Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Movie Reviews: Hunger Games, Hobbit, and Hawking

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1: Jennifer Lawrence is back as Katniss Everdeen in this third - but only penultimate - installment of the young adult book series. Lawrence is brilliant as usual, but she does little here, sharing screen-time with an assortment of other characters. Primary is Julianne Moore as the rebel leader Alma Coin, with major appearances by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman as former gamesmaker turned rebel Plutarch (he died a week before filming of the sequel finished),  Donald Sutherland as capital tyrant President Snow, Josh Hutcherson as Peetah, Liam Helmsworth as Gale, Woody Harrelson barely on-screen and missed as Haymitch, and others.
A lot of the book is missing again (like all of Katniss' rebellion against the rebellion) and scenes that were "off-screen" in the book were added, like the rescue attempt in the capital. It's two hours of preparatory work for the next movie, politics, and posturing, with a few low key fights. It should not have been a standalone movie. It's enjoyable, if only because of the fine acting or because you enjoyed the books. You won't understand anything if you missed the previous movies.

The Theory of Everything: A movie that hits its mark, this is an adaptation of Jane Hawking's book Traveling to Infinity, which tells the story of her life with renowned physicist Stephen Hawking. If you live in a mall, and so don't know who Stephen Hawking is, he is the most famous theoretical physicist in the world for two reasons: 1) he developed much of the theoretical framework for the origin of the universe as a big bang, as well as how black holes emit radiation, and 2) he has been locked in a wheelchair and nearly immobile since his first year as a doctoral student.

Having been written by Jane, the story covers as much of her commitment to, and struggle to live with, Stephen, as it does his amazing work and triumphs. Unfortunately, knowing as I knew where the story went, I wasn't happy with where it went, but that's life; Jane makes it all seem as nice as possible, and the movie ends before we get into the troubles Stephen experienced from 1995 to 2006. Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen to perfection in an incredibly difficult role, and so does Felicity Jones as Jane, as does the rest of the cast. It's a biopic, well done, brilliantly acted, and nicely paced, but more about their relationship then about the universe.

The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies: I really don't know what to say about this. There were less unbelievable things performed by Legolas (just one scene tower/bridge). But there was still the ridiculous love story between girl elf and dwarf. Many of the story elements were taken from the end of the The Hobbit, but I got lost several times with the back and forth decisions of the Elf King. And wasn't there a second orc army that was on its way to attack? What happened to it?

There were many omissions from the book, changes that didn't seem justified, and of course all the added material. With the exception of the above mentioned romance, the additions were fine; I just couldn't follow all of them. The acting was good and some scenes, such as Gandalf tapping out a pipe, were cute or funny.

Again and again, the bad guy (or dragon) took time to talk to his prey or Look Cool before delivering the final blow, and again and again that delay was fatal. The dwarf army leader had an outrageous Scottish accent, but it was kind of funny. The greedy cowardly human guy was funny once or twice, but his appearance on screen was the same joke repeated, and it got boring. It was hard to understand why everyone not only let him live but kept entrusting him with responsibilities when he always abandoned or forgot them. The "gold fever" that possessed Thorin was far worse than the influence of the ring on Bilbo, and its resolution wasn't entirely clear.

The last half of the movie, which were battle scenes, one-to-many fights scenes, and then a host of one-to-one fight scenes, also got to be predictable and ... well, not boring exactly, but not really tense. I knew what was going to happen on the ice flow before it happened. I knew that the guy who looked dead wasn't really dead and was going to make one last attack, even though there was no logical reason that he wasn't already dead nor why he would pretend to be dead except to "surprise" the audience. I also knew from the book who was going to die, so that defused the suspense.

Was it good? Eh. It had some good characters who were not explored in depth, and some great cinematography, of course. It was sorta good. Kind of. Maybe.

Monday, December 08, 2014

Lume and Lumino City: Video Games Made of Paper, Cardboard, Motors, and Lights

Lumino City is a video game made from videos shot of handmade paper-craft, cards, lights, and motors. It took three years to construct and is the sequel to 2012's equally artistic and intriguing Lume.

What do we call a game that plays like a video game, but it made out of physical objects in the way that board games are made? Obviously they are video games. But they are something else, the same way that The Dragon's Lair was a video game but also a choose-your-own adventure movie.

Come to think of it, what do we call a board game made from computer graphics, like what we play on an iPad? Obviously they are board games. But they are something else, especially when the game adds a little something extra that is hard to reproduce in the board game equivalent, like animated piece movement.

So often we see copies of the most obvious products that our tools can produce. Artists use tools to create new things. The Lume series is art: not because the paper-craft or constructions are art (though they are), not because the game-play is art, but because the combined experience opens up new worlds, makes us think differently, and speaks to us about what it means to create. And it's awesome.

This is not the first video game created from non-computer graphics media. For example, The Neverhood is a 1996 game made from (crude) claymation.

This year also brought us Crafty Arcade's iPollute ...

... as well as The Dream Machine.


Monday, December 01, 2014

The Best Chanukah Game is on Sale

Candle Quest, the best Chanukah board game, is on sale (25% off) at Victory Point Games. It's the first discounted game in VPG's Christmas Sale.

Go now and buy several copies to give to your friends and family as presents. Go, go. I'll wait.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Ghurka Leather Luxury Games

If you're holiday shopping for a rather expensive but beautiful gift, I was contacted by Ghurka Leather Products who asked me to promote their first, all-new classic board games.

One is a chestnut leather Backgammon set. It costs a mere $4,895. And they offer free U.S. domestic shipping (they also ship worldwide).
The other is a chestnut leather Poker set. It's yours for a paltry $3,700.

Of course, the best part about these games, other than the fact that they are swanky and beautiful items, is that I get a commission if you buy one.

For somewhat less costly gifts, see my holiday gift guide.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Nine Movie Reviews Apes, Marvel, Interstellar, Marvel, Lucy, St Vincent, and more Marvel

Camp X-Ray: Maybe it's the fault of Kristen Stewart's directors. She is believable here as a taciturn, brooding marine, just as she was believable as a taciturn, brooding vampire's girlfriend in Twilight, a taciturn, brooding Snow White in The Hunstman, and a taciturn, brooding teenager in Speak. But she was also believable as a taciturn, wild party girl in On the Road. I hope she is given more to do in future movies (unless we've really seen all she is capable of).

Here she plays a marine who develops a sense that the Guantanamo Bay detainee in her charge, played by Peyman Moaadi, is not just a prisoner but a person. Standard army operating procedure is to treat prisoners with complete detachment. One can understand the army's perspective: it's not the army's job to decide who is or isn't innocent, and some of the detainees are highly intelligent and cunning, which makes personal interaction with them dangerous, even treasonous. But this isn't a temporary detention center; it's a permanent detention center, with no trials and no escape. Isolation in a temporary detention center is understandable; isolation and complete loss of autonomy for the rest of your life without due process or trial, with no hope of human contact, is not a life worth living. It's troubling.

The premise has a somewhat forced but captivating climactic scene. (Only the physical contact at the end bothered me. Maybe an American Christian would see a touch between a female guard and male prisoner as two people connecting on a human level. But I think a religious Muslim would see it as a jarring contact between a man and a woman - the guy has probably never touched a woman other than his mother in his life - and that doesn't really present the message that the movie was going for.)

It has a message, but it's not a heavy-handed one. We don't get much about the other marines or her background, or his background for that matter. We just get some glimpses into his character, as well as his frustration. We see posters about 9/11 hanging on the wall. It's a lot like a two-person play, with a few brief moments on stage from the other characters. Interesting.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier: The first Captain America was complete candy without even a pretense of realism. This one has matured and brings the film franchise squarely into line with the other Marvel movies. It's got everything you expect from a Marvel movie (see the X-Men review below), with a totally irrelevant plot that has holes you can throw a shield through, but it's a little bit better than average owing to a little more tension: it's actually possible that this Captain America might die, since in the comics the guy who wears the suit sometimes dies and his role gets taken over by someone else. It works about as well as any of the others do.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes: It's the old story of racism, mistrust, and war, this time between humans and apes, instead of between humans and aliens or two factions of humans. The same plot ideas and stereotypes are here: the slow realization that "other" is not necessarily bad, the racists on both sides who turn on each other and threaten to derail everything with sneakiness and sudden violence because they want war, the undecideds caught in the middle, etc.

Technically it's fantastic, of course, and the acting and plotting is good. This is better than the first movie, and it's good entertainment, but it's ultimate lack of depth and maudlin sentimentality is a bit too Marvel-ish for my tastes. The ape leader Caesar is the most developed character, the humans were types.

I love Keri Russel, and here she is, looking and acting just like she did over a decade ago in first-season Felicity.

Interstellar:This is a pretty fantastic movie. It's an updated version of 2001: A Space Odyssey with some environmental messages thrown in. In the not-too distant future, Earth is dying from crop failures and all stories about space programs are taught to be fiction. A former NASA pilot and his brainy daughter think they have received from messages from a ghost in the bookcase who writes in Morse Code using gravity. He ends up piloting a secret mission through a one-way wormhole to explore other planets while they face the scientific problem that this entails her growing old before him due to time dilation; even if he finds a habitable planet, will it be in time to save the Earth and will humans be able to find a way to get there? That's just the basic structure of some of the beginning of the movie.

What makes this movie fantastic? An epic story. This movie has a Big Fat Developed storyline in several acts with real changes from act to act along an evolving story arc. When was the last time you saw that in a movie? Most movies today, even the good ones, are just collections of scenes hung around themes with irrelevant stories that take two sentences to tell.

The story is pretty great, the science, visuals, and effects are thought-provoking, and the acting is adequate. I wasn't too thrilled with Matthew McConaughey; he's about as good as Keir Dullea was in 2001. Update: I saw this a second time, and I take back what I said about Matthew: he was great. Anne Hathaway and the others were good, and I liked the non-anthropomorphic black monolith-bots. The ending (reminiscent of 2001, but less off the wall) is odd, but it works if you understand the premise that they're using.

Intelligent science fiction that isn't too sappy (just a bit) with a captivating epic story, good science and effects, and solid performances is a rare thing. It's better than 2001 (2001 was original and thought-provoking, but it was self-indulgent and really didn't have much of a story).

Lucy: I laughed out loud at the sheer stupidity that was Skyfall and Elysium; this one beats both of them hands down. Wow, is the premise dumb. It's bad enough that the entire movie is based on the discredited legend that humans don't use more than 10% of their brain. Apparently using 10.5% causes you to involuntarily levitate up to the ceiling. By 20% you can control matter and minds around you and by 30% and 40% you are dissolving flesh, disrupting electronic communication around the globe, and melting into the cosmos. Holy idiocy.

One of the first things to go with increased intelligence is any tone in your voice or the ability to understand or convey emotion or humor. Like so many other movies, superpowers come and go when required by the script because of ... plot coolness. One of the most painful parts was watching Morgan Freeman, who in real life presents actual science in his TV series Through the Wormhole, present scientific sounding mumbo-jumbo in service to the plot. Bad bad bad.

St Vincent: Bill Murray plays a crusty war-veteran living a sad life with bad habits and a few debts. His regular companions are a cat and a stripper/hooker played by Naomi Watts. In next door moves a recently separated and struggling mother played by Melissa McCarthy and her son who needs a father figure played by newcomer Jaeden Lieberher.

If you're thinking you know the plot to this already, you do. The acting is fantastic, but the movie is so-so; most of it is pretty average, with a some flashes of brilliance (due to the charm and talent of the actors) and flashes of awkwardness due to the predictable plot forcing certain scenes and confrontations that don't work as blocked. A braver screenwriter would have tossed them out. It's an ok film for a lazy evening, and fun to watch Murray own certain scenes, like when he sings Bob Dylan while watering his garden. But that's about it.

On the plot-hole side, I don't understand how a man with no money in his bank or wallet, in debt to bookies, insurance companies, and everyone else, and with nothing to pawn, manages to keep feeding himself, paying his bills, drinking massive amounts at bars, playing bets at the racetrack, paying a hooker (not just for sex, but for he medical bills), and also pays for a CAT-scan and months of hospital bills.

The Hundred-Foot Journey: Oprah sucks the soul out of any movie she touches; all of her movies are feel-good Hallmark movies with nothing to say because they have no courage to say it. In this movie, a talented cook from India and his family set up shop in France across the street from a talented French restaurant. A small amount of culture class and racism ensues, but only enough to acknowledge it and then pretend it never happened. He rises in the world of cooking, but realizes that he misses his family and everyone - everyone - lives happily ever after.

There is a scene of turbulence in India at the beginning, but it is nameless and faceless, so we can't get involved. There is a racist guy in France, but he does a little bit of racism to very little effect and leaves the scene and everyone forgets that racism ever existed. There is some promising tension between two love interests competing as cooks, but it is briefly mentioned and then forgotten.

Everyone is adorable, perfect, successful, and inoffensive. The movie is pretty. The dishes are pretty, but according to some web sites I saw, some of the recipes and techniques are inaccurate. It's an ok date movie.

The Maze Runner: Another entry in the young-adult dystopian future film-fest. This one is not so good. Dylan O'Brien wakes up on an elevator that takes him up to a walled-in field populated entirely with teenage boys. They have been living there for up to three years, with a new arrival every month. Every arrival has no memory of the world before he awoke in the elevator. The walls are tall and there are doors in them that open every day and close every night. These lead to a maze that some of the boys explore each day; failure to return by the time the doors close is certain death due to the monsters that roam the maze at night.

Of course - spoiler - Thomas is going to be the one to lead some of the boys out of the maze, and of course the boys will all be stereotypes: competing leaders, the be-friender, the resentful second-in-comand, etc. Everything that happens happens because... plot. The boys have obviously been put there for some reason, which is not fully discovered by the end of the movie (so that we can have a second movie). What happens is so tightly railroaded that it fails to inspire and makes you want to smack the writer upside the head. The boys are smart enough to build a lookout tower several stories high, but can't be bothered to build a ladder to climb up the wall (which has tons of vines hanging down it)

About the only bright spot is the girl who gets sent up the month after Thomas - with a note saying that she will be the last: she is treated like a human being. No one makes any sexual comments, no one falls in love with her, no one treats her like a lesser human or tries to protect her. She plans, plots, and fights like anyone else. That's kind of refreshing.

The rest is ho-hum.

X-Men: Days of Future Past: I haven't reviewed any of the other X-Men movies, but I've reviewed many Marvel movies and this is a Marvel movie.

All Marvel movies have great effects, repeated from movie to movie, that all look the same. This movie has fire blasting giants, and so did Thor, and The Avengers or maybe one of those other movies. Who can remember? All Marvel movies have cool characters with witty lines and funny scenes but no conversations or anything deep or important to say. The moral message is something like: Be brave! Don't give up! Work together! Use your superpowers to hurt bad guys more than they use theirs to hurt you! All Marvel movies have a quest to control the unlimited power source that can control the world/galaxy/universe (apparently, it's always the same source, or one of several). All Marvel heroes have superpowers that are forgotten whenever we need plot, because plot can't happen if one of them would use their powers to their full effect or remember them at inconvenient times. All Marvel movies have completely indestructible heroes who never die; on the rare occasion that they seem to die, they come back to life at the end of the movie or in the next movie, but you never cared enough about one to care about their dying in the first place. It's all humor, cool factor, and effects.

Yada yada. This movie involves time travel and a reboot of the franchise, since Wolverine goes back in time and stuff happens to prevent other stuff happening, thereby undoing most of the other movies. Some people found some of the X-Men movies to be better or worse than the others, but I find them to be all the same (I thought The Wolverine was a bit less interesting than the others, but whatever). It's Marvel: it's big budget, it's entertaining, it's fun, it's brainless. They could stop making them and I wouldn't miss them.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

2014 Holiday Gift Guide

This guide includes games for young and old, for every sex, generation, temperament, and culture.

Whatever you do, and whatever you celebrate, there is no better way to spend a Christmas, Hanukkah, or what have you than together with friends, family, and neighbors with a warm cup of (fair trade) cocoa and a stack of casual board and/or card games.

Remember that the most valuable gift you can give is time. Don't just give your loved ones a game; play it with them. Find or start a local game group and join or form a community.

I hope you enjoy the guide. Remember: the holidays are not only for sharing the warmth with family and friends, but also for sharing with those who have no one else to share with them. Give to your local shelters, hospitals, and so on, because that's the gift that keeps on giving.

Samsung Galaxy Tab 4 10"

I'm starting with this unusual choice for a board game list, because tablets are perfect platforms for playing thousands of face to face games for two to four players. Because you don't need to buy the physical components, you can stack all your games in a teeny space, the games (if not the tablet) cost very little, and you don't have to cut down old trees to make them or use fossil fuels to ship them. Tablets have their own environmental impact in their making, so that's a trade off; but if you're getting one anyway, most of the games on this list are available electronically.
7 Wonders: Ages 9+, 4 to 7 players

This game took the gaming world by storm in 2010. This is a game of drafting cards. You get a hand of cards; pick one and pass the rest. Everyone reveals the card they picked and puts it into their tableaux. Repeat. Done. Score points based on the combinations of cards you have at the end of all the passing.

The graphics are fantastic, the theme not so visible. It's easy to learn, provides great choices, with depth enough to spare.
Apples to Apples: Ages 9+, 4 to 10 players

Apples to Apples is a party game that is simple to set up, learn, and play. There is no writing involved, and no board. And unlike many party games, reading all the cards doesn't ruin the game.

Each player has a hand of red apples (nouns) with which they have to match the green apple (adjective) flipped up. Each player has a chance to judge the best match. The cards you have in your hand never exactly match what gets flipped up; you have to do your best!

Other games that have copied A2A's mechanics with other themes, such as Dixit which is a game about choosing a picture that matches a word or phrase.
Antike: Ages 8+, 2 to 6 players

Risk is a long game of laying low, with player elimination and just too much in the luck department; this game is the perfect evolution to, and replacement for, Risk.

It plays quicker, there's dice-less conflict, no one gets to lay low watching while others fight, and - excepting truly poor play - everyone has a chance for most of the game. There's also a lot more to the game than just conflict, but the rules are short and elegant.

Other alternatives for the Risk player are Antike Duellum (for two players) and Risk Legacy (an odd game that moves in one game affect the next).

Backgammon: Ages 6+, 2 players

Backgammon is a classic game that can be enjoyed by children and parents alike. While there is a large amount of luck in the game, there are also many meaningful decisions, which makes this a good stepping stone to future games with more challenge, such as Checkers or Chess.
Blokus, Blokus Trigon, Blokus Duo: Ages 8+, 4 players (Blokus), 2-4 players (Blokus Trigon), or 2 players (Blokus Duo)

Blokus, Blokus Trigon, and Blokus Duo are abstract games with very simple rules. Each round you take a piece and place it on the board such that it touches any previous pieces you have played, but only corner to corner. It can touch other players' pieces along corners or sides.

The rules are easy, the components are beautiful, and it's fun.
Boggle: Ages 8+, 2 to 10 players

Boggle is a word game, whose simple rules - find all the words you can within three minutes - make it a game that is both fun and quick. Adults can play with kids by restricting the adults to have to find words of four or five letters.

The pictured version is a little quieter and less bulky than the old boxy version, and comes with a built-in electronic timer.
Candle Quest: Ages 6+, 2 to 4 players

A little plug for my own game. This is a simple set-collection auction game with a Hanukkah theme. It fits in well with the other games on the list: easy to learn, quick to play, lots of replayability. The theme makes it appropriate for all ages, and there's nothing overtly Jewish about it, other than that it's a menorah, so anyone should feel comfortable playing it.

Of course, I may be biased, since I designed it. This game was published by Victory Point Games.
Carcassonne, variants, and expansions: Ages 10+, 2 to 5 players

Carcassonne is a bit more complex than some of the other games here, but the beautiful pieces and the fun game play are worth the time to learn. Pick a piece from the pile, rotate and place it so that it fits on the board (like dominoes), and then optionally place one of your pieces on that tile. There are several ways to score, some of which occur during the game and some of which only at the end of the game.

There are some more rules than that, but not too many more. The game play is engaging enough to make you want to play it more than once in a single sitting.

There are dozens of versions to the game, and some of the versions have several expansions.
Chess / Xiangqi / Shogi: Ages 6+, 2 players

These three games, Chess, XiangQi (Chinese Chess), and Shogi (Japanese Chess), are all top-tier 2-player games that can occupy a curious mind for an entire lifetime. They also have wide followings, so learning the game is learning a language that will admit you to a culture of fellow players around the world.

Board and piece prices range from inexpensive to very expensive, and Chess pieces come in many different themes.
Chinese Checkers: Ages 6+, 2 to 6 players

Another great abstract, and a pretty one if you find one with nice marbles. The rules are simple: move or jump your pieces from one side to the other. Finding chains of jumps is a thrill for all ages.
Carrom / Crokinole / Nok-Hockey / Air Hockey / Billiards / Foosball, etc.: Ages 6+, 2 players

Carrom is the most played tabletop game in India. Like Billiards, the object is to knock pieces off the table area, which you do by flicking wooden disks with your fingers. Crokinole is another classic finger flicking game, as is a racing game called Pitchcar. All kinetic tabletop games, from snooker to billiards to foosball, are loved by players of all ages.
Playing Cards: Ages 3+, 1 to any number of players

Decks of cards, whether they are the well known Western type with 52 cards in 4 suits, or special European or Asian decks, are a great starting point for any number of wonderful games, including Bridge, Hearts, Skat, Cribbage, Pinochle, Oh Hell, Bullsh*t, Durak, President, Spades, Solitaire, and many others.

Check out for the rules to these games and to thousands of others.
Dominion: Ages 10+, 2-4 players

Dominion is a game based around deck building: as you play, you acquire cards which get shuffled into your deck. You need victory points to score, but too many early victory points will clog up your deck, making it harder to acquire more points.

A brilliant adaptation of a mechanic, it plays quickly and every game plays differently. The game has several expansions, all of which are good.
Froggy Boogie: Ages 3-9, 2 to 4 players

Froggy Boogie is a brilliant game to frustrate grownups and please younger children. All you have to do is remember where the picture of the fly is, under the left eye or the right eye? The dice have only colors - no counting necessary. It's a perfect first game.
Go / Pente: Ages 6+, 2 players

Beyond Chess, Checkers, or XiangQi is the absolute perfect game of Go (aka Weiqi); it's so popular, there are twenty-four hour television stations dedicated to it, an anime series based on it, and it's considered one of the four arts of the Chinese scholar.

It really is that good, and the rules are easy, too. Best of all, a built-in handicap system allows two people of any skill levels to enjoy a challenging game against each other.

You should play with the nicest board you can afford.

Pente, a game of getting five stones in a row, can be played on the same board. The rules are just as easy as Go, and while the game has much less depth, it is also a little less intimidating to new players.
Jungle Speed: Ages 8+, 3 to 8 players

There are several games of speed reaction / pattern recognition on the market; I chose this one because of the components. Players flip cards in turn and grab for the totem in the middle as soon as two matching cards are revealed. Don't play with friends who have sharp nails or finger jewelery.

Love Letter: Age 8+, 2-4 players

This game has just 16 cards, but it packs a full, replayable deduction, bluffing game into 10 minutes. It's a top seller, takes 30 seconds to learn, and is challenging to play.

It's not my type of game, but I'm in the minority.

Magic the Gathering: Ages 8+, 2 players

After two decades, Magic is still The Bomb when it comes to collectible card games, although Yu-Gi-Oh sells more cards. These are not easy games to learn, but quick start guides can get you off the ground fairly quickly, and then you have months and years of challenging game play ahead of you.

Don't get sucked into having to buy endless amounts of boosters; to play the game outside of a tournament, you only need a few hundred common cards which can be picked up for a penny each on various sites.
Mancala: Ages 5+, 2 players

This is widely known around the world under various names (e.g. Oware), and the national game of many African countries.

The rules are easy: pick up all the seeds in one of your bowls and place one in each bowl around the table. If you land on an empty space on your side, you win the seed and any seeds opposite.

There are a few more rules, but that's about it. It takes a few games to get up to speed; early victories tend to be lopsided. Once you get the hang of it, you can play several, quick, challenging games in succession.
Memory: Ages 3 to 12, 2 to 5 players

This is a first game for kids and adults, and a great game for it, because kids get the hang of it very quickly and adults find it a real challenge without having to pretend. All you need are one or two decks of cards, but an infinite number of these games are sold with various different pictures and themes.

You can play with more than 5 players, but I wouldn't recommend it.
No Thanks: Ages 7+, 3 to 5 players

This is an easy to learn and addictive little card game. A card is flipped up, and you either take the card and any tokens on it or place one of your tokens on it and pass it to the next player. Cards are bad, and tokens are good. But runs of cards only penalize you for the lowest valued card.

A simple and fun game.
Parade: Ages 7+, 3 to 5 players

Another easy to learn and addictive little card game. Add cards to the end of the "parade", taking cards from the parade into your pile based on a few simple rules. Points are bad ... usually.
Pit: Ages 7+, 4 to 10 players

I don't know if you can play up to 10 players with the original game, but you should. This is a loud trading game. The cards are dealt out, someone says go, and everyone shouts for what they need. The first player to collect a full set wins.

Raucous and fun. The deluxe version comes with it's own bell to signal the start of trading.
Poker: Ages 6+, 2 to any number of players

Playing for money is not a good habit, but a nice set of poker chips and some decks of cards is a great way to spend an evening. There are countless poker games, too.
Puerto Rico: Ages 10+, 3 to 5 players

Go is my favorite two-player game; this is my favorite multi-player game. It's a tad complex for the beginning player, but I've seen new players pick it up and love it.

It's not easy to learn, but it's not that hard, either; it's just hard to master. A brilliant, brilliant game engine.
Scrabble: Ages 8+, 2 (or 2 to 4) players.

Scrabble purists will tell you that you should only play with 2 players and a Chess clock, but for casual purposes it can be played with up to four. It is The word game, and for a good reason.

My favorite way to play is to ditch the board and just play Anagrams: turn over tiles, and first to call a word gets it. A similar, recommended game is Bananagrams, where players race to create their own crossword boards.
Set: Ages 6+, 2 to 10 players

Those who don't have it won't enjoy it. For those who do, it hits just the right spot in the brain. All you have to do is call out matches when you see them, but the matches have to match or not match in all four characteristics.
The Settlers of Catan: Ages 8+, 3 to 4 players

This, and Ticket to Ride, are the perfect adult games for beginning gamers.

All you need to do is collect ten points through building settlements and cities, connecting roads, adding developments and trading with your fellow players. A unique board that changes each time you play, constant interaction even when it's not your turn, and a great balance of luck versus strategy makes this The Game to acquire if you still think that board games are only for kids.
Shadows Over Camelot: Ages 12+, 3 to 7 players

A cooperative game, this is no feel-good game of cooperation. The hordes of Saxons, Mordred, siege engines, and sinister knights are out to destroy Camelot, and you have to work together to save it. But lurking among the players is a traitor who wins if you all lose. Or is there?

Pretty components, albeit more complex than most of the games on this list. But it's easy for people to join and leave midgame.

Other recommended co-operative games that have made a splash in the last few years are Pandemic and Forbidden Island
Stratego: Ages 6 to 15, 2 players

By the time I was in my teens, I had outgrown this, but it remains a seminal game for early players, a great introductory war game with all the basic elements: strategy, tactics, and bluffing. Avoid the electronic ones; they break and they're noisy.
Ticket To Ride: Ages 8+, 2 to 5 players

Many of my fellow bloggers think that this, rather than Settler of Catan, is The Game. I used to disagree, but I think I have come around. New players will find this a great intro game, with lots of choices and great game play.

There are several editions of the game, and the 1910 expansion is recommended.
Tichu: Ages 8+, 4 players

A partnership "ladder" game, similar to the game President (sometimes known by its crude name). It's similar, but the addition of a few special cards, a partnership, and passing elevate this to a perfect game for two couples. This is THE card game in gamer circles, and it's not at all complicated.
Time's Up: Ages 8+, 4 to 10 players

This consistently ranks as the number one party game on all of my fellow bloggers' lists. It's the number one ranked party game on Board Game Geek. Which says something.

It plays a lot like the parlor game Celebrities.
Uno: Ages 6 to 12, 2 to 8 players

This could be a child's second game, after Memory, and before moving on to real games. There's not much in the way of thinking involved, but its simple rules, portability, and quick play make it an ideal game for younger kids in almost any situation.

Just be sure to move up to better games when the kids are ready.
Wits and Wagers / Balderdash: Ages 8+, 4+ players

These are party trivia games where knowledge of trivia is not so important. The question is asked, and each player writes down an answer. These are revealed and players then bid on the answers they think are best. The winning answer, and the winning bids, all score points.

Wits and Wagers does this in the form of a poker game setting, while Balderdash requires you to make up funny possible answers. Both have won awards and acclaim as a generation better than you-know-which famous trivia game.
Zooloretto: Ages 8+, 2 to 5 players

Winner of dozens of awards, Zooloretto is a cute game for kids and decent game for adults. Simply take the animals as they are revealed from the deck and try to fit them into your zoo without overcrowding.

A few extra rules and some clever mechanisms makes the game enjoyable for all ages.


Friday, October 24, 2014

You Watch Sports Because You Like Gambling

Why do people watch and root for sports teams, rather than play games themselves? It's not only that people are lazy. It's because watching sports itches the same spot that gambling does: it's a mental investment in an outcome over which you have no control and whose outcome is directly meaningless.

I say directly meaningless, because you may stand to gain or lose indirectly due to the outcome, if you have, for example, wagered money on it (for this post, I define gambling as the mental interest in a directly meaningless outcome over which you have no control, and wagering as the addition of something meaningful as an indirect result of the outcome; by meaningless, I mean that it has no meaning to you). The gain or loss from the wager is an indirect result of the outcome; the direct result is that the players go back to their houses and the ball gets put back on the shelf (i.e. has no meaning). In contrast, the winner or loser of an election, another event beyond your control in which you might have an investment, has direct, meaningful results, even if some of these results might not occur immediately.

Gambling is the mental investment in a directly meaningless outcome over which you have (or no longer have) any control. Rooting for other people playing a game is gambling: rewarding the brain for events beyond its control. You might know that some outcomes are more likely than others. You may have invested effort into raising or lowering the odds of these outcomes. For example, you may have trained your horse to run well or bought better equipment for your team. But once the die is cast, so long as there exists a possibility that either side might triumph (even against the odds), if you care about it, you're a gambler.

The outcome of a game is always directly meaningless (except, perhaps, boxing). If you see people rowing to see who can get to the far shore first, but getting there directly results only in the ability to claim victory, then caring about it is gambling. If the one who gets to the far side first avoids getting eaten by a shark, the result is not meaningless, and caring about it is not gambling: unless you don't care who gets eaten by the shark, in which case it is. You can always add a layer of meaninglessness on top of a meaningful outcome to transform it into a game. You change a competition into a game by adding the words "I win" to it. Succeeding in the competition is not "winning"; it's simply succeeding. The person who doesn't succeed could just as easily claim "I win" if she knows that the goal post is off the edge of a cliff.

When you become invested in the outcome of a game, or even the outcome of a single play, over which you are not exercising skill or talent, you are experiencing gambling. It's natural, because humans are wired for gambling. Even if you don't know who is playing, you want to see an effort rewarded (or punished) or a skillful performance succeed (or skillfully get opposed).

Why do people watch sports and gamble? Because we're wired to assess, but minimize, risks. Gambling provides the safest risk experience there is: we can experience, observe, and learn with no direct meaningful consequences. Wagerers (who bet money, etc) and players experience this risk more intensely, because they have tied real investment to their actions, making it a deeper experience and more primal; investing in the outcome is more educational and more productive.

Another reason we enjoy watching sports is tribalism, if we identify either with the participants or other onlookers; social connections are another primal aspect to being human. Yet another reason: escapism. Watching an event unfold over which we have no control is similar to reading or viewing a story unfold. So long as the game continues to capture our attention, we wonder what's going to happen next. This means that stories, plays, movies, etc also contain elements of gambling: we have a mental investment in a directly meaningless outcome over which we have no control. And we hope for a satisfactory conclusion.

Learning to gamble is a critical skill, exactly because it provides a safe space for evaluating the risks and rewards of taking chances, a skill that we use in non-gambling contexts throughout life.

The problem with gambling - when it is not tied to something meaningful, like wagering money - and sports watching is that it is time spent on something whose actual outcome is meaningless. It's fun: fun is necessary and even meaningless fun is often desirable. But other than sharpening out risk evaluation skills, it doesn't produce anything tangible. That same time and interest could be invested in research, science, creation, developing talent, developing your mind, participating in games where you have control (and thus are gaining or utilizing skills), and any number of other useful activities, many of which also sharpen our risk taking skills in a relatively safe way. Again: some mindlessness can be therapeutic, but it's not the best choice for all or most of the time, even leisure time. It is, after all, lazy.

Friday, October 03, 2014

Gmar Hatima Tova

I wish everyone who will be fasting this Yom Kippur a healthy and meaningful fast.

The search for the right life partner continues, despite having met already some incredible, wonderful women. I recently had an epiphany about something I did wrong in my last marriage; I apologized for it and was forgiven.

The "I'm writing a book" line is sounding a little tired; I really am, still, but it sometimes takes me a month (or four) to get back to it while I do other things. I've started other projects and other books, done industry surveys, lectured on gamification and will be lecturing on API design.

My bucket list mainly includes what I still want to give to the world. What books do I still have to write, games do I still have to design, lives do I still have to save, change do I still have to effect? I also want to travel, learn guitar, and so on, but that's less important. Time is fleeting. I've got work to do. I think I may need your help.

No other person can be responsible for my happiness. But I'm more focused, more effective, and admittedly happier working together with a partner and with good friends.

God bless,

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Movie Reviews: Guardians of the Galaxy, How to Train Your Dragon 2, Boyhood, Begin Again, Draft Day, A Poet in New York

Guardians of the Galaxy: A bunch of champion misfits are thrown together to stop a bad guy from using a powerful energy source to conquer the galaxy. A story we've seen before in every other Marvel movie.

This is the acme of by-the-book empty Marvel film entertainment: funny dialog, in-fighting heroes, superb effects, courageous, snarky, and indestructible heroes, daring and humor filled escapes and confrontations, a sensible plot, and entirely one-dimensional characters that will not require you to think, grown, empathize, or remember anything about them. The main protagonist is a plucky, abducted Earthling who misses his mom; that's it. That's his entire personality from the start of the movie until the end. There is a snarly woman fighter who grows close to the protagonist; that's it for her. A smart-alec raccoon. A plant-like alien who protects others. Etc.

For a movie filled with snappy dialog and funny quotes, there is not a single interesting conversation. Iron Man, even The Avengers, had more than this one does. The movie introduces creative settings and ideas - enough to remind one very briefly of the changing locations in Star Wars - that could have made some interesting scenes but they are played so antiseptically and soullessly that you may as well be reading the 2D comic strip. If you don't care about characters and conversations, go and see it and enjoy the knowledge that Marvel and Disney and Hollywood and Michael Bay and dozens of others are planning another hundred empty copycat movies that will be just as action filled, just as humorous, and just as manipulative, meaningless, and mindless.

How to Train Your Dragon 2: The first movie was a pretty entertaining Dreamworks film. The boy viking Hiccup had a dry sarcastic wit (like so many animated sidekicks) and a few good conversations. It was funny, and cliche but meaningful. Most of the other characters were one-dimensional, but enough was unexpected (like the variety and personality of the dragons) that it worked.

The story structure is odd; it doesn't start with a story that rides out to a conclusion. Instead, it starts out with no particular story, wanders in and out of one story and then starts a different story about half-way through. That makes it a little hard to follow, but also a little richer than the typical animated Hollywood film. There are less good lines, but the entertainment is still on target. I was a little disappointed that Hiccup's girlfriend, who would have made a great protagonist, is regulated to minor character status yet again; but a different woman has a surprisingly strong role.

Hiccup's town now lives in harmony with dragons, but Hiccup discovers some mysteries while out exploring. This leads to another inevitable confrontation that will determine whether the liberal's belief that everyone really wants peace is or is not sustainable. You may agree or not with the outcome, but the story gives the audience a fair chance to evaluate the question.

Boyhood: Director/screenwriter Richard Linklataer (Before Midnight) just goes from incredible to even more incredible. This is a near perfect movie about a boy's (Ellar Coltrane) childhood in the southern US (Texas, to be specific). His mother goes from bad marriage to bad marriage, his father is cool but flawed and often absent, and his sister is ... well, his sister. From age 7 to 19, he moves, he learns, he goes camping, he hangs with the guys, he tries to discover his passions, he tries to survive his family, he dates.

There is no single plot for the movie, just a boy's experiences over the course of 12 years. But the conversations are so interesting and so insightful, and the movie so richly captures key moments of his life, that three hours doesn't seem long at all. It's good that the movie ends, but I would happily return for the next nine years.

What makes this movie so special? It was shot with the same actors over 12 summers over the course of 12 years. The same boy plays the seven year old in grade 1, eight year old in grade 2, grade 3, etc all the way up to the nineteen year old in his first year of college. The same goes for the sister (Linklater's daughter) and the other actors, including the adults (who age 12 years by movie's end, of course). Linklater had to get extremely lucky to find a boy who could act so well and be captivating and interesting by the end of the movie; and, as a boost, by the time he is 19, Ellar is drop dead gorgeous (in the vein of Leonardo DiCaprio).

Just like Before Midnight, this movie is worth more than every other movie made this year, combined.

Begin Again: This movie has been compared to Once, which is fair. Once was one of the best movies of all time, nearly perfect: poignant, lyrical, rich, engaging, haunting, melancholy, heart-rending, romantic. This movie is not quite as good as Once, but it's pretty darn close. It has all of the same elements, except the setup is a bit more heavy handed, the characters aren't as poor or desperate so they're a little harder to relate to, some of the resolution is a bit too pat, and the music isn't quite as heart-rending. But it's still a fabulous movie.

Dan (Mark Ruffalo, looking as devilishly ruffian as ever) is a music executive who is having a bad day/week/five years. Gretta (Keira Knightly, looking as incredibly gorgeous as ever) is a songwriter/singer who is having a bad week. Gretta gets roped into performing one of her songs at a bar, and Dan hears her and wants to produce an album with her, though he hasn't got the studio to do it. The recording sessions, which occur in various New York locations and take up much of the movie, are cathartic and transformative for both of them in their various relationship troubles.

Adam Levine (Marroon 5) plays Gretta's cheating singer/songwriter boyfriend, and his and Keira's singing performances are the stars of the film. It's got some romance in it, and some daughter / father issues, late night drinks and trouble relationships, and some really good music. Lovely.

Draft Day: Kevin Kostner in yet another sports movie, this time football on draft day. He and others like him wheel and deal to get better order in the selection queue to pick up star athletes for this year's (and future year's) season. Knowing nothing about sports, I understood very little of the movie at the beginning and only about two thirds by the end; I expect that this is similar to what non-techies feel watching a movie about hacking (except that hacking movies usually contain no actual current technology).

I was bored for a while at the beginning but the story began to compel me as I began to understand the stakes. Kevin's character appears to make a boneheaded move near the beginning that everyone likes, and then he has to find his way out of it by the end, against everyone else's judgement (and, of course, triumph in an unbelievable reversal of fortune, since it's a movie). Jennifer Garner is eye candy as Kevin's girlfriend and some kind of (dispensable) executive on the team committee. The acting is all good and the movie works as a sports movie without the sports, much the same way that Moneyball did.

A Poet in New York: A BBC drama on the final years of Dylan Thomas as he boozed, antagonized, and bedded women in his final tour in America before succumbing to his sickness and dying in 1959. The portrait is unflattering, except for his incredibly good poetry and his warm words for the students he encounters (except for those women whom he tries to sleep with); from what I have read, the portrait is probably pretty accurate.

The acting, directing, and scenery are all fine. There are some flashbacks to his being targeted by verbal bullying as a small boy, and to the destructive relationship he had with his foul-mouthed wife. Otherwise the film is straightforward and fairly flat. Any book on the subject would probably be more colorful and more enjoyable. Still, the poetry is lovely.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Love and Kudos for Anita Sarkeesian

Like Kathy Sierra, Anita Sarkeesian is a phenomenal voice helping to push the world out of chaos and into a brighter future. Kathy wrote the blog Creating Passionate Users, a captivating and inspirational blog about making your products and services - and customer - awesome. Anita records femministfrequency, video blogs about the wide-spread sexism and objectification of women in the media, especially in video games.

Both Kathy and Anita happen to be women. Seven years ago Kathy was driven out of the public sphere by credible violent and sexual threats by the male misogynist low-life miscreants who troll the internet. Now the same is happening to Anita. Don't let the seven years between these events fool you; this kind of thing is happening over and over to other women (and their occasional male defenders) on the same or smaller scales.

It is a rude reminder that the civilized among us live in a world that is surrounded by the far-less civilized. Whether it is Islamic fundamentalists raging through the Middle East cutting of heads, bands of robbers raping their way through Africa, gangs in Italy or California, drug peddlers in Mexico or Columbia, or the racist, sexist, anti-semitic trollers hiding in anonymity in middle America, these are people who are certain that they are better than you and that you have no right to be free from whatever violent actions, threats, and sexual or physical abuse that they choose to direct your way.

The rest of us must remember that, regardless of how liberal or tolerant we are, there are people who are not who will truly not "live and let live". They must be vigilantly and repeatedly condemned at the least, and legally and physically fought when necessary.

Anita's videos are fantastic, of course. Regardless of whether you agree with every point or every example, her contributions to the understanding of tropes in the media is excellent and she should be applauded or intellectually engaged with, not threatened, nor should she or her family be physically or sexually threatened. Like every truth-speaker, the fact that her analysis reveals a systemic problem with the status quo, and results in a violent reaction of those who want it to stay that way and who  pour their filth and hate onto others, is proof that she and others like her are nailing it and must ever-vigilantly continue to do so.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Top 10 Ways My Counting Annoys Non-Computer Geeks

00. Starts at 0 -> 01
01. Prefixed 0's or 0x's -> 02
02. Ascending count -> 03
03. Linked list -> 04
04. 0 .. 1023 on my hands -> 06
05. null
06. Null strings instead of skipped digits -> 07
07. Non-decimal base -> EOF

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Movie Reviews: The Fault in Our Stars, Edge of Tomorrow, ...

The Fault in Our Stars: There are movies, especially young adult movies, that, after watching them, I immediately want to find and read the book. This is not one of those movies.

Girl with cancer (she drags an oxygen tank around with her) meets boy with cancer (he has already lost a leg) and his friend (who is going blind). Will their personal demons and illnesses allow them to find happiness?

TFiOS is a decent movie, but it's by no means great. The acting is fine and it's poignant. The characters are flat, but not unbearably unrealistic, though the script doesn't reveal enough about them to tell. Mostly they are just too good and perky. The exception is the one character who is drunk and mean.

It was all so flat, neat, and uncomplicated that it was hard to get into. The only really true moment was in the denouement when our heroine faced the mean guy and, rather than resolve anything with him, left the situation unresolved and messy. That was real, and thus involving.

The directing was ok ... maybe; the movie was cloying and highly sentimental (too much lingering on smiles and tears and long sentences of young love with beautiful characters). And really, the whole thing was fairly predictable. Even if the movie didn't so closely follow My Sister's Keeper, it was obvious who was going to die and when. But the movie shies away even from that; it just passes over it: "And eight days later [character] died and so I went to [character]'s funeral".

The freedom given to the two characters to travel on an airplane with an oxygen tank and with the likelihood of spontaneous lung collapse seemed far fetched, as did them walking around Amsterdam alone and drunk or unescorted into the house of a strange man (they don't speak Dutch). My biggest problem is that the Holocaust is used as a metaphor for the character's personal battle with cancer, and the Anne Frank House is used as the backdrop for a romantic meeting between the two main characters. Both of which were offensive.

Edge of Tomorrow: EoT gives us (unfortunately) a whole lot of Tom Cruise, who, while capable of action sequences, seems to hog the camera in any action movie in which he appears. Every one of his action movies is: Tom grunts, Tom runs, Tom fights, Tom falls, Tom grins, etc etc, and every one of his performances is exactly the same as every other one. He portrays no actual personality other than his own. This is unfortunate, since he promisingly gave us a good many real characters at the start of his career in films like The Color of Money, Born on the Fourth of July, Risky Business, Rain Man, and others. I am very bored of Tom Cruise as Tom Cruise.

EoT also (fortunately) gives us another spunky female action protagonist, Emily Blunt, in a role that departs from her usual choices. She doesn't have much more personality than Tom does, but at least that's a refreshing change for her.

Earth has been invaded by incredibly prescient and tenacious aliens who are rapidly going to kill all humans. One woman was suddenly able to kill 300 baddies in a battle, and, spurred on by her success, humans are grouping for a final battle. A guy who has been helping on the media side is suddenly thrust into the attack force against his will, only a day after landing in basic training against his will. He dies quickly, but reawakens at the start of basic training again and lives the day over, and over, etc. He has to find out why, and what he can do to win the war.

People have compared this to Groundhog Day, but really it is more like Source Code, since it is not so much about personal redemption but about getting thrown repeatedly into an unwanted violent situation.

The action is about the same as other recent sci fi flicks, but the story is kind of interesting. It seemed to me that there were a whole lot of holes in the plot, or perhaps explanations left out of the source material. A quick perusal online after watching the film thankfully pointed to the latter, and really it wasn't too bad (not like a lot of other recent crappy showings like Elysium and Oblivion). And I concede that, notwithstanding what I wrote above, Tom's one dimensional character transforms over the course of the movie (from a ditz to a soldier).

Directing and effects are good. Can't say it's important, but it's entertaining for a popcorn movie.

We Bought a Zoo: A movie I saw on the plane back from the US, this is a light kids movie. A guy who misses his wife, together with his kids who miss their mother, leave their job and social circle and move to a house on which property is also a large dilapidated safari like zoo. The zoo comes with a variety of employees paid by the state (or they were, anyway). The zoo is in danger of being shut down unless it is brought up to code. The head keeper is a cute woman, who initially crosses heads with the guy, but of course, eventually ...

The son has issues, and these also have to be worked out, between son and father, and between son and one of the employees who is, coincidentally, a girl about his age. They initially cross heads, but of course, eventually ...

And will the zoo succeed or be closed by the overzealous and critical zoo inspector before it can open and make money?

Right. We don't even get to see much of the animals. Cameron Crowe has made some amazing movies; this one is kind of dull.

Adult World: I watched this because I thought "How bad can a John Cusack movie be?" Well, it wouldn't have been a bad movie if it were a John Cusack movie, i.e. if the movie had focused on the Cusack character and his struggles and transformations. But it wasn't and didn't. Instead, the movie focused on this twerp of a young adult woman who majored in poetry and is so insipidly unworldly, and so boneheadedly childish, that it was painful to watch. She refuses to do anything useful except spend money entering poetry competitions and submissions to poetry journals, and she runs away from home after being called childish. Eventually she lands a job at an adult store, whose seediness is entirely glossed over and instead is populated and frequented by colorful characters.

The movie makes a whole lot of bad decisions. It starts you with her staging her suicide, which she does in the hopes of being made famous after her death like Sylvia Plath; mid-scene we flash back a year. There is so much wrong with that opening scene that it is hard to know where to begin. There follows many more scenes that don't work, including one where she stalks and forces her way into her favorite author's house (he happens to live nearby), and he takes her on as a maid and protege instead of calling the police. I got about halfway through and gave up, totally uninterested at making it back to the opening scene and the obvious self-realization she will surely attain in order to have a happy ending.

In truth, any one of the other characters would have made a more enjoyable focus.