Friday, June 27, 2014

Ross Perot, Captain Kangaroo & Helen Keller (Classic)

I wrote this 8 years ago. Guess how old that makes me?

Yesterday was my 42nd birthday. It's not a particularly important milestone (like turning 16 or 18 or 21 or 40 or 65) - it's just another birthday. I've made one more revolution around the sun without getting myself killed (despite a car wreck & a minor fender-bender this last year).

I was blogging about my birthday last night and looked up which famous people were born on my birthday. There were a lot of names I didn't recognize (which, to me, raises the question of whether they're really famous - but I guess that's kind of self-centered to determine someone's fame based on my personal recognition of their existence)... and a few I did.

Yes, I was born on the same day as Tobey Maguire (the actor who played Spiderman), Ross Perot (noted rich guy & former presidential candidate), Bob Keeshan (who I loved as a kid - he was Captain Kangaroo) and Helen Keller (a deaf mute woman who did a whole lot more than learn how to spell "water"... check out the book Lies My Teacher Told Me for more info on Helen's adult life).  An eclectic bunch, eh?

Editorial Note: Here in 2014, I'd like to add J.J. Abrams (who came up with LOST and Alias and the Star Trek reboot... and is in charge of Star Wars: Episode VII), Leigh Nash (lead singer of Sixpence None the Richer),
and Khloé Kardashian (Wikipedia lists her as an "American businesswoman, model, and radio host" - huh).

Which reminds me... those of us who claim to be followers of Christ need to remember that we are an eclectic bunch as well. The church has a wide variety of folks: grape farmers, traveling salesmen, truck drivers, school teachers, handymen, stay-at-home moms, contractors, small business owners, cops, retirees, mechanics... you name it. One of the guys I served on staff with had been a repo man before he became a minister of education; my best friend in Nashville was an accountant before he went to seminary.

The same thing is true when we look at the Bible: Amos was a sheep herder, Moses was a prince, Paul was a rabbinical student, Joseph was a slave, Matthew was a tax collector, Esther was a queen, Samuel was an altar boy, Peter was a fisherman, and Jeremiah was a bullfrog. (No, not really, despite what Three Dog Night told you. I was just checking to see if you were paying attention. Jeremiah was a prophet.)

Anyway, God put us all together on purpose. This eclectic nature of the church is not (in the language of computer software) a bug, it's a feature.

Enjoy it!
He handed out gifts of apostle, prophet, evangelist, and pastor-teacher to train Christ's followers in skilled servant work, working within Christ's body, the church, until we're all moving rhythmically and easily with each other, efficient and graceful in response to God's Son, fully mature adults, fully developed within and without, fully alive like Christ.  Ephesians 4:12-13 (The Message)

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Game Review: Völuspá + Order of the Gods

Völuspá /Order of the Gods

  • Designer: Scott Caputo
  • Publisher: Stronghold Games
  • Players: 2-5
  • Ages: 10+
  • Time: 45 minutes
  • Times played: 6 plays (1 of Kachina, 2 of Völuspá alone, 3 with the Order of the Gods expansion)
  • Review copies provided by Stronghold Games
When the majority of your knowledge about Norse mythology comes from reading The Mighty Thor comic books (some 35+ years ago), watching the most recent Marvel films, and playing board games like Heroscape & Yggdrasil (and SPI’s Ragnarok: The Twilight of the Gods way back in the day), you have to do some research to figure out why Stronghold Games would name a game with Odin & Thor & Loki “Voluspa”. For the record, the word is “Völuspá” (Stronghold got it right on the box cover) – and it’s the title of one of the best known Old Norse poems. Translated, it means “Prophecy of the Seeress” (the völva referenced in the title).

That’s a whole lot of background for a game that is essentially a gamer-friendly version of Qwirkle.


First, a heartfelt thank you to Stephen B. and the folks at Stronghold Games for giving us an appropriately sized box. I thank you, my shelves thank you, my wife thanks you.

The box is stuffed with attractive, thick tiles – seriously, the artwork is very nice. You also get a scoreboard, 5 scoring pawns & 5 tokens to indicate when you’ve “circled” the board (+50/+100).

But wait, there’s more! While there are no Ginsu knives or Salad Shooters included, you do receive the first expansion (Saga of Edda) in the box with the base game. This adds four new tile types to the mix.

Game Play

Let’s get this done quickly:
  1. Play a tile from your hand of five tiles
  2. Score points based on your play
  3. Draw a new tile
Lines cannot be longer than 7 tiles. (Evidently, creatures from Norse mythology don’t like to queue up in long lines. They would hate Six Flags.)

Moving on…


Scoring is almost as simple as game play. Check the row and/or column that you played your tile next to – if your tile is the highest valued tile, you score one point for each tile in the line.

The Tiles

Each of the tiles has a value (between 1 and 8) and most of them have some sort of special power:
  • Odin (value 8)
  • Thor (value 7)
  • Troll (value 6 – no tile can be place orthogonally adjacent to a Troll)
  • Dragon (value 5 – can be placed on top of other tiles)
  • Fenrir (value 4 – the value of a Fenrir tile is the sum of all Fenrir tiles in the line)
  • Skadi (value 3 – put in place of another tile & put that tile into your hand)
  • Valkyrie (value 2 – score a line when there is a Valkyrie at each end of the line)
  • Loki (value 1 – tiles adjacent to Loki have a value of zero)
Game End

The game ends when all tiles have been drawn and played. The winner is (I know you’ll be surprised by this) the player with the highest score. In case of a tie, the player who reached the high score first wins.

Saga of Edda (first expansion)

This “in the box” expansion adds four new types of tiles: three which are added to the base set and one which is distributed to the players as the game begins.
  • Hel (value X – is placed face-down on top of another tile and creates a gap in the line; scores one point for each tile adjacent diagonally & orthogonally; one per player given at the beginning of the game in addition to the regular hand)
  • Jotunn (value 5 – can bump any tile to the end of a line; replace the bumped tile with Jotunn)
  • Sea Serpent (value 6 – scores across gaps)
  • Hermod (value 3 – after playing Hermod, score and play another tile; you can use multiple Hermod tiles in one turn)
Order of the Gods (second expansion)

This “in its own box” expansion adds four more types of tiles to Völuspá, as well as additional “circle the scoreboard” markers (+150/+200), booster tokens for use with Freya, and a set of zero tokens to make it easier to see Loki’s power at work. (Granted, it would have been nice to have had these zero tokens in the base game, but better later than never.)
  • Dwarf (value 2 – when placed score ½ the value of all orthogonally adjacent tiles rounded down; can be placed next to a Troll)
  • Freya (value 3 – play as normal or discard from hand to boost value of another tile played from your hand; you can use multiple Freya tiles in one turn)
  • Raven (value 4 – you may place this tile twice in one turn, remaining in the second placement; Ravens may cover other tiles like Dragons)
  • Niohoggr (value 7 – when you score a line with one or more Niohoggr tiles in it, score 2 bonus points per Niohoggr tile)
The rules offer several different suggested tile sets to play with, suggesting only that players avoid playing with all the tiles (from both expansions) at one time.


Völuspá was originally published by a smaller publisher as Kachina, which I had the opportunity to play not too long after the original release. The art on the new edition is definitely better – while the Kachina tile are was thematic, it was incredibly busy and difficult to read across the table.

The designer, Scott Caputo, listed two other changes to the game:
  • There are 2 less Troll tiles (called Ogres in Kachina)
  • A Skadi can now pick up a Dragon tile (which was not permissible in Kachina)
I think that Völuspá is a definite step up from Kachina – primarily because the game is easier to play with the better (and more attractive) artwork. As well, both rules changes make it easier to play tiles rather than more difficult… a theme you’ll hear me complain about some of the first expansion tiles in just a minute.

Impressions (the base game)

Now it’s time to defend my crack about “gamer-friendly Qwirkle”. Both games have similar turns (play a tile or tiles/score/draw to fill your hand), and similar placement rules (lines in Völuspá can have one more tile than Qwirkle – evidently simple shapes hate standing in long lines even more than mythological beings).

Moreover, both games are extremely tactical – you make the best play you can with some eye to future turns. The painful reality, though, is that Robert Burns was right: “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley…” (The last few words are often translated “often go awry” – but honestly “gang aft agley” is closer to the sound I make when someone scoops up the points I was going to get for playing a Niohoggr or a Valkyrie.)

The wide variety of special powers on the tiles in Völuspá adds some intriguing twists to a standard tile-laying game – but at the expense of speedy play:

It is much more difficult to “read” the board in Völuspá than it is in Qwirkle. This is both a consequence of the (gorgeous) artwork and the multiple powers that affect each other.
The plethora of options means it take longer to prune down your decision tree.
Since the various types have differing numbers of tiles in the bag, it is not as easy to read probabilities and make informed guesses.

And your enjoyment may be impacted by the extra time involved… or it might not. (One person’s analysis paralysis is another person’s strategic cup of tea.) I will say that the game hasn’t yet bogged down to a dead stop for us (ask me some time about the first edition of RoboRally and one particular player whose name has been hidden to protect the unbelievably slow)… but over the length of a game those slightly longer turns can add up.

As in many games of this type (play something to a tableau and/or the table to score points), the common problems rear their head here in Völuspá as well:
  • You want the stupidest player possible to sit to your right.
  • The more players there are in the game, long-term (more than the next turn) planning goes out the window.
I don’t know that you can “cure” these problems – I think they’re inherent to these kind of game designs – but you can mitigate one of them by not playing with a full complement of players. (Personally, I avoid playing Carcassonne – and Völuspá – with more than 3 players.)

I would be interested in seeing some other tile mix suggestions from the designer – perhaps removing some of the base game tiles when adding expansion tiles to shorten the game a bit while continuing to add variety.

Impressions (the expansions)

While I found a lot to like in the new expansion (Order of the Gods), I was less enamored of the tiles included in the “Saga of Edda” set found in the base game. As I’ve thought about it, I think my reaction is due to the nature of the tile powers. The “Saga of Edda” tiles (with the exception of Hermod) require multiple plays to ‘pay off’ – and given the nature of the game, too often they are played at less than full effectiveness.

On the other hand, the Order of the Gods tiles all make it easier to harvest points, which adds not only to the overall scores of the game but also gives the game forward momentum. (They help players feel like they are advancing their game.)


Though the theme of Norse mythology is lovingly portrayed in the art (and some of the tile powers), this is really an abstract tile-laying game with a plethora of gamer-friendly powers. Those seeking an immersive thematic experience will be disappointed.

However, gamers who are looking for a tactical tile-laying super-filler will find a game they can enjoy … and if you like the base game, I’d highly recommend you add the Order of the Gods expansion for extra variety (and the helpful zero/Loki tokens).

I personally enjoy the game – but am not interested in playing it with more than 3 players ever again. (Ever. Seriously – I’d rather play Devil Bunny Needs A Ham again.) I think Völuspá is best with 2-3 players and with my own tile mix that includes Hermod, the Dwarf, Freya & the Raven. (Your mileage – or however Norse gods measure distance – may vary.)

If you’d like to try the game for yourself (before you buy), it’s available to play on

Monday, June 16, 2014

Game Review: Rogue Agent

Rogue Agent
  • Designer: David Ausloos
  • Publisher: Stronghold Games
  • Players: 2-4 (Agent Mode), 3-4 (Android Mode)
  • Ages: 11+
  • Time: 90 minutes
  • Times played: 5 plays (2 Agent Mode, 3 Android Mode)
  • Review copy provided by Stronghold Games
Dystopian visions of the future are all the rage in film (The Hunger Games, Divergent, Children of Men), in literature (The Giver, The Passage), in video games (Half-Life/Portal, EVE Online) and in board games (Arctic Scavengers, Bioshock: Siege of Columbia). At some level, the whole zombie mania (please, no more games about zombies – I beg you!) has elements of dystopia – and, in many cases, a severe lack of imagination.

The previous paragraph needs footnotes:
  • Yes, I’m aware that The Passage is a zombie book of sorts… I loved the first couple hundred pages & then completely bogged down when time shifted.
  • Yes, I’m also aware that there’s a lot of crossover between various media formats in my examples above.
  • No, I’m not likely to get over my dislike of zombies any time soon.
Back to the matter at hand… the dystopian inspiration for Stronghold Games’ Rogue Agent is pretty obviously the touchstone film for the genre: Blade Runner. (And, no, we’re not going to waste our time arguing which cut of the film was the best.)
  • Strangers hiding among us: check. (They’re called “androids” rather than “replicants” - but, to paraphrase Shakespeare, “What’s in a name? A murderous creature by any other name would still be lethal.”)
  • Dark, gloomy futuristic city: check. (Welcome to Rain City. Now go home.)
  • Bizarre criminal lowlifes: check. (All of whom come straight from Future Gone Wrong central casting.)
  • Anti-hero(es): check. (That’s you, in case you were wondering. Or maybe you’re an android. Only time will tell.)
As an operative of “The Agency” (a shadow group attempting to keep the peace in Rain City), you work to acquire resources & equipment, arrest criminals, “neutralize” assassins, and defuse bombs. If you manage to interfere with the other rogue agents at the same time, so much the better.

Agent Mode is the introductory (read: training) mode of the game – and, frankly, was less than fully satisfying as a game experience. Android Mode is the full (read: best) mode for playing Rogue Agent… and involves all the potential actions & activities of Agent Mode, as well as the possibility of androids having infiltrated The Agency beginning a reign of death & terror.

Armed only with a decent knowledge of Cityspeak, a few resources (gas, ammo & evidence), way too little cash & a strong moral compass buried beneath a world-weary façade, the agents head out into the downpour to protect and serve.


Each round (there are 8 rounds in Android Mode and 6 rounds in Agent Mode) begins with a Time phase. The start player (designated the Operations Chief) draws the appropriate number of wooden discs from the bag (called the Datastream), then rolls 3 standard six-sided dice to determine which precincts (board spaces) they can potentially be placed on.

The wooden discs represent one of three things:
  • criminals (there are 6 in the bag - numbered 1-6 – which are then assigned to face-down cards while a corresponding piece is placed on the board)
  • assassins (there are 4 in the bag)
  • bombs (there are 4 in the bag)
The Operations Manager chooses where each of the “bad guys” end up… and then rolls a six-sided die for each bomb, setting (roughly) the number of rounds before it explodes.

Player turns are relatively straightforward:
  • cruise around Rain City looking for someone to beat up (aka “arrest”)
  • use evidence resources to figure out how dangerous particular criminals are
  • undertake 2 “Justice” actions
    • attack (subdue) a criminal or assassin
    • arrest a subdued criminal
    • intercept a criminal arrested by another agent
    • turn in a criminal at HQ
    • search a location for resources & upgrades
    • purchase resources & upgrades
    • defuse a bomb
    • scan another agent (to see if he/she is an android)
    • attack a (revealed) android
After the second Justice action, movement is over and you have only two options:
  • recruit an informant in that location
  • stand brooding darkly in the never-ending polluted rain, thinking cynical thoughts that could possibly be used as voiceover narration
Androids, once revealed, have a different set of actions:
  • cruise around Rain City looking for someone to beat up (aka “intimidate with their freakish powers”)
  • undertake 2 “Underground” actions:
    • search a location for resources & upgrades
    • purchase resources & upgrades
    • attack an agent
    • attack a location (city tile)
After the second Underground action, the android stops moving and waits in deathly stillness while his/her onboard computers update & upgrade. In other words, the player turn is over.

A round is concluded with a City Phase, in which the criminals move about (on a pre-established pattern), the assassins seek victims (also on a pre-established pattern), bombs count down (and can explode) and the Police Squad (a single non-player figure) moves to guard a new precinct.

The objective is to acquire the most Influence – which can be obtained by:
  • subduing a criminal (1 Influence)
  • delivering an arrested Criminal to HQ (end game scoring with bonuses for having arrested multiple criminals in the same gang)
  • killing an Assassin (1 Influence)
  • defusing a bomb (1 Influence)
  • turning in evidence at HQ (1 Influence for 6 evidence resources)
  • revealing an android (1 Influence)
  • sending an agent to the hospital (the android gains 1 Influence while the agent loses 1 Influence)
  • destroying a location (androids only – 1 Influence)

The majority of actions are driven by dice: attacking, searching, defusing bombs, fighting with androids, etc. The game includes 9 custom dice in 3 types/colors – healing & spy skills (red), gas & cruiser upgrades (green), and bullets, money & guns (black). All of the dice have a blast and a boost symbol as well, used in resolving attacks and bomb defusing.

At the same time, there are ways to mitigate the impact of all that dice-rolling. Both agents & androids can purchase or search for upgrades that can add dice to rolls or lessen any negative blowback from those rolls. By spending evidence to investigate criminals, agents can make informed plans about which criminals to arrest and which to simply avoid.

Cruising (movement) is based on the gas resource – players have one “free” move of 1 or 2 spaces per turn, with the option to spend gas resources to take additional 1 or 2 space moves.

Six of the fourteen city sections (spaces) on the board are precincts, which have one or two thugs in them, waiting to attack whoever is stupid enough to travel into their territory. Agents can avoid injury by using the ammo resource to get them to back off.

The rest of the board is made up of locations: Police HQ is always at the “center” of the map, while the other locations (the gas station, the gun shop, the hospital, etc.) are placed randomly into a preset grid.

As well, the Police Squad keeps gang activity down in one precinct per round, making it a safe place to cruise or hunker down, as no Justice actions can occur where the Police Squad is currently located.

There is even a sub-game in Rogue Agent – a push-your-luck dice rolling & placement game is used when you attempt to defuse a bomb. (This is probably the most difficult part of the rules to understand – the explanation provided by the designer on BGG was extremely helpful in clearing it up.)


I find myself in a difficult place when it comes to writing a review of Rogue Agent. I think it’s an intriguing game system with great variability… and that variability may be both the greatest strength and greatest weakness of the game. Two of my plays in preparing for this review were edge-of-your-seat fun, with close finishes and opportunities for smart plays. Two other times the game reached the table, however, were less enjoyable – the decisions seemed obvious and the system overwhelmed the ability of players to influence the outcome.

There’s much to like about Rogue Agent - it’s an interesting hybrid of dice-heavy combat/adventure resolution mechanics (sometimes unwisely referred to as “Ameritrash”) set in a more Euro-gamer friendly structure of limited actions and set costs. Planning ahead is important – but so is taking advantage of the mistakes of others. The inclusion of the agent/android battle (and how those loyalties are revealed) is a fresh take on the “traitor” mechanics first seen in Shadows Over Camelot & Battlestar: Galactica.

As I mentioned earlier, I believe that all of the variable elements in the game system:
  • the modular board
  • the large deck of criminal cards
  • the Datastream bag process of seeding Rain City with adversaries (and the accompanying dice rolls for their placement)
  • the die rolls for the initial timer length for the bombs
  • the tokens used to reveal androids
…add some intriguing twists to the game. You cannot predict exactly what you’ll be facing or plan some sort of “perfect” strategy to deal with all possible situations. In the short time it’s been hitting the table here, we’ve had Rain City flooded with criminals… and other games with nothing but bombs & assassins causing havoc.

But that many variables can lead to problems in the flow of the game. A plethora of assassins mean money spent on informants is (mostly) wasted, as they are quickly killed off unless defended. Too many non-criminal draws from the Datastream not only impact final scores (the biggest source of points is having arresting multiple criminals from the same gang) but also mean less cash available to the agents to recruit informants and purchase upgrades. My plays indicate that problematic flow is less of a problem with 4 players than with 3… but it is still a possibility.

We tried one game with one less bomb token in the bag (3 rather than 4) and felt like that worked to put more criminals into play. We also used the variant rule (kindly published by the designer in his FAQ) of drawing one disc from the Datastream per player, which also increased the possible targets & mayhem.

The structure of the game is more complicated than complex – there are a number of specific actions that are undertaken at the beginning and end of each round of player turns that breathe life into Rain City – and though none of them are difficult to execute, remembering what happens when & how takes a few games to become second nature. Though Stronghold Games did not include a player aid in the box, they’ve made sure that a very helpful one in the same art style as the game is available on BGG.

The rulebook is complete but for some reason it was easy to miss key rules. I’m not sure if that’s a function of the two-part structure of the rulebook (divided into Agent Mode and Android Mode sections) or if some of the moody graphic design choices make it tougher to scan quickly, but at various times, our group missed:
  • how the health & upgrade displays worked (you must PASS the icon in order to receive the upgrade or be “knocked out”)
  • the only action allowed after the second Justice action is recruiting an informant
  • it takes 2 unblocked blasts to destroy a space
  • the destabilization roll at the end of defusing a bomb
  • the Police Squad preventing Justice actions
  • only one identity token per player can be revealed each round
One of the problems we had with the game is actually solved by playing the “whole” game (Android Mode) over the introductory/teaching version (Agent Mode). In Agent Mode, gasoline is only useful for taking an extra move, which is often unnecessary. In Android Mode, however, gasoline is used to evade attacks by androids (or, if you are an Android, attempts to “retire” you by agents). It feels a bit like the change in value for sheep from basic Settlers of Catan to Seafarers of Catan.

Android Mode has another positive effect on the game – the narrative of the game actually progresses. Since it takes at least two rounds (usually three) for the androids to be revealed, the agents have time to concentrate on recruiting informants and upgrading their equipment in preparation for the inevitable android onslaught. When the rampage of destruction begins, the tone of the game changes and Rain City begins to burst into flame. It’s a really sweet thematic shift – one that limits the choices of the agents as it becomes more & more dangerous to get around the city.

Our first instinct was that the reward for defusing a bomb (one Influence) was too low – it’s the exact same reward as killing an assassin or subduing a criminal, but with much more potential downside. We even discussed raising the Influence value ourselves with a house rule. So I posed the question to the designer & developer… and their answer revealed two things to me: first, that it’s easy to “fix” a game because of your play style without thinking through all the ramifications. Second, these guys have put a lot of thought into this game design.
David: Bombs are a complex element in the game, in the sense that their value can vary greatly from situation to situation. Often the reward is not only the victory point, but the effect that the bomb will render: save your precious informants that form part of your VP pool or eliminate VP of competing agents. As the operation chief can decide where to place the bomb, the device can work in either direction, depending on the position he chooses.
Actually, this goes for a lot of elements in the game. Assassins can sometimes be worth only 1 VP, but when they are putting your informants in danger they are definitely worth more to hunt down. The same goes for criminals: their 1 VP value is only temporary, as syndicate colors can render some substantial boosts in VP. 
In short: nothing in Rain City can be taken at face value. There are underlying motivations and connections that need to be taken into consideration when you choose to tackle the events in the city.
I think the biggest issue I had with the game is misplaced expectations based on the large deck of criminal cards and the ability to score big points from delivering multiple criminals to HQ has to be balanced against the reality of the short number of Justice actions available per player (16 in Android Mode) and the number of actions required to fully arrest a perp:

  • optional: use evidence to scan the criminal card (as some criminals are easier to subdue if you know who they are… while others are more dangerous if you don’t)
  • required: Justice action to subdue them (reward: 1 Influence)
  • required: Justice action to arrest them
  • move them back to HQ
  • required: Justice action to drop them off and claim the financial reward on the card

That doesn’t make the game “bad” – it just means that agents are unlikely to arrest more than 1 or 2 criminals in a game.

One more note about the criminal card deck: the first edition of the game is a limited edition with 10 extra criminal cards. According to the publisher, those cards will not be included in later printings.


I used to call my oldest son a “gamer-in-training”… but those days are long gone. He’s a gamer – which is a wonderful gift to his old man. It’s great to have someone in the house who is always ready to do battle with dice & cards… or talk over strategy & tactics. He’s been a great sounding board for playtest feedback and review preparation. (I promise, I’m about to use all of this to make a point. Just hold on.)

He & I were talking last night about our plays of Rogue Agent – and I realized that the discussion, even as we struggled with our misplaced expectations and missed rules, made me want to play the game again. There’s a lot more to this game than I first realized... and if I can gather the folks to learn and enjoy it, I’m very interested in exploring it.

Those with a fear of dice can just pass Rain City by… but just because there are dice in the game doesn’t mean you can check your brain at the city limits. This dice-heavy/Euro hybrid has more to offer than first meets the eye… or is readily observable on the first play.

This review was originally published on the Opinionated Gamers website.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

I Love the Smell of Soccer in the Morning (Double Classic)

The following post is a DOUBLE classic post - the original post was written during the World Cup in 2002. Then in 2006 - during the next World Cup - I updated it again. I didn't recycle it for the 2010 World Cup... but I refuse to let another celebration of "the beautiful game" go by without bringing this back out for your enjoyment!


When we think about things that unite us around the world, it's easy to come up with bad stuff... the way we respond to disasters or terrorist attacks. Political crises turn our heads... and deaths of celebrities can break our hearts. Every two years now, a chunk of the world focuses on the Olympic Games (Winter & Summer). But for sheer international focus, absolutely nothing compares to the World Cup.

Here in America, it's a sporting footnote... something to watch on ESPN2 during the early morning hours when they're usually running the umpteenth rebroadcast of Sports Center. In the rest of the world, however, things are grinding to a halt as people gather to watch these games & cheer on their teams. (I read an article last week that movie studios try to avoid making worldwide releases during the World Cup, as most of the world doesn't care much about the latest shoot 'em up action flick when there's "futbol" on!)

I'm not a huge soccer fan - but I love watching the World Cup. Each game feels like Game 7 of the World Series... and the level of play is stunning. (And the endurance these guys have... yikes. I couldn't play that hard for 9 minutes, let alone 90 minutes!) Here in the Central Valley, that means I have to watch games in the morning, as they're actually playing in Germany. (The last World Cup, in Korea, meant I was getting up at 5 or 6 am to watch games live.)

So, almost exactly four years ago, I stumbled upstairs to my computer following a particularly important World Cup game. As the sun rose and I blearily stared at my monitor, I managed to pound out the following e-mail.


I'm not expecting many of you to be soccer fans... let's face it, most of the people who receive this e-mail are Americans, and that means that soccer is something OTHER countries do. We Americans are perfectly happily to watch heavily-padded guys slam into each other at high speeds (American football) - not that, IMHO, there's anything wrong with that! :-)

Worse yet, we (the Americans) aren't the best in the world at soccer. This is a problem - we have a bit of a complex about not being #1. (And when I say we're not the best in the world at soccer, I'm not kidding. We were 32nd place out of 32 teams in the last World Cup.) [2006 Note: Of course, we came into this year's World Cup ranked #5, so we've definitely improved. Just ignore our performance against the Czech Republic the other day.]

So, when the U.S. team is dangerously close to advancing into the second round of World Cup play (the first time since 1994) by either winning or tying the game we play against Poland tomorrow (heck, we can still advance with a loss if the right things happen in the other game in our group!), it's major.

Naturally, my mind drifts from World Cup Soccer to one of the other great themes in my life - following God. (There's a short detour in the twisted paths of my brain to "really good board games about soccer" but I won't dwell on that.)

So much of soccer - and so much of following God - is set-up. Scoring (doing something big & obvious) happens, but not all the time. Scoring is a matter of playing the WHOLE game well, of playing defense & offense, of trying again and again, of being patient & having endurance.

So is following God - a life of patience & endurance & faithfulness... even  when the Big & Obvious Stuff doesn't seem to be happening.

Though the cherry trees don't blossom
     and the strawberries don't ripen,
Though the apples are worm-eaten
     and the wheat fields stunted,
Though the sheep pens are sheepless
     and the cattle barns empty,
I'm singing joyful praise to God.
     I'm turning cartwheels of joy to my Savior God.
Counting on God's Rule to prevail,
     I take heart and gain strength.
I run like a deer.
     I feel like I'm king of the mountain!
Habakkuk 3:17-19 (The Message)

So play the full 90 minutes... or 90 years... or whatever you're given.

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Gaming Highlights: Memorial Day Weekend 2014 (Sunday)

Sunday was a very full day of gaming, thanks to the addition of two great friends of my boys, Bryce & Rece. (Their stay & sleepover included board games, pizza, hitting each with Nerf weapons, and a late night showing of Errol Flynn's THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD.)

Descent: Journeys in the Dark - Labyrinth of Ruin

We began by continuing our adventures through the Labyrinth of Ruin campaign... Braeden (my oldest) is taking on the role of the Overlord this time around and is using Bol'golreth as his lieutenant. (Though this will mean nothing to those of you who haven't played the game, he's following an Infector track as the Overlord & using the Basic II Overlord cards.)

So far, it's been pretty much of a cakewalk for our intrepid band of adventurers - the Stalker, the Beastmaster & the Runemaster have managed to make an ally of the silent Healer, Serena... and we've proceeded to wade through hordes of goblins without taking on much in the way of wounds and/or infections. 

While Collin & I have played a lot of Descent over the past year, this was Bryce's first time - but he jumped in like a trooper, running the Beastmaster & her wolf brilliantly. 

BTW, Descent 2.0 was my #1 new (to me!) game of 2013:
In the summer of 2006, I had a really neat opportunity fall into my lap: at KublaCon, I was asked to be an Overlord for the demo of the original Descent: Journeys in the Dark. Scott Alden (Aldie of BGG fame) and I sat back-to-back, each of us of acting as the nemesis Ifor a table of eager heroes. (If you want to hear more of that story, you can read Stay Out Of Range Of The Giant: Descent – Journeys in the Dark.)

The early promise of that first wonderful game withered with repeated plays… it took so long to get the game going, the campaign system was clunky, and an adventure took 4+ hours with a full complement of players. My desire to own a copy myself went the way of the dodo… and about the only reference I made to the game was in reviews of Catacombs. (“Catacombs = Descent + Carabande – 3 hours”)

So when I saw that Fantasy Flight Games was rebooting Descent, I was both intrigued and wary. And, for a variety of reasons, I didn’t choose to pick it up… and I didn’t get an opportunity to play it.

Fast forward to the summer of 2013… and while visiting with friends in Texas (hi, Ed!, hi, Susan!), my boys & I joined them in one of the early Descent 2.0 scenarios just to see how it would compare to the original.

I was blown away… and so were my boys (ages 8 & 12). All of the design ideas I’d loved from the original game were still there – one roll combat, customizable characters, great miniatures & artwork. At the same time, FFG had managed to knock off the “rough edges” – simplifying the Overlord system, losing the silly transport glyphs, etc. Most importantly, they’d broken adventures down into bite-size (read: playable in 60-90 minutes) pieces… and then connected them via a simplified campaign system that works like a charm.

So, I used some of my birthday money and bought the base game & the first expansion in July… and in the intervening 8 months, we’ve played 19 times. 
Cosa Nostra

The biggest problem with Cosa Nostra (also known as Vendetta) is that it really only works well with 4 players. However, if you've got four players and 30 minutes... and a hankering for a ruthless backgammon variant with a giant mob drive-by execution spinner in the middle of the board, this is your game.

Braeden managed to sneak his Godfather around the board with more skill than the rest of us - and our last minute attempts to stop him fell short.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring Deck-Building Game

You may or may not like Cryptozoic's "Cerebus" deck-building system - which I first played last fall with their DC Heroes game - but I can't argue with how popular it has been both with gamer friends and with my boys. Yes, it's simple compared to Ascension (which it most closely resembles) or Dominion (the granddaddy of all deck-builders), but the simplicity means that you can simply plop the game down on the table and begin playing.

Playing well is another story. Each version of the game has some peculiarities in the deck composition - in LOTR: Fellowship, for example, you need to know about the power of the Moria Orc cards - that only reveal themselves over multiple plays.

That said, the game system is easy to teach, plays quickly, and does a nice job with theme. This is the first of the Lord of the Rings series and adds some interesting wrinkles that don't appear in the DC Heroes games:

  • rather than a special power on the Hero card, each player gets a unique card that goes into their initial deck
  • when some Enemy cards show up in "The Path" (card buying line), they trigger an attack on the next player... this makes defense cards even more important 
  • the Archenemy deck is divided into difficulty levels - the first and last cards are always the same, while the middle cards vary with 3 out of 5 cards of each level
  • there are cards that let you help other players
There is also a set of "Impossible" Archenemy cards that frankly look ridiculously hard & unbalancing - but my sons have already broken them out & played with them.

We played with five players... and I managed to turn the Moria Orcs into one big score after another for the win.

As should be painfully obvious to anyone who reads this blog, I am a huge fan of Richard Borg's Memoir '44 game system... and one of the many reasons I love it is how well it scales for different numbers of players (depending, of course, on having expansions and/or extra sets). It is my #1 game from my top 100 games!

At the core, this is a two-player one map battle game... but with the addition of the Overlord rules, you can play with 4-8 players in a team battle. (And with the upcoming D-Day Landings expansion maps, you can actually fight with a full compliment of 12 players.)

On Sunday evening, Braeden lead the Germans (Bryce & Rece) against myself & Collin as the Americans in an Overlord scenario from the Equipment PackHigh Stakes at Bruyères. We did well in the early going, lunging out to what looked like an insurmountable lead... then the tide turned and our left and center flanks broke down. A final push on the right flank proved to be the game changer as we won 12-11!

Ascending Empires

To end our evening, I pulled out this wonderful oddball Starcraft-ian game of space empire building... with flicking for movement and combat. Look, just go and click the link above to my full review - here's a sample:
This is a well-balanced & fast-playing space empire-building game that isn’t quite like anything else you’ve ever played… and is worthy of time on your gaming table & a place on your game room shelf.
Now, it's become ridiculously expensive to acquire a copy - according to the BGG market, the cheapest copy available is $75 for a used one! (It's $155 new on Amazon - sheesh.) I'm just glad I have my own copy.

Braeden started down his usual "build a battleship" path... but having played my son multiple times before, I knew I had to work to get my defensive capabilities up & rolling. Bryce pushed out nicely and built up all of his cities, while Rece ended up stuck between Braeden and I. My advanced technology won the day... 

Read about Friday's games here... and Saturday's games here!

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Classic: Pastoral Advice for Engaged Meeples

I originally wrote this advice to a trio of gamer friends (from the Gulf Games family) that were getting married back in 2006. Since it's June and the wedding season is upon us, I thought I'd share it with y'all...

Note for non-gamers: a "meeple" is a wooden playing piece that looks like a person. 

Note for gamer couples: the bride/groom giant meeples in the picture are available from MeepleSource.

Allow me to offer a bit of professional advice to you guys (I've officiated a few of these in my "official" capacity):

1. You will not make everyone happy - don't try. Choose events/symbols/music/etc. that will be meaningful to you & your future spouse.

2. This ought to be a joyous time... when it stops being fun, take a break from the planning. Remember, the objective is NOT putting on a wedding, it's building a lifetime of marriage.

3. Find someone you trust to run the show... and then let them. Good wedding coordinators are worth their weight in gold. Even if you don't choose to hire a pro, choose a trusted friend who can know all the details & stage-managed the ceremony. They may not get to wear a gaudy dress, but you'll be saying "thank you" to them for years as they will deal with the 1000 little goofy things that happen so you can concentrate on enjoying your wedding.

4. If you're going to take pictures after the wedding, feed your guests while they wait for you. Don't set them in a room with a big honkin' cake and make them wait w/out munchies. It makes 'em surly.

5. Talk clearly with the pastor about what you do & do not want in your ceremony - IF you plan ahead, he can run the rehearsal smoothly. Here's the deal... extra family members are NOTORIOUS for coming up with new ideas for seating arrangement, entrance orders, when certain elements should be in the ceremony, etc, during the rehearsal. What I do is say at the beginning of the rehearsal, "___ & ____ have sat down with me and we've planned out the ceremony. All we're doing tonight is making sure everybody knows their places. We won't be discussing details - that's taken care of already! Besides, the quicker we get through this rehearsal, the faster we get to go eat expensive food while the groom's family picks up the check!"

6. GET PRE-MARITAL COUNSELING. Love is wonderful - I still love Shari Jo very much - but ooey-gooey love is pretty much worthless when you bounce your first check on your joint account. It's important to talk through big issues (money, sex, expectations, beliefs about God, how to run the house, roles of husbands & wives, children - when/how many/etc.) BEFORE you get married. This won't end the discussion of these topics (ask & I'll tell you about Shari and I taking a vacation to argue about when to have our first baby) but it will give you a much better chance in dealing with them. Pre-marital counseling is worth paying for... if your pastor is a nice guy but his counseling consists mainly of him telling stories, go hire a counselor!

7. Everything goes better with God involved. (Don't want to get too preachy, but I know all three of you know what I'm talking about. Don't leave Him out of your planning or counseling or dating or whatever.)

8. Once you get within 48 hours of the ceremony, let it all go. If it's going to happen, it will. Leave it in the hands of your coordinator, pastor & close family. Strap yourself in and enjoy the ride.

9. If videotape doesn't bother you, have lots of it taken. And people with still cameras. You won't remember who is at the wedding 2 days later if you don't take pictures - it will all be a blur. Besides, if something wacky happens, you might be able to win cash on one of those video clip shows.

10. Only fight for the things that are non-negotiables... in my case, I didn't want us extinguishing the individual candles in our unity candle. (I'll explain if anyone likes, but suffice it to say, the symbolism was important to me.) I didn't argue about flower choices,dresses, schedule, and a lot of other things. That minimized friction AND helped me get what I wanted on something that really mattered to me.

11. Honeymoon planning... choose somewhere you can go and enjoy that doesn't have (a) a schedule you feel you like have to keep, or (b) stuff that you\'ve spent so much money on that you feel like you have to "go go go" to not waste it. You need to be able to set the agenda based on how you're feeling, how romantic the two of you are (isn't that subtly put?!), and with an eye towards recuperation. (Weddings are hard work!) For me, a trip to Walt Disney World would be a lousy honeymoon, even though I love WDW. I'd feel compelled to go & do rather than slow down & enjoy my bride. Think about creating memories through small gifts, moments of discovery (finding a little out of the way place to eat, a beautiful waterfall, a stolen kiss in the rain, etc.) rather than through a grandiose trip.