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