Thursday, December 31, 2020

You Are Responsible for the News You Take In

As we close out this year, some thoughts on the way we process news stories... in hopes that we can move toward a world that reflects Zechariah 8:16-17 (AMP):
These are the things which you should do: speak the truth with one another; judge with truth and pronounce the judgment that brings peace in [the courts at] your gates. And let none of you devise or even imagine evil in your heart against another, and do not love lying or half-truths; for all these things I hate, declares the Lord.
BTW, the thoughts below apply regardless of political position or religious belief... 

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Every news outlet has a worldview. 

That's not actually a problem. Your job as a news consumer is to know their worldview and process the stories they report in light of those biases and loyalties. 

The words "breaking news" should remind you that this news story is being reported 'on the fly' and may have accuracy problems, even from the best news sources.

Quality reporting takes time. Hot takes do not. Don't put too much faith in early reporting. 

Headlines never tell the whole story.

Ever.

Headlines in our Internet-based news world are designed to grab eyeballs and clicks... and not to inform you about what actually happened or give context that helps clarify the level of importance of that news. 

Quality journalism may not have an exciting picture attached to it.

It's hard to tell an important story about economic conditions or political gamesmanship - nothing is on fire and there's not a chalk outline of a body. That means you should not judge the significance of a story if it doesn't have "on the scene" video or a stunning picture.

Everybody takes good & bad photos... using the ugliest pictures of people possible is a cheap way to signal your bias.

"You can't judge a book by its cover"... nor can you judge the soundness of an idea or the content of a speech by the unflattering picture of the person advancing those ideas.

There is a profound gap between news organizations reporting the same facts with different interpretations... and dismissing or hiding facts in order to bolster their particular point of view.

This means you need to intake news from a variety of sources in order to spot those holes... and refrain from discounting news just because the news source has a different worldview from your own.

Punditry is not news. 

Many outlets do not properly label editorial content as such - make sure you're paying attention. Don't trust pundits as news sources.

Memes are not news.

They lack context and are primarily intended to signal other individuals of a "tribe" that the individual posting them is part of the group - mostly by dunking on "the other side". Don't trust them as news sources.

Quality journalism is going to challenge you.

And that's a good thing. As a follower of Jesus, I need to welcome truth, even when it's difficult. 

Final Thoughts

  • Just because you like what a particular news source reports doesn't make it true.
  • Just because you hate what a particular news source reports doesn't make it a lie.
  • Just because you want a news story to be true doesn't make it true.
  • Just because you long for a news story to be false doesn't make it a lie.

Monday, November 30, 2020

Happy Christmas! Merry Holidays!

And here's a Christmas classic post from 2011... I figured it's about time I gave a bit of editing and reposted it. 

We all get "those emails" - you know, the ones where you are instructed to either pass the message on or forward it to five friends or whatever. (I've sounded off on this before here on the blog - go back & read my postForward Christian Soldiers.)  

And I got another one today. 
I will be making a conscious effort to wish everyone a Merry Christmas this year... My way of saying that I am celebrating the birth Of Jesus Christ. So I am asking my email buddies, if you agree with me, to please do the same. And if you'll pass this on to your email buddies, and so on... maybe we can prevent one more American tradition from being lost in the sea of "Political Correctness".
You may sit now, as I did, for a moment of stunned silence at this bit of ridiculousness. OK, silent time is over. Elton Trueblood once said: 
“There are those places in ministry and theology that you must draw the line and fight and die; just don’t draw the lines in stupid places!”
Here are three reasons that the above email (and the philosophy behind it) are clearly one of those stupid places: 
  1. Please, please, please... any time you are tempted to use the phrases "celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ" and "American tradition" in the same sentence, you should use some of that cutesy holiday-themed scotch tape to shut your mouth. The celebration of Christ's birth is NOT an American tradition - it's a Christian tradition... and being an American doesn't make you a Christian, any more than walking into McDonald's makes you a hamburger. (Credit to Keith Green for that analogy.)
  2. "Happy Holidays" is not a frontal attack on Christianity... it's an attempt by people (and businesses) to be inoffensive in a season in which there are two major religious holidays (one Christian & one Jewish), one cultural holiday (Kwanzaa), and New Years Day as well.
  3. A methodological problem: email forwards, Facebook status updates, and Tweets tend to go to people who already agree with you - meaning you've created feedback loop of people who become belligerent about the way they wish people "Merry Christmas" because they're sure that everyone who doesn't do the same is opposed to all that is good & right in the world.
I'm not telling you to stop saying "Merry Christmas" - in the words of Reggie McNeal, "Don't hear what I'm not saying." Go right ahead & wish people "Merry Christmas"... you are celebrating the birth of Christ in this season. The sincere hope of those who are followers of Jesus is that more people would discover that for themselves.

However, I do want to give you a few tips in how to fulfill the command of Scripture while you're spreading holiday cheer:
  1. Stop correcting salespeople who are obligated - in order to keep their job! - to say "Happy Holidays". It's not their fault. And arguing with them or chiding them is not going to bring anyone closer to embracing the true meaning of Christmas.
  2. When you say "Merry Christmas", make sure you sound like Bob Crachit rather than Ebenezer Scrooge. Seriously, there are some folks out there who spit the traditional greeting at people like it's a bullet aimed straight at their pitiful heathen hearts. If you can't wish someone "Merry Christmas" with a heart filled with Christlike love, then don't say anything at all.
  3. Remember that the (gosh, I hate this cliche) "reason for the season" is Jesus Christ... not the preservation of tradition or winning the "War on Christmas". The Incarnation is about God clearly & completely expressing His love for us - Immanuel means "God with us". When we are just working to accomplish a cultural agenda, we are communicating the exact opposite message... what we're saying is "if you don't accept my particular way of celebration & the theological beliefs that go along with it, I'll simply stuff it down your throat."
And, since I was a pastor, a Scripture to prove my point:
Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone. (Colossian 4:5-6, NIV)
BTW, Merry Christmas!

Monday, November 23, 2020

Mark’s Bundle of 2020 Essen Game Thoughts


Unless otherwise noted, these are FIRST impressions… I only had the opportunity to play each game one time with a physical copy and three of my mask-wearing Opinionated Gamer friends back in mid-October.

I’ve left out the older (read: non-2020) games we played to keep this Essen-focused.

If you’re interested in my Essen (well, post-Essen) impressions from 2018 and 2019, you can find them at the following links.
For those of you who haven’t read a lot of my reviews, they may give you a better insight into my board game tastes and what I’m likely to enjoy. (Which, of course, may or may not line up with your choices.

Wednesday

Pocket Paragons

Fighting card games with multiple decks can be difficult to balance – in this case, it felt like the game had dropped into a near stalemate with the two decks we chose for our one play. Lots of good ideas but it didn’t seem to gel.

Dungeon Drop

This was a really creative idea… but the rules are a bit tough to parse out (and the print incredibly small). Dropping a handful of cubes can easily cause them to end up all over the room (which is not the intention) – and a few of the colors were difficult to differentiate. I need to try again in better lighting conditions with more players.

Pitch Out (2 plays)

A pleasant surprise… a flicking combat game that has interesting decisions and doesn’t overstay its welcome. The storage system is also barriers for pieces to hide behind during play – and they are light enough that you can “shove” them by flicking your pieces against them. I’ll be trying to find a copy of this for my collection.

Thursday

Monster Expedition (3 plays)

Two plays solo and one play with 4 players… I think it may be strongest with 2-3 players as a multi-player – that would shave off just a little bit of downtime. Solo was great… nice dice puzzle. Mechanics are reminiscent of Heckmeck/Pickomino… but very much its own game.

Lost Ruins of Arnak

At this point, my pick of the show. Granted, I tend to really like the games CGE publishes… but Arnak does a great job of balancing Euro-y resource management with thematic game play. After one play, it looks like there are multiple ways to chase victory. (There’s also built-in replayability through the random set-up and the inclusion of a double-sided board with a second area of the island to explore.) This is a “must buy” for me.

One month later: I've played two more times... and we are ready to play again tonight! It's my pick for KdJ in 2021.

Paleo (5 plays)

It’s a cooperative game of prehistoric survival… with a clever card mechanic that keeps any one player from over-quarterbacking the game and lots of variability thanks to 10 different modules that are used two at a time along with the main deck. The rules are a little tricky to find things in (thanks to wanting to let players experience new things without reading about them in the rules)… but the gameplay was stellar. (As you can probably guess from our five plays – each of which clocked in around 45-50 minutes.)

Strike (2 plays)

This is not a new game… but a nice new edition was just released. It’s just as wonderful as the previous edition. This really is a dice-chucking game with all that implies… and it is possible that one of the players knocked a pip off one of the dice. Literally.

As a big fan of Impact: Battle of Elements, the smaller version of this game, I think Strike is probably the better choice with the sloped walls and bigger tray.

Feierabend

This game about improving working conditions has the typical look & thematic feel of Friedemann’s designs… and the key here is about timing your moves to stay out of sync with the other players while harvesting “relaxation”. Enjoyable with three players… but I’d be afraid of AP with the wrong crowd and/or larger player counts.

Polynesia

Abstract-ish game of island settling in the south Pacific… all the game mechanics worked just fine but it felt a bit like I was rummaging about on the board. I’m not the best source for an opinion on this style of game design, so take what I say with a grain of salt.

Princess Bride Adventure Book Game

Very much an introductory cooperative game… and the theme is a personal favorite. (Knowing the movie definitely adds a bit of joy to playing the game.) With four players, we never felt like we were in real jeopardy – we didn’t have to replay any of the six chapters. We debated if it would be harder with less players, but my one play pretty much is all I need.

Detective: A Modern Crime Board Game – Season One

Modern take on Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective – I’m not really the audience for this kind of game, but the story was put together well and clues/implications actually were discernible. It does require access to the internet to play (lots of files/clues on the website).

Friday

One Small Step

Wonderfully thematic 2 player/team game about the space race… but I’m concerned that the game has pacing issues. (My analogy: the game feels like riding in a stick-shift car with a new driver – sometimes it rockets along and other times it feels like you’re grinding the gears.) It also needs an errata/FAQ to deal with changes in icons and interpreting certain actions.

The Castles of Tuscany

Feld’s newest take on the Castles of Burgundy engine. I liked how quickly it played and the variety of tactical options. However, the score tracks share colors (red & green) with two of the player colors which can cause some confusion. For me, this was a step up from Castles of Burgundy (which I can take or leave).

Blue Skies

The graphic design is extremely austere… but there’s a risk/reward gambling game crossed with some area control that clips along at a good pace. As I’m a friend of the designer, I’m pretty sure he’s already tried all of the potential deviant strategies (don’t worry about passengers and just chase regional bonuses, etc.).

Abandon All Artichokes

A pleasant surprise – a deck destruction game aimed at families with light “take that” elements. The artwork is cute and made me want to sing songs from the Veggie Tales canon. This will be a great game to give to non-gamer families with kids 8+ this Christmas.

Suzie-Q

Odd blind bidding game that reminds me tangentially of Q.E. I think I cheated by re-using numbers but I still lost.

Ugly Christmas Sweaters

Creative theme for a trick-taking/drafting game with two-suited cards… I wish I’d had a little more control and ability to predict what cards could potentially win each trick.

Saturday

Infinity Gauntlet: A Love Letter Game

I am not a particularly big fan of Love Letter – I find it more clever than fun. But Infinity Gauntlet uses the Love Letter engine to create a one against many (Thanos vs. the Avengers) game that was really enjoyable. Thanos has a different deck than the players and is attempting to get all six Infinity Stones out so he can do The Snap… while the players are trying to kill him first. (He can also win by defeating the players enough times.) I’d be happy to play this again.

Episode IV

A mish-mash of game mechanics mixed with an homage to game designer Alex Randolph. We played twice to figure out if it made more sense the second time. It didn’t (for me). I think the first three phases are churn leading to a double poker hand “battle of wits”.

Hibachi

Set collecting and dexterity combine in this game of teppanyaki cooking. Players fling poker chips onto the grill to buy & sell ingredients in order to complete recipes. I was lousy at it but enjoyed it a lot. (Looks like this is coming to KS in November.)

Dokitto! Ice

Weird but compelling trick-taking game about eating just enough ice cream. Every trick you take gets you a scoop… but if you take a fourth scoop, you get nothing. You must follow suit – but if you can’t, playing off-suit gives the trick to the lowest card played. Scoring is based on your ice cream scoops and cards you’ve collected (matching is good!). It may be a tad long (at least on the first play), but there’s a real game here with some excellent trick-taking strategy/tactics.

New York Zoo

Uwe Rosenberg’s most recent exploration of how to use polyominoes adds animal collecting with some really cute wooden animal pieces to the mix. The player boards feel a little crowded when filled with animals – some of whom are easier to tip over than others. I’ll need to play again, but I’m not sure I like this better than Patchwork (which does some similar things).

Kitara

Really impressive design – it’s a “dudes on a map” game that doesn’t use dice and doesn’t cause players to lose pieces from combat. The card drafting system is also very clever and works not only as a way to give players a way to plan ahead but also requires upkeep as you feed your people.

Santa Monica

My first play of this city-building/drafting game… I know it’s been out for months but I hadn’t had the chance to explore the vibe of this very West Coast beach town game. I found it charming… not overwhelmingly great but very fun to play and puzzle over.

Vidrado

Making and painting Portuguese ceramic tiles… a multi-step process that now has its own game. There are a lot of cards here – nearly two decks worth – but it feels like the old single box Adlung Spiele games in using cards in very different ways. I think (at first glance) that painting and shipping tiles is the way to victory… but I’d like to be convinced otherwise.

Sunday

Cloud City
(2 plays)

The newest game from Phillip Walker-Harding… and, like many of his games, it manages to do some nifty things in a short time period (and without an overwhelming amount of rules). Plus, building the cloud cities looks really cool. I’d agree with Dale’s assessment – this could easily be a contender for Spiel des Jahres next year.

Chicken War

This is a guess the secret identity game with some bluffing & attacking elements… sadly, the production quality was more interesting than the game.

Monday

Under Falling Skies

CGE has never published a solo game before… but with one play of the standard game under my belt, I think they know what they’re doing. I had played the original print’n’play version of this game… and they plussed the design/graphics to make it easier to play. And then, about two thirds of the stuff in the box is for a solo campaign game, which looks very interesting at first glance. (An OG review is on the way once I’ve stopped the aliens or welcomed our new planetary overlords.)

One Month Later: I'm now almost halfway through the campaign... I love the twists and the really thoughtful ways they expanded the basic game.

A version of this post originally appeared on the Opinionated Gamers website.

Sunday, November 08, 2020

Fruitcakes, Red Dawn... and "Stealing an Election"

The best man at my wedding (the wonderful Tim Formby, who is substantially more fit at age 56 than I will ever be) grew up in the east Texas town of Corsicana. (If you've heard of Corsicana, it's probably because of Collin Street Bakery... which ships fruitcakes all over the world.)

Kids my age grew up during the Cold War... where pretty much every bad guy on TV shows were Soviet spies and movies like RED DAWN informed our worldview. For Tim & his friends, that meant long discussions about how to defend Corsicana in case of the U.S.S.R. sending troops to invade the U.S. of A. Questions like "which bridges get blown up?" and "how do we cache the proper weapons?" led to plans, notes, and even hand-drawn maps. 

I bring up this bit of semi-ancient history to ask for the same kind of thoughtfulness from those who are supporting President Trump in questioning the legitimacy of the election results. I know that presenting well-researched fact checks doesn't seem to quell their doubts, so I'm hoping this might assist. (If you do want to look at reporting on these issues, I'd suggest The Dispatch Fact Check.)

Here's what I propose... grab a piece of paper and write out a detailed plan for stealing the presidential election. Take into account what would need to be done and who would need to be involved. List all of the different county, state, and federal entities that would need to be compromised in some format to explain margins of 20,000+ votes in multiple contested states. Determine what kind of expertise you would need and what kind of resources & communications protocols would be necessary. 

Operational security is going to be an important consideration - how are you going to keep all of those involved from leaking information and/or getting caught? The more individuals that are a part of the conspiracy, the more difficult this will be. If you choose to operate in individual cells to foster secrecy, you will need to account for coordination and control.

Chuck Colson, Richard Nixon's hatchet man who became a follower of Christ and the founder of Prison Fellowship, noted that his belief in the resurrection of Jesus Christ was supported by his experience inside a cabal around the President.
“I know the resurrection is a fact, and Watergate proved it to me. How? Because 12 men testified they had seen Jesus raised from the dead, then they proclaimed that truth for 40 years, never once denying it. Every one was beaten, tortured, stoned and put in prison. They would not have endured that if it weren't true. Watergate embroiled 12 of the most powerful men in the world-and they couldn't keep a lie for three weeks. You're telling me 12 apostles could keep a lie for 40 years? Absolutely impossible.”
I'm guessing by now you have a lot of notes (and your plan is unlikely to involve blowing up any bridges). This leads to an important philosophical principle (which I've posted about earlier this year): Occam's Razor. The Latin aphorism is commonly rendered as "the simplest explanation is most likely the right one."

So, does your plan make sense? Is it plausible? Moreover, is it inside the realm of possibility outside of an X-Files episode? 

I am not doubting that there are irregularities in the voting process and even occasional attempts to steal elections. (The most recent major attempt was done on behalf of a Republican candidate in North Carolina.) But none of those are large enough or expansive enough to explain the result of the 2020 presidential election. In the words of one of my favorite L.A. bands, Adam Again:
When I touch you with Occam's razor
I will cut you between truth and lie
Meanwhile, talking about Collin Street Bakery reminds me of how good the pastries are at their retail store in Corsicana. And writing about Tim makes me want to get Fortress America (the board game) to the table again.

Tuesday, November 03, 2020

How To Get Tossed Out of a Gaming Group: 2020 Edition

This post was originally written for Election Day in 2008... and I present it again with some edits because it still applies. BTW, If you haven't voted yetwhat are you doing reading this blog?!

I know that some of you have been thinking, "Hey, I get to game on a regular basis with folks who put up with my foibles & quirks... I wonder if there's a good way to make sure they hate my guts & either boot my rear end out of the group and/or change meeting places & times so that I can never find them again?"  

OK, maybe you haven't been thinking that - perhaps that's not really the most important question you're dealing with today. Then again, if you spent 10 minutes agonizing over the way the barista at Starbucks was gonna make your free "I voted" coffee - or if you're spending time on Ben & Jerry's website during work hours determining what flavor ice cream scoop you're gonna score with your "I voted" sticker... maybe the whole "how do I get kicked out of a game group?" question would be a step up.  

Either way, I'm planning to answer the question for you. In fact, I'm so concerned that you not overly tax your mental faculties (seeing as how many of you will spend tonight watching pundits & posers pontificate & predict - hopefully with less alliteration than I'm using), I've broken the way to get tossed into bullet points: 
  • When you win a game, gloat.
  • When you lose a game, whine & accuse the other player of cheating.
That's it. A steady diet of this behavior will have you on the outs in no time - and if they choose not to kick you out, they'll secretly detest your presence. Trust me on this one.

So, how did this pithy bit of wisdom end up here? Come on, if you're reading this blog, you have enough sense to come in out of the rain & enough smarts to figure out a metaphor when it bites you on the hind end.

Tonight - or possibly later - a number of candidates & propositions are going to win or lose. Some of you will be victorious in a battles you've fought with your keyboards & your hearts... others of you will know the stale taste of defeat - and you've fought just as hard as those who win.

Regardless (or is that "irregardless"?), you have the opportunity tonight to respond with grace & dignity.
  • If your side/candidate wins, don't gloat.
  • If your side/candidate loses, don't whine. Don't accuse others of cheating without real & obvious cause... using an actual standard of proof, not "the President said it" or "somebody posted this on Facebook." (Background reading from The Dispatch and Politico may be helpful here.)
I want to speak specifically to those who declare themselves as followers of Christ. We have a huge responsibility tonight - if we're gonna call ourselves "biblical Christians", then we better live like it when it comes to election results.
Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone. (Colossians 4:5-6, NIV)
if someone asks about your Christian hope, always be ready to explain it. But do this in a gentle and respectful way. Keep your conscience clear. Then if people speak against you, they will be ashamed when they see what a good life you live because you belong to Christ. (1 Peter 3:15-16, NLT)
The most important thing today is not the election of a particular candidate - no one person will usher in the Kingdom of God. (Well, one will, but He's not running this year.) Nor is it the passing of a proposition - law can compel moral behavior but it has no power over the heart. It is far more important that the world around us see followers of Jesus living in the grace & power of Jesus Christ.

Note: I am preaching this sermon to myself most of all.

Thursday, October 29, 2020

Hartsfield's Landing: Revisited


If you're dumb, surround yourself with smart people. If you're smart, surround yourself with smart people who disagree with you.  
Isaac Jaffee, SPORTS NIGHT
I think it's this idea that provoked me to tears a couple of different times while watching the staged reading of the classic THE WEST WING episode, "Hartsfield's Landing". I miss having someone who values wisdom and intelligence leading our country. 

I know THE WEST WING is a TV show... and at many levels, a fantasy of a center left administration that didn't have the skirt-chasing/#MeToo issues of the Clinton presidency. I harbor no illusions that a Nobel Prize-winning economics professor will be up for election any time soon... or that everyone who works for the President will spout quips and monologues as if Aaron Sorkin is whispering in their ear.

But I want a President who's "top priority items for a second term" is more than this:
Well, one of the things that will be really great… You know, the word experience is still good. I always say talent is more important than experience. I’ve always said that, but the word experience is a very important word. It’s a very important meeting. I never did this before. I never slept over in Washington. I was in Washington, I think, 17 times. All of a sudden, I’m president of the United States. You know the story. I’m riding down Pennsylvania Avenue with our First Lady and I say, “This is great.”

But I didn’t know very many people in Washington, it wasn’t my thing. I was from Manhattan from New York. Now I know everybody, and I have great people in the administration. You make some mistakes. An idiot like Bolton, all he wanted to do is drop bombs on everybody. You don’t have to drop bums on everybody. You don’t have to kill people.

taken from town hall with Sean Hannity on June 25, 2020
By the way, nice trucks. You think I could hop into one of them and drive it away. I’d love to just drive the hell out of here. Just get the hell out of this. I had such a good life. My life was great. And then I said, “Let’s do this, darling, this will be a lot of fun.” 

quote from rally in Allentown, PA on October 26, 2020

If you'd like to see an excellent reading by almost all of the original cast (with the exception of John Spencer who passed away during the final season of the show),  HBOMax has made it available for free until the end of 2020. (For those of you who were fans of the show - like me - it's a wonderful trip down memory lane and a reminder that I'm getting older.)

I'm guessing that some of you reading this blog post are sure by now that I am stealth campaigning for the Democratic candidate... I am not. You need to make your own decisions about who to vote for and why. If you'd like to hear more about my reasoning (which pre-dates COVID, George Floyd, tear-gassing protesters to hold a Bible upside, and all the other insanity of the majority of 2020), please read Choosing Not To Die - which I wrote in February of this year.


Wednesday, October 21, 2020

The Way I See It


Last night, Shari & I watched the documentary THE WAY I SEE IT, which is the story of Pete Souza, the official White House photographer for the Obama administration. He was also a White House photographer for the Reagan administration. 

Pete is known better now for his Instagram account where he posts pictures from the Obama administration in response to tweets from our current president... and the documentary spends some time showing how that developed. The film is filled with iconic still images of both President Reagan and President Obama, as well as contemporary news footage and more recent interviews that provide context for those images. 

Tears ran down on my face multiple times watching the film - and not because I wish that Barack Obama was President again. I didn't vote for him in 2008 or 2012 and disagreed with a number of policy choices he made. Some I've come to appreciate over time; others I still believe were unwise. But that's not why I teared up.

I was mourning the loss of having someone in the White House who understood their role as President was bigger than their personal grudges and their ability to bully people via Twitter. I was struck again by the obvious tenderness of Ronald Reagan towards Nancy and Barack Obama towards Michelle - and the equally obvious reciprocal nature of their love in return. And I was reminded again of how impactful it was that an African-American was not just a servant in the White House, but the leader of the free world. Regardless of your perspective on politics, that was an important step forward in fulfilling the promises of the Declaration of Independence.

Meanwhile, the current President just demanded that the Attorney General open an investigation of his political opponent like we were some kind of banana republic with a tinpot dictator in charge. The cognitive dissonance is deafening.

I'll be the first to admit that this documentary has a soft spot for President Obama and his family - I think it would be difficult to avoid if, like Pete Souza, you spend nearly 10 years (2 in the Senate and 8 in the White House) photographing them. 

I'd recommend you watch the film - it's about to be available on Peacock streaming. Draw your own conclusions. Maybe it will remind you of what we are missing right now.




Solo Gaming in the Time of Covid-19 (updated)


I started doing a lot of solo gaming when my oldest son (and chief gamer buddy) left for college in August 2019. Even with him home during this extended time of quarantine, I’ve still been playing solo games. And with him returning to campus back in August, the solo gaming has picked up again.

I know, I know – there are plenty of board game apps on iOS and Steam… and I own many of them. But there’s something really satisfying about physically playing a game: shuffling cards, moving pieces, seeing it all spread out in front of you. 

And, because I’m “that guy”, I crunched the numbers and found that 20%+ of my gaming this year was solo (compared to 6% last year). I expect that number to rise this fall.

So, what follows are my thoughts on a variety of solo games I’ve played over the last nine and a half months – ordered by number of solo plays in 2020. (Note: this is not necessarily how much I like a particular game for solo play – for example, I think Nemo’s War is a brilliant design but only played it twice this year… so far.)

Oh My Goods! (15 plays)

Solo play requires the Longsdale in Revolt expansion… but there are some clever things going on in this tricky little card game. I’m still looking for an affordable copy of the second expansion (which has more scenarios for solo play). Oh My Goods ranks up with Friday and Palm Island for the best games for solo play in small places (like hotel room desks).

NEOM (14 plays)

I love this multi-player game that mixes city-building and 7 Wonders-ish drafting… and the solo game manages to capture most of that feeling through the clever use of “packets” of tiles. I typically play 2-3 games of this at a shot… since once you’ve got it laid out, it’s easy to reset and try again. I’ve defaulted to play with all the tiles in, which offers more variety and some interesting decisions since you know that you can (sometimes) wait for the tile you need.

Marvel Champions: The Card Game (10 plays)

While Fantasy Flight struggled to get the hero and villain packs in the early part of the lockdown, that seems to have improved. I love the really straightforward design of the game and the way it captures the theme. I tend to play 2 heroes when playing solo – though the game is designed to play with a single hero. For those who’ve played other LCGs (Living Card Games), this is less complicated than any of the others… some would say “dumbed down”. (Sigh.) I find it the easiest to play and teach, due to clear card wording, distinctive superhero graphics, and card design that is relatively easy to read across the table.

Dice Settlers (9 plays)

I bought this from a friend (hi, Janna!) primarily for solo play – and while I’m still having to fiddle a bit with the scoring numbers to make the AI competitive, it actually flows really well as a “big” solo game. I was pleasantly surprised that it works well as a 2-3 player game too. I managed to find a copy of the Western Sea expansion – which really ups the variety and makes the solo game more compelling.

Expedition to Newdale (9 plays)

Another birthday present… and like Terraforming Mars, a multi-player game that works surprisingly well as a solo adventure. This is Oh My Goods: The Board Game… which is a very good thing. I’m about ½ way through the solo campaign and look forward to the new twists that are added each new scenario. (Note: my play of Oh My Goods fell off once I acquired Newdale – I think the board & the game structure are more sophisticated.)

Super-Skill Pinball: 4-Cade (9 plays)

I blogged about this earlier this spring at the Opinionated Gamers site… and Dale just posted a review as well. This is a really great roll’n’write design that was very enjoyable solo and multi-player. I think the best table is Dragonslayer, though Cyberhack is really close. (Note: I helped proofread the rules for this game prior to publication.)

Terraforming Mars (9 plays)

One of my birthday gifts this year was a copy of Terraforming Mars… and I quickly discovered a thriving community of folks on BGG who love this game as a solo exercise. I don’t own all the expansions… but I think the best solo configuration for me (so far) uses just Prelude. My win rate is about 50%, which seems right for this style of game.

Warp's Edge (7 plays)

The newest addition to my solo gaming quiver of games... and it's a good one. It's a bag-builder space combat game that is designed for solo play. So far, I do pretty well against the weaker motherships... but the higher rated ones turn me to space dust. I just wrote a review of Warp's Edge on the Opinionated Gamers website.

7 Wonders Duel (5 plays)

The nice folks at Repos Games created an interesting AI for solo play this spring… with five different “characters” for you to challenge. The structure reminded me a bit of the original analog Race for the Galaxy solo AIs in the way that they attacked the game system in particular ways that made it difficult for you to win. More of a solitaire puzzle in the 7 Wonders universe, but enjoyable.

Friday (5 plays)

Friedemann’s wacky deck-builder about keeping Robinson Crusoe alive is still one of the best 1 player games out there. I can’t recommend it highly enough. (It was on my Top 50 games list earlier this year.)

Cartographers: A Roll Player Tale (4 plays)

An incredibly pleasant flip’n’write game that works like a charm as a solo game… and will also work well as a “over Facetime/Zoom” game if you use the solo rules for monster attacks.The Skills mini-expansion adds another level of decision-making that works well. I’m glad the game is in my collection… and I’m looking forward to the Kickstarter for the stand-alone expansion (Cartographer: Heroes), which is going to also include new map sets!

Dungeon Alliance (4 plays)

For me, Dungeon Alliance solo with the Adventure Packs (a very creative expansion idea) is substantially more enjoyable than the still very good Mage Knight Board Game. For starters, it’s a four game campaign… and then there’s the mixture of characters and storyline that feel like you’ve been dropped into the middle of the story. 

Palm Island (4 plays) 

This is a weird little deck-builder[?] that I’m not sure entirely works… you hold your entire deck in your hand (17 cards) and flip and turn cards based on resources on the cards. It’s kind of fiddly and I’m not sure I know how to get a better score… yet I keep playing it.

The Pursuit of Happiness (4 plays)

I continue to adore this gamer-friendly version of The Game of Life… and the newest expansion arriving required me to pull it out and play both multi-player and solo. The solo mode is well-thought-out.. players must beat a particular long-term happiness score as well as complete 3 life goals – which can be challenging. (The new expansion and the various Kickstarter extras just continue to add content and variety to this robust system… the delight of creating a life story is a lot of fun.) You can read my original review here.

Seafall (4 plays)

I took advantage of an excellent Amazon sale to pick up a copy of Seafall to play through the game solo. It is NOT a solo game – but I’m playing all five provinces and just enjoying the chaos and the story. (Note: My boys and I were playtesters on the earliest versions of the Seafall prototype.)

It’s a Wonderful World (3 plays)

Another birthday present, another card-drafting game, another wise use of “packets” to make the drafting game work solo. The provided solo scenarios add challenge… I need to pull this one back out and try to conquer them.

Nemo’s War (3 plays)

The other solo game that was in my Top 50 games list… it manages to blend Euro mechanics and old-school wargame elements along with a compelling theme. On top of that, the various objectives change the game and how you play by just changing the scoring to reflect Nemo’s vision of a “better” world.

Roll for Adventure (3 plays)

A recent co-op game from Kosmos with built-in expansions to increase the difficulty/change the puzzle. It’s a dice-driven push-your-luck game with a fantasy theme draped over it. I typically play solo with two random characters. (BTW, solo or multi-player, I like this game much better with 2-3 players/characters than with 4… it feels like the game plays you with four players.)

Roll Player (3 plays)

One of two “RPG character creation” board games from last year (the other is Call to Adventure)… but with the Monsters & Minions  expansion added in, Roll Player is the best choice for solo play. (In fact, I think this is one of the “required” expansions for multi-player play as well… it offers more variety and more options for players on their turn. Most importantly, it gives the game an ending via fighting the big boss that is much more satisfying than “hey, look – I built a character”.) The Fiends & Familiars expansion is also quite good.

Clank: A Deck-Building Adventure (2 plays)

Personal take: the Clank! In! Space! solo campaign on the app is more interesting than the one-off solo mode for Clank… but both are enjoyable. Then again, the Clank system is beloved in our house and I get plenty of chances to play multi-player.

Desolate (2 plays)

A print’n’play space survival game… the files are now free from PNP Arcade. It’s a lot of inkjet ink for a pretty straightforward solo game. I like it best with the two expansions thrown in – I think there’s more decision-making involved and it’s easier to set the difficulty level using the characters.

Legacy: The Testament of Duke de Crecy (2 plays)

While I enjoy the multi-player game, I found both versions of the solo game (standard and The Testament) to be overly fiddly and not particularly interesting. 

Unbroken (2 plays)

Not related in any way to the excellent WWII biography… this fantasy survival game has nice production (for a solo game) and is in the same vein game-wise as the aforementioned Desolate: make decisions on what to face, press your luck, and try not to run out of supplies. It works… but I wonder if I’ll be played out on it after 5+ plays. (Note: I’ve only played it twice and haven’t brought it back to the table in 4+ months.)

51st State: Master Set (1 play)

As much as I love this game, I really detest the solo version – it pretty much kills what I like about the game. (That said, really looking forward to getting this back in rotation soon as a multi-player game.)

Call to Adventure (1 play)

The rules for solo and cooperative play feel rushed and tacked on – which is disappointing, as I really enjoy this character-building/story-telling game with multiple players.

Clank! In! Space! (1 play)

Started a new attempt at the solo campaign embedded in the app. (The multiple games and the special objectives make it a very interesting and challenging experience.)

Finished (1 play)

A solid solo design that other folks like a lot more than I do... one play per year is just about enough for me. (There is, if you're interested, a free app version of it out there.)

Fresco (1 play)

I made an unbelievably unsuccessful attempt to create an AI to play Fresco against. Lots of work but no fun to play. Youch.

Monster Lands (1 play)

The basic game is pretty fiddly… but I give it that for the fun it creates. The solo game is just fiddly, which is sad.

Nations: The Dice Game (1 play)

I’d rather play this with more players… but the solo game works well. If I didn’t have a number of better options (see above), this would hit the solo table more often.

Sauerbaum (1 play)

This is THE original co-op game… it actually won a special Spiel des Jahres recognition as a cooperative game back in 1988. The problem is that I never feel like I have much control of the game.

Star Wars: Outer Rim (1 play)

My oldest son and I both love playing this dive into the Star Wars universe – it’s a pick up & deliver game with copious thematic elements. The game comes with a solo AI card deck that works… but it isn’t a particularly compelling way to play. I’m not likely to solo this one again – but it will hit the table as a multi-player.

Under Falling Skies: A 9-Card Print-and-Play Game (1 play)

In anticipation of the CGE release of this game, I printed my own copy to get a feel for it. I like the ideas but am hoping that CGE will clean up the rules & graphics to make it easier to grok. (Historically, they’ve done a great job with stuff like that, so I’m excited to see the release later this year.)

Games I Own That Still Need to Come Out to (Solo) Play

  • Adrenaline (CGE published a solo variant)
  • Agricola with Farmers of the Moor
  • Hotshots
  • Sanctum (CGE published a solo variant)
  • Space Cadets: Away Missions
  • The 7th Continent
  • The Colonists

Recommendations

Thinking about buying and/or trading for some new games based on my post (and how long you’re likely to be practicing physical distancing)?

If you’re new to solo gaming, I’d suggest Cartographers, Super-Skill Pinball, and Friday. For those with a bit more gaming under their belts, I’d go with Nemo’s War, Terraforming Mars, Expedition to Newdale (board game version of Oh My Goods), and NEOM. 

This post is based on a blog post I wrote for my personal blog back in April 2020... and a subsequent version of that post published on the Opinionated Gamers website.

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Nibbling on the Hand That Has Fed Me (My Musings on Hasbro & the HeroQuest reprint)


I have to come to realize that many of the things I write about board gaming now start with a decent chunk of personal history. This opinion piece (from, no surprise, an Opinionated Gamer) is no exception.

Some of that I credit to how long I’ve been in the hobby: 
And some of that I credit to just being old. Well, older. OK, old.

A Stroll Down Memory Lane

In the 1980s, my friends and I just about played the print off the cards of a set of Talisman… and suffered mightily at the hands of fate through multiple games of Dungeonquest. Games Workshop became my post-RPG go-to company for over-the-top fantasy and sci-fi gaming during that period… great artwork, buckets of dice, cool minis, ridiculously long playing times that only worked for folks without a significant other – in other words, right in my wheelhouse during my college and seminary years. (In fairness, while two different versions of Talisman have been in my collection and subsequently sold, my copy of Dungeonquest [complete with Heroes & Catacombs expansions] still is a regularly played game at the House of Jackson.)

As I continued on in this wonderful hobby of ours, I came back around to wanting more fantasy themed adventuring (dungeon or otherwise) games in my collection and on the gaming table. Fellow Opinionated Gamer Frank “Moo” Branham was my “advance scout”, shooting me emails about things he knew I would love. (I distinctly remember him instructing me to go directly to my nearest Wal-Mart with $40 cash in hand and pick up a copy of Heroscape – “do not pass go, do not collect $200.”) 2004 was the beginning of a beautiful (and expensive) relationship with Heroscape… including playtesting some of the expansions for the Heroscape system. (Yes, Hasbro was the hand that fed me Heroscape terrain & swag, including a really cool Heroscape T-shirt that is literally falling apart but still hanging in my closet.)

A number of great new takes on fantasy adventuring board gaming have appeared in the last 20 years:

  • Prophecy (2003) was one of the earliest Vlaada Chv├ítil designs and is a reimagined (and drastically improved) take on Talisman. (This was, no surprise, another Frank Branham recommendation.)
  • Return of the Heroes (2004) was another angle on the same genre, this time with a modular board. (Note: the base game & first expansion were released in English, but the two expansions that were released only in German took the world in some really creative directions.)
  • Dungeons & Dragons cooperative board game series (beginning 2010) started with Castle Ravenloft and has since added 6 more games to the series. Based on the newest iteration of the D&D RPG rules and classic settings/characters, these are cooperative games with a wide variety of scenarios.
  • Catacombs (first edition 2010, third edition 2015, playmat version 2019) – I once described this as “Carabande/Pitchcar + Descent 1.0 – 3 hours = Catacombs”… that’s still a pretty good description. This is the first of the highly thematic flicking combat games, set in a fantasy universe.
  • Mage Knight Board Game (2011) is yet another Vlaada design, this time taking adventuring into an intricate and puzzle-filled quest. Although it uses some clix figures, the heart of the game is a deck-building/hand-management system.
  • Descent: Journeys in the Dark (first edition 2004, rebooted in 2012, and something new coming in 2021…) – a sprawling dungeon crawl game with a plethora of expansions, plastic minis, and a really great app-driven way to play cooperatively. 
  • Runebound (first edition 2004, second edition 2005, third edition 2015) – set in the same world as Descent (FFG’s Terrinoth), I like the 3rd edition the best. And, yes, you flip “pogs” for combat.
  • Clank! A Deck-Building Adventure (2016) used deck-building and a clever “noise-making” (clank) mechanism to create a dungeon romp/race that has been popular with almost everyone I’ve introduced it to.
  • Dungeon Alliance (2018) uses deck-building (similar to Mage Knight), but focuses on dungeon crawl and combat. With the full set of expansions, this is an amazingly deep and story-filled fantasy adventure.
And that’s just some of the games that are in my collection – there are numerous others out there that some of you may want to tout in the comments section. (For example, I haven’t played Gloomhaven – which in some circles means I’ve lost my gamer mojo that I’ve so carefully curated over the years. I have actually played Too Many Bones – which I enjoyed but would need to be back in college and without a significant other again to have the time to really enjoy.)

By now, I’m guessing you’re wondering when I’m actually going to say something about the new version of HeroQuest. I”m getting there, I promise. I just felt like I needed to establish my fantasy bona fides before I wrote the next paragraph.

I Have Never Played HeroQuest

So how did I never end up playing HeroQuest – originally released in 1989… or or Advanced HeroQuest, for that matter? How could someone with that much playing time in fantasy board game worlds have missed out on this classic?

We’ll make this a multiple choice question:
  • I was a seminary student with limited cash resources.
  • I was deeply in love with the young woman who would become my wife in June of 1990.
  • I had already plunked down some major cash to buy Space Hulk and the expansions
  • The base game was from Milton Bradley, which had done some nice work with the Gamemaster series, but otherwise was still publishing mostly mass market schlock.
  • All of the above

(For those of you who are serious GW fans, Warhammer Quest doesn’t figure into this… it wasn’t released until 1995 and by that point the German game invasion had begun in earnest.)

As you probably guessed, the correct answer is E.

Nibbling Rather Than Biting

With my lack of actual time with HeroQuest, I don’t feel like I’m qualified to savage Hasbro or Avalon Hill for the decision to reprint a classic game… but I still have some thoughts based on my decades of experience in the hobby.

I think the best way to do this is to divvy it up into specific concerns that I have.

What’s My Motivation?

I love theater – and was even a theater major for a portion of my college career. “What’s my motivation?” is an acting cliche. But, in the case of Heroquest, it’s worth thinking about.

I wrote a fellow OG writer this last week that it felt like Hasbro had seen the success of Restoration Games with rebooting/reimagining older games – particularly Return to Dark Tower – and saw visions of dollar signs dancing in their heads. 

There is nothing wrong with a profit motive – that how companies succeed and how we get more games. But when the primary motivation is money (in the words of Pink Floyd, “it’s a gas”), creativity and innovation can easily suffer.

New & Improved?

It’s obvious that the team at Hasbro has re-glossed the artwork, updated the miniatures, changed the box shape (from the old GW coffin box that doesn’t fit today’s modern lifestyle), and generally dusted everything off. They’re also adding new campaign material – including bringing back one of the gurus of fantasy adventure game design, Stephen Baker, who had a big part in Heroscape, Battleball, and Battle Masters as well as one of the weirdest Frank-recommended games in my collection, Die Schlacht der Dinosaurier (translated: “The Battle of the Dinosaur Riders”)

But there doesn’t seem to be a lot of work to move the game forward… it’s more like you took HeroQuest to a hot rod shop and gave it racing stripes and replaced the floor mats. I’m happy to be proven wrong here.

Reprint Vs. Reimagine

This may sound overly simplistic, but there’s a marked difference between reprinting a game with cosmetic changes and re-imagining a game to keep what’s worthwhile and let the bits that haven’t aged well go peacefully off into the sunset.

While Restoration Games has proven to be the go-to company for this kind of work, they aren’t the only ones doing it. Fantasy Flight Games did a splendid re-imagine of Wiz-War that is, frankly, a MUCH better game than the original (no matter how beloved it is). They also did a sweet re-thinking of the Gamemaster classic Fortress America. (Both of these were shepherded by the creative genius of designer Kevin Wilson.)

Even Hasbro has allowed their design team to do interesting things to their classic games – Rob Daviau (now a key player with Restoration Games) managed to get a version of Monopoly with victory points published (Monopoly: Tropical Tycoon) and stretched the boundaries of what Risk could be with a variety of games… among them Risk: Balance of Power (two-player Risk), Risk: Black Ops (proof of concept for shortening Risk and adding deeper strategic/tactical decisions), and Risk Legacy (which was the very first legacy game published).

Not every reboot works, though. As an example, Hasbro’s “Heroscape: the Gathering” (combining elements of Heroscape with the theme and card play of M:tG) is pretty uninspired, despite the excellent pedigree.

What Hasbro is doing (from all accounts) is a reprint. I wish they were doing so much more. It might even convince me to pony up the nearly $200 it would take get all the goodies.

Rose-Colored Glasses of Memory

Since this is primarily a reprint of a game that fetches ridiculous prices on the secondhand market (I personally sold a couple of expansions I lucked into for big dollars back 10-15 years ago), it seems like one of the key selling points is nostalgia. 

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that… again, it’s ok for a company to make money. But it seems a wasted opportunity to simply give grownups the chance to buy what they couldn’t afford when they were 30 years younger. 

Why Crowdfund?

This is the one point where I’m actually on Hasbro’s side – the price point of this particular item and the need to make the release go viral means that crowdfunding is probably the safest and most cost-effective way to accomplish both of those goals. And that’s especially true when you’re using your own crowdfunding platform.

We’ll Always Have Board Games

Look, it doesn’t take much to see that my opinions don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Hasbro has (as of October 20, 2020) already had $2.4 million in pledges for their reprint of HeroQuest… which means it will be published. But I still think there are issues… issues that they can potentially mitigate. And I got to tell you some stories, which is always fun.

Well, here at last, dear friends, at the bottom of the page comes the end of our meandering article. Go in peace! I will not say: do not weep; for not all tears are an evil.

Note: as noted in the opinion piece above, I have playtested games for a variety of different companies, including both Hasbro and Restoration Games, and have received board games and gaming swag in return.

I also flat out stole lines from the film “Casablanca” and J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings in order to write this article.

This diatribe/rant/musing/whatever was originally published on the Opinionated Gamers website, which all right-thinking board game fans should check on a daily basis.