Friday, October 29, 2021

The Halloween Tree is pure Halloween madness

 I decided to wrap up my enjoyment of Halloween things with Ray Bradbury’s The Halloween Tree. As such things tend to be, it was both worse and better than my memories of past readings.

Published in 1972, it describes the fantastic journey of eight boys as they both discover the origins of Halloween and try and save the life of a friend who is on death’s door. The mysterious Mr Moundshroud takes through time and space to see bits and pieces of how Halloween has come to be framed with each boy wearing a costume that reflects stops on the journey.

And one of the things that profoundly struck me was how their choice in costumes was as much characterization as the boys got. Admittedly, it’s a short book and that’s a lot of characters. They end up being an amorphous blob of boisterous kids who make Henry Higgins look like Holden Caulfield.

Something I seriously misremembered was the amount of historical and cultural information in the book. My memory had filled in complete essays on how different cultures remembered the dead. Nope.

Instead, The Halloween Tree has shadow box images with very little actual didactic content. You get verbal snapshots of scenes. I realized that I was filling in a lot of the details with my own casual knowledge of ancient Egypt or ancient Britain or Notre Dame Cathedral or Dia de Muertos. 

Instead of being educational, Bradbury is fully embracing the phantasmagorical and the Grand Guignol. You have to almost fill in the plot connections yourself as he rushes breathlessly from image to image.

Bradbury’s use of language and imagery has always been on of the his strong suits, pretty much since the get go. But in The Halloween Tree, his use of language was so extreme that it almost feels like he is parodying himself.

And, you know what? That is why it works.

The Halloween Tree is a fever dream of over-the-top and hyperbolic imagery. It doesn’t even try to be realistic. And, if it had, it would have diluted the effect. Instead, the game is a mad carnival ride of scenes and the ride never slows down. It is Bradbury’s profound imagination and skill with language on fire.

I understand it was originally written as a screenplay, which explains how visual the work is. And I haven’t seen the animated movie that was made in 1993, which apparently removed four or five the characters and turned one of them into a girl. It does sound interesting and removing the ‘no girls allowed’ feel of the book would be an improvement.

As an outline, The Halloween Tree shouldn’t work. In practice, it works very well because Bradbury’s mastery of language makes it burn like a thousand jack o’lanterns stuffed with fireworks.

Wednesday, October 27, 2021

The Three Investigators- debunking ghosts from a junk yard

 It’s really more Halloween adjacent at best but I have gone back to the Three Investigators series for the last few months got decompression reading. The reason that I can even try and tie the books to Halloween is because, man, these teens run into a lot of Scooby Doo hoaxes.

The Three Investigators is a series of juvenile mysteries that ran from 1964 to 1987. Except in Germany. If Wikipedia is to be believed, it never stopped in Germany. 

The protagonists form a classic Super Ego-Ego-Id trio. Jupiter Jones is the chubby super ego and the actual detective of the group. Bob Andrews is the ego. While Jupiter is the intuitive genius, Pete is the other side of the smart guy coin, the methodical researcher. And Pete Crenshaw is the big guy, the id, and I always picture him as Shaggy from Scooby Doo since he’s the first to believe in the supernatural.

In some ways, the stories are more grounded than other kid detectives I’ve looked at. They live in a defined town that is fictional but set in a specific location in California. They have to work and scrounge for money and supplies. And grownups, either negatively or positively, are never useless.

On the other hand, they do have an elaborate hidden secret headquarters in a junkyard and they have access to a Rolls Royce. Which, admittedly, does explain how they can get around California. So there is some definite wish fulfillment going on.

Originally, part of the spin of the series was that the boys were associated with Alfred Hitchcock. In reality, of course, all Alfred Hitchcock did was accept a check for the use of his name. But, honestly, from an entertainment and literary standpoint, that’s the least interesting part of the  books. 

The plots are surprisingly intricate puzzles. Not realistic, oh no, but they are intricate. I did appreciate when part of a solution was glare jolt obvious in one book, Jupiter immediately pointed out. The plots are ridiculous puzzles built on people trying to live like Professor Layton but they don’t talk down to their readers.

One thing I can’t do really is compare these books to either the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew, even though they fit the same niche. That’s because those two series have been pretty much adding content for ninety years and adjusting as the times change. I’d have to find books written at the same time as the Three Investigators to make a fair comparison.

I have only read nine of the original forty-three books but I have enjoyed them and I’ll keep on going. The Three Investigators isn’t high literature but it also isn’t junk.

Monday, October 25, 2021

The Nightmare Before Christmas is our son’s Halloween

 In what is becoming a holiday tradition, we watched the Nightmare Before Christmas as a family. 

Honestly, as our kid grows older, I can see some holiday works beings ones that he grows out of. But Nightmare is probably going to be there for the long haul.

I think part of the movies strength is that it doesn’t talk down to the audience or pull its punches. The common denizens of Halloween Town, both their natures and their proclivities, are the stuff of nightmares. The Oogie Boogie Man is right out of the Festival by H. P. Lovecraft.

However, when our son says to me ‘This is Halloween is the Halloween song,’ I think he really nails a powerful part of the movie’s appeal. Outside of The Monster Mash and Werewolves of London (maybe Thriller?), I can’t think of any other Halloween anthems that have really made it into the collective consciousness. (Which still puts Halloween way ahead of Thanksgiving and Arbor Day)

There is a LOT that makes Nightmare work and the score is just one part of it. That said, it’s a musical that clicks even with people who don’t like musicals.

Honestly, I don’t feel like I can do Nightmare justice and I’m sure that no one reading this hasn’t seen it. Probably seen it lots of times. It is a children’s movie I don’t mind seeing over and over again. And I don’t mind hearing our son sing  This is Halloween constantly :D

Friday, October 22, 2021

Board games aren’t scary (and I don’t care!)

 Halloween and monsters and horror are all great themes tor games. They are evocative and appealing. But one thing that board games that revolve around scary things struggle to do is actually be scary.

It’s absolutely not a deal breaker for me. Given the success of the genre, it’s clearly not a deal breaker for anyone else. In fact, it’s such a little deal, I almost never think about it.

The reasons are pretty obvious. The level of abstraction and control that a board game gives you dilutes the fear factor. The act of taking turns alone changes the tempo and adds enough control to make being scared tough.

(That does make me wonder if a horror-themed Escape: Curse of the Lost Temple could be honestly scary. There is a horror version that I haven’t tried. That might work! Real time makes everything scarier)

Honestly, if you want authentic chills down your spine, RPGs and Video Games seem to be the way to go, for opposite reasons. RPGs let you internalize the story while Video Games externalize the story.

And let’s be clear. Excitement is different than fear. Everything coming down to the wire in Arkham Horror is exciting. It’s not scary. But, really, I’ll take exciting over scary.

Even if a board game never gives me a jump scare, it’s still a great medium for Halloween. It’s a theme that everyone understands. And getting everyone at the table on the same page can be what makes a game experience work.

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

The Gates is a hell of a lot of fun

 I hadn’t realized when I decided to read  John Connolly’s The Gates in the middle of October that it was set at Halloween. Mind you, I’d have enjoyed it any time of the year. 

In a small English town, a boy named Samuel Johnson and his dashchund Boswell see a portal to hell open up. Demons come out, just in time for Halloween, and hijinks and comedy ensue.

Okay, it was impossible for me not to compare The Gates to Good Omens. They both have that cheeky, self-aware tone that resonates with the works of Wodehouse or Jerome K. Jerome. And they both are about biblical-style end of the world.

That said, the differences are significant enough that the Gates stands as its own book. Good Omens has an ensemble cast and a fairly complicated plot. The Gates is clearly centered around Samuel and has a simpler plot. A ton of footnotes about physics but a simpler plot. Samuel  is very different than Good Omens’ Adam. Quirky and a bit nebbish and coping with his parents’ divorce, he’s more developed (but he is the main character so he should be)

And, yes, Good Omens is the better book but it’s a modern classic. That leaves plenty of room for The Gates to still be very good.

I have to note, while a dedicated cat lover, I adored Boswell the dashchund. Neurotic but brave, he demonstrates endless love for Samuel and more common sense than any other character. I cheated and checked to make sure he doesn’t die at the end of the book (spoiler)

The real strength of The Gates is tone and characterization. Plot wise, it doesn’t break any new ground on the idea of kids saving the world. But that doesn’t matter. The voice that the book has and the characters easily carry the work.

Years ago, I read John Connolly’s Book of Lost Things, which is one of the best fairy tale deconstructions I’ve read. After The Gates, I won’t wait so long to read more John Connolly. For instance, the Gates is the first book in a trilogy :D

Monday, October 18, 2021

The 2021 PnP Solitaire Design Contest is refreshing

 Right now, we are in that magical period of the 2021 PnP solitaire contest where all the entries have been entered but the contest hasn’t been judged yet. So you get to look at everything.

(Hey, some designers take stuff down fast)

Looking at 2021, two thirds of the games I learned were Roll and Writes. Which works perfectly well for me. If time and space are limited, Roll and Writes can be a really strong investment for your limited time and space.

However, I noticed that the ninth Roll and Write contest didn’t excite me that much. To be fair, nine contests over the course of three years is a lot. A lot of content and a lot of games but there can also be some burnout.

And looking at the entries in the PnP Solitaire Contest this year, I’m seeing stuff that peaks my interest and I want to try. Mind you, at the rate I’ve been crafting lately, I may not get to them until next year. (But I have a list!) 

Clearly, despite Roll and Writes being good for me this year, I crave other media of gaming. Which is only healthy. (And maybe I’ll look at that ninth contest with different eyes after a break)

For most of this year, I’ve been writing about what Roll and Writes I’ve learned each month. At least one month, that pushed me to learn more Roll and Writes. Which was great but maybe I should make it a New-To-Me post.

Saturday, October 16, 2021

Our household is excited about Animal Crossing DLC

 The one video game that everyone in our family plays is Animal Crossing: New Horizons. Which is really a way of saying that I play it too :P My wife and my son are way more into video games than I am.

Anyway, Nintendo has announced the last major free update to the game and the first paid update. I won’t be surprised if it isn’t the last, seeing as how Nintendo is in the business of making money.

There is a crazy amount of stuff being added to the game. If this is how Nintendo is ending this version of Animal Crossing, they are doing it with barrels of dynamite instead of a whimper. I can’t even appreciate all of what’s being added since I don’t know the history of the game, unlike my wife who knows who a lot of the NPCs getting added in are.

But what I wanted to comment on is the DLC that you’ll have to pay for.

It’s basically a whole new game.

A whole new area will be added, an archipelago where you make design and decorate vacation homes for the various anthropomorphic creatures that inhabit the world of Animal Crossing. It is the reincarnation of an earlier game in the series, Happy Home Designer.

I have often compared Animal Crossing to the Can-D and dollhouses from The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch because the world cannot have enough Philip K Dick references. The archipelago expansion, where you have even greater control over the environment, pushes that comparison even further.

If the trailers are to be believed, you will be decorating and furnishing and landscaping with a speed and ease that wasn’t there before. You can make your visions of the perfect getaway digitally real. You go from doing everything by hand to divine power.

Animal Crossing is not part of the video game paradigm where you are an action protagonist. Instead, you are an artistic protagonist. Which isn’t unique but isn’t as common.

Animal Crossing, at its heart, is a detailed, interactive dollhouse. And apparently Nintendo not only knows that but will figure out how to take it up to eleven..

Friday, October 15, 2021

The Night Wire is a tiny taste of dread

With Halloween coming, I took a moment to reread The Nigjt Wire, a short story by Henry Ferris Arnold. It’s from 1926 so public domain and free to read online. It’s also pretty short so it’s easy to read in half a sitting.

In it, two men are on the night shift of a telegraph office, typing out news stories as they come in when they start getting live reports about a terrible apocalypse happening to a city they have never heard of.

I honestly don’t want to go into too many details because that would spoil the story. Mind you, it’s nearly a hundred years old, apparently was one of the most popular stories in that era of Weird Tales and has been frequently anthologized so you probably have already read it :D 

And you can click on the link below and read the thing in five minutes if you haven’t  :D

There are two elements in the story that I think make it resonate. Atmosphere and uncertainty.

The entire story takes place in one room in the middle of the night. The sparse setting manages to convey a sense of isolation where the only connection to the world is the telegraph and that is a tenuous connection. 

But the uncertainty is the real power of the story. We never have a clear idea what is going on. Is the night wire describing a Biblical apocalypse? A Lovecraftian cosmic horror? The afterlife? Or is the narrator having some kind of psychotic break? You can make arguments for all of the above.

But you get enough details for it to be really creepy. The story gives your mind enough to work with.

If you need a tiny taste of Halloween dread, the Night Wire should do the trick.


Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Shangri-La was a weird place

 Rereading Lost Horizon (by James Hilton) for the first time in maybe five years was like reading a completely different book.

Okay. There will be spoilers ahead. For a best-selling book from 1933 that was turned into a famous movie from 1937 that turned Shangri-La into a common noun. So it’s like spoiling the end of the Wizard of Oz. (Pssst… Dorothy gets to go home)

Here’s the elevator pitch: four westerners get flat out kidnapped to the mysterious and mystical lamasery of Shangri-La.

My vague memories were that, by the mystical lamasery’s standards, Shangri-La was pretty mundane. No warrior monks with magical martial arts or wizards. I had completely forgotten that the High Lama claimed to be telepathic (I always forget that!) or that the longevity apparently had a narcotic drug component.

I had also been under the impression that Lost Horizon had been the start of the whole mystical monastery genre when I was younger. Now I know it was a well-used device by 1933. So I am now left wondering if Lost Horizon is a straight take on the mystic monastery and great white savior tropes or a deconstruction of them.

Conway, the protagonist, is the guy who the High Lama chooses to succeed him, even though he’s just got to the place. However, his inner calmness comes from being a shell-shocked survivor of World War I. The book makes is abundantly clear he is very damaged, even though everyone wants him to be their hero.

And, judging by the ending, he doesn’t end up saving anyone. But, to be fair, he never asks to be anyone’s hero.

Shangri-La, on the other hand, is fascinating. The highlights of the place include plumbing from Akron, Ohio, central heating, a European library and a grand piano. The High Lama is actually from Luxembourg. The special treatment that extends lifespans doesn’t work on native Tibetans. 

More than that, Shanghai-La doesn’t seem to have any goals relating to enlightenment or philosophy. What little we learn of the place makes it sound like scholarly hedonism, like a group of professors were given lifetime tenure and sabbaticals at the same time. The main goal of Shangri-La is to be a repository of knowledge and art after the rest of the world blows itself up.

Don’t get me wrong. Shangri-La sounds like a lovely place to chill out but it doesn’t seem very deep. Given their mantra of moderation, the characters in the book might agree with me. It’s a tempting but I don’t know if it’s a good idea.

I wonder what Hilton’s goal was with the book. But the layers of ambiguity may be part of the book’s  lasting success.

Monday, October 11, 2021

Well, Boxes is better than Tic Tac Toe

 I’ve recently been playing Boxes with our seven-year-old on the Nintendo Switch via Clubhouse Games. That has to be a particularly ridiculous use of technology since Boxes is a game whose fame comes in great part from the fact that you just need a paper and pencil to play it.

You know it. Draw a grid of dots and take turns drawing lines in between the dots. Complete a box and you initial it to claim it as your own and get another turn. Most points wins.

Seriously, playing it on a video game console beyond overkill. Not quite as extreme as using a car as a way of honking a horn as opposed to transportation but it is silly. In fact, since you can’t change the size of the grid, it’s actually inferior to pencil and paper. Still, it’s a way to get a seven-year-old to actually play.

And, while I have played the odd game of Boxes over the years, I don’t know what I really think of it. It’s cute and very convenient to play but strategy really seems to come down to trying to not let your opponent finish a box and setting up a cascade of moves for when your opponent makes a mistake. The game feels like waiting for someone to make a mistake. And with decent play, one mistake will decide the game.

Yes, Boxes is heaps better than Tic Tac Toe, which I have also spent time playing with our son. And if they lead to playing better abstracts, so much the better. But both games feel more like fidgeting than strategy games for me.

And perhaps Boxes is a step to playing the better games on Clubhouse Games.

Friday, October 8, 2021

How ephemeral is a game?

 I have been thinking about board games as a disposable medium. It’s not actually the way I think they ideally should be. However, I have played a lot of Print and Play Roll and Write games. While I do laminate some of them, they are still, at least per individual board, disposable. (And some games require intricate enough drawing or writing that a dry erase marker just isn’t up for the job)

However, it might be disingenuous to automatically brand Roll and Writes as ephemeral. After all, I have the files and the ability to print the pages so I am in control of how ephemeral they are. And published Roll and Writes will cheerfully sell you additional tablets of pages or even have them available as downloads.

Actually, when I really start thinking of games as disposable, limited use items, I think Legacy games and Escape Room games may be a better topic point than Roll and Writes. I know that some Legacy games can continue to be played after the campaign is done but some cannot. My understanding of Escape Room games is that they are one-shots but I don’t actually know that since I’ve never played one.

And while my gut reaction to limited use games is negative (B oard games should have infinite plays!) that isn’t a fair assessment. Dude, I have bought board games that have seen only one play or even none.

Instead, it makes more sense to use my movie ticket rule of thumb. Using a movie ticket as a way to assign value to two hours of entertainment. (And using second-run movie houses to skew the results is cheating)

Pandemic Legacy Season One plays two to four players for twelve to twenty-four hour-sessions. A two-player group that only plays twelve sessions is still coming out ahead by my movie ticket rule. And that’s the minimum value. Four players alone makes the value explode.

And, really, are either Legacy games or Escape Room games that different tuan D&D modules of old? How often are you going to run Steading of the Hill Giant Chief? (Tomb of Horrors is different. I knew someone who kept playing through it and taking notes so he could do better each time)

There are very few games that you are gojng to play dozens upon dozens of times. Treasure the ones that you find. But, for the most part, games wuth disposable elements have to be judged by how good they are, not how ephemeral they are.

Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Such an organized dragon horde!

 Lockpicks was the game that broke my pause on the Legends of Dsyx series. It’s not like I got bored with the series. Theres just so much out in the PnP play world.

Okay, here’s the usual spiel: it’s a PnP, R&W solitaire. You make it yourself. You roll dice and write stuff down. Only one person gets to play at a time.

The game is about picking the locks in the chests in a dragon’s horde. Because this dragon isn’t like Smaug and just leaves stuff lying around. They are apparently type A and hyper organized.

The actual gameplay is quite simple, particular compared to other Legends of Dsyx games. Each chest is a grid with circles in certain spots. There are four tiers of chests and the higher tiers are more complexity grids.

You have a pool of five dice and each pip type is a different kind of movement. You need to draw a line on the grid with end points in each circle and finally on the lock at the bottom. You then get to roll for a treasure on a table for that particular tier of chest.

One of the most interesting design choices is that all of the dice manipulation comes from the first two tiers of chests. The last two are just points. That gives a mechanical reason to start with the simple chests. Oh and loot is points.

There’s an hour glass track that your check off as you either refresh your dice pool or open chests. But the game doesn’t have to end when you run out of hour glasses. You can keep playing but you automatically lose if you roll a one.

Compared to every other game I’ve played in the series (which is over half of them at this point), Lockpicks feels less intricate than other Legends of Dsyx games. It doesn’t feel as unique. At the same time, I definitely had fun playing it and would cheerfully play it some more. In fact, I might recommend it over other games in the series because it’s particularly easy to explain.

Lockpicks is the least representative of the series in my arrogant opinion. It’s not as thematic as the other games and it’s mechanically simpler. However, it’s mechanically solid. It is fun and accessible.

Roll and Write solitaires are a pretty niche genre. You aren’t going to find your next Agricola there. But Lockpicks was a surprisingly good use of the medium.

Monday, October 4, 2021

My September R&W

 I have to wonder if I hadn’t gotten into the habit writing about learning and examining Roll and Writes, if I would be trying out so many new ones. Because I know part of the reason I pushed myself last month was so I could write something. :D

Near the start of the month, I tried out a game called Runner. It is quite literally a video game platformer as a R&W. And the game basically breaks down to ‘Roll high and you’ll do well. Roll low and you’ll do poorly’

But… it wasn’t even a contest entry, let alone a published product. It is just a little something someone noodled up and decided to share with the world. So my real reaction is ‘Thanks for sharing, dude’

And that looked like what my month of game learning would be. However, in the last week of September, I got an itch to learn more. So I went back to Robin Jarvis’s Legends of Dsyx series. It’s been over a year since I last tried one of them.

I view the Legends of Dsyx as an interesting experiment. It is a series of twelve games and they all fall on the board game side of the Roll and Write spectrum as opposed to checking boxes or writing in numbers (Not that they aren’t great games in that category). Each game fits on a sheet of paper, rules and all. Which is near and convenient but also kind of scrunches the games both physically and mentally.

This time, I tried Lockpicks and Hall of the Dwarven King. 

Lockpicks is one of the later games but it may be the simplest. You are drawing a line through grids, having to stop at specific squares in order to pick the locks of treasure chests. Die rolls determine what kind of lines you can draw. The clever bit is that the loot is where you get all your dice manipulation from.

Hall of the Dwarven King, one of the oldest games in the series, is more  intricate. You are drawing a map of a cave kingdom (drawing maps show up a lot in the series) but the actual mechanics are a half step from worker placement. I’m not sure that there isn’t a single optimal strategy but the process is fun.

My original opinion of the Legends of Dsyx is still there. I can’t help but feel they are more intricate than deep, that their decision tree isn’t as big as it looks. 

At the same time, I really enjoy them and they feel like playing a larger board game on a sheet of paper. The ability to feel like I’ve played a ‘big’ game with just a page or three and under a half hour is a big part of why Roll and Writes work for me. The Legends of Dsyx embodies that so well.

I do wonder what Robin Jarvis would do with two sheets of paper, through.

Friday, October 1, 2021

My September PnP

 Okay. What did I make in September?

The Naughty List (2020 Christmas Contest)
Handful o Hazards
Flipword (two copies)

Not a crazy month but a lot more productive than August where I just made one project.

Technically, the Naughty List was my big project for the month. I had actually printed and laminated it last December so I made it to help clear out my backlog. I thought it was an Apples to Apples party game but it’s more of a bluffing game. Which makes it a better game but a harder sell :P

But the builds that actually interest me are Insurmountable and Bandada. Those look like they will be very interesting to explore as solitaires.

Oh, I just made more Handful o Hazard cards to full space on laminating folders. And I gave away my copy of Flipword so I made two more so I have to give them away twice before I need to make more :D