Friday, March 30, 2012

Going on Vacation!

Okay, here we go!

I'm going to lay it out for you, readership. I'm going on vacation next week and I'm probably not going to be updating the site too much. But I AM going to be brainstorming, and planning and just generally scheming so that when I do come back, I'll have something to show for it.

Monday, April 9th will be my next major post.

Starting on that glorious day, I will try to fulfill TWO requirements for The Minotaur Illusionist.

The Minotaur Illusionist Manifesto

First Statement: 2 well-written pieces of review, analysis or other hijinks per week. I'm thinking Monday and Thursday are where they are naturally going to show up. But if the iron is hot, I will strike early (and probably strike often) so the quantity and timing might be a little off some weeks.

What does "well-written" mean? Well it means you are getting at least the 2nd draft of an idea, hopefully correctly structured with a beginning and end. And some sort of reasoning in the middle.

After coming back to the blog this last time, you'll notice my Magic: The Gathering posts have been few and far between. That's because Magic is only a part or fraction of my interests.

Posting about Magic, day after day, is a quick way to get burned out. At least for me! From now on The Minotaur Illusionist is going to be like Bruce Lee. My blog-fu will flow like water, and be "the way" of "no way."

Whatever my interests at the time, that is what you are going to get.

My interests are:
1) Board Games
2) Miniature Games
3) Card Games (including Magic: The Gathering)
4) Star Trek (TOS, TNG, TOSM, TNGM, DS9, VYG, ENT, TAS, NROM, whatever else gets cooked up)
5) Books/Movies

Second Statement: The rest of the time, when I'm not writing well-written material, I'm going to be plastering this blog with non-well-written material. Not POOR, mind you. Just not gone over a couple times or anything. Stuff like the Leonard Nimoy/Bruno Mars video or  Atmosfear: The Harbingers. Any kind of sudden epiphany my fingers want to barf onto the screen.

Sometimes main interests will receive the second class treatment. If I go to the store and buy some Magic cards, you are probably going to get something like this.

Additional interests I will reveal using non-well-written material
1) Game News (current industry or consumer happenings I feel compelled to talk about)
2) Interesting Links
3) Funny Pictures
4) Videos I particularly enjoy
5) Crap/observations about my workday
6) The structure of this blog
7) Parenting observations (this includes the Checkers post)
8) Music (like MC Frontalot)
9) Going on vacation
10) Numerical lists of my current interests

Bam. That's the Minotaur Manifesto. As complete as it is empty. The sound of one hand clapping.

Everybody have a great coming week. We will see what comes 2 Mondays from now.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Leonard Nimoy's Lazy Day

Why didn't anyone tell me about this before? I had to hear about it from Star

My wife loves this song, and by extension so do I.

Also…Leonard Nimoy is 81 years old. Looks like he is doing well!

A Study in Checkers

As a point of vacation preparation, the smarter half of the parental authority here came up the idea of packing a "boredom relief kit" for keeping me and the kids occupied during vacation downtime. I thought of a bunch of games to bring along, and am currently in the process of getting them all to fit.

When I asked my son if there were any games I was missing, he responded "Checkers."

In picking him up from school, I had seen him in action a few times. Sliding bright red pieces across a battered black and red board in the kid safari area. And I had been meaning to pick up a copy "at some point" to continue his gaming education.

But now, suddenly, I found now was the time.

Target had a nice set for $5, but it was in tan/wood shades. Strong objections were raised at the colors, and the motion was made to have the proper red/black colors traditionally popular here in America.

Down at the GW lounge, there was a 80's era Pressman set of red and blacks for $1. Per their ways, the GW staff had sealed the box tightly with packing tape leaving no way for me to gauge if the box contained the correct number of pieces.

Finally I went to Wall-Mart. They had a large selection of board games but what really caught my eye was a brand new red/black checker/chess combo set for sale in a TIN. The price? $6.50. The most expensive set, yet!

A bargain at twice the price! (Unrelated "Price is Right" clip, more info on the clip)

The pieces were the right color. They were packed in a indestructible tin which should hold the contents securely until the end of time. The size was much more travel-friendly. And I was guaranteed all the parts would be there (unless something goes horribly wrong!).

Variations of Checkers have been played for thousands of years. The size of the board, the number of pieces and finally their movements were ironed out back in the 16th century. 

Since 1535, proper Checkers are played that if a jump can be made, it MUST be made. I notice the folks the boy hangs around with don't always adhere to this, but I think if I am a stickler it will probably make him a better player.

Until today, I didn't know the most famous Checkers player was Marion Tinsley. Tinsley is known to have only lost 7 matches of Checkers in his entire career, 2 of them were to the fiendish computer program built from the ground up to beat checkers, Jonathan Schaeffer's Chinook. In 2007, Chinook was sufficiently advanced that it would play to a draw against a perfect player, and is effectively unbeatable.

Luckily, I have never had to face such heroic odds. My skills are not particularly impressive and could use a little dusting up on basic strategy.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Your greatest fear!

My fellow roustabout (in the circus laborer sense) Knarf Black recently found a fantastical treasure in the lost archives of Goodwill.

AtmosFear, the 1995 VHS Board Game of spine-tingling terror.

Using all of his powers, a camcorder, and a magical cable; he transfered the never-before-played video to make the most pristine digital copy of the AtmosFear game tape I have ever seen.

I don't really remember how to play. But the video is still amazing after all these years.

I forgot that all of the zombies were Australian cowboys/Motorhead fans.

The original version was called Nightmare. Published in Australia in 1991, it caught on like wildfire…spawning national acclaim, dance parties and even a Pepsi promotion.

The game was developed by A Couple Of Cowboys, the production company of videographers Phillip Tanner and Bret Clemmets. The most popular version for us Americans was undoubtedly "The Harbingers," released in 1995.

At one point this was THE board game your parents bought you if they knew you liked scary stuff. Which is probably how Karf ended up finding a beautiful, never-watched copy down at the local GW lounge.

Future versions would use DVD technology to create truly randomized Gatekeeper appearances and keep the regular Atmosfanatics from memorizing the stopping points. But nothing would ever surpass the original Harbingers in popularity.

So roll the dice, move your Numbskull and pray you draw someone else's fear from the Source of the Fear. Forget going to the bathroom, because the pause button is broken and the Gatekeeper waits for NO ONE!

Budget Board Games

You may have already noticed from my magic card collection, but I prefer games on a budget. Go into any game store worth its salt, and next to the $50 copies of Tannhauser and Kingdoms are usually a few $10-15 dollar games like Hey, That's My Fish! or Cold War: CIA vs. KGB.

Normally these games are a little smaller in scope, but that is actually a bonus because more people will probably be willing to play with you!

The love is dying down a little now and it's no longer on the front page, but a hot Geeklist "I'm a poor boy from a poor family" was chronicling these games for posterity.

From my own budget perspective…easily the most played game in my collection is Carcassonne. If you count all the games I played of Magic in high school, Magic easily comes out on top. But looking at the last year or so and it's medieval tile placement all the way down.

If you asked me what game I wanted to play, I would probably never say Carcassonne. But it's a game other people love, and I enjoy enough to play with them. A good time, every time.

I think the current going rate for the base box is about $20.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Everybody Loves Tuvix

I spent some time watching Star Trek last night (Thanks, Netflix!)

What should come across the screen but Star Trek: Voyager: Season 2: Episode 24: Tuvix.

The one-off episode continues none of the current story lines (those darn Kazon!), but is instead a self-contained exploration of yet another transporter accident. You would think I would be sick of poorly-functioning transporters (much like poorly-functioning holodeck safety protocols) but the writing and acting exhibited in this episode blow away the cynicism I might exhibit in other instances.

Exhibit A: Neelix

If you are familiar with the series, you know Neelix is a Talaxian hanger-on who somehow appointed himself the "morale officer" onboard Voyager. He is boisterous, obnoxious and loud. He enjoys fine food, fine drink and cooking up disgusting food combinations in the mess hall. He accidently cultivated a ship-destroying bacteria from one of his horrid cheeses. In short, he's like a Star Trek version of Bilbo Baggins. I think his feet are even furry, although he does usually wear shoes. Except for the holodeck episodes featuring swim attire (shudder).

Exhibit B: Tuvok

I really don't care what anyone else thinks. Tuvok is an awesome Vulcan. Quiet, logical and oozing moral superiority. Tuvok is a genius detective and investigator. He is Janeway's rock-solid dependable agent anytime the whole crew gets mind controlled. But underneath all his mental facilities lies a seething rage. After a while, you really get the feeling that Tuvok's powers of Vulcan emotional suppression are all that keep him from unscrewing the heads of all the other Voyager crew members and ejecting their bodies out of the airlock.

What happens when both of these bizarre personalities get pushed together Yet Another Transporter Malfunction?

Exhibit A+B: Tuvix

Bam! One guy, halfway between both characters. He has both sets of memories. A weird combination of personality traits. A bizarre, twisted outfit halfway between Neelix's loud, flowery spaceman leisure suit and Tuvok's Starfleet uniform.

A lazier episode of Voyager would have probably made Tuvix into some kind of animal, or emotionally driven slob, or evil doppleganger. A madman who comes unhinged and decides to blow up the ship or kidnap Kes.

What they did was use actor Tom Wright, who already looks kinda like a cross between Ethan Phillips and Tim Russ, and he proceeded to play an almost perfect combination of both characters. He was a more logical Neelix, and a more fun-loving, friendlier Tuvok. The normal median between the two weirdos. The best of both worlds!

Instead of finding a monster, the Voyager crew actually begin to like Tuvix better than either Neelix or Tuvok. He can cook better. He's organized. He can make jokes. He can run calculations in his head and run the tactical console like a pro. There is nothing Tuvix can't do better, as far as I can tell.

When they finally find a way to separate the two organisms, the entire crew feels the loss. Especially Tuvix, who has come to enjoy his new abilities and sees the transporter reversal as a form of death for his new personhood. They actually have to drag him kicking and screaming back to the transporter pod.

Much in the same way S:TNG writers found ways to bring Tasha Yar back using inter-dimensional time paradoxes, I wish Voyager had found a way to fit Tuvix into a few more episodes. You see the guy, and your mind automatically wonders how he would have handled the different plot complications the show threw up over the rest of the seasons.

Definitely worth repeated watchings.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Magic's Time Distortion: Uno's Reverse

In large multiplayer Magic games, one of the biggest obstacles is turn order. For a game that was originally strictly 2 player, many of the cards/effects do not properly scale when you start adding extra people.

Of course, that's a little bit of the fun, and why the card selection process is so much different than in a standard person on person game.

This summer the new planechase set is introducing the "phenomenon" card to make each game even more wacky and chaotic than you probably thought possible. Randomly planeswalking to a dimension of pure fire was not crazy enough, apparently.

One of the things that catches my eye for Time Distortion is its close resemblance to the Uno card known as Reverse.

Uno is a marvelous multiplayer game, one that is self adapting for most small to large groups of card players. Kids like it, too.

Reverse is definitely not very exciting in the occasional Uno duel. In my childhood, where most Uno games were unfortunately played with 2, the Reverse card took on a very cryptic nature. To be honest, it does absolutely nothing. And explaining a card that does nothing to a 5 or 6 year old is never easy.

A house rule sprung up from the nothingness. I decided Reverse would just be another Skip card…a card I was very fond of using in the 2 player metagame. Skip becomes overpowered with just 2, allowing you to eventually chain a collection of skips in your hand until you run out and your opponent is at your mercy. Overpowered cards and extremely attractive to 6 year olds. It was also the beginning of a long, long period where I thought I was really good at card games.

Now, here it is in 2012. About 27 years since I first played Uno, and a year or so into my career playing UNO against my always-game 5-6 year old son.

It has taken a completely unrelated-to-Uno expansion for multiplayer Magic: The Gathering to make me realize I should probably institute a couple modifications to Uno to get this whole 2 player thing under control.

1. TAKE OUT the Reverses! The card count to Uno seems almost sacred. But removing the Reverse cards avoids an ugly dead spot when the big R comes around and everyone is left staring down at it, wondering what to do.

2. TAKE OUT the Skips! No one except for the cruelest of fathers would take pleasure in chaining skips towards an unearned victory.

3. The rest of the cards, probably ok!

To go to Magic for a second, I wonder what other UNO-inspired abilities might be in store for the planechase set?

The leftover mechanisms:

1. Skip: done already plenty. But a random free effect in a multiplayer setting would be interesting, especially if it were used consistently to deal withe the Threat on the board.

2. Draw 2: An almost given that at least one phenomenon card will cause you to draw extra cards or cause someone else to discard them.

3. Wild: Changing the colors of cards is s time-honored tradition. But the Magic version of this would not work in exactly the same way.

4. Wild Draw 4: INSANE!!!!!!

Now to go tear apart my Uno decks to preparation for dueling…

Friday, March 23, 2012

Star Trek: Expeditions Expanded

I'm reworking a previous post here to provide a little more detail and clarity. Sometimes the best blog posts (and that wasn't one of them) need a second draft to do them justice.

In 2011, a barbarian horde of Star Trek themed board games came gushing over the horizon, thanks to game publisher WizKids getting the official license and choosing to run with it.

Star Trek: Expeditions, designed by famous and sometimes infamous Dr. Reiner Knizia, was one of those games.

As you can see from the cover, Star Trek: Expeditions takes its theme from the characters of the modern 2009 reboot. We have Zoe Saldana as Uhura, Karl Urban as Bones McCoy, Chris Pine as James Kirk and Zachary Quinto as Mr. Spock.

Being a pretty decent Star Trek fan, I've finally put enough distance now between myself and the 2009 movie that I can make an objective assessment. They probably shouldn't have redone the original 60's characters. The decision was made by financially minded people who realized the biggest audience draw would be from the original characters. Of course, the movie would probably not have been made otherwise. But in a perfect world it would have been better to create a new bridge crew, in a new ship, in whatever Star Trek time period of your choice.

In the coming movies, these new versions of the classic characters are going to have to work HARD to establish their own identities and escape the shadow of their predecessors. Especially if they get handed a couple of cookie cutter Star Trek scripts for the next movies. Oh no, the Earth faces annihilation at the hands of malicious alien forces…AGAIN!

And while we are on the topic of cookie cutters, Star Trek: Expeditions takes the template of a classic Star Trek away mission script and makes a board game out of it.

A planet is petitioning to join the totally-awesome Federation. They are rich in "unobtainium" resources. Of course, the Klingons (the militaristic, scheming ones from the 60's) want a piece of that pie.

The Star Trek gang beams down to the planet and things quickly go wrong.

Very similar to a cross of Scooby-Doo and Clue, the various characters (Uhura, Bones, Kirk and Spock) must wander around the planet and collect evidence of what exactly the Klingons are up to. Each location is also home to a dice based challenge, where the different skills of the crew members (Communications, Medical, Diplomacy, Analysis and many more) will provide substantial benefits.

The actual difficulty of the game leaves a bit to be desired. Along with your innate abilities, further bonuses can be picked up from items and additional crewmates. Any combo of characters and items can easily huddle together over a spot to make the dice roll into an almost auto-win. Towards the end of the game, each player had developed a party of random ensigns, and there were rarely a challenge roll we couldn't make.

I, as Uhura, had a number of hangers-on including Security and Medical Officers. The Medical Officer is particularly overboard, since the game already includes the indomitable Bones McCoy as one of the main players…the guy who fixed the Horta with a bucket of quick-dry cement. A man who has the medical skill TWICE. I kid you not.

So the different characters wander around and solve challenges. The challenges are the sorts of things you would expect in this scenario. There's a rebel civil war. There's a sabotaged water system. There's something funny about the President, and also a High Priestess that needs saving.

Overhead, a Klingon Battlecrusier wages a constant cat-and-mouse game with the Enterprise, creating a refreshing new spin on the countdown timer for this cooperative game.

But the game is easy, even on its hardest setting. Just right to play while watching an episode of Star Trek, this is a variety of game they used to call "beer and pretzels." And easy is probably good, because most cooperative games with higher difficulty devolve into someone else telling everyone what to do.

Now that it's 2012, I see we are getting the inevitable expansion. While the single away mission you get with game has a bit of replay value, having a wider variety of adventures would certainly make this game more interesting. Unfortunately, the expansion is just 3 new characters: Scotty, Sulu and Chekov. If Scotty is anything like Bones, the Enterprise will have no worries whatsoever about surviving the cloaked Klingon ship encounters.

Beam up, beam down, fight the klingons, woo the space princess…this game is best played with good friends who've all seen the shows about 100 times. For a "brain burning" strategy experience you'll have to look to some of the other games.

Avacyn Restored Trailer (MTG)

So, about six months ago an expansion for Magic: The Gathering came out called Innistrad. The block was a subtle combination of elements borrowed from The Munsters and Ravenloft. They also had crazy 2-faced cards with no backs.

This spring, the Monster Squad will emerge triumphant, and Avacyn is going to kick some demonic zombie butt.

All cards in Avacyn Restored will have backs, and the 2-faced business seems to be behind us. What an odd conversation that will be 10 years from now. "What the heck is this?" the kids will ask at the comic book store. "Well, they made double sided cards once just for fun. You have to keep them in opaque sleeves to hide their identity."

I am becoming more and more cognizant that the best Magic cards have already been developed. However, a new expansion still fills me with a certain level of excitement that a rogue super cool card might slip through. Dark Ascension had its Jar of Eyeballs after all.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Santiago De Cuba: A Board Game of Carpooling

Rigid government systems provide a wealth of crazy rules to follow, an ideal setting for any "Eurogame." But Santiago de Cuba goes further, turning the beautiful Cuban city of Santiago into a bizarre psychological experiment. All the players are brought together, while simultaneously they are fighting like sewer rats to get as far away from each other as possible.

Your worst enemy is sitting in the rich leather seat right next to you. And the smell of car exhaust and back-alley private commerce is everywhere.

The front cover of the box is about as misleading as it can get.

In Santiago, there are no smiles. No companionship. No bicycles, either. There is a musician, but he exists only as a person to shake down for money if he gets too close to your car. Which is probably why he's hiding out on the balcony.

Instead, you and your opponents are "black-market wheelers and dealers" who try every hook and crook (in the book!) to acquire resources to supply a waiting cargo ship. You will wish failure and disappointment down on your adversaries every turn. You will fight tooth and nail. But there is a twist to this competition.

You and your opponents must share the same car.

I'm surprised this hasn't been turned into a reality show yet.

The board is a simple track. Around the track are randomly placed Cubans and special-ability Buildings. The various stops around the track give you fruit, sugar, tobacco, cigars, rum and wood. At the end of the track is the cargo ship, waiting expectantly for the goods you're picking up.

The track moves in one direction, like Monopoly. So after reaching a destination, you have to wait to come all the way around for a return visit. There is an additional "pesos" resource which you must continually pay your driver with, otherwise he robotically stops at each destination like a sabbath-mode elevator.

The randomly placed buildings mean every single game plays completely differently. You can't internalize any particular route because next game all the synergies you've grown used to are gone. The tobacco guy who lived next door to the cigar factory could just as easily be the fruit seller who lives next to the rum refinery.

I love games where you can really mess with the other players. Resource collection is normally pretty boring, luckily Santiago de Cuba has many tools for the enterprising saboteur.

There are three minor and one major sources of shenanigans.

Firstly, the main source is the motion of the car itself. If you know your opponent really needs tobacco, you can press a few extra pesos into the hand of your driver and make sure the next stop leaves the tobacco seller far, far behind. If you have control of the car, but don't have the right stuff to unload at the ship, you can drive the car right past the docks (while your fellow riders growl and claw frantically at the windows) and land at the beginning of the track again.

This leads to the next shenanigan. One of the special-ability buildings is the "newspaper publisher".

Stopping here allows you to temporarily "close" one of the friendly Cuban resource-sellers. This is apparently the kind of newspaper that keeps a stable of thugs on hand for intimidation purposes. Anyway, this action makes a normal space into a "dead" space. Whoever lands there won't get anything for their trouble. The move will deny your opponent access to a resource, but it usually also makes someone waste a peso going over the top. And woe be the guy who has no pesos, because then you end up effectively losing your turn, standing outside a closed fruit stand.

Next we have Alonso the Lawyer.

He's similar to the other resource-sellers, only he will give you "ownership" of one of the special-ability buildings for the rest of the game. You put your color of marker on the spot and from then on you get to tax your opponents whenever they land on it. You also get direct access to your "owned" buildings the next time you land on Alonso, making it easier to use the more strategic buildings in the game.

Finally, we have the Customs Office.

The Customs Office eliminates one of the "need" categories for the waiting cargo ship. If the ship needs 1 Tobacco, 3 cigars and 2 rum; one visit to the Customs Office can easily make the demand list into 1 tobacco, 2 rum and nothing else. Bad news for the player who has grocery bags full of cigars ready to deposit.

Driving around the board with somewhat experienced players quickly transforms into a delicate dance by automobile around the great harbor of historic Santiago de Cuba. You might start leaning toward resource acquisition, switch to dishing out as much hate as possible to the other players, then switch back to resource acquisition once the boat gets reloaded. Figuring out the new points of synergy between people and buildings is also a big part the overall strategy.

The biggest secret just seems to be to keep your options open and use what's easily available from your somewhat unpredictable car stops. One of the sellers is a "lumberjack" who gives you wood. The cargo ship is always hungry for wood, and accepts in place of any other resource (and only giving you 1 victory point as a penalty). But if you don't think you're going to be able to make the sugar seller, wood is definitely better than nothing.

To sum up: Santiago De Cuba is intermittent shopping trips, combined with fouling and taunting your fellow passengers mercilessly. Actually, pretty fun.

Santiago de Cuba at Board Game Geek
Santiago on-line game playable for free at