Thursday, February 9, 2012

2011 Games: Nickels & Dimes

It's a little late, but I still think it's an interesting exercise for us board game geeks. I'm a little depressed by the actual numbers this year. A real reduction in my numbers of fives and dimes, although I'm sure my number of "unique games played" number went up (I still haven't figured out how to get that).


Ten games made it into this category this year, compared to 12 last year. Not a huge decline, but definitely some different games.

Black Vienna is a long out of print deduction game. I was able to use files uploaded to ArtsCow (a print-on-demand site) to reproduce my own copy, and I really like the game and the stylized artwork. The game uses cards with different letters on them. Three cards are removed from the deck (much like in Clue), and the rest are dealt to the players. Using other cards that have groups of three letters on them, players try to deduce the cards in other players' hands and ultimately which three cards are missing. It sounds complicated, but the play is simple. However, it definitely melts your brain. What bumped this up to six plays this year is the awesome online implementation that allowed me to take a turn a few times a day instead of sweating out under the pressure of a live game.

A Few Acres of Snow is another game that owes its inclusion on this list to online play. It's a fascinating combination of the deck-building mechanic with a wargame. Unfortunately, some players who approached it more from the deck-building angle were able to "break" it so that an unbeatable strategy developed. Fortunately, those of us who aren't number crunchers were able to enjoy it just fine, but also the designer tweaked the rules to eliminate this problem.

When I was first taught the game, the number of choices and avenues to explore were just overwhelming. I really had trouble wrapping my head around it. Fortunately, my friend Mark in California invited me to a few online games that really put those nerves at ease. I still have a lot to explore with this one, but it's a fun journey.

Another game that I would describe as a "light" wargame is Command & Colors: Ancients, which made it onto the list with six plays. I just love this game, and I can't completely explain why. It's a very tactical wargame that recreates the battles of Caesar, Alexander, Hannibal, and other famous (or infamous) military leaders of the ancient age. But aside from the historical aspects, it's also exciting and fun. Sometimes you just don't have the cards necessary to do what you want to do; sometimes the dice just don't roll in your favor. With each battle lasting from 30 to 60 minutes, it's easy to play several in a row. Alea iacta est.

Carcassonne: Hunters & Gatherers sort of came and went towards the beginning of the year. I introduced it to my wife, Karen, and she loved it. We played it at least once a week for about a month. Then, suddenly, almost as quickly, she was done with it. I have no idea why this happened. The game is a nice variation on the original Carcassonne, with a more straight-forward scoring method. I'm sure we'll play it some more, but maybe there was just a bit of burnout.

Jaipur, on the other hand, came in strongly at the very end of the year. With nine plays, it just missed getting on the dime list; not bad for a game I received in December from my Secret Santa! It's a two-player card game about trading goods in India that plays quite quickly, which encourages match play. I look forward to many more plays of this in the future.

Other nickels:
Backgammon (8), Scrabble (8), Biblios (8), Dominion (6), Telestrations (5).


Only one: Werewolf (12) That's kind of sad, for many reasons.

Just last year I acquired a newer edition of the game, Ultimate Werewolf, which has much clearer art design and a great instruction book. The vast majority of these plays (8-10) have me as the moderator. Some people might not count that as an actual play of the game, but I certainly do. I actually love moderating face-to-face, so I have plenty of fun. Of course, at my annual board game convention I don't think I've ever moderated, which is just fine with me.

The other reason it's sad is just the major reduction in gaming volume. Last year I had five different dimes for a total of 61 games; this year, one for 12!? I'm not sure why the reduction occurred. I suppose the most obvious reason would just be less opportunity. However, I have already indoctrinated a couple of new people into this fun little hobby, so I'm hoping 2012 will see a big upswing in numbers.

For comparison, here's last year's list.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Year-End Reflections

Today is my birthday. I was really looking forward to posting on the blog again. I had planned a whole week of "Year-End Recaps" covering my interests and hobbies. Most people do this around New Year's, but I've always preferred to do it on my birthday since that is a pretty self-reflective time. However, this year is different. My father passed away ten days ago.

This isn't intended be a maudlin post that plays upon your sympathies. I don't know how anyone can summarize a 78-year life in a eulogy, let alone something as trivial as a blog post. But since I've often spent my birthday in reflection, it's appropriate that I spend some time reflecting on my dad. These are just some general thoughts, and I'm not organizing, structuring, or editing (Hah! Like I ever do!).

The last two years had been very difficult for him and my mother. Early on, I posted about a lot of the health problems he went through. I fell out of that habit after the initial catharsis of getting it all out. He had his ups and downs, including a very frightening heart attack during dialysis this past November. All of us thought that was the end right there. He recovered phenomenally well, and in hindsight I believe he did it just to spend one last Christmas with us before letting go.

He was a shell of the man he used to be. I know he was miserable. I don't think he was in pain, but the indignity of having a catheter, the irritation of dialysis, and the exhaustion of being sick and weak for so long had taken their toll. He couldn't do any of the things he used to enjoy, and each day it seemed like he had even less energy.

But despite all of that, he did keep his spirits up. He was a fighter; unfortunately he seemed to fight the doctors and nurses more than the illnesses. His mind was sharp to the end. Sure, he had trouble remembering what day it was, but he certainly knew what channel Fox News was on and he could tell you to the second when it was time for his dialysis to end (and he would!). The Alzheimer's was the diagnosis I feared the most. I dreaded the thought of losing him gradually over the years while his body remained. As terrible as it may sound, in many ways I'm grateful that he went the way he did-- peacefully taking a nap on his couch at home.

The funeral service was very nice. He was buried in the Houston National Cemetery, with the three-man flag ceremony. It's amazing how quickly that lone bugle playing Taps can bring a tear to your eye. We had a lot of friends and family come to the service, which was very nice. My brother spoke, but I did not. I knew that I wouldn't be able to get through any words I wanted to say. Instead, I stood with my brother, ready to finish for him if necessary.

My dad was very fortunate to have a lifelong friend give his eulogy. My dad and Kent Akord had remained friends for 75 years. How astounding is that!? They met in the neighborhood, went to elementary school, high school, and even college together. The stories he told were fantastic. I'd known my dad all my life, but that's just over half as long as they knew each other.

When pulling pictures for the wonderful video my brother made, I loved seeing all the different aspects of my dad. He's always been my dad, and in my adult years he's also been my friend. At occasions like this, you get to see how others experienced him. What he was like as a brother, an uncle, a husband, a friend, a co-worker, a neighbor. What kind of person was he at 10, 17, 25, 35, or 45 My experience of him was only a fraction of who he was.

When talking with the pastor in preparation for the service, he told us to celebrate his life. He asked us questions to remind us (and inform him) about what our dad was like. Memory is a funny thing. I could remember a lot from the last couple of years, and a lot from when I was a kid, but I had trouble remembering things from even five or ten years ago. I'd love to list all of those memories, but if I go down that rabbit hole I'll never return.

I'll end this with just two things, two recommendations for those who have read this far. Last year, I saw the movie Tree of Life. It was transcendent. It was a poem in movie form. It required you to pause, slow down, contemplate. It was about a child and his relationship with his father; it was also about man and his relationship with God. It was about life. Not everybody liked it, and that's okay. The father played by Brad Pitt was really nothing like my father, but in the metaphorical sense he is just like everyone's father. It is very moving. See this film.

The other thing I would say is to just take some time to appreciate the people around you. That's so cliche, I know, but I don't just mean it in the sense of telling them that you love them. Just appreciate that you have friends, that you have family. Acknowledge the good times while they're happening. Cherish the memories. Tell some of the stories that you haven't told in years.

Thank you, Dad, for all the obvious things and the trivial ones. Thanks for the peanut-butter-and-crackers, the water-skiing, the lectures, the Christmas lights, the home-made slime, caring for the cat you hated, and sending me to the college you loved. Thanks for everything, Dad.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Little Things Mean a Lot

I'm not sure if I'm old enough to be a Curmudgeon yet, but I enjoy practicing. I have full plans to continue on to Geezer, but I haven't decided if from there I want to go on to Cranky Old Man or Crazy Old Coot. I'm hoping I still have a year or two before I have to make that choice.

So my rant today is about the use of turn signals. Or, more accurately, the lack thereof. It's such a simple, small thing, and yet it infuriates me. It bothers me because it is deliberate. You know you are going to change lanes. You know you are going to make a turn. These are decisions you have made. Then you decided not to signal. Why isn't it automatically part of the action?

It's not as though it's a difficult maneuver. It takes less effort than changing the station on the radio. It's so simple. You can keep your hand closed around the steering wheel and just extend your middle finger to flick a little lever. As a friendly reminder, I often show this to people on the road as I pass them by.

I had a co-worker once say to me, "Signalling is a sign of weakness." Just as in war or poker, you never want to tip your hand and give your opponent an edge. I can almost understand how on our crazy Houston highways, an Offensive Driving stance might seem a viable option. Only the strong survive.

But if we're going to adopt that attitude, I want my paint gun. Gallagher had a bit about a gun that shot suction-cup "Stupid" flags at other cars. After half a dozen or so had accumulated, "the cops could pull you over just for being an asshole." Great idea! But those suction cups are so unreliable, especially when I'm trying to text about how great the burger I'm having is while going 80 miles per hour through a school zone. No, I need something simpler. Paint guns. Faster, more accurate, more shots, easier to reload, and the added bonus of potentially painting the driver. "Thanks for cutting me off, jerk!" poff, poff, poff.

If it really caught on, maybe we could adapt outside of the driving environment. "Hey lady, the express lane says '10 Items or Less'!" poff, poff, poff. Oh yeah. I really think I'm onto something now.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Ape-ril Ape-recap, with Ape-ricots!

Whew! I did it. I survived watching all the Planet of the Apes movies back to hairy back. It was a task I wouldn't recommend to anyone, really, but I did have a fair amount of fun with it. Still, I'm glad it's over. And no, there is no way I am going to watch either the TV series or the animated series.

So what did I gain from this experience? What did I learn? Not a whole lot, really. I learned that even bad sci-fi from the '70's can be better than the bad sci-fantasy we have these days. I learned that George Lucas did not invent the bad, nonsensical, series-ruining prequel.

I gained a lot of respect for Roddy McDowall as an actor. Yes, these are silly roles in cheesy movies, but he put real effort into each film he was in. Underneath all of that make-up, facial expressions were pretty much non-existent. So he improvised. He worked his nose to make the Ape-nose appear to be sniffing; exaggerated his eyebrow movement to get some action in the prosthetic forehead; blew out air to "puff out" the mouthpieces in anger. He clearly experimented with finding new ways to emote from behind that mask, and I really admired the work that took.

I also learned, just after beginning my marathon, that there is yet another Planet of the Apes movie coming out. I discovered this on my own by accident, but it was also brought to my attention by several friends through email and Facebook. It's called Rise of the Planet of the Apes and stars James Franco (!?). I admit, the trailer does look interesting. Clearly, it won't tie in to any of the "official" movies or timeline, but they did name the head Ape "Caesar," which is a nice touch.

Here's the link to the trailer, since when I embed video it doesn't normally follow when this post gets re-posted on Facebook: Apes Will Rise.

Planet of the Apes

Three-letter word review: Yes!
One sentence summary: Astronaut Taylor crashes on an alien world where Apes are dominant and men are barbaric, mute animals.
Strange '60's quote/reference: Taylor: "That's right, Lucius. Never trust anyone over 30."
Watchability: High. I would even rate this one a must-see. But if you're with kids or even adults who haven't seen it, do your best to hide the DVD case and the surprise ending.

Beneath the Planet of the Apes

Three-letter word review: Wow.
One sentence summary: Is it possible? Astronaut Brent searches for Taylor, crashes on an alien world where Apes are dominant, and finds him in an underground New York in the Forbidden Zone where telepathic mutant humans worship an atomic bomb.
Strange '70's quote/reference: Ursus: "The only good human... is a dead human."
Watchability: Strange. It's not really bad so much as it is a mess. There's a lot going on here, so for just plain craziness I would actually recommend it.

Escape from the Planet of the Apes

Three-letter word review: Hmm.
One sentence summary: Ape-ronauts (yes, they actually call them that in the film) Cornelus & Zira flee their planet in Taylor's crashed ship, only to crash themselves on Earth in the 1970's.
Strange '70's quote/reference: Dr. Zira: "A marriage bed is made for two. But every damn morning, it's the woman who has to make it. We have heads as well as hands. I call upon men to let us use them!"
Watchability: Medium. The first half is quite silly and strange, but it becomes rather dramatic by the end.

Conquest of the Planet of the Apes

Three-letter word review: Grr.
One sentence summary: Caesar, Ape-child of Cornelius & Zira, grows up in a world of Ape slavery and eventually leads a revolution.
Strange '70's quote/reference: Woman smoking cigarette: "Funny, now that I know these things won't kill me, I don't enjoy them."
Watchability: Low. The plot is very thin and the outcome pre-determined. Why bother?

Battle for the Planet of the Apes

Three-letter word review: Ugh.
One sentence summary: Ape leader Caesar leads a group of Apes and humans after a global apocalypse, only to be attacked by irradiated human holdouts.
Strange '70's quote/reference: I'm sure there was one, but I can't remember.
Watchability: Very low. Don't waste your time. Seriously.

Planet of the Apes (2001)

Three-letter word review: Boo!
One sentence summary: Astronaut Davidson crashes on an alien world where Apes are dominant and men are their barbaric-ish slaves.
Strange '60's quote/reference: Attar: "Take your stinking hands off me, you damn dirty human!"
Watchability: Unbearable.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Planet of the Apes (2001)


I hated this movie when I was dragged to see it in the theater, and I really didn't want to revisit the experience. However, I am a bit of a completist, so here is Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes.

What kind of movie is this? Tim Burton claimed it was a "re-imagining," not a remake. That's good, I guess, since it gives us a little more distance from the original. Really, it's a testament to what happened to science fiction in the 30+ years between the two. It's more visual than cerebral, and it's more fighty than thinky. Basically, the original lamented the destruction and devolution of mankind, while the remake celebrated it.

We begin on a space station orbiting a planet with rings. Saturn, maybe? Not important. Look, pretty! The year is 2029 (which is pretty optimistic, even in 2001). Our hero, Leo Davidson, trains chimpanzees to fly spacecraft. Why they don't just use computers or remote pilots is never explained. Although they do claim that the monkey is sort of an early warning system, like a canary in a coal mine. So basically, they're spending a lot of money to train apes to fly expensive spacecraft on doomed missions into unknown phenomena. Okay. Hee hee! Look, a monkey in a spacesuit!

Conveniently, an unknown phenomenon appears not far from the station. And it's early enough in the movie that we don't have time to reflect on the nonsense we've heard so far. They send a chimpanzee to investigate the scary space storm, and he goes missing. Leo jumps into another craft and chases after him, and he goes missing as well. A few flashes of light, and suddenly Leo crash lands on some distant alien planet (which has between two and four moons, depending on when you look at it).

Almost immediately, he's swept up in the rush of humans fleeing Apes. These Apes are not hunting for sport, but rather capturing slaves. And the humans are not mute; they speak rather well, actually, especially considering their preference for loincloths. But no time to think about that now; look at the cool Ape make-up!

Leo is captured. Leo befriends Ari, an Ape who supports human rights. Leo escapes, brings some human and Ape friends. He's chased by the bad guys: Thade, the military leader Ape who hates humans and seems to have a secret, and Attar, the military second-in-command who hates humans and doesn't have a secret.

Leo makes it back to his crashed spaceship and retrieves a homing signal and a handgun, two things no space traveler should ever be without. The homing signal tells him that his space station has come to find him, so he's just got to follow the signal to reach it. Of course, it's in the Forbidden Zone, and Attar has an army blocking the way.

They make it past the army and discover the space station: crashed! And old! And isn't it weird how it has decayed to look like the spikes on the crown of the Statue of Liberty? Yep, it turns out that all of these Apes are descended from the monkeys he used to train on the station, which somehow crashed on this same planet thousands of years before. What a drag. But hey, at least the power still works. Science! It's fun!

There's a fight or something. Attar's Ape army attacks, adamantly. Apes and humans fight and die. Suddenly, a space craft appears. It's the chimpanzee Leo chased after at the beginning! This plus the crashed space station is a revelation to all except Thade, who knew it all along. Attar doesn't like that, so they fight and he kills him. Humans and Apes will play nice together now! "Welp," says Leo, "My work here is done. Time to be headin' home." He hops into the newly arrived spaceship and does just that. Science! It's convenient!

Just one quick hop into the scary space storm, and Leo is heading to good ole' Earth. He makes radio contact, but is forced to crash land on the Washington Mall. He exits his little pod on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial as police arrive. He climbs the steps, looks up, and... OMIGOSH! It's not Lincoln! It's Thade! He turns around to see all the police are also Apes, pointing their guns at him. Roll credits. What a twist!

Of course, that twist is completely out of line with everything that happened in the movie. It's as if at the end of Titanic the deep sea divers discovered that the iceberg was actually artificial and piloted by cyborgs. But who cares? Gotcha!

This was just awful on so many levels, I don't even want to talk/write about it. It had boring and predictable allusions to the first film, but more for camp than out of respect. Actually, it had little references to pretty much all of the first five films, but none of them are worth calling attention to here. The Ape make-up was good, I'll give it that. Well, except for Helena Bonham-Carter. She looked like a cross between Michael Jackson and a gelfling. Why don't I just end this with that disturbing image.

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