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.