Monday, April 24, 2017

Competitive Endurance Tickling

In documentary film making, it's not uncommon for the director of a movie to start out with one intention only to wind up making an entirely different movie. But rarely is that experience so translated to the viewers in the finished product as with the unusual documentary Tickled.

David Farrier is a television reporter from New Zealand. He's the type of guy that does those "lighter side" segments that usually appear in the final 5 minutes of a TV newscast on a slow day. And he thought he was onto just another story when he stumbled onto the world of "competitive endurance tickling." I'm not sure if that's what you think it sounds like, but if you think it's young, athletic men holding each other down and forcibly tickling each other, then you're on the right track.

Farrier's efforts to research a story on the subject were quickly and strangely rebuffed, as he received a nasty email from Jane O'Brien Media -- the force behind the... uh... "sport?" -- an email insulting him for being bisexual and protesting (too much) about the legitimacy of competitive endurance tickling and the complete lack of anything homoerotic about it. This got Farrier's hackles up, and what started out as one more segment for his TV show suddenly became a deep dive investigative documentary film.

At the risk of spoilers (and also at the risk of stating the obvious), this entire enterprise is far from legitimate. Tickled soon morphs into a film about sexual proclivities, and a criminal endeavor to coerce, blackmail, and dox young men. Along the way, Farrier takes side trips to examine computer hacking, a bizarre family history, and even the legitimate tickle video industry. That the whole thing clocks in at a coherent and complete 92 minutes is a testimony to the reporting and editing of Farrier and his co-director Dylan Reeve.

HBO picked up the film for broadcast in the states, so if you've got HBO (or are using a friend's account) in anticipation of Game of Thrones, or to watch their current can't miss show, then you can check out Tickled for yourself. I'm not exactly sure who to recommend it for, but it lands pretty squarely in my wheelhouse, at the intersection of true crime, stranger than fiction, and LGBT interest. I'd give it a B+. It left me, well... the title says it all.

Friday, April 21, 2017

From Merchants to Vikings

Stefan Feld may be one of the most consistent and creative board game designers around, but even his games go out of print sooner or later. One example is The Speicherstadt, his cutthroat take on an auction game. A number of cards are put up for bids each round, and the first player to bid on a card gets the first opportunity to buy... but at a cost equal to the total number of bids made on it that round. Good strategy is a blend of bidding on the things you actually want and bidding just to raise prices for your opponents.

I quite enjoyed the game, and with my own copy safely in my collection, I hadn't even really known that it had gone out of circulation. Or at least, I hadn't known until last year, when the game returned to print with a new title and theme. Jórvík has the same gameplay as The Speicherstadt, but it's now a competition between Viking jarls attempting to out-feast, out-pillage, and out-craft each other to the most prestige.

In my mind, the new theme doesn't make a lot of sense. It's possible I feel this way only because I know the original, trade-oriented game theme. Or maybe it's that I'm steeped in the familiar trope of aggressive raiders -- a trope that doesn't make much room for crafty, infrastructure-minded Vikings. That said, I don't know that "traders or Vikings" makes a world of difference. The charm of this game is in its mechanics, and under either name, their connection to any story is quite tenuous and abstract.

But Jórvík is not just a re-skin of The Speicherstadt; it's also a re-skin of that game's expansion, Kaispeicher. I never picked up that expansion, so Jórvík was my first chance to play it. And it turns out that skipping on the expansion was probably a good thing.

I think one of the hardest challenges in board game design is to create a good expansion for a game that wasn't originally meant to have any. A great board game is a precariously balanced affair, and an expansion usually disrupts that tight balance to make room for new elements. So it seems to be with Kaispecher. More than just a new batch of cards to shuffle in and add to the auction, the expansion adds a different way of auctioning cards. Half the cards are bid on in the classic manner, while the other half are sold using what might have been an alternate universe version of the game's core mechanic.

The result seems to pit the "starboard rowers" in a completely different rhythm than the "port rowers" (to seize on the Viking flavor), giving you an unpleasant strategic whiplash as you flip between the two. The expansion also unnecessarily adds 3 more types of goods to the core game's 5, and makes the new ones confusingly more rare and valuable than the old ones. It's still more design that feels less like an expansion and more like a second game grafted onto the original.

As a result, my experience with Jórvík left me cold -- even though I quite like The Speicherstadt. If this is now the only way to pick up and play the classic game, I suppose it's better than nothing. But I personally would always choose to play without the built-in expansion. Jórvík is not a "value-added" proposition in my book. I'd give it a C.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

No Regrets

The "Agents of HYDRA" arc of Agents of SHIELD continues to pay off big, with another great episode this week.

Aida/Madama Hydra/Ophelia explicitly reminded us all that this reality is built by changing one regret in the lives of each of the Framework's subjects. You could well have assumed already that Mace's regret was that he wasn't actually an Inhuman -- he'd talked about that when his secret was revealed weeks ago. But this week showed him explicitly super-powered, and used his story arc to hammer on the big point of the episode: what happens in the Framework matters. Mace was so committed to this idea that he died for it, but in doing so proved his very point. By risking his life to save a child's in front of May, he provided the push she needed to break from Hydra's fascist sway and start working with Daisy.

We learned that for Fitz, his regret appeared to be some variation of wishing for a better relationship with his father, a fitting revelation on multiple levels. Way back in season one, we learned that Fitz's father skipped out when he was a kid; more recently, his disappointment with how things had turned out with Radcliffe must have put the need for a father figure more at the forefront of his thinking.

That wasn't the only season one connection being made this week, as we got the surprise return of Triplett to the mix. He was the first significant character introduced beyond the original core cast, and having him show up now does make me wonder if we have any shot at a return from Bobbi Morse and Hunter before we're through. Are they playing out "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s Greatest Hits" one last time, or was this more of a one-time opportunity they seized upon?

In any case, I continue to be enthralled by this final story arc of the season. For serving up a meaningful (if inevitable) character death and other great moments, the episode earns another A-.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

11:00 PM - 12:00 PM

24: Legacy wound to a close this week. Whether it served up a season finale or a series finale remains to be seen, but as with the week before, the quality actually was a bit higher than it was in the silly depths of the middle of the season.

But I'm already in snark mode, so I have to note:

That pantry the little girl is hiding in must be bulletproof.

You don't install glass doors and not go crashing through them during a fight.

Naseri never changed his phone number in more than a year as an operating terrorist?

And now, Arbor Talk with your host, Ara Naseri.

Did Mullins stash that guy he choked out somewhere safe before he headed out on this little helicopter jaunt?

When there's just half an hour left in the season, the avenues of trust between the heroes and the villains suddenly open wide.

Among the perks of being a U.S. Senator: after holding someone hostage inside the Pentagon for an hour-and-a-half, you can just walk out unchallenged.

Rebecca took a bullet for Eric so that he could have a season two. Extra bummer for her if there's no season two.

According to the latest polls, Rebecca's new nickname is "Nine Point Spike."

Nicole wants "no more secrets" between her and Eric. Presumably, the "national security" type secrets will be okay, though.

Sure. Eric is going into room 420 for a "debrief."

...And we'll find out if he ever comes out when FOX announces their renewals in a few weeks. Frankly, if the writers can't serve up a consistently entertaining half season of 24, I'm fine if that renewal doesn't come.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Stone Cold

A few years back, I wrote of Citizenfour, the documentary about Edward Snowden and his whistle-blowing on NSA surveillance. I was underwhelmed by the film, finding it to be bloated in some areas and sparse in others. Now I'm underwhelmed all over again by the dramatized take on the same subject, Oliver Stone's biopic Snowden.

Citizenfour's focus on Edward Snowden is largely about what he did. Snowden shifts the focus more to understanding the man who did it. The action hops back and forth in time, in roughly a ten year period leading up to his leak to the press. It's a calculated attempt to grant anyone, regardless of political leanings, permission to like him. The younger Snowden wants, more than anything, to be a flag-waving military man, and is forced to find another way to serve. He starts as a staunch conservative, hardly changed even by his liberal girlfriend Lindsay. If a guy like that stands up to say his government is doing wrong, the movie seems to be saying, you can believe it and agree with it.

But this feels like a lot of pandering to an audience I can't imagine is there. If you're the sort of person predisposed against Edward Snowden, I can't imagine you'd be watching a movie about him -- especially not one directed and co-written by a noted hippie conspiracy peddler like Oliver Stone. I suppose there's some pure narrative value here in emphasizing the protagonist's big journey of change, but there's less value in how repetitive the dramatization becomes. The movie doesn't so much depict a slow disillusionment of Edward Snowden as it just repeats the attempt to open his eyes again and again until, for some reason, it finally works.

Oliver Stone attracts a star-studded cast, as always. But Joseph Gordon-Levitt, as the title character, is really the only one given anything significant to do. The non-chronological structure of the story could have let the reporters working with Snowden be more intriguing characters in their own right, but the most interesting thing about them is that they're played by Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto, and Tom Wilkinson. Rhys Ifans and Timothy Olyphant play men in Snowden's past who might be most pivotal in shaping his world view... but the distracting cameo of Nicolas Cage gives them an almost subservient weight. Shailene Woodley does what she can with girlfriend Lindsay, but it's a thinly written part.

I think, surprisingly, that this movie does do a slightly better job than the documentary at outlining what the NSA was doing that drove the real-life Snowden to act. But I think both films fall short of telling the story in as compelling a way as it deserves. I give Snowden a C+. Understanding what Edward Snowden did feels to me like essential knowledge. But this isn't the best way to get it.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Bottle Recap

I've finished regaling (or boring) you with tales of skiing in Steamboat Springs, but most of my time on the trip wasn't actually spent on the mountain. Board gaming was also a big part of the trip, and I got to try several new things. Peppered in with other posts over the next few weeks, I'll write about some of the new things I tried. (Well, new to me, anyway.)

Bottle Imp is card game inspired by Robert Louis Stevenson's short story of the same title. The tale revolves around a cursed bottle. The imp inside will grant your every wish, but if you should die with the bottle in your possession, your soul is damned to Hell. The biggest catch of the curse: you cannot give the bottle away. The owner must sell it, and for less than the price for which they purchased it, making it ever more difficult to offload.

The card game is quite the oddity. It's a trick-taking game, which should be quite familiar. But the rules are a major departure from the norm, which in turn has a major impact on the strategy.

The "19" is removed from a custom deck of cards containing one of each number from 1 to 37. That 19 sets the starting "price" of the bottle. The remaining deck, containing three suits that are distributed in an irregular pattern across the spread of numbers, is shuffled and dealt fully to the players. Players pass one card to each of their neighbors, and also dump one card into "the bottle's trick." Play then begins.

As in most trick-taking games, you must follow the suit that is led. The card that takes the trick, however, has nothing to do with suit at all. The highest number played, regardless of suit, wins the trick... unless one or more cards is played valued less than the bottle's current price. In that case, the highest valued card under the bottle's price takes the trick, and that card also becomes the new price of the bottle.

The bottle itself is a hot potato you don't want to be stuck with at the end of a round. Everyone else counts points for the cards they've taken (in the form of gold coins also printed on the faces of the cards). The person stuck with the bottle instead loses points -- the number of coins found in the "bottle's trick" that was created at the start of the round. You play as many hands as it takes to reach an agreed upon winning score.

Some of the strategy here will feel familiar to fans of Hearts, Spades, or other trick-taking standards. You can try to force people to play bad cards by making them follow the suit you lead. You can attempt to rid your hand of a suit during the passing at the start of each hand, if you're willing to risk having the same suit passed back to you.

But a lot of the strategy is hard to wrap your mind around if you're used to any of those games I mentioned. There's no actual trump suit in play here. You may think you're used to having your high-valued card lose a trick (to a trump, traditionally), but it takes a while to wrap your head around that winning card being "closest to the bottle's price without going over." You may think that low-valued cards spell doom, but if you can dump one off on a trick where someone else has played a card closer to the bottle's price, you'll be doing fine.

I rather enjoyed Bottle Imp when I played it, but it seemed equally frustrating for some of the other players. It is wacky, that's for sure. It's both intriguing and potentially quite off-putting that the game seems so familiar on the surface, yet is revealed to be so unfamiliar when you actually play it. The twist here on trick-taking card games is either a selling point or a turnoff. It's possible you don't exactly need a game like this when you could just play something with a standard deck of playing cards. Yet I do think the game's designer has provided a custom experience to justify the custom deck. (And, from what it seems to me, has captured the short story inspiration fairly well.)

I'd give Bottle Imp a B. If you're a fan of card games, particularly ones you could play over drinks and conversation, you might want to check it out.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Closing Down the Season

Ski Day #3 had been great, but because in the last hour or so I'd fallen into exhaustion (and just plain fallen -- a bunch), I pushed for us to go out just one last time the next day. It would be a short day, I said. Just a couple of hours for me to end things on a high note, and we'd be done with the slopes around lunch.

It ended up being our second longest day of the trip.

We started with a couple of familiar trails, then decided to cross over to the west side of the mountain and try my first black run (officially marked as such). It was a really short one, a little pass from one wide trail to another, but I could cross it off and say I'd done it. And mostly, I did. It was a series of tightly packed moguls, but not too steep. I fell near the end of it and struggled to get back on track, but my husband offered some encouragement: "Just get through this last little bit, and it's just easy blues from here."

He was being absolutely sincere, but he was also completely wrong. We'd either missed a turn, or hadn't quite known where we were to start with or something, but we emerged staring down a steep descent. Later, I'd find out this was Cyclone, another black trail. Still, I was game to try it. Sure, I didn't really have a choice, but this was really wide, mogul-free, groomed, and with no one else actually on it. I'd use every inch of the trail curving back and forth, but I'd get down eventually. And with only a couple of short falls I was able to bounce back from, I did.

That felt like accomplishment enough for the day, and I started to think it was time to pack it in. But as we worked our way through the series of trails and lifts that would eventually get us back to the central gondola, we came upon the rest of our friends who'd been out doing their own thing. (Steamboat's handy iPhone app actually helped us figure out they were in our area.)

So then the stop for lunch that might have ended the day turned out only to be an intermission. We went back out with the part of the rest of the group for a handful more runs. Feeling a bit tired and knowing what that had led to for me the day before, I lagged well behind the fearless kids who often sped out ahead, but I let all the experienced skiers watch and keep up with them. There was one funny (and slightly embarrassing) moment where I wound up unintentionally backwards right as we were passing a professional photographer positioned on the trail, but otherwise the afternoon went well enough.

And that was it for the skiing this trip (and, I think, this season). I'm already looking forward to next year, and hoping my abilities don't regress too far over the summer. Maybe it'll be like riding a bicycle.