Thursday, January 31, 2019

The Third Bear is a book that rewards us with mysteries

The Third Bear by Jeff Vandermeer reads like what would happen if the ghost of Franz Kafka possessed Neil Gaiman. 

Published in 2010, the book is a collection of stories that could be described as magic realism or could be described as just plain unsettling. His works have a dreamy sensibility but those dreams often veer into the nightmare.

I really enjoyed this book. The story that really hooked me in the was the second one, The Quickening, about a girl being given something that looks like a rabbit but speaks. 


I thought I had the story all figured out, that the possibly magical creature would drive the aunt insane who would then kill it, making it a symbol of lost innocence and lost childhood. Instead, the girl kills her aunt, giving me a sense of relief that that rabbit lives and then asking myself why I’m relieved a little girl became a murderer. And then Vandermeer gives us one last disturbing flashback of the speaking creature eating rabbit stew, bones and all, making us really question what it is and how benevolent is it really?

(End of spoilers)

The Quickening is not the best story in the collection. Stories like the Situation or Errata fight for that title. But it let me know I was looking at a collection that didn’t give easy explanations or interpretations. It let me know that I was in for mysteries without solutions.

In the afterward of The Third Bear, Vandermeer wrote that he intentionally didn’t write forwards or afterwards for the stories because he didn’t want the readers to know his interpretations but to discover their own.

I have read some reviews that felt like the stories were incomplete and flawed because there is so much that isn’t filled in. And if the stories were even a little less well written, I’d agree with that. However, I am going to say that Vandermeer writes well enough that he pulls it off.

The Third Bear isn’t a happy book. It isn’t an easy book. But it is a rewarding book.

Vague but happy memories of the Big Cheese

When I spend time ruminating on the start of me becoming a dedicated board gamer, two companies tend to feature heavily in my memories: Looney Labs and Cheapass Games.

And they are companies I continue to like. However, I got to say that the earlier games from Cheapass Games are a lot more uneven. 

The Big Cheese was one of my earliest acquisitions, mostly because it was so very cheap, even by Cheapass standards. It was also very small, a tiny deck of cards and my game collection at the time consisted of a tiny deck of cards, not counting dice that didn’t come with the game, bidding tokens and a way to keep score.

In fact, I don’t even really remember what it was like to play the game. My strongest memory of the game is playing it in a coffee shop across from the Music Box Theatre in Chicago. I can’t even remember the name of the coffee shop and I’m pretty sure it’s gone. It’s kind of a fun memory.

The game itself, while the edition I own has some fun artwork of rats doing business work (the rat race :D), is really an auction game. Here are the twists. Your bid serves as a timer for any card you win. You’ll place your bid tokens on a project card and take one off at the start of each turn. Definitely makes resource management interesting. And you roll dice to determine how many points a project is worth so there’s some definite swinginess. Although you could argue that makes it a more realistic business model :P

I should really revisit The Big Cheese sometime. I have a feeling I would like it more now. For one thing, I’ve played a lot more auction games since then and have a better appreciation and understanding of them. I also think I would appreciate tokens being tied up in a project and used as timers better.

Of course, now it’s available as a print and play so even if I didn’t still have my old copy, I could make a new one.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Playing Dante’s Inferno felt like being there

Take a simple dungeon crawl. Now, set it in Dante’s version of Hell. Finally, add the Catan economic system. That might sound cool but what we got was a complete, horrible mess.

Climbing into the Wayback Machine, I rediscovered Twilight Creation’s Dante’s Inferno, a game I apparently did my best to block out. A friend of mine got it around when it first came out. We were already familiar with Catan and we thought it was promising but we were done by our second play.

I have a weird opinion of Twilight Creations. I sincerely believe that they love what they do and are trying to give the world cool games. And I think they are willing to take chances. But so many of their games that I’ve tried seem like they need two more rounds of development.

And Dante’s Inferno is near the bottom of the heap for me. But not as bad ZombieTown. That was literally unplayable, although a horrible rulebook had a lot to do with that.

You steadily build a square spiral to the center of Hell where you try and defeat Lucifer. Each space has a number and resource and if one of your pawns is on a space, they can earn that resource Catan style and spend it on different effects.

Back in the olden days, the game just ended up being a tedious slog. Now, older and more jaded- I mean wiser, I can see why Dante’s Inferno has so many problems.

The combat, which consisted of trying to rolling high on two dice, was simplistic and weighted against the players. (Which is thematic, seeing as how damned souls shouldn’t have much chance against demons, but still not fun) Fighting demons is something of a last resort but it should be more interesting.

And the Catan economic system doesn’t mesh well with the rest of the system. You don’t really set up an infrastructure, particularly since other players can force your pawns to move. Everyone’s resources are public knowledge and there are ways to directly attack the other players, so trading isn’t as desirable.

And the rulebook was so bad that we weren’t at first sure how you fought Lucifer (turns out the same as any other combat). And you had to collect and then spend resources to build the inner layers of Hell, turning just progressing into a slog. And- THERE WAS JUST SO MUCH THAT DIDN’T WORK!

If we had come across Dante’s Inferno a couple years later with a lot more games under our belt, we wouldn’t come near it. At the same time, I have a feeling if the game had been developed a couple years later, it wouldn’t have so many issues. Welding a Euro game structure to an adventure game theme was pretty experimental and daring for the time. I have to give credit where credit is due. But the experiment failed.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

The Mysterious Benedict Society solves its mysteries

The Mysterious Benedict Society is a series of books about four extraordinary kids who are recruited by an eccentric but benevolent genius to help save the world. Their adventures are filled with riddles and puzzles set in an off kilter world, giving me some idea of what a crossover between A Series of Unfortunate Events and Professor Layton would be like.

The first book, The Mysterious Benedict Society, describes how the kids are brought together and uncover a conspiracy to take over the world. In the Perilous Journey, they go on a madcap journey to rescue their kidnapped benefactor. And in the Prisoner’s Dilemma, they have their final confrontation with the bad guy.

Yeah, I’m trying to avoid spoilers.

The four kids make me think of comic book superheroes. They each have a special ability and a quirk/flaw. Reynie is practically Sherlock Holmes but struggles to have faith in humanity. (As opposed to Holmes who sometimes doesn’t bother :D) Sticky is a walking encyclopedia but has crippling self doubt. Kate has all the physical skills of Batman but very poor impulse control. And Constance is a mutant and a brat. They’re fun but flat characters.

By the end of the series, my favorite character was Constance because she ended up the most developed. The books explore and explain why she is such a brat without absolving her of being a brat.

It was really hard not to notice the clear influence of A Series of Unfortunate Events and the author noted that people compared how books to that series and The Secret Series by Pseudononimous Bosch.

And, I’m not going to lie, as an adult, I liked both of the other series more. The Mysterious Benedict Society is fun but it isn’t as deep and interesting, particularly compared to A Series of Unfortunate Events.

Part of what made the Lemony Snicket books so strong was how dedicated they were to their Kafkaesque sensibilities. Both for the characters and the readers. The Baudelaire orphans live in a world that is openly malicious and the best they can hope for from an adult is that they will be useless and ineffective. And we the readers never truly get to find out what’s going on. We are just as lost as the Baudelaires.

In comparison, everything gets neatly explained and wrapped up in the Mysterious Benedict Society. And as opposed to useless or malicious grownups, the kids have loving family support networks. And Mr Benedict and his associates are basically adult versions of the kids, super heroes in their own right :D

In fact, because it was a more conventional story, the kooky setting of the Mysterious Benedict Society actually strained my suspension of disbelief. Weaponized office supplies are a neat symbol but I kept wondering why the bad guys never use guns.

While I prefer A Series of Unfortunate Events, I would give the Mysterious Benedict Society to a younger child first. I think it would be easier for a seven-year-old to handle. An eight year old, I might change my mind.

Friday, January 25, 2019

My ongoing adventures with micro games - Slicer

Slicer is 1) a free PnP game 2) a solitaire 3) just nine cards with some dice and tokens 4) an incredibly abstract interpretation of computer hacking. Yup, that about covers it.

In the spirit of William Gibson devotees everywhere, you are a hacker who is hacking their way through a series of servers in order to reach and open up a corporate database. So, each card represents a server and you roll dice in order to successfully hack it. (Am I even using that verb right?)

Slicer has different modes of play. Each mode has you lay out the cards in a different pattern and easy mode makes it easier to successfully hack servers. In fact, you might even win on your first turn on easy mode since the database is shuffled in. On the other hand, the layers of cards you need to go through on hard might require loaded dice.

To add to the fun, you have to complete the game in six turns and messing up a roll can cost you two turns. You do get two to three tokens that let you bend the rules a bit.

Proverbially cards on the table. Slicer is not a good game. It really boils down to flip a card and roll three dice and hope you roll high. The dice and card manipulation that your help tokens give you isn’t enough to really give you choices or control. When I’m complaining about the lack of control in a nine-card, six-round game, it’s pretty bad.

That said, there are some things I like about Slicer. It’s a super easy build. I like the variable set-ups. And it works well as a parent break game, taking up little space, time or brain power.

What Slicer really reminds me of is Muses, another nine-card and some dice game. Muses, which I’ve bashed, is better though, because it allows more dice manipulation. I ended up playing Muses than I ever expected because it works so well as a parent break and I suspect that I’ll do the same with Slicer.

I do think Slicer missed a trick by not giving any of the cards special powers. For instance, being allowed to flip a card after successfully hacking a midrange server would add decisions to the game.

I wouldn’t recommend Slicer for anyone to make. Still, I don’t regret making it and it will see some play from me.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

The guilty pleasure of Prince of Tennis

It has been said that the only genre of sports movies is the scrappy underdogs overcoming the odds. I really want to know who said that but it really seems to be true from The Bad News Bears to Sea Biscuit to The Mighty Ducks to Rocky (well, he did go the distance) to Major Leagues to etc.

To be fair, it’s one of the easiest ways of creating drama and tension. I mean, watching a movie about Michael Jordon being awesome would be fun but we wouldn’t be wondering how it would end.

But that’s a lot of why I really liked the manga Prince of Tennis enough to read a couple dozen volumes of it back when it was first getting published in the U.S. Because it completely subverts that theme.

Ryoma and all of the other players at Seigaku aren’t introduced as newbies to tennis who turn out to be prodigies or who have to learn that hard work and practice can make champions out of them. No, these middle schoolers start out as physical gods who laugh at the laws of physics and just get more ridiculous from there.

In fact, Ryoma is kind of an immature brat :D Although he is a twelve-year-old who has gone Batman levels of training in tennis by his crazy monk dad so he kind of has an excuse for being both arrogant and immature. He’s young and not a prodigy but someone who worked hard to be insanely good.

But I’m getting off track. Prince of Tennis entertained me so much because it wasn’t about plucky underdogs. It’s about the Dragon Ball Z of tennis matches. It’s not about the heroes overcoming the odds. It’s about the heroes overcoming the laws of physics, common sense and reality.

Maybe if I’d seen more subversions of the underdog theme, I wouldn’t have been so charmed by Prince of Tennis. Then again, it jumps into its madness feet first and no apologies. Maybe it’d have been fun no matter what.

But Ryoma and his friends are no Bad News Bears. They’re Greek gods with tennis rackets.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

What will we pay for free?

One of the selling points of Print and Play is that it’s a way to get ‘free’ games. Which is, of course, patently untrue. You always have material costs, even if the download is free.

That said, as long as you have a reliable printer, some games are virtually free and there are other ways to moderate the cost. Having a tool box of assorted dice, tokens, dry erase markers and pawns is an investment that goes a long ways. 

Having said that (and there’s a lot to say about budget PnP), you also have to ask yourself what you’re willing to settle for for ‘free’. To quote my dad, if you wouldn’t pay a dime for it, why are you bothering getting it for free?

Now, I freely admit that I personally give more leeway for PnP games than I would for a published game that I would have to pay quite a bit more for. Particularly if it is not from an established publisher but from a hobby designer. (If I have paid for the files, my standards go up) But there is a definite line.

Shortly after I first discovered Boardgame Geek, I tried out Malta Convoy. All it takes to make it is printing out a page and adding dice. However, it’s a game where you barely have any choices. It’s mostly rolling the dice and recording what they tell you to record.

I’d still probably pull out Malta Convoy and play it out of nostalgia value but there are literally dozens of games I’d recommend over it that are also print and add dice. Being free just isn’t enough. Even a free PnP game has to have some value.

There’s definitely a tipping point for me. What got me thinking about the value of ‘free’ games was Outlaw. Outlaw is basically a poor cousin to Pikomino, tossing dice in order to claim spots to earn points. It’s another game that doesn’t require any more construction than print the board and add dice and tokens.

Outlaw is, honestly, a so-so game. It’s too easy to have a null round or even accidentally knock one of your own tokens off the board. The game can become a grind. It doesn’t have the legs to be a game I’d want to play a lot of.

But, I have seen dice games that publishers were asking money for that were worse. In fact, I’d say that Outlaw is actually pretty middle of the road for light dice games, which is a genre I think it pretty fun and easy to get folks into.

So Outlaw is a game that I made a laminated board for and it’s a game I’ve recommended to people. It’s not brilliant but it is a good return for ‘free’. It passed the threshold.

All that said, what I’ll settle in the name of ‘free’ hasn’t been as big a deal recently. Over the last few years, I really think a lot of solid PnP games have come out. PnP contests and prototypes with Kickstarter in mind probably has a lot to do with that. I will happily listen to any argument to the contrary but I think you have to settle for ‘free’ a lot less than when I started.

Monday, January 21, 2019

The two minutes I thought Twilight Creations was out of business

When doing some research about Twilight Creation’s Dante’s Inferno, I discovered that their website no longer existed.

Which made me rather sad and slightly surprised. Other than Easter Island (which is probably one of their more obscure games), I really don’t like any of their games and will actively avoid most of them. However, I do kind of like the company.

Don’t get me wrong. Their component quality can be questionable (Indeed, the muddy color palette of Zombiegeddon made it unplayable). Their rulebooks can be horrible. And their mechanics often seem like they need more serious playtesting.

But Twilight Creations has always struck me as a scrappy company that wasn’t afraid of experimenting and taking risks. They were making zombie games with miniatures before that was cool. Heck, they paved the way to make it cool. Sure, I hate Zombies! but I’m not going to knock the many folks who do like it and its family of games. (I will judge Munchkin fans though)

So, Twilight Creations going away made me kind of sad. I googled to double check. Facebook? They are still in business, have a Kickstarter campaign coming up and sorry about their website having issues?

Okay, that’s good :)

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Derailing HellRail

HellRail: Third Perdition was a game that I really wanted to like. Yeah, when I start off like that, you know that I didn’t like it.

The theme, as if you couldn’t guess, was running trains in Hell. You are trying to deliver damned souls to the different circles of Hell. Yes, it has a very Dante feel. The art is more a fire and brimstone, renaissance Hell than a metal or cutesie one. According to the rules, the winner gets to put off burning in the pits for one more day. So feel good.

Okay, who doesn’t love train games? And trains in Hell? Doesn’t that sound cool in a black nail polish kind of way? But what was really cool is that, except for tiny wooden trains, the entire game is made up of square cards that do everything. The cards can be used as tracks for the map, cargo, points and fuel. 

I first came across it in 2006. I’d already discovered multi-use cards through San Juan but HellRail was still one of my earlier experiences with the idea and I thought it was super cool. And it was a full train game (pick up and deliver, track development, resource management) that was condensed down to a deck of square cards. That was super cool. 

So where did it all go wrong?

First of all, since you use the cards for EVERYTHING, you burn through the deck fast. The game feels like it should be at least as twice as long. The tracks and deliveries are just starting to get going and the game ends.

I’d actually considered buying a second copy and combining the decks. And I’m glad I didn’t because that wouldn’t have solved the other problem.

HellRail is really random. Too random. In games like San Juan or Race for the Galaxy, specific cards only matter for one purpose (adding them to your tablea) Otherwise, be it goods or money, cards are equal. Every use of a card in HellRails depends on the specific card you’re playing. Which makes it too easy to derail any planning you’re doing and one bad enough turn can actually completely kill your chances of winning the game.

And in a train game, that level of random just isn’t fun. I’m not against random but HellRail took it to a frustrating place, 

Years later, I tried HellRail again and honestly found it even worse. Time has not been kind of HellRail. It has not aged well. I have a feeling that it was more of a standout game almost twenty years ago but so many better light pick-up-and-deliver games have been created since then. Some games are timeless (Hi Acquire!) but HellRail felt dated and not in a retro, fun way.

A light and flexible pick-up-and-deliver game is really something to be applauded. It’s a very satisfying genre for me and an accessible one that can fit into under an hour is something I really look for. But HellRail fell apart, particularly when there are a lot of better options out there.

HellRail had a lot of mechanical ideas that really appealed to me but, I got to admit, what it might have done is proven how some of them don’t work.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Glancing at Knizia’s approach to MtG

I’m a bit of an oddball because I prefer Scarab Lords/Minotaur Lords to Blue Moon/Blue Moon Legends. Both families are generally considered to be Reiner Knizia’s response to collectible card games like Magic so it’s kind of only natural to compare them.

My preference has pretty much nothing to do with the actual games itself. No one on my old gaming circles was interested in Blue Moon but there were one or two guys who really dug the Lords so I got to play it a lot more.

Truth to tell, if I had a chance to play more Blue Moon, I might change my mind. And, truth to tell, the games approach similar ideas in different ways, so comparing them might not make that much sense.

Both games involve old school deck building. You know, where you build the deck before you start playing :P And both have a core mechanic of using cards to build up numbers.

However, the Lords games are more traditional game in a box. You have core decks that you can tweak a little through out a multi-round game. The Blue Moon family has far more decks, which serve as a pool of cards to build, making it more like a traditional deck builder :D

In my very limited experience, I think that the Lords games have more intricate actual ‘in the game’ play. Blue Moon seems to have more simple game play but much more complex deck building and meta game. While I bought and have kept most of the original decks, I haven’t looked through them so I’m sure there’s a lot of complexity I haven’t seen.

I’m torn between which game I’d like to explore more. I think that the Lords Games are more manageable and I already know them better. However, I think that really exploring the Blue Moon family might richer. The 

Monday, January 14, 2019

Milestones in my PnP life

There have been times when I feel like 2018 was when I started making PnP games but that’s balderdash. I’ve dabbled with print and play for many years. 

However, going through my notes, I can see how, since moving to Tucson, my interest in PnP really picked up. Yes, 2018 was something of a watershed year but I can see how that interest snowballed and what games and publishers were definite milestones.

Tiny Epic Defenders was a major one. Making the demo version during the Kickstarter was a big step for me as a crafter. Amusingly, it also convinced me to not back the game :D

The next major step for me was Button Shy games. Their pocket line of games gave me a wide variety of micro games to explore. They are easy enough to craft and enough of them are genuinely good enough to make them worth making.

Seriously, Button Shy opened a lot of doors for me, both in games to explore and ways of looking at both micro games and print and play games.

The last major milestone that really shook up my ideas and views was the 2017 GenCan’t Roll and Write Contest. I binged on Roll and Writes like I never had before and the best of them made me really reassess Roll and Writes as a genre. And the GenCan’t contest was also when my interest in solitaire gaming went beyond a mild interest and really snowballed.

Make no mistake. 2018 was a big year. I got a lot more serious and, more importantly, a lot more organized about print and play. It’s been a huge year for Print and Play for me but it didn’t come out of nowhere.

Monday, January 7, 2019

Thoughts after a year with the PnP Autumn

Autumn was the start of my PnP exploration last year, the first game I tried when I decided to start actually playing the games I was crafting.

Autumn is certainly not the first PnP game I’ve played, solitaire or otherwise. Autumn is not the best PnP game I’ve ever played. It’s not even the best tile laying PnP game I’ve played. 

However, it still marks a change in my gaming. Autumn was the game that I kept coming back to until I realized I was using it as a quick mental coffee break, a parent break to use a phrase someone else has used. And I began both looking for PnP games thar fit that niche and playing them.

My opinion of Autumn hasn’t changed much over the course of last year. It’s a very simple, very light tile laying game made up of eighteen cards. It isn’t innovative but it’s well balanced. It does pretty well as a multi-player game as well as a solitaire and I’m still having fun.

I now keep a copy of Autumn, two-player deck on one side and three-player on the other, in my bag. Plays one to three and I can gift it away if someone wants it.

A collection of harboiled Cthulhu stories

Noirlathotep is an anthology of stories that combined hard-boiled noir with the Cthulhu Mythos. The one sentence review is that it’s a mixed bag of stories but the best stories in the book are very good.

In all honesty, combining those two genres isn’t much of a stretch. Both of them came out of the pulp magazines in the early part of the twentieth century. Indeed, the private investigator, the stock character of noire, is also one of the go-to roles in the Call of Cthulhu RPG.

More to the point, while Lovecraft didn’t write anything that I’d call noire, his friend and correspondent Robert E Howard wrote stories that blended the themes, although I’ll admit that calling them noire might be pushing it. But it’s close.

Okay, I’m basically picking nits. Yes, with the exception of a couple of comedic send-ups of hard boiled detectives, there’s nothing in Noirlathotep that would be out of place in a more general Cthulhu anthology. But that completely ignores the only question that actually matters. Are the stories worth reading?

And, on the whole, the answer is yes. The greatest sin of the worst of the stories is that they were forgettable. Which is a pretty big sin but there were at least three stories that struck me and have stuck with me. Enough that if I were grading the book as a sixth-grader, I’d give it a B.

Into the Valley of San Fernando is a light hearted comedy about a PI who gets stuck looking for Cthulhu’s missing teenybopper daughters. It takes absolutely nothing serious or sacred and that’s why I think it ends up working. Sometimes, going all in works.

However, the two stories that I really liked were The Lurker in Darkness and The Shadow Over Braxton County. Both stories had a visceral level of horror while still embracing cosmic horror.

They also deal with miscegenation, which is both a reoccurring theme for Lovecraft and proof of how incredibly racist he was. Instead of ignoring this particularly unpleasant aspect of Lovecraft, the stories explore it with a lot more nuance and compassion than his works ever did. The result is effective and memorable stories.

Noirlathotep is not a perfect collection but it has some real gems.

Friday, January 4, 2019

My 2018 Mini PnP Secret Santa experience

Now that I know that my Mini PnP Secret Santa target has gotten my package, I feel like I can write a little about the experience.

2018 was the second time I participated in the Mini PnP Santa and I felt a lot more confident doing it this year. In fact, I’d been doing some definite planning for it earlier in the year. Last year, I was still a little shaky and just thew whatever in the envelope. Luckily, whatever included Pocket Landship so my target got something they liked.

This year, I was more prepared and confident and I feel I sent my target some solid little PnP games. Pocket Landship and its expansion went into the envelope. Even though I thought there was a good chance a fellow PnPer would already own it, Elevenses for One. The Palm Island demo which is a great game by itself. And Murderer’s Row since I am on a mission to get it more attention :D

One thing I realized is that I don’t make tuck boxes in general. Part of my goal in PnP is to expand my collection while taking up minimal shelf space so I bag everything. And if I’m shipping stuff overseas, tuck boxes make things more difficult and expensive, even if I included them flat.

In fact, I’m not sure I’ll ever feel up for the big boy PnP Secret Santa. I feel like that calls for tuck boxes and color printing and better quality  components than just laminating.

However, the mini one is pretty awesome for me. That’s something I feel up to and it’s a great way to be part of the PnP community.

My December PnP

Okay. Last month of the year. 

I made copies of Castle Wolfenstein, Cryptic (second copy with better quality cards), One Perfect Moment (with pictures), The Abandons, Nine Little Letters, Slicer, Rogue Force, WokouPocket Landship w/expansion, Sprawlopolis, Tales From the Satellite Titanic, Kingdom 18, Itty Bitty Dungeon, Shields Up, Coin-Age (Chicago, Oz, Thinhallan) and Mad Love. Plus, I made copies of Dragon Vault, Snakey Dice, the third Paper Pinball board, Tetdice, Dead Cabin, Dead Outpost, and Settlers of the Dead just by printing and laminating.


On the one hand, I made a lot of projects in December. And at least one of them, The Abandons, was a larger project by my standards. It was one of my most productive months.

On the other hand, I really worked hard to pace myself. I tried to spread out the crafting because it can be too easy to burn out. And that’s how you mess up projects too.

I also have to admit that I tried to clear out some of my backlog. Sometimes I’ll print out stuff and then, for one reason or another, not get around to do anything more with it. As the year went on, I realized that solitaire games are what get played so I focused more on them. Still, I had multi-player games I had printed out literally months ago so I decided it was time to make them. Frankly, they take up less space that way.

All in all, a good close to the year.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Why Onirim made my year

If I had to pick my game of the year, it would have to be Onirim, even though I first played it years ago when it first came out. But this was the year I really got into it. 

When I first played it way back when, I said Onirim was the solitaire game for people who don’t play solitaire game. Now that I’ve developed more of an interest in solitaire games, at least short ones, Onirim is now an amazing game for people who do play solitaire games :D

I actually tried writing a couple of blogs about Onirim during 2018 but I wasn’t happy with any of them. I doubt I’ll be happy with this one either :P

For them that don’t know, Onirim is a solitaire card game, although you can play it as a two-player cooperative (but I never have) In a nutshell, you are trying to make runs of cards before the deck runs out. And it comes with several built-in expansions, which is super cool.

I also have to confess that the app is a big reason I’ve been able to embrace Onirim so much. While I’m not getting rid of my hard copy, being able to play on my devices is a big deal. And since it is a solitaire game, it feels much closer and satisfying to play on a device than playing a multi-player game against AIs, which just doesn’t interest me much.

As I mentioned before, my interest in solitaire games is pretty much limited to shorter games. If I have an hour or more to devote to gaming, I would much rather use that time to play with other people.

And Onirim is pretty much the ideal of that. Even a physical game only takes around ten, fifteen minutes, including setup and clean up. At the same time, the game offers a lot of control and choices. Oh, you are still surfing on the chaos of a shuffled deck but your choices can make the difference  between a rough ride and a total wipeout.

And that’s why I keep coming back to Onirim. Even when I am strapped for time, it is a game that I can still play, particularly with the help of the app. And it is a legitimate game with interesting decisions for me to make. I know I’ll have fun :)

There are other games that have made an impact on my gaming life in 2018. Finally playing Captain Sonar was awesome. There have been print-and-play games like Micro Rome and Palm Island and Murderer’s Row and Orchard that have been wonderful experiences and games I will keep playing. But Onirim really is the one that has had the most impact.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Spoiler Free review of Codex Alera - it’s good!

One of my goals for 2018 was to finish reading the Codex Alera by Jim Butcher. Made on a bet that there weren’t bad ideas, only bad writing, Butcher took the ideas of Lost Legions and Pokémon and created a masterpiece. The Codex Alera fights with the Dresden Files for my favorite Butcher series.

Admittedly, that is partially because the Codex Alera is one single story, not an open-ended series. I love the Dresden Files and I like ongoing series but there is something to be said for a definitive beginning, middle and end.

The series is very hard to discuss since any discussion of the second half cannot help but spoil the first three books. Let’s go general.

Part of what makes the books so fun is the setting. The humans are descended from Romans and basically have super powers from nature spirits that are called furies and based on Pokémon. The Marat are essentially the elves from Elfquest on massive steroids. Plus blood magic wolf men and empathic ape men and alien bugs. Tons of political intrigue and comic book style battles.

Our hero Tavi starts off the series without any furies/nature spirits, making him the only normal human being we ever meet in the series. So, in order to survive and thrive, he has to become a phenomenal trickster hero. I refuse to google it but I am sure there is fanfic out there of Tavi and Miles Vorkosigan teaming up.

Actually, that’s how almost all the conflicts in the books go. The heroes are never nearly as powerful as their opponents but they are always way more clever. Tavi just does it the best and the most cool.

Anyway, the Codex Alera is a whole lot of fun. On the one hand, it’s a discussion of determination under strife. On the other hand, it’s a wild ride full of exciting action scenes with the descendants of Roman legionaries as super heroes. So glad I read it.

Can’t get enough Cthulhu and Holmes

My two favorite forms of pastiches are Sherlock Holmes and Cthulhu Mythos. Both are public domain so plenty of folks try their hand at either creating new Sherlock Holmes stories, sometimes with fanatic elements and sometimes just ‘lost’ stories, or opening up the can of worms that was Lovecraft’s cosmic horror. And while there is some complete garbage out there, a surprisingly amount is fun reading or even actually good.

Part of the reason why I think both subjects work so well as pastiches is because there’s a lot of room to work with. Which is obvious with the Cthulhu mythos. Compare The Strange High House in the Mist with At the Mountains of Madness. Just in Lovecraft alone, there was a wide spectrum of stories and tones. Even in his own life, his circle of friends like Clark Ashton Smith and Robert E Howard worked with elements of his ideas.

It seems a little stranger with Sherlock Holmes can inspire such a wide variety of work that, well, isn’t a train wreck. I mean, the character inspired a genre but all the stories are about two guys, Holmes and Watson. That’s a lot more limited.

I think the secret to Sherlock Holmes being open such a wide variety of interpretations and still being ‘true’ and entertaining is that the character in the original stories is pretty flat and distant. Which isn’t a dig because the original stories were driven by plot and some really good plots at that.

In comparison, Hercule Poirot has a much more defined personality and would be much harder to write about good pastiches about. Holmes is enough of a cypher that Basil Rathbone, Jeremy Brett, Robert Downey Jr. and Benedict Cumberbatch all play very different Holmes that all still work.

The author who straddled both pastiches was, of course, August Derleth. While I appreciate that he kept Lovecraft in print enough to become a part of culture, he really didn’t capture the cosmic despair of Lovecraft. On the other hand, his Solar Pons stories, openly pastiches of Holmes, are a lot of fun and frankly much better written.

These pastiches are almost a guilty pleasure for me except that I don’t think there’s anything to feel guilty about.