Thursday, August 10, 2023

Classic: Hard To Get

This post was written nearly 10 years ago... but it still rings true.

The week before he died in a car accident (in September of 1997), Rich Mullins sat down in an abandoned church with a cassette recorder to make a demo of the nine songs that would eventually become The Jesus Record. The recording below is the scratchy unpolished demo of "Hard to Get"... a song that seems especially appropriate in the moment.

I have always appreciated Rich's honesty and faith, his humor mixed with seriousness. This is the guy who walked into the Christian bookstore I worked at looking for Frederick Buechner books... and then told me that he "punished" bad audiences by refusing to play my favorite song of his, "Elijah".

Anyway, this is my song for today - an echo of my heart.

You who live in heaven
Hear the prayers of those of us who live on earth
Who are afraid of being left by those we love
And who get hardened by the hurt

Do you remember when You lived down here where we all scrape
To find the faith to ask for daily bread
Did You forget about us after You had flown away
Well I memorized every word You said

Still I'm so scared, I'm holding my breath
While You're up there just playing hard to get

You who live in radiance
Hear the prayers of those of us who live in skin
We have a love that's not as patient as Yours was
Still we do love now and then

Did You ever know loneliness
Did You ever know need
Do You remember just how long a night can get?
When You were barely holding on
And Your friends fall asleep
And don't see the blood that's running in Your sweat

Will those who mourn be left uncomforted
While You're up there just playing hard to get?

And I know you bore our sorrows
And I know you feel our pain
And I know it would not hurt any less
Even if it could be explained

And I know that I am only lashing out
At the One who loves me most
And after I figured this, somehow
All I really need to know

Is if You who live in eternity
Hear the prayers of those of us who live in time
We can't see what's ahead
And we can not get free of what we've left behind
I'm reeling from these voices that keep screaming in my ears
All the words of shame and doubt, blame and regret

I can't see how You're leading me unless You've led me here
Where I'm lost enough to let myself be led
And so You've been here all along I guess
It's just Your ways and You are just plain hard to get

Monday, August 07, 2023

Reconstructing My Faith: Worst. Church Service. Ever.

Carlos A. Rodriguez asked a simple question on Twitter (yes, I know, "X" - sheesh):

The responses are a chronicle of jaw-droppingly thoughtless decisions on the part of pastors and church leadership from churches across the conservative and liberal spectrum. I'll share a few highlights just to give you the flavor:
  • Christmas Eve. A cathedral. The associate priest preached the sermon which consisted of standing in the pulpit with two sock puppets and having them sing Bette Midler’s “From a Distance” to one another. 
  • Recalculating the rapture date (after a previous sermon apparently proved incorrect) like live, on stage. 
  • That Sunday the prescribed Gospel reading was when Jesus turned water into wine. And the priest made that the whole point of the homily. But to the extent of saying that Jesus was a drunkard. A friendly one. And that that part of the Gospel he loved most.
  • Once we visited a new church on Cinco de mayo and they had people get up on stage to get blindfolded and hit piñatas while Mariachi music played. The winner got a $50 gift card.
  • I had a pastor preach from the pulpit in front of the entire church but directly at me because I asked a question about free will vs predestination that he didn't like.
I have my own list of highly questionable church services:
  • the youth evangelist who decided to pound the heck out of the assembled teenagers about the Bema Seat judgement and how few of them were going to make it
    • note: preacher friends, scaring the hell out of people is a good way to get responses and a bad way to elicit actual meaningful spiritual decisions
  • the SBC pastor who decided that the best celebrity example of bad sexual decisions was Kobe Bryant when preaching to a church that was 99% white
    • cynical note: it's awfully easy to preach against sin when nobody in your congregation can identify themselves with a super-wealthy athlete of another color who lives half the country away from you
  • the minister preaching a funeral who admitted that (a) he didn't really know the deceased all that well, and (b) he was just going to let the Spirit lead... so he yammered on for 45+ minutes, mixing in 3-4 different "standard' sermon outlines into a meaningless ramble
    • note: preacher friends, "I'm just letting the Spirit lead" is spiritualized code for "I was lazy and didn't actually prepare for this opportunity to share grace, truth, and hope"
  • And, though not a worship service but a Christian concert, the one where the guest speaker in front of a ex-hippie Jesus People band told us about how he drove out into the desert and took off all his clothes in order to get closer to God
    • cynical note: I'd be concerned about sunburn and getting dirt/sand in problematic places, which would likely reduce my ability to feel close to God
Thankfully, those are the exception rather than the rule in my life. As I noted in an earlier Reconstructing post, my own church experiences were (mostly) healthy... which meant I wasn't shaken when I ran into craziness like ex-hippie or the guy jumpin' up & down (metaphorically) on the Bema Seat.

What breaks my heart is how these kind of experiences seem designed to alienate people from the community of faith. 

We have to remember that the people in the pews (or, in the case of the church I attend, the beat-up couches & upholstered chairs) walk in the door with real hurts and a desperate need for real community. They don't need their prejudices reinforced, their intelligence insulted, or to simply act as an audience for a communicator enamored with the power of a pulpit.

For me - in my very occasional opportunities to preach/teach - it's a reminder that I need to put in the work of study & preparation & prayer. I need to wisely consider who will be listening and how best to communicate Biblical truth in culturally relevant ways - relevant not only to me (at age 59, my go-to illustrations are likely to be a bit dated) but also to them. 

And, simply as a follower of Jesus, I need to be someone whose spiritual life is more than church attendance and talking about Jesus. I want to be more like Jesus - more loving, more peaceful, more patient, more self-controlled. Moreover, I want to want to be more like Jesus.

Friday, August 04, 2023

Solo Gaming 2023: The First Four Months

This post originally appeared on the Opinionated Gamers website in May 2023... but, what with a major WDW trip, trips out of town in June, getting my younger son ready for his freshman year at UT Chattanooga, and buying a house, I didn't post it here on my personal blog until (checks calendar) early August. This does not preclude me writing my "eight month solo post" here in just a few weeks - you have been warned.

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 the extended time of quarantine (March-August 2020), I continued playing solo games… and that kept going when he returned to campus. (He’s about to graduate this summer… yes, I’m getting old. Older. Ah, what the heck, ancient.)

Solo gaming is now a decent-sized chunk of my gaming experiences – while I am back out playing games with friends and family, 22% of my gaming so far in 2023 was solo. For comparison, the yearly total for 2022 was 22%, 2021 was 33%, 2020 was 19%, and 2019 was 6%. (A bit of perspective: I had 947 plays of 333 different games in 2022.)

So, this is the fourth year I’ve been writing these extensive posts every four months to detail my solo gaming. I’ll repeat my same caveat as each previous report:
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. 
I’d also add that board game apps must – for perfectly understandable reasons – hide portions of the game from you. One of the delights of a physical game is that the whole thing is spread out across the table where you can soak in whatever details you need. This is true, BTW, for solo or multi-player play.

So, what follows are my thoughts on the twenty-five (25!) different solo games I played in the first four months of 2023 – ordered by number of times I’ve played them. (Note: this is not necessarily how much I like a particular game for solo play – for example, I think Xia: Legends of a Drift System is an excellent solo game design but I haven’t got it to the table as a solo game yet this year.)


Legacy of Yu (5 plays – approx. playing time: 35 minutes)

Legacy of Yu is solo-only resource management game where you, as the titular character, are working to build canals and fend off the barbarians as you wisely use the villagers to accomplish these tasks. Moreover, Legacy of Yu is a campaign game that uses a drip of story cards and a paragraph book to tell a compelling story – and where your actions can have effects that last multiple games.

So far, I limped through three “learning” games (being defeated each time) and decided to re-start the campaign with those lessons under my belt. Two games into a “real” campaign, I’ve had one win and one very close loss, so I think I better understand how to analyze the peril that I am in at any particular time in the game.

The production is very nice – including an excellent box insert that stores the game between plays of a campaign. I look forward to writing a more extensive review here on the site once I’ve fought my way deeper into the campaign.

Mosaic: A Story of Civilization (5 plays – approx. playing time: 100 minutes)

My copy of the Colossal Edition just arrived right after Christmas – and I’ve immensely enjoyed both my multiplayer and my solo plays of this 90-120 minute civilization building game. There isn’t a combat system – as your primary objective is influence across the various countries of the Mediterranean.

The solo bot (by noted solo mode designer, David Turczi) can be adjusted for difficulty and for “personality” – which means I’ve won some of my games and lost others… but I’ve always had a wonderful time.

Three Is A Magic Number

Clank! Catacombs (3 plays – approx. playing time: 45 minutes)

The newest entry in the very successful Clank-i-verse involves a modular board, a totally new deck of cards, and some interesting twists (freeing prisoners, using lockpicks, etc.). It’s been a wild success with my sons and with other folks as a new take on “standard” Clank!… and I appreciate that the rules even include ways to integrate the Adventuring Party expansion into the game.

As usual, Dire Wolf has done a splendid job of supporting the game with a well-written app-driven solo game… and I’ve managed to get that to the table multiple times in the last couple of months.

Dice Realms (3 plays – approx. playing time: 20 minutes)

One of my favorite new games from 2022 actually has a solo version created by the designer (Tom Lehmann)… and it gives me even more opportunities to play a game I adore. If you want to try it out, here’s the link to his solo/cooperative ruleset.

Dice Realms, by the way, is a splendid use of the customizable dice mechanic first seen in Rattlebones.

Dune: Imperium (3 plays – approx. playing time: 70 minutes)

I’m not really a Dune fan – oh, yeah, I read the first three novels back in high school (late 70s/early 80s) like every well-behaved sci-fi/fantasy nerd – but it was never a world or story that captured my imagination. And, yes, since I’ve been a gamer for a very long time, I actually owned the AH version of Dune (aka “Cosmic Encounter meets the Spice Worm”).

Fast forward to 2020/21 and all the hype about the upcoming Dune film… and just enough people said nice things about Dune: Imperium to get me to take a chance on it. 

And – wow! – it was worth it. Much like Lost Ruins of Arnak, Dune: Imperium blends deck-building and worker placement to evoke the feel of the novels/film in an incredibly playable format. Particularly for solo players, the solo deck works like a charm – and Dire Wolf also posted a free app to automate the solo process.

The addition last year of the Rise of Ix expansion just added to the fun – I like the new variety of cards and technologies… and it feels like the AI is even stronger with this mix of choices. The new Immortality expansion added some interesting quirks to the game along with (you guessed it) buffing the AI even more.

Eleven: Football Manager Board Game (3 plays – approx. playing time: 90 minutes)

While there are some tricky parts (understanding how/when to flip jerseys, for example), the game itself works like a charm and is great fun to play, especially if you are (like myself) a fan of Premier League soccer. Match play is important – but the game is much bigger than winning matches… it’s actually an economic/management game.

I’ve played through some of the included solo scenarios and look forward to making my way through the solo campaign this summer. Since the game this re-design was based on (Club Stories) was a solo game, it is not a surprise that this works splendidly for a single player.

It Takes Two (To Make A Thing Go Right)

Ark Nova (2 plays – approx. playing time: 90 minutes)

There’s a reason so many people are nuts about this zoo-building game – it’s really that good. And, as you can probably guess by my number of solo plays over the last 12 months, it’s an excellent solo game.

The solo design forces you to win the game (get your Conservation & Appeal markers to cross) before time runs out – so you can set your difficulty by where you start your Appeal marker. 20 was too easy – 10 is a good medium range challenge, and 5 is kicking my butt (but I’m getting closer).

I’ve had great experiences playing this game solo, with 2 players, and with 3 players… and I’m very excited about the new expansion headed our way later this year.

Bad Company (2 plays – approx. playing time: 25 minutes)

This nifty game of planning heists and escaping the police with your gang of thieves & getaway drivers feels like it takes the best parts of Space Base and makes a better game of it. What surprised me is how well it works as a solo game since part of the design appeal is that it is enjoyable with up to 6 players.

Everdell (2 plays – approx. playing time: 50 minutes)

Based on the recommendations of others (esp. fellow OGer Chris Wray), I splurged on the Everdell Complete Collection without ever having played the game. There are two solo modes: Rugwort (which is mildly entertaining) and Mistwood (Nightweave & her spider crew) that really shines. I’ve barely scratched the surface of the personalities, plans, and plots available in the expansion.

BTW, Chris posted a weeks worth of Everdell reviews that are a great read if you’re interested. (These reviews pre-date the newest expansions, New Leaf & Mistwood.)

Lost Ruins of Arnak (2 plays – approx. playing time: 45 minutes)

My pick for Kennerspiel in 2021 was this fantastic multiplayer game of adventure… chock full with a myriad of pathways to win. The solo module (included in the game) works like a charm… and CGE even posted an update to that module that adds increased difficulty and challenge. For variety, you can even play on the more difficult Snake Temple side of the board.

Additionally, they released the long-promised solo campaign – a 4-game series with interesting rules twists and an online app (which I had some struggles with, so I resorted to printing out the files and building myself a paper set.) I’m currently working through it a second time and enjoying it again.

My last couple of solo plays have been using the Expedition Leaders expansion – which adds twists both to your starting deck/personal powers AND gives you alternate temples to research.

NEOM (2 plays – approx. playing time: 30 minutes)

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.

Rome & Roll (2 plays – approx. playing time: 55 minutes)

I bought Rome & Roll thinking it would be a crunchy roll’n’write that I could enjoy solo… but after two solo plays and a single play with three players, I think it actually is more enjoyable as a multi-player game. (Which, frankly, is a surprise coming from designer David Turczi.)

Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition (2 plays – approx. playing time: 70 minutes)

The much-discussed card game version of the board game hit Terraforming Mars – which, quite honestly, really does feel and play like you crossed Race for the Galaxy with TM. It’s a competent solo game that doesn’t take up nearly as much table space as its big brother… and I appreciate them upping the quality/consistency of the artwork. That said, I’d rather be playing the original game with my 3D pieces.

I kept waffling back & forth on this one… I considered selling/trading it, then decided to keep it. My most recent games were really enjoyable – which convinced me to wait and see if the upcoming expansion modules push the game from “like it” to “love it”… or if it ended up on the trade pile.

Well, the expansions arrived… and it’s staying. The Crisis cooperative/solo mode is excellent and so is the additional tweaks to multi-player games.

Trails of Tucana (2 plays – approx. playing time: 20 minutes)

A really lovely little flip-n-write route building game that I found courtesy of a Twitter friend (hi, Daniel!). Less rules overhead than Cartographers, but with the same “make the best of what you get” vibe. It’s become a travel staple for me – easy to play in a small space with lots of press-your-luck angst on many flips of the cards.

I have had the chance to play with the Ferry expansion maps now, and they add a couple of small twists without doing any damage to the very solid base game.

One Is the Loneliest Number

Aquamarine (1 plays – approx. playing time: 15 minutes)

The second print’n’play roll’n’write (could I possibly use more apostrophes in this sentence?!) from Postmark Games… I find it a little less brain-burning than Voyages (which is also in this list) and great fun to play. It is – to some extent – a tile-laying game as you track your dive adventure.

I laminated my copy of this game – and I carry the Aquamarine boards (plus the five Voyages boards) in my laptop case along with three d6 and a dry erase pen so I can play pretty much wherever I go.

And there are now FOUR boards to play… two of which I haven’t even got to try yet!

Castle Itter: The Strangest Battle of WWII (1 play – approx. playing time: 70 minutes)

Since I enjoyed Soldiers in Postmen’s Uniforms so much last year, I was a happy to pick up an excellent condition used copy of David Thompson’s next entry in his WWII solo battle series, Castle Itter. Both games have the same “tower defense” vibe – but the infusion of thoughtful historical content as well as clever gameplay elements make them both winners.

Circadians: First Light (1 play – approx. playing time: 60 minutes)

I reviewed the two Circadian games early this year… and of the two, First Light was by far my favorite. Part of that enjoyment is the well-thought-out solo system built into the game… both of my solo plays have been enjoyable and fast-moving. The AI robot – literally, they’re robots – is easy to use and makes intelligent moves to both hinder you and increase its score. My victories have been hard-worn.

This is one of those games that I find intriguing and frustrating – intriguing, because the puzzle of manipulating resources and actions is challenging & interesting; frustrating, because I think the rulebook, while complete, makes it more difficult to learn the game by the way it is structured. (I will give the good folks at Garphill Games points for including a section on first time player strategies and the Irenic Union variant.)

Speaking of the Irenic Union… the original rules require players to assign dice in order (left to right) from their garages. The variant allows flexibility… and I’m here to say it’s a much more enjoyable game with that rule in play.

First Light is, once you get your head wrapped around the rules and the various strategic/tactical elements, not really a long game – my solo games ran 50-60 minutes and our multiplayer games around 75-90 minutes. There’s enough variety in the contract cards, event cards, and leaders to keep things fresh for multiple plays.

And, yes, I backed the Kickstarted expansion… more variety coming as well as additional solo content.

Empyreal: Spells & Steam (1 play – approx. playing time: 45 minutes)

Another used copy find… at half the price. So, based on some immutable law of game collecting, that should mean I like it twice as much, right?

Well, it’s actually a pretty brilliant design – my younger son & I have enjoyed a number of two player games of it. The blend of pick up & deliver and network building combined with some really wacky special powers works very well – and the very nice production makes it even more playable.

The solo mode – which I’ve only played once – works as well, but I’m more likely to use the solo bot to add an extra player to our 2 player games.

Hadrian’s Wall (1 play – approx. playing time: 45 minutes)

I wrote a positive solo review for the OG back in May 2021 of this flip’n’write game. I’m intrigued by the choices I have as a player and the myriad pathways you can attempt in your quest for accolades and glory. After the first couple of plays that ran about 60-70 minutes, I’m now knocking out games in about 35-40 minutes.

The same kinds of resource management issues that draw me into games like Terraforming Mars, Oh My Goods (and it’s cousin, Expedition to Newdale), and Empires of the North are an integral part of Hadrian’s Wall as well. (I’m not saying it’s just like those games or “if you love TM, you’ll love HW”.) These kinds of decisions make for solid solo designs – and Hadrian’s Wall has a lot of them.

In addition, the set-up/tear-down time (due to the flip-n-write design) is minimal, meaning a large chunk of your time is spent actually playing the game. And it has a relatively small table footprint, which means it will work well in my travel kit when I’m stuck in a hotel and need something to play on a less-than-roomy hotel desk.

Finally, it’s always a good sign when you’ve played a game eight times before reviewing and still get in more plays in after that.

My most recent solo play used the new expansion goodies (the Actor and the New Fate cards) – I can highly recommend both of them to those who enjoy the game.

Imperium: Classics/Legends (1 play – approx. playing time: 85 minutes)

My birthday in June 2021 was filled with goodness from Osprey Games… including my favorite new game of 2021. Want more detail? I wrote an extensive review for the OG!

One of the things that caused me to put the Imperium boxes on my birthday list was the promise of a robust solo play system – and David Turczi (who is specifically credited on the cover of the solo play rulebook) delivered.

Each civilization has its own AI set of tables. Five slots are set up and numbered (with provided cardboard counters).The die included in the game (only used for solo play) is rolled and that eliminates one of the slots (or doesn’t – sixes are not a friendly roll in solo play)… and then the remaining cards are revealed and dealt with in order. Impressively, each AI civilization retains a good bit of its character… for example, Egypt accumulates materials in the early going, uses them to attract hordes of population, and then, if conditions are right, converts those masses into Progress. 

In the meantime, the player civilization is running by the exact same rules as the multiplayer game – allowing you to learn the ins and outs of the various decks as well as consider different tactical and strategic decisions.

There is also a simple way to vary the difficulty of solo play… and even a campaign mode in the solo rulebook (which I still haven’t tried).

My only complaints about solo play? Putting the charts for resolving the AI behavior in the rulebook rather than providing them as large cards. Thankfully, a BGG user (props to DocZagreus!) has taken it upon themselves to fix this problem and posted files that do just that. The other issue is that the Qin charts needed to be changed – and the files I just linked to have the changes needed!

I was very excited to see Imperium: Classics getting the recognition it deserves… and to find out that there is another box of civilizations coming later this year!

Resist! (1 plays – approx. playing time: 35 minutes)

This solo card game about the Spanish Maquis ongoing guerilla battle against the Francoist regime is both addictive and frustrating. So far, I’ve only managed to have a minor victory in a single game. (Let’s be clear – this is what happens when you put a risk-taking maniac in charge of the resistance who sends out his Maquis one time too many… or is successful at completing missions but manages to get a bunch of civilians killed.)

I’ve played it at home and on a hotel bed while traveling for work… and even played a game of it last night while I should have been working on this blog post. While the gameplay is simple to explain (particularly with the components in front of you), the decisions can be difficult and sometimes are excruciating – do I sacrifice this fighter’s cover for one glorious attack? will using a weak hidden card with the power to reveal military cards help me or just show me the form of my destructor (to paraphrase Ghostbusters)?

It’s finally released in the U.S.… and you can read my full review of Resist! for the OG.

Skymines (1 play – approx. playing time: 90 minutes)

I know this is a re-skin (with changes) of Mombassa… but I never played Mombassa (plus, I’m a sucker for space themes). This is a pretty intense solo game – along the lines of Hallertau or Boonlake – but it works very well and offers a serious challenge. Warning: it’s got a pretty extensive setup so I’d plan on playing it a couple of times in a row.

Slappy Panda Goes to Boise (1 play – approx. playing time: 5 minutes)

OK, you got me. There isn’t a game named Slappy Panda Goes To Boise… but there should be.

The OG writers have the most interesting discussions as we’re bantering about various gaming topics – and when this name went by (in jest), I realized that I really wanted someone to design such a game.

I’m also a bit curious of who will spot this bit of meta silliness in the midst of all of my real solo gaming reports.

The Guild of Merchant Explorers (1 play – approx. playing time: 30 minutes)

This extremely clever flip’n’write doesn’t actually contain any writing – instead, you place explorers (cubes) on your map and by completing regions, place village buildings. At the end of each round, all of your explorers are removed from the board, but your villages stay to give you new starting places.

There are four different maps in the original box, with 2 more maps available as an expansion from AEG. It’s been a hit with everyone I’ve taught it to… and I find it relaxing and enjoyable to play as a solo game.

Undaunted: Normandy (1 play – approx. playing time: 40 minutes)

One of the last Christmas boxes to arrive in 2021 was a copy of Undaunted: Reinforcements… the expansion that offers extra units, new scenarios, 2 vs 2 play, and – most importantly for this recap – solo play. The AI is smart and keeps me on my toes… and while it takes a minute to figure out how to set up and run, it’s worth the time. I’ve been slowly working my way through the Normandy campaign as the Americans and enjoying each time it hits the table. (One of the bonuses of the design: I can flip to the Axis side and play through the campaign again – both come in the Reinforcements box!)

The AI plays “faster” than we have normally played (in other words, it chases objectives and unit elimination pretty hard)… which has forced me to take more chances and ‘fail boldly’ against it. Makes for a very exciting game.

I want desperately to play Undaunted: Stalingrad (released last fall)… but the lack of a solo option and no consistent opponent may have that one wait a while. There is at least one more Undaunted game on the way this summer: Battle of Britain!

Warp’s Edge (1 play – approx. playing time: 30 minutes)

Warp’s Edge is 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 wrote a review of Warp’s Edge on the Opinionated Gamers website late last year.

Note: I received a review copy of Circadians: First Light.


Top Row – Undaunted: Normandy; Terraforming Mars: Ares Project; Circadians: First Light
Bottom Row – Empryeal: Spells & Steam: Everdell: Mistwood; Bad Company

Monday, July 24, 2023

This Is Not Biblical Faith

At a Fox New town hall last week, the following question was posed by an audience member to the former president: "“How has your faith grown since you decided to run for president? And who has mentored you in your faith journey?”

His answer:
"You know, I've seen so much heartache and turmoil.  I was a developer and I did other things and, you know, I had a wonderful life before all this stuff. I didn't know what a grand jury was. I didn't know what a subpoena—what is a subpoena? I had a wonderful life.

"I couldn't be more glad. I am so happy I did it because I've made America great, we can do it again. Right now, we are not a great country. We are not a great country. But I've gotten to know, because of this, evangelicals. I mean, I know so many people and they feel so good about themselves and their family and they base it on religion. I had never had that kind of an experience where I got to know so many. And Franklin Graham and Paula White.

"I mean, I know so many people that are so incredible, religious people. And not just Christians, not just evangelicals... you know, when I look at the Catholic faith, you take a look at what the FBI... no, but look at what the FBI is doing to Catholics. They made them like the enemy. They made them - it's horrible. How could a Catholic ever vote for a Democrat or a guy like Biden again after the experience that they're going through?

"But I've met some of the finest people that I wouldn't have had the privilege of meeting if I weren't president. And they're religious leaders, and they really are incredible people."
To see the video of the former president not really answering the question he was asked, use the following link:

In other words:
  • My life is hard.
  • It used to be easy before I was president.
  • I had no idea how the legal system worked (which is demonstrably false)
  • When I was president, America was great. 
  • When I'm not president, American stinks.
  • Evangelicals feel good about themselves and their lives because of their religion.
  • I can name two religious figures who say nice things about me.
  • I'm not sure if Catholics are Christians or evangelicals.
  • The FBI is bad.
  • Democrats are bad.
  • President Biden is bad
  • I got to meet a lot of religious leaders who say nice things about me because I was president.
That is not an answer to the question. 

That is not a statement of faith... except possibly faith in himself and the power of the presidential office.

I leave you with 1 Peter 3:15:
Always be ready to give a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you.
Holman Christian Standard
Be ready at any time to give a quiet and reverent answer to any man who wants a reason for the hope that you have within you. 
Always be ready to give a [logical] defense to anyone who asks you to account for the hope and confident assurance [elicited by faith] that is within you, yet [do it] with gentleness and respect.

Friday, July 14, 2023

Through the Years: A Gaming History (Revisited)

What follows is a list of my most played games by their year of release. (The original version of this post was inspired by an email conversation about "favorite games by year" back in 2010.) There's some really good stuff in here.

Out of curiosity, I put the names of games I haven't played in the last three years (2021-23) in red... it's a surprisingly small number.

The links are to reviews/previews I've written - or, in some cases, written by my friends at the Opinionated Gamers site. The numbers in parentheses are the number of times I've played that particular game... with a + if my plays pre-date 1998 (when I began tracking my gameplay in detail).

Really Recent
  • 2023: Thunder Road: Vendetta (12) - a souped-up reboot of a classic (see below... way below!) racing/fighting game with stellar production and redesign by the good folks at Restoration Games
  • 2022: Return to Dark Tower (23) - another re-imagining of an older game by Restoration Games (sensing a theme here?!) that blends technology and splendid gameplay
  • 2021: Imperium: Classics/Legends (24) - a card-based civilization-building game with an excellent solo engine and intriguingly designed civ decks
  • 2020: Minigolf Designer (30) - an unknown designer by an unknown company managed to harness tile-laying & drafting to create a delightful minigolf-course-building game
The Not-So-Distant Past
  • 2019: Unmatched: Battle of Legends (111) - yes, a third re-imagined game from Restoration Games... this time, they fixed Epic Duels and turned it into a massive fighting franchise
  • 2018: NEOM / Impact: Battle of Elements (41) - a tie! ...between a city-building drafting game and a dice-chunking luckfest
  • 2017: Jump Drive (115) - the appearance (finally!) of the Terminal Velocity expansion has given the opportunity to play this clever little tableau-building game even more
  • 2016: Clank! A Deck-Building Adventure (71) - this doesn't even count the wonderful Clank! Legacy, Clank! Catacombs, or Clank! In! Space!... all of which are worth your time.
  • 2015: 7 Wonders Duel (73) - the older son loves the Pantheon expansion whilst the younger son loves Agora... I'll play it with pretty much any combination - it's a brilliant 2-player implementation of a game you'll see farther down the list
  • 2014: Star Realms (146) - the utility fielder of deck-building card games... with lots of extra plays because of the pass-n-play mode of the iPhone app
  • 2013: Tash-Kalar: Arena of Legends (35) - not the Vlaada game I would have expected on this list - but still one that I really enjoy (play High Form rather than Deathmatch for a more thoughtful game experience)
  • 2012: DC Comics Deck-Building Game (138) - the go-to closer for a number of game nights... a solid deck-builder with nifty DC comics art
  • 2011: Sentinels of the Multiverse (112) - yes, the new "definitive" edition is better... but the original is pretty darn awesome
  • 2010: 7 Wonders (110) - the grandpa of so many drafting games... and it still works like a charm
Just Seems Like Yesterday 
  • 2009: Summoner Wars (208) - much like Sentinels, the newer version of the game is improved... but the original (which I have a lot of!) is still very solid
  • 2008: Roll Through the Ages: The Bronze Age (86) - a civilization-building dice game w/a cribbage-like scoreboard that is fun to play with 2-4 players... or as a solitaire game.
  • 2007: Race for the Galaxy (499) - colonize planets, develop technology & race the other players to victory in this intriguing card game that vies for my #1 game on a consistent basis
  • 2006: To Court the King (33) - the re-thinking of this great little dice game (Favor of the Pharaoh) is splendid as well
  • 2005: Heckmeck am Bratwurmeck (73) - was published in English as Pickomino (and my wife calls it Worminoes)... it's a math-y dice game about chickens eating at a worm diner that manages to be a lot more fun than the description sounds
  • 2004: Memoir '44 (284) - IMHO, the best version of Richard Borg's light wargame Command & Colors system - of course, the theme (WWII) helps, as do the incredible Campaign Book expansions and the excellent support by the publisher, Days of Wonder
  • 2003: Smarty Party (71) - there are probably better party games (in gamer terms) but none that I've enjoyed as much as this one... and I have the rare honor of having played the original prototype - this is a classic example of development taking an interesting idea & turning it into a great game
  • 2002: StreetSoccer (182) - the game doesn't so much simulate soccer (like Pursue the Pennant attempts to simulate baseball)... instead, it uses a backgammon-ish mechanic to simulate the feel of a soccer game - and does so brilliantly
  • 2001: Transamerica (82) -  great game for4-6 players of connecting railroads... I think I'm played out on it for a while, though
  • 2000: Carcassonne (106) -with too many spin-off games & expansions, it's easy to overlook how enjoyable this tile-laying game can be... I finally sold off most of Carc collection and hung onto Carcassonne: Wheel of Fortune
Before Y2K 
  • 1999: Lost Cities (134) - the game itself is a stunningly simple 2 player card game... the tension comes from how difficult it is to keep from helping your opponent
  • 1998: Zirkus Flohcati (67) - this is still a go-to game when playing with mixed age groups... the press-your-luck element is really quite lovely (just avoid the edition with unbelievably creepy real flea art)
  • 1997: Jungle Speed (58) - I've owned both Arriba (the original version of the game) and Jungle Speed... and while I'm no longer able to win quick-reaction games (slowing down with age), it's a great game
  • 1996: Dish It Up! (44) - a delightful non-HABA memory game for kids and adults who love kids
  • 1995: Catan (152+) - I never get to play this enough. It's one of the best games out there, still. If you haven't tried it, stop reading this blog & go find someone to play with... preferably me
  • 1994: 6 Nimmt! (49+) - probably better known in the U.S. as Category 5 or Slide 5, this is a very abstract card game that scales well up to 10 players, which probably explains why I've played it so much
  • 1993: Attacke (54) - thankfully, this great little filler game was finally been re-released as Gem Dealer... instead of the horribly over-chromed monstrosity that was Ivanhoe
  • 1992: Fast Food Franchise (125) - Tom Lehmann's first design (an imaginative re-thinking of Monopoly) is a family favorite... and sadly is unlikely to ever get a reprint due to the amount of math in the game 
  • 1991: My First UNO (43) - as weak as you imagine it is... but my boys loved it when they were young
  • 1990: Igel Ärgern (23) - Doris' charming art compliments a racing game with a plethora of variations - we tend to play with Fizzy Lifting.
The Decade in Which I Received a Masters, Bachelors, and High School Degree*
  • 1989: Café International (98) - while I worry that the art in this game has some pointed stereotypes, the fact that every culture is poked fun at (even the Germans) leads me to believe that the humor is good-natured - the game itself is one that seems chaotic & luck-driven at first, but reveals some surprising depth over time
  • 1988: Yahtzee Jr. (22) - surprisingly enjoyable mass market game for the younger set... we had a Toy Story-themed version that was catnip for my sons
  • 1987: Shark (13) - I prefer the newer editions (with the Shark area in the center of the board)... and I prefer any version of this to the granddaddy of all stock/expansion games, Acquire
  • 1986: Thunder Road (28) - yes, this is the game re-imagined and published this year (2023)
  • 1985: Dungeonquest (93+) - I have owned, sold, and then reacquired this game & the expansions... it is, IMHO, the best high-speed dungeon crawl game on the market. 
  • 1984: Bounce It-In Game (57) - Tupperware's only game... and it's a great dexterity game with 4 different ways to play.
  • 1983: Talisman (35+) - I've come to prefer Prophecy or Key to the Kingdom to this aging fantasy roll'n'move... but for a while back in the 80s & 90s, this game got a LOT of play
  • 1982: Sequence (38) - another Uno-ish card game (this time with a board) that Shari enjoys.
  • 1981: Fill or Bust (94+) - the classic dice game "500" with an added set of action cards... yet another Shari favorite.
  • 1980: Can't Stop (183) - Sid Sackson's masterpiece... probably the best pure push-your-luck game ever published
The Wonder Years - Sort Of
  • 1979: The Creature That Ate Sheboygan (?) - I experimented for a long time to see if I could update this game for the new millenia
  • 1978: This Game is Bonkers! (13+) - there's actually a bit more game here than you remember... but it's still got a fair bit of chaos in it
  • 1977: Dungeon Dice / Rail Baron (53/?) - yes, another tie (though not really)... haven't played Rail Baron in years but when we did play it, we played it A LOT; Dungeon Dice, OTOH, comes out on a semi-regular basis still
  • 1976: Mr. Mouth (8+) - thankfully, the batteries died
  • 1975: The Magnificent Race (13+) - another ongoing Don Quixote-ish quest is to "fix" this game - the marble spinner is a very cool component/mechanism set in the middle of a pretty mediocre game - the theme is great, too - it's just that the roll'n'move board game is yawn-worthy
  • 1974: Rise & Decline of the Third Reich (?) - back in my wargaming AH/SPI days, this one saw a lot of table time
  • 1973: Tally Ho! (58) - thanks to Kosmos/Rio Grande reprinting this 2 player gem, I've played a lot of it
I received review copies of some Memoir '44 expansions, some Clank! expansions, and some Unmatched sets.

* For the record, I have a Master of Arts in Religious Education (general specialization) from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from Baylor University, and a high school diploma from El Dorado High School (Placentia, CA). Three pieces of paper encompassing nearly 12 years of my life.

Tuesday, June 27, 2023

The Scribbling Strikes Back: A Review of D&D Dungeon Scrawlers: Heroes of Waterdeep

“It’s like déjà vu all over again.”
Yogi Berra
Actually, it’s not déjà vu… it’s just the same game system with some nifty new wrinkles. If you’d like to, you can read my review of the original game (Heroes of Undermountain) on the Opinionated Gamers website – there’s a lot more detail on how the game system works (plus Dale chimes in with his thoughts on the design.)

For those of you unwilling to click the link & hit the wayback machine, let me do a quick refresher on the basics of Dungeon Scrawlers:
  • It’s a real-time game of drawing your way across a dungeon map, interacting with monsters, treasures, spells, etc. with various feats of scribbling.
  • Players “interact” (aka black out, draw a line through, trace a pathway, etc.) various elements of the dungeon to score points.
  • Some elements involve racing to finish them first (killing a boss monster, finding and completing orbs, etc.).
  • Each player has a “special power” which allows them to interact with a single dungeon element in an easier way.
  • Some dungeons are timed (players have X number of minutes to score as many points as possible) while others are finished when one player takes out the boss monster.
Two years ago, I described the original game as “not a serious game… but it is enjoyable fun and a friendly introduction to the D&D universe.” I also gave two keys to fully enjoying Dungeon Scrawlers:
  1. Manage your expectations – this is a frenetic exercise in scribbling and drawing under real-time pressure… it’s not Descent or Gloomhaven or even one of the D&D Adventure games. Enjoy the light game in front of you, not some idealized version of it stacked with all kinds of chrome and other bells & whistles.
  2. Play with the right folks – you know who in your group is likely to balk at real-time and/or scribbling… so don’t make them play it.
Nifty New Wrinkles

Heroes of Waterdeep adds an extra interactive element (Dragon Coins) and a new way to vary up gameplay (Mini-Dungeons) in addition to 7 new dungeons – one of which is actually a single dungeon spread out over two regular sized maps.
  • Dragon Coins
    – 4 coins per player are placed in the center of the table… when you cross off a coin, you grab one from the middle. Each coin is worth a point at the end of the game plus a three point bonus for having the most coins. (Note: coins can, because of the ways some dungeons are designed, be a distraction… but with tight scores, every point counts!)
  • Mini-Dungeons – the game comes with 14 larger dry-erasable mini-dungeon cards that are accessed by reaching a Mini-Dungeon symbol in some of the dungeons or by playing the Mini-Dungeon variant in the rulebook. (The addition of these cards means each player has slightly different challenges to deal with – a really nice bit of variety that makes the game have higher replayability. In addition, there are 4 Boss Mini-Dungeon cards for use with the Mini-Dungeon variant.)
  • New Dungeons – Having played both versions of the game, I’m partial to the new maps in Heroes of Waterdeep… I think they’re a bit trickier to navigate, have more interesting puzzles in figuring out what to prioritize, and utilize the Mini-Dungeon addition really well. I also love the big two-map dungeon… it feels like a classic D&D ending to a campaign!
Some Final Thoughts

Given the choice between the two boxes, I’d definitely go with Heroes of Waterdeep – it has all of the same silly/fun gameplay as the original with some added twists that increased the enjoyment for my sons and I. 

I have realized that there may be elements in the game that would be much more evocative for those familiar with the Undermountain or Waterdeep settings… but since the last game of D&D I DM’d was in the early 80s, there’s pretty much no chance of me seeing it.

It’s still a very light real-time game… so your mileage may vary – but I’m glad to have it in my collection.

A review copy was provided to the Opinionated Gamers. 

Friday, June 23, 2023

Unmatched: Magic to Marvel At... Plus Some Ping Pong

This post was originally two different reviews from the Opinionated Gamers site - which I've combined here to make it easier for you to read up on all the latest Unmatched news. In it, I review the three latest Unmatched sets as well as give commentary on the latest Unmatched news… all from someone (me!) who has played and playtested a good bit of Unmatched over the last few years. 

For those following along at home, a brief reminder of the Unmatched content I've previously published on the Opinionated Gamers site:
Which brings us to 2023 and my most recent reviews!

Houdini & The Genie

Let’s start with the newest Unmatched box… which brings us two new interesting characters with really great card art and impressive figures. The box also includes a new map (King Solomon’s Mine) that uses the same “secret passage” element from the Baskerville Manor map in Cobble & Fog – but this time sized for 1 v 1.

On the difficulty scale, I’d place both of these characters at medium difficulty. (For reference, other characters we put at that level are Beowulf, Ghost Rider, and the T-Rex.) The biggest issue for both Houdini & The Genie is deck management… many of their abilities are powered by boosts, which can leave you depleting your deck too quickly and taking damage in order to chase down your opponent.

As usual, the production of the game is top-notch (one of the hallmarks of Restoration Games products) and the rulebook does the always excellent job of laying out the basic game rules as well as the special rules relating to the characters (particularly Houdini’s “Boost Tricks”).

If you’re a fan of the Unmatched system, this is a must-buy. If you’re trying out the game to see whether you’ll enjoy it, I’d probably suggest the Volume 1 or Volume 2 box first… but this would be an excellent second purchase to add more characters and a new map. Reminder: with the exception of Deadpool & Bruce Lee, every Unmatched box is playable by itself.

Personally, I really enjoyed playing The Genie – the challenge of maintaining my hand and “lunging” at the right time with his extra action power is a tremendously interesting puzzle. Houdini’s escape power is impressive – but I didn’t do as well with it. (I need practice!)

A Peek Behind the Curtain

My sons and I were playtesters on the boxes I’m about to review… and while I’ve gushed for quite a while about how much I loved the prototype version of Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, some of the other characters were less compelling in the versions we tested. Impressively, the good folks at Restoration Games tweaked and cleaned up those decks – and these two boxes are by far my favorites of the Marvel Unmatched series.

I will note that playing with the actual miniatures, a full-color board, and the beautiful art on the various cards makes a palpable difference in your gaming experience. As solid as the basic designs are, it just pops once it has gone through the capable/artsy hands of the Restoration team.

Teen Spirit

All of the usual accolades apply for both Teen Spirit and For King & Country – the box inserts are darn near perfect, the rulebooks do a splendid job of teaching both the basic rules and the special rules for each new character and battlefield, and the miniatures are top quality with a wash that makes them pop (without resorting to my less-than-adequate miniature painting skills).

What really stands out in the Teen Spirit box is the creative thought and design behind each of the characters. Squirrel Girl’s manipulation of her plethora of squirrels (seriously, there are eight of them!) is a joy to play and intimidating to play against. (Yes, there’s actually a card entitled “Horde of Squirrels”.) Ms. Marvel is, no surprise, Stretchy – and that enables her to make attacks up to 2 spaces away and get a free move at the beginning of each turn. Cloak & Dagger are a symbiotic team (again, no surprise if you read the comic books and/or watched the TV show) that need to balance their attacks and damage taken to be at peak effectiveness.

Difficulty-wise, I’d put Ms. Marvel and Squirrel Girl at medium difficulty (I’ll post our current version of our difficulty ratings at the end of this post) and Cloak & Dagger at the top end of challenging (due to how easily you can mis-balance their play and end up in trouble). 

If I was forced to pick only one of the Marvel boxes, this would be it for me – I like the Navy Pier map, the Battlefield items feel helpful without being over-powerful, and the mix of characters is really great.

For King & Country

Yadda yadda yadda box insert yadda rulebook quality yadda gorgeous miniatures. (In other words, just imagine I’m saying the same very kind things about For King & Country that I did about Teen Spirit.)

Once again, the creative nature of the character design is what makes this box shine. Black Panther has the ability to suck in enemy character cards (his Vibranium Suit) and use their boost value to power his own attacks. Winter Soldier has to struggle with powerful cards that also contain negative effects due to the lingering fallout from his programming by the Soviets. And Black Widow has mission cards in her deck that have particular requirements that must be met before they can be played.

On the difficulty spectrum, I find Black Widow incredibly satisfying but very tricky to play well, while Black Panther is easier to play and Winter Soldier is a medium difficulty character.

This would be my #2 Marvel box – these were the characters I was concerned about after our playtests that the Restoration team tuned up really well. I’m less a fan of the Helicarrier battlefield… I think it slightly favors ranged characters – but I can (and am often) proven wrong about these things. Just ask my sons.

The Wisdom of Crowds

Difficulty rankings for the various characters… courtesy of Mark Jackson & sons (and Owen, my younger son’s friend who has developed a major obsession with Unmatched: Battle of Legends) – in total, the four of us have easily played Unmatched 400-500 times.

Bad News / Good News Ping Pong

Let’s start with the bad news… Restoration Games announced on February 13th, 2023 that they are putting two Unmatched sets “into the vault” – Cobble & Fog and Robin Hood vs. Bigfoot. Both of these sets will not be reprinted when the current stock runs out. 

“With the success of the line and its continual growth, we find ourselves with an ever more crowded roster,” said Restoration Games owner, Justin D. Jacobson. “This, in turn, presents challenges for our retailer partners in deciding what to order and for our customers in deciding what to buy. By putting these titles in the vault, we can give more focus to our active and upcoming sets.”

The good news? On Twitter, Justin clarified that “vaulting” these sets was more like the old Disney film/VHS system, where something could come back out of the vault. That said, there’s no promise that the boxes will return to print – just that they are not permanently shelved.

The ping pong game continues with more bad news – though this information wasn’t entirely a surprise. Due to the expiration of publication rights, the Restoration Games Unmatched vault already contains the Jurassic Park, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Deadpool, and Bruce Lee sets. 

Ready for more good news? The press release also mentions that there are FIVE new sets coming in 2023 and 2024, including an unannounced licensed property. (And I’ll note that one of the unannounced sets we helped playtest was a delight, so there’s even more to be happy about!)

So, if you’re interested in picking up Robin Hood vs. Bigfoot (my pick for least expensive solid intro box to the game – what with two great characters and two maps) or Cobble & Fog (the box with the trickiest figures to play well – great for gamer-y types), I’d go ahead and do that.

Note: I received a review copy of Unmatched: Buffy, For King & Country, and Teen Spirit… the rest of my Unmatched collection was purchased with my hard-earned cash. Which reminds me – anyone want to buy my copy of Epic Duels?

Also note: there’s a new (announced) box coming – Marvel: Brains & Brawn – that we playtested and enjoyed. A Restoration Fireside chat video a couple of weeks ago shared that it will be available to order on their website on June 15 - which means it is already there!  The cooperative Unmatched: Tales to Amaze! is due out early this fall… with at least 5 more Unmatched boxes in the pipeline. (One of which we’ve playtested and loved.)