Tuesday, July 07, 2020

Black Lives Matter (and Me Too) and Tabletop Games 2

Following up on last month's post about diversity in gaming, here are some additional items from the last few weeks:

- Wizard of the Coast: First, they have responded to the issue regarding inherently evil races in Dungeons and Dragons (such as dark elves) by reviewing and changing future products to enable all members of all races to choose their own morality. See their press release. This may not be enough; game design freelancer Orion D. Black just resigned, claiming that the Wizards press release does not address real issues of racism within the company structure; his statement is here. Second, they have cut ties with Magic artist Noah Bradley, who has long and often been accused of severe sexual harassment, after Noah himself posted a lengthy acknowledgement and apology on the topic.

- Cards Against Humanity: Former employees accused the company and one of its co-founders of a toxic work environment and sexual harassment. The co-founder, Max Temkin, has stepped down. Considering the line of games and materials this company produces, this is no surprise to me. Statement from the company. The workers are now unionizing.

- A huge list of accusations about sexual assault, rape, and harassment was made last month regarding various video game personalities, especially streamers. Video game publishers also must address a long history of racism in games and by players.

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

To the Best of Our Knowledge on Board Games

Podcast To the Best of Our Knowledge reposts last year's episode about board games, propaganda (Juden Raus, The Grizzled), crushing competition (Chess), and fake history (Mahjong).

Listen here:

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Black Lives Matter and Tabletop Games

I support everything that black people and allies are saying right now and have been saying for centuries (except for the few who say things that are anti-Israel or antisemitic). Change is a long time coming and hopefully permanent changes will eventually (and soon) make all people equally welcome, equally safe, have equal opportunities, and be equally empowered and protected in all areas of society. Black lives damn well matter.

Board gamers tend to be a bit less toxic than players of some of the other gaming cultures, such as video games, roleplaying games, and collectible card games. These latter cultures notoriously attract vocal racists, sexists, homophobes, etc etc. "Gamergate" is all I have to say about that. Board gamers tend to be more gender-mixed, more family-friendly, and older (but not as old as miniature war-gamers and the like).

Unfortunately, like every subculture, the board game culture is set within the real world, and so there is plenty of racism, sexism etc in it (it's just not generally a seething wretchedness, like it is in video games or certain sports). The more fanatic the gamers, the more racist, etc they tend to be. Fanatics don't want anything messing with their hobby, especially when the messers point out problems with their privilege. In my casual estimation, there is a tendency toward racism among certain hardcore game fanatics on BoardGameGeek, and probably other, similar websites.

As for the game designers and publishers, there are plenty of tone-deaf tabletop games (and of course video games), steeped in white privilege. Last year, for example, a board game called Scramble for Africa was canceled after complaints that it presented the colonization and pillage of Africa as a means of obtaining points. It even used events, such as causing local "uprisings", as a game mechanic to further your position, without addressing the native population and the effects that the colonization had on the continent. Similar complaints have been leveled at any conquest game, including such abstracts as Catan; not because Catan represents a particular oppression, but because the very act of conquering and transforming a supposedly uninhabited territory is a kind of whitewashing.

Plenty of other games have whitewashing problems, such as the well-loved Puerto Rico (with brown "colonists" working in the plantations of San Juan) and Endeavor (where slavery cards are a cheap tool for points, and freeing the slaves is another one).

As I mentioned, collectible card games attracts some real bigots, probably because the same population that plays it tend to play video games. As a result, there is a dearth of black Magic players. Wizards of the Coast was taken to task, not only for not doing enough to address the racism of its conventions and game groups, but for its unsafe work environment and even the artwork on its cards. After Zalem Beg, a former editor-in-chief for major Magic: The Gathering retailer and several other top sites, recently wrote a scathing attack on the company's culture as well as some of its cards and web site choices, yesterday Wizards finally responded by banning some old cards and racist artwork.

I know that TSR and then Wizards of the Coast also had a history of racist portrayals and/or exclusion of minorities in their Dungeons and Dragons products, and I know that they have included more minorities, with less stereotypes, in some artwork in recent years, but they still have a ways to go. Some people object to the very idea of D&D as a cultural appropriation and glorification of killing the "other", and others to how orcs seem to represent the other in a racist way (a problem that they say originated from Tolkein).

In April, world Chess champion Magnus Carlsen marked a U.N. international campaign against racism by playing a game of Chess where the black pieces moved first. In Chess, both sides play with the exact same pieces, just different colors (sometimes not even black and white), and every other classic abstract game, including Checkers and Go, has the black pieces moving first. Meanwhile, the Chess world, like every other world of fanatic hobbyists, is pretty white, for the various reasons you might expect, including lack of, or thwarted, opportunities and microaggressions in Chess groups and culture.

Same goes for other games with single-minded devotees, such as Scrabble. Speaking of Scrabble, years ago some people objected to racist terms being in the Scrabble dictionary (it took years before these terms were even labeled as offensive in the dictionary); they were removed, but remain valid for tournament play on a special sheet handed out to tournament players, and you can still play them online if you select the tournament dictionary.

Tom Vasel recently interviewed designer Eric Lang to get his take on being black in the board game community. Eric Lang is a notable and successful game designer, unfortunately one of the few who are black.



The Game Manufacturers Association who run the Origins convention was taken to task for NOT saying anything about black lives matter. As a result, Eric Lang and many other invited speakers pulled out of the convention. Yesterday, GAMA finally put out a statement about black lives matter and canceled the event. People continue to take them to task for canceling the event as if it had been their decision, and not the result of their previous lack of statement.

And of course, on the flip side, people can create tabletop games that teach about racism and how we can deal with it. Not that many, exist, however.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Movie Reviews: Star Wars IX: The Rise of Skywalker, Emma (2020), Knives Out, Joker, Little Women (2019)

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (aka Star Wars IX): A somewhat messy, but entertaining movie, that does its best to wrap up the trilogy of movies that started in The Force Awakens (Star Wars VII), as well as the trilogy of trilogies that make up the Star Wars canon.

The resistance is pursued by the first order, Rey is entangled with Kylo Ren, Palpatine has returned and is about to launch a ridiculously huge army (this really makes no sense), and Poe and Finn and Rey have to defeat them all. And there are light-sabers.

The movie has many things going for it, including decent acting, good characters and a few good character arcs, some good action sequences, some funny and some touching moments, great visuals, sound, and music, and a reasonable wrap-up of some parts of the story.

It also has many problems, of two main types: those that are the fault of Rian Johnson and the terrible mess he left us with Star Wars VIII: The Last Jedi, and those that are J. J. Adams fault, essentially the same problems that we saw in his Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens.

People criticize this film for the sins of the trilogy: the trilogy has no cohesive story arc. This is because VIII deliberately destroyed dozens of story arcs that were started in VII, and, even worse, destroyed many of the essential elements and ideas of the entire SW universe: good isn't good, bad isn't bad, heroes aren't heroes, the Force is universal, there is no resistance, etc, etc. To write IX, you either had to ignore much of what happened in VII (and pretty much the rest of Star Wars) or much of what happened in VIII.

IX chose the latter by awkwardly retconning lines and characters from VIII. This was only partially successful. Snope was set up in VII and made meaningless in VIII; VIII desperately tried to remove the concept of overarching villains from the series, which was terrible. So IX tried to shoehorn in the old emperor Palpatine as pulling the strings behind Snope, but it did so quite badly, without any surprise reveal and in without any real threat or dramatic presence. In VII, Rey had some kind of important background and story; VIII tried to destroy any meaning to her background and story. So IX tried to subvert what happened in VIII, but it did so quite badly. She has a story again, but it didn't make any sense, didn't give us any real dramatic interest, and left dozens of important hints from VII unanswered. And so on.

As for IX on its own, maybe Adams was hobbled from making any kind of sensible story by trying to fit in VIII and also wrap up a trilogy of trilogies. While VII had a pretty decent (if predictable) story, the story in IX is sometimes insane. The "Goonies-like" treasure map that they find, and how they find it, is unbelievable nonsense. The new force powers are cool in abstract, but don't fit the story or the trilogy. Characters appear for fan service, or don't appear (or don't appear much) for no sensible reasons. The end threat scenes are Marvel-level and just too unbelievable to take seriously. The dialog is forgettable; the only memorable line is "A Jedi's weapon deserves more respect", and it is memorable because it is a metashot at Rian Johnson's disrespect of the lightsaber at the beginning of VIII.

Still, there are many good scenes, and each scene, other than the ones with Palpatine and the ridiculous end battle, are entertaining and well-shot. It was nice to end the movie with callbacks to both of the original trilogies. The movie doesn't add up to the sum of its scenes; the story just isn't any good. Lucas may have hired some so-so actors and written some clunky dialog, but I always loved the stories (even the prelude trilogy). It's almost possible to forget all this while watching this movie; almost, but not quite.

Emma.: Like the recent attempts at the Great Gatsby and Anna Karenina, this movie is unfortunately directed by someone who is in love with process and sets, but has no interest in actors other than to use them as props for their photography. It's no surprise to me that the director is most well known for her photography.

The sets and actors fly around the landscapes, and the camera takes notice of all of the scenery and settings, but little of the characters. The movie would still have been a little better than the above two mentioned movies (which were not watchable). Unfortunately, the director or screenwriter's second major mistake destroys the movie.

Emma is supposed to be sympathetic but flawed. Book Emma as a heroine is full of good intentions and good Christian works, beautiful manners and kindness to everyone, though served poorly by her self-righteousness and blinded by lack of insight. That's not what we get here. In this movie, Emma is loathsome, snobbish, and entirely unsympathetic. There is no chemistry between her and Mr. Knightly, and no apparent reason for him to fall in love with her. Maybe that is the fault of the actors, maybe of the directors; it's hard to say.

I guess Emma learns something by the end, as she must, but she doesn't retain much of it, doesn't change her character, and doesn't become any more sympathetic. So, if you remove the pretty shots and sets, the story is about an obnoxious, unsympathetic snob who makes a few mistakes and realizes one or two of them by the end, is sorry and fixes one of them, but otherwise doesn't change, and then a handsome rich man marries her. Mmmm ... okay? That's not a very interesting story.

Honestly, stick with the 1995 version with Gwyneth Paltrow, which was silly but faithful, at least.

Knives Out: A gem of a movie, this was unexpected fun. Lots of great actors in an old-fashioned, southern whodunit. Daniel Craig, Ana de Armas, and the rest of the cast are exciting and lovely, and the script is tight, tense, and funny, with multiple flashbacks from alternate points of view. This movie is also by Rian Johnson, who redeems himself in my mind after having ruined the Star Wars franchise.

In a family house, a grandfather has a questionable relationship with all of his children, their spouses, and their kids, and somehow he ends up dead. Was it one of them? Or the nurse? Or suicide? Who will inherit his fortune? Enter private detective Benoit Blanc (Craig) to figure it out.

Captivating. Worth watching on the small screen.

Joker: This controversial origin story was actually quite good. Joaquin Phoenix does nearly as good a job as the Joker as Heath Ledger did in The Dark Knight. The sound and visuals were fantastic.

Arthur Fleck is a clown who is poor, who has a sick mother and no father, and who, every day, gets beat up and the sad end of the stick in Metropolis, which is NYC at its most disgusting and ready to boil over. He also has a disease that makes him laugh inappropriately, which is, as you may guess, likely to get you hated, ridiculed, and beaten up on occasion. He is also a failed comedian who loves a Johnny Carson type (played by Robert De Niro). One day while in clown makeup he shoots three entitled white dudes, partially in self-defense but mostly because he has nothing left to lose, and he (maybe?) inadvertently starts a revolution with himself as the cult leader. In the end, some or all of what happened is revealed to be a fiction of his imagination, so it's not clear how much of it to believe.

Although I admit that the movie was well made, I still didn't like it too much. It's not that, as some critics said, it excuses violence by the downtrodden or entitled white men; the movie makes it pretty clear that this guy is an exception who is disturbed, and that some or all of what happens might be in his deranged mind. It's more that the movie doesn't say much more than that. He's a deranged guy who suffers and ends up killing people. Okay, that's all? I wished it would have given us something more. Dark Knight had The Joker, and it gave us much more to think about and much more story. This gave us very little. It seems like an homage to Taxi Driver and King of Comedy, both of which also gave us a lot more in the way of character, story, and moral complexity.

Still, amazing performances, some great cinematography and directing, and fascinating in a "can't look away from the car crash" kind of way.

Little Women (2019): Gillian Armstrong's 1994 version of this book, starring Winona Ryder, Kirsten Dunst, Claire Danes, Susan Sarandon and others was a sweet and innocent classic, faithful to the book: it was moderately feminist, slipped over a lot of the transcendentalist morals, and cut out much of the last half of the book.

Greta Gerwig's new version, starring Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Laura Dern and others, is quite nice, strongly feminist, and very different. It adds scenes hinted at in the book, removes others, and thoroughly changes the character of Amy. The book and the 1994 movie are Jo's story, with input from the others adding to, and contrasting with, Jo's sentiments. This movie is equally Amy's movie (played by Florence Pugh), and she tromps, scowls, and grabs at opportunities and the scenes whenever she appears. We are now far from the transcendentalist roots that informed the source material.

But the story is still the story, which needs no explanation here. It is split into flashbacks, since we start with Jo trying to publish her book. Gerwig as a writer and actress starred in movies with excessive quirkiness that sometimes detracted from the stories. As director, in Lady Bird and this movie, that hand is present with some excessively quick dialog and quirky characters, but it is lighter, allowing the actors and story to properly flow and shine.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Euronimoes

Dave Ross wrote to tell me about his print and play game Euronimoes, which is in its third and final edition (hasn't required any updates in 4 years).

Print and play games are great for time when you are stuck at home, because they: are craft projects (sometimes minimally), free, and usually light, simple, and family-oriented.


Euronimoes fits the bill, as a Euro-style pattern building game, which requires only one or two sets of Dominoes (0-6) and a few poker chips for each player, and the free rules from his site.

On each turn, you take a Domino into your hand, either from a "market" or the draw pile, and then play one from your hand into your personal pattern space (see the above figure, for example). Dominoes in the market cost -1 (you gain a chip) up to 3 chips, while taking a random Domino always gives you 1 chip.

Columns in your space must always form runs up or down (if touching), and you score the lowest tile in each run; lowest score in the end wins. There is also an option to build upwards and take off more points from your score.

That's about it; details are in the free rules.

Codenames Online

We have been playing Codenames remotely with family and friends at https://www.horsepaste.com/ .

The spymasters view the board with the relevant words highlighted, which is actually easier than looking back and forth at a mapping card. The other players click on a box when they want to guess a word.

You need some other means of communicating open at the same time, as you play.

There are some other sites that also have working versions of the game, none of them official. The site of the game publishers https://codenamesgame.com/ indicates that they are working on providing an official version of the game.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Board Games in the Time of Corona

If you are lucky (?) enough to be stuck at home with other people, and they are willing, then board games are a good way to connect, if the rest of the time everyone is on their own electronic devices (as it is in my house).

Game nights and game day is out of the question, but nearly every game we might want to play, including Tichu, has a free online version, some with better interfaces, and some with worse. Check them out before inviting others to play, and then use your usual game group communication platform to organize session times.

I tried playing Codenames via Zoom (I didn't know about the online version at the time). This did not work well for me, since there was an issue with focusing our camera on the board and with lag times between the various video participants. If you have less lag time in your area, you may experience better results.

Yehuda