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.



Starbound
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.


Synchronicity
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!

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Conspiracy Theories, Board Gaming and Trolling before the Internet


The Dice Tower, a pretty reliable source of information most of the time, tweeted this rebuttal from "Gary F. White" regarding a scathing review from a young Alan R. Moon. The board game being reviewed was Mr. Trucker, and the reply from Mr. White is hilarious in its magnitude.

Link to the tweet

Here's the letter in it's entirety:


It's easy to forget that before the Internet, most of the information in this letter would be impossible to check. You wouldn't be able to easily find Garry F. White unless he also included his phone number in the letter. You wouldn't easily be able to look up statistics in Toy & Games magazine.

There are a few obvious "calling cards" that this entire letter is a Discordian fabrication.

1) The word "fnord" substituted for "ford." Fnord is a word invented in the Principia Discordia for exactly the purpose it is being used here: to be mingled into the word gibberish of a crank letter sent to an unassuming publication.

2) The word "megabuck" is used to describe the list of branded corporate logos printed on the cover of Mr. Trucker.

As everyone knows, megabucks are the official currency used in Steve Jackson's classic card game Illuminati.

It's easy to forget that before Munchkin, Illuminati was SJG's best-seller by far. First published in 1982 in black and white, then finally getting a deluxe color edition in 1999 (this is the version I have). Take a look at the Steve Jackson Games website and its still mostly conspiracy stuff, because darn it...the Illuminati are fun!

There's probably even more I'm not seeing. Certainly, all of the statistics sound completely made up. There's no way Mr. Trucker has possibly beaten Trivial Pursuit in any category. It's impossible Gary would have received 10,000 letters when its very likely less than 10,000 copies of Mr. Trucker were ever made.

The Conspiracy Goes Deeper

In fact, I have a hard time believing editors for a gaming publication would fall for this, and find it highly more likely they were in on the joke.

1) I find it suspicious that Mr. Trucker has zero reference to this article on BGG. Until today, that is. This tweet from The Dice Tower appears to be the first evidence of an Alan Moon "Mr. Trucker" review ever to make an appearance online.

2) I have no evidence Games International was even a real magazine. There's no evidence of it easily google-able. I suspect we are all being played, here. Supposedly Games International was in London, and this is a regional game published in Canada about trucking.

Either way, this makes me want to bust out some Illuminati. And I an incredibly grateful for the Dice Tower supplying me with this bizarre gift to roll around in my head over the lunch period.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

New Edition of King of Tokyo, and Why My Version is OK


It wasn't too long ago I was playing King of Tokyo again while also contemplating the slow-trickle of information regarding a 2nd Edition.

New Art for a New Edition
As far as I can tell, the art is going to be the only difference. But it will be a complete art revamp, with different monster art, different card art, different board art, different card back art. The most interesting part of this new art was that it was financed by the French government. This makes me think the NEA needs to get turned on to the board game industry ASAP.



Just this single compare & contrast between new and old Alienoid shows home much better the new art is. But I have a hard time upgrading a perfectly functioning game when all that's changed is the art.

The Variable Powers of King of Tokyo
What appears to be the same, at least per any review I've read, are the powers you can upgrade your monster with using the ubiquitous green cubes.

I love the powers, even as I understand they are not balanced in the slightest. In fact, appraising the strength of these in different situations is a vital part of the game.

I do find it strange, however, that absolutely no tinkering took place with these cards since everything else about the game is being redone anyway (including a revised rulebook).

Forget about Releasing the Kraken
The traditional Kraken slot in the new King of Tokyo is being replaced by non other than Space Penguin. Apparently Kraken's going missing for the foreseeable future is to make room for a special edition Cthulhu avatar. Yet another very compelling reason to keep my current version.

Playing the Player Elimination Game
It goes without saying King of Tokyo is the sort of goofy game you can play quickly with a lot of people invested with varying amounts of motivation. When you get taken out, its not that big of deal. You can get up, go to the bathroom, dose yourself with some expired medication from the cabinet, wander around the living room with your thoughts. When you return to the table, the game will probably be over.

This beats any poorly-designed game meant to stay inclusive until the bitter end. The worst ending to a game is not, in fact, player elimination but the LACK of player elimination. Wben you are so far down in the hole, and everyone else knows it as well, and you just have to sit there and make your minimal move every turn.

Chasing Victory
So unless the 2nd Edition makes any improvements to the play of the game (and it doesn't sound like this is the case), I'm pretty happy with my current predicament. Pass me the big chunky dice, and I can try to make it to a points victory again, before being taking out in a flurry of claws on the top of a burned out Tokyo.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Anatomy of a Tableau

Look at the fancy Frenchman and his "tableau." Why doesn't he call it what everyone else calls it, an "in-play zone."
-- random invisible heckler

The construction of a typical Race for the Galaxy tableau feels very organic. The mind doesn't know exactly what it wants, but it has a half-formed idea and tailors the hand to fit this idea.
End of game score: 43 points

In the above tableau, the opening rounds were spent establishing a jack-of-all-trades mish-mash that could react to whatever cards I drew or actions the opponent played.

The first round I played Destroyed World and immediately traded the good to establish a decent hand size. The next round I dropped the space marines and drew some explore cards.

I then had both Terraforming Robots and New Survivalists in my hand, so I built the Terraforming Robots and was rewarded by my opponent also calling the settle action where I was able to play the New Survivalists for free and draw an additional card in the process.

When choosing to build the Terraforming Robots, I also had Consumer Markets in my hand. But I couldn't afford to build it and didn't want to wait around a turn exploring to get enough cards to make it work. That would have set me back quite a bit.

Luckily, the next turn I settled the Runaway Robots and traded the good immediately for a fresh stack of cards. And what should pop up but Free Trade Association. The next round I built Free Trade Association, then produced.

For the rest of the game, I consumed with the 2X bonus and produced until the victory point pile was exhausted. The last turn I settled Galactic Trendsetters.

If I hadn't drawn Free Trade Association, who knows how the game would have gone. I could have very well run into a bunch of gene/rebel/military worlds and gone that direction. If I had drawn one more consume development or settlement, I would have started a consume/produce cycle anyway.

All in all, a pretty good game.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

How To Race for the Galaxy

I'm going to hopefully be playing some online games of Race for the Galaxy this evening, and I thought I would go over the basic rules of the game.

If you've every tried to learn Race for the Galaxy from the rule book, it can be a harrowing experience. Surprisingly, the game itself will seem simple once the initial confusion is over. But that initial confusion can be a big hurdle to make your way over.

A Little Background
At the very heart of Race for the Galaxy was an attempt to create a card game version of the popular board game Puerto Rico. If you ever want to play the actual card game version of Puerto Rico it's called San Juan. Available in paper form at the store, and also as both an iOS and Android smartphone/tablet game. Race for the Galaxy is slightly more complex than San Juan, with a greater variety of play options.

Obviously the better game. But San Juan is pretty good, too.

Winning the Game
Race for the Galaxy is over as soon as on of the players in the game either a) builds the 12th card in their tableau or b) exhausts the victory point chit pile (which is typically 12 VP per player in the game). So building things and earning extra victory points (by the consume action) are the two things you want to be doing as much as possible.

The Actions
There are 5 possible actions in Race for the Galaxy, and at the beginning of the round you will pick a single action from these 5 choices. There are actually more choices than 5, but we will go into the options of each action further down the post. Each action is pretty simple, but complicated by possible bonuses.

While you just pick a single action, you will usually have the opportunity during the round to do multiple actions, because all the actions each player picks are available for every player to take.

1. Explore
This action is a simple way for you to draw cards if you don't have anything better to do, or you want to dig around for a specific card combination from the deck. The basic explore action is this: draw 2 cards, pick one of them, then discard the other card.

Typical developments
2. Develop
This action allows you to build a development card from your hand and place it in your tableau. The cost for building a development card is the number in the large tan diamond in the top left corner of the card. You pay this cost by discarding that many other cards from your hand.

Developments are technological advances for your galactic space empire. They typically allow you to do things better, give discounts to other costs, better consumer options etc.
Settlements. The Artist Colony produces blue novelties
3. Settle
This action allows you to build a settlement (sometimes people call these planets) to your tableau. Settlements are mostly paid for exactly like developments except the cost in in the large circle in the upper left corner of the card.
An additional type of settlement is a military settlement. You will know a military settlement by the red ring around the planet. You can discard cards to play for a military settlement, instead you can play a military settlement for free if you have military strength equal to or greater than the cost of the settlement. Military strength is gained from various settlements and developments. You typically start with 0 military strength.
Adding military settlements to your empire is either extremely easy or completely impossible depending on your military strength.

4. Consume
This action turns goods into either the currency of the game (cards) or victory points. Some settlements and developments have consume powers and it will tell you right on the card how many goods you can consume and what you get back in return. The consume action is one of the ways you win the game.
In a consume action, you need to consume as many goods as you possibly can. Because all players have all actions available, this is one way to screw over other players by forcing them to consume goods before they have their cards set up optimally.
You may be wondering where goods come from, since I haven't said anything about them yet. Well just wait one more paragraph.
2 windfall Production settlements

5. Produce
This action creates goods in your settlements. Some settlements start with a good (windfall worlds, which are empty circles with a glowing halo on the outside). But most need a produce action to get goods. Settlements produce a specific color of good denoted on the card. Blue goods are the least valuable, while yellow alien goods are the most valuable.

All settlements that can produce a good do so during this action. A settlement can only hold one good, if the produce action happens again, any settlement with an existing good is passed over.

The Bonuses
When you pick an action for a round, you get a special bonus. While all other players get to take the basic action, only you get the bonus. Here's where things get a little complicated.

The 2 Explore action choices
Explore Bonus
When you pick explore, you have the choice of 2 bonuses.
1) draw an extra card and keep an extra card. (Draw +3, Keep +2 total)
2) draw FIVE extra cards, and don't keep any extra cards (Draw +7, Keep +1 total)

The first bonus is chosen most often, but the 2nd bonus is often chosen when there is a specific type of card you really need to make your economic space engine of doom.

Development Bonus
The development bonus is a discount of 1 less card to pay for building your development. Easy!

Settle Bonus
The settle bonus is to draw a card after you build your settlement for the round. Again, easy!

The 2 Consume choices
Consume Bonus
When you pick consume you have the choice of 2 bonuses.
1) "Sell" one of your goods for a specific number of cards. Blue goods are worth 2 cards, brown is worth 3, green is worth 4, yellow is worth 5. After you sell you then do the rest of the consume action normally.

2) 2X Victory Points. When you take this bonus, all victory points generated during the consume action are doubled. This is can be a bonkers number of points. If someone is taking this action and they have 3 or 4 planets with goods, they are currently in the process of winning the game. All will be over soon.

Produce Bonus
The produce bonus is to produce a good on one of your windfall worlds. Typically these settlements start with a goods card, but don't generate any extra during the game. With the bonus, you get to make a good on one of these special settlements.

Counting up Victory Points
When the end game conditions are met, the game is over at the end of the round. There are 3 sources of victory points. Settlements and developments are each worth a certain amount of VP, as printed on the card in the white hexagon. And then victory point chits are added to the total on top of that.

The final objective is simple enough, but there's a bunch of ways to get there. If you have a hankering to play Race for the Galaxy, check out the online version here.