Saturday, November 28, 2015

2015 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.

Nowadays, most games are also available on consoles, too.
7 Wonders: Ages 9+, 4 to 7 players

This is a game of drafting cards and building a wondrous city. 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.

Antike II: 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 (and its predecessor but very rare and expensive Antike) 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.

Catan: Ages 8+, 3 to 4 players

This game, formerly known as The Settlers of Catan, 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.

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.
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.

Dixit: Ages 10+, 3-6 (12) players

Dixit is an incredible game, especially for non-gamers. It is loved as a creative exercise: pick a card and give a word, phrase, song, dance, or any other clue to describe it, but not too perfectly. The other players try to play cards that also match your clue. You only get points if some people guess which was your card and some people don't.

The fun is in the creativity of the clues, and I've yet to see a game where even the most stodgy non-gamer doesn't have fun.

This game, like many others, was inspired by Apples to Apples, another nifty game for the casual non-gamers who walk among us.
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 jewelry.

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.
Nefarious: Ages 8+, 2 to 6 players

This is a game of mad scientists that is great for 2 to 6 players, and doesn't sacrifice speed with more players. Each round, you select one of four actions. collect money from any neighbors who selected actions that your minions are invested in, perform your action, and then check to see if you won. The actions are: invest minions, play cards, take cards, or take money.

The cards are fun and the game is quick and replayable, because, in each game, you play with some random twists that make that game's experience unique.
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.
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.
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 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 an order of magnitude 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.


Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Reviews: Supergirl (TV pilot), Bridge of Spies, Ant-Man, Trainwreck, At Middleton

Supergirl (TV pilot): SNL did a skit that lampooned what a Black Widow Marvel superhero movie would be like, It simultaneously lamented the lack of female-centered Marvel movies and anticipated that, if Marvel were to produce one, it would be more like 27 Dresses than like Iron Man. Because, after all, women in movies must be portrayed as having to deal with relationships, romance, and sucky jobs at fashion magazines.

Astonishingly, when the trailer to the Supergirl TV show came out, the trailer looked remarkably like the SNL spoof: a female superhero show that appeared centered on a girl with a sucky job at a newspaper with love and self-identity issues (and a little action). Was it really going to be The Devil Wears Prada with a cape?

The answer is: it's not quite The Devil Wears Prada with a cape; it's about 80% like that, mixed with some of the worst writing that modern TV science fiction has to offer. Melissa Benoist is fine as the protagonist, but she has to deal with her tired cliche of a bitchy female boss (nowhere near as interesting as Perry White, or even Miranda Priestly), the tired cliche of a jealous, antagonistic sister, and the tired cliche of having to figure out how to be true to herself. Come on.

Far worse is the nonsense inflicted on us by the action (mild spoilers). One of the enemies (one of many escaped criminals, all originally from Krypton, and all therefore with the same powers as Supergirl) decides to kill as many innocent civilians as possible in the city, so he begins by driving at night on a deserted highway, in a truck, for several hours until Supergirl can conveniently catch up to him. This enemy who had proved to be stronger than Supergirl at their first encounter, is weaker in the second encounter, because why not? While struggling over an item held by the enemy, the enemy simply holds on for a minute while Supergirl overcharges it, rather than do, say, anything else. When the item explodes, while both of them are holding on to it, only the enemy is blown back by the explosion, and not Supergirl, because why not? Of course, the enemy never uses any of his other superpowers.

Supergirl's other "antagonists" are the supposed good guys who don't believe in her until she proves herself. They have kryptonite darts and kryptonite handcuffs which they only use on Supergirl instead of on the Krypton enemies, because ... plot?

It's just ridiculous, from beginning to end. Supergirl fan crushes over a guy, awkwardly tripping over her words and giggling, just like in the SNL parody. Superman does the same in his movies, but we know he's doing it on purpose. Speaking of Superman, we have the same problem with this show as we have with the Marvel movies that feature only one of the Avengers: having established that another hero exists in this world, where the heck is he when the Earth is faced with hundreds of super-criminals?

And speaking of Superman, we neither see Superman (except in blurry profile) not hear the word "Superman" during the entire pilot, despite many, many references to him. We hear "Kal El", "that guy", "my cousin", etc etc. It rapidly became very jarring. I can only surmise that there is some kind of licensing problem with both the image and the word.

I won't be watching future episodes.

Update: Okay, I lied. I watched the next episode. Wow, it is MUCH better than the first episode. The actions sequences now - sometimes - make a little sense. The plot is not - always - ridiculous. The dialog is not - always - forced and unbelievable. It has gone down from 90% annoying to only about 20% annoying.

Supergirl is setting itself up as an oddball superhero story, one in which the protagonist, while possessing superpowers, is unable to function without assistance from a myriad of human sources. It starts her off with her powers, yes, but she requires all kinds of training to be able to use them in ways that don't cause collateral damage and are effective against others of her kind. On the one hand, the fact that they did this for the one superhero show that features a woman is a bit insulting. On the other hand, it's the kind of thing that should be done a lot more often, so it's actually an intriguing idea. It's a superhero show functioning more like a Mission Impossible show.

They also used the word "Superman" several times, so there goes my theory.

Bridge of Spies: Another Tom Hanks/Steven Spielberg collaboration based on a true story. Hanks plays the everyman with a perfected moral sense (he is kind of typecast this way, by now): lawyer James Donovan who acts as defense lawyer in the late 1950s for accused and actual spy Rudolph Abel and then negotiates With Russia and Germany to swap Abel for downed American spy pilot Frances Gary Powers and another hostage.

The first half of the movie is about the trial, in which Donovan succeeds in keeping Rudolph alive. The second half is about the negotiations in East Berlin around the time that the wall is first going up. Everyone does a fine job. Mark Rylance is so captivating as Abel, that it is a shame he disappears for the second half of the movie. The tension is well developed despite the paucity of things actually happening - half a movie, essentially, on a single negotiation. Other tensions - such as the effect on Donovan's family and reputation for publicly defending a spy at the height of the Cold War - are cursorily developed. The fact that the story is true (or true enough; some parts of the story, such as a third hostage and the experience of the downed pilot, were left out) adds to the enjoyment.

Watchable on the small screen.

Ant-Man: I nearly skipped this entirely, but I had time to kill as I was home alone and sick. I abandoned it about 3/5 of the way through. Marvel movies are bad enough with their cookie-cutter plots, great visuals and cool stunts, one-dimensional characters, funny quips, and important objectives of, you know, saving the world (or the universe, or whatever). This movie lacked the great visuals and important objectives. The plot was so narrowly defined and the objectives so straightforward and the plot so cookie-cut, that it felt like it had been generated by a computer. The ending was so forgone that the plot lacked tension. I was bored.

Trainwreck: Amy Schumer is funny, even hysterical, in small doses. At longer exposures you feel like she's recycling material to fill time. The jokes wear thin, and what's left to carry the movie is the plot, which is not bad but not particularly groundbreaking. Amy plays a woman who doesn't understand relationship commitment, while also playing the daughter of a sick man and the sister of a married woman. She meets Mr Right, so to speak, but it's not clear why he would be interested in her. That's actually the excuse she uses to push him away, but it's not given a satisfactory answer.

The movie isn't exactly a train wreck, but neither is it satisfying. It's disjointed. And we get yet another entry in the cliched trope of bitchy female bosses.

At Middleton: Andy Garcia and Vera Farmiga play parents who meet-cute while bringing their children to visit a college. They are both married (to other people), but that doesn't stand in the way of a day-long series of romantic explorations and companionable interactions, the type you would expect to see in far better movies or with younger characters.

Garcia and Farmiga are charming, but they lack a script with any value. They visit all of the romcom cliches and speak some scant sentences that lack any depth and often appear completely out of place. Maybe three or four times it seems like they are going to have a substantive conversation, but it goes nowhere after the first sentence. The events they experience are forced upon them by the screenwriter: They play Chopsticks together. They climb a bell tower. The smoke weed and act silly (always one of my least favorite movie scenes, as it is cheap and boring to watch people giggle and dance around while pretending to be stoned, and all such scenes are always the same and a waste of screen time). They dance in a fountain. They almost kiss several times. They reveal that they are bored in their marriages. Ho hum.

Worse, the lack of discretion they exhibit is unbelievable, and the delusional movie trope that someone can be cured of acrophobia - and, apparently, the need to wear glasses - just by having spent a few fun hours with someone of the opposite sex is insulting to the intelligence. The kids also have some screen time, but their scenes are not significant.