fire both Lasers at the enemy station.
Some attack items have an immediate effect (Lasers & Thermite Mines) while other (Rockets & BioDrone Landing Capsules) must travel across space to reach the opposing asteroid. Rockets & Landing Capsules move at the same speed as your Clone did earlier in the turn. This gives your opponent time to place Satellites (which defend a starburst area around themselves) and Energy Shields in order to stop the attack.
Once BioDrones managed to land in an opposing station, they can move each turn (at – you guessed it – the same speed as the Clone) to destroy resources. If armed by Clones occupying your Armory spaces, they can also kill enemy Clones & blow up station modules.
I’ve only skimmed across the surface of player options – there’s Espionage & Counter-Espionage, as well as taking over your enemy’s Satellites or renewing your Energy Shields.
The objective is to force the enemy to concede by degrading his ability to continue the battle. You can do that by:
  • killing all of his Clones (or trapping them where they can not move)
  • running him out of resources and/or the ability to produce them
  • cutting off access to battle modules

"One may know how to conquer without being able to do it."

That covers the outline of how Septikon – Uranium Wars works. But it’s also important to try & describe how the game feels.
  • there are more opportunities for clever moves than you realize at first – Figuring out how to use the Locks properly (by refreezing a Clone and thawing another out on a different Lock) was a first step for us. The judicious use of Thermite Mines was another important lesson. With five (or possibly more) Clones in play, you can begin to think ahead by clearing off of modules you will need to activate later and setting yourself up to be close to important modules.
  • the tower defense “feel” is a part of the game… it’s just not the whole game – The movement of Rockets & BioDrone Landing Capsules have a tower defense vibe, as does the defensive use of Satellites & Energy Shields. But the resource management feels more like a typical Euro… and with Lasers & Thermite Mines doing immediate damage, the “I see them coming!” part of a tower defense game is not the majority of the game play.
  • all of the strategic pathways seem to be viable – The reference sheet included in the game lists five strategic “hints”: Burning, Suppression, Landing, Exhaustion, & Massacre. As far as we can tell at five plays in, all of them are have or could work… and they don’t exhaust the possible other plans of attack.
  • the box is actually correct about the average length of a game – 45 minutes is just about right… we’ve had games as short as 30 minutes and as long as an hour… but in general our Russian friends seem to be more adept at predicting playing time than, say, the old Avalon Hill.
  • the longer the battle rages, the more constrained your options become – While I realize that this could frustrate some players, I see it as a feature rather than a bug. Septikon – Uranium Wars speeds up as you move to a close, which is a quality I really like in a game.
  • you will take a pounding… even if you win – The game is a slugfest. In all five games that we’ve played, the eventual winner had a station that was nearly depleted in resources and had enough damage to look like a block of Swiss cheese.

"The harder you work, the harder it is to surrender."

The only problem I have with the game is the ending conditions – and it’s not a big enough problem to keep me from playing it and recommending it to others.
Septikon – Uranium Wars is one of those games that you can fight to the bitter end. At least, some gamers are wired that way. (This reminds me of my good friend, Tim, who decided that he would not concede my victory in Conquest of the Empire until I had chased the remains of his army to merry olde England and defeated them.)
While I know that some gamers will fight to the last BioDrone (“Never give up! Never surrender!”), I am concerned that other players may give up the ship (ahem, station) too early. In my last game, I was pretty sure I was ten minutes away from annihilation (thanks to an Explosives-wielding BioDrone ravaging my production modules)… and I ended up fighting my way back to a win.
So, one of the “skills” players will need to learn is when to push the eject button & leave the smoking ruins of your space station to your opponent… and when to tell them “Nuts.” My guess is that being able to “read” the game state well enough to determine that point will take most folks 2-3 games.
The rules do contain a “play to 15 damage the first time you play” rule… which might help with that learning curve, but we (being know-it-all gamer types) ignored it.

"Gamers of the world, unite!"

Septikon – Uranium Wars was originally demoed at Essen 2012 and was published in Russia. (The review copy I have is a Russian copy with English rules included.) That has made it very difficult to find a copy here in the United States.
For your gaming pleasure, however, Hobby World USA is in the middle of a Kickstarter project to bring the international edition to market. The new version of the game will replace the meeples and some of the wooden cubes & cardboard tokens (Clones, BioDrones, Rockets, Energy Shields & Satellites) with nifty plastic molded figures. And, because it’s Kickstarter, there are stretch goals for extra variant cards & pieces.
As of September 16th, the game is fully funded & will be published in May 2014. Hobby World USA (the publisher) is a major player in the Russian market with a variety of Rio Grande, Fantasy Flight & Steve Jackson titles in their catalog, so you don’t have to worry about this being some kind of fly-by-night con job. The Kickstarter ends on Wednesday, September 25th.
UPDATE: The folks at Hobby World USA have posted a 4 player variant for the game (requiring two sets) as an update to their Kickstarter page. It sounds to me like it would work pretty well - though make for a longer game... but I haven't played it.

"Let me ‘splain. No, there is too much. Let me sum up."

Septikon – Uranium Wars is an original & intriguing 2 player game that’s a nice hybrid between a war game & a resource management game. Five plays have whetted my appetite for more… and it’s one of those games where I find myself thinking about even when I’m not playing it. (I’m still trying to make the “add more Gunners, drop BioDrones in like paratroopers” strategy work.)
It isn’t for everyone – the objective is to pound your opponent into submission and that level of conflict isn’t enjoyable for some players. But for those who like head-to-head battle, this is an excellent choice.
For the curious who want to know the source of the quotes:
  • “War is a series of catastrophes that end in victory.” (Albert Pike)
  • “Mining is like a search-and-destroy mission.” (Stewart Udall)
  • “One may know how to conquer without being able to do it.” (Sun Tzu)
  • “The harder you work, the harder it is to surrender.” (Vince Lombardi)
  • “Never give up! Never surrender!” (from the film GALAXY QUEST)
  • “Workers of the world, unite!” (Karl Marx)
  • “Let me ‘splain. No, there is too much. Let me sum up.” (from the film THE PRINCESS BRIDE)

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Mr. Jacob, If You're Nasty

Jacob vowed a vow: “If God stands by me and protects me on this journey on which I’m setting out, keeps me in food and clothing, and brings me back in one piece to my father’s house, this God will be my God. This stone that I have set up as a memorial pillar will mark this as a place where God lives. And everything you give me, I’ll return a tenth to you.”
     Genesis 28:20-22, The Message

"If God steps up & performs, then He can be my God." Seriously?!
What Jacob wants is a relationship with the Creator based entirely on "what's in it for me?" & "what have you done for me lately?" (apologies to Janet Jackson) It's an "if -> then" mathematical formula, a cause & effect blueprint for future interaction, a negotiating demand.

His "prayer" is incredibly pragmatic & practical - "trust but verify" - but it isn't really a meaningful relationship as much as it is a brass tacks business transaction.

And it is incredibly sad - even more so because it's the story of so many of us.
When I'm gut-level honest, it's the way I want to lean in my own walk with God.

Thankfully, it's not the end of the story.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Game Review: Forbidden Desert

GAMEWRIGHT-415Designer: Matt Leacock
Publisher: Gamewright
Players: 2-5
Ages: 8+
Time: 30 minutes
Times played: 7 (with review copy provided by Gamewright)
I love Aaron Sorkin when he’s writing in “full-on rant” mode:
Lewis: People want leadership, Mr. President, and in the absence of genuine leadership, they’ll listen to anyone who steps up to the microphone. They want leadership. They’re so thirsty for it they’ll crawl through the desert toward a mirage, and when they discover there’s no water, they’ll drink the sand. 
The President: Lewis, we’ve had presidents who were beloved, who couldn’t find a coherent sentence with two hands and a flashlight. People don’t drink the sand because they’re thirsty. They drink the sand because they don’t know the difference.
    from the film THE AMERICAN PRESIDENT
In the case of Forbidden Desert, they drink the sand because, well, it’s everywhere.
Ah, yes, Forbidden Desert – the much-anticipated “sequel” to Matt Leacock’s family-oriented cooperative game hit, Forbidden Island. Evidently, your success at rescuing the treasures has inspired you & your team to travel into the deepest desert to find a fabled lost city – and a marvelous flying ship.
Of course, things go wrong. (Cue up the chaos theory speech from Jurassic Park.) Your helicopter crashes… just as a wicked sandstorm blows into the area. Your only hope is to complete your mission and reconstruct the flying ship to use an escape vehicle.
In the midst of a growing sandstorm and the blazing heat of the desert sun, you must find the four missing pieces of the ship, bring them to the launch pad, and fly away to safety.

Compare & Contrast: Is This Just a Retread of Forbidden Island?

Short answer: No.
Longer answer: While it shares certain mechanical similarities with Forbidden Island…
  • board formed from two-sided tiles
  • card deck triggering the game’s “attack” on the players
  • escalating number of cards drawn as the game progresses
  • roles for each player that grant a particular way to break the rules
Forbidden Desert is a fresh game with it’s own personality and style. The need to excavate tiles to both gain tech (equipment) and to find the pieces of the flying ship mean that you’re doing less “protecting” of spaces (a common tactic from Forbidden Island). At the same time, you have to carefully manage another resource – water – to prevent one of your team of dying from thirst… and thus have to be careful about sending out adventurers on their own into the wasteland.
The board itself is more interactive than Forbidden Island. While the island simply offers you locations to grab the objective totems, the desert board not only needs to be excavated but also has tunnels (both for easier movement & safety from the burning sun). The clues for the location of the various items are there… along with water supplies & the ability to get tech/equipment to help you out when things go pear-shaped.
The sand storm generates obstacles (sand – loads & loads of the aforementioned grainy stuff) in a way that gives the team a feel for where it might be going, especially in the early part of the game. One of the game timers is the sand itself – if you can’t place any more on the board, the city (and you!) are considered to be buried, waiting for Indiana Jones to discover your weathered bones.
Finally, the greater number of actions (4 per turn per player) means that you have more potential to affect the progress of the game… and more options for decision-making.
Note: I still really like Forbidden Island – go & read my review on my personal blog. (Just come back & finish reading this one!)

A Not-So-Detailed Detailed Analysis of the Storm Deck

The Storm deck is used after each players’ turn and essentially acts as the “brain” of the game. It triggers the intensity of the storm (there are three cards which up the level, similar to the water level in Forbidden Island). It sucks water out of your canteens (there are four cards that force you to drink – unless you’re under a Solar Shield or safely hidden in a tunnel.)
The rest of the deck (24 cards) moves the storm (an empty space in the 5×5 grid that makes up the game board) 1, 2 or 3 spaces… and each tile that is shifted receives a sand marker. The average amount of sand deposited on the board is roughly 1.3 sand per card – which means you need to watch the pool of sand tokens carefully, especially as the storm increases in strength (number of cards you draw).
Because tiles that can not be shifted don’t receive sand, that rough average number is probably a little bit lower – still, my 7th grade son quickly figured out that once you’re drawing four cards per turn, you have the potential to dump 12 sand onto the board in one set of draws.
The storm severity meter is actually four different meters for 2, 3, 4 or 5 players… which works very well. (We’ve played with 2, 3, 4 & 5 players – the game plays smoothly with any size group.)

Mark’s Mini-Thesis on Cooperative Games – As Applied to Forbidden Desert

For me, cooperative games succeed or fail on some simple questions:
1. Is there a coherent and/or compelling story arc to the game?
Yes. The need to explore to find the flying ship pieces while racing the growing storm works like a charm.
2. Are there meaningful decisions to be made by the players?
Yes. The analogy I used to discuss this with friends was a plate-spinner. (Yes, like something you’d see on Star Search – pop culture reference for my well-seasoned readers – or America’s Got Talent – pop culture reference for the young whippersnappers.) Forbidden Desert has you & your fellow players spinning a lot of plates: water supply, exploration, sand removal, not wasting time, when to use tech and/or character powers.
So, while each decision in & of itself may seem obvious (“go pick up the propeller before it’s buried in sand!”), deciding the priority and order of those actions is much like keeping plates spinning. You see one wobble (“the launch pad is getting buried”) and you lunge to fix it… but your effort there means something else has to wait for your attention.
3. Is the game system have enough randomness to offer a new play experience each time… while predictable enough to make the players feel like they have both strategic & tactical choices? (Note: I didn’t say that players HAD to have strategic choices – just that they felt like they did.)
Yes. The randomness of the set-up combined with the inherent vagaries of the Storm deck bring a lot of variety to the game… while the sandstorm mechanic (in which players know the starting point of the sandstorm before drawing from the deck) and the set objective make it easier for players to develop strategic & tactical plans.
4. Is the game susceptible to a player/dictator?
One of the problems inherent in cooperative games is having one player “direct” the play of the rest of the players to solve the puzzle. There are various ways to solve this as a game design problem: hidden information, real-time play, appointing a leader, etc.. (Or my favorite home remedy: don’t let obnoxious people play games with you.)
In the process of writing this review, I asked the other OG writers for comments – and, frankly, Patrick Brennan’s theory is better than mine. He suggests that “the water requirement forces more cooperation and discussion in order to get people together at the oasis to recover enough to keep going for long enough.”

The Really Important Questions

Those questions are fine for post-game game geek talk… but these final questions are where the rubber hits the road.
Does it succeed for the target audience – the mass market?
Yes… with a caveat. I think families with some gateway game experience will have an easier time with this… particularly if they’ve played Pandemic or Forbidden Island (both designed by Matt Leacock). Families with less experience may have a tough first game or two (the reason for the Novice setting on the storm meter), but I think they’ll enjoy it if they stick with it.
A gamer friend who is willing to teach the game to non-gamer friends will make it that much easier… and you’ll have a lot of fun in the process. (Just remember to let players make their own decisions!)
Does it succeed as a game for gamers?
Yes. It’s a simpler cooperative game that has enough decisions to make it interesting for gamers.
A note: Matt has published three distantly related cooperative games:
  • Pandemic (the first & most gamer-y of the three)
  • Forbidden Island (the second, which I’ve often described as Pandemic for non-gamers & kids)
  • Forbidden Desert (the third, and the subject of this review)
I think both Pandemic & Forbidden Desert have more in common with Forbidden Island than they do with each other… so if you were looking to pick up only two of them, Forbidden Island is the one I’d choose to leave on the shelf. (Or, better yet, give to family & friends – it’s cheap & that way you’ll have a copy you can play!)
That said, I own all three & am not willing to ditch any of them.
Do I like it?
Absolutely. While we had one game (of the seven we’ve played in the last couple of weeks) that ended VERY quickly (too much sun + not enough water + bad decision = death), the other six games have been down to the wire as we’ve fought to dig out from under the relentless sand and get everyone back to the flying ship & safety.
It’s a little pricier than Forbidden Island, but the toy factor continues to be intense (the flying ship & ship pieces are wonderful) and the rules are crystal clear & well-organized. I highly recommend Forbidden Desert to you as a great 30-45 minute cooperative game.

A Special Gift

For those of you who made it all the way to the end of the review, here’s the delightful April Fools 2013 prank from the publisher, Gamewright. (Which is making me hungry… right now. Bring on the extra spoons!)
FD sugar

This review originally appeared on the Opinionated Gamers website.

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Game Review - Gunship: First Strike!

Designer: Steve A. Wood
Publisher: Escape Pod Games
Players: 2-4
Ages: 13+ (though my 12 year old does just fine with it)
Playing Time: 30 minutes

Played 5 times (with a review copy provided by Escape Pod Games) - a version of this review appeared on the Opinionated Gamers website

Yes, the ship & fighter boards have a bit of a warping problem. Yes, the card quality is less than I’d like. Yes, the rulebook is a little clunky & laid out in a less-than-optimal fashion.

And with all those problems, I’m still really looking forward to my next game of Gunship: First Strike… because beneath those cosmetic issues is a robust & quick-playing space combat game with some nice bits of theme & a well-designed system for customization that doesn’t overwhelm the game itself.


Two assault carriers square off in a battle to the death for this corner of space. As commanders, players send out fighter wings & a heavily armed gunship. While the smaller ships harass the larger gunships, the gunships prepare to make very Star Wars-ian “trench runs” on the carrier as victory is determined by destroying your opponents’ carrier.

The game begins with each player customizing their gunship with a variety of weapons and armor. The gunship boards are the biggest use of table space in the game – and have places for the various weapons. There are also fighter squadron boards to track damage to the fighters.
Gunships can be outfitted with blaster cannons (think: Star Wars) and ion cannons (think: energy weapons) as well as thruster bombs for the inevitable attacks on the opposing carrier. They also can have armor to protect specific areas of the ship and shields to block hits
“Space” is represented by the two assault carrier boards and the “center zone” space between them. As the battle begins, both gunships & fighter squadrons are in the center zone, opening fire on each other. The assault carrier are blasting away, trying to knock down shields to make the opponent vulnerable to attack runs.
Combat is determined by a combination of card play (to fire the gunship weapons) and dice (to resolve fighter combat & some types of gunship combat). Players may also use cards to evade incoming fire as well as increase the damage of the attack.
Attack runs necessitate surviving a series of attacks from the carrier defenses before swooping down and firing off a torpedo or a set of thruster bombs. Once the carrier shields are destroyed, you can afflict actual damage – game-winning damage!


  • the gunship customization system – Using a small deck of cards and a well-designed playing board, players can choose which type of weaponry to load onto to their gunship and how best utilize the limited armor to protect vital functions. It’s quick (no more than five minutes) but still allows for a variety of strategies. Mid-battle repairs & reloading aboard the carrier are also a vital part of the game that once again show off the sweet design of this system.
  • the straightforward combat system – this will be familiar territory for fans of the Command & Colors games. It’s a combination of card play & dice rolling that zips right along once you get the hang of it. Combined with the variety of weaponry & defensive cards, it is more than just “flip a card & roll a ton of dice”.
  • the fun factor – as I said at the beginning of this review, I’m having a lot of fun playing Gunship: First Strike. It’s one of those games that creates memorable stories: “remember the time I was losing & so sent my gunship on an ill-advised trench run and you literally shot the wings off of it?”


  • component quality – Yes, I know not every game gets production by top-of-the line shops. In this case, there are definite issues with quality of the main card deck (the stock is pretty thin) and the warping of the boards. It isn’t unplayable by any means, but it does make it a little more difficult to love.
  • the organization of the rulebook – As far as I can tell, there aren’t any rules missing… it’s thorough & complete. It’s just organized in a fashion that makes it tougher to learn than necessary. Four games in, we’re still having to dive in to remind ourselves of the details of a particular kind of attack. (To their credit, Escape Pod Games has web-published an excellent player aid for attacks… but it should have been included in the box.)
  • the custom dice – Wow, they look cool… but the choice of two different “to hit” icons (a targeting icon & a fighter icon) that have the same 2 out of 6 chance of hitting makes the aforementioned need for a player aid even greater. I’m hoping they have plans to use these more as the game system expands.


And speaking of expansions…

Gunship: First Strike is the core game of a game system using the customizable gunship in a variety of ways. Escape Pod Games has already published some of those expansions as a part of the initial Kickstarter project last year:
  • the Mark II Gunships
  • the X-Perimental Weapons Upgrade decks
  • the Crew Members deck
  • the Asteroids deck
  • a set of extra Assault Carrier boards
  • Magna Armor cards (available as a promo through BGG)
Of those, we here at the Jackson house have found that we really enjoy the way that the Upgrade decks offer some nifty variety to how you set up your gunship/carrier without making those decisions incredibly time-consuming during game set-up.

Currently, there is a Kickstarter for the first expansion in progress… and it’s already funded with 23 days to go. Afterburners takes the customized gunship system into the world of “gunship racing” – which sounds crazy until you think how many of us longed to make the Kesel Run as fast as Han Solo. (The Kickstarter only has 3 days to go... and is funded. Jump on in!)
And there is more to come – including new larger ship types & a campaign mode.


My best guess is that your reaction to the Command & Colors game system (not the theme) is going to be the best predictor of whether you’ll enjoy Gunship: First Strike. While this is not a rip-off of Richard Borg’s design in any way, shape or form, they have similar limits on actions (due to card draw) as well as the ever-present luck of the dice that permeate games like Memoir ’44 or Battle Cry.

As I’m a huge fan of the Command & Colors games, I found Gunship: First Strike to be a blast to play, once we managed to get the rules straight and get under way. A typical game takes about 45 minutes (including set-up & putting it away), which makes it a lovely game for lunchtime work gaming.

I personally am looking forward to trying the team (2 on 2) mode as well as the Afterburners racing/fighting expansion… and much more to come!