Monday, October 19, 2015

New Games to me in Recent Months

Amerigo - A big box game of island exploration. There are seven phases in five turns. Each phase you toss wooden cubes into a tower and the number and color of cubes that make it back out the bottom determine the available actions for all players in the phase. Each player can only pick one of the available actions, which is typically decided by what benefits you the most at that point. However, achieving good island positions or acquiring the better bonus ability cards lead to some strategic decisions. It's a good game, with the downside of some phases near the end of the game being very limited in available useful options. A gamer's game for 2-4 players (3-4 is better).

Among the Stars - A card drafting, civ building game ala 7 Wonders, but with square cards that you arrange into a space station. The distance you place each card from other cards (color or type) affects its cost and/or value. Played over 4 phases. Seems pretty nice, with the usual luck of planning to get certain cards and then not getting them. 2-4 players, good game.

Castles of Mad King Ludwig - I played this after playing Suburbia (see below), and I think whichever game you play first is the one you like most. It's actually nearly as good as Suburbia: better because of the interesting rearrangement mechanic for the tiles each round, but worse because this rearrangement, and the oddly shaped buildings, are less elegant. Some of the rules were hard to figure out on the first play. Gamer's game for 2-4 players.

Dixit Odyssey - Dixit is an incredibly good game for non-gamers, and also enjoyed by gamers as a break from stratgeic thinking and an outlet for creativity of a different kind. This game is simplya copy of Dixit, with brand new but equally good cards, and the ability to play up to 12 people instead of 6. No better or worse than the brilliant original.

Ergo - I bought this with the assumption that I would like it after using the fixes suggested by gamers, but even with them the game seems to be unplayable as more than a teaching device. There must be some way to do something with it. Too bad.

Exploding Kittens / NSFW Deck - An exceedingly bad game. This game offers amusing pictures and stunningly bad gameplay, unfortunately like so many other games that come from non-game designers. On the other hand, after I quit the game, I heard many of the other players laughing while playing. That's because it is a straightforward "take-that" game of randomly drawing cards and playing them on other people, who have to randomly draw cards to counteract the attacks. When they do or don't, this amuses people. 3-5 player, not for serious gamers (best enjoyed with alcohol).

Five Tribes - A meaty game from Days of Wonder, this is a nearly all tactical game of moving pieces around the board and taking off sets of them to score points. It's pretty and interestingly balanced, but the long-term strategies (Djinns) don't always work as planned: you have to constantly work out how many points you are spending and receiving for each play, and how many points you're leaving over for the next guy. 2-4 players, gamer's game but suitable as a second gaming experience (after Ticket to Ride, for example).

PDQ - A light and quick word game on par with Anagrams. Flip three cards and place in order; take the cards if you call out (first) a word that used the letters in order. The official rules allow you to use the letters in either direction, but I don't find that to be necessary. I also don't know why you can't just play with Scrabble tiles. Any number of players. Fun game for those who like word games.

Suburbia - See Castles of Mad King Ludwig above. This is a nifty civ building game that seems to have been designed for a computer rather than as a board game. As a board game, you have to take care of checking the effects of each tile you place against every other tile in the game, which is not as bad as it seems, but still a bit of a hassle. Other than that, this is an excellent gamer's game of placing tiles and scoring for each. It's mostly tactical, but you can invest in certain types of tiles and hope you get first crack at them when they come up. This makes it similar to all of the other card based civ building games, like 7 Wonders and Among the Stars, as mentioned above. 2-4 players.

Movie Reviews: The Martian, Far from the Madding Crowd, The Intern, Two Night Stand, Kingsman: The Secret Service, Adventureland

The Martian: Following on last year's thrilling Interstellar, about a bunch of guys making a long trip into outer space who need to use science to solve major problems in order to get back home comes this thriller about a bunch of guys who made a long trip into outer space and need to use science to solve major problems in order to get back home.

The Martian is a cross between Castaway and Interstellar, less epic, more formulaic, and actually less believable or thrilling than the latter, but more epic, more engaging, and more satisfying than the former. The Martian keeps us engaged by having the castaway find a way to communicate with home relatively early on in the movie, giving us more than just a monologue on survival and what would have been too much Matt Damon (who, like Tom Cruise, can only be tolerated when taken together with other, less egotistical actors).

The pacing and feel of this movie very Marvelesque, which is both good and bad, depending on your desire to see another Marvel movie. Lots of quips, cuts, and action, explosions and tensions, both personal and interpersonal in the expected places, and a pretty foregone conclusion about how it will end up. Still, merging the Marvel plot with a slightly slower and more rigorously scientific plot made for some fascinating screen moments.

What was most unbelievable was the fact that our castaway survived every one of the calamities that should simply have killed him, each time coming up with the long odds. And that calamities that should have happened several times only happened once and then were never seen again; what happened to all of those debilitating storms during his 45 day trek across the surface? This made his insufferable speech at the end about how, when one is faced with a catastrophe, science and hard work will help you through all the more insufferable. No, in fact, if you are faced with a series of events that each have a 95% chance of killing you, you will die. Don't encourage people to take those chances unless the alternative is an even higher percent chance of dying.

Anyhoo, it's a good movie, worth seeing on the big screen.

Far from the Madding Crowd: Also a good movie. Thomas Hardy was a writer of depressing novels where characters (especially women) make bad, unorthodox choices and suffer for them, either from random chance, or from societal rejection, or simply from karma. It is a rare thing for anyone (especially a woman) to end up happy at the end of one his books, although I guess the daughter of the Mayor of Casterbridge does (even if the mayor doesn't), and so do - at the last moments of the novel - two of the characters in this novel.

And yet, this movie, even while generally following the main plot points of the book, somehow turns the morose, hopeless feel of a Hardy novel into something no more depressing than a Jane Austen novel. The heroines and heroes have drama, make bad choices, and enter into difficult circumstances, but they seem plucky, happy, and little more than mildly distressed throughout. Possibly that is because so many of the key events happen so fast. Characters meet and propose marriage within 2 or 4 minutes of screen time and no more than 2 meetings, and we only sometimes know why.

But that's ok. The two lead characters, Bathsheba played by Carey Mulligan and Gabriel played by Matthias Schoenaerts, are handsome, winsome, and talented actors, as is the rest of the cast. The scenery is gorgeous, and it seems period enough, although not one of the cast speaks with anything passably resembling a British accent. Bathsheba is insanely feminist beyond her era, meeting only a small amount of the trouble she should have met (especially considering her impetuous behavior and imprudent choices), and Gabriel is her faithful ever tolerant servant and admirer.

In the end, it's romantic and the story and characters are usually understandable.

The Intern: A generational comedy between Sandra Bullock, a founder and struggling CEO of a clothing business, and Robert DeNiro, a septuagenarian who comes to work for her as an intern because plot. Despite the fact that obviously an older person who has worked in sales for 45 years would have decent experience to offer your'uns who have worked in sales for 2 years, even in the age of the Internet, it takes about half the movie for this discovery to be made. During this time, DeNiro's character does everything right by everyone in the entire office, a perfect and perfectly unrealistic grandpa-figure to one and all. He even starts a romance with an older masseuse on the company staff.

The second half of the movie is different, as it is about Anne facing the prospect of having to give the reins of CEO over to someone else and also deal with the fact that her husband is cheating on her. This is the classic story of a working woman who loses her man because she's not home enough to pay attention, and it can play out in any of several directions, most of which are not satisfying. In this case, it plays out somewhere in the middle, somewhat but not entirely satisfying, and in fact remains somewhat inconclusive (and just a bit - only a bit - pat).

Not a particularly great movie, certainly not a necessary movie, but not bad.

Two Night Stand: Miles Teller and Analeigh Titpton play in this narrowly focused comedy about a one night hookup where plot happens and Megan is stuck in Alec's apartment for the next day and night. This is another movie split into two parts. The first part is all about the hate, since neither particularly had a good time during the hookup and they do some relatively dull slapstick routines wandering around the apt. Somewhere in the middle of the movie they have the conversation about what went wrong with the sex and they decide to try it again (yeah, a bit of a quick shift from the hate part, but there you go and the conversation is good). Obviously along the way, feelings. Then a big revelation of a betrayal, a breakup due to mistrust (assisted by plot convenience), and then they have to find a way to get back together.

The last part was badly done, and my suspension of belief didn't, so I threw a lot of popcorn at the screen. Can't say I particularly recommend it, but the middle was good, at least.

Kingsman: The Secret Service: This is one of those movies that make you go "Huh? Where did that come from?" It's a super-stylized, funny movie with insane amounts of class and action, somewhere between Marvel, Kill Bill, and James Bond, and it works damn well; although it has too much violence and gore for my taste, I'm somewhat of a violence prude (I hated the corridor shoot up scene in The Matrix) so I'm sure most of you won't ding the movie for that.

It's funny, not exactly thrilling but charming, has a typical, ridiculous blow the world-up and only one guy dressed in fancy clothes with gadgets who can stop it Bond plot - and a lot of references to Bond, just to let you know that it knows - and some incredible A-list actors, such as Colin Firth, Michael Caine, Samuel Jackson. And you never heard of it? How did that happen?

It also has some plot holes and character inconsistencies, but whatever. It's cool.

Adventureland: Jessie Eissenberg and Kristen Stewart romantic comedy in an amusement park and not much happens, except on the romantic comedy level. It has a quirky and independent feel, which makes it interesting at least, and I've always been a fan of the three emotions (bored, amused, upset) that Kristen Stewart knows how to act, so I enjoyed it. I wouldn't go out of my way to see it, but I would leave it on if it came on.