Tuesday, August 23, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The “F” Word

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

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

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

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

What Does This Have to Do With Reconstructing Your Faith?

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

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

Tuesday, August 16, 2022

Return to “Return to Dark Tower”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What does the Alliances expansion add to the game?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Like a charm… with one exception.

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

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

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

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

Oh, yeah. Totally.

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

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

Note on my tiny potential for conflict of interest: 

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

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

This review originally appeared on the Opinionated Gamers website.

Monday, August 15, 2022

Reconstructing My Faith: Rocks, Dross, and Almonds

Climbing Rocks

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

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

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

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

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

Scraping Away the Dross

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

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

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

Harvesting Almonds

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

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

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

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

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