Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Majestic

I've written often about the value of a short board game to fill in between weightier options. Rare is the game that fills in without feeling like filler. But that's what my group discovered recently in Majesty: For the Realm, from designer Marc André.

The game is wonderfully simple to explain to new players. Each player receives 8 cards representing buildings in their medieval town, arrayed in a particular order face up in front of them. In the center of the play area, 6 workers are revealed in a line, from a deck of worker cards. Each card displays a worker that corresponds to either one or two of your buildings. On your turn, you pick one card, assign it to the corresponding building in your town, then deal a new worker card to the end of the line.

Each player begins the game with 5 small meeples. Taking the worker at the front of the center line is "free." If you want to take something deeper in the line, though, you must pay meeples for it, placing one meeple onto worker card that's in line before the one you want. When later players make their choice, if the worker has any meeples on it, you take them for yourself. (But you can only have a maximum of 5 meeples at one time. Any extras leftover after your turn are immediately converted to a victory point each.)

Each time you place a worker card in a building, you activate that building's special power. Everything scores points, scaling up if you've focused on certain activities. Some are quite straightforward, like Mills scoring points for each worker you've placed there. Others reach wider, like Guardhouses scoring for the workers you've placed not just there, but in two other kinds of buildings too. Some buildings pay off all players: Breweries, for example, make points for you for each worker there AND points to every player who has at least one worker in a Mill.

The game ends after 12 rounds of drafting, and then comes endgame scoring. Points are awarded for diversity (a square of the number of building types you occupy), and also for majority in each of the seven building types (an amount shown on the building type itself). The highest score wins.

There are a few wrinkles to change things up. One type of building is an attack on each of your opponents, forcing them to send an existing worker to the "Infirmary" until they can be healed to work again. Another type of building protects you from that, if you have more workers defending than the attacker has on the offense. All the buildings are double sided, so if you tire of building relationships being configured one way, you can flip them all over for a different game experience.

The decisions are just nuanced enough to be interesting, and just easy enough not to be brain burners. An entire game with explanation can be finished in just 30 minutes, even with a new player. Veterans can breeze through it in half the time. But I really can't think of other games that pack something as satisfying in just 15 minutes -- not something that feels like a reasonable approximation of a thinking gamer's Euro game.

No, this is not going to displace whatever your favorite 90 minute plus game is. That's not the point. It's a perfect "just one more" game, or a perfect "over beers and conversation" game. I think it has great potential as a new "introduction to Euro gaming" game, for a player who at least has played a few card games with some strategy. (You might not convert, say, Game of Life fans.) This is a game that you yourself won't mind playing, and won't be rushing to graduate your new gaming converts out of.

Grading on a spectrum of what I'd most enjoy playing, I'd say Majesty: For the Realm might top out at about a B+. But for what it's able to achieve in a short span of time and short list of rules, the design feels like an A to me. So I'll call the game an A- overall. It's impressed me more than just about anything else I've tried recently.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Annihilism

The last time I watched an anticipated movie that got scooped up by Netflix, I wound up struggling through The Cloverfield Paradox. That experience is likely a large part of what kept me from going to see Annihilation when it ran (briefly) in theaters earlier this year. It too had been bought by Netflix, though only for foreign distribution. But it came from writer-director Alex Garland, the man behind the excellent Ex Machina. I'd catch up with it later, I decided.

Annihilation focuses around a strange atmospheric distortion, The Shimmer, that is slowly expanding. Wave after wave of military expeditions has been sent inside to determine what it is, never to return. Except now one person has, and he's dying of an uncertain disease. Hoping to find the cure, his wife Lena, an accomplished biologist and army veteran, joins the next team to enter The Shimmer. Inside, they encounter increasing mysteries and horrors.

This movie is quite a mixed bag. In its favor, it is as powerfully creepy as you could ever hope for. Once the exploration team enters the Shimmer, the movie unfolds with a deliberate creeping dread, hitting you with ever more unsettling ideas. There are sequences to make you squirm and gasp, concepts that will make your skin crawl. That aspect of the film is everything I could have hoped for.

The musical score adds tremendously to the chills the movie serves up. Composed by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow, it's an uncomfortable sonic palette comprised of sounds that seem like they might have been discovered in a lab, and determined to have ill effects on humans. Lots of "what the hell is that noise?" In a couple key moments, the score becomes the loudest thing in the entire movie, forcing you to recoil from the intensity. It's not a score I would ever buy to listen to on its own -- it's too unsettling. But it's a real triumph of the movie.

The characters don't rise to the level of the weirdness around them, though. Lena is the only one to be fully drawn, and as played by Natalie Portman, she's a compelling enough protagonist. But the other four characters on her team are sketched in in the most shallow way. You get almost no background on most of them, while the little tidbits you do get are dropped in as exposition in scenes so much more important that the info washes right over you. No doubt, this is due largely to the source material, the novel from which this film was adapted. In the book, none of the characters even have names, only jobs. Garland realized enough, it seems, to know that wouldn't fly for the protagonist of a movie, but didn't take it far enough with the rest of the characters.

But another thing about the characters inherited from the novel is of interest -- they're all female. And in a satisfying moment of empowerment, this isn't justified in any way. (It's commented on, once, briefly, and that's it.) And why should they justify it? The movie has a certain Predator vibe at times, and Predator had no need to explain why all its team was male. It's just unfortunate that there are some out there who would connect the genders of the characters here with their lack of personality or their non-sensical behavior at key moments of the film. There's good casting -- Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, and Nuva Novotny -- but they can't infuse much into the flat characterizations.

The movie really lost me in the final 30 minutes. It's all been building to the big question of what they will find in the center of the Shimmer. And what they find, while visually compelling, doesn't make a whole lot of sense. I saw no logic in the end of the story, nor did that ending explain how the story began in the first place. (Specifically, how did Lena's husband get out of the Shimmer undetected?) It's an ending intended to give you a big mental sucker punch right before the credits start, but it unravels the moment you begin thinking about it.

Annihilation is no Ex Machina. I want to be able to recommend it, because there are aspects I really liked. But the whole hangs together at about a C+ in my book. For most people, it's just not going to be worth the time.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Clarity

Over the past month or so, I've been telling just about everyone I see about a TV show I fell instantly, totally in love with. But I do reach a few more people here on the blog than I get to see regularly in person, so here I go again:

Santa Clarita Diet.

Netflix has like a billion original series, and doesn't do an especially good job of getting the word out about them. If you already watch Netflix all the time, it'll keep you secure inside the walled garden and toss one recommendation after another your way. If you're the sort of person who starts up Netflix only when you know there's something specific you want to watch, you're going to fall through the cracks.

This is how I only found out about Santa Clarita Diet when its second season arrived. ("Second? When was the first?") Now that I have found it, I want everyone else to.

Imagine if Dexter and Desperate Housewives had a kid that went outside and rolled around in The Walking Dead. And it's a half hour comedy. There is nothing on television quite like Santa Clarita Diet. It is unique, and amazing, and hilarious.

Drew Barrymore and Timothy Olyphant play husband and wife realtor team Sheila and Joel Hammond. Their lives are thrown upside-down when Sheila becomes undead, an id-driven (but still mostly human) monster that must feed on human flesh to survive. The pair must find despicable people who deserve to be killed, all while hiding their activities from nosy cop neighbors.

The show is ridiculously violent, in a way that goes so far over the top it's actually pretty hilarious. The violence is the only reason I wouldn't recommend the show to anyone and everyone. But if you don't find that off-putting, you're almost guaranteed to like the rest. Seriously, no one I've pushed the show on has disliked it. Most, in fact, have binged the existing 20 episodes faster than I was able to get to them myself.

Barrymore and Olyphant are a great pair. It's especially fun to see Olyphant tackling comedy after a career of mostly dramatic roles. But great as they are, they actually get the show stolen from them on a regular basis by the two younger actors, playing Sheila and Joel's daughter Abby, and neighbor kid Eric. Liv Hewson as Abby and Skyler Gisondo as Eric are as precise a comic pairing as the leads, and the writing is great about giving them meaningful story lines that don't feel like simple, distracting teenage angst.

If the regular cast isn't enough to pull you in, consider some of the guest stars who have appeared in at least one episode: Nathan Fillion, Andy Richter, Ricardo Chavira (not coincidentally, from Desperate Housewives), Thomas Lennon, Portia de Rossi, Zachary Knighton (from Happy Endings), Joel McHale, Maggie Lawson (from Psych), Patton Oswalt, Gerald McRaney, Derek Waters (from Drunk History), and more. An endless lineup of endlessly funny people.

I tried to balance savoring the existing 20 episodes with my desire to binge through them all, but I've reached the end of the road... for now. A third season has already been announced for 2019, and I cannot wait. But you don't have to. If you've never heard of Santa Clarita Diet, or haven't checked it out, do it. Right now! It's a grade A gem of a show.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

DS9 Flashback: Second Sight

By a third of the way through season two of Deep Space Nine, there hadn't really been an episode centered on Benjamin Sisko. Then came "Second Sight."

While walking the station in the middle of the night, Benjamin Sisko meets the alluring and mysterious Fenna. Their attraction is instant, but their time together short-lived. Whenever they get together, she runs off and vanishes in short order. It's eventually revealed that Fenna is a psychic projection of another woman, trapped in a loveless marriage with an egomaniacial scientist -- and that her subconscious alter ego is a threat to her life.

When the writing staff bought this pitch (from outsider Mark Gehred-O'Connell), it was something in the mold of Rear Window or Vertigo: a strange tale about Julian Bashir growing infatuated with a woman no one else had ever seen. It ended up moving far away from that premise, though with the best of intentions. The character of Sisko hadn't had much to do this season, and the writers were keen to address that. Moreover, they were still trying to define him as a character, and felt that making him more emotionally available would help.

The final result conjures thoughts of Cinderella more than Hitchcock, with Fenna's quick escapes. Her truly wild hair and odd costume also make her more a fairy tale than a mysterious figure. Sisko's quick infatuation feels straight from a fairy tale too. It seems like we see almost every moment the two spend together, and that hardly feels like enough basis for a relationship beyond simple infatuation. A sense of more passing time might have helped.

I also think it was a mistake to set the story specifically on the fourth anniversary of the death of Jennifer, Sisko's wife. I get that we're being told that Benjamin has never opened himself up to a new relationship before this, and that that gives stakes to what unfolds. But while he does have to open himself up to love eventually, I feel like he'd be more guarded against it on the anniversary, not less.

The episode has another problem in Gideon Seyetik, the overbearing husband of Nidell (Fenna's alter ego). He's off-putting and unlikable, so the audience can feel little but contempt for the way he stands in the way of his wife's happiness (and Sisko's). Even though in the end he acknowledges he's a terrible and unhappy person, he doesn't actually want to put in the work to change that about himself. It's a love triangle (or rhombus?) in which the audience hopes one of the points dies in fire. (Which I guess is exactly what happens, when Seyetik dies terraforming a star.)

Despite flaws in the premise, though, the episode does manage to deliver quite a few good moments for the regular characters. Chief among those is all the material between Ben and Jake Sisko, comforting each other over the death of Jennifer, being honest with each other, and voicing their love for each other. It's a big gesture for Jake to tell his father that he's okay with his dad pursuing another relationship.

There are also several fun moments of comedy. Sisko asks for Odo's help in searching for his mystery woman, and Odo grows ever more annoyed at his inability to provide any useful details. Dax wants to dish about Sisko's love life, playfully challenging whether his reluctance is because she's now in a female host. Quark tries to leverage romance for profit, angling to sell Sisko holosuite time. And annoying as Seyetik is, there is humor in the reactions to him by Kira (who begs for an escape from social obligations) and Bashir (who, perhaps finding a kindred spirit, is truly entertained by the man).

Other observations:
  • Even a scientist doesn't cook using the Kelvin scale, surely.
  • Seeing the Deep Space Nine officers in their uniforms aboard a Starfleet ship populated by officers in the Next Generation uniforms makes me think of the weird mashup of uniforms they did in the movie Generations.
  • At the end, Sisko tells Nidell that Fenna was just like her. He must be telling her what he thinks she wants to hear, because that's manifestly false.
There are nice character pieces draped over the structure here, but that structure seems a bit rickety and unsound to me. I give "Second Sight" a C+.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

DS9 Flashback: Necessary Evil

After ending the first season strong, it took a while for Deep Space Nine to pull out another episode as good. It finally came with the distinctly Deep Space Nine-esque "Necessary Evil."

Quark's shady dealings with Bajoran widow Vaatrick Pallra mark him for an assassination attempt. But Odo's investigates, he finds himself looking farther into the past. Back in the days of the Cardassian occupation, the murder of Pallra's husband was the first case Odo ever pursued -- a case in which Kira, then with the Bajoran resistance, was a prime suspect. Now that past crime seems key to solving this new one.

When I say that "Necessary Evil" is distinctly Deep Space Nine, I mean that it never could have existed in this form on The Next Generation. First, it breaks from format in ways more extreme than Next Gen was willing to do save on the rarest of occasions. The episode neither begins nor ends with exterior shots of space. It opens on a "dark and stormy night," in a lengthy scene of conspiracy between Quark and the widow Vaatrick Pallra accompanied by no music -- lighting and sound effects alone are used to establish the moody tone.

The style is pure film noir, with Odo providing the gumshoe narration (and even paying homage to Columbo when he "just one more thing"s Pallra during his questioning). It actively demeans the normal Star Trek way of doing things, with Odo going on a lengthy diatribe against keeping a log.

It makes extensive and essential use of flashbacks, showing us how the characters of Odo, Kira, and Quark all met each other. (On previous Treks, there was no mystery surround "first meetings." We either saw them in the first episode, or it was understood not to be particularly important.) We learn how an uncharacteristically timid Odo found his spine and asserted his sense of justice, how he became an investigator, and why he hates being called "constable" so much. We learn of the surprising importance of Gul Dukat in these formative moments. It's all surprising, revealing, and relevant to the "present day" -- everything that would be a hallmark of the TV series Lost, which was still a decade in the future when this episode was made.

Most significantly, the episode dares to end ambiguously, with the relationship between Odo and Kira very much unsettled. It turns out that Kira was a murderer all those years ago. It's an ending hard to see coming when you'd have to suspect your regular hero of doing something bad, and when the widow Pallra actually is guilty of something herself (just not murder). And while there's context for forgiving Kira in the occupation, her role as a soldier, and the punishment she would have received from the Cardassians, that fact remains that her relationship with Odo began with a lie. And it's a lie that she never confessed to him even after circumstances changed. The episode dares to end without putting their friendship neatly back together. (Nor could it have done so believably anyway.)

Though the Odo/Kira relationship is the spine of the story, there are great accents on the episode throughout. In particular, it's a fantastic episode for Rom. We learn he's more capable than you'd ever imagine... he's just also too innocent and honest to use his considerable skills in a typical Ferengi way. You see him get the "good cop, bad cop" treatment from Sisko and Odo in an especially fun scene. And his siren-like wail at the end of the episode is comedic gold.

Every aspect of the production rises to the occasion of the great script. The characters in the flashback get entirely different costuming, makeup, and hairstyling. The stunt team does an exciting ratchet gag when Quark is phasered at point blank. But the real standout is the lighting department: they deliver that "dark and stormy night" I mentioned earlier, a moody look for the Promenade at night, and an entirely different look for the station under Cardassian rule.

Other observations:
  • The keenest observations would be those of Odo, who goes into full Sherlock Holmes mode with comments on Vatrick's eyes and Kira's hands. It makes total sense that he notice these kinds of physical details, observing them to incorporate into his shapeshifting.
  • The "Cardassian neck trick" is a fun Macguffin we never get to see.
  • This episode apparently had a scene cut for time to the regret of both producer Michael Piller and actor Marc Alaimo (who played Dukat). It strongly implied an affair between Dukat and Pallra, suggesting Dukat as a red herring suspect for her husband's murder.
I give "Necessary Evil" an A-. It's a formative standout of Deep Space Nine's early seasons.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Still: Crazy After All These Years

I recently decided to sit down with a science fiction classic, watching the original 1951 version of The Day the Earth Stood Still. It's a story about a visitor from another planet that in many ways now feels itself from another planet.

It is said that "the past is a foreign country," and that often feels true watching an older movie. This movie in particular feels that way, as so much of the behavior on display seems ridiculous. How much of what's depicted was a product of normal storytelling methods of the time? Or of the heightened style of science fiction in particular? 

Hard to say, but how much sense does it make for the military cordon around a landed flying saucer to be about 20 feet? For people to just be able to walk up and gawk? How much sense does it make for a mother to let a stranger she just met the day before babysit her son for a day? What to make of the strange mix of extreme underreaction and extreme overreaction peppered throughout the movie?

The Day the Earth Stood Still is slowly paced in the way of many classic films, but it's still thoughtful and concise about making its point. Nearly every scene speaks to its message, and it brings that message home in just over 90 minutes. One can imagine a younger Gene Roddenberry watching this and being profoundly influenced with many of the ideals that would later be foundational to Star Trek. Those are, quite simply: humans need to start thinking beyond their one, insignificant world. We need to transcend hostility and learn to be peaceful.

That's a timeless message, of course, but it's interesting (and difficult) to imagine just how that would have been received in 1951. For one thing, it was coming less than a decade after World War II. For another, it was coming almost a decade before even a simple unmanned object had been launched into space. In this context, this movie really seems to put the fiction in science fiction; the character who rings most truly (now, and probably then) is the presidential adviser who tries to explain to the alien Klaatu that nothing he wants to do is within the realm of possibility.

This movie is largely quaint, and hasn't aged especially well. Nevertheless, there are some nuggets to be pulled out for a modern audience. I'd grade it a C overall. If you're a science fiction fan who's never seen this classic, you might find it worth your time.

Wednesday, June 06, 2018

Failing Logic

For a while now, I've been meaning to write about a game my group tried out. It has slipped my mind because the group as a whole didn't seem to care for it, and it's now been many months since we played it. But it appealed to me in a way that seemed worth at least a brief nod on the blog.

It's a logic puzzle game called Zendo. It's an older game, as it happens, recently made available again through a new edition. It comes with a variety of plastic pieces all a bit more than an inch in size. There are three shapes: wedges, pyramids, and blocks (rectangular). There are also three colors, with every shape available in every color: red, yellow, and blue. These pieces are used to build small structures -- combinations of different numbers and colors of different things, touching or not, stacked or not, pointing to each other or not... a variety of patterns.

Patterns are what the game is all about. Each player takes a turn as a moderator, drawing a card that secretly assigns them a rule that all structures must follow to be valid. The moderator then starts things off with two sample structures, one that follows the rule and one that does not. From there, it's up to the remaining players to apply logic and suss out the rule.

On a player's turn, they build a structure, articulating what they believe the rule to be and illustrating it through their example. If they're incorrect, then the moderator must build a counter-example, one that obeys the true rule while at the same time proving as false what the guesser just attempted to demonstrate. Play proceeds until one player correctly guesses the rule and scores a point. You then pass around the moderator role until everyone has had an equal number of chances, and the highest score wins.

I haven't spent a lot of time around campfires in my life, but this feels very much like a "campfire game." You know, those sort of logic puzzles about whether you're allowed to pick up this or that thing on a grocery trip, whether it's valid to draw a line from here to here versus here to there, and so forth. These games can come up at big group dinners too, after you order but before the food arrives. I've always loved those things.

My group, it seems, did not. Well, not this one, anyway. We honestly didn't play many rounds of Zendo before there was a collective begging to switch to some other game. I was left wanting more.

Zendo has some nice constraints on it that keep the puzzles from getting too ridiculous. Rules are divided into Easy, Medium, and Hard. They can form around just a single characteristic, or be a compound of two characteristics. They allow a bit of flexibility, where the moderator chooses a particular shape, number, or color to incorporate, marking it on the card with a plastic clip to keep things honest. (Cleverly, the cards sometimes also have fake places to clip, just so the guessers won't know if they're after one trait or two.)

I will say in my group's defense there is something quite fundamentally different about a guessing game in which just one person has the answer, something that can make everyone else feel like a dope if things unravel. It seems like most of the games using this sort of approach are social and fast-paced -- I have the answer because it's my personal answer to a question, and it will only take us a minute or so before everyone knows. (See: That's a Question.) More common still are games that make everyone a guesser (Telestrations) or make them divide into teams in a way that at least creates two clue givers (Codenames). By all that, I mean that I get why this might not be everyone's cup of tea.

It doesn't feel right to me to suggest a grade for Zendo. It's suspect enough when I grade a game after a single play as I sometimes do. I don't even think we got through one full game of Zendo by the rules before my group pulled the plug on it. But like I said, it appealed to me. And if logic puzzles are your thing, I suspect it will appeal to you. I'd give it a look.