Sunday, November 19, 2017

Movie Reviews: Thor: Ragnorak, Justice League, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, Victoria and Abdul

See all my movie reviews.

Thor: Ragnarok: This movie has received heaps of praise, and much of it is for the very things that I hated most about it. And I basically hated this movie.

First off, the plot (spoilers, as if): there isn't one. Thor has to escape from something, then he and Loki get lectured at by their dying immortal father, then their sister shows up and breaks Thor's hammer, then Thor gets caught in some arena, has to fight Hulk for some reason - which is pointless, since they are both indestructible and anyway we all know they won't die. Then they escape, and then Asgard blows up and Thor and the rest of the cast is in a spaceship.

It's not a plot, it's a series of disconnected comedy and battle sequences, with zero tension and not a single character worth a damn. Every hero is going to survive, and even if they don't, there is not a whit of emotional interest if seeing them survive or not (and if they are killed, they'll probably just get resurrected again in the next movie). Hela is so unbeatable, that every fighting scene she was in was a complete waste of screen time: everyone else is beaten, whoop-dy do. Why bother filming it? Loki, the one person who at least had some interesting character in his other movies, is now useless window dressing with almost no character at all. There is only one memorable scene in the movie, and it's the only scene in which Loki displays his old trickster character. It lasts for 30 seconds, and then we're back to an endless blank nothing of emotional involvement.

I honestly don't remember a single line of dialogue outside of "We work together!" and the scene I mentioned above. Was the movie funny? I cracked a smile three times. Admittedly, if I had not seen the trailers, I would have cracked a smile four times. The acting is mostly adequate but unremarkable, and the sets, visuals, directing, and so forth are adequate and unremarkable. There is one pretty scene which would have been enjoyable if it wasn't basically a copy of the scene we saw a few months ago in Wonder Woman. Four cracked smiles are not enough to sustain a movie. There is no tension, and there is nothing and no one to root for. There is no bigger message to learn. There is no real reason for this movie to exist.

There is no explanation as to how Thor's hammer is so easily broken. Thor rips out a hammer shaped piece of plumbing that causes as much damage as his original hammer. Huh? Even after smashing into the Hulk and vice versa, the hammer shows not a single piece of wear. Banner falls hundreds of feet onto a solid surface - without turning into the Hulk - and, rather than dying, the scene is played for laughs (he is unscathed, of course). Thor must have lived for thousands of years, yet he doesn't remember that he is the freaking God of thunder and lightning until he cries like a baby because he does not have his hammer to play with - what a puny god. Any one of these was just freaking insane. But mostly, who cares??? The movie is a bunch of unfunny attempts at insult and slapstick humor and Attack of the Clones levels of emotional dialogue. It's like Deadpool, only I hated Deadpool more because Deadpool was also immoral and visceral, which made me feel sullied. This movie was merely a pathetic waste of time.

Justice League: DC comics follows up a series of boring, gritty, dark, mumbling slugfests - followed by the excellent Wonder Woman - with a return to boring, gritty, dark, mumbling, slugfest. They never learn.

If there was more than 90 seconds of daylight in the movie, I must have missed them. The origin stories are cookie cutter and uninteresting, the characters are one dimensional, at best, and no one has a relationship or seems to care about anyone or anything other than being cool. With the exception of Amy Adams, who has nothing to do but be Superman's girlfriend.

Ezra Miller's Flash takes the role played by Spider-man in the Marvel movies: wisecracking and boyish, but hardly relatable. Gal Gadot continues to be superhuman, but all she gets to do is bash people and make a few encouraging remarks. Henry Cavill as Superman managed to use his tiny screen time to exude a little more personality than the others. The bad guy, the other heroes, and the mcguffin were forgettable.

As were the action scenes. Look, guys, good fight scenes are not ones where lots of people get bashed repeatedly until one of them finally bashes harder and wins, while everyone else walked away un-scarred. Good battle scenes are ones where the bashing is kept in context and a story continues to unfold. Where victory is not finally bashing a lot harder, but where humanity is exhibited, emotional connections are made or rebuffed, and entirely new things come into play (for example, see The Dark Knight). You recent superhero film makers just don't seem to get it; I mean, you make lots of money, so I guess you're fine. But your movies are emotionless shells. They are no better than episodes of superhero TV shows.

Please: give me stories and characters, not beams of light, wisecracks, things going smash, and guys in suits posing. Lots and lots of posing.

This movie was, at least, not terrible or fatally flawed, so it earns its place among the watchable but forgettable of superhero movies.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets: This flawed, beautiful movie was incredibly creative and generally fun. It has a simple Avatar-like theme of some peaceful creatures, some big bad bosses, cute creatures, and mystery. It also has two cute main characters who look like they are barely out of their teens (Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne). Unfortunately, while they act well, there is not a smidgen of chemistry or fun between them. A major subplot hangs around their emotional relationship, written by someone who has no clue how to write relationships. So, although the characters are not exactly one-dimensional, they are not engaging.

The move is still fun, since the main plot - who is attacking the floating spaceship and why? - works fine. It is so inventive and fresh, you kind of wish that whomever is behind the visuals and the bestiary would have been working for the Star Wars production team. A visual feast full of surprises, directed and shot well.

Victoria and Abdul: This flat biopic introduces a topic but doesn't do much with it. Apparently, Queen Victoria spent some of the end of her life in the presence of some Muslim Indian man who was plucked out of India to perform a meaningless ceremony for her, but whom she came to think of as a teacher, despite his occasionally hiding or omitting certain aspects of the truth from her. Everyone around her hates him because he is Indian, not to mention that he is taking time and attention away from things she should be doing.

Judi Dench is a treasure, of course, but Abdul (Ali Fazal) and everyone else puts in fine performances. Costumes and cinematography are adequate. But it's not really much of a story, and the story that there is is not developed properly. For example, the movie introduces a Chekhov gun by having Abdul tell Victoria about a mango early on in the movie. In the middle of the movie, someone brings her a mango, but it is rotten. I'm not an expert filmmaker, but even I know that somewhere near the end of the movie there needs to be another mango. Either Victoria finally gets to eat a ripe one before she dies, or Abdul returns to India and reflects on a mango tree, thinking of Victoria, or something. But no. We never hear of mangoes again; the thread is simply forgotten.

Other interesting story elements were hiding in the screenplay, but they also never made it out. Victoria and Abdul walk and talk, everyone else threatens them (both), and then it's all over. The main characters' changing feelings towards each other are presented, but not well. I was left feeling hollow.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

2017 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"

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.
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. I finally picked up Crokinole for myself this year, and it is a constant hit with my nephews and their friends.

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.
Codenames: Ages 10+, 4-10 players

Codenames is a new, fun game that uses words in an unusual way. Two teams, the clue givers alternate trying to give one word clues that match as many of their team's cards as possible. You must find a word that matches multiple other words, but not any of your opponent's words or the assassin's word. It's mindbending, and the game is infinitely replayable.

A great game for non-gamers and gamers alike.

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.

There are now several expansions, which are all good. This game, like many others, was inspired by Apples to Apples, another nifty game for the casual non-gamers who walk among us.
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.

Pandemic / Pandemic Legacy

Cooperative games used to be either very boring, very childish, or very hippy. A new breed of cooperative games are nail-bitingly challenging and fun.

Pandemic is a cooperative game of saving the world from disease. Other cooperative games include Lord of the Rings, Shadows Over Camelot, and the much simpler Forbidden Island.

The new Pandemic Legacy (like Risk Legacy, mentioned above), is a version that plays out: each time you play the world is permanently changed with stickers and torn cards; after dozens of plays, the game is over.
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.
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.

Splendor: Ages 8+, 2 to 5 players

The new game on this list, this is a little resource management game of taking jewels and buying trade routes (i.e. cards). The components and decisions are few and pretty, and there are a few options for strategy, but they are well balanced, making this a tight game every time.

Very simple to understand, challenging to win.
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.


Sunday, November 12, 2017

Get Candle Quest From The Game Crafter

I think I forgot to mention this: you can get my game Candle Quest, the one and only good Hanukkah game, from The Game Crafter, a publish on demand game site. Thanks to Nadine for some redevelopment that made this possible.

It's the same game with slightly different sized cards and coins, and reworded rules.

Order in time for Hanukkah.