Monday, September 18, 2017

Swords and Dragons and Space Ships.

Reading the comments today on this review of The Broken Earth Trilogy by N.K. Jeminin makes it apparent a lot of people are really concerned about the hard definitions of science fiction and fantasy.

When it comes to this terrible divide we fight our wars of words over, my reading interests are firmly on the science fiction side. I like stories of space exploration, development of new technology, and the interaction of cultures different, yet in many ways oddly similar, to our own.

Yet the hardest-core science fiction that people usually are enamored with in these comment battles is usually the most difficult for me to fathom.

I am a medium-to-large fan of Alistair Reynolds, so I will use him as a example of where things start to go rough in "totally hardcore" science fiction.

In the Revelation Space universe, you  have these folks called Conjoiners. They are essentially a hive mind of people who have "transcended" to a new level of consciousness that is difficult to explain to us the non-elevated reader.  They dress drably, don't have very nice facial expressions, and look with disdain on regular people.

Once you get hooked up to them, you start to see all the fancy colors and virtual computer representations that they are seeing beyond your senses. But most interactions involving the Conjoiners in Reynolds fiction are typically from the vantage points of outsiders. You can't really describe things from a Conjoiners point of view for very long, because you the writer aren't transcended and it takes a lot of brainpower and hand-waving to describe the experience.

So here is where the Dragons and Space Ships subset of science fiction starts to fit in.

Humans, once advanced to a certain degree, are difficult to describe and explain to both the reader as well as by the author. Their methods and motivations are either very Big Picture or entirely inscrutable.

So you do what Reynolds does and often describe the experiences from the perspective of an outsider.

The Ultras are a clear example in Reynolds fiction, as they are the ship crews who are naturally distanced from bizarre cultural evolution. Serveing on long sub-light space voyages all the time,  Ultras can balance old-school thought with the latest in body modification. There's no brain-internet to upload your individuality and sense-of-self up and into and away.

Some writers take this a step further and remove the entire story from the technology and describe barbarians who have limited access to this experience-altering technology. Knights, Dragons, Games involving Thrones, we all understand how these things work instinctively by the time we reaching full fiction-reading maturity.

Last year, I fell head-over-heels for the works of Ursala Le Guin and read probably 75% of her catalog before moving on. She is probably "soft" science fiction yet I would certainly say it is by no means fantasy. Space Ships are used to transport between planets. The "Ansible" is used for faster-than-light communication (which is against the laws of physics, gentle reader). There are revolutions in thought toward gender norms and cultural structures. The economic models of Capitalism, Socialism, Collective Anarchy, Neo-capitalism, Neo-socialism, Feudalism and neo-feudalism are bounced around as we visit different worlds and governments. No one plugs their brain into anything. These concepts once you plug your brain in are difficult to describe.

Gene Wolfe wrote this epic series called The Book of the New Sun which technically takes place on Earth in a very Warhammer 40k-ish archaic dystopia. Although I should note Gene Wolfe was writing about Severian the Torturer long before 40k was even a mote in Rick Priestley's eye.

But at the end of all that fantasy, there is a mind-blowing spaceship ride that lifts the reader out of all that fantasy and makes them see the world for how it really is. As seen from the vantage point of a medieval torturer/emperor of the world.

One thing I don't really like about Game of Thrones (aka the Song of Fire and Ice) is that there is no spaceship ride at the end. I know the books haven't been written (and probably never will be) but I am confident G.R.R. Martin has no spaceship planned. Make the Lord of Light into an ancient satellite beaming signals into people's brains by way of VALIS, and I would have gotten a lot more excited about the series as a whole.

You get too technical with your science fiction and you end up on the other end of the spectrum. A bunch of post-trans-humanism post-gender post-scarcity dudes enjoying utopia from the inside of a giant machine-consciousness or something. And they're probably simulating various fantasy scenarios from their little consciousness-boxes.

So that's why its okay to mix fantasy and science fiction. And why it makes a difference to have technology flying around instead of simple "magic." People get too hung up on definitions.

I’ll Buy That for a Thaler: The Elusive Fresco of the Future

Science teaches us that with sufficiently advanced technology, we might very well be living within a computer simulation. We could be entered into an incredibly detailed hologram, with all knowledge of our previous existence erased. Somewhere out at the edge of consciousness, robotic servants tend to our collective Matrioshka brain and ensure we never regain the realization of the universe’s dwindling energy reserves.

Within this monumental machine, we live as we once did millenias of millenias ago. We are painters, and we compete to finish a glorious ceiling fresco within a nondescript cathedral.

And our most important decision every day is of course what time to get up in the morning.

What era does Fresco take place in? The “Thaler” used in this game is pretty non-descriptive. It's a currency with common usage over 400 years, sighted in many places around Europe and throughout the Holy Roman Empire.

Whatever historical period these events happen, there is certainly only 1 hand on the clock. And it’s the hour hand.

Fun Fact: the first minute hand was built in 1577.

So we each pick a different hour (certainly no one is allowed to get up at the same time as anyone else) and we get out of bed. We buy our paint, then do some painting, then earn some side money, THEN mix some paint, then finally go to the theatre.

What shows are playing at the theatre? The game never tells you. Maybe they went to go see Rent. or Hairspray. These are the first 2 shows that come to mind.

Do you know what would make an even better pastime for exhausted master painter’s assistants? As an introvert, I would steer my off-duty hours as a painter towards a nice quiet board game. Perhaps Ticket to Ride.

Two assistant painters, Mario and Luigi, engage in a conversation:

“Luigi, what is-a this America we are-a playing on?”
“I don’t-a know Mario, but I am-a blocking you out of New Orleans. How do you like that?”
“ We should-a picked a better reality for our-a Matrioshka Brain.”
“Luigi, I don’t remember how we got-a here.”
“That’s-a because of the robots, Mario.”

Blog author's note:
Of course they didn’t say this, because they weren’t in a Nintendo game. Or in Italy, since Italy was never part of the Holy Roman Empire, and never used the Thaler. Perhaps they are painting in Bohemia. Yet Nintendo has never made a single game exploiting stereotypical Bohemian accents. The best I could find on Youtube was this.

So you send the workers to the theatre. You send them out to buy paint. And you also have to make sure you are painting.

Reverse Order Ceiling Art

You have all these squares of potential Fresco you need to finish. Some take certain colors, and usually complementary colors you need to mix up FIRST. But here's the rub: in Fresco, you mix SECOND after you make the trip to the Cathedral.

So you have to anticipate the specific colors you are going to need the turn before. Sometimes a few turns before because if you want one of the really awesome colors like Pink or Brown you are going to need to mix multiple times.

This goes completely outside my board game comfort area.

What is comfortable to me is getting colors randomly, and then positioning my workers to take the best advantage of what colors I could possibly get. Instead I have to work for the colors, and then paint the most stuff out of what potential spots are going to be left on the board.

Because you have all these other jerk players, 2-3 other jerk players, who are painting at the same time and trying to block you out of New Orleans like that high-jumping route-griefing Luigi in the previous example.

When you get me outside my comfort zone, and you start making big demands for me to optimize my color selection for future turns, you are going to get a lot of orange.

I made all the orange. More orange than any fresco would need 100 times over.

Program Jamming

On BGG, Fresco is labeled as a “programmed movement” game. I never thought about this until after I bought my own copy but this is exactly what it is. If you pick the wrong action, in the wrong order, you are going to end up standing in a church without any painting materials to actually do anything. Which is what I see a lot of beginner players doing (especially myself). You are just out of luck.

In the same way one false move in Robo Rally can put your robot in the shredder pit, one false move in Fresco leaves you with an empty cathedral, no income, and exponentially inefficient worker usage. The only “catch up” mechanism is giving our hypothetical planner first pick of what time to get up in the morning. Yup, we’re back to that again.

So instead of your robot being rebooted from a safe backup, you find yourself back at the hostel trying to order the coming day just like before. Only all your smart-brained opponents had a productive day to get ahead of you.

If only there was a way to make the game end faster once someone gets really far ahead. Or maybe some way to efficiently convert complementary paint back into its primary components. Of course, that runs pretty counter to the theme, right?

What is Reality?

There’s plenty to enjoy in Fresco. My recommendation if you are playing it is to only enter the cathedral when you are 100% positive you can paint something. Stockpile cash, acquire paint, mix up a GOOD VARIETY of complementary colors. Don’t end up with too much of one color, because all the good spots for these colors can vanish over a turn or two.

And during the lulls in play, when others are deciding what time they should get up in the morning, consider the nature of the reality in which you live. Are you playing a board game? Or are you a pawn in someone else’s board game, playing a board game to improve the collective morale of your fellow pawns? You will probably never know, because the robots are programmed to remove these thoughts to preserve your virtual paradise.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Ticket to Ride: First and Last Journeys

A few days ago, in a fit of ludomania I tweeted this message.

Out of all the current titles under the Asmodee NA board game octopus (aka Bogactopus), the best game I could come up with was First Journeys, essentially Ticket to Ride "Junior".


There is a certain psychosis that pervades the hobby of board game collecting (and occasionally playing).

It goes like this:

If I buy the right game, people will play with me.

So you end up spending 50% of your board game budget trying to get inside the heads of your family members and friends, trying to figure out what would be an attractive sell to get them in the hot seat on the other side of the table.

It can be a pitfall. A real pitfall. Especially if you're not good at understanding other people, or if those other people just aren't very interested in board games.

Ticket to Ride: First Journeys wasn't for me. It was for my kids. One kid actually liked it, which makes it a roaring success. It might not just be the First Journey, but the Best Journey.
Are you ready to ride this train?
Reducing Train Paralysis

First Journeys junior-izes Ticket to Ride by removing the selection of face up train cards. Now you can only draw from the face-down discard pile. It also removes victory points, making each route worth exactly one "point" when it is completed. Both of these changes together turn a 60 minute game into a 15 minute game.

Do they reduce complexity? They do.

Do they make the decisions uninteresting? No, no they do not.

I was inspired to think about the face-down cards because of a comment made by another designer, Thomas Lehmann. In designing Race for the Galaxy, Lehmann made the unusual choice to have players discard face-down. This removes some strategy, because people aren't able to see what cards other people are discarding. But according to the designer diary I read (and I have no idea which one, because it was a long time ago) discarding cards face down also speeds up the game, since people no longer have to process that information every turn.

I'm wondering just how fast the Ticket to Ride might go if you discard face-down as well.

Settlers of Routes

Making each route worth a single point is another decision I keep thinking about. Settlers of Catan did this, making each Settlement worth a single victory point. The trick in Catan was of course finding the most efficient and quickest way to build that settlement.

Doesn't it seem like the same considerations should be made for a train route? Maybe train route builders shouldn't get MORE points just because a route took more effort and resources to build. Maybe they should be trying to build the quickest routes, and use those routes to daisy chain together the larger routes.

I'll tell you one thing, it's wonderful (especially playing with kids) to not have a scoring phase at the end of the game. When you place the last winning route in First Journeys you win. The game ends. And it moves right into let's play again.

I would happily play the "adult" (giggity) Ticket to Ride with the same rules. There might be some necessary modifications I'm not predicting, but I certainly don't see any less-interesting gameplay on the horizon.

As for Last Journeys, the only thing that would make this game better would be a space theme. Maybe I need to make a Martian board? Only time will tell.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Dungeon of the Apes: A Primate-centric look at Clank! the Board Game

Well, this is going to be interesting
My favorite fantasy stories carry a common plot twist.

You've adventured high and low, discovering secret knowledge and ancient treasures. But the final reveal is this:

You've actually been exploring Earth all along!

This unfamiliar Earth has been distorted by war, the clash of empires, deadly radiation, the rise of new ancient magicks, and more. Yet nevertheless this is all that's left of home.

Something about this seems familiar

What drew me to Clank!? Certainly not the theme. Adventurers exploring a dungeon and looking for treasure? I've been to that well before.

When I first heard about Clank! I was downright disinterested.

No, I crashed the first game of Clank! I even saw in action because people were pulling wooden cubes out of a mysterious  bag. I'm a voracious pulling-stuff-out-of-a-bag'er. My hunger for such things is insatiable. I had to see more.

What I found made me earnestly regret my original disinterest. 

The bag even has a deadly dragon on it

When I originally saw people pulling cubes out of bag, I was actually seeing DEATH in action.

In Clank!, characters are on a strict health-based timer to find treasure in the dungeon and then get the heck out.

Every time you draw a new hand of cards, some of those cards are going to add cubes back into the bag. And there are precious few ways to "heal" your character once these blocks have been pulled back out again. You run out of health in Clank!, you die.

Yes, this is a deckbuilding game with player elimination. And its awesome.

You have to carefully weigh each turn, doing a classic "press-your-luck" evaluation. Hopefully you get just enough points to solidly be in the lead. But simultaneously planning your escape as early as possible to catch the rest of the players flat-footed.

I have played quite a few hands of the original Thunderstone. It was my original fantasy-themed bar against which to set other similar titles. Clank!, I've found, is ahead in every area, using lots of ingenuity to keep the game exciting each turn and pushing the game along to a definitive end.

But IS Clank a true fantasy theme? I'm reminded a bit of the more recent Thunderstone expansion Numenera. The aged crust of supposed "fantasy" reveals a high tech center: full of magic and myth which is really just science advanced enough to be perceived as magic.

I got all the clues I needed by studying a subtle motif strewn throughout the Clank! dungeon. A repeating theme that kept coming up again and again.

There's something familiar about this deckbuilder.
It was the apes.

I'm not some kind of ape-loving fanboy. But I've seen the original Planet of the Apes and I understand the basics.

In the past, humans got too full of themselves. They started a game of Global Thermonuclear War that they couldn't finish. And the result was hyper-intelligent apes swooping in and picking up the pieces.

In Planet of the Apes we see a feudal society built from ape culture, with apes taking the place of humans in establishing a new civilization on Earth. It is assumed these apes are just as smart as humans once were, and will continue advancing technologically into the future.

Imagine a world of scientific, industrialized apes. We caught a quick glimpse at the end of the remake.

Ape Lincoln
But humans and apes probably share the same broken, selfish morals that originally led to humankind's downfall. It's indeed easy to imagine this new breed of Ape researching atomics and developing their own hideous weapons for global annihilation.

After careful thought, Clank! is quite certainly a new Earth born from yet another cataclysm: this time involving the hyper-intelligent apes. And now who gets to swoop in? Those humans who've been lurking in the wings this entire time.

Exhibit A
All the relics are ape themed. There are strange mechanical ape devices you can add to your deck. Lots of subtle signs point to a strange ape-centered civilization now reduced to ash and ruin.

This is no ordinary adventure.

If you are tired of fantasy themes, just remember  Clank! is NOT strictly fantasy. Instead, it is a new world swept clean by apocalypse, where humans aim to reclaim a long-lost heritage and hopefully do things right this time.

Delve deep into the dungeon. Hire some mercenaries. Grab that sweet, sweet ape gold. Just make sure you can get out alive!

Monday, September 5, 2016

Vacation Consumption Phase: Video Games

Out There
At the recommendation of Knarf Black, I finally downloaded this grim game of space exploration and ran it through its paces. You start as an astronaut awakening from cryosleep, adrift many millions of miles (perhaps millions of years as well) and the location of Earth quite uncertain.

Luckily, you have enough hydrogen, oxygen and iron to continue moving, continue breathing, and maintain hull integrity in the face of uncertain random events. At least, enough to get you to the next system before reaching a terminal loss of one of these resources.

The star map is quasi-random generated, full of randomly built planetary systems you need to investigate and mine. Much like a typical roguelike, a large portion of your success depends on lucking your way into some decent starting resources. In the run in which I finally reached one of the game ending screens, I had managed to stumble across an awesome abandoned ship much better than the starting vessel. Huge cargo hold for carrying extra supplies, and the alien engines accepted hydrogen as fuel (the typical source) but also carbon, one of the more easily acquired elements in the game.

Probably the ultimate frustration in any roguelike scenario is one that happens a lot in Out There: not finding one particular resource because it doesn’t come up, and then starving through no fault of your own. Once you’re dead, you start at the beginning with all your progress erased, with the bare minimum supplies in the bare minimum ship.

That said, I had a lot of fun during those few runs where I was able to really get a good system set up. The universe of Out There is jam-packed with exciting technologies you can upgrade your ship with.

The various random encounters can be quite surprising. At one point I stumbled across an entire ship full of cryogenically suspended humans. I couldn’t thaw them out, and eventually I abandoned them back to space. But later I came across technology to create a “garden” world from a typical barren rocky one, and thought back about the rocky orb the cryo ship had been orbiting.

The Ending
When you reach the conclusion of Out There, the ending is basically some text and a couple of static pictures. Afterwards you are unceremoniously restarted, without any of your stuff, right back at the beginning of the game.

I started looking for upgrades and technologies again, but quickly ran out of fuel and died. I’ve tried a few times since then, but have not managed to reach any of the other endings. Since Out There is a cell phone game, I can see a future where I find myself trapped for an extended period in a government queue or doctor’s waiting room, at which point there could potentially be some more space adventuring in store.

My son’s 2 favorite games are Minecraft and Ark: Survival. A third popular option is Terraria. When he found out Starbound existed, it shot right to the top of his hot list for birthday presents. Strangely, once he secured the game it didn’t seem to get played with the unholy fervor of Ark: Survival, on which he has logged over a thousand hours.

Since I was on vacation, and it was technically my Steam account too, I decided to take the reins and see what this game was all about.

I dug in. LITERALLY. Ha ha ha HA ha ha ha. Sigh.

Okay, one thing I failed to realize about this game was this: of the playable races, one is a race of robotic knights trapped in a medieval aesthetic. If I had known this earlier, it would have been my game, not my son’s game. They even have glowy red eyes and weird emotionless dialog.

Exploring Caves and Visiting Planets
One of the strange things about my experience with Starbound is that my son had plenty of free rein beforehand to help craft my experience. Like most of today’s games, there’s an active modding community and my son and seen fit to download what was probably an insane about of additional content.

Since I never played the game beforehand, it can sometimes be tough to discern which was original and which is a mod.

Obviously the ancient forge that you can only use to craft lightsabers was an add-on. That one I saw through right away. But in the deep darkness of mining and cave exploration, I come across sections of weirdness.

Caverns made of copper piping and gears. Planetary substrate made of gooey pink flesh and acid pits. Patches of “alien soil” filled with glowing roots and eyeball clouds. When I asked him if any of these stuff was content from mods, he couldn’t remember himself. Obviously his video game experience is completely different from my own expectations.

So I go in digging through the goo. I mine gold and copper, tungsten and elusive “core fragments” hanging over steaming lava pits. I found you can even craft a breathing apparatus to explore airless moons and asteroid fields. The moons were particularly interesting: unexpected denizens were watching over the crystals you must eventually mine for spaceship fuel.

You can spend weeks exploring just one star system, and then you branch out and find untold other systems all with the same level of complexity, perhaps more.

There are rare periods my son’s not on the family computer. Or when my wife’s not on the family computer.

During those times, I am now on the family computer. And I’m playing Starbound.

Vacation Consumption Phase: Films

The Dark Knight
Up at the family cabin, there wasn’t a lot of DVD selection. The collection of hunters and fishermen who I call my relatives had amassed a bizarre menagerie including American Wedding, Wedding Crashers and Miracle. Why so many wedding-themed movies, guys? But they did have The Dark Knight.

Recently, the wife and I had gone to see Suicide Squad. The best part of that movie was Deadshot. By a mile. With a distant second being the pizza I ate while I watched the movie.

I can’t get over how much better the Joker of The Dark Knight is compared to the urban gangster/Hannibal Lecter mishmash presented in Suicide Squad.

Since last seeing it, I had forgotten some of the details of the bank heist at the beginning.

The Joker puts a grenade in the mouth of one the bank employees, and I assume its going to explode, and was pleasantly surprised that it turned out to be a simple smoke grenade. Because that’s something the Joker would actually do, occasionally let someone live in an unexpected way to keep you guessing.

And who could forget the nurse scene. Another of my favorite parts.

Overall though, I am sick of the relentless gritty, dirty, atmosphere Christopher Nolan’s Batman series helped contribute to the ongoing DC movie debacle. And speaking of which:

Batman Vs. Superman
Was this ever a hard slog.

After getting home, we picked this one up at Redbox. Everybody and everything sucked in this movie. I don’t know what I expected, since going in I had a few qualms with the entire scenario.

I have yet to see or read any Superman story that really manages to make Superman work well in a world full of other superheroes. The guy is pretty overpowered. I have a hard time believing either Wonder Woman or Batman were really helping much in the fight with Doomsday.

Yet, fighting Doomsday was probably the best part of the film.

Why were there so many crazy Batman dream sequences? Why did the movie spend so much time setting up various other Justice League characters? I’m really hoping this will payoff as less setup in the actual Justice League movie, and more actual story. But I’m not getting my hopes up.

Let’s forget about the superhero movies for a second and wormhole tunnel our way into a theme that honestly never fails to entertain: Crazy, sleep-deprived, methed-up scientists creating portals to alternate dimensions.

If you want a low budget sci-fi production, that is all you need to do. And Synchronicity delivers.

The reviews surprisingly for this movie are pretty horrible.

But you are getting plenty of wonderful: flashing lights, dimly-lit tube-filled labs, actors playing duplicates of themselves, and plenty of twists and turns you think you have figured out, but then even more bodies start showing up and your brain breaks down trying to figure out where they came from.

I watched this on Netlfix as a random laundry day movie while I folded clothes. Would do again in a second.

The Addams Family
This movie, by all rights, should have been horrible.

But it’s a classic and when it came up as a recommended watch film on Netflix I accepted the challenge. Here is a movie that managed to feel incredibly authentic to the intellectual property it was using. Every five seconds another funny thing happens.

The only thing I was left wanting was the original Addams Family television series from the 60’s. Netlix used to have this long ago, but evidently the world did not want to watch enough to keep paying for the rights. Shame on you world!

I remember a time when a crazy old man with a shaved head and a fur coat could jump out of the hallway screaming “Shoot ‘em in the back! Shoot ‘em in the back!” while madly clutching his antique blunderbuss. And we would call that comedy.

Now look at what we get. Urban gangster Joker. And they call it edgy! There are people on Reddit who still want more of that guy.

Vacation Consumption Phase

I'm slowly coming back from a week-long family vacation Up North.

Since I live in Minnesota, "Up North" in this case means further north in Minnesota. Driving the long distances between various state parks, lakes and roadside attractions. Riding for hours drinking coffee, listening to the top hits on the radio. It was a lot of fun.

While the vacation itself is probably not suitable for this blog, I did consume quite a lot of various media. So I'm quickly dumping my hot takes this week while I try to get back on track.

I will leave you with a couple of must-dos if you are ever in upper Minnesota.

1) The Iron Range is awesome. Iron World, the Sudan Mine. Faded industrial glory, deep haunted dark spaces, vast epic monuments crafted from stone and metal. Love it.

2) My kids walked across the Mississippi River at the headwaters located at Itasca State Park. Its a beautiful location full of rocky, pristine water and sandy wading pools.

3) Split Rock Lighthouse, Gooseberry Falls, and Duluth itself are locations you never get tired of seeing. The weird rocky shores of Lake Superior remind me of an alien planet which pretty much seals the deal.

Anyway, reports from my vacation media consumption phase begin now!